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, July 31, 2017

Fai Da Te: The Emergence of Do-It-Yourself Volunteerism in Rome

The commercial side of fai da te (do it yourself)
A few months ago, legendary singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori picked up a broom and began sweeping via Settembrini in the quartiere of Prati, near the Vatican.  No, it doesn't happen often. Rome's celebrities are not often found cleaning up this famously filthy city.  But De Gregori's afternoon on the sidewalks, in the gutters, and among the garbage cans of the Eternal City (at  least the garbage is eternal) was a sign that Rome's citizens had turned a corner, and one of no small significance.

Rome--and no doubt most if not all Italian cities--has no tradition of volunteerism.  Romans believe that the high taxes they pay should be enough for the city to provide essential public services and, furthermore, that it would be wrong for citizens to break that contract with the public sphere by taking on duties that were properly in the government sphere.  It is not that Romans are tolerant of dirt.  Indeed, home interiors are generally spotless; marble and wood floors glisten(rugs harbor dirt and dust), and the stairways of apartment houses are routinely swept and washed.  Outside is another matter.

One city government after another--left, center, and now right/populist, under Mayor Virginia Raggi--has promised--and failed--to clean the streets, repair the seriously pot-holed asphalt and stone streets, pick up the garbage, and mow the grass in the parks.

The good news is that people are beginning to take these matters into their own hands, here and there, bit by bit.  Volunteerism remains inchoate, but there are signs of it.  The phrase of the moment is "fai da te": Do it yourself.  Indeed, on May 10 the newspaper La Repubblica referred to Rome as "la capitale del fai-da-te" (the capital of do-it-yourself).  Hard to believe.

A homeowner doing some hard work on via Olbia
We first noticed the signs of change three years ago, while living on via Olbia (it runs off via Gallia) in the San Giovanni neighborhood.  There, on a street where all the villini (small houses) are protected by stone walls and iron gates, a local resident was sweeping the sidewalk.  Bravo!

Cleaning up after the dog in Piazza Re di Roma

About the same time, we noticed a man picking up after his dog in Piazza Re di Roma. Another first!

Some hope here

And, then, this time in Monteverdi Vecchio, an effort to grow some flowers around the trunk of a dead tree.

Community involvement--a form of volunteerism

In Villa Sciara, also in Monteverdi Vecchio, a handwritten sign about keeping the park clean for school children.

Story in La Repubblica about people in Monteverde cleaning the streets, "fai da te"

Those were signs, but what's happening today is on another scale altogether.  Across Rome, public-spirited citizens have come together in associations to accomplish tasks left undone by the city government.  One of them, named Retake Roma, reportedly has 42,000 followers and, using the internet, organizes 20 events each week in the capital, cleaning the streets and parks.  Organized a few months ago, "Tappami" fills the potholes in the streets.  Another association, working with the city government, conducts "surveillance" activities in the parks, perhaps keeping on eye on comportment while keeping track of areas that need repair or cleaning.  And then there's an organization, "AnonimiAttivisiti" (anonymous activists) that brazenly mark out bicycling lanes where they didn't before exist.  On via Muggia in Prati, the portiere (doorman, super) of one of the buildings managed to get permission from the city government to become an authorized gardener (cost: 100 Euro) and then raise money to buy equipment (700 Euro) from area residents, all so that he could cut the grass once a week.  According to La Repubblica, there are now 94 authorized--voluntary-- gardeners in Rome. 

Finally, in Salario (where we lived for a time in the spring), Trieste (just to the north) and other areas of the city, young men, recently-arrived immigrants of African origin, are sweeping the quartiere's streets.  Each sweeper--and there are perhaps a half dozen within a 12-block area--usually has one or two boxes, often marked with the words "pulisco il tuo quartiere" (I'm cleaning your neighborhood) and, on top of the box, a cup for a "mancia" (a tip).  On the surface, it works; the streets are cleaner, and the guys are making a few bucks.  Not exactly "fai-da-te" (the "doing" is being done by someone else) but a new, and welcome contribution to the city's new "look" and "feel."


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Secret Street in Rome--bet you've never been there!

There aren't too many secret streets in Rome--those off-off-off-the beaten path streets that even the locals may not know.  We've found one, and none too soon, for it's about to disappear, or at the least take on a very different look.  As it turns out, some interesting folks--including a number of prominent artists--live on the street (more below).  But the reason we know about it is because some of the buildings are illegal. 

