ROME -- All roads may lead to Rome, but these days they are harder and harder to travel.
Barely a day goes by without one of the major access routes to The Eternal City being blocked by strikes or demonstrators.
On any given day, such as yesterday, a labor dispute by pilots or baggage handlers at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport or a wildcat strike on the national railway may prevent tourists from entering the city.
Even when air and rail routes are open, the streets of Caesar's ancient city are subject to daily blockages from protest marches. On Friday, even the city's own traffic police blocked traffic in a protest.
Malaise has dropped like a pall of smog over the city's stunning cupolas. It has even affected Rome's notorious gypsies, who have turned out in recent weeks to block access roads to the city to protest efforts to move them from their traditional camping sites on the capital's periphery.
Having heard in recent years that a newly dynamic Italy has surpassed Britain to become the fifth largest industrial economy in the world, Rome's residents are suddenly wondering why more benefits of this success have not drifted down to them.
Life has become harder, not easier, they claim. Officially, inflation was said to be a modest 5.3 to 5.5 percent last year, but Romans bitterly complain that life is at once much more expensive and less satisfying.
The fact is that Rome, so recently hailed for its prosperity and livability, has fallen on hard times.
The Fellini-chronicled dolce vita that had seemed to be having a renaissance of sorts earlier in this decade isn't so dolce anymore. Everything from pasta to the daily newspapers has become costlier, and the quality of life has visibly deteriorated as a prolonged strike of garbage collectors last fall made all too evident.
As a result, tempers of Rome's always irascible denizens seem to have frayed.
"Life here used to be easy and pleasant and reasonable," Paolo Rossi, a Roman businessman, said. "Now it is none of those things. It is difficult, often unpleasant, rarely reasonable."
Life is, in fact, a battle most days, Romans complain, that begins when they leave their homes and try to get to the city center for work, continues through the day as they are forced to wrestle with the city's ever more demonic bureaucracy and ends only after they get home at night after being subjected to bad-tempered shopkeepers, inching traffic and acrid pollution.
By nature, Romans are used to putting up with the indignities that fate inflicts. After all, their nation has survived everything from invasions of barbarians to occupation by Nazis. But they do not accept these indignities with grace -- and that is the problem.
Romans love to argue, complain and, when push comes to shove, demonstrate their unhappiness by strikes or protest marches -- or, as the Red Brigades terrorist group proved in the 1970s, worse. Romans are far from happy, with rents having doubled or tripled in the past five years, the price of a normal meal in a simple trattoria having jumped from the equivalent of less than $10 to $30 or more and the cost of stylish clothes -- that mark of a true Roman -- having at least doubled in the past decade.
The city's problems, of course, are not entirely of its own making. They reflect a more general national retrogression that is both political and economic, the results of the winding down of the economic boom of the early 1980s. Like the U.S. economy during the Reagan presidency, Italy's boom was fueled in no small measure by a mushrooming national debt to offset a widening trade deficit that last year alone ran at close to $7 billion, or more than twice the 1986 figure.
The bubble had to burst, and it seems to have done so, plunging Italy back into the sort of social morass that gave it the appellation of the "sick man of Europe" before the boom years.
As Sen. Nino Andreatta, one of Italy's top economists, said recently, "The party is over in Italy." Realities long ignored, or swept under the rug, such as the economic demands of the constantly striking airline pilots, baggage handlers, railway workers and even traffic cops, are going to have to be dealt with if the roads to Rome are to be reopened before the all-important tourist season bursts upon the country in the spring.
If they are not dealt with, Andreatta said, then life in Rome, as well as in the rest of Italy, will be characterized by uncertainty and turmoil -- not by the certainty and stability that it seemed to have achieved at last only a few years ago.