Spend a day in Rome’s Esquilino neighborhood and you’ll see just how multicultural the Eternal City is becoming. Once famous for its spice market at Piazza Vittorio, the neighborhood has fast become a multiethnic stomping ground.
In fact, finding a true Roman restaurant or a local shopkeeper is hard to come by in this area, now that Chinese, Indian, African, and Middle Eastern restaurants have moved in (a typical example: The Syrian restaurant Zenobia, perched on Piazza Dante, even includes a weekend belly-dancing show).
Homegrown and locally produced, the Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio is a perfect picture of the neighborhood’s growing ethnic population.
Made up of 16 musicians from Brazil, Senegal, Tunisia, Cuba, Argentina, Hungary, Ecuador, and Italy, the troupe was founded in 2002, and got its start in the ramshackle district just steps away from Rome’s Termini train station and, by 2006, had a documentary made about them; today, they play at festivals around the world.
… is breaking new ground
With a big push to modernize parts of Rome particularly lacking in the luster department, visitors will notice some new and novel aspects to the city skyline. First, that former eyesore, the Tiburtina train station, was completely overhauled, to the tune of some €330 million, to become the new avant-garde Tiburtina Stazione, the first rail hub in Italy to handle super-high-speed (Alstom AGVs) trains.
Even more buzz has been generated by Rome’s first-ever skyscraper, the EuroSky Tower. Located in the distant EUR suburb, the 28-floor building (to be completed in 2013) will be the first to launch Romans into orbit for high-rise luxury apartment living (it’s eco-sustainable, replete with solar panels, biofuel power, and channels to deliver rainwater to plants and flowers). Feathers were ruffled when Vatican officials worried that the skyscraper would clash with St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome’s tallest building.
Located by the Tiber River, the grandiose new “Ponte della Musica” bridge has now “bridged the gap” between the worlds of sports and music and arts: it connects the Foro Italico area (home to Rome’s stunning Stadio Olimpico and Stadio dei Marmi) with the Flaminio district (Parco della Musica and the MAXXI museum). Designed by British star-engineer Buro Happold, the eco-friendly ponte can be used by pedestrians, cyclists, and electric buses.
Last but not least, the new convention center of Rome—EUR Congressi Roma—is expected to dazzle when completed by the end of 2013.
The renowned Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas whipped up a vast design centered on the “Cloud,” an airy futuristic structure that floats in a showcase of steel and glass. City officials have high hopes.
… is in political limbo
After playing a prominent role in politics for nearly two decades, controversial tycoon Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister at the end of 2011. To put a new government into place and turn the country’s severe economic crisis around, Mario Monti—a multitasker whose background runs the gamut from professor to economist to president of the prestigious Bocconi University—was appointed not only as the new prime minister but also, due to his formidable expertise, as minister of economy and finance.
Wasting no time, he raised taxes, cracked down on tax evaders—and made a number of enemies, especially among Italians who weren’t so fond of how austerity hit their pocketbooks.
Complicating matters further, Berlusconi couldn’t stay out of the ring for long. A general election at the end of February 2013 included both Monti and Berlusconi as candidates. (Conveniently, a judge ruled that Berlusconi’s need to campaign for the new election impeded his ability to show up in court, thus postponing his trial for charges of paying for sex with a minor until after the election.) In the surreal world of Italian politics, the elections also include Beppe Grillo, a well-known Italian comedian. The result of the election was inconclusive, with no candidate gaining a clear majority, thus providing no real measure of where Italy stands today on austerity … or on the willingness of Italians to forgive and forget Berlusconi’s many past transgressions.
… has a new Pope
Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world in February when, without prior announcement, he declared that he planned to step down at the end of the month. The last time a pope resigned, the year was 1415—and the purpose was to end the Western Schism, where there were three people all claiming to be pope simultaneously. A conclave was held in March to choose the new pope: Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, making him the first pope from the Americas.
… is more commuter-connected
When it comes to train travel in Italy, the competition is growing fierce.
Thanks to the introduction of “Italo,” Italy’s first private railroad (owned by NTV and operated by the president of Fiat), rail travelers now have a new alternative to the state-run TrenItalia.
NTV is the first operator in the world to use the new Alstom AGV train, which currently holds the highest speed record for trains and will service various big cities around Italy, including Rome, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples, and Salerno.
In Rome, the high-speed trains will use Rome’s new Tiburtina station rather than Termini.
. . . is creating new “It” neighborhoods
The leader among Rome’s “It” neighborhoods is Pigneto, the working-class area once immortalized as the backdrop for Roberto Rossellini’s magnificent Academy Award–nominated Rome Open City (Roma Città Aperta).
Set in the northwestern part of the city on the other side of the Porta Maggiore walls, Pigneto has come a long way since the black-and-white days of the 1950s. This hot new quartiere has undergone a major transformation into a colorful hub for hipsters who tuck into the many wine bars and bookshops along main drags like Fanfulla da Lodi and Via del Pigneto.
To channel the days when legends Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti spent time filming here, enjoy an aperitivo at the historic Bar Necci (Via Fanfulla da Lodi 68), where Pasolini once filmed scenes for his 1961 Accatone (an award-winning look at how a pimp living in the slums of Rome attempts to go straight).
Another young neighborhood, San Lorenzo, is set just a stone’s throw away from the Termini train station. Just beyond the city walls near Via Tiburtina, Rome’s new “Left Bank” district is filled with students and a young bohemian crowd, thanks to its proximity to La Sapienza University. The area has an alternativa feel to it, with its plethora of starving artists, tattoo studios, and hippie musicians. In fact, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you could easily get lost in this maze of dark narrow streets, many now lined with underground cafés, bars, hip restaurants, and pubs with live-music venues.