Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, May 31, 2010

Torpignattara: Neighborhood on the Verge of....

We were intrigued by Laura Serloni's story in La Repubblica on the outlying neighborhood of Torpignattara, which lies east of the train station and the closer-in, now-hip community of Pigneto. The headline for the piece described Torpignattara as "dimenticata" (forgotten), and Serloni's story labeled its outdoor market "degrado" (degraded) and mentioned that the zone had no parks and that its 1930s movie theater (the only one in the area) was in disrepair, having long ago closed its doors.

We had been through the neighborhood many times, but only on the thoroughfare of via Casilina (the cross-street at top left), with a tram running through its center that cramps traffic in both directions. Until now, Torpignattara was for us a neighborhood to get through on our way to the campagna Romana.

So we went out there and walked around. We found the boarded-up movie theatre--perhaps no gem even when new--and ambled through the metal-shed market, which at 12:45 (some of the stands may have closed up, and the fish stands don't operate on Thursday) was occupied only here and there.
But we would add that older markets of this kind often have a forlorn appearance--one might as well use the words "rustic," or "authentic," or "comfortable"--and otherwise petty capitalism seemed to be thriving in this 'hood, sustained on some streets (e.g., via della Marranella) by communities of dark-skinned new immigrants, whose place of origin we failed to identify.

Although the oldest buildings in the neighborhood appear to date from about 1900, Torpignattara's architectural plant is also sustained by a number of structures built, like the theatre, in the 1930s, and datable by dates on the buildings,
sometimes presented in the Fascist system, which starts with 1922, the year of the March on Rome. Some of these buildings could use plastering and a coat of paint, but others have been nicely redone. The school at the corner of via dell' Acqua Bullicante and via Policastro has the solid, decent design of Fascist-era rationalist architecture.

The area will also benefit from the new "C" Metro line, now being built just a few blocks to the north under via Maletesta, once a lovely parkway but now a massive cantieri (construction project). The new Metro line is actually in Labicano, but it will provide reliable transportation to most of Torpignattara's residents. And given that, it may not be all that long before the word "gentrification" rears its ugly head and those nasty wine bars appear (there are none now).
We found what may be the early signs of that sort of redevelopment along the alley-like street of via Auconi, where smaller homes are being renovated (right).

We did find one small, usable, functioning park, off via del Pigneto at via dei Zeno (if we recall correctly).
It was being mowed, apparently for the first time this year (below right), with an actual power lawn mower (one of several in Rome; they are as rare here as Velveeta).

The problem with the parks, we think, is related to the city's program of underground parking lots. Once built, the lots are supposed to have parks at ground level.

But one of these parks (below left)had gone to tall, unmowable weeds, as if the city had been preparing the site for drug traffic and crime. In the circular entrance to that park's underground garage someone had fashioned a creche out of concrete, perhaps to offer comfort to those intrepid enough to use the facility (lower left).

The other, pictured in Serloni's article, had been fenced off. It would take an American neighborhood, with the help of the Lion's Club, about two weeks to have such a place up and running, with swing sets and redwood walkways and the like. But there is no Lion's club in Italy, and no tradition of voluteerism. And the government has failed to do anything but build the parking garages. Here it's all about cars.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Monti Goes After the Mayor

Rome's Mayor, Gianni Alemanno, was elected two years ago on a right-wing program, and it's no wonder that he's not popular in left-wing Monti, despite the gentrification going on there. On a trek around the area a few days ago, we couldn't help noticing that one of the Mayor's recent posters (see left) was being reinterpreted by the locals.

One version had the Mayor as a clown [above right] (the words on the poster read, "Mayor, instead of laughing, why don't you present the city's budget? Problems?"). Another evoked the feminine in a mayor once known as a street thug ("merda" translates as "shit"). And a third dressed his honor up as Hitler, complete with mustache and floppy hair. Nice work, Monti!


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cherry Warning

It's cherry season in Rome, and they're irresistible. But not all cherries are equally delicious, and it can be tempting to try just one when the owner of the stand isn't looking, or to assume that the proprietor wouldn't mind, couldn't mind--they're so small. Hence the sign we found in our local Orto/Frutta. It translates like this:

Here we're not
in church
And this is not
Holy water
Thank you

Or "hands off the cherries!"


