Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Another mountain to climb: Testaccio, from Roman detritus

Monte Testaccio, the "mountain" that is the unusual high point in the former slaughterhouse neighborhood of Testaccio, is an archaeological site dating back to the ancient Romans. The hill - 115 feet high is all - is worth climbing - if you can get yourself inside the gates. From the top (see one view, below), you can get a good feel for the layout of Rome's industrial and warehouse areas. You'll also find what's left of a World War II German gun emplacement.

We joined an excellent tour a while back. Obelisco (as in "obelisk") is a one-woman operation run by Laura Amadori, who is an extremely knowledgeable tour guide - unfortunately only in Italian. (One of our group members was a travel agent who wanted to learn more - and said Laura was the best in all of Rome.) Even if you don't speak Italian, if you have a chance to get into some unusual places with Laura, we recommend it. You can get some translations from your fellow group members, we think, and sometimes just seeing the site is worth it. (Laura, for example, got a small group of us into the former private gym of Mussolini - in the Foro Italico.) Check out the weekly Roma C'e' when you're in Rome, or email her at

There are a very few other tours that include Monte Testaccio itself - so be on the look-out for them. One used to be able just to walk up there - and we didn't do it when we could have. Now it's a well-fenced archaeological site - believe us, we tried to find a way in, and we're pretty resourceful.

The "mountain" is built from broken fragments ("cocci" - it's sometimes called "Monte dei cocci") of the vessels that were used by Romans to carry goods to and from the great Roman port on the nearby Tevere (Tiber River). The crockery vessels - called amphora - were usually two-handled. The beautiful (to us) 1927 fountain marking the district features all these amphora shapes (photo at left). You canz see the terracing of the shards even outside the gates (photo at right).

The hill dates to the 2nd century AD and perhaps earlier. Strolling through the Testaccio neighborhood, you'll come across remains of the vast storehouses of Testaccio (streets, piazzas, areas refer to "empori" - or the word we use, "emporium" - which mean storehouses). (Photo below, right, with lilac trees, shows remains of these many miles of storehouses.)

Try this for a good website in English, maintained by Roman and Barcelona universities.

The pix are much better from iconic Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola - so if you want to see Marcello Mastroanni, Monica Vitti and Giancarlo Giannini squaring off on Monte Testaccio in the 1970 film, "A Drama of Jealousy," try this clip off YouTube.

This working class neighborhood has had a lively club scene for many years, especially the clubs built into the base of Monte Testaccio (we've always been partial to Caffe' Latino - tho' it's music genres seem to change wildly each year). The entire neighborhood has been gentrifying over the past decade or so, with many good restaurants, several of which specialize in the Testaccio-born Roman delicacies of animal innards - a reflection of the neighborhood's 19th and 20th century growth as the slaughterhouse area. More on the ex-slaughterhouse (which now houses an excellent art gallery, an organic food shop, music school, and ethnic squatters, as well as extensive graffiti) in another post.

Below, photo of the transfer areas (Tiber to the storehouses, and then the remains to the Monte) and our guide, Laura. Dianne

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