The Leonardo Express rumbles from Rome's airport right to the city center. After 32 minutes, it arrives at its final destination, Termini, the city's central station. An ad in a pedestrian tunnel at the station reads, "Roma Termini -- a Place to Live." Some have taken the message quite literally.
It's 11:10 p.m. Stranded people from around the world are wrapped up in their sleeping bags as they lay in front of the exit on the north side of the station. On some nights, up to a hundred homeless huddle together like freezing people in front of a fire. Many of those who sleep here are African refugees. During the daytime, Roma from Romania represent the majority in and around the station. Left largely unchecked by the local authorities, they aggresively try to squeeze money out of foreign tourists.
A comment by one British tourist recently got posted on the Facebook page of Ignazio Marino, who became the city's mayor in June. The tourist said she had never before experienced "a more wretched hive of scum and villainy" than when she arrived in Rome by train. For safety reasons, she wrote, it is advisable to "spend as little time as possible" at Termini.
Marino takes criticism seriously, but also in a sporting manner. As he sits at his desk in Rome's Palace of the Senate on Capitoline Hill, a building once remodeled by Michelangelo, he exudes the aura of a man at peace with himself. Two months ago, he was still cursing his opponents who, he says, wanted to let the Eternal City go up in flames just as Emperor Nero did. At the time, Marino made clear that he wasn't prepared to play the role of the "capital city's liquidator-in-chief."
What had happened? Rome was on the verge of bankruptcy and the mayor said the only way to possibly rescue the city would be for the national government to jump in with emergency aid to the tune of 600 million ($829 million) within 24 hours. Marino got his wish and the city didn't go up in flames. Standing beneath a photo that shows him in an intimate embrace with Pope Francis, the mayor now says he wants to move forward. After all, he adds, "spotlights from around the world will be shining on Rome" on April 27, and 2 billion people will be watching on their televisions.
On Sunday, the two most popular popes of the 20th century -- John XXIII and John Paul II -- are to be canonized on St. Peter's Square by Pope Francis. Catholic pilgrims from around the world plan to attend, and hotels in the capital city are almost entirely booked out.
A European City for a Day
For at a short time at least, Romans will be "able to dream of living in a truly European city," because the metro, for once, will finally operate at night to help accommodate the expected 3 million visitors, the local citizen's advocacy group Residents of the Historical Center notes caustically. The old Roman establishment feel they are being ignored by politicians and that they have been forced to look on powerlessly as one fast food restaurant or bed and breakfast after the other has replaced the last remaining artisan shops in the heart of the city.
More than 12 million tourists visited Rome last year, and this despite the fact that the city once known as Caput mundi, or the capital of the ancient world, has since lost much of its splendor. That, at least, is what many residents say.
Novelist Mauro Evangelisti warns visitors, like the pilgrims who are about to descend upon his city, that they must brace themselves for "an old airport, crooked cab drivers, swindlers, pickpockets" and streets full of potholes like in Havana. In an open letter published prior to the last municipal election, 21 Roman intellectuals lamented what they saw as signs of the city's downfall and "cultural gloom".
Meanwhile, Carlo Verdone, one of the leading actors in the movie that took this year's honor for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars, "The Great Beauty," even goes so far as to describe his city as a true to scale likeness of a "totally failed country."
Rome, Kaput Mundi?
Matteo Renzi, Italy's new prime minister, is now calling for radical reforms. Since it narrowly averted insolvency at the end of February, the capital city has, to a certain extent, been under the yoke of the national government and the mayor has been ordered to undertake draconian austerity measures. This is the last remaining opportunity for turning the city around, Renzi's state secretary for the economy recently said. Rome, he said, should become a shining example for the rest of Italy to follow.
But where to begin? Upon their arrival, the first thing some pilgrims to Rome will see is a five-and-a-half-meter (18 foot) tall bronze statue of Pope John Paul II. In what appears to have been wise foresight, the former leader of the Catholic Church has his back turned to the station forecourt, which is littered with drug addicts' syringes and grocery store shopping carts that homeless people have filled to the brim.
A wiry, bald-headed man walks right through the turmoil on a recent morning and says, "The first thing that needs to be done is for the city to reconquer its public spaces. There is not a single street left in the entire city where you have the feeling you're in Europe -- I mean, where everything works as it should."
Few have the kind of insights about the underbelly of Rome as does Massimiliano Tonelli. The 35-year-old journalist is one of the most widely read bloggers in the city, but he is also one of the most contentious. His habitat is the streets, squares and riverside walks of Rome, and his natural enemies are those who make money by inflicting damage on the Eternal City's beauty.
Tonelli has held lectures at universities and was bestowed with the title "Roman of the Year" in 2010 -- because he doesn't pull any punches when fighting on behalf of his city. The names of his blogs attest to this, with titles like Rome Sucks (Roma Fa Schifo) or Cartellopoli.
Even the mayor collects a selection of Tonelli's posts on Roma Fa Schifo in a yellow binder, and for good reason. The blog combines pictures and words to document the daily anarchy Romans from all walks of life face when they leave their homes. One posting shows a pig foraging for food in the overflowing dumpsters of a residential area on the periphery of the city. Another shows souvenir peddlers relieving themselves right in the middle of the ruins of the ancient Roman Empire. One shows piles of discarded stolen wallets, while another includes images of an inner city slum of the kind one might expect to see in Mumbai, but not in the heart of Europe.
Tonelli says he wants to convey the message to local residents "that the things they are seeing in their neighborhoods aren't normal, and that they shouldn't even have to get used to them." Indeed, those who read his blog, come away with a better awareness of what is happening in their city. "That applies to many parts of the city," he says. "Let's have a look." Tonelli then offers to take the journalist on a tour.
Our first stop is the Colosseum. Why on earth, Tonelli asks, does the city tolerate robber knights here, disguised as Roman army commanders with plumes and wooden swords, price gouging tourists for photos? And what about the sunglasses sellers from Bangladesh who play a game of cat-and-mouse with police who approach them only half-heartedly before shedding their knock-off products? Or the men with the fake "Colosseo Tour Guide" pins on their lapels offering tours for up to five people at prices of up to 150 ($207)?
"It's all illegal, the black economy," Tonelli says, his voice growing indignant. "They don't pay any taxes, they're a blight on the city and, at best, the only thing they contribute is trash. Of course, we Romans then have to pay to have it disposed of."
Colosseum Director Rosella Rea also doesn't shy away from speaking about the filth around the world-famous amphitheater, which she describes as being reminiscent of the "Third World." The only time the entire property has been cleared of fakirs, street vendors and phony legionaries was on March 27 to make it presentable for a private visit by the US president. "If Rome goes to the dogs, it won't be because the city is nearly bankrupt," argues blogger Tonelli. "It will be for the exact opposite reason: Because the city isn't pulling in the revenues owed to it because lawlessness prevails."
Our drive continues through the historic center along the banks of the Tiber River, where brightly colored scraps of plastic dangle from the branches of trees like Tibetan prayer flags. Then we continue on to the bridge near the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Romanian immigrants have erected a small tent camp, complete with a fireplace, smack in the middle of the historic center of Rome, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The blogger says that, owing to its lawless areas, Rome attracts "a certain type of immigration." Still, he adds that the Rome establishment has only itself to blame for the city's growing slums. "What ails this city most is a lack of civic sensibility," he says.