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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Underground Rome - the Royal bunker from World War II

Our guide points out the enormous double doors through which a car - carrying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena - could be driven into the bunker.  The doors still have their rubber gaskets (to keep out poison gas).
The "bunker" built for the King and Queen of Italy to protect them from Allied bombing in World War II is now open for tours by the group that restored it - Roma Sotteranea ("Underground Rome"). The bunker is a fascinating reminder of the days of WWII and of Italy's role in the war.

Entrance to bunker today.

Villa Savoia, today, in the re-named Villa Ada,
one of Rome's largest and 'wildest' parks.
The building - Villa Savoia - now houses the Egyptian Embassy.
The underground space, at the southern end of Villa Ada, is about a quarter mile from the Royals' then home, Villa Savoia, but of course they weren't expected to walk that far under threat of bombardment, and no tunnels or underground walkways have been found. So the assumption is that they were driven to the bunker from their villa, hence also the need for a bunker large enough to accommodate cars.

A view of Mussolini's bunker under Villa Torlonia
According to Roma Sotteranea's archival work, the bunker was built from an extant underground area that held cast-off clothes the Queen periodically gave to the poor.  Though no records exist (and this is thought to be because the Royals didn't want the plans for the bunker to fall into the wrong hands), Roma Sotteranea estimates the bunker was built in 1940-42.

Mussolini apparently encouraged the King and Queen to have a bunker.  He had one for himself under Villa Torlonia, the site of one of his homes, a bunker we have visited (closed to tours since about October 2016 - not clear why).

There are no bedrooms in the Savoys' bunker. The assumption is that this was an area of temporary - not overnight - reprieve from bombing.  There is a 'living room,' complete with tea service, and two bathrooms.

There were various methods to prevent exposure to poison gas - the Italian government feared the Allies would use it, as Italy had in its African colonies.  Besides the rubber seals on the doors and other openings, there are existing gas masks and other devices to provide fresh air.  If power went out, there was a bicycle to be used to provide man-made power.  A servant would peddle to provide energy.
Gas mask and other accessories from World War II.

On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was at the Villa, possibly hiding in the bunker, when he was arrested just after meeting with the King.  On September 8, 1943, after a truce was signed with the Allies, the King and Queen left the villa for good.  On September 9, they left Italy.

Stai rcase leading to escape
hatch in park.  The materials
used were all first class -
like one would use in
the royal villa itself.
The bunker fell into disuse from September 8, 1943, and was the site of considerable desecration.  Roma Sotteranea crews spent almost 3000 hours beginning in 2015 working to restore it.
Before the intervention of Roma Sotteranea

Tours of the bunker generally are scheduled on the weekends and must be reserved well in advance.  The cost is 10 Euros.  As of now, tours are only in Italian. Information on the bunker is available in English on Roma Sotteranea's web site:


The bunker is circular - schematic below.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Is this Eataly? Nope, it's the Train Station!

We were shocked--in a good way--to discover Mercato Centrale Roma.  We had seen notice of its "Trastevere" night in the newspaper, but our expectations were low (and we never did figure out what the evening had to do with Trastevere).  We thought we might find some folks selling home-made jewelry and stands marketing healthy "bio" products. 

Instead we found an enormous multi-story food and entertainment complex, set inside the already spectacular, high-ceiling architecture of the postwar Stazione Termini. The designers somehow succeeded in keeping the spectacle of the curved brick ceiling while creating a comfortable, sheltered, human-size space below, like Eataly on a smaller scale. 

The American Bar

A great place for dinner (we had a savory cacio e pepe and a raw-artichoke salad), a sandwich, drinks (at American Bar"": a Ribolla Gialla for E5), or just hanging out while waiting for a train.

