Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sorry for this Lousy Post

We’ve been entertained this week by Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a married man and a Republican, who got caught visiting his Argentine mistress while he was supposed to be hiking the Appalachian trail, while he was supposed to be governing the state. Then it came out that this wasn’t the first visit, that Mr. Sanford had managed a rendezvous last summer, while he was on a taxpayer-financed trade mission (that he set up). So he apologized. “I made a mistake while I was there,” he said, “in meeting with the woman who I was unfaithful to my wife with.” Well there’s another mistake—ending a sentence with a preposition—that one forgiveable, given the stress that comes with public knowledge of one’s private passions and indiscretions.

Since the revelations, Mr. Sanford has apologized to just about everyone: his wife, his staff (“I wanted generally to apologize to every one of you all, for letting you down”), two cabinet secretaries, the head of the State Law Enforcement Division, the people of South Carolina, his housekeeper. If, as the New York Times suggested, “Mr. Sanford’s many apologies did not seem to put the scandal behind him,” it may be partly because of the way he apologized, as in “I apologize,” rather than “I’m sorry,” the latter a form of the apology that he never, apparently, used, and one, we think, that suggests deeper regret, that carries with it the flavor of authenticity.

Still, Mr. Sanford’s apologies, however inadequately put, stand in stark contrast to the bombastic bluster of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi who--despite evidence that he hosted wild parties with naked women, brought in so many hot babes from Puglia he can’t remember them all (and slept with at least one), and has been cavorting around with a minor (or minors)--has failed to issue any sort of apology, to his wife or anyone else, preferring the “boys will be boys” defense.

We thought Stefano Bartezzaghi was on the mark when he opened a recent story in La Repubblica with the line “Italy means never having to say you’re sorry.” For evidence, Bartezzaghi offers the Fonz of Happy Days fame, whose last name is, of course, Fonzarelli; maybe the young man Silvio was watching. After playing soccer for 25 years with Italians, I have a similar impression: they just don't have it in them to acknowledge a mistake.

But there is better evidence, and it comes by way of the Catholic Church. Those lovely, wood-carved confession booths are nearly empty. Nobody confesses anymore. Of practicing Italian Catholics, 58% go to confession once a year, and 30% don’t engage in the ritual, ever. To say nothing of the 80% of those Italians who are not practicing Catholics. Almost nobody says they’re sorry.

What’s best: to apologize too much, and in the wrong circumstances, or not at all? In the aftermath of the recent elections to the European parliament, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the Mark Sanford approach, apologizing profusely for letting his party down. But as sorry as he said he felt, he didn’t resign (or even suggest any reasonable future path for his Labor Party) and neither did Mr. Sanford, who seems to believe that his apologies set the stage for absolution.

Mr. Sanford's wife is not so sure. And in our view, apology does nothing to resolve the contradiction that Mr. Sanford and so many other Republicans present: public piety, private immorality—to wit, hypocrisy. The Italian way—less hypocritical, to be sure, but rather mean-spirited and unattractive—doesn’t seem any better. Perhaps there’s another approach, one we haven’t thought of (oops! sorry for that preposition). Bill

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Europe's largest mosque - in Rome

The principal mosque in Rome is a world apart from the rest of this very Catholic city. Its postmodern decor is reserved; it has wide open spaces—corridors in the open air--and repetitious designs; it’s set in a green space divorced from any other city structures. After all the baroque churches of Rome, even my favorites by Borromini (who also loved repetition built into the architecture of his churches - I think he would have loved this building complex), I find the mosque beautiful and serene, an almost ethereal structure. Bill says it borders on boring (maybe all that Renaissance architecture is getting in his blood).

We both recommend a visit – Wednesday and Saturday 9:30-11 a.m. only, and of course then it is devoid of worshippers, which gives it an eerily empty feeling. (Directions at the end of this post.)
Women: be sure to wear something that covers your arms, no shorts, and you’ll need a scarf to cover your head. I was alert enough to wear appropriate clothing, but had no idea about the scarf and was lucky enough to borrow one from another visitor. Only a few visitors – you can wander around the mosque’s many separate sections on your own, and a couple group tours (all in Italian) were in evidence on a recent Wednesday morning.

