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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Reis | Travel > Artikels | Features

Rome in a (New Year’s) Day

Sadie Jones - 2011-03-29

Winter in Rome is certainly not about snow, sleet and icy winds. And if you find yourself there on New Year’s Eve, you’re in for a few surprises, not least showers of champagne, writes Sadie Jones.

Rome is an iconic summer city – flowers in bloom, city squares packed with tourists, comfortable heat and Mediterranean cuisine. Although winter introduces a chill to the air as you scout the famous landmarks, the heat of New Year celebrations turns up the temperature mid-winter in the Italian capital. It’s a great time to visit.

We leave sweltering Cape Town for Rome on December 30. I am excited to go to Rome, of course, but sceptical about how much sightseeing we’ll be able to fit in. I was going to be cold and miserable – or so I thought.

We arrive on Old Year’s Eve and the weather is overcast, threatening rain – but dressed for a Cape winter, I feel surprisingly fine. We settle into our rented apartment and drift off for an afternoon doze. We awake in time to find a spot for dinner.

It’s drizzling lightly, but there’s no wind. We take a large umbrella from the stand in the hall and walk the few blocks to the Colosseum, probably the city’s most famous attraction.

As we approach this most recognisable and visited landmark in Rome the ruin slides into view from behind the Palatine hill – its regular arches glow in the golden electric light and I am newly struck by how old yet powerful it looks.

The amphitheatre dates from 80 AD and is a magnificent example of Imperial Roman architecture. Several greedy popes through the ages have stripped its original marble cladding. The large marble paving blocks that surrounded the theatre were recycled into Bernini’s extravagant colonnade that flanks the square in front of St Peter’s Basilica, headquarters of the Catholic Church.

To my surprise, the streets are filled with people. Entire families throng towards the amphitheatre: mothers pushing prams, dogs on leads, high-spirited youngsters in gangs, and bow-legged grandfathers, all clasping a bottle of champagne. Everyone is talking non-stop and gesticulating wildly. It’s like Rome during the day, except that the locals far outnumber the tourists. We are easy to spot: no champagne casually tucked under the arm, no wild hand movements. There are large speakers set high on temporary scaffolds and as the beat gets louder, it makes me want to dance in the streets and celebrate the moment.

The Colosseum has been cordoned off and there is a concert being held inside. We can hear people cheering over the music. A big screen erected outside in the Via Appia has crowds of people heaving in front of it. We avoid the immediate vicinity and head off in the direction of the Spanish Steps.

Rome is full. People spill out of packed restaurants into the drizzling weather and we are in high spirits, buoyed by the crowds. Eventually, a larger-than-life proprietor sweeps us into his restaurant but warns us that he is busy and that the service will be slow. I am dismayed: there isn’t a table free. An order is barked, a few people are shifted over (they don’t seem to mind); chairs appear and we sit down. A carafe of wine and one of water materialise, a waitress takes our order and then we settle back and savour the ambience. The restaurant is humming with animated Italians, all talking non-stop at the top of their voices. Italians are excited at the best of times, but we seem to have stumbled upon the most thrilling night of the year. A merry bunch seated at the back break into song, harmonising and banging the table with their fists. It’s stirring, much like a football anthem.

The pizza is simple but delicious and after a quick, strong espresso we take a leisurely walk back to the arena. At the top of a steep hill we take shelter under a narrow canopy and observe the celebrations as they unfold beneath us. The speakers blare a countdown to midnight and we add our voices to the huge roaring chant of: cinqe, quatro, tre, due, uno ... Buon Anno! (New Year!). It’s raining hard again, except that it’s not. Champagne is pouring down from the heavens as people dart around, laughing and dodging the maniacs who imagine they’ve just won the Grand Prix. They are all shaking and spraying expensive-looking magnums of Prosecco (the Italians’ version of sparkling wine) and French champagne. Loving champagne as I do, I am envious of the pavement but thankful that we have the umbrella up. The concert inside the Colosseum reaches a crescendo and white stars shoot up into the dark night. They explode into the most vivid colours, reflected off our upturned faces. The sky turns every shade imaginable, accompanied by loud booming that echoes around the ancient structure. Giant clouds of gunpowder float down through the soft rain. The fire and noise are so intense, it’s as if a battle is waging within the walls. I expect them to topple at any moment.

Not to be outdone, those excluded from the inner sanctum have their own fireworks and soon there is a cacophony of high-pitched screaming and hissing as sparks fly in every direction. Rocket after rocket is launched into the now brilliant sky. It’s exhilarating and by far the most spectacular New Year’s celebration that I’ve ever witnessed.

We amble “home” down the centre of an almost deserted, cobbled street at 3 am. There are still one or two random loud cracks in the distance. There is also a mess of discarded bottles, cans and soggy fireworks packaging (that has miraculously disappeared by nine the next morning when we emerge, bleary-eyed, for a cappuccino). The street lamps cast a romantic glow in the mist and my heart leaps. We’re in Rome, it’s a brand new year and it’s not that cold.