We're talking about via Paolo Caselli, some 200 yards of homes and businesses that could be said to connect the neighborhood of Ostiense with that of Testaccio.  One end of the street begins precisely across the street from the entrance to the non-Catholic cemetery, which backs up onto the Pyramid. One can drive in this way.  The other end, accessible on foot only, can be found at the end of a small parking lot, directly across the street from the 1930s-era post office on via Marmorata.

via Paolo Caselli, non-Catholic cemetery end
Around the bend
Although we had been to the non-Catholic cemetery many times, we had never "seen" this street--until, that is, it appeared in the newspapers--and not because it was a quaint, unrecognized tourist attraction, which it is not, except maybe for RST.  As reported in La Repubblica, via Paolo Caselli is a poster child for abusivismo--literally, abusiveness, but in this case illegally constructed buildings, those lacking proper construction permits and other authorizations--and probably not paying taxes.

Certainly has the look of a legit business
Indeed, the story as reported is more interesting than that.  At via Paolo Caselli #1 (the first building on the left as you enter from the cemetery side), not only has one of the units been illegally occupied for more than ten years, but the brother of the occupier heads the police unit charged with keeping

A series of buildings at #1
track of the ownership of Rome buildings.  Sounds  bad!  Moreover, it looks like the family has been profiting from illegal building for more than 50 years, dating back decades to when the father of the two brothers distributed mineral water from a warehouse on the street.

A business behind the gate--not sure what.
And there's another angle here that we found fascinating.  There are many other "abusivo" properties on the street, and most of them are occupied not by Mafia types or low-lifes or anything of the sort, but--guess what?--by artists!  Some or most or all of them will be "sgomberati" (evicted), and the buildings they occupy torn down, costs borne by the occupiers (we'll believe that when we see it). Several are sculptors, at least one a woman, an ancestor, so explains La Repubblica, of Naples gypsies. Another is Paolo Olmeda, owner of an historic foundry--apparently located on this street--in which Olmeda in 2006 made bronze reproductions of Amodeo Modigliani's 1910 Tête di Cartiatide. Then there's the German artist, Janine von Thungen, who made molds of the walls of the catacombs of San Callisto and created the work "Eternity," for a time in the Villa Foscari in Venice.
von Thungen's "Eternity"  

Besides these notable artists, it seems the local station of the fire department is also responsible for its own "abusivo" structure, an add-on building at the Marmorata end of the street.

Perhaps only the bocce ball facility is legal.  Who knows?


Monday, July 17, 2017

History, Myth and Mystery through Italian Trail Markers

The best of trail markers - at the top.  Here, Monte Gennaro - "Rome's mountain," complete with cross, Italian flag, and
clear markers - once you are up there - of the various ways down.
Who would have thought trail markers would have turned into a debate about Italian war history, geology and hiking myth?
Here's a mysterious one - again, on Monte Gennaro - the
traditional trail marker has been replaced with... well, you
see what.
We shouldn't have been surprised.  Signed trails in central Italy can be more entertainment than guides much of the time.  Since we've hiked almost every peak within 50 miles of Rome - and there are probably 100 - we like to think we're experts.

Yet, getting lost is one of our fortes as well. It's partly us, it's partly the trail maps slapped over WWII maps and not updated, it's partly the vandalism of trail markers, and it's partly the inadequacies of central Italy's trail system.  Central Italians tend to prefer the sea to the mountains.  And, after all, it's not the Alps. Still, as I said, it can be entertaining.  So here are some of the markers we learned from, puzzled over, and laughed at so far this Spring.

First, we learned some history.  On our hike to Monti Gemma and Malaina, that Bill wrote about recently, one of our fellow hikers told the story he was told by a guide as they were hiking around Monte Cassino (where the Allies in February 1944 bombed the abbey to smithereens trying to drive out the Germans).  That story, as our fellow hiker reported to our group, was that some thought the markers were to commemorate the Poles who actually took Monte Cassino, after multiple attempts by multiple armies, 3 months later, on May 18, 1944. The Polish flag is red and white.
Polish flag

Austria-Hungary flag; the Austria-
Germany flag of 1918-1919 is pure
red and white.
No, he was told by this guide, the generally consistent red and white trail markers derived from the Austro-Hungarians in World War I marking their retreat line with the colors of their flag.  I don't think he meant to say they were around Monte Cassino, which is south of Rome, but just that this is how the system started.