It’s something of a miracle that the mosque, the largest in Europe, stands in Rome at all. It took the blessing of Pope John Paul II for it to be built. Controversy resulted in a minaret slightly less tall than St. Peter’s dome (39 meters (128 feet) vs. St. Peter’s 40 (130 feet), but the mosque is built in a very low area of Rome, so the minaret and main building are hardly visible from any distance, and no real threat to the imposing St. Peter’s dome, not too far away. The architectural competition was won by Paolo Portoghesi (with his then partner Vittorio Gigliotti and Iraqi architect Sami Mousawi) in 1976 and the building opened in 1995, funded mainly by Saudi money.

The mosque complex is nestled in a park-like area at the base of the ritzy Parioli district and very near a vast expanse of sports complexes along Acqua Acetosa (literally "vinegary water," but to the Italians that means very good water, a place Goethe liked to visit as well). And speaking of water, there wasn't much in evidence at the mosque. Like many other Rome monuments, the water supposed to be coursing down the main steps was not, and appeared not to have been running for some time.

A bonus: outside the mosque a large food stand was set up with a Muslim man and woman selling all types of prepared food. Of course, we went away with a large box of pistachio and honey-based desserts. A large market operates outside the mosque on Friday mornings, but you can’t visit on Fridays.

There is surprisingly little written on the mosque. See the following site for detailed architectural information: or, if you're lucky, find Frederika Randall's 1995 Wall Street Journal article. The city of Rome has some information in a badly - even humorously - translated website (the architects aren't Portuguese; one of the last names is Portoghese) at Ingrid Rowland, writing about Palladio describes the elegance of the mosque in her New York Review of Books piece, covered by Bill in a later post.

Directions: from the Rome center: take the train just outside Piazza del Popolo (Metro A from Termini to Flaminio/Popolo) to the Campo Sportivi stop (you can use your same metro ticket – but this is the train, not the metro; the station is outside, north of Piazza del Popolo, on the side of Villa Borghese), and head back towards the city, towards the minaret, which you can see from there.

Dianne - and see our RST Top 40 piece on this signature mosque. For a bit more on Rome's ethnic presence, see a couple posts on Romanians (the gladiator controversy and a newsstand , the Pigneto neighborhood, Chinese (and other) stores near Piazza Vittorio, and some immigration controversy.  Oh, yes, and do eat a kebab.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Roma Sogna: 4-6 a.m.

The alarm goes off at 3:50, but it’s sticky humid, and by the time we shower and get our act together, it’s 4:15, and we’re coasting down the deliciously curving via Falconieri, seemingly motionless, Nanni Moretti style, toward via di Donna Olimpia. Unlike our early April 4 a.m. venture, the main streets, especially, have some vehicles, many of them white delivery trucks making their rounds. Night buses (n-plus the # - the ones that never come when you wait for them) are on the streets. Vans, buses, the few cars, scooters: whatever is out there is going fast; drivers seem to enjoy not just the possibilities of speed, but the thrill of blasting through the flashing yellow lights that replace the stop lights operating during the day

An all-night flower stand is the only enterprise we see open – near Porta San Pancrazio.

Past the porta, we drop down to Acqua Paola: a couple embracing at the fountain’s rim; four young people talking, in Italian, across from the fountain, where we are; two people barely visible around the corner. And that’s it.

A quick turn and up in the darkness—a sliver of a moon tonight and here, no street lights—to the top of the Gianicolo: where there would have been couples a few hours ago, there are now mostly men, talking and sipping beer, the spectacular view of the city, with the Colli Albani towns sparkling up in the distance, no longer relevant. A food truck, concentrated fluorescent energy, provides all the light we need.

Snaking down the north end of the Giancolo, coasting again in virtual silence, we cross the Tevere, turn left up the east bank, cruising sweetly, comfortably, in cool morning freedom. A food van, selling shaved ice and other delectables, is open, shining its neon on the pavement (photo, below).

Right at Piazza del Popolo, through the marble barriers, onto via del Corso.
Nobody around but many of the stores are lit up (more than in April), cars parked here and there--perhaps the vehicles of the workers dismantling the ACEA light show in the Piazza from the night before. Again, we’re enjoying driving on a street that’s reserved for pedestrians, though not in these wee hours, when there are delightfully none.

