An elegant boulevard lined with expensive cafes and five star hotels, it was once a byword for glamour and sophistication.
Rome’s Via Veneto was the epicentre of La Dolce Vita, a period in the fifties and sixties when the capital was known as Hollywood on the Tiber. The street featured prominently in the eponymous 1960 film, directed by Federico Fellini.
Its pavement bistros and luxury hotels attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the day, from Audrey Hepburn and Orson Welles to Stewart Granger and Jean Paul Belmondo.
But the broad avenue has fallen on hard times and is now beset with problems, from pot-holed pavements to uncollected rubbish and even a rat infestation.
A group of 400 hoteliers, business leaders and restaurant owners has now sent an appeal to Virginia Raggi, Rome’s mayor, calling for urgent intervention.
“Rubbish lies abandoned, the trees have not been pruned for a decade, the streets are dirty and full of potholes,” they wrote in an open letter to Ms Raggi, a member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement who was elected last year.
There were high hopes that Ms Raggi, a political outsider, would be able to clean up the city, but so far those hopes have come to very little, as Rome continues to suffer from chronic dysfunction and a general disregard for rules and regulations.
Nowhere is the slow decline of the capital more evident than along Via Veneto. In Largo Federico Fellini – a cobbled area that commemorates the film director, situated in the shadow of hulking ancient Roman walls – half a dozen cars are parked illegally on double white lines.
A plastic cup and other bits of litter have been stuffed into a crack in a Liberty frame that encases a glass panel commemorating the street’s Dolce Vita golden age. Inside the panel are black and white photos of James Coburn, Henry Fonda and Salvador Dali drinking cocktails in the sunshine – a poignant reminder of Via Veneto’s heyday.
In front of a giant black and white image from La Dolce Vita, which starred Marcello Mastroianni and the Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg, a forlorn Bangladeshi hawker tries to sell cheap scarves to passing tourists.
“It is shameful that Via Veneto, which is famous around the world, has been left in such a state of abandonment,” said Pietro Lepore, the president of the Via Veneto Association.
“There are street lamps that have not worked for months. If it wasn’t for the light coming from shops, restaurants and hotels, the street would be totally dark. It is just not acceptable,” said Mr Lepore, who is the owner of Harry’s Bar, one of the avenue’s most celebrated watering holes.
Overflowing rubbish bins stand outside the Cica Cica Boom lap-dancing nightclub, just off the main drag, while kiosks along Via Veneto sell a huge range of tat, from plastic figurines of Pope Francis to kitsch cat calendars and fridge magnets depicting the Colosseum.
Uncollected rubbish has led to a problem with rodents.
In February a rat was spotted amid the outdoor tables of the Hotel Excelsior, and swiftly dispatched. The Italian press ran photos of it being prodded with a pole – hardly an image in keeping with the A-list glamour of the past, when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were pursued by paparazzi photographers.
“The symbol of La Dolce Vita has become an avenue of filth and rats,” said Stefano Pedica, a politician from the centre-Left Democratic Party. “Is this the image of the Eternal City that the council wants to give to the world? Raggi must not allow one of the most symbolic streets of the city to die. She needs to go and see with her own eyes the state it has been reduced to.”
In the absence of action by the embattled city council, some business owners have taken matters into their own hands – even resorting to buying sacks of bitumen from hardware stores and filling in pot-holed pavements.
Small steps to try to spruce up what was once the jewel in Rome’s crown have been taken. A glass-paneled restaurant extension that was built illegally on the pavement outside the famed Café de Paris has been demolished recently.
Council workers were busy recently laying fresh paving stones and planting flowers in tubs. “Within a few days the pavement will be restored to how it once was,” said Sabrina Alfonsi, a council official. “The extension had become a place of abandon, in one of the city’s most iconic streets.”
But the Café de Paris itself is in a sorry state. It was closed years ago after it was found that it was being used as a front for money-laundering by the notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia of Calabria.
Peer through its locked front doors and you can still see, in the gloomy interior, glasses and plates lined up behind the bar. The stained-glass sign above the entrance has been partially covered up with a sheet of ply-board so that it now reads “é de Paris.”
Down the road, past the American embassy, more cars are parked illegally on the pavement, this time outside a 19th palazzo that houses a government ministry. “The cars are all owned by government employees. They park them where they like,” said a doorman in a crimson uniform at the adjacent Ambasciatori Palace Hotel. “That’s how it is in Italy.”