Anyone traveling to Rome this year will be part of a tradition that goes back 700 years. This is a jubilee, or holy year, which gives the Eternal City a chance to show off its ancient trappings in grand style. And against all odds, Rome is ready for the onslaught.
When the pope calls the faithful home, the people come. This year Rome is expecting upward of 30 million visitors. An average year brings slightly more than half that number.
So what can you expect on a Roman holiday? A biblical crush of humanity and some outstanding new attractions to boot.
Pilgrimages to holy places were one of the earliest forms of tourism. Here is where the idea of the souvenir blossomed, a kind of proof of faith to show that you actually made the trip.
Since 1300, popes have been savvy marketers to the tourist trade, calling faithful Catholics the world over to make a trip to Rome in holy years. They came by horseback and by donkey and many walked the fabled pilgrim's route from Canterbury, England.
The pilgrimages were so great for business, both spiritual and commercial, that over the years the popes upped the number of Jubilee celebrations from one a century to two and now four. By all accounts, this year is the biggest yet.
In preparation, a massive renewal program the likes of which Rome hasn't seen since the days of the Caesars has scrubbed centuries of grime and grit from the facades of churches and palaces. Ruins have been reinforced and spruced up to look like, well, spruced-up ruins.
And then there are the modern touches -- new roads, parking facilities, museums and theaters. There are 50 new churches being built, as if Rome didn't have enough, and one, by American architect Richard Meier, with its bold concrete shells, symbolizes the city's determination to add modern monuments to its collection of ancient ones. Behind the scenes, there has been some serious planning, hand-wringing and plenty of frustration for Romans.
"We have reversed the bad Italian habit of using big events to carry out rhapsodic and uncoordinated public works," said Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, in a foreword to a recent book on Rome.
In fact, he sees the jubilee as a mere test from which even grander infrastructure schemes will develop in the next decade, paving the way for the transformation of the city along the lines of what Paris, Barcelona and Berlin have undertaken. "No city can survive on its past merits," Rutelli wrote. "And Rome is now playing all its cards."
As the scaffolding comes down, a glistening city is on display -- and it has already upset some purists. St. Peter's Basilica, the biggest church in the world, has had a glorious facelift. Stunning multicolored hues of ocher, red and green columns grace the Loggia delle Benedizione, where the pope stands to bless the crowds.
Some restoration authorities claim the enhanced color scheme clashes with the original design and was motivated more by the church's role as the central stage for the jubilee than by faithful restoration.
New look for Colosseum
The Coliseum has added amenities and, like most antiquities throughout the city, better lighting for nighttime viewing. New access to the famous amphitheater's arena level reveals the winch-driven elevators that used to carry wild beasts to the stage.
Fanciful stories of the sacrifice of Christians to the beasts, alas, has no historical basis. Plants of exotic origin growing in cracks of the highest arches of the Coliseum must be treated with care: Their seeds were carried in the cages of captured lions and brought to Rome two thousand years ago.
Excavations of the Imperial Forums are progressing but won't be completed for the jubilee. Still, the archaeological dig that began in 1998, the largest under way in the world, will bring to light 45,000 square feet of ancient Rome, an area roughly equal to that already exposed. New walkways and interpretive stations have created an open-air museum for the continuing work.
Surprisingly, this ancient city is lacking in certain amenities expected of an international metropolis, such as a concert hall. The jubilee was the incentive to build one -- Italian architect Renzo Piano's complex of three beetle-shaped auditoriums is scheduled to open this summer.
As happens so frequently when building anything in Rome, ancient ruins were uncovered in the northern suburb near the Olympic stadium, bringing construction to a halt.
Plans were redrawn to incorporate the new-found Roman villa, which will be visible through a glass wall in the foyer. Some of the more important artifacts will be on display in a museum at the complex.
The three theaters themselves face onto an amphitheater with 3,000 seats for outdoor performances. Piano's multilevel design will create a hanging garden with linden, cypress and oak trees, essentially placing this new Roman landmark in the midst of a forest.
The so-called "God's parking lot," a controversial project built under Vatican City, plowed ahead despite unearthing precious relics. The pressures to accommodate the jubilee bus brigades proved too great to preserve the spot on the Janiculum hill where archaeologists say the first Christian martyrs were crucified and set ablaze as human torches by Emperor Nero.
