The number 110 bus, a double decker, hasn't arrived. Its heater has broken down and needs to be replaced. Frozen tourists waiting at the bus stop outside the train station are cursing. At last a replacement bus arrives, and they climb up to the top deck, put on the earphones and listen to an audio-guide in seven languages.
The visitors are laid back, even now, at the beginning of January. In 2011 Rome suddenly became more expensive, yet nothing has improved. They admit to finding the new law stupid. They can't see the point of a new tourism tax imposed since Jan. 1.
A Swiss tourist flicks through a guide book and reads that in the famous Caffè Greco a cappuccino costs 8 ($10.70). "Who'd notice another few euros there?" he asks, and wonders why there is such a fuss. "New York has long had such a tax," he says, "and Paris too." A Danish woman wearing a poodle hat says: "The Roman patient is weak. Who else is going to nurse it, if not visitors from the north?"
The bus driver Pino, the only Roman on board, has just heard about the new law for the first time. He charges the old price for a ticket, even though sightseeing tours of the city have become more expensive, costing 16 ($21). Taxi fares to the airport have also increased, with a cab ride to Fiumicino Airport now costing 50 instead of 40.
Pino says tens of millions of tourists make the pilgrimage to Rome every year. It's a plague, he says, but you can make a good living. He steers the bus around the potholes in the narrow roads of the old town, flanked by swarms of Vespas and hampered by the limousines of the powerful, which cruise with flashing blue lights.
Rome's 'Brutta Figura'
Newspapers report that Romans are fearful the paying public will stay away, put off by the fact that the Eternal City is now showing its "brutta figura," or ugly face.
A new bed tax for visitors stipulates that every tourist has to pay an additional 2 per night -- 3 per night in a luxury hotel. State-run museums and boats that ply the Tiber River, like the buses, will also hike their prices. There were months of intense wrangling after Mayor Gianni Alemanno proposed this tax, but it was ushered in quietly just two days before Christmas. The idea is to secure an extra 80 million ($107 million) for the city coffers, which should contribute to slashing Rome's massive debts of more than 9.6 billion ($12.8 billion). Florence is now proposing a similar tax, and Milan may be next.
Bus driver Pino pulls in front of the "Bocca della Verità," or "Mouth of Truth" at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Twenty Koreans hurry down from the top deck. They want to see the stony face with its gash of a mouth. A legend says the mouth is an old-fashioned lie detector -- place your hand in the mouth, and tell a lie, and the sculpture will bite it off.
The tour guide, Min, had shown his Korean charges "Roman Holiday" the previous evening, in which Audrey Hepbrun and Gregory Peck dart around the city on a Vespa, lie to each other at the Mouth of Truth, and kiss by the Tiber. Min stands in front of the mouth, puts his hand in and poses for photographs. "How romantic," one of the tourists gushes. "The film is from the 1950s," Min tells them. "It used to be the Dolce Vita here (in Rome). But that was a long time ago."
Traffic Jams and Chaos
Min knows his customers come to experience ancient Rome, a city that was powerful and wealthy and that once ruled the world. They're disappointed by the Rome of today, he says. No benches in the parks, but lots of dirt, traffic jams and chaos in the streets. How can he explain a bit of graffiti sprayed across the entrance to a church -- "Out with the pedophile priests" -- or that he has to tell them to clutch their bags close to them so that they are not stolen? He admits it all embarrasses him.
Min, a trained baritone, came to Rome 12 years ago. He couldn't find work at the opera because the cultural sector was such a mess. Since then, he says, things have only gotten worse. The one job he could find was as a tour guide.
Income from the new tax is meant to improve the city's infrastructure, including the dilapidated metro and overall security on the streets. But Min wonders how this will help tourists, who usually come to Rome only once in their lives.
To save money, his group stays at an airport hotel. The hotel sits just outside the city limits, where the new tax isn't imposed. Tomorrow they travel to Pompeii, where monuments have been collapsing because no one has paid to maintain the ruins. The tax could save Italy, Min says, if it's used cleverly and not wasted -- as public money here normally is.
The 110 bus stops at the Vatican. Across the way, at the old pilgrimage route, the director of the German pilgrimage center, Don Antonio Tedesco, is about to make a phone call. He hasn't heard of the new tax. He calls a convent to make inquiries. Yes, he's told, the pilgrims have to pay it, too. The nuns sound panicked, Don Antonio says. They don't know how they are supposed to issue receipts for the tax, who collects it, or what it's for. The tax seems to have been organized poorly. It make one wonder how Italy, a country with the largest public debt in Europe, can save 25 billion ($33.3 billion) over the next two years.
At the Trevi Fountain, the Bandel family from Vogelsberg in the central German state of Hesse get off the bus. Nearby, where the barber cut Audrey Hepburn's hair in "Roman Holiday," Bangladeshis sell Chinese-made knick-knacks. Meanwhile tourists from around the world throw coins into the water so that, according to legend, they might return to Rome one day.
Earlier, a hotel porter had run after the Bandels, four adults and three children, to ask if they'd heard about the new tax. He wanted them to pay it in cash. The Bandels calculate that it will cost them an extra 100 ($133). They decide not to throw coins into the fountain and seem uncertain if they want to come back.
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