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Suburban Surreal II: Parco dei Medici and the Esso Building

The first non-stop sunny day in weeks sent us off on one of our treasure hunts today (May 18), and we didn't return empty handed. After gassing up the scooter, we headed into Rome's core on two errands related to the marketing of Rome the Second Time. Both were reasonably accomplished,
though not without suffering the Centro's traffic; we were astonished at the difficulty of finding a legal parking place (and in the end, we didn't, in part because authorized scooter places were occupied by Rome's smaller commercial vehicles, as in the photo at right).

Afterward, from near Piazza Colonna we headed out to the Tevere, then toward the south end of the city, through the Marconi district and around Piazza Meucci to via Magliana, a curvy, 2-lane thoroughfare that more or less tracks the river as it winds through middle-aged suburbs and aging commercial and industrial sites.
On the way, we stopped to admire a curious structure, the "Ponte sull'autostrada [bridge over the thruway] Roma-Fiumicino alla Magliana" as it's referred to in one of the architectural books, or the "Viadotto [viaduct] alla Magliana," in another. Although the 1965 "bridge" appears to be without purpose, we later learned that it's an important work of civil engineering. It's there because the highway, forced at this point onto unstable, wet ground near the Tevere, required the structure as a way of stabilizing the pilings below its center. At the end of the span to the right, a massive, pontoon-like counterweight (not visible) drives the center columns down, holding everything in place. The process is known as the "Morandi Method," after the engineer.

Our goal was a building we had seen from the Fiumicino expressway. Occupied by the Esso corporation, designed by architect Julio La Fuente, and opened in 1977, it's a unique, even bizarre structure. We were surprised to find that it's located in an enormous industrial park, Parco dei Medici, named after the Medici family of Florentine fame. Besides the Esso building, the park contains about a dozen large and decidedly ordinary corporate structures, housing businesses we'd never heard of, with names like "Syngenics" and "Corpoform." An abandoned building was once home to Erikson, the phone maker whose business has fallen on bad times. Security is tight; every building is surrounded by hundreds of discrete concrete posts, forming a fence that's both effective and graffiti-resistant, and it's impossible to enter any of these corporate sanctuaries without some sort of clearance. We imagine hundreds of employees in every building, busily at work in secret laboratories on the next Italian household appliance that looks great but fails in the first week. Outside, small groups of men in dark suits stroll the sidewalks on their lunch hours, trapped in (or enjoying) corporate Pleasantville.

La Fluente's Esso building makes the trip worthwhile. It's rugged and physical yet light and magical, mixing the bold earnestness of the Aztec with the a sense of playfulness straight out of children's building blocks.
The big white beams seem to have a function, to hold the structure together, but it's not clear that they do anything of the sort; they might be made of plastic, or rubber, as if they were part of a kit of toy parts, fresh out of the box. Who knows? With our best Italian, we try to talk the guard at the gate into giving us five minutes inside to look around (we tell him we're authors of a book on Rome, the building's a structure of historic importance, and bla bla). He's sympathetic and calls his supervisor, but the answer is no.

To the south of the Esso building, and of moderate interest, is a spa/restaurant complex (below left), complete with pool and a "private" club: perks available to the traveling businessman. And aross the way, nicely designed apartments with circular balconies for those who find the nearby Holiday Inn not quite nice enough.

We're off, back on the nasty, treacherous via Magliana, all trucks and busses and traffic and potholes. An old road-house restaurant beckons, and we pull over. "Tavernaccia," it's called, and uncleared bottles and dishes make it clear that lunch is no longer being served on the large veranda, which is only a few feet from the street but protected from the noise and dirt by massive screens.
Still, the blond proprietress has no problem in providing a mezzo litro of vino bianco (E2), which we sip while noting the Christmas-motif tablecloths. The door to the restroom is covered with wallpaper designed to resemble bricks. Later, when we gave the owner our book card and asked for the restaurant's bigliettino (business card), she complied by writing the name and phone number on a piece of paper, but seemed preoccupied with playing the gaming machines inside.


