Snowball fights in St Peter’s Square and sledging in the Circus Maximus – Arctic front hits Italy and the Balkans

Priests threw snowballs in St Peter’s Square, children tobogganed down the sides of the ancient Roman Circus Maximus and schools were shut in the Balkans as an Arctic front dumped snow across much of southern Europe on Monday.

The unusually cold weather, which originated in Siberia, disrupted public transport in Italy, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, with people struggling to get to work.

Villages and ski resorts in the Dolomites of northern Italy saw the mercury plunge to -15C, while Rome was hit with a thick blanket of snow for the first time since 2012.

A priest throws a snowball in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, February 26, 2018.Credit:

The capital normally enjoys a mild, Mediterranean climate, but it was turned into a winter wonderland by an overnight blast of cold weather, with Baroque fountains and Roman monuments such as the Colosseum smothered in heavy snowfall.

"I would define it as an anomalous event, but not an exceptional one," said Luca Mercalli, an Italian meteorologist. 

A man carries a sledge up the slopes of the Circus Maximus in Rome, with the Palatine Hill in the background.Credit:

"The last time snow fell on Rome at the end of February was in 1971. When snow fell in 2012, it was earlier in February, when temperatures are colder. It’s an event that can happen every five to 10 years."

When dawn broke, the city centre was eerily quiet, as snow fell and piled up on parked cars, scooters and bicycles.

Public and private schools were closed for the day, allowing children to don ski jackets and gloves to venture out for snowball fights.

At the Circus Maximus, where charioteers raced 2,000 years ago, children slid down the steep slopes of the former arena on plastic bags and toboggans.

Nuns walk past a bike covered in snow in Rome.Credit:

“There were hundreds of people, it was absolutely magical,” said Jonathan Hassid, a British businessman who took his family to witness the rare event.

“I’ll never forget it. My wife was actually moved to tears, seeing the ruined palaces of the emperors (on the nearby Palatine Hill) covered in snow.”

In Romania, train services were suspended as temperatures in Bucharest plunged to -8C (18F).

A statue covered in snow in front of St Peter's Basilica on February 26, 2018, at the Vatican Credit:

Schools were closed and Romanian officials warned about travel to neighbouring Bulgaria, which was hit by high winds and snowdrifts.

Croatia was also affected by freezing weather, including towns along the Adriatic coast. Ferry services to outlying islands had to be suspended.

Heavy snow fell on much of northern and central Italy, extending as far south as the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples.

Swiss Guards on duty in Saint Peter's Square at the VaticanCredit:

Snow also fell on the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79.

Further north, the terraced hillsides of the Cinque Terre, a collection of five coastal villages that attract millions of tourists a year, were turned white.

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