Left on via del Tritone, past a POLIZIA car on the right, I’m wondering if this is the moment we’ll get pulled over, however unlikely it seems. A brief pause for a red light at the corner where the blue "Il Messaggero" (one of the main daily papers) sign dominates above; we realize it’s the strong blue light we’ve observed before—though not tonight—from the Gianicolo.

Up via Veneto--we’re grateful there’s not much going on—and out the porta (gotta go right to go left here), and back through it, down the hill (you gotta go down to go up here) so we can get up above the Spanish steps. Some taxis at the top of the hill, waiting for morning fares at the expensive hotels. We pull over. The steps, and the street that runs into them, are completely deserted (photo above top). Sounds of singing and guitar playing from below, in that assertive Italian style (I think about going down and finding out who’s singing and where). A bicyclist comes into view, picks up his bike, puts it on his shoulder and starts up the steps, stopping about 1/3 of the way up, satisfied with his view.

Back on the bike, cruising past Villa Medici, around the hairpin turns above Piazza del Popolo, yellow no-parking tape everywhere, stopping above the piazza to watch 40 workmen take down the ACEA stuff.

Around the piazza, back on via del Corso, a right into Piazza Augusto Imperatore, the heart of Fascist monumental architecture. Ahead we see that a clothing store where we’d once seen Totti doing publicity has been closed. A right, then a left just before the Lungotevere . Another left (I hope you’re following on your maps) takes us into the end of Piazza Navona, curving around it to via Vittorio Emanuele II, during the day a bustling thoroughfare known for its traffic and palaces. We head for Campo dei Fiori, but turning right realize we’ve gone too far and retreat with a U-turn one couldn't make during the day, find where it’s tucked in, drive into the Campo—no other vehicles are moving there--and park. It’s getting light.

What looks like a family, with Mama in charge, is just starting to set up their fruit and vegetable stand; they’ve got the fruit and the stand’s coming together. But right now they’re the only ones, with the statue of the heretic Giordano Bruno glowering over them. At the northwest corner of the piazza we watch two bakers putting loaves of bread on metal sheets into an oven (photo below). A man emerges from a side street pulling a sled of frames for a fruit stand, as if he were a mule. We can’t quite believe that Palazzo Farnese is Palazzo Farnese, because there are no people around and the palace seems to lack the familiar reference points, but that’s what it is. The huge tub fountains (stolen from Roman baths), and the Palazzo, are flanked by metal barricades—maybe to keep the drunks out. A man—the only one in the Farnese piazza—yawns and stretches at a café table – where the tables and chairs have been left out, unchained, even though the café closed hours ago.

We head out on the scooter, along via Vittorio Emanuelle II, past the taxi stand at Piazza di Torre Argentina, to Piazza Venezia, where we stop at the only open cafe we’ve seen so far, on the west side of the monument. (We had expected all-night coffee bars, but this is the first bar we’ve seen open; a few others start to open as it approaches 6 a.m.) We order due caffe'Americani and due cornetti (Euro 4.20—an inflated “centro” price) and are amazed that there are other people around at 5:40: 3 Italian girls who haven’t yet slept, at least not in their own beds, in short shorts one rarely sees on Italians or Capri pants and clever shoes; several men, workers probably, including a skinny guy in a tight red shirt whose trim body I envy, enjoying his cornetto. Sometimes, Dianne observes, you can’t tell the people going to work from the people who’ve been up all night--until they order either a coffee or a beer. Outside, an American young man who’s been drinking the night away asks us where the Hotel Palatine is, and while we’re thinking (and guessing where it might be, and trying to figure out if he has any idea where the Coliseum is –he’s not exactly close), he breaks off the conversation: “I’ve got to catch up with my friends. Thanks.” A pink early morning sky.

It’s just 100 meters to Michelango’s gently-sloping stairs (the other set, to the left, is much older) to the Campidoglio, which we have to ourselves. It’s lovely up here. Dianne points out THE “She Wolf”—the most famous one in Rome, and I wish I had my own bit of knowledge to contribute. We note the place where, a few years ago, we saw the three-wheeled scooter introduced to much fanfare; a standard Italian metal sound stage from a concert the night before; huge piles of stacked chairs. Around back left to catch a look at the Forum, cool and, in its emptiness, fascinating. A car pulls up, a man dropping off his wife for work in the back building. We notice one wall of huge tufo blocks, another of stones cemented together, both ancient, marveling at what’s here, and how visible and compelling it is when there’s no human competition.

