When in Rome
James Luckhurst hides his head as he is driven through and around the Italian capital
Make no mistake. Everything you have ever been told about driving in Rome is true. It is frightening to sit in the passenger seat of a car and be transported across town during a Friday rush hour. Tempers flare, the sound of revving engines and angry horns fills the still warm air, several near-misses occur every second and there is an atmosphere of utter chaos. Or at least, this was how I felt just a few days ago as I was taken from the headquarters of the Polizia Stradale (Traffic Police) to the Piazza Navona for a meal with the police director. There were four of us in the car, yet oddly I was the only one wincing, gasping and sucking my breath in. The others, all clearly used to the ways of driving Roman style, seemed unperturbed as our driver (a lady in her late thirties) battled along through the heaving throng of cars, buses and two-wheelers.
The law in this country forbids the use of hand-held telephones while driving. And it’s a law I agree with. I’m not sure if it’s a specific offence under Italian legislation, but if it is, no one pays any attention to it. Even my driver takes a number of calls on her hand-held phone while inching through the traffic. Young men on scooters are yap, yap, yapping on their phones as they nip between lanes to gain whatever advantage is available to them. I swear one taxi driver, not content with just one conversation, is using two phones as he heads past the Coliseum.
Once off Rome’s main city streets, we disappear down a sequence of back alleys. The reduced congestion means we can go faster. Imagine how that feels when you can literally reach out of the window and pick a bread roll or a glass of wine from outside tables as we whizz past restaurant after restaurant. It seems to be little less than a miracle that we arrive in the Piazza Navona unscathed. Our driver is calm, and happy. The other two passengers are grinning in anticipation of some tasty plates of antipasti and a glass of prosecco. I, temporarily zombified, stare blankly into the middle distance, trying to come to terms with the fact that we haven’t all been killed. I remember from my study of classics that they used to flood the Piazza Navona and hold ship races for the amusement of the emperor (Domitian, I think it was). No sign that they’re going to do it this evening, so I take a few deep breaths and follow my hosts to the restaurant, trying to put out of my head the notion that, in a couple of hours’ time, we will have to do the entire journey again.