Friday, May 21, 2010

On St. Paul's path

St. Paul – not a saint we’ve given much thought to over the years. Even though he’s linked with St. Peter, was a Roman citizen, and is credited with bringing Christianity to Rome, Paul seems to take second place to St. Peter, often viewed as sole founder of the Catholic church. But these days we find ourselves living near, if not precisely on, St. Paul’s path to martyrdom.

San Paolo fuori le mura (St Paul’s outside the walls) is a couple blocks from our apartment. This large and imposing basilica, whose belltower we see from almost any direction, was rebuilt in the mid-1800s after it was burned in a spectacular night fire in 1823 (one story told is that it burned because there was no room for the then current Pope’s picture on its walls; the Pope died that night without knowing the basilica had been destroyed- Pope Benedict's lit-up portrait photo right, high up on the right clerestory). Though we (and Henry James and Franz Liszt, btw) rather like the basilica (and the coffee bar in front of it - top photo), it generally receives poor reviews, except for its graciously designed interior courtyard with many Moorish columns – a courtyard that survived the fire.

The basilica, like most in Rome, is on the site of earlier churches, including one built in the 5th century to mark the place where Paul was buried. The chains in which he was held – and led out of Rome, eventually to his beheading at Tre Fontane - are prominently displayed above the crypt that holds his remains (photo left). Last year the Pope authorized a probe of the remains in the church and they were dated to 1st to 2nd century AD. The church also sits at the foot of via delle Sette Chiese (road of the 7 churches), which runs near our house too. San Paolo fuori le mura is one of the 7 churches pilgrims must visit in a Holy Year, and the via delle Sette Chiese is a pilgrim’s way (tho’ you’d be hard pressed to see that in this street now).

If one keeps walking along via Ostiense and then via Laurentina, you come to the Abbey Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). Here there are three churches, in essence: the Abbey itself (7th century, restored in 1221 - front in photo right) and now inhabited by Trappist monks selling liquers, chocolates, and other stuff, a small church (Santa Maria Scala Coeli [“Jail Stairs”] - back right in photo right) where Paul was held in jail (you can go down into the crypt and peer into the jail space itself ) and another church further on (San Paolo alle Tre Fontane) which is supposedly the site where he was martyred – and where 3 springs spouted where his head bounced 3 times. These latter 2 churches were rebuilt in the 16th century by Giacomo della Porta. San Paolo alle Tre Fontane includes some views of reddish stones (stained by Paul’s blood?) and the stub of a column on which he was beheaded. Nothing if not gruesome these martyrdoms. In between San Paolo fuori le mura and this last church in the Tre Fontane grounds are many things “paoline” or of Paul – including institutes, schools, libraries, and the residences of monks dedicated to St. Paul.

The street that runs perpendicular to ours is via di Villa Lucina. Lucina was the pious matron who claimed Paul’s remains and buried them in her vineyards, which no doubt once covered the ground on which our building sits.

So that’s why we say we’re on St. Paul’s path, and we’ve taken the opportunity to get to know better his story, and the many monuments to it.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Suburban Surreal: Parco Leonardo

It was "Giorno della Mamma," Mother's Day (BTW, a creation of President Woodrow Wilson) and Dianne's reward for 38 years of Motherhood was a series of international films showing at Parco Leonardo's Hollywood-style mega multiplex, whose sleek, football-field size lobby is shown at right. Getting there was easy--a 20 minute train-ride from the Ostiense station--and the cinema tickets were cheap at less than E4 per film. We went to three films with short breaks between, all subtitled in English, and two (LOSS [Lithuania] and TEARS of APRIL [Finland])were of considerable merit. All three films, and the festival generally, were sparsely attended (our films averaged about 6 people per screening). Of course, it was Mother's Day.

Having arrived at the Parco (named after da Vinci) early, we toured the suburban development, which might be described as a high-rise, grid-based Pleasantville, with a dash of West World. These could be the cleanest streets in all of Lazio, but also the most surreal, partly because they're not really streets, since cars are kept at the perimeter, and most Romans arrive, like us, by train. Although many of Parco Leonardo's large apartment buildings have commercial space on the ground floor (in typical Italian fashion), most of the stores are empty BECAUSE THEY BUILT A 2-STORY MALL NEXT DOOR--smart, huh?
Because the streets are so empty (the Mothers were all inside we suppose), any human activity looks weird. Case in point, the guy having a bite to eat at right, looking as if he were on the set of a Fellini movie.

