ROME, ITALY - JULY 17: People cool off during an ongoing heat wave with temperatures reaching 44 degrees, at Colosseo area (Colosseum), on July 17, 2023 in Rome, Italy. The government has issued red alerts for 16 cities due to the current heatwave, which the Italian Meteorological Society named Cerberus, the mythical creature who guarded the gates of the underworld. Many places in Italy have seen successive days over 40C. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
See what it's like in Rome amid record-breaking heat
02:36 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance journalist covering Italian travel, culture economics and politics for international media. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more CNN opinion here.

Capena, Italy CNN  — 

Here in Capena, a pretty town some 15 miles north of Rome, it’s not just the unbearable heat flattening you to the ground – it’s the nasty smell of it that lingers in the nostrils.

Silvia Marchetti

It’s a pungent, suffocating odour of dry grass ready to burn. Each time I look out the windows of my farmhouse at the lovely olive grove dotting the hill opposite, I’m afraid that a gust of wind might trigger a wildfire and turn it to ashes.

Italy is no stranger to hot summers. But this year the usual “solleone” (an Italian term used to indicate the hottest summer days) is overwhelming. The dizzying heat is expected to peak early this week, with temperatures climbing above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

It’s not just Italy suffering, with the giant oven of hot air blasting other parts of southern Europe, like Greece and Spain. Experts are warning temperatures might even break the continent’s record of 48.8 degrees Celsius (118.4 degrees Fahrenheit), set two years ago.

A man takes a picture of a sign that shows the temperature degree, near the Spanish Steps, during a heat wave across Italy as temperatures are expected to rise further in the coming days, in Rome, Italy July 17, 2023. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Italian weather forecasters tend to affectionately, and regularly, nickname our anticyclones. This one is called “Charon” – the ferryman in Greek mythology who carries souls to the underworld. But we are struggling in this hellish heatwave more than ever.

What is most frightening is there is no escape: the hills, coast and mountains gave some respite with their fresh breeze. But now it’s just like being stuck in a city, with heat oozing out of pavements and bouncing off walls. The solace of shade is gone.

I have a holiday home along the southern Roman coast where so far this summer I’ve been only once. The beach is almost empty, the sea water is too warm. It’s like floating in a hot tub.

Many families who usually indulge in pasta, pizza and watermelon slices on the sand, now go back home to eat and sleep off the day’s most sultry hours.

Swimming pool owners in the countryside where I live tell me they are thinking of investing money in a chiller like those used in luxury resorts in the UAE.

I used to love sunbathing – now I avoid the scorching sun like a vampire. These last few days, my greatest physical effort has been walking from my front porch to jump in my warm pool, wearing a straw hat and sunglasses. I wait for the pumps to kick-off so at least the water is a bit cooler.

My dog also makes me sweat. The poor animal, a huge Rottweiler with foam-like saliva oozing out of his nose, requires I shower him with the garden hose every hour.

This time of year, normally I’d take long walks on the beach, swim, then walk again. I never needed to take refuge under a sun umbrella, or turn on the AC.

But Italians are changing their mindset and routines.

We used to make fun of tourists who dipped their feet in city fountains or splashed water on their arms and necks from the thousands of water bubblers called ‘nasoni’ that dot Rome, filling their plastic bottles.

Tourists refresh at a fountain in front of the Pantheon during a sultry day in Rome, Italy, on July 17, 2023. Rome, Bologna and Florence are among the 16 Italian cities for which authorities issued hot weather red alerts, as temperatures are expected to rise in the coming days. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Now local white collar workers on lunch break shyly unbutton their shirt sleeves and place their wrists under the fresh running water.

Rome’s authorities have stepped in. There are special health units and ‘heat volunteers’ deployed to help people who are physically suffering from the heat, handing out free water bottles.

Hospitals have introduced a new emergency code for those struck by the sizzling temperature; it’s called “codice calore” (heat code) and allows sufferers to bypass other patients with a mild “green code.”

When we now hear stories of desperate tourists who have felt sick, fainted or vomited exploring ancient Roman ruins, trying still to make the most out of their holidays, we feel sympathy and smile.

So many foreigners have been “undone” by the heat, as Dante writes of those poor souls trapped in hell. Many who were ready to come to Italy have changed their holiday plans last-minute, or are stuck inside their hotel rooms with the AC on full bast. The only view they get is the one from the window.

In small villages, elderly Italians avoid even sitting in the shade and have postponed to late evening their get-togethers to play cards and have a glass of wine, or to gossip a bit.

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    We open our windows just at night. People I know have recovered old habits: lying on the cool room floor and sleeping in wine cellars or grotto rooms.

    Housewives go to the supermarket very early in the morning. Cooking twice a day, handling burning hot pots and ovens, is a no-no.

    We take turns with friends and relatives for errands.

    Kids might stick to their party-mood routine, but I’ve seen a few ditching the group to stay at home, or sheltering under the sun umbrella.

    This is Italian summers’ new normal. And it will only get worse.