Revisiting student haunts in middle age can be a bad idea. Not so with Rome. As an impoverished art history student, I would gravitate from my daily doses of culture, crazy traffic, petrol fumes and an assortment of street dangers to Piazza Navona, to me the city’s soul. It was a scruffy square surrounded by peeling palaces and reeking of a history that you could trace back through Papal processions and medieval markets to the Romans themselves. There I would hang out with other travellers beside Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain eyeing the upscale ice-cream cafés where the smallest treat cost more than my daily budget for food.
Thirty years later, I found myself sitting in the shade of Bar Tre Scalini overlooking that same fountain, fulfilling my student dreams as I polished off a large bowl of chocolate and coffee ice-cream. The square was immaculately clean, the air clear, there was no sound of traffic, and the building facades were mostly repainted. Indeed, Rome was not merely as good as I remembered it; it was much better in almost every way. And it was not just because I could now afford a classy gelato.