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Lights. Camera. Action. Rome revels in a perpetual golden hour of filmic possibility. Locals – and hordes of visitors – indulge the theatre of the city; American divorcees sob on the Spanish Steps, policemen in aviator sunglasses smoke cigarettes in the piazzas and traffic wardens in gold-brocaded uniforms stalk along the Corso. Even the rubbish collectors pose in overalls next to their trucks, lolling stylishly, stubby rollata in hand.

Romans can see why foreigners come here for quixotic highs. But their civic outlook is quite different. “Romantic?” says the writer and video artist Michele Manfellotto. “Absolutely not. The Roman is an absolute cynic. He is a sinister character. This is a place of ancient powers. They are used to this huge thing just two steps from their door. It makes you adverse to every kind of authority.”

The salty, sardonic residents nurture a fond ambivalence towards their city. They are a phlegmatic bunch. With a gregarious lilt, a strong dialect (non-Romans can pick it up a mile off), they live in and around the ruins of a fallen civilisation with a plucky acceptance of the flaws of their city. They even see charm in the traffic that rumbles around the edifice of the Colosseum, along the banks of the soupy green Tiber and up the grand boulevard to the Vatican in a never-ending grand prix – it’s the city’s throbbing and beguiling pulse.

The cosmic rule seems to be that there are no rules – which is something of a irony in a city that is home to Italy’s seat of government. Romans shrug off the sex scandals of Silvio Berlusconi and raise their eyebrows at the mention of their mayor, Gianni Alemanno. Most of them couldn’t give a fig about the Papal dictates coming from St Peter’s.

What turns them on here is food. Laconic taxi drivers talk at length about where to find the best abbacchio (suckling lamb), porchetta (piglet) or rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with the intestines of an unweaned calf). The cuisine is gutsy, strong fare and comes from the bottom up. “Pajata started as a food for the poor, but it is now an elite delicacy,” says Alessandro Commentucci, a formidable looking chef (with a calf’s head tattooed to his forearm) whose family has been serving up the quinto quarto for generations here in the working class area of Testaccio. “Intestines were part of the salary of the workers in the slaughterhouse when their bosses couldn’t pay. So the women of Rome did what they could with them.”

It’s easy to forgive Rome’s civic foibles, such as the maddening public transport. After all, most of the city’s vices are ancient ones. Prostitutes have plied their trade in the area of Suburra since gladiators dropped into the district’s brothels in between fights at the nearby Colosseum. Baroque churches are scrawled with graffiti (one estimate suggests there may be as many as 3,500 graffiti artists working in Rome) – Romans have been embellishing their surroundings since ancient times and show no intention of stopping now.

Rome is the reluctant national capital with a small-town mentality (one Roman describes it as a huge provincial village). Globalisation here comes in the form of tourists. The visor-clad mob crush around the Trevi Fountain and shoulder into the Pantheon, pursued by teams of South Asian immigrants selling neon dancing Big Birds and plastic, Chinese-made parasols. But somehow the city’s grand monuments can take it. And so can the locals who live alongside the throng in coffee bars and piazzas.

Banter is an art in Rome – and subliminal, arch humour is the city’s antidote to the irritating intensity of tourists snapping commands in pidgin English. “I see a tall woman with long hair,” muses barista Suryan Paolessi who interprets fortunes in the froth of his local’s coffee at Mariani’s (where, he tells Monocle, the Paolessi family have been in business since 1586). “And here, ah, I see a heart with devil’s horns.”

Others have fled to the city’s environs. Pockets of modernity are springing up in the suburbs, where art galleries such as MAXXI, the MACRO and Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica offer a slice of contemporary culture. Young hipsters have colonised the working class neighbourhood of Pigneto where they live among the vast ancient aqueducts, listening to avant-garde jazz in clubs such as Fanfulla 101 and eating in slow-food hang-outs such as Primo and Necci dal 1924.

They will tell you themselves, Romans are hooked on beauty. “It gets under your skin,” says artist Cesare Pietroiusti in his studio in Trastevere on the Tiber’s west bank. “There is so much history, so much art, so much beauty and aesthetic here. You only have to walk an hour in the city to see everything from the ancient, to the Baroque and the neoclassical.” Rome is a place of flâneurs, drinking up the ancient rhythms of their surroundings, savouring the pre-dinner tension of aperitivo. “I take a passeggiata [walk] every day,” says Diego Manfreda, a fashion designer who co-runs the art gallery and boutique Motel Salieri in Monti. “Every corner of this city allows me to express emotion. History isn’t enough to explain Rome. It has a charge.”

Romans constantly refer, frame by frame, to the neo-realism films of Pasolini, Visconti and Rossellini. Their script is far from the anodyne quasi-commercial world of Elizabeth Gilbert’s clichés. Rome lives Fellini’s La Dolce Vita with all the crude reality of human vice, a nuance of urban decay and the withering acid wit of its inhabitants. “This is where Pietro Germi located his film Un Maledetto Imbroglio [The Facts of Murder],” says Katia, a waitress looking out over the undulating cobbles in the deserted Piazza Farnese as she lavishes attention on the old crooner Fred Bongusto who sits at her café eating misto crudo on a red velour banquette. “This is a very quiet place,” she adds. “But things happen here.”

Why we love it

  1. Chic locals. Romans dress with flair – even if it means wearing four-inch heels on a Vespa.
  2. The climate. Romans even have a name for their city’s light breeze, er ponentino.
  3. The light. The luminous gloaming has bewitched artists from Turner to Cy Twombly.
  4. Robust, honest food. The globe artichokes on sale in Campo dei Fiori are a delight.
  5. The history. Rome’s Centro Storico is packed full of show-stopping wonders.

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