Below, in Piazza Venezia, the day buses are running their motors at the head of their lines, in anticipation of their 5:30 a.m. start. On the bike again, we pass Bocca della Verita' (a Roman-era sewer cover that’s now one of city’s major attractions) on the left, then right and upriver to cross the Tevere into the heart of Trastevere, pulling over and parking in the first piazza.

We walk north on via della Lungaretta, past a mumbling woman on the steps of a church, a nun walking quickly, broken bottles. Some garbage maintenance has been done here—full plastic bags line the streets--but there’s still much to do. At Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, a newsstand prepares to open, the fountain in the center is poignant with beer bottles and plastic cups; two homeless men sleep in their not-so-private corners. On the trek back to the moto we pass a deeply tanned, extremely thin, fragile older woman, probably a drug addict, taking tiny steps in an effort to stay on her feet. At vicolo Del Cinque, pigeons pull apart a piece of doughy pizza. A very black black man stops at a nasone to wash up. He has a full backpack, but I’m not sure whether he’s going or coming, or from where. Dianne sees the words FORNO carved in stone above what is now a bar (they’re all bars, and beer is the drink they serve; a once-distinguished wine bar is now a birreria). At Piazza Trilussa, a blue plastic tote bag has been left behind.

Back to the bike for the home stretch: up viale Trastevere, chased by a bus, right on viale Quattro Venti, left at the fork onto via di Donna Olimpia, left on via Revoltella, and up the long, curved street between rows of sleeping cars, to home. As we take our things from the scooter--it’s about 6:30--we see a familiar small dog, then our always-cheerful newspaperwoman (the dog's owner); they're headed for her place of business directly below our apartment. She says "buon giorno." Her working day will end at 8:00 in the evening. We stop and buy a paper. Bill (with Dianne)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rome 2nd Dirtiest City: Laments, and a Solution

We were disappointed--one might say devastated if it didn't seem hyperbolic--to learn that Rome had been named the second dirtiest big city in the world, after Athens. How to deal with this terrible news, this reminder, however deserved, of our failure as a city, as a people?

How could this have happened? We thought we had done everything possible: our big public trash bins--the "casonette"--are too few and too seldom emptied, guaranteeing that each will be surrounded by, and buried in, mounds of garbage most of the time. The skeletal remains of scooters, their bodies still chained to sign posts or trees, line the curbs. Because most cars once parked never have to move, a layer of unreachable debris accumulates underneath.

Rome's citizens have been doing their part, too. Last year the voters elected a right-wing mayor, whom they trusted to be appropriately disengaged from such mundane matters as "sporcizia" (filthiness), and they haven't been disappointed at his non-efforts. They have also cultivated and defended the right--it is close to a duty here--to throw all manner of stuff--cigarette butts, gum, candy wrappers, advertising circulars, plastic bags (a local favorite), unpaid bills, love notes, bits of food--on the ground, where they belong. The city's dogs have been trained to avoid public parks and use the neighborhood sidewalks, knowing that their owners will leave their doings where they fall. Bravi!

Our public authorities and workers are also to be congratulated, especially for ignoring mounds of trash on Metro stairs and along rail lines at stations, where litter contributes notes of sparkle and color to an otherwise drab view from the platform.

We're aware that in other countries, and other cities, volunteers (we're not aware of any Italian equivalent of this word) will now and then organize to clean up a neighborhood, a street, or a stream bed; or merchants or condominum owners will take action to insure that the sidewalks where they work and live are washed and swept. Fortunately, no such bizarre ideas have taken root in the Roman mind. Borrowing from the thoughtful, socially advanced, residents of the state of New Hampshire, we can only add, "Live Free or Die!"

Yes, despite our best efforts, we've failed. To be sure, Rome has easily defeated such priggish cities as London and Genoa, where they use machines to sweep the streets and--you won't believe this--lawnmowers in the parks. Beneath contempt. And we have overcome the odds to finish ahead of Palermo and Naples, where the garbage is never picked up, as well as New Delhi, Mexico City, and Chernobyl. But second to Athens? Humiliating!

Cosa c'e' da fare? What's to be done? How can we get over the hump, or "over the dump" (ha, ha). It's a tough order, because Athens is no slouch at filth, and we can imagine our Greek counterparts hard at work hatching new ways to make their city dirtier.

