“Fare il ponte” – to make the bridge – is the traditional lengthening of a holiday by taking a day (or two) off to link a holiday to a weekend. At the start of any New Year, most Italians will have studied the new calendar intently to figure out how many “bridges” they’ll be able to “make”. It used to be that a great part of the population would set off somewhere in their cars on these long weekends, either for a real holiday or just to visit family in another region. We’re right in the middle of a ponte now, but things have changed. Partly because life is expensive, but also because of the increasingly stressful lives people seem to lead. I’ve heard so many say they were looking forward to “simply finally relaxing in their own homes”
Tuesday Dec 8th is a national holiday – actually a religious one, in virtue of the “Concordato” Italy signed with the Vatican back in 1929. Milan has always enjoyed a ponte around this date, as they can add Dec 7th which is the feast of the patron saint of the city, St. Ambrose (patron saint days are also sanctioned as public holidays).
This year the ponte is specially felt in Rome, because it’s the countdown to the beginning of the Vatican Jubilee Year, with millions of pilgrims expected to descend on the city over the next 365 days, in a moment in which a number of other concerns have added up.
Security is certainly at the forefront, and a few bizarre laws have been enacted, one of which is the banning of “centurions” from the whole area around the Coliseum. Anyone who’s been here must remember seeing what look like Cinecittà extras in full drag pressing tourists to have their photos taken next to them for a (hefty) bit of euros. But wily as they are, they’ve moved to neighbouring areas that are pretty touristic anyway.
Locals and people from the Rome province have made a habit of coming down to the capital with their children on December 8th to do their Christmas decorations/specialty food shopping in Piazza Navona. This year, the open air artisans’ market has been cancelled, so it won’t smother the oval square (?), arguably one of the world’s most attractive. In the framework of an ongoing Mafia corruption investigation in Rome, authorities are claiming that the tender for stall permits was tampered with. So the fair-like spread with all the twinkling lights at night won’t be covering the square, which should improve security. A small number of non-profits might be allowed to set up a limited number of attractions for children in time for Christmas. In any case, Rome is a once-in-a-lifetime visit for a large percentage of the tourists: nice to think they’ll be able to see the square in a more decorous and less carnival-like setting.
The special Jubilee roadworks aren’t all finished. In mid-October, at the height of surreal lane closures, redirected traffic and changed one-ways around Termini train station – the hub where most visitors arrive – there was a sign I missed photographing in the turmoil of cars, but that had disappeared the next day. I never figured if it was because they got lampooned in the press, or because they realized they’d never make the deadline: on it the developers announced the works would be concluded by … December 7th! Starting projects last minute is a staple (from a tender age, schoolchildren practice the art of tackling homework the night before it’s due), but so is not meeting deadlines.
The weather has been unseasonably mild (nice) which has led to abnormally high smog levels (not nice). So lately we’ve had a series of EU-dictated “alternate license plates” days, and more are on the way. In developing countries the people who have cars are wealthy anyway, so they just buy two cars – one odd plate, one even. Here we don’t have the option, and I suspect the pilgrims won’t either.
Finally, public transportation breaks down regularly, due to slowdowns, mechanical failures and more consistently union strikes, so how all this is going to work out is anybody’s guess.
But wait, wait, every cloud has a silver lining! Here was yesterday’s headline from a major paper in Rome:
(translated: “Jubilee, strikes verboten”)
A whole year of no public services strikes in Rome? Wow! it could be worth the whole hassle …
Headline “Il Messaggero” – Sunday December 6 2015, front page