A confused and confusing marker -
red and white? yellow and red? blue?
"No, no," said our guide, Domenico, that's a myth.  As Domenico told his version of the story, the marking system in central Italy--basically in all the Apennines which run lengthwise through the country--was red and yellow.  They did not use white because the rocks of the Apennines are limestone, which is white, and so white is not a good color to use.

CAI's red and white - no mistaking it here.
But, after World War II, the Europeans decided to use one coloring system.  The dominant Italian group maintaining the trail system is CAI (rhymes with "eye"), Club Alpino Italiano ("Italian Alpine Club").  The red and white was used in the Alps, and because the northern Italians dominate the hiking scene - their mountains are higher (though the Gran Sasso a few hours from Rome is 10,000 feet) - they won out. The central Italians clearly think to this day that white is just plain wrong.  BTW, I googled quite a bit, and it looks like Domenico's story is likely the correct one.
Look behind the cows and calves and you'll see blue markers.   So blue is still in use.
  On the 
high plain on Monte Gennaro.  Can't resist the animal shots.

First we saw just blacked-over markers.  Was the trail out of commission?

And then we discovered this Spring on our perhaps 5th hike up "Rome's mountain"--Monte Gennaro, the tallest that looms outside of the city--that the trail markers had been "cancellato," or blacked out, probably with spray paint.

First the CAI sign is spray painted over black, then
someone has written: "CAI? No! thanks"
We went back and forth on the trail a few times to see if there was some reason the trail might have been re-routed, but, finding nothing, kept going.  We thought perhaps someone wanted to turn the trails more back to nature, as has happened to some extent in the Adirondacks in New York.  By eliminating trail markers, fewer people take the trails and one route does not become eroded.

But then we saw the reason here.  Someone is having a feud with the hiking section maintaining the trails:  the Tivoli section of CAI (Tivoli is the closest 'large' town).   Soon we saw that CAI had come along and painted their red and white markers over the black paint, and then someone else had come along and written on the CAI markers various blasphemes at CAI (see the photos).  We haven't been able to figure out the source of the feud.  But there it is.
This one says "CAI section Tivoli - Mafiosi!" - more
blasphemous tree signs (who would've thought that was
even a concept) are at the end of the post.


This says "Path of the Partisans" and points a different
direction from the trail.  What's the politics here?
Still on Monte Gennaro.

On a recent hike on some nice mountains behind Tivoli 20 miles outside of Rome, we took an incredibly steep trail down (we had taken it up a few years ago).  It now has been marked with extensive stonework, by a mountain biking group.  How anyone can bike this trail - or run it (we saw a trail runner too) is totally beyond our comprehension.  One can barely keep upright hiking it.
Dianne with a "uomini"
But, this group has moved a lot of stones to put in large markers of stacked stones, what we call 'cairns' and are called "uomini" or "little men" in Italian - these are the largest 'little men' we've seen.  These, by the way, are useful where the white doesn't show up against the limestone. The group also put in some stone circles and other markers that some might argue are not consistent with the wild.  But since one is hiking amidst grazing farm animals, and ex-farm buildings and stone farm walls (as in the cow photo above), this is a different kind of 'wild.'  We haven't yet come down on one side of the debate.
Your guess is as good as ours.  

A couple other words to the wise trekker.  Often the signs have been vandalized.  One can have very clear signs, and then none at all.  If you see a map on a signboard (most of those have been demolished as well - by vandals, not because of feuds), take a picture with your camera or phone. We encountered a young German hiking behind Tivoli and he managed using this technique plus a GPS app.  Of course, even the pictures can be wrong and misleading.  But it's a start.  And, the two of us debate the use of GPS.  It seems like cheating.  One of us (that's me!) likes to haul out the iPhone now and then to see if we're anywhere near where we should be.  The other one (that's Bill) enjoys the pleasure following the anxiety of losing the trail.
The young German knew enough to fill up  his water bottle
at the Tivoli train station (nice 'statue' to symbols of
Tivoli, including the aqueducts).