Still, we have one suggestion that can't help but intrigue our readers, and that may just do the trick: bring back public urination. The great advantage, need we say, would be to add a new level of odor to the city--a pungent reminder, for the history buffs, of Rome's medieval period. Yes, this solution might result in the elimination of restrooms, public and private, and with them, no doubt, would go some of the "points" the city earned in the recent competition for "most disgusting and nauseating toilets"--a strong point in our application. But the city's 20 million tourists would be grateful that they could now pee anywhere; they'd be sure to come back, again and again, just to experience the return of this delightful custom.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Capital Days

In a few days stretch recently, Rome hosted a G-8 meeting, was the scene of the world soccer championship finals, had a big national holiday (Republic Day, June 2), and was the last stage of the classic Italian bicycle tour (Giro d'Italia - photo at right near the beginning in front of the Vittoriano, in Piazza Venezia, with the rain just starting), celebrating its 100th year. Being visitors, and not having to get to and from work or figure out what to do with our kids on a holiday, we enjoy the hubbub (tho' it did upset my plans that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was in town today, closing down the Capitolini museums). Rome usually overreacts (in our HO) to all these events, closing more streets, businesses, and venues than it seems to us they need to, becoming an "armed city," as the papers say, and frustrating everyone.

Rome surprised us for the Giro d'Italia by being organized and yet not overly protective. In fact, we were shocked at how close we - and everyone else - could get to the riders, how easily anyone could cross the route, how friendly some of the police guarding the route were, and how fun it all was. The last stage was a time trial - so the riders went off at 1 and then 2 minute intervals. (Photo at right - police motorcycle escorts pulling out of the pool to run in advance of a rider; bottom of Trajan's column across the street.) For people who weren't that interested, we spent almost 3 hours watching the riders at various places, including turns and wet cobblestones (the winner, Russian Menchov, fell near the end - just out of our sight). It's a lovely sight to see Rome as the backdrop (and ground) for an exciting race; it shows off the city at its best (photo at left, rider coming off the Pincio - and several hairpin curves) into Piazza del Popolo).

The few photos here give some semblance of that feeling. (Photo below left, rider on via del Corso; below 2nd left, merchandise van - the winner of each stage wears a pink shirt (and, no, Mom didn't buy her the stuffed animal with Giro logo); last photo, bottom right, nearing the home stretch.) Dianne

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Poster Wars

The elections to the European parliament are finally over, amid much hand-wringing (and, in England, abject apologies) on the part of central-left liberals, who lost everywhere, the victims of powerful nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments sweeping the continent.

We followed the campaign mostly by the posters that the candidates had plastered around the city--smiling politicians, hoping to convince Romans of their determination and sincerity by looking directly out with a look of--well, determined sincerity.

It was hard not to notice the competitive nature of this poster business; sometimes one candidate's poster would be up only a few minutes before that of another appeared. So we were pleased when La Repubblica did a piece on the business. The "attachini" (the "attachers," those who put up the posters) carry a long brush and a bucket that contains paste made of flour, caustic soda, and water. Each poster guy or poster squad is assigned a specific route and for the 40 or so days of the campaign follows that route for the same candidate. They're paid by the day or by the route: 100 to 180 Euro per day or route (and about half that amount if they don't have a car--though why that should matter we can't figure). Although the attachini say that anyone could be hired to do this work, they're all men, mostly in their 20s or 30s. The newspaper describes them as "precarious" workers, previously employed in call centers and as temporary teachers; the majority are Italian, others foreigners.

Because there's such fierce competition among the political parties (and therefore among the attachini), the poster guys sometimes agree among themselves that an opponent's poster will remain up and uncovered for a minimum of 20 minutes. Then it's fair game for the attachini of another party and candidate. Despite these agreements, it's a stressful occupation, known to bring grown men to tears--most recently a new crew of emotional Peruvians--when their posters are covered within minutes of going up.

Much depends on who is paying for the job. The Peruvians were postering this year for Martin Avaro, whose Nazirock/right wing views on immigration didn't sit well with the poster company he hired or with the latinos wielding the brushes. And early on Avaro was known as a cheapskate, offering 18 centesimi per poster rather than the customary 30.

