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The water

In high summer, Rome is a hot town. Really hot. But unlike London or Manhattan, cool natural spring water trickles from drinking fountains on nearly every Roman street corner.

Some of the fountains are centuries old, and the two thirst quenchers pictured here, although not so old, perhaps appear the more venerable underneath their layers of modern graffiti.

Some are push-button operated, while others flow continuously into ornate bowls and cisterns carved from stone or marble.

Everybody's on the make - local children in a quiet piazza off Via Cavour sell their paintings from the foot of the fountain.

Gypsies and workmen who are out on the street all day drench their hair under the flow as a precaution against sunstroke, while more genteel be-suited businessmen and women discreetly stoop for a quick cool sip as they pass by.

One of the four fountains which grace each corner at the intersection of Via XX Settembre and Via Quattro Fontane (Road of the Four Fountains!) This one's our favourite. We've been criticised for bad composition in this photograph, but seriously guys, it's intentional - split the picture right down the middle - On the left is modern Rome... and on the right is ancient Rome. Put them together again and you have the true beauty of this crazy city - The new alongside the old, the hi-tech beside the halcyon, Koyannisquatsi meets the Mona Lisa.


The smoking


If you like smoking, Rome’s the place to do it. Oh, you don't smoke? Too bad dear... You will certainly be among the minority in Italy. I suppose you will have to don a gas mask and squirt copious amounts of murine into your little eyes every time you enter a bar. While there are many bars and restaurants who operate a smoking ban, this is largely on account of their proprietors not wishing to lose the custom of increasing numbers of non-smoking Western tourists. However, these are the exception rather than the rule, so it’s possible in most places to enjoy a smoke with your coffee, thus heightening one’s enjoyment of the perfect Roman moment. A few years ago it was difficult to find Western brands of cigarettes in Italy, but this is no longer the case and popular western brands like Marlboro, Dunhill or Players are freely available in most ‘Tabacchi’ A tabacchi as it’s name suggests is a sort of tobacconist which sells cigarettes (obviously), other smoking materials (such as nice cigarette cases and lighters and those rolling machines for fag-papers), sweets, chewing gum, postage stamps, numerous brands of little mints and breath-fresheners, small items of stationary like pens and sometimes filofaxes, plus men’s toiletries and grooming aids. It’s a sort of newsagents without the newspapers, or a chemist which sells cigarettes instead of medicine. (as for Newspapers, they’re mostly sold from news-stands in the street, but you can’t browse endlessly through the magazines a la WH Smith as most of the mags are behind the counter. If you want to merge into the local smoking culture, then smoke the popular Italian brands such as Diana (mild), or MS (strong).
Respect the smoking conventions though - Even in a bar or restaurant where smoking is allowed, if it’s lunchtime, or large numbers of people nearby are eating, keep your distance from them and the food counter, or wait until your outside again. Be very careful how you dispose of the cigarette butt - In hot weather these may start a fire amidst waste litter on the street, or if thrown from a car, hot, dry grass and shrub foliage can ignite, causing forest fires. Thus, there are heavy spot fines issued by police and carabinere for being seen throwing the cigarette butts carelessly. A delightful feature of Rome’s smoking culture is the inclusion of ashtrays in the side-panels of almost all rubbish bins in the city, so there is really no excuse to just toss the butts away. Finally, though many do, it’s still a bit non-U to smoke in the street, although this can be excused at stationary moments during the passeggiata.



the bars
Bars are a universal feature of Italian life. Unlike bars in the US or pubs in England, Italian bars do not merely sell alcoholic drinks, but also a variety of hot and cold non-alcoholic beverages, the chief being of course coffee - espresso (caffè) or cappuccino, or half a dozen other ways of serving it, including chilled (caffè freddo). Also thé freddo (iced tea, in lemon or peach flavours) They also sell ice-cream, cakes, and a large selection of hot and cold snacks, pizza and sandwiches (although the best pizza can be found in, surprise, surprise, pizzerie, not bars).

Pizza strutter ©Copyright Lake Photography 1998

Romans eat a lot in the street - The woman above is a typical sight as she tucks into her slice of pizza while strolling through the Trastevere district. Paradoxically though, Romans do not, ever, never walk down the street with a can of coke or beer. It is absolutely not done. If you try it you will be instantly identified as a tourist. You will also not (as you might think) save any money buying your drink in a can or cup to take away. The Romans have hiked the street price of a can of coke up to about £1.50 Sterling as a subtle penalty to tourists who refuse to accept the local bars as the customery method of taking refreshment.

Think of the bar as a café where you can also get a beer or a cocktail at any hour of the day (except between around midday and 4pm, when most shops close for siesta, reopening at around four and staying open till late. Actually most bars in central Rome are open all day, from about 7.30 am to midnightish, especially in summer when there’s a lot of thirsty tourists about. But the shops often close at lunchtime and when they re-open at four, they stay open till about eight pm.)
The amazing thing is the incredible number and variety of bars. On any street, there will be a bar every hundred metres or so, and they range from small standing-room-only affairs comparable in size to a London taxi-stand greasy-spoon kiosk, up to establishments which are really small restaurants, or large restaurants with a small bar attached to their side entrance. The level of service also varies greatly, but it is rarely ‘bad service’, for Italians take great pride in the way they serve food and drink. If the bar is not busy, you may well receive a complimentary bowl of nuts or crisps with your beer or aperitif, and sometimes a small chocolate in the saucer of your coffee, and many orders are presented on smart little trays with paper napkins and metal spoons. Too long in England have we suffered under the plastic cup of dishwater called coffee, which we pay a pound for and then have to always go back to the self-service counter for a miserable sachet of sugar and a plastic spoon to stir it it with. Not so in Italy. Even the quickest cheapest coffee is served with manners and panache. And it is cheap. L.1000 (about 35p at current Sterling exchange rates) gets you a basic espresso (called caffè) and a cappuccino goes at around L.1500.
There are some rules of procedure and etiquette in bars which take some getting used to for the Brit or US tourist though: The biggest problem for the non Italian-speaking visitor is that you must pay for your food and drink before you order it. This can be tricky if you don’t know the Italian name for something. Neither can you simply point to it and say "one of those please", as the cash-desk is nearly always at the opposite end of the room to the food-bar! Even if you sit down at a table first and order from the waiter, a bar is not a restaurant, and usually has no portable printed menus, so you need to have a pretty good working knowledge of Italian vocabulary and cuisine before you try the 'ordering from the table' trick. Bars usually (but not always) charge extra for sitting down, sometimes per table and sometimes per person.
Many bars in the more fashionable areas of central Rome charge as much as L.1200 or even L.1500 for an espresso, but if you are in a bar where the price is only eight or nine hundred lire, it is customary to leave a tip of a one or two hundred lire coin on the bar-top. Thus, it’s best not to be too tight-fisted when you go to a bar, expecting price and service conformity everywhere you go; On the whole you are getting extremely good value for money in an Italian bar, especially with current sterling to lire exchange rates. Though Americans may be used to a high level of service and customer-consideration in bars and restaurants, British visitors to Rome will certainly be in for a dose of the finest coffee and snack-bar service you will ever have had in your life. Pay whatever it costs, relax and enjoy your beautiful coffee.

more reasons to love Rome...

















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