Its a waste of money. It would have been much better to clean up the filthy towpaths along the embankments instead, for walkers and cyclists to use.

Luciano Morcon, sports director of one of the best known of the many clubs on the banks of the Tiber, was commenting on a plan (not the first) to start a Tiber river-bus service in December. Of course, the boats will get in our way so we dont like them, but even so, it could be dicey to operate given the drastic ups and downs of the Tiber. And its such a steep climb from the city down to the water that oldies and people with kids will stick to the bus.

The service, blessed by the Rome city council and due to call every 13 minutes at 12 landing stages on the five km stretch between the Duca DAosta bridge by the Olympic stadium and the Isola Tiberina, will use solar-powered boats, each with a bar, and will be show-pieces for a sponsor. It will be highly ecological, promised lawyer Pietro DallOglio on behalf of Romulus and Remus Srl, the operators. It will be a trip back in time, since river traffic was heavy under the Romans and the popes, and steam boats chugged between Fiumicino and Orte until 1878, when the Tiber silted up.

Morcon is sports director of Tirrenia-Todaro, a smart rowing club on Lungotevere Flaminio facing the Olympic stadium. Founded in 1945 and now mirroring other lite clubs, it offers its 350 members two tennis courts, volleyball and basketball courts, a gym, a sauna, a restaurant and two floating docks harbouring some 100 eights, fours and canoes. Canoeing is the Tirrenias speciality in a city more used to rowing. Most members, past Olympic medallists among them, frequent the club during their lunch break.

Down by the now fast current, amid weeping willows, elms and poplars, Morcon recalled cleaner times, when the river was the Romans sea, with annual swimming races until 1939. Even in his film Accatone, Pier Paolo Pasolini had boys diving into the river from a bathing establishment in front of Castel S. Angelo, once one of many.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s the Tiber became an evil drain. In the last decade though, Morcon and others claimed, its water has greatly improved, since Romes four sewage plants are now working, if not brilliantly, while staggered dams as far upstream as Todi keep the river flushed. Weve now got a lot of fish, and otters are back.

Lorenzo Parlati of the Legambiente environmental group saw a different river. Within Rome, the Tibers health is dramatic. With pollution graded on a scale from one to five, it always ranks four or five. The killer is its tributary, the Aniene, a sewer with cars at the bottom.

The oldest club on the river, born 130 years ago, is the rather stiff, protocol-bound Tevere Remo below Ponte Margherita, near Piazza del Popolo. Opposite it is the most easy-going club, known for a family atmosphere, the Circolo Dopolavoro Ferroviario, the railwayworkers retreat with 77 years behind it. The most exclusive and snobby place of all is the prestigious Circolo Aniene far upstream towards the Tor di Quinto bridge near the Acqua Acetosa sports complex, one of the most in places in Rome.

So many clubs line the Tiber belonging to Poste Italiane, with trophies and ballet classes visible through its windows, to the Functionaries of the Police, to the Knights of Columbus, to Romes fire brigade that the river is often barricaded off from ordinary mortals, with the consent of the city council. Its ridiculous! exclaimed Ian Danby, a Canadian who lives near the water. If you want to go for a walk along the bank, theres simply no way to get down to it.

Such impediments seem to accentuate how Romans feel about their river. Armando Ravaglioli, a writer on Rome, acknowledges, like many others, that their love for it is nil. They disdainfully call it the river, not the Tiber. They still distrust it, doubtless because of memories of its devastating flooding in the past. (It drowned 3,000 Romans in 1598.) But their main disenchantment, writes Ravaglioli, began ironically with its imprisonment between its huge embankments, put up precisely to avert such disasters, works that ended only in 1926 after 50 years of toil. Forgotten at the bottom of its trench, the river is now for them Romes mortification.

The Romans slight regard for the Tiber also translates into the fact that they dont eat near it. Today it supports only three restaurants, one being Il Barcone, a two-storey, air-conditioned floater moored beneath the Duca dAosta bridge on the stadium side. For my own sake, I would like to see many more of us, sighed its philosophical owner, Maurizio Palazzi. It would be better for business, but the Romans arent used to the river. They think it might smell, or imagine astronomical prices. Theyre amazed at how normal they are. (A meal comes to about 18 without wine). His 70-seat restaurant, which also doubles as his home, is a big extension to what it was in the 1980s when it was a small river-borne Carabinieri station.

The newest place, a striking bar-restaurant-disco which opened a year ago, is the Baja Club, tied up below the metro bridge between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza della Libert. Angelo di Verolli, one of three partners behind it, welcomed the planned boat service as Palazzi did: It will be good publicity for us.

Il Barcone: Lungotevere Maresciallo Cadorna, underneath Ponte Duca DAosta, tel. 0632650543. Lunch and dinner. Mon closed.

Baja Club: Lungotevere Arnaldo da Brescia, underneath Ponte Margherita,

tel. 0632600118. Open until 04.00. Mon closed.