Our guess is that most of the thousands of people going through the station don't even know the 'mercato' is there, because it's so far from the front of the station (about three short blocks) and only on one side (the south/west side).  Mercato Centrale Roma is best accessed front the sidewalk along via Giolitti.    Bill
And if you are looking for 15 things to do within 200 meters of Termini, try these 2 posts:

Music on an upper floor 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sartogo's Santo Volto Church - a Top Ten Visit

Put the 2006 church of Santo Volto di Gesù ("the Holy Face of Jesus") on your top 10 list for modern Rome architecture.  Less heralded than US architect Richard Meier's 2003 Dives in Miseracordia (known as the "Jubilee Church"), Santo Volto is equal to Meier's work and in some ways surpasses it. It's also closer to the center of Rome and easier to get to.

It's hard to overstate the dramatic impact of Santo Volto in this somewhat run-down neighborhood of Magliana.  Rome architect Piero Sartogo inserted the church into the fabric of the community on a small plot of land, totally unlike Meier's church, which has been heavily criticized for not being "of the neighborhood."  Perhaps for these reasons, too, the church is so heavily packed for Sunday mass that one must get there early to get a seat.  Sartogo's collaborator and wife, Nathalie Grenon, confirms the people in the community are proud of the church.
The 'half dome' looming among the nearby apartment buildings.

Sartogo used the concept of negative volume to present in reality a half-dome, an echo of the Pantheon, but modernized.  Quoting Grenon in a 2013 interview with us:
     The site of the church is critical. It's the idea of a city; it's urban. The language of the architecture here is the mass and the void. The void becomes a dynamic element, the void is inserted by creating a mass; and so there's that tension, as there is tension between the urban environment and the sacred.

But Grenon won't call the building "post modern."  In her words:
Entrance, with rectangular shapes contrasting with the round 'cupola.'
We would say shades of Fascism's rationalist period, but Grenon wouldn't buy it.
She would say only that the materials are Roman.
      The Santo Volto cupola is a reference to the Pantheon, and its idea of the sacred. In the Pantheon the sphere is inside, while in our church, the two halves of the dome are separate: one represents the sacred and the other the profane. All of Rome is constructed with shapes that come from somewhere else.

Let's just say the effect is awe-inspiring.  As social critic Alain de Botton says of some churches, they're designed to make you feel the power of God--and this one does, perhaps even for nonbelievers.

Mimmo Palladino's 4th Station of the Cross (Jesus meets his
afflicted mother).
Santo Volto is a showcase for contemporary Italian artists. Sartogo and Grenon commissioned several of them to provide the liturgical furnishings.  There was no budget for this purpose, and they had to work almost for free.  Some were famous; some were young and not.  Noted artist Mimmo Palladino's stations of the cross are impressive and of this century.  Young artist Pietro Ruffo's  "face of Jesus" painting is hauntingly gorgeous.
Pietro Ruffo's face of Jesus, above the confessionals.

And then there's the crucifix.  It was originally designed by noted Italian artist Jannis Kounnelis, but the Diocese rejected his design.  Sartogo and Grenon had to come up with something quickly, before the Pope's visit.  She sketched out the crucifix, which was supposed to be temporary but has become iconic.  It's now for sale at the Vatican.

Grenon holding a replica of the crucifix she

Grenon's interview contains more fascinating comments.  It's here in TheAmerican/inItaly online magazine.

The church is open as most churches are; with a break in the middle of the day.  To be safe, we suggest going before noon or from 4-7 pm.  Impressive as it is outside, you will want to see the inside too.  Via della Magliana 166.  The church is about 3/4 mile (1.3 km) from Piazza Meucci at the southern end of the Marconi district.

As some of our loyal readers know, we have made the modern churches of Rome a project.  For posts on churches, put 'modern church' in the search engine.

Additional photos below of, first, Meier's Jubilee Church and then several more of Santo Volto.


Richard Meier's Jubilee Church.  The exception that proves the rule:  this day
we saw people enjoying the somewhat isolated church piazza.

Entrance doors to Santo Volto - echoing Renaissance church bronze doors.
Outside the half-cupola, in the open volume.

