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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Best Hike in the Colli Albani: Monte Cavo, twice, with gourmet lunch

We included an itinerary for climbing Monte Cavo in our book, Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries that Don't Go to the Coliseum.  Now, years later, we've got a new one that requires more hiking and offers an excellent pasta pranzo (lunch) at a trattoria known only to locals. 

Here are the basics: you start at a main (lower) piazza in Rocca di Papa; ascend Monte Cavo.  Descend Monte Cavo--on the other side, where you have lunch; ascend Monte Cavo and return to Rocca di Papa.  About 4 1/2 hours, including lunch.  Total elevation, about 2000 feet with some steep (but nothing dangerous--you could bring the kids) sections, so don't do this hike if you're not in decent condition.  Hiking poles recommended.

I called this an "itinerary," but the directions that follow are less than fully precise, because we didn't keep close track.  Still, it's hard to go wrong or very wrong, and it's fun to find your way without being told where to go every fifty feet.

If you drive, you'll emerge from a curving road into the town's main piazza, which at 11:30 a.m. or so will be full of older men talking.  Park in the piazza and have a second coffee (we assume you had your first one in Rome) at Bar Europa.

Late morning in the piazza.  I counted 30 older men (not all in the photo).  

Begin your trek by going uphill on the town's main drag: the road to the left as you look up toward the mountain.  This could be the steepest section of the walk.  You'll pass by a church in the classical style and head up to the right on a street with "permanent" poster art every 100 feet or so.

You should go by this wall coming and going (here, on the descent)
  Above, gorgeous views and some old signs that say "Monte Cavo" with an arrow.  Follow them.

Sign for Monte Cavo (and woman hanging her washing)

You'll eventually arrive at a piazza at the top of the town, where you'll see signs for Monte Cavo heading up the mountain.  Soon you'll reach an intersection, unsigned, where one road goes right and the other left.  Take the left fork.  This road will turn into the Monte Cavo trail, which becomes via Sacra, the sacred road up to the top of the mountain, which once had a temple to Diana. This is as good as Roman roads get, and you don't have to fight tourists or face barriers to walk on it.

When you arrive at the blue sanctuary to Santa Rita (and Mary), go up left on the stones of the via Sacra.

The sanctuary, ahead
the via Sacra - 2,000+ years old
Ahead, there's a splendid lookout over lakes Albano and Nemi (here, left).

Trail through the woods to the "top" (here,
on the descent)

Then the trail goes left, toward and around a green gate.  Parts of the top are closed for military purposes, but you can get as far as you can go by taking a dirt use trail (as in, not official, but clearly people have made a trail by walking up this way)--close to the green gate--up right and through the woods and around the corner to an old hotel "under construction" (it's been under construction for the decades we've been hiking up here) and, when we were there, a barking, unleashed dog. The top of Monte Cavo unfortunately is chock-full of cell towers now, with no trace of Diana's temple. (You also can take the asphalt road that's close to the gate up and around to the top instead of the dirt trail).

Descend the way you came, until you again reach the blue sanctuary.  If you're exhausted (you've done about half the total elevation) return to town on the trail--straight ahead, past gorilla rock (photo above with Dianne leaning on the rock). (You really don't want to do this if you're hiking for your lunch.)  If you're still up for lunch, curve left around the sanctuary and descend on the 2,000-year old via Sacra, which will cross an asphalt road ahead. Apparently there was an effort around 2006 to clear the via Sacra and put in benches and picnic tables and signs.  A few of each of those, in dilapidated condition, remain.

Below, there's a problem.  The stones of the via Sacra will suddenly end, on the edge of a large open space that was being logged when we were there (May 2019).  At that time, one could choose to go left around the logged area or right.  We chose left, where there were some trail markings.  WRONG.  We ended up walking at least half a mile on a very dangerous, no-shoulder road.  Go right, on the logging road, several hundred yards to a trail that goes off to the right.

When you see this abomination, go right along the logging road until you see a trail off right..
You'll be on this for a few minutes.  Look for a trail that descends left at a right angle, and take it.  In about 5 minutes you should come out on the road, close to the Trattoria La Baita (just to your right).  Have the fettucine or the roast maiale or whatever else you like; the cook knows how to cook.  There is a nice outside space but also an inside dining room, if the weather is chilly.  You'll be welcome even in your hiking garb.

Only locals, clearly, in La Baita. There were 2 choices for each stage of lunch, listed
on a blackboard outside.  Pick any of them!  This is a half-portion of tagliatelle with funghi
porcini and crispy guanciale.  Amazing!
Return the way you came: up through the woods, right at the first "T," left when you hit the logging clearing, left again a few hundred yards up the logging road, onto the via Sacra), up the via Sacra to the blue sanctuary (no need to go back up to the top of Monte Cavo), then straight down the trail (abandoning the via Sacra) into town.

