This year, the summer in Rome has struggled to gain traction. There’s been more rain than normal and the temperatures have yet to inspire the “cambio di stagione,” the change of season as it relates to wardrobe choices. Remember, unless it’s at least 30 degrees Centigrade (86 F), then leaving the house without a jacket and scarf puts you at mortal risk from a “colpo d’aria.” As a foreigner, you may believe that you’re immune to such ridiculous ailments. But trust me, being Italian is contagious. Don’t take the chance.
Usually, you hear people complain about Rome being too hot and crowded this time of year. Well, yes, if you hang out in Piazza Navona in the middle of the afternoon. But it just takes a little planning and common sense to avoid this situation. My strategy is to get all of my errands done in the morning (ha!), and then surrender to the imposed pausa for the afternoon. This leaves the glorious evenings wide open for socializing.
How to enjoy summer in Rome
Dusk lasts much longer here in Italy than back home in South Florida. By 7:00 in the evening, the lower edge of the sun has slipped behind the Roman skyline, the start of a protracted twilight that lingers on past 9:00 p.m. During this time of day, the entire cityscape is drenched in a pastel glow, thick as a liquid, like pink honey dripping down the sides of the old buildings and slowly draining into the river.
A collective buzz overcomes the ancient town, especially on the weekends, as the citizens awaken from the heat-induced torpor of the afternoon and invoke any small cause to celebrate. You can hear distant laughter and the clinking of wine glasses as you walk onto the Ponte Cestio, then stopping to admire the silhouette of Michelangelo’s dome rising above Saint Peter’s in the distance.
Along the river banks below, the summer festivities are in full swing. Rows of white tents are set up along both sides of the Tiber; an unbroken string of temporary bars, cafes, and restaurants of every type to give Romans and tourists alike limitless venues for which to enjoy the long, hot evenings. On the little island (L’isola Tiberina), the annual film festival sets up, awaiting the gradual darkness to begin the evening’s entertainment. They offer a wide variety of cinema in the open air, both Italian and foreign. Additionally, they have smaller venues for group discussions on film, books, poetry, etc. Check out their website for a full schedule of events. Isola del Cinema
If you are new to town or just passing through, why not join one of the social groups that meet up on the Isola for an aperitivo? As you may have read in my last post, this has some sentimental value for me. On Tuesday evenings at 8:30, there is a weekly meeting of Expats Living in Rome, a mixed group of Italians and foreigners that gather to exchange languages and make new friends over Campari cocktails and hors d’oeuvre. Here’s a link to their list of events.
And if the heat is still too much for you, you can always chill out at the Ice Club where it’s -5 degrees Centigrade (23 F) year round. For just €20, they offer an Open Bar and you can drink away the night until your heart (and/or liver) is content.
Looking ahead, the month of August is a unique time of year in Rome and indeed for the entire country. Traditionally, most businesses shut down completely and folks head either to the beach or to the mountains for the entire month. It’s like a month-long pausa. This is especially true for the two weeks around Ferragosto, or August 15th.
For someone visiting Rome from mid-July to the end of August, this can either be a good or bad thing. It’s good because the city will seem much less crowded and hotel prices might even be a bit lower. On the other hand, you may find that many businesses are closed, which can be frustrating. However, in the historical center of Rome, all of the museums and tourist attractions (and many of the restaurants) will maintain their normal hours. I would tell you to double check their websites, but doing so would only marginally guarantee the information gathered. You just have to hope for the best.
But I’m intrigued by this concept of a nation-wide stoppage of work for an entire month every year. While this practice might sound counterproductive for a country that’s trying to crawl its way out of a deep recession, it is perfectly consistent with the Mediterranean philosophy of taking time to relax and enjoy life regardless of present circumstances. Fortunes always change. The economy wavers up and down, the politicians come and go (except Berlusconi), but quality time with family and friends are what makes it all worthwhile.
If you try to uncover the origins of this month-long holiday you’ll find a mixed history. Or rather a mixture of histories, as is often the case in Italy. To wit, the tradition was started by the Emperor Augustus to celebrate the end of the agricultural season, paying homage to the gods—particularly Diana—in hopes of a good harvest. This idea was then picked up by the Christians who merely swapped out Diana for the Virgin Mary and called it the Day of Assumption.
The Church did a lot of this sort of thing to make Christianity more palatable to the pagan masses. But I have a feeling that it took very little “selling” to convince the populace to take a paid month off from their labors. Not surprisingly, this appealing tradition endures up to the present day.
Summer in Rome can be a bit surreal, especially in August. It’s like you’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of a Fellini film—a strange sort of dream that is at once alluring and unsettling. And that’s what I love about it. On the one hand, it fulfills our fantasies of the sunlit piazza, the chilled bottle of Frascati wine, and folks wearing white linen clothes and big black sunglasses. At the same time, much of the city is deserted and you’re left wondering if you’ve missed some important news alert warning you to evacuate. (Is that Mount Vesuvius rumbling in the distance?)
Then there’s that relentless heat—it can play tricks with your imagination and make you do strange things, like wearing seasonally inappropriate clothes and hiding out in an ice bar while drinking enough vodka to convince yourself that summer was just a passing dream.