City with a past
The city constantly struggles to address the urban needs of today's 4 million Romans against its ubiquitous archaeological treasures. This jubilee is nonetheless a showcase for the city's cultural heritage, with many new attractions that highlight Rome through the ages.
Villa Borghese, a 17th-century villa in the park of the same name in the center of Rome, is open to the public for the first time and has quickly become a favorite destination for locals. The frescoed interior houses a well-proportioned museum of ancient sculptures and a series by Bernini as well as famous paintings by Caravaggio and Tiziano. The former aviary, in which the wealthy Borghese family kept exotic birds, is now an elegant bar for museum guests.
The Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo, from the 16th and 19th centuries, have been reopened as part of the Roman National Museum. Palazzo Altemps houses impressive antiquities from the collections of some of the city's aristocratic families. Palazzo Massimo has portraits, sculpture and decorative arts from the late Republican and Imperial era.
Gae Aulenti, the architect who transformed Paris' Gare d'Orsay into a stunning art gallery a decade ago, has converted the 18th-century stables| cm MDSH| Le Scuderie -- of the presidential palace, Il Quirinale, into a modern exhibit space.
The inaugural show, running through June 11, is a blockbuster -- impressionist paintings from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg -- and will be followed by an exhibit of Brazilian photographer Sebastio Salgado.
Rome is taking an interest in preserving its more recent past as well.
The Centrale Montemartini, a former electric power plant, was used as a temporary exhibit hall for Roman statuary and mosaics while renovations were carried out on the Capitoline museum. The striking juxtaposition of Greek-inspired busts and vases against boiler room generators and turbines was such a hit that the exhibit is now a permanent installation. It is worth a trip to Ostiense in the southern part of town.
Rome also has a new modern art gallery converted from an early 20th-century brewery. The Art Nouveau cluster of buildings features a patchwork of many little museums, a library, active studios and a bookshop.
Getting around town this jubilee year should be easy, provided you're not driving. Whole neighborhoods are now off limits to cars, including the elegant Piazza del Popolo.
Subway lines have been extended, and spiffy new trams glide through the city center. The cavernous Termini train station is more user-friendly with new ticketing counters, waiting areas and a subterranean shopping concourse with improved access to the subway.
The Italian government even signed a "Jubilee Pact" aimed at calming stormy industrial relations in the essential transportation network. "Sciopero," the Italian word for "on strike," should present less of a snag than usual for visitors this jubilee year.|
Ask a Roman about the changes to their city and you'll likely get a spicy recitation of invective tempered with amiable resignation.
A bartender near St. Peter's said, "It's a disaster. We're going to be invaded."
A driver of a horse-drawn carriage said, "There is too much traffic, it scares the horses. I may have to leave Rome."
Thoughts of jubilee congestion didn't spoil one woman's wedding day. As she posed for her post- wedding photograph in front of the Coliseum, she observed, "Rome is accustomed to jubilees and hosting pilgrims. It has for centuries."
The authorities are playing up the many positive aspects of a city in transition, pointing out the benefits that will outlive the jubilee celebrations, but not all will.
"Rome is showing the brilliant original colors of its baroque palaces and churches," said Paolo Gentiloni, head of the city's committee overseeing the jubilee. "Unfortunately, it won't last. Five years from now the city will again be gray from pollution, which is a reality of modern cities."
Places to stay
No matter how lovely Rome looks now, will there be room at the inn come peak summer season?
Gentiloni said measures to boost the number of beds in Rome will mean 12,000 more people can stay in the city each night. That's a 16 percent jump from the 74,000 existing spaces and was achieved through relaxing laws and providing expansion incentives to small hotels.
Roman citizens, meanwhile, have been encouraged to turn their homes into bed-and-breakfasts. Even the Rome airport finally has a hotel; the 500-room Hilton opened earlier this year. Hotel de Russie, a princely, century-old hotel that closed after World War II, reopened last month to five-star acclaim.
That said, the huge demand for beds means not everyone will be able to stay in or even near Rome. The Vatican is arranging lodgings in Assisi, 125 miles away, and the far reaches of commuting will extend from Florence to Naples with travel by high speed trains.
Gentiloni's advice to visitors is to avoid Aug. 15-20, when a World Youth Conference is expected to bring 1.5 million people to the city.
The marketing opportunities of a jubilee have brought forth a flood of licensed sponsors for everything from an official mineral water (the nearby spring of Fiuggi) to jubilee-logo emblazoned glassware and apparel.