Laziness among attachini is tolerated (and why not, if payment is by the route?) and waste is predictable, but there is one unforgivable act: to cover one's own poster, La Repubblica reports, "is to cover oneself and his company, with shame." To prevent posters ending up in the trash rather than on the boards, every company has "spies" that travel the territories of their crews, sometimes taking a pen knife and cutting through the stratum of posters (as if they were the growth rings of a redwood), looking to see that the company's posters are there, and that one "Antonini" doesn't cover another "Antonini."

My mother always told me I should have been a sociologist. Bill

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Two wine bar additions & a club

Two (true) wine bars we recommend (and are not in Rome the Second Time) are in the Trastevere and Marconi neighborhoods. Each has a variety of wines by the glass, with healthy and appealing appetizers, and over 200 wines by the bottle to take away.

We also suggest a night at Big Mama (photo) if you're in Trastevere.

Ombralonga ("long shadow") in the non-touristy area of Marconi, just east of the Trastevere train station, is owned and run by the affable Mauro. We discovered Ombralonga, and Mauro, several years ago when we lived in Marconi and searched high and low for good places to eat and drink. We make a pilgrimage (or two) to Ombralonga each time we're in Rome, and we're always happy to see Mauro. Wine by the glass runs about Euro 4-6 (you can go higher). Ombralonga has just 6 tables and is stylishly designed (while retaining the flavor of the classic enoteca) by Mauro's architect/now wife. The website at, is only in Italian, but you can see photos under Gallery, and a map at Contatti. Closed Sundays. Open for lunch and after about 6 for drinks and snacks - many of them made by Mauro's mother. Don't miss Ombralonga if you're anywhere near Marconi. via Oderisi da Gubbio, 41-43, tel. 06.559.4212.

The second wine bar we'd add to our list of top 10 is a 2009 discovery (for us) outside the tourist zona - by a few steps only - in Trastevere. Il Bacocco is an island of calm after all those Trasteverian crowds and hawkers (imho). Lovely and stylish, il Bacocco opens at 6 and features a "stupendo" apperitivo (see photos) with wine for Euro 5 from 6-9:30 p.m., open until late at night, fuller meals and other food available (and looks great). Emiliano behind the bar is friendly and explained to us that his family has been in the restaurant business for generations. via G. Mamelo, 61-62, tel. 06.589.8587; website is under construction. Closed Sundays.

Also in Trastevere, and therefore not in the book and avoided by us until this year, is Big Mama, on vicolo S. Francesco a Ripa, 18, tel. 06.581.2551; We've also avoided Big Mama because it has a monthly (Euro 8) or Yearly (Euro 13) tessera or membership charge plus usually a cover - and this for bands we have never heard of. We went to their seasonal closing night party a couple weeks ago and were thrilled with the bands - ranging from pure blues to '80s cover. Acoustics are excellent; make sure there's a table with a view of the stage before you plunk down your Euro. Their performers are listed regularly in Roma C'e', La Repubblica, etc., and you can check out their website; if you click onto "Club Info," there's a British flag for an English version.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Two-bag Ladies: Grocery Shopping in Rome

They're "two-bag ladies," and they can be observed in large numbers, especially in the morning, in every Rome neighborhood: one or two plastic bags in each hand, transporting the day's groceries home from the market or one of the small shops that line the streets.

You won't find tw0-bag ladies in U.S. cities (New York may be an exception), because Americans drive to do their grocery shopping, usually at huge big-box stores where they lay in supplies for a week or more. There are no such stores in Rome proper; the largest grocery store in our Monteverde Nuovo area is about 1/10 the size of the Wegman's supermarket we frequent in Buffalo. And almost no one drives to the smaller ones that do exist, probably for fear of giving up a precious parking space near one's apartment; the parking lot at the SMA, a few blocks away, could be converted to a soccer field and no one would complain.

So they walk. Two-bag ladies, less often two-bag men (the men are to be seen chatting at the tables outside the bars, waiting for their women to show up with the groceries). And for the heavier loads, they use an inexpensive, highly functional two-wheeled cart. See photo at left.

The system works fine. It depends on a large number women who don't mind shopping every day or nearly every day and who don't have paying jobs to go to. Italy's weak economy, and weak feminist movement, produce women of this sort, and its pension system--featuring retirement at age 50--creates an ample supply of older folks for whom shopping may be the highlight of the day. Another requirement, met by the condominums that line every street, is high population density; no one need walk very far.

