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ROME — As an estimated two million pilgrims began their journey home over the weekend — following an extraordinary display of homage to Pope John Paul II on Friday — Romans were quietly but eagerly waiting for their city to return to normal.
The incredible surge of the faithful that filled city streets may have brought the world’s attention to the Italian capital, but local shops around Vatican City, many on streets closed to traffic, saw sales drop.
“We’ve sold nothing,” said Alberto Di Consiglio, owner of two moderate-priced clothing stores in Via Ottaviano, just past the walls of Vatican City. “The pilgrims have come to Rome for one reason only, and rightfully so, to pay their final respects to Pope John Paul.”
Like Di Consiglio, a cross-sampling of store owners in the Vatican area cited a significant downturn in sales last week, with many shops reporting a 75 percent drop in revenue. Major shopping destinations, like Via Ottaviano and Via Cola di Rienzo, normally teeming with people and cars, were deserted following a series of traffic bans. Squares usually home to street markets became makeshift campsites for the thousands of people who slept on city streets.
“The pilgrims aren’t buying anything and the Romans have stayed at home because they want to avoid street closures, traffic jams and just the general crazy scene,” said Giovanna Nalli, manager of the Furla store in Via Cola di Rienzo, which was closed to traffic Thursday and Friday because of its proximity to St. Peter’s Square.
Even city taxi drivers reported a lack of fares. “No one’s coming to Rome for work,” said cabbie Simona Ianucci. “The pilgrims arrive in buses and then use public transportation.”
While it’s clear that specific businesses, such as the five-star hotels on the Via Veneto that hosted heads of state and diplomats, benefited economically from the influx of people last week, the event brought mixed results for shop owners and restaurateurs.
At Pizzeria Porta Castello, just around the corner from St. Peter’s Square, owner Adrianna Spalla said her normal clientele stayed at home while the pilgrims came in only to use the restaurant’s bathroom. Street vendor Anna Maria Gregorio, who sells fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags near Piazza Risorgimento, said business had dropped 90 percent.
Further from the vortex that was Vatican City, shops seemed to have performed better, although still at lower levels than usual. Street traffic diminished on tony Via Condotti and in the teen-targeted Via del Corso.
Aware of the delicate situation, the majority of shops sought to go ahead with business but in a slightly more somber way. At Jam Store-La Rinascente in the city’s historic center, management turned off the store’s soundtrack all last week out of respect for the passing of John Paul II. “We understood that this was a solemn moment and that we needed to have patience,” said Soo-Hyoune Kim, the store’s director.
Jam Store, like all the city’s shops and businesses, closed its doors on Friday as Rome came to a stop.
Yet in a contemporary society driven by celebrity and voyeuristic reality shows, even the most sacred event is susceptible to sensationalism. As the pilgrims made their way out of St. Peter’s Square many were buying white T-shirts with John Paul II’s image printed on the front. In Via Ottaviano, just steps from Vatican City walls, a beauty shop was selling Pope John Paul II rosary beads next to soaps and bubble bath. A bridal shop in the city center hung huge white posters in front of its cream silk gowns. Printed on them were the words Addio Santo Padre, meaning “Farewell Holy Father.”