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

Sunday, February 21, 2010

RST Top 40. #24: Rome's Signature and Europe's Largest Mosque

With some trepidation (but no doubt about its merits), we offer the Rome mosque, the largest mosque in Europe, as #24 in Rome the Second Time's Top 40. It's a magnificent structure, with some interesting controversy in its planning (why wouldn't there be, with an enormous Muslim landmark in the center of Catholicism's spiritual and administrative and, in every other way, home?).

I loved it instantly. I think Bill took some warming, including some high praise by Ingrid Rowland in a New York Review of Books article on Tiepolo where she devotes substantial coverage to the mosque's architect, Paolo Portoghesi (Bill wrote about this in his January 2 blog - here's the link to it:

Rather than repeat everything I said last June, I'll supply the link to the June 27, 2009 post below, and add a few new comments.

While our primary interest in the mosque is architectural, the religious issues are intriguing as well. One author claims the gorgeous, massive mosque is deserted, abandoned for other, smaller, more active mosques ( But another argues that the imam at the main Rome mosque is preaching jihad ( Both articles are linked here. You be the judge.

In any event, a visit is definitely in our Top 40. Just remember visiting hours for non-Muslims are limited - Wednesday and Saturday 9-11:30; women MUST wear head coverings. And, Fridays are the most active days, including the market outside the mosque gates - for everyone.

Here's the link to the earlier post:, which includes directions at the end and many more photos.

The trepidation I mentioned at the beginning derives from the traffic our blog gets from surfers who seem highly interested in "mosque", but not so much in Rome. We're not exactly anxious to set them off again! But we can't fail to put this wonderful 20th-century architectural statement in Rome the Second Time's Top 40.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Location: Improving on the Turtle Fountain

"Even in a city of fountains such as Rome, this probably holds the palm for sheer delight; and what other country but Italy could have produced it?" The sentiments are those of Georgina Masson, whose Companion Guide to Rome is one our favored companions, and her subject the Fontana delle Tartarughe/Fountain of the Turtles, in the Jewish ghetto's Piazza Mattei. It owes its charm to age and quality; it was executed in 1581 from a design by Gioacomo della Porta, and the turtles--a lovely afterthought--are of more recent origin (1658), probably by the talented and ubiquitous Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Despite its charms, the fountain in its natural state was not lovely enough for the film company we observed in May of last year. It seems the Roman sun had dried it off, or up, and the filmmaker wanted it to glisten and shine.
So it was one guy's job to pretty much constantly toss water on the fountain (irony!!) so it would be at its best when the cameras started to roll. He's at work on the left of this photo. And that's how you improve on the sublime.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

RST Top 40. #25: Villa Torlonia - a park and art and fakes and Mussolini and...

Villa Torlonia is another Rome park with something for everyone: ancient history, fake ancient, medieval, you-name-it history, flora, fauna, World War II site, art, playgrounds, food, palm trees... palm trees? Yes, no expense was spared in the early 1800s when famous Rome architect Giuseppe Valadier designed the buildings and grounds for the super-rich Torlonia banking family, and the City has done a credible job of restoring it.

Villa Torlonia is home to a large children's playground, a nice cafe'/lunch spot (in the fake medieval building - photo at right) the Limonaia, great grounds to walk around and picnic in and several museums that host art galleries. The official website has an English version and a lot of information.

We probably like Villa Torlonia more because when we first saw it over 15 years ago, it was a derelict space, every building degraded and the grounds an abysmal mess. Since then, watching it open up has been like watching a butterfly.

Unlike Villa Pamphili, there are many buildings open to the public in Villa Torlonia, including an Art Nouveau ("Liberty" to Italians) style Casina delle Civette - little house of the owls (photo right), and the Casino Nobile, or Mussolini's home, also called the Palazzo Nobile. For 18 years, this was the family home of il Duce, his wife and their 5 children at the nominal rent of 1 lira/year. The Allies took over the home and did a disgraceful job of wrecking it - presumably because it was the home of the Fascist leader. (Photos at top and at left.)

If you can, get a tour of the restored Casino Nobile and on some days you can also tour Mussolini's bunker and the apparently fake Etruscan tomb below the building (photo above).

And, Villa Torlonia is not too far from the city center.... Don't miss it when you're in Rome the second time.

Dianne - if it seems I like parks in Rome; yes, I do!

PS - More information on Villa Torlonia, Mussolini's high-jinx, etc. is in Itinerary 8 in Rome the Second Time, pp 121-25. And here's a photo on the wall in the Casino Nobile - of the "virile" Mussolini on horseback.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hiking outside Rome - the pleasures of Lazio's hills

Central Italy offers wonderful hikes, full of history and flora and fauna - wild and not so wild.