Rusty house and view of Colatrava's unused swimming pool, on the descent into town
You'll go by this basketball hoop both ways.
One of the all-time best hikes in the Colli Albani.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Quinto Sulpicio Massimo: the Child Poet who Studied Himself to Death

We've always enjoyed the eclectic frenzy of Piazza Fiume, at the juncture of Corso d'Italia and via Salaria, one of ancient Rome's consular roads. But there's a part of that eclectic mix that we've never understood: the jumble of "ruins" of various kinds on the north side of the piazza. Thanks to a morning newspaper, Il Messaggero, we now have a better understanding of what happened there, and when.

Looking through the fence (or over it) at the ruins, there's a statue of a small boy in a niche (above), with some writing to the sides and below, and below that, some large grey blocks of stone. You're looking at the tomb of Quinto Sulpicio Massimo (note the street sign with that name nearby to the right). Quinto was a prodigy, a boy genius, when at age eleven, in 94 d.c., he entered the third "Certamen Capitolinum," a contest featuring extemporaneous Greek poetry "readings." Rome's most famous poets competed--more than 50 of them were entered--but none performed so ably as young Quinto, who improvised 40 verses, no doubt astonishing those in attendance. Whether he won is not known.

Sadly, Quinto's career in oratory was cut tragically short. As the text around the niche explains, Quinto died a few days after the competition, weakened by "too much studying and his excessive love for the 'muse.'"

Quinto's tomb, and another beside it, remained intact for 2 centuries, protected from the barbarian invasion of 276 by the hastily constructed wall built under Emperor Marcus Aurelias' watch. According to Il Messaggero, his tomb was encased in one of the two towers of Porta Salaria.

Vespignani's Porta Salaria

You'll notice that there is no Porta Salaria. It didn't survive the cannons of the invading Goths under King Vitige in 537. Then (skipping ahead some 13 centuries), under the new Italian state, the Porta was rebuilt by Virginio Vespignani, only to be torn down in 1921 to open up the piazza. It was then that Quinto's story came to light: as Vespignani's work was being disassembled, workers uncovered the niche and statue--the "cippo"--that one sees today (although the statue is a copy; the original is in Centrale Montemartini, on via Ostiense).

The structures behind the tomb for many years housed the studio of sculpture Ettore Ferrari, who died in 1929. Among other large works, Ferrari created the statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de' Fiori.

Somewhere back there was Ferrari's studio.  

And one more "treat." If you walk around the corner to your left (facing the tomb), and look up at the wall, you can't miss the latrine--a toilet--hanging off the side of the wall (on its outside, of course). At one time there were 260 latrines on the Aurelian wall, serving the soldiers who worked in the
Convenient bathroom 


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"A Jewel of Italian Technology" pre- and post-WWII: Stazione Termini's Cabina ACE

How does one get a great photo like this - of one of the towers in the Termini train yards?  From the stairway up a contiguous building which, it turns out, is the "Roma Termini - Cabina ACE" - or the building housing a railway control system dating from 1939 and in operation for 60 years.

Anyone who has taken a train in or out of Stazione Termini (which has to be almost anyone who has been to Rome) has seen this building as the train pulls out or in. We had the rare opportunity to go inside it as part of 2018's Open House Roma, the first time it had been open to the public; OHR called it "a jewel of Italian technology of the era." ACE stands for "Apparato Centrale Electrico" - Central Electric Apparatus. And, we learned, one objective of this center was to provide a back-up method of switching the railroad tracks in case of a bombing or other failure of the train switching systems..
The great hall where the 700+ levers still exist.

Close-up of the manual levers.
That failure originally was foreseen by the Mussolini regime as a possible result of Allied bombing in World War II. The original project, begun in 1939, was the child of engineer and architect Angiolo Mazzoni, who designed most of Stazione Termini (although the station's front was substantially modified post-war). The work on the station, and this particular building, was interrupted in 1943 "because of the war."

The project was taken up again and completed in 1948. As the state railroad foundation (Fondazione FS Italiane) proudly stated in a news release just after our visit: this was "the control tower that regulated the railway traffic at Roma Termini. Over 40 meters long, large luminous screens, 730 levers and a breathtaking view of the station: an electro-mechanical masterpiece created in the '30s and in operation for over 60 years."

View towards Termini from Cabina ACE.
The central room we saw (photo above) has fantastic views of the tracks and their environs.

A duplicate set of machinery was set up below ground - another of Mussolini's bunkers.