Play and contemplative space in back, nestled in the community.

From inside the church - through the back 'wall' and crucifix-
 one can see the neighborhood apartments.

Nathalie Grenon with the crucifix she designed--
now on sale at the Vatican.
Schematic of church and list of artists.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Walking to Trullo: for Art's Sake

The plan seemed reasonable, to Bill, anyway.  We had had heard that the working-class Rome suburb of Trullo--we'd been there once before--had been redecorated by volunteer street artists, and we wanted to see the community in all its new glory.  We decided to walk--Bill did, anyway--from our apartment in Monteverde Vecchio, 6.4 google map kms (3-3/4 miles one way): down via dei Quattro Venti, right on via Portuense, across via Isacco Newton, left on via del Trullo.  Voila!

Via Portuense is one of Rome's less fashionable streets, but even so, not without interest.  Early on we noticed (right) a building that had once been a gas station, perhaps a car wash. Many elements, frequently modified.  Concrete block, air conditioning, a covered terrace, a nice old wall, a tattered banner and, of course, graffiti.  In a curious way, a delight.

Further on, a sad memorial to a tragic accident: a young woman, Valentina, had died at that spot.

And two very different buildings, side by side: on the left, what appeared to be a municipal building, constructed in the 1930s; on the right, an apartment complex, perhaps of 1970s vintage, with its brazen rounded balconies.

An architectural find on via
dell'Imbreciatto.  Modernist
brutalism, recent vintage.  

Just beyond, we discovered a flaw in our plan.  Via Isacco Newton is an enormous highway, and there are no sidewalks on the fast-moving portion of via Portuense that crosses it.  Only Evil Knievel would walk that route.  So we doubled back to via Pietro Frattini and turned south through the 'hoods, onto via dell'Imbreciatto, right onto a country road, right again along Isacco Newton and over it, on a bridge, then up the hill and down the hill into Trullo.  Including the doubling back, this route is about 8.2 km, or roughly 5 miles.

Trullo has, indeed, been upgraded, as your exhausted duo discovered.  We didn't see any burning trash cans this time around.  Many of the 1930s housing project buildings that dominate the area have been decorated in one way or another: some simply and playfully--the kind of work that could be done by an untrained crew with a bit of direction. There's lots of poetry, too.

Others have benefited from the first-rate work by professionals.   Several examples follow.

Many other buildings, including the market, sport wall art.  At left, the decorated wall of an eyeglass store. Below, the market.

"The voyage is a search for hidden courage that knows no bounds."

View from the bar.

There's a comfortable bar in the center of town where you can sit outside on the covered patio and watch the main street traffic and the kids playing in the park across the street.  Best on a Saturday.

Worth it.  But don't walk.  We took the bus home. Weak!

PS - Posts on other areas 'upgraded' with street art include those on Quadraro and the Nomentana train station.  The book, "Global Rome" also investigates this phenomenon.

In Trullo, even the trucks are painted!  The graffiti on the building at center is older, not part of the remodeling. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

May Day in the Mountains near Rome, with Italians: The 12-hour Story

Dianne and I occasionally enjoy hiking with an Italian hiking group; we can get farther out of Rome and more deeply into mountains than with our scooter.  There are at least three hiking groups operating out of Rome. On the May 1 (Labor Day) national holiday, we hooked up with Centomilapassi (a hundred thousand steps), a relative newcomer to the species, and headed by a couple: Domenico and his French-born partner, Evelina (we knew she had an accent in Italian, but we hadn't pegged it as French; she told us she was French "cento per cento" (100%)).  Both were solid hikers.  Although most of the groups we have hiked with have included a few English speakers, this one was, with the exception of a moment or two, Italian-speaking. 

We thought it would be useful, and perhaps interesting, to narrate the adventure, start to finish, to give our readers the scope of the day-long endeavor.  Most of the narrative is presented under the photos, but parts of it we didn't photograph.