The fly in the ointment is Roman fondness for bottled water. The water comes in packages of 6 plastic bottles, suspended from a thin plastic strap, for carrying purposes. The unit weighs about 12 kilos (according to the bathroom scale) or about 26 pounds, and the uncomfortable strap requires alternating hands every 50 feet. Only a dumb American would carry this home. Hence the two-wheeled cart (above). Dianne says home delivery is common.

If the system has a downside, it is that the regular grocery stores--the supermarkets--are strange--Felliniesque, one might say--perhaps because so few shop in them regularly. Our SMA is on two floors, requiring the shopper to get from peaches to bread via one small elevator. The Todis, a discount chain --see photo at right--is on one floor, but it's not much larger than a 7/11, and it seems to exist to fuel nostalgia for Cold War Communism. Bill

Monday, June 1, 2009

Trekking Italian style

On Saturday (after a good rest at B&B dei Mori) we had a spectacular 4.5 hour hike with 360 degree views as far as one could see - into the Abruzzi, the Gran Sasso, Southern Tuscany, mountains all around and the Roman plain stretching to the sea (photo in prior post).

The hike, one we had avoided in the past because it's a bit tough for us to get to the trailhead and back via scooter in one day, is a loop ("anello" or ring, to Italians). It is classic for central Italy - almost no other hikers, farm animals even to the top of the mountain (horses, cows - the latter love to park themselves on the trails--the only flat spots around; the former tend to run away), cool, interesting oak woods and treeless ridges.

Unlike the previous day's excursion, the trail was well marked and we never got lost--tho' some forks were tricky. see the typical signage in photos - cow on trail in the background. The photo below is of a "uomini" or "men" - what we call "cairns" - marking the trail. Photo below right shows typical signage - vandals routineless tear down all maps, leaving blank boards).

There was a touching monument to a plane that went down on Christmas Day 1960 + we saw part of the plane many feet down the mountain (photos below).

This mountain, Pellecchia and its sister peak, Pizzo di Pellechia are known as home to eagles. We saw hundreds of birds enjoying the updrafts, but none were eagles.

We hike using a couple decent Italian guidebooks and maps, cursing them regularly as we walk for their inadequacies (they don't match the Adirondack guidebooks for detail). Pellechia is about 4,500' above sea level (qualifying as a 46R in the Adirondacks), the highest in the Lucreteli range (the closest major range to Rome), and the hike has about 2,000' net elevation. If anyone wants the description of this hike translated, drop us an email.

If it weren't for the predicted rain (which, it turns out, really didn't materialize), we would have spent another day in the Sabina mountains, an area we enjoy, with its hill towns, rolling hills planted with olive trees (Sabine olive oil is prized), and great Lucretili mountains. As it was, we had our ritual post-hike beer in Moricone on Saturday afternoon (photo right) and headed back to Rome on the busy via Salaria (over the route of a Roman counsel road - 2,000 years old - the "salt" road)--the trip that took us almost 2 hours going out with all the Romans took only 40 minutes coming back to a (nearly) empty Rome.

Lessons learned: how not to find a place to sleep in the small towns of Italy

At Rome the Second Time we think of ourselves as reasonably knowledgeable about Italy. We rarely make a hotel reservation and come into smallish towns simply asking or looking for signs.

We had never failed to find an acceptable place to rest our heads. We've told friends to do the same - just go into a town and look around. But we learned a hard lesson this past weekend, when, after scootering out of Rome 25 miles and hiking for a couple hours, we almost ended up sleeping in the fields. [A second post describes the major hike we took and has some suggestions on trekking in the mountain range that is Italy - photo right from top of the mountain - why we do all this!]

On Friday afternoon after a hazardous almost 2 hours on the road (we made the mistake of leaving Rome along with all the Romans for the long weekend), we scootered into a small town nestled at the base of the Lucretili mountain range. We picked the town of Moricone so we could do a short (since we didn't get out of Rome until 2:30 p.m.) hike starting just outside the town. Our elaborate planning led us to assume we would stay overnight in Moricone, because it also would be the jumping off point for Saturday's longer hike.