Of the businesses that do exist, inside and outside the mall, one of favorite motifs is the Wild West (that isn't a misprint).
Our thought was that this would be nice for the kids, but by nightfall both of these places were jammed--one had people waiting outside to get in--with adults. Coincidentally, the ladies strolling
on the street at Parco Leonardo (below) had the look of gunslingers heading for trouble in a Kansas cow town.

The massive advertising display at the top of this post reads: "At Parco Leonardo, it's all about you."

One of Parco Leonardo's pecularities is that the rail station by which it is served has no stand to buy tickets and no machines that function (true both times we've made the trip). So if you got there, but don't have a ticket back, you're screwed (which means you get on the train without a ticket and grit your teeth hoping you don't get caught and fined). Bill

Monday, May 17, 2010

On the Town: La Notte dei Musei

Rome's weather has been miserable of late, and last night was no exception: steady rain. Still we couldn't resist engaging the second annual "La Notte dei Musei" (Night of the Museums), when many of the city's museums are open from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m., and free. With the scooter not in the cards, we opted for a zone with several attractions and headed out with our orange umbrella at 5:30, arriving in Rome's north end at 6:20 after a ride on Metro's blue line and a tram across town on viale Regina Margherita.

Our first stop was not on the "Notte dei Musei" tour, but we couldn't resist an exhibition at The British School at Rome on "colonie," literally "colonies" but here referring to facilities built in the 1920s and 1930s to improve the health and fitness of Italy's youth, a cause that would continue under Mussolini and his cohort. Many of these institutions were designed by the nation's best architects, usually in some version of art deco rationalism, and most are now in a state of advanced decay. On display are gorgeous color photographs of the colonie (left), an intriguing collection of postcards, and some other materials, all intelligently interpreted: even a mention of the 19th-century surveillance device, the panopticon.

We had an hour before the big Belle Arti museum (technically, the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna - The National Modern Art Gallery) opened at 8, and we spent it in the museum's weird cafe, serviced by a staff of 7, most of whom seemed to be doing nothing, including a rather cool and unhelpful overseer who perhaps resents not having a career as an impresario. Still, a pleasant hour with three glasses of sauvignon and free munchies of the sort often provided with a drink: mini-bruschette, a small bowl of peanuts with a tiny spoon, and potato chips.

Inside, the crowds still small (an estimated 200,000 people took advantage of the Notte), we wandered through several rooms of an exhibit we had wanted to catch before it closed, on 1970s feminism. Cindy Sherman of Buffalo fame was a featured artist, and others followed suit, each of them engaged in some effort to capture the problem of female identity: dressing up in this costume or that, distorting the face against a pane of glass, marking the body with pens and whatever. Necessary in the '70s, today not so inspiring, even irritating, to Bill at least.

We spill outside, arguing as we cross Piazza Thorwaldsen to the Romanian Academy, a favorite place for us. There we are, pulling up our knees in the tight rows, to watch a 5-piece group (2 Germans, a Hungarian, one Romanian, and drummer from somewhere in South America - The Nicolas Simion group, called Transylvanian Grooves) present a program of Romanian jazz. Innovative, technically proficient, altogether superb music, which brought the crowd of about 220 to a frenzy when the beat and sound, driven by the electrified violin and a physical bassist, approached the "folk" (think of our son and daughter-in-law's wedding reception in Romania - says Dianne).

It's 9:45 and we're back to Belle Arti, using the side-door, cafe entrance to avoid the long lines up the stairs in front. Family diplomacy means avoiding the feminist exhibit. We opt for Fausto Pirandello's (son of Luigi, the dramatist), whose rough, orangy paintings of thick proletarians, farm workers, and their animals were warmly received by Italian (and Fascist) juries of the 1920s and 1930s, and in large part by us.

We're off down the hill in the dark park (please take my wallet), where there's an exhibit of some kind on New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Except there isn't, because Bill misread the newspaper item, which actually said the museum was on viale Fiorello LaGuardia. So there's nothing happening here, except a band taking down its equipment. We're off again in the gushy wetness of the park's sidewalks, past a huge, tiered statue to Goethe and the Case del Cinema, down via Veneto
(several of those new Rome cows at the top of the street), which tonight is compelling in its damp relative emptiness. Even the glass boxes look warm and inviting, one with a guy playing the piano and singing Italian songs. Dianne briefly wishes she were very, very, wealthy. We fantasize about getting dressed up on night and blowing a hundred Euro (all tolled) at a few of these places (it wouldn't take long).

