Cue Aston Martins and Parachutes as Bond Causes a Stir in Rome

Bong in Rome
Great beauties: Monica Bellucci, who at 50 is the oldest ever Bond ‘girl’, in front of the Roman skyline with 007 actor Daniel Craig Vittorio Zunnio Celotto/Getty

Like many a conquering hero before him, James Bond has come to Rome. Daniel Craig is here to film Spectre, the 24th Bond movie, directed by Sam Mendes. After months of secrecy, street after street is being cordoned off, to shoot Spectre's spectacular car chases through some of the most beautiful and ancient streets in the world.

Last week, Daniel Craig's metallic grey new supercar, the Aston Martin DB10, raced against David Bautista, Spectre henchman, and real life six-times former world heavy weight boxing champion, passing the Forum and the Colosseum, where Julius Caesar's charioteers sped him towards Senatorial meetings. The Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome's main thoroughfare and final express bus route for breathless pilgrims, going from Termini Station to the very heart of the Catholic Church, St Peter's Basilica, was cordoned off for hours over night, as the cars raced at 200km an hour at 11.30pm, stunt drivers in iron cages on the cars' roofs, fighting their scripted battles.

Although onlookers were banned from the set, the inhabitants of the various palazzi that line the Corso took pictures on their phones from their balconies. Bond even suffered a minor injury – Craig hit his head on the roof of his car when it bumped over one of Rome's notoriously uneven Sampietrini cobble stones. Luckily, the on-set doctor pronounced him unhurt.

The word in boho-chic Trastevere – once Rome's medieval slum, linked to the city's Historic Centre by the 15th-century Ponte Sisto footbridge – is that the final stage of the chase will be along the slimy cobblestones of the Tiber's quayside, towards the Ponte Sisto's one-car-wide archway – and that at least one of the cars will end up in the river. Bond is also predicted to parachute from a helicopter on to the Castel Sant'Angelo, the vast tomb of the Emperor Hadrian on the banks of the Tiber, converted into a fortress by the medieval Popes.

Presumably Bond won't be allowed to use the secret passage said to link the Papal stronghold to the Pope's Vatican bedroom; although perhaps Ralph Fiennes, who has been cast as M, will be using it as his Rome office, where even now Q is perfecting an exploding gelato.

"It's a massive production. Bond is not a tourist in Rome," shrugged someone involved in the Italian co-production, unable to give their name. Due to the levels of secrecy shrouding the Bond franchise, which would impress even MI6, the production team have all had to sign confidentiality agreements.

James Bond
As the secret agent’s 24th mission starts filming in Rome, the streets seethe with gossip about Popes, mafiosi and . . . actors Robino Salvatore/GC

"Rome is full of a beautiful, ancient monuments. It would be awful if they broke anything. And they are shooting for four weeks! When Woody Allen shot his film in August, Rome was empty. And Italian bureaucracy is terrible! It would be much easier if they were shooting in the Vatican. They are much more efficient there."

There is even rumoured to be a real villain for the Bond crew to combat. According to sources in the Italian acting industry, the Bond production has been threatened by the notorious Casamonica, a Romanian gypsy-origin mafia, relatively new on the Roman scene. "The Casamonica can shut a production down like that," said a Roman filmmaker, clicking his fingers.

The beauty is supplied by Italian Monica Bellucci, at 50, the oldest actress ever to play a Bond girl; her home town of Citta di Castello, near Perugia, was ruled by the Borgia Popes. Bellucci, whose character is called Lucia Sciarra, described Craig's Bond as "a hero, but human. A real man".

In Piazza Trilussa, where the Ponte Sisto disgorges into Trastevere, the café workers and newsagents are resigned to the square being shut for three days to film the riverside car chase. "We're going to have two huge cranes in the Piazza to pull the cars out," said the man at the till in Mechanissimo, a café a few yards from the bridge. "We're being paid not to come to work." But it'll take a lot more to impress the man at Mechanissimo than Daniel Craig. "Meryl Streep came into our café the other day," he said.

"Roman people are quite cynical and indifferent. Bond arriving on a bridge won't change Rome. But for him it's like moving in a china shop," said Alain Elkann, former advisor to Italy's Minister of Culture, novelist and father of the Agnelli dynasty Fiat heir, Yako Elkann. "Rome is a millefeuille, built on layers of time."

It's hard not to be apathetic when you have seen some of the greatest heroes and villains of history and have survived Attila the Hun, Hitler and Napoleon. Rome was sacked by Visigoths in AD410 and Vandals (who gave us the word "­vandalism") in AD455, Ostrogoths in AD546, the Normans in 1084 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's mutinous troops in 1527.

Julius Caesar met his death just 150 yards from the Ponte Sisto, in the ancient Theatre of Pompey, which has been a residential street since medieval times. Papal bastard and warlord Cesare Borgia had his victims hurled into the Tiber, along whose banks Bond's Cinquecento will chase. A temple still stands to Hercules, the original action hero, just down the river, by busy traffic lights and the 2,200-year-old Ponte Rotto "Broken Bridge".

But a Bond movie – a huge, international, advertisement for the city – is still something. The glory days are gone for Cinecitta, the film studios outside Rome, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor shot Cleopatra; Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn Roman Holiday; and when people could make a living as comparsi, professional extras. Although Ben Hur is currently being shot at Cinecitta, HBO's set of Rome now hosts the weddings of Russian oligarchs and there are plans to turn Cinecitta into a film-themed park.

Bond coming to Rome is more like La Dolce Vita, where Marcello Mastroianni's gossip writer tries to be blasé about Anita Ekberg, but is bedazzled by the charisma of her celebrity.

"I live across town," said Benedict Bucciarelli, who was working as an extra on the Bond film. "I've worked as an extra all my life. More than 200 films. Two days ago I was in a scene at the Via San Gregorio, near the Colosseum. And tonight I rented my Citroën to the production for €100. It took me over three hours to get here by bus, but it was an adventure!" He wasn't saying if he was appearing in any more scenes – that secrecy again.

The notoriously bureaucratic Roman authorities have been surprisingly helpful about granting permits, a fact which would amaze anyone who'd ever tried to pay their gas bill in Rome. The Roman parliament even put off passing a law banning potentially working guns from a film set until December.

Yet, when the crew asked to film at the Quattro Fontane crossroads, the apex of Roman's political centre, the Quirinale hill, permission was refused. The excuse given was the danger that 007 and the chaos that follows in his wake would somehow damage the four 16th-century fountains, each a tree-lined alcove, sculpted in tufa, in which loll the goddesses Juno and Diana, and the river Gods Tiber and Aniene, each above a gurgling water trough.

"They're not so fragile," snorted their restorer, Carlo Usai, who has spent the last months cleaning the stonework, at a cost of €320,000, paid for by Fendi, while dodging traffic. He pointed to the cars whizzing by. "Apparently, Bond was just going to drive up one side and down the other. The real problem is that this is the busiest crossroads in Rome."

"Unfortunately, since the President of the Italian Republic daily crosses the Quattro Fontane area, it will not be possible to shoot there due to issues of security," said Lucia Ritrovato of the Cultural Department of Rome. "Every other permission has been granted. We are very enthusiastic."

The film crew has instead been seen scouting the rather less-frequented Via Appia Antica, Rome's ivy-strewn ancient artery to the south. According to an Italian film source, Bond 24 was originally due to shoot for rather longer in Rome. "The production company said they couldn't be bothered to deal with all the problems," said the Roman film-maker who warned about Casamonica mafia. "They are just going to shoot a few key locations and then do the rest in a studio."