When I think of Rome, I recall ancient sites, coin-filled Baroque fountains, sexy (and not-so-sexy) men casting Ciao, Bellas at every passing female, and platefuls of pasta that, without fail, end up blissfully in my belly. Equally engrained in my brain are nostalgic, cinematic images of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn zipping on a Vespa down the Via dei Fori Imperiali with the Roman Forum and the Coliseum (also known as the Flavian Amphitheater) as their backdrop. With the incessant beep-beep of car horns and panic-stricken pedestrians coloring the scene, it just feels like a slice of quintessential Rome. That is, until now.
Rome’s new mayor, Ignazio Marino–presumably inspired by his Paris and London counterparts, who’ve revitalized their own capital cities with resident- and tourist-friendly pedestrian zones and activities–initiated a plan to create the world’s largest intra-city archeological park. Area one-way streets have been re-routed, and nearby perpendicular streets have been closed off, too. While people will still have to pay to enter the Ancient Roman ruins trifecta of the Coliseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill, from here on out, the Via dei Fori Imperiali from the Flavian Amphitheater to the Victor Emanuele building, will be freely accessible 24/7 to anyone on foot or bike…and the occasional emergency vehicle, bus or taxi.
This past Saturday was Opening Night, and I took a stroll with some of my fun-loving tour members down to the Imperial Forum Way to join the La Notte dei Fori (Night of the Forum) festivities inaugurating the new pedestrian area. As we worked our way down Via Cavour, we could sense the excitement. The streets were abuzz with excited Romans 2and tourists alike. About three long blocks from the Forum, people started walking down the middle of the street, and we saw sternly uniformed police and deliciously Roman god-like Carabinieri monitoring the scene, making sure we all stayed in order. Just one block from the party, we were already shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed like all of Rome.
The musical intertwining of bass beats and high-hat cymbals bounced off old bricked-faced buildings, lit up on this August evening with projections of music videos. A huge stage had been built near the northeast Forum entrance (where later that evening, the mayor would make a Welcome speech), and sensual acrobats displayed their talents on another stage adjacent to the Tourist Information office.
Despite having so many people crowding the area, it delighted all of us to walk this grand road on a hot summer night with the people of Rome. This was a change for the citizens of Rome to take back their city, to engage in the time-honored tradition of the passeggiata (evening stroll), and to celebrate their history. Taking in the modern entertainment while gazing at the remnants of a once-almighty civilization, we felt part of the contemporary Roman culture but also part of the legacy of our shared human heritage.
Since some of my group had early flights, they bid us buona notte and skedaddled their way out of the crowds and back to the hotel. Three of us decided to press on. Like salmon swimming upstream, we slowly but surely made our way towards the nearly 2000-year-old gladiatorial venue. We lingered a bit here and there for opportunities to people watch, to take selfies and pictures of our fellow pedestrians, and to pose for shots with Rome’s most famous landmark.
In the middle of our promenade, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with a tight mass of people moving fairly rapidly and circled by significant amount of security. Naturally curious, we waited to see what all the commotion was about, and to our surprising delight, it was none other than Rome’s Mayor Ignazio Marino and his entourage! I snapped as many shots as I could (getting just one successful picture) while joining in the cheers of “Bravo!” coming from the people all around us. It was the perfect way to cap our inaugural stroll–and Rome’s biggest passeggiata ever– down the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
It’s hard to say how this Imperial Way pedestrian zone will all pan out. Only time will tell. There are already objections by local merchants and residents who are quite accustomed to how things are and don’t embrace the mayor’s vision of how things could be. Looking at other great pedestrian zones around Europe, there’s not one that wasn’t initially the object of protest by merchants and then wholeheartedly adopted by them because of how good it ended up being for business. For now–at least for a handful of tourists and a whole lot of Romans–this seems like a pretty good thing.