As Romans clear out for their traditional mid-August holiday, bulldozers and steamrollers are moving into high gear to push ahead on the hundreds of building, road and restoration projects that are dotting--or blotting--the city's landscape this summer.
One government official urged Romans to "get out of town" to facilitate the cumbersome roadwork that still needs to be done to complete the city's massive face lift before next year's millennium celebrations. Soaring temperatures make workers listless and newly-laid concrete sticky, but authorities say the blitz will go on.
Although city residents are grumbling over the inconveniences, tourists seem to be taking in stride the difficulties of navigating streets full of deep holes and visiting landmarks covered by scaffolding and plastic netting.
"I know the Romans have been suffering, and they've been very patient," Mayor Francesco Rutelli said. "But I think they'll see by next year that it's been worth it."
Twenty-five to 30 million people are expected to visit Rome next year, most of them Roman Catholic pilgrims who will come for the Jubilee Holy Year celebrations organized by the Vatican to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Visitors this summer find the facade of St. Peter's Basilica covered in green wrap; Campo di Fiori, the site of Rome's most characteristic outdoor market, a shallow dirt pit; the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona surrounded by a plexiglass curtain adorned with large advertisements for the car company sponsoring its restoration. Cranes and earthmovers are unavoidable additions to archaeological excavation sites along the central Via dei Fori Imperiali.
"We were prepared for the worst," said Joshua Liston, 26, a tourist from Washington, D.C. "It could be better, but it's not that bad. We didn't see the outside of St. Peter's, but we saw the rest."
Rutelli has been showing off the progress on major projects and defending himself from naysayers in a series of guided tours for journalists. Reporters followed him recently through a just-completed and highly controversial tunnel that will serve as an underpass to alleviate heavy traffic near the Vatican.
"We were supposed to run into a pyramid or the tomb of Romolo [the legendary founder of Rome], but we didn't find anything," he said.
Riding on a new commuter train that will bring pilgrims into the city, the mayor said that Rome is getting more than a face lift for the Jubilee, noting that the modernization of rail lines and two train stations, for example, will become integral parts of the city's public transportation system.
For now, construction sites are everywhere and getting around on anything with more n two wheels can be an infernal experience in some parts of the city. Huge traffic jams occur daily on the GRA, Rome's version of the Beltway, which is being widened to six lanes from four.
A public opinion survey commissioned by the city in March said that 80 percent of Romans think the changes will be worth it. There is a vocal minority that disagrees.
"Look what they've done to this city," said a cab driver who asked to be identified only as Stefano. "They've made things worse than they were before."
And there are those who are skeptical of the churches' sparkling facades, and the piazzas cleared of cars and freshly repaved with square gray cobblestones that were once the foundation of all Roman streets.
"They're changing the face of Rome too much," said Maria Giusti, 55, who for 35 years has kept a vegetable stall at Campo di Fiori and who has been temporarily displaced by the work in progress. "Rome is beautiful because it's old. It's not right to make it all look brand new."
Guido Bertolaso, a government official involved in Jubilee preparations, dismissed the complaints.
"You know how Italians are, especially Romans--they have to complain, they have to criticize," he said. The aesthetics of the city need attending to, he said, "because Rome isn't an industrial city, it's the artistic and cultural aspects that need to be enhanced, while allowing Romans to live well."
Work is progressing at such a frenetic pace, he said, because the city has had just two years to spend the allotted $1.94 billion on the 700 construction, transportation, restoration, archaeological and emergency health care projects that must be finished by year's end.
"Let's see if we can handle these 30 million visitors next year," he said. "People can judge us then."