Classic CAI  trail markers - this is trail #215 in Rome - on Monte Mario.
  These are great, until they disappear.  BTW, the numbers are hours and
 minutes,  not kilometers or miles (yep, we made that mistake once - 
believe me, 2 hours is a lot longer than 2 kilometers!).  And who
knows what sign was once in those pieces of metal now framing nothing.
These pleasures and anxieties can be found in the parks and hills within Rome as well. Monte Mario, which is the most significant 'mountain' IN Rome, is a great hiking spot, with lots of trails, totally confusing markings, and everything from waist-high weeds to great views (of St. Peter's, of the Tiber, of all of Rome).  We've written about it before, and we suggested a hike up it in our first guidebook, "Rome The Second Time."  Since we published that itinerary, the 'mountain' or park has had trails added, and markers added and deleted.  If you don't mind being a little lost at times, go for it.

We found this map on a signboard on Monte Mario.  It has its
defects - no numbered trails.  Where we came in and out
isn't even on the map, but it gave us some sense of where
we were.
 The last time we were on Monte Mario we encountered 4 English-speaking 'pilgrims,' who were walking the via Francigena, St. Frances's walk.  They had 100 miles under their hiking belts, from Orvieto north of Rome, and were within a couple hours of their destination - St. Peter's.  They were doing it all with some "turn left here, turn right" typed directions.  Impressive!  We, of course, told them where to find the best bar with a view in the next 30 minutes of their walk.  The pilgrims seemed happy to get that information.

We've said it before, but it bears repeating, "buon trekking."  Dianne
"CAI section Tivoli - Shits!"
"CAI section Tivoli - Bastards!"

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Fire on the River: the Two Sides of Rome's Tevere

Looking south from Ponte della Scienza
Early in the morning of June 28, a fire broke out on the east bank of the Tevere, between the relatively new walking bridge, Ponte della Scienza, and Ponte Marconi, downstream.  The fire started in a riverbank encampment (illegal, of course) of some 15 Romanian families, living in some 25 sheds and shacks. Fire departments from Testaccio and EUR responded, but their ability to deal with the blaze was limited by the steep terrain of the riverbank at that point.  Fortunately, no one was injured or died in the fire, but the families were made homeless.

East bank fire, seen from the west bank

Couple enjoying the river and the gazometro from beneath
the Ponte della Scienza, west bank
We found the story sad but also instructive, especially about the complexity of the Tevere as it winds through the city.  On the one hand, about a mile from the site of the fire--beneath Piazza Trilussa--the west bank of the river has been transformed by William Kentridge into one of the century's monumental works of art.

And, on that west bank one can jog or ride a bike on a paved track near water level, about 50 feet below the top of the river bank, for miles, from Ponte della Scienza north.

On the other hand, as one goes south from Ponte Testaccio, people live amid the dense foliage on the east bank of the river.  On that side of the river, there is no regular path for walking or biking, just dirt paths leading down through the weeds into the encampments.

Encampments, east bank, photographed from west bank
Still, parts of the east bank below Ponte dell'Industria (the "Iron Bridge," between Ponte Testaccio and Ponte della Scienza) are accessible, reasonably safe, and compelling in their way.  One approaches from via del Porto Fluviale (a now trendy area for restaurants in Ostiense) takes a curving street--Riva Ostiense--past some new high-end apartments, and out onto a broad street that's full of colorful graffiti of the customary "lettering" style, dramatic equipment once used for loading and unloading ships on the river, the best view in the city of the largest of the gazometri, and the backs of once-active industrial buildings.  One can "exit" over the Ponte della Scienza, a few hundred yards downriver.
The safer part of Riva Ostiense
Farther down.  These structures--industrial detritus from an earlier era--can be seen in the fire photos, above.
Farther on, the area gets dicey and possibly dangerous.  We had assumed that Riva Ostiense was open on the southern end, and it should be, but it isn't, and so there is no through traffic either for autos or pedestrians. Moreover, at some point about a quarter mile downriver from the Scienza bridge, those living on the bank have closed off what remains of the road with green canvas.  So one has to retreat--and the word feels appropriate.

Path leading down to an encampment below
The light blue at the center of the photo is an encampment, likely destroyed in the fire.
Encampment, seen from Ponte della Scienza, looking north.  Probably escaped the fire. 
Rome in a nutshell, one might say.  A nice path for jogging and biking on one side, people living in squalor and poverty on the other, a few hundreds yards from new luxury apartments.  And Riva Ostiense, open to Ponte della Scienza, beckoning to those with just a little sense of adventure, but beyond that, abandonment and no-man's-land, no effort at development or maintenance.