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Associated Press
Snow dusts the ancient Colosseum in Rome as a rare storm brought frigid temperatures to the capital.

ROME — A rare snowfall blanketed Rome on Friday, forcing the closure of the Colosseum over fears tourists would slip on the icy ruins, and leaving buses struggling to climb the city's slushy hills. Other parts of the country experienced frigid temperatures unseen in years.

Authorities stopped visitors from entering the Colosseum, the adjacent Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, the former home of Rome's ancient emperors, although those already inside the ruins before thick flakes began coming down in late morning were allowed to finish their visits. The director of the ancient arena, Rossella Rea, said there was concern visitors could fall on ice.

The last substantial snowfall in Rome occurred in 1986, though lighter snowfalls have occasionally and briefly blanketed the city since, including in 2010. After a few hours of letup, wind-driven snow started falling again heavily in the city before midnight and continued at least into early Saturday.

The city ordered cars without tire chains off the road till at least noon on Saturday. Scores of vehicles were blocked for hours on the ring road around the capital after many cars skidded or drivers, frustrated by hours-long waits for the accidents to be cleared, abandoned their own vehicles.

Since the capital infrequently sees freezing temperatures, heating in homes is only allowed by law for about 10 or 12 hours a day, to cut down on pollution. The cold snap, with temperatures hovering at or just below the freezing point, meant Romans shivered in their homes, many with tile and marble floors.

Snow dusted pine and palm trees and changed into slush on the cobblestone streets in the center. In many neighborhoods, snowfall accumulated to about 2.5 inches.

After hearing the forecasts Thursday night, Mayor Gianni Alemanno ordered classroom instruction canceled Friday and Saturday, but said school buildings would stay open so working parents could drop off their children if they had no other place to leave them.

On the steep streets in the Monteverde neighborhood near the ancient Janiculum Hill, many buses couldn't make it up, and commuters and residents gingerly navigated the hill by foot. Balconies resembled skating rinks as puddles from overnight rain froze over. Layers of snow covered the ripe fruit on orange trees on Roman terraces.

North of Rome, a ferry that was just leaving the port of Civitavecchia enroute to Sardinia slammed into a dock when the ship was buffeted by wind, the Italian news agency ANSA reported early Saturday.

The impact left a gash in the ferry's side above the water line, and two tugs pulled the ferry back toward the dock so the 262 passengers and 53 crew members on board could be evacuated, the report said.

Authorities appealed to Italians to avoid unnecessary travel, as the cold spell was forecast to continue well into the next week.

Air travelers faced tough going Saturday, when snow was forecast to continue falling across much of Italy. Alitalia said 99 percent of its flights operated Friday, but that on Saturday morning it would cancel about 40 departures and landings, as a precaution.

In several parts of the country, some passengers on commuter trains as well as high speed lines complained that they were left in the dark or cold for hours after snow and ice blocked tracks.

The storm dumped more than three feet of snow, with even higher drifts.