One popular trinket this year is the "Popener," a bottle opener with a likeness of Pope John Paul II on the handle. A telecommunications company, Omitel, has created an arts phone service whereby dialing up a cell phone in front of major attractions throughout the city will provide an English-language guided tour.
But more than the opportunity to pick up souvenirs or witness the rebirth of a city, there's another incentive for the faithful to make the trip to Rome this year: a jubilee provides Catholics with a pardon of past sins. Plenary indulgences are granted when the faithful come to the Vatican during a holy year. And that kind of heaven-sent invitation comes along only once every quarter of a century.
WHEN YOU GO
Rome's newest attractions:
Galleria e Museo Borghese: Piazza Scipione Borghese, 57
Phone: (06) 854-85777
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo: Piazza Sant Apollinare, 46--48
Phone: (06) 683-37597
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Le Scuderie Papali al Quirinale: via 24 maggio, 167
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Centrale ACEA di Montemartini: Via Ostiense, 106
Phone: (06) 574-80387
Hours: Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.7
Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna: Via Reggio Emilia, 547
Phone: (06) 884-49307
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; closed Mondays
Here are some useful Web sites and other resources to help you plan a jubilee visit to Rome:
www.vatican.va| cm MDSH| Outlines religious events for the holy year
www.jubilee2000.org7-|cm MDSH| The official site of the Great Jubilee Central Committee
www.familyhome.org provides a list of bed and breakfasts in and around Rome. Or call (06) 5815-7742
The Italian Government Tourist Board has general information about Italy, including a list of lodgings: www.italiantourism.com or call 212-245-5618.
Where to stay: Here are some hotel recommendations in Rome (the rate of exchange: $1 equals 2,148 lire):
Hotel Duca d'Alba, via Leonina, 14
Rates: 290,000 lire
Hotel Senato, Piazza della Rotonda, 73
Rates: 410,000 lire
Hotel Atlante Star, via Vitelleschi, 34
Rates: 700,000 lire
AN IDEAL DAY
Rome, as they say, wasn't built in a day. It's not meant to be seen in a day, either. But here's a guide for a quick-paced, caffeine-fueled blitz of the Eternal City.
Let's take our cue from Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the 1953 film Roman Holiday; together, they really did do Rome in a day. She smoked her first cigarette, they drank champagne, were arrested and swam in the Tiber. In short, they overdid it
8 a.m.: If, like Hepburn, you happen to be a visiting princess, slip out undetected from your palace, embassy or pensione and make for the Campo dei Fiori. This central square features a vibrant morning market that dazzles with color and bounteous displays of fresh produce and flowers. Have your first cappuccino and brioche at Bar Farnese, a popular gathering point.
9:30: Cross the Tiber River and head for St. Peter's. The pope blesses the assembled masses at 10 a.m. To tour the Vatican Museums would take the rest of the day, so buy some postcards instead. Don't miss the inside of St. Peter's -- a baroque fantasy.
Noon: Piazza Navona's majestic fountains provide midday relief from the Roman sun. Grab an al fresco lunch at a cafe or brown-bag it under Bernini's sculpted, splashing masterpiece, the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
2 p.m.: Follow the signs for the Pantheon but don't miss the church of St. Louis des Francais on the way: three Caravaggios hang in a darkened corner chapel. The Pantheon is Rome's best-preserved monument from ancient times and is a stunning piece of architectural ingenuity. Capranica, an enoteca nearby, has a good selection of wines by the glass.
4 p.m.: Make your way to Piazza Venezia and the imposing monument to Vittorio Emanuele II: this is pure Roman kitsch, the type that inspires Hollywood.
Nearby is the Roman Forum where you can wander through the ruins toward the Arch of Constantine and the Coliseum.
Jump on a subway for the Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna) for the late-afternoon passegiata, the ice cream-licking stroll that is part of every Roman's day. High-end boutiques line nearby via Condotti.
8 p.m.: As the sun sets, stroll along the banks of the Tiber toward Trastevere, Rome's left bank quarter where nightlife spills out onto the streets. Il Pastarellaro di Severino has been serving traditional Roman fare since 1848.|
For a nightcap, try the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Atlante Star. The view of the Vatican is so good, American television networks engaged in a bidding war last year to secure the turf for when the pope sheds this mortal coil and checks out of the Eternal City.