A 15-minute walk through Piazza Barberini brings us to our next venue, this one chosen at the last minute: Palazzo delle Esposionzi. There's a line 6-across and hundreds of yards long, mostly young people who must have come for music. We try our around-the-side Belle Arti maneuvre, but they're too smart for that. As we retreat, Bill's eyes meet someone he "knows": hizzonor the Mayor, none other than Gianni Alemanno, in the flesh. The Mayor returns the glance with that "yes it's me" nod. Dianne sees none of this and struggles to believe it. But it makes sense that the ex-thug would be touring the evening's venues, perhaps trying to figure out if he can eliminate the event next year without political damage.

It's after 11:00, but we're hungry, and we wander through Monti on the way to the Cavour Metro. We stop in one restaurant where the kitchen is closed; as a young woman explains in garbled English, they've just thrown out the pasta water. The next one, "Al 19 Trattoria" (via Boschetto, 19), apparently still had their pasta water, so we settled in with 2 other tables - a handsome man in a track suit reading the newspaper and a hand-holding couple. Dianne ordered well and we split two tasty dishes that were new to us: some kind of pasta with beans and mussles and carrots and garlic, and a superb, sole-like fish dish (Cernia: grouper) with radicchio and pine nuts. Bill's even less a foodie than Dianne, but he coould appreciate the quality. The conto for the two dishes, two glasses of wine, and a bottle of water: E39.

To the Metro and home in 15 minutes. A few pages of Cheever's The Wapshot Scandal. Asleep at about 2.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Street Art at Middle Age

It seems to us graffiti is now middle-aged. In other words, it’s comfortably in the mainstream of art and has been for some time. Coffee table books have been published about it, some of the artists fetch 6-figure prices for their works, and mainstream museums hold shows. One can question if this, then, is real graffiti (see note below), but in the meantime we’ll just enjoy it.

As we did this past week when the Rome community of Garbatella hosted an opening of the work of several well-known Roman and French graffiti artists, artists that were in essence commissioned to do works several stories high in several cases or several buildings long in another.

The works ranged from Sten & Lex’s stencil art of Rome soccer star Francesco Totti (the “star” deserves a footnote – see below) mixed with the Rome she-wolf symbol, to wallpaper-like (and we don’t mean that derogatorily) Mideastern designs of Fefe. Our friend Jessica Stewart of Rome Photo Blog ( is as entranced with this work as we, and she’s a wonderfully gifted photographer. So we recommend you click onto her site for a closer look at this exhibit. Jessica, who was around for much of the mounting of these works, explained how some of them were done in a post to me (see second note below) - fascinating!

Garbatella is a perfect place to mount these works, we think, because it is a tight, leftist community that supports anti-authoritarian activities. The works will be up as long as the weather permits. Because of the rain, some of the paper already is peeling; so get there soon. The works are all on the walls of the block enclosed by via Caffaro, via Persico and via Adorno. Your best starting point is where via Caffaro and via Adorno meet. There you can also see JB Rock’s Mamma Roma, a portion of which is visible in the photo above.

And there is an ending party, with more graffiti art, in the Ostiense locale of the now defunct Rome wholesale markets, on June 15 at 6 p.m. (via dei Magazzini Generali). For those who follow the “Let’s ‘Chattare’” blogs here, you’ll appreciate this ending party is billed as a “Finissage” – which is taking the French word, vernissage, used frequently here in Rome to describe opening parties, and, well, bending a bit. I must admit I kind of like the new bastardized word.

