Never before had this writer looked down on the Romans as regards their haircuts, dining habits, even their habitat and bedrooms; never, that is, until he boarded Topless and saw everything from a completely different angle.
There is, in fact, not just one Topless but three, currently all the rage in Rome and being taken by assault every 45 minutes by waves of clients clamouring for a look at the jewels on offer. They are the new, double-decker, roofless buses that take their passengers for a two-hour ride around Rome.
The 15-km route their clients embark upon, with up to 55 seated on the upper deck and 32 on the lower one (in case of inclemency), is the 110 Open, with 11 stops including Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum, the Bocca della Verit and St Peters. People can get on or jump off where they will, and many willed.
While waiting outside Termini station for the excursion to begin, a chemist and his wife from Hyderabad said they had spent 24 hours in Rome and were leaving for Dubai the next day, and they found the big drawback of the city was that no one speaks English. That is perhaps why they had found Londoners more helpful than Romans, but on one point they had no doubt: We find the Romans are many times more beautiful than the English.
Even for an old-timer in Rome, seeing the city from such a strange altitude was to see it as a novelty. Look up, look up, Roman friends sometimes urge. But it usually proves too hard. The tops of buildings are too high to make out in detail, or the sun is too blinding. Topless enables you to do the all the neglected looking up you need. So, for the first time Latin inscriptions come into legible view; a stunning number of busty, reclining ladies in diaphanous gowns, entangled in festoons of flowers, take their bow as if in a premire of Liberty style in stone; and Roman boudoirs reveal themselves as period pieces too, complete with chandeliers, dark oil paintings and lace. And then, suddenly, you are face-to-face with figures never encountered close up before, such as the legendary horsemen, naked Castor and Pollux, in front of the Quirinale.
As photographer Paul Rossi pointed out, it was like seeing Rome without its traffic. Sitting up there on the second deck is to see the city not only without the cars, but with the soundtrack cut off as well, like an old silent film.
You can concentrate up here, keep your eyes on things without people bumping into you all the time, remarked Kate Arulamalam from London, in Rome for the first time and on the bus with her three tiny tots and her Sri Lankan husband, a doctor following a course at S. Giovanni hospital.
God! This English is a bit dodgy! she added, referring to the excursions running commentary given through headphones by our guide. On the other two buses, guides produced a taped commentary, synchronising it with the sights through a video prompter next to
the jovial driver, Luigi Oggiani, who has been driving tourist buses
Our unusual perspective also showed us the true vastness and impeccable geometry of some of Romes great sights, a viewpoint quite hidden from mortal pedestrians. The massive space embraced by the ellipse of the Colosseum, for instance; the incredible, dramatic steepness of the steps soaring like a heavenly staircase up to the church of the Ara Coeli next to the Capitoline hill; the impressive totality of the dome of St Peters; the perfection of the layout of majestic Piazza del Popolo, appreciated while snatching downward glimpses at diners enjoying a leisurely lunch at the Canova caf and the Dal Bolognese restaurant.
That was fantastic! Fabulous! exclaimed an American from Boston on the bus with
In his excitement, he probably failed to notice as he got off the bus that it bore French license plates, ending with the number 75, indicating its plates were Parisian. The explanation is that for Romes tangled bureaucracy, open double-deckers have no legal existence, since no one has ever dreamt of registering such a model.
To get around a problem that otherwise might have taken years to master, some bright mind wondered if a European Union nationality would pass muster in Roman eyes. It did. So the buses were baptised in the name of a Parisian company now working in partnership with Trambus on the 110 service: Les Cars Rouges.
The 110 Open bus leaves at 45-minute intervals from outside Termini station, 09.00-20.30. Tickets can be bought for 12.91 from a kiosk opposite the taxi stand in Piazza dei Cinquecento, or on board the bus for 13.94.
Picture: The 15-km route followed by the Topless buses takes in sights including the massive ellipse of the Colosseum. Photo by Paul Rossi.