Because Lazio's hiking pleasures seem unknown, we recently published an article in the Adirondack Peaks magazine to encourage English-speakers to try out the hills of Lazio and other provinces of Central Italy. "Under the Lazio Sun" is linked here, in pdf download, or directly.

The Peaks magazine, btw, is published for Adirondack "46Rs" - those who have climbed all 46 of the Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet high, and, yup, we must admit, that's us.

While we're at it, an update for Rome the Second Time in our sidebar on joining an Italian hiking group. Cammina Natura is has changed its website, but even their latest website is "under construction. They also have a Facebook page, but that lists the very old website. For information, you might try emailing the group at: - yes, that's the email. Most of the Italian hiking groups also sponsor winter treks, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing.

Photo above is to whet your appetite.

Buon trekking!


Monday, February 8, 2010

RST Top 40. #26: Best Market in Rome...Piazza....

Romans (and tourists) are fiercely proud of and defensive about their locals markets, so in choosing a "best" market for Rome the Second Time's Top 40, we fully expect to be attacked and censured rather than applauded. Bring it on. There are dozens of markets in Rome, even excluding the ones that deal primarily in antiques, and we have personally experienced only about ten. Even so, because we've lived in a variety of areas, we claim more authority in this area than most Romans, for whom a change in neighborhoods, and in markets, would be like committing adultery.

In making our #1 selection, we eliminated Porta Portese, Rome's most famous market; too well known, too big to be intimate, too much all the same stuff (although those with sufficient stamina may find distinctive pockets), too much a Rome-the-first-time experience.

With a certain regret, we said no to indoor markets, like SPQR Mercato, a Fascist-era project on via Catania near Piazza Bologna (on Itinerary 7 in Rome the Second Time), which is a trifle cavernous;
the similar market serving Flaminio, on via Guido Reni (nice enough, but no cigar); or the recently-opened market off Piazza Vittorio, which needs a few years of wear and tear to acquire the requisite patina.

Indeed, we rejected all the new (and inevitably, covered) markets, from the oddly configured,
confusing, community-defying edifice at Ponte Milvio (left), to the monstrous mistake coming to Testaccio (lower left), which from the artists' rendering resembles an American big-box store. Thanks for playing.

Of those that remain, and that we know about, we have some fondness for the open-air markets in the Piazza Re di Roma vicinity (running uphill off via Taranto, if it's still there), where we learned many years ago not to touch the fruit; and the one out near the Ponte Lungo metro stop, just southwest of via Appia Nuova, which snakes through the streets and around corners. The old market at Testaccio has its diehard fans, and we don't doubt that it's special, but a) we haven't seen it recently and b) the victim of "progress," it's about to be replaced. You can hear the death rattle.

Our winner, then, is a market of moderate age--it dates to about 1970--located in Piazza San Giovanni di Dio, up the hill via tram #8 from the Trastevere neighborhood, in the area known as Monteverde Nuovo. See pics top and lower right. It looks and feels authentic: no English, no tourists (except us), no antiques, no sunglasses. Although open-air, its corrugated iron and tin roofs meet
to provide shelter from the elements and a comfortable, contained feeling of density. About 100 stalls: mostly food--meats, breads, nuts, cheeses, olives, fish, fruits and vegetables, the ubiquitous itinerants hawking strands of garlic--but some clothing, housewares, purses and luggage, plants and flowers. And it's surrounded by coffee bars, serving weary shoppers or delivering trays of espresso to merchants in need of the mid-morning fix.

It's our choice for Best Market in Rome. Hope you're not too upset.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Rome: Walk(s) on the Wild Side

When we first imagined Rome the Second Time as a book, we roughed out a chapter--ideas, really--titled "Walk on the Wild Side" (from the 1956 Nelson Algren novel, A Walk on the Wild Side or the 1972 Lou Reed song, "Walk on the Wild Side"). The chapter would be aimed at the most intrepid of Rome tourists, and it would include elements of the Rome experience, past and present, that were mysterious, somewhat forbidding or intimidating, or unusual enough to jar the sensibilities, to give one a sense of having contact with a Rome that was hidden and seldom seen. We decided against the chapter title--we didn't want to scare off our core audience--and toned down the content for Rome the Second Time, yet we tried to preserve a sense of real adventure.

We were reminded of all this not long ago when Jason Hitchcock Creeley, writing on the Rome the Second Time group Facebook site, asked whether there was "a tour of some kind in Rome or a mention in a guidebook...about the more surreal, even seedier side of Rome. Maybe Pasolini's haunts? Things Fellini found quirky and off-beat?"

