Of all Italy's historic cities, it's perhaps Rome
which exerts the most compelling fascination. There's more to see here than in any other city in the world, with the relics of over two thousand years of inhabitation packed into its sprawling urban area. You could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface. As a historic place, it is special enough; as a contemporary European capital, it is utterly unique.
Placed between Italy's North and South, and heartily despised by both, Rome is perhaps the perfect capital
for a country like Italy. Once the seat of a great empire, and later the home of the papacy, which ruled its dominions from here with a distant and autocratic hand, it's still seen as a place somewhat apart from the rest of Italy, spending money made elsewhere on the corrupt and bloated government machine that runs the country. Romans, the thinking seems to go, are a lazy lot, not to be trusted and living very nicely off the fat of the rest of the land. Even Romans find it hard to disagree with this analysis: in a city of around four million, there are around 600,000 office-workers, compared to an industrial workforce of one sixth of that.
For the traveller, all of this is much less evident than the sheer weight of history that the city supports. There are of course the city's classical features, most visibly the Colosseum, and the Forum and Palatine Hill; but from here there's an almost uninterrupted sequence of monuments - from early Christian basilicas, Romanesque churches, Renaissance palaces, right up to the fountains and churches of the Baroque period, which perhaps more than any other era has determined the look of the city today. There is the modern epoch too, from the ponderous Neoclassical architecture of the post-Unification period to the self-publicizing edifices of the Mussolini years. All these various eras crowd in on one other to an almost overwhelming degree: there are medieval churches atop ancient basilicas above Roman palaces; houses and apartment blocks incorporate fragments of eroded Roman columns, carvings and inscriptions; roads and piazzas follow the lines of ancient amphitheatres and stadiums.
All of which is not to say that Rome is an easy place to absorb on one visit; you need to approach things slowly, even if you only have a few days here. You can't see everything on your first visit to Rome, and there's no point in even trying. Most of the city's sights can be approached from a variety of directions, and it's part of the city's allure to stumble across things by accident, gradually piecing together the whole, rather than marching around to a timetable on a predetermined route. In any case, it's hard to get anywhere very fast. Despite regular pledges to ban motor vehicles from the city centre, the congestion can be awful. On foot, it's easy to lose a sense of direction winding about in the twisting old streets. In any case, you're so likely to come upon something interesting it hardly makes any difference.
Rome doesn't have the nightlife of, say, Paris or London, or even of its Italian counterparts to the north - culturally it's rather provincial - and its food , while delicious, is earthy rather than haute cuisine. But its atmosphere is like no other city - a monumental, busy capital and yet an appealingly relaxed place, with a centre that has yet to be taken over by chainstores and big multinational hotels. Above all, there has perhaps never been a better time to visit the city, whose notoriously crumbling infrastructure is looking and functioning better than it has done for some time - the result of the feverish activity that took place in the last months of 1999 to have the city centre looking its best for the Church's jubilee. On the surface the city still looks much as it has done for years. But there are museums, churches and other buildings that have been "in restoration" as long as anyone can remember that have reopened, and some of the city's historic collections have been rehoused, making it all the more easy to get the most out of Rome.