We had seen two B&B signs as we came into Moricone, and when we came off the trail Friday about 6 p.m., we located the first of them, where a young woman of about twenty telephoned her father, then returned to tell us that no room was available (why, we're not sure - didn't want to bother? did we look scuzzy, coming off the hike, showing up with helmets? clearly they weren't full). The other B&B was temporarily closed (a friendly townie led us to the proprietor who was in obvious mid-reconstruction).

What to do? We scootered 8 miles or so to a larger and more well-known town, Palombara Sabina, a classic hill town with fortress, etc., where we fully expected to find a hotel. Palombara S was full of people, but had no hotel, no B&B (we talked to a knowledgeable young mother in the town square). Bill was understandably about ready to collapse from having started in Rome, and then driving these spaghetti mountain roads on the scooter.

My only solution (short of going all the way back to Rome - or lying in a field) was to head to a town another 12 miles out of our way (into the blinding, setting sun for poor Bill) and start calling a list of B&B phone #s I had pulled off the Internet when we thought we might head into the area (the Sabina mountains) for an art exhibit. [And this version leaves out a couple more towns we tried - one with thermal baths where we assumed there had to be a hotel. Insult to injury: just past the 6 miles of blinding sun was a billboard (!) that said there was a B&B 6 miles "indietro" (back) in a town that wasn't even on our map - we weren't about to risk that and fail.]

We finally got to Passo Corese, a town on my Internet list, a crossroads, but found NO signs for hotels or B&Bs. The solution? Stop at a bar, order a beer, and then start calling. The first place on the list was "B&B dei Mori," and a lively voice answered the cell phone. He seemed glad to help us, tho' he said he would call us back (did we trust that? should we wait or call down the list? would the phone battery hold up?), then he did and said (after asking were we at the train station or in a car... well, no, we answered, we're on a scooter) he would come and pick us up, he was 5 minutes away (Bill - but we just ordered a beer!).

In about 10 minutes (beer glasses emptied), a lively man jumped out of his car and spotted us Americani in an instant. We followed Marco on our scooter as he drove us up and through and out of the town (Bill, I asked from the back of the scooter - where are we going now??) to a rectangular housing block with bar, restaurant, etc. on the bottom floor ("suburban" Passo Corese?) (photo at left). We were led up to "Pensione dei Mori" also known as "B&B dei Mori," where Marco showed us the price on the door (Euro 60 (about $84) for a double room with private bath), told us no breakfast was included (I guess it's just a B), and asked us if we wanted to eat dinner in his little "sporting club" that was off the same hallway - "it's a family business," he said (his business card reads "Bed & Breakfast Pensione Club" - it's certainly all that).

For us, Marco, full of smiles and joy and practicing his few English words with obvious pleasure, was now something approaching a savior... an hour earlier we were exhausted, had no place to sleep and wondered what would become of us - would we simply have to drive back to Rome, not having found a bed or dinner--not even the mountain, as it turned out--and did Bill have the stamina left to do it? Now we had a bed (a bit spartan for Euro 60, but clean and serviceable) AND a meal in an authentic Italian "club" (photo left) where we were joined by 8 or so men who ate mostly at a common table. The tv blasted from the wall, and we were deliriously happy - good food, fresh and cooked for us - Marco clearly aims to please - plentiful wine, and even double Limoncello to end the evening. The charge for the meal (we shared most of the courses, having seen they were large), which we found out only the next day when we paid our bill, was Euro 30 ($42) --not a steal, but not bad.

The next morning, Marco was gone. We have a feeling he does a bit of everything. So we don't have a picture of him, but we give you here a couple of our pensione and eatery. Marco's email is and the cell phone # we used is 339.118.4255 - if you want real Italy.

Lessons learned: Italy's small towns, even if the most picturesque and ideal for tourism, aren't really ready for tourists. These areas, highly rural, but dotted with towns, lack the standard small motels/hotels of the U.S. - they don't leave the light on for you. Restaurants, yes, because the Romans like to go out on a Sunday to eat in the countryside. Bars, yes, because the locals won't go far without one. But hotels, no. You can see where there once were many, but now travel is so easy (for those with a car and highways, vs us with scooters or people on trains and buses) that there are no hotels in the more remote (not THAT remote!) areas. B&Bs and agritourism are filling some of the void, but they don't advertise everywhere. We don't like pinning ourselves down with reservations, unless we have to, but from now on we'll do some Internet searching ahead of time and come with a list of places and phone #s (and the phone charger) in a ring of small towns around our target.