6:15 a.m.  Wake up and put on hiking clothes, already laid out.  Pack backpacks with lunch, sufficient water, remember hiking sticks.  Turn on coffee pot (all set), down a quick cup of coffee.
6:45           Leave apartment, take scooter 15 minutes to Piazza dell'Independenza.  Walk 1/4 mile to Termini to get the Metro for Anagnina, the last station south on the A-line.
7:30           Arrive Anagnina, with instructions to turn right and go through the underpass to a gas station on the other side of the multi-lane highway.  We are the first ones there.

The bar next to the gas station (where the group really will meet up).
  Outdoor elegance. Real Italian coffee and a cornetto.  

Others arrive.  The group uses private autos/ride sharing.
That's Fabrizio, our 'pilota' (driver), and Patrizia, who will be the
fourth passenger in the customary small car.

The various cars drive south on the A24 for about an hour.
The group meets here, on a wide circle - basically the autostrada off-ramp,
 for all the cars to arrive.  We're headed for the far center of the Lepini Mountains,
visible at right.  

Hiking groups always stop at a bar for coffee and bathroom
break.  It's about 9.a.m.

After a ride through a town and into the heart of the Lepini Mountains,
on a road cut from rock in places - hugging the vertical side of the
mountains, with hairpin curves - we arrive at a large parking lot.  It looks basic
 but below, in an enormous grass field, there's a swing set and slide.
And of course, the large prato/vallone ("meadow/valley") has the requisite
grazing cows and horses.  The sound of the tinkling of the bells on the cows
 will carry up the mountains.

Hike begins up the first of two mountains, Monte Gemma. There are 13 of us.
It's 9:45 a.m. 

Near the summit of Monte Gemma, we come upon a woman
and her poodle.  

Almost every mountain in Catholic Italy has a cross.  This one's on Monte Gemma.  The view is southeast, toward the valley leading to Cassino.  We can see straight south, across the plain of the Ciociaria, a region beloved by urbanites and the setting for the famous Sophia Loren film, "La Ciociara," as well as across the "pontina" (Pontine plain) to the Mediterranean Ocean, with the Circeo cliff barely visible through some haze.  The view here is of at least 4 sets of mountain ranges.

Coming down off of Gemma, with our next mountain, Monte Malaina,
directly in front of us.  And down we went, below the level of our cars.
One of our hiking slogans is "what goes down must go up," and so it was.

Up the very steep side of Monte Malaina.  1400 feet vertical
without a pause.  One of the tougher stretches we've done (as in ever).

Dianne on Malaina.  The first mountain we climbed, Mt.
Gemma, is back right.  Our cars are parked in the valley just behind Dianne.

Summit of Malaina, about 4900 feet above sea level. It's cold up there.  This sturdy hiker in front, Domenico's dog, "Trek," gets lunch craps from everyone.  We meet some people Domenico knows.  They have two children with them: one 3 years old, the other about 1, both with tiny hiking boots and clearly acclimated to the mountains.

Domenico helps the 3-year old down the mountain.  "Trek"
free-lanced the whole day, sometimes out of sight.  Chased
some horses at one point.  

Back at the parking lot.  Total distance: 9-10 miles.
Total vertical: about 2550 feet.   There are children on the swing set.
That's Dominico and Evelina sitting on their rear bumper, Fabrizio at right.
Everyone is changing boots to shoes - it's bad form not to have
 clean shoes to wear in the car.
And back at Bar Michelangelo (you never go straight home) for
drinks - usually beers -  and settling up.  The cost for both of us, which
includes a year membership in the group, is E50--about $55.
We will also share the cost of gas and tolls--E15 for the two of us - a good deal.
Everyone kisses everyone on the cheek goodbye and says "alla prossima" -
to the next one (hike)! 
Then, we reverse our trip: back into the car, ride back to the Anagnina station (opera on the radio), take Metro A 15 stops from Anagnina to Termini, walk to the moto, drive to our apartment in Salario.

7:00 p.m.  Back home.