We don't know too much about Fellini's off-beat tastes, but we do know something about the poet, novelist, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and his way of being in Rome is a good place to start. Pasolini was into the "other"--the people of Rome who were different from him and from other, middle-class Romans--and for Pasolini (and anyone else with the same goals) that meant exploring the society and culture of Rome's poor--what Marx called the "lumpen proletariat." He found them, as one would find them today, on the outskirts of the city, in Rome's far-flung neighborhoods, which now are middle class and don't seem so far out: Monte Sacro was one, Monteverde Nuovo another, and a third an area called Mandrione, a triangle of land formed by via Tuscolana, via del Mandrione, and via Porta Furba. He found them, too, in and around the public housing projects that had been built under Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s; his Ragazzi di Vita is about teenage young men who lived in or near one of those high-rise projects, the one (still) located in Piazza Donna Olimpia, in Monteverde Nuovo, where Pasolini would go to talk with the boys and kick a soccer ball around. And Pasolini found them on the banks of Rome's rivers--on the Aniene near Monte Sacro, and on the Tevere--where boys without much money went to swim and cavort.

It's not that hard to locate landmarks of Pasolini's life in Rome, and through them to see and experience something of what he felt. You can read Pasolini's books--especially Ragazzi di Vita (1955) and the realistic novel, A Violent Life. You can also visit some of the places where he spent time, including Mandrione (there's a small booklet on the area and its history, in Italian). Itinerary 9 in Rome the Second Time takes you into Monte Sacro and down along the banks of the Aniene, along riverside paths used almost entirely by locals, complete with private (and probably illegal) gardens and, here and there, a rogue tent (at left). We also describe our attempt to reach the confluence of the Aniene and Tevere Rivers, an effort that ended when we encountered a village of (no doubt illegal immigrant) squatters and were warned to turn back.

At least in Rome, the banks of the Tevere, with their huge 19th-century and early 20th-century flood walls, are more open and less intimidating than those of the Aniene, but long walks along Rome's major river will undoubtedly take you, now and then, by Rome's homeless, getting along under one bridge or another.

We also had a wonderfully interesting walk (not in Rome the Second Time) along the right bank of the Tevere. We found the path just beyond Piazza Meucci at the south end of the Marconi district, paralleling (for a while) via della Magliana, then along Lungotevere di. Magliana: warehouses, horses, gardens, makeshift homes. Poor people with homes dug out of hillsides or built into narrow valleys can be found in many places in Rome. We describe one such encounter in Itinerary 9, "Monte Mario," and another in Itinerary 11, "Parco del Pineto," where we were kindly escorted through the the narrow walkways of an immigrant squatters' village in the center of the park by one of the residents, who sensed we needed the help.

Mussolini's public housing projects (case popolari) are accessible, too, and with some imagination one can get a sense of the world Pasolini found there in 1955 or 1960. There's one on the Monte Sacro/Aniene itinerary mentioned above; another, extensive and quite evocative (not mentioned in Rome the Second Time), in the Flaminio district at Piazza Melozzo da Forli, which is along viale del Vignola; a lovely, thoroughly gentrified project on Itinerary 7 (Piazza Bologna); and the towering, sculpted, and somewhat decayed buildings on Piazza di Donna Olimpia, noted above.

Had Pasolini been alive when the massive public housing project known as Corviale was finished in the early 1980s, he would surely have been attracted by the kilometer-long building with its 1202 apartments. Located southwest of the Rome's center near via Portuense, it's fascinating but also somewhat intimidating. We looked around a bit and took some pictures, but with due circumspection. Still, it's a phenomenon--one of the world's most famous public housing projects, like modernist, crime-ridden Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (1954/55, demolished 1970s).

Today, Pasolini would be seeking contact with Rome's new immigrants, some legal and some illegal, many from North Africa and Eastern Europe, some living in official immigrant camps, some in informal ones. It would be fascinating to walk around these camps, but also quite dangerous, we think, and we don't advise it. The closest we've come to one of the informal camps was while walking along a wide asphalt path (via del Ratardo) that ambles along the left (east) bank of the Tevere north of the city. We got access to the path at Ponte Flaminio (that's what we remember, anyway) and had walked a ways, passing by all manner of athletic facilities (the banks of the Tevere are dotted with soccer fields), when we saw the immigrant camp down and on the right. Another place to find immigrant communities (and some drug addicts) is on the city's night buses. After midnight, when the restaurants close in Trastevere and the #8 tram inexplicably stops operating, the area's dishwashers and other low-level workers pile on the buses going up viale di Trastevere. You can join them on the bus. Be prepared to be squished.