Which brings us to our notes. Note #1: Is it graffiti if it’s in an authorized place, sponsored by, among others, the city and province, and kicked off like any other art opening (the opening was in the large restored 1930s Palladium; photo). See our blog that includes our talk with Maria Teresa Natale, Oct. 27, 2009

Note #2: from Jessica Stewart "Sten and Lex handpainted every panel that they put up. They told me that it took them a little over a month to do it all. JB Rock's was printed and then he painted over it once it was stuck on the wall (filling in the hair and shading). C215 and L'Atlas also had theirs printed. I think Sten and Lex are pretty unique in actually having the patience and perseverance to handpaint something so large. The paper they work on is so thin that you couldn't print on it. "

And, finally, we have to note that iconic soccer player Totti –passionate but also known as a good sport - intentionally kicked an Inter player very late in a frustrating– for Totti and Roma fans - Italian cup game last week. His unsportsmanlike act – “the big kick” – caused national hand-wringing, an outpouring of emotions and questioning of national values, hyped as only Italians can do it. So would Sten & Lex have used Totti in their piece if they had known about his unsportsmanlike conduct before they started drawing?

You can try the website for this graffiti project - in English, but it didn’t work for me. And there's a video in Italian and French at

Thursday, May 13, 2010

28DiVino Jazz Club Swings Again

We’re happy to report another jazz club has risen from the ashes. 28DiVino Jazz is under new management (now as a club with a tessera requirement) and has a full schedule of events.

We tried one of their relatively new Monday night jazz offerings – it’s a night that usually is fairly quiet around Rome. Here too, there was not exactly a crowd (at most, a dozen people), but we who were there were treated to a wonderfully intimate and accomplished set from the duo of Nicola Puglielli on guitar and Fabrizio Montemarano on bass. And the price per person is right, Euro 8 for the show AND a glass of wine plus Euro 2 for the tessera for the remainder of the season. Several people had dinner before the performance, upstairs at this atmospheric club.

Thrown into the mix was great conversation before the concert with the club manager/owner Marc Reynaud and one of the musicians, Nicola, who had studied at the Berklee School of Music and is the teacher of one of our favorite young jazz musicians around town. Puglielli teaches at the legendary and – until recently only offering classical music - Santa Cecilia Conservatory, which opened a jazz program just a year or two ago.

We're happy to see 28DiVino rise again, in part because Rome's jazz scene, while healthy, seem to be going the way of New York, with institutional spaces replacing the more inpiring clubs. Centrale Montemartini, even Cinema Farnese in Campo de' Fiori, are hosting jazz series. And, while these are wonderful new additions, sitting in an auditorium or straight-back chair is not the same as drinking and grooving in a dimly lit club (so say I).

We recommend 28DiVino Jazz and add it to Rome the Second Time’s jazz offerings. Via Mirandola, 21, near Stazione Tuscolana (San Giovanni).

In the Update category, we note Be Bop Jazz Club is no longer active, although the website says they will reopen (but then so did La Palma’s website, and, several years later we’re still waiting). Pages 202-203.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Midnight riders find action

There’s nothing quite like the 4 a.m. (sometimes inspired by jet-lag) scooter ride through Rome.

Last year, we took the “midnight ride” a couple times, and were entranced by a city that went from totally asleep (no one else, but the cops, at the Trevi, Spanish Steps, etc.) to starting to awake (the vendors opening up at Campo de’ Fiori, the coffee bars receiving their first customers).

Ah, but this year was different. We took our 4 a.m. ride on Sunday morning, May 2. But, as we instantly learned, from the many young people lining via Ostiense, hanging around cars in the parking lots there, etc., at 4 a.m. it was still the evening of May 1, the huge Italian holiday and a Saturday night.

Instead of seeing the city asleep and waking up, we were watching the city go to bed. There were cars on every street. There were a dozen people at Trevi and the Spanish Steps (photo at top). On the other hand, via Veneto was quiet (see second video below. And, unusually, Campo de’ Fiori was completely empty. Not only had the young people gone (perhaps to Ostiense), but of course no stalls were w\opening on a Sunday morning.

