Straight Talk – Water on Display
From Cape Town’s drought to Rome’s extravaganza.
I have not had a bath in more than two years. If anyone asks about Cape Town’s water restrictions, that’s what I tell them. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that any kind of trip outside of the city assumes an additional novelty. On a recent trip to Rome, I was as excited about having a hot soak as I was about visiting the Colosseum. As it turned out, I should have prepared better. My hotel room had only a shower. Still, coming from a drought, one notices things that, at another time, may not be quite so compelling. Although the guidebooks hardly focus on it as a selling point, any Capetonian who visits Rome will be taken by just how much water there is. The city is studded with fountains both grand and small. You also never need to buy bottled water in Rome because potable water flows out of numerous drinking fountains on the streets. This Roman affiliation with water goes back to the beginnings of the city. The founding twins of Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus, chose the area because it was rich with flowing springs. They themselves arrived at the spot as babies carried in baskets on the river Tiber.
Emperor Nero built part of his magnificent golden house, or Domus Aurea, on the area that today overlooks the Colosseum. Back then it was not the huge amphitheatre onto which his guests gazed but an enormous manmade lake. In all of the great Roman palaces that now lie in ruins on the surrounding hills it is evident where fountains stood as the centrepieces of the courtyards. Today, the spectacular Trevi Fountain is still fed with spring water, brought to the city by an aqueduct originally built in 19BC. So are the fountains in the Piazza Navona, including Bernini’s glorious Fountain of the Four Rivers. Back in Cape Town, all of the city’s fountains have been turned off. Water features in people’s homes and gardens stand empty. Returning to this dry environment, one appreciates all the more why Romans wanted to have water all around them. There is a life in those fountains that cannot be conveyed by anything else. Of course, in a shortage as severe as we are currently experiencing in Cape Town it makes sense to turn things off, but I hope that when the rains come it won’t be seen as a waste to turn them back on. They enrich and comfort and heal, and it would be worth sticking to 90-second showers to have water on display in the city again.
TEXT Patrick Cairns PHOTOGRAPHS iStock by Getty Images, supplied