The young have their own weird places to go and be, and we're neither young nor fans of rock music nor into drugs, so the mysteries of youth, and the often-seedy locales where they do their thing, are mostly beyond us. Still, over the years we've found some of these spaces and recommend them to the adventurous. Among the better known is Monte Testaccio, home to dozens of late-night clubs and bars dug into the mountain. The area in back--a road and a large parking lot--is known for drug deals, and we wouldn't circle the mountain after dark. Another club area is located in a warehouse district between via Ostiense and the Metro line, just past Circonvallazione Ostiense, in Garbatella (as we recall); it's got a certain dark, clandestine feel to it. The district of San Lorenzo is better lit and better policed, and it still has some of the raunchy, sometimes pathetic clubs and general messiness that Jack Kerouac would have seen as "authentic." The Pigneto zone is at the cusp of gentrification, but it's full of immigrants (as well as Italians) and young people and funky attractions, and after dark the narrow, tree-lined side streets have a film-noirish aura unmatched elsewhere in Rome. Pasolini spent a lot of time there many years ago, and, despite changes, he probably still would today. See our "An Evening in Pigneto" in Rome the Second Time.

Because Rome is a center of government and tourism, it can be difficult to observe Romans doing what writer Paul Goodman referred to in Growing Up Absurd as "real man's work." Watching the barrista make your latte doesn't qualify. We have three suggestions. To get a feel for an older industrial and warehouse area, try the "alternate route" for Itinerary 4 (see map), which begins at the Pyramid and circles a part of Ostiense. Second, along the left bank of the Tevere, down a gravel road called via di Riva Ostiense (entered from via del Porto Fluviale, at the river), you'll find the Factory Occupata--assuming it still exists, which it may not--an experimental art and cultural space created a couple of years ago when some young people, disturbed by the decline of the city's industrial buildings, occupied one of the area's unused factories. A poster for a Factory Occupata event, at left, features a gazometro, an iconic feature of the area's industrial landscape. The place is bizarre; if there's an event there when you're in town (we saw ex-Black Panther David Hilliard give a talk)--no matter what it is--go. Across the city, we recommend the streets just to the south of Piazzale del Verano,
where craftsmen cut the stones that adorn the adjacent Verano Cemetery (at right). Piazzale Verano is also well known as the site of a deadly and destructive allied bombing raid in World War II.

Of all the unusual Rome spaces we've come across, none is more "surreal" (to use Jason Creeley's term) than one inhabited almost exclusively by the young: Forte Prenestino, a real fort and, for some years now, a real alternative social center. We have written about the place in Rome the Second Time (pp. 192-93), and we fondly recall the shock and awe we experienced at walking its dark corridors and underground passageways (left)
for the first time. Da non perdere; not to be missed. Also high on that index is a walk through Rome--Rome the First Time: the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Trastevere--between 4 a.m. and just after sunrise. Not the "wild side," but unforgettable. Maybe even surreal.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

RST Top 40. #27: La Farnesina - throwing gold in the river and other delights

"La Farnesina" - we even like the name... as in the "little, cutesy Farnese (family) palace...." And a pleasure palace it was for the Tuscan banker Agostino ("the Magnificent") Chigi who built it (1508-11) and the Cardinal Farnese who then bought it (1534), and for us now.

Standing relatively alone in its grounds, now restored, and housing wonderful frescoes by Raphael and his students, La Farnesina is a delightful place to experience Renaissance Rome. In the fresco of the Three Graces (below), the one with her back to us is attributed to Raphael. Chigi didn't have many years to enjoy his art; he died in 1520, 4 days after Raphael.

It's the locus of great stories too - like the wealthy owners who threw parties with gold and crystal tableware and then when finished with each course, ostentatiously threw them into the Tiber. But the rumor is that they had a net in the Tiber to get back their valuable glasses and forks and who knows what else.

This area of Trastevere holds other treasures as well, and is worthy of a few hours: the Palazzo Corsini across the way that holds part of the State's Renaissance art collection, complete in the grand palace where it was meant to be shown (off), and behind that, the lush Botanical Gardens that climb up the Gianicolo. All these have a relatively low admission charge.

La Farnesina and its sister sites are just a few steps from the crazy heart of Trastevere and just across the Tiber from the center of old Rome, yet they seem a world apart, and hence, make our RST Top 40.
The official website can be converted into English. See, e.g. this site on hours, etc. Generally 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. Monday thru Saturday (except when the Italian President is visiting, as he was one day we tried to enter).