There were some unusual moments – dodging the street cleaning machine at Trevi, watching with the Trevi police - through the back window of their car - the tv shows they had on in their car (you can see both of these in the first video below). Dianne

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Scooters Down, Bill Forced into Role as Good Samaritan

As a scooter driver, I don't think I'm unusual in imagining what would happen if a car backed up into a tightly packed, domino-like row of scooters. Imagination is no longer required. Last Thursday the three of us--Dianne and I were touring with Judy, a new friend from Buffalo--had crossed Piazza del Popolo and headed up the short stairs on the piazza's east side to the road above when this Italian woman did just that: backed up into a bunch of scooters. I took a photo as the three of us walked by, thinking that was that. But she was upset (not very upset, to be honest, but she didn't want to leave the scooters on the ground), and she motioned me over to help her pick up the victims.
They're not easy to lift when they're down--the heaviest ones weigh about 500 pounds, and these perhaps 300--but this woman (now speaking broken English to me) and I managed the task, one at a time, as she called out lifting commands as we prepared to right each bike. Dianne didn't help, but she was there to take the second photo.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Italy's Millennial Walls, Robert Frost and us

“Good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost’s line came to mind as I was preparing this post.

I was thinking of appropriating and corrupting the line so it reads: “Good walls make good neighbors.”

But in finding and re-reading Frost’s poem, in which this line appears twice, my college English class came back to me. The poem is really about a wall that is a fence. The title of the poem is “Mending Wall,” and the first sentence, which is in the poet’s voice is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The more famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is actually said by his neighbor. So, Frost, the poet, does not like walls; it's his neighbor who does - and Frost is criticizing him in the poem.

The first 4 lines of the poem read:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The polygonal walls in central Italy seem to defy Frost’s notion that they will crumble and fall. There may be gaps, and spills in the upper boulders, but what’s astounding about these walls is how much of them still is standing, anywhere from 5,000 to 2,000 years later.

Some recent dating shows these walls – made of variously shaped (hence “polygonal”) stones and stacked with NO mortar – pre-date the Romans and even the Etruscans; they could be as old as the 3rd millennium before Christ, or 4,000-5,000 years-old.

We first noticed these walls in Segni, a small hill town about 1 hour outside of Rome where we (finally) had found a hotel after hiking all day (this story may sound familiar to some of you). Taking a walk through the town before dinner, we discovered these amazing walls surrounding a good portion of the city (photo above). We began reading a bit here and there and discovered for the first time the polygonal walls and how old they are.

Fortunately for us, at the same time in Rome there was a fascinating exhibit on the Lazio (Rome’s province) cities that have enormous stretches of these walls remaining. [Note the exhibit used "megalithic" - which refers to structures made of large stones and without mortar - tho' usually we see "polygonal" in references in English.]

We realized there are polygonal walls at the base of Circeo (which we’ve hiked), in Orbetello (where we’ve put our feet in the water), in Norba, and many other places. But, we were a little like the Stupids Go to Italy on this one… we had no idea what we were seeing. Sometimes we don’t read ahead, because we like to discover things for ourselves, but this time we were missing something because we were uneducated about these marvelous walls.

I’ve listed a few websites below that have a bit more information in English about the walls, as well as a link to all of Mending Wall and some analyses of the poem, one of which traces the poem’s activity of two neighbors mending their joining wall back to, guess who, the Romans! See also our earlier blog that includes Segni. Also, for you who need shelter and sustenance, we heartily recommend the hotel we found. Hotel La Pace, which caters to international business people from nearby towns and has a very good restaurant ("famous in the area," says scooter rental guy linked below).



Article by Giulio Magli, a mathematician in Milan, about the walls of four Italian cities. And lots of pictures in Rome Art Lover's website. And some nice photos and text from a scooter-rental guy whose home town is Segni.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day Irony

May Day, the 1st day of May, is rapidly approaching. Italians love their holidays, and May Day, which in its modern form celebrates work, labor, unions, and socialism, is one of their favorites.

The problem, we found out last year, is that it can be hard to get around on May Day, hard to attend the concerts and celebrations and marches, because, well, nobody's working. And "nobody," to our surprise, includes the people who operate Rome's public transport system.

We were living in Monteverde Nuovo, a couple of blocks from the Gianicolense and the tram that runs down to Trastevere and then across the river. We don't have a car, and the scooter was indisposed. So like many others in the neighborhood, we counted on the tram or buses to get us into the Centro.

Guess not! We arrived at the tram stop at Piazza San Giovanni di Dio at about 1 in the afternoon. An hour later we were still there. No tram, no buses.

Maybe we were just stupid foreigners. Maybe, but there were plenty of forlorn Italians waiting for Godot, exchanging local myths about what had happened to the tram and when the next bus would arrive. We took this photograph of those with whom we shared the afternoon.