This weekend I did something I haven’t done for a shamefully long time: I walked and then drove through the streets of Rome.
I wanted to gauge for myself the feel in the city on the eve of Pope Francis’ special Jubilee of Mercy, which begins with the opening of the Holy Door at St Peter’s basilica on Tuesday.
Security plans have been ratcheted up in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris and so I was not surprised to find a heavy security presence with large numbers of police and military personnel at so-called sensitive sites: at the entrance to St Peter’s Square, outside the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, outside Termini station (where a large group of carabinieri police were chatting idly amongst themselves), at the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi (the so-called ‘French church’), to name a few.
Two heavily armed soldiers outside the Supreme Court of Cassation prompted some difficult questions from my daughter (it is not easy to explain to a five-year-old that we live in a world where people with guns are supposedly needed to keep us safe from people with guns).
However, away from the main tourist and pilgrim areas it seemed to be business as usual; if anything, the apparent concentration of security forces at specific sites in and around the city centre left other areas feeling abandoned to themselves and more vulnerable.
I had heard from various sources that Rome was empty and indeed on Saturday morning it did feel that way: the road running along the south bank of the Tiber from the Olympic stadium to Trastevere was empty of both traffic and parked cars.
However by lunchtime central areas were beginning to fill up, mostly with Italian and foreign tourists (many Romans will have taken advantage of the long holiday weekend – which for many in fact began on Friday due to a combined public transport strike and ban on circulation for cars with odd-numbered licence plates – to get out of town or rest up at home), and by mid-afternoon the Vatican area was busy (not teeming) with visitors; the queue to enter St Peter’s ran the whole way round Bernini’s colonnade as far as the junction with Via della Conciliazione.
The general impression was that, after a brief period in which fear of terrorism effectively stopped many Romans from going out and kept some would-be visitors away, things are now returning to normal; that, over and above the heightened security, most people probably now consider a terrorist attack to be only a remote possibility and certainly not one that is going to get in the way of daily life.
I suspect that for many Rome residents the general disorderliness and lack of decorum, the dirt, the holes (and sometimes even genuine chasms) in the road, the ubiquitous micro-road works that cause terrible snarl-ups at rush hour and the shocking level of poverty that I noticed on my rounds are of much more immediate concern.