The duplicate system in the "bunker."
Again, quoting from the Fondazione FS: "To manage the movement of trains, teams of more than 60 railway workers climbed every day about 20 meters high, in the tower, each positioned in front of their own 'levers' and awaiting the orders of the 'station chief' who like an orchestra director directed them to prepare the correct track layout."

And, the news release continues: "But when the sirens sounded, announcing an imminent airstrike, the whole team ran down into the bunker, ten meters deep--the "antigas" doors were hermetically sealed behind their backs-- and remained there until the danger ceased. There was no time for fear, we had to resist because our only goal was: to guarantee the movement of trains."

This board, when in use, would have the train lines lit, showing where each
train was, including (we think) trains going to and from other cities, such as Florence.

Former railway employees were among the guides
during our visit.
With respect to Mazzoni as an architect, Wikipedia (English) has a short but pithy bio of him that explains his work for the Fascist government (he was a card-carrying Fascist) and the later rehabilitation of his reputation as an architect.

And if you really want to get into the weeds, the Fondazione has Mazzoni's drawings for the building ("Fabbricato I") online - as well as hundreds of other archival materials.

More photos below. Dianne

Our OHR guide - the Cabina is the building back right.
This photo faces away from the station.
Inside the bunker, which was designed to be hermetically sealed,
and have its own air supply.

Nice views from our walk up to the Cabina of the
lovely 17th -century, Bernini-enhanced (portico,
facade, statue of the saint) church of Santa Bibiana,
totally hemmed-in by the 20th century train station
buildings and about which we've written.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Coffee Bars, Pigneto: So Near, Yet So Far

One of the first things we do when arriving in a new Rome neighborhood is to find "our" coffee bar--one we like.  We prefer the fancy, old-fashioned bars with lots of wood, staffed with old guys with coats who have been there for years, maybe an on-site bakery for an especially fresh cornetto.  But we'll take a place that's not so old or fancy, one that makes a good caffè americano and has something like "atmosphere." (Ten years ago we wrote about this hunt in another neighborhood!)

Usually the find-the-coffee-bar process plays out in a couple of days. But in Pigneto--Pigneto Nuovo, the Pigneto east of the tracks--where we landed about two weeks ago, it took well beyond a week. Here's why.

Zazie nel metro (named for the French book and film)
Zazie-nel-metro bar looked like a winner, if an odd one.  More like a 1960s coffee house than a Roman bar, it was close to our apartment, plenty of no-charge tables, a guy maybe writing a screenplay, women customers to make Dianne comfortable.  Because it wears its radical politics on its sleeve, we call it "FREE PALESTINE BAR."  Service was OK, but the coffee?  Not so good.  You can't teach an old dog new tricks, and you can't change how a barista makes a cup of coffee.

What looks like a customer - the lone person in there - is
actually the barista.
An even closer bar was a new, modernist space just down the street. It's got the unlikely name of Apluvio: La Puglia Che Piace (the Puglia [a southern province known for its food] you like.  What?  No one is ever inside the place, but we tried it anyway. The barista, a gaunt 20-something, seemed flummoxed at the idea of making an Americano, let alone serving customers, and called to the back for a woman. She showed him how to make the Americani, then left him alone!  Not enough action here for us.  We have a name for this bar we can't share.

Early on we found what we call TEA BAR, because it serves tea and has a tea-room look and feel, serves pancakes and bacon on Sundays (!), all of which is not for us.  In addition, when we asked for a caffè americano, we got brewed American-style coffee that had been sitting in the pot, rather than espresso with hot water.  That's a new one, and not a good one.

Onto a rather ordinary bar on busy via Prenestina.  The name is Bar Malu'. Nothing fancy but very Roman and a few tables to inhabit while reading the newspaper. Enticing in part because of the newsstand right outside it - we buy a Rome newspaper every day.  Some very Roman guys sitting in a corner to lend the place that certain authenticity.  Except those Roman guys were talking so loud--really yelling at each other, though in good spirits--that we couldn't think straight.  Woman comes up, starts talking to them, we think she'll help modulate the conversation, but she's yelling, too.  Coffee's OK, but this is now known as LOUD GUYS BAR.

Next morning we head out to a busy avenue a few blocks to the east and south--a middle-class neighborhood, more upscale than our own. We strike it rich: a new, modern, hip bar with its own excellent bakery, down the street from our place, full of wealthier types taking pictures of their tiny cute dogs.

Tables outside under a perfect canopy of trees. It goes by the name of Fattori.  Dianne, seeker of (at least some) luxury and style, is in heaven. BUT the coffee is cold--or rather not hot enough.  On this we agree.  We think it might have something to do with the setting on the high-tech electronic espresso machine.  Hoping that the setting will be different the next day, we return.  Still not hot enough.  After 20 years in Rome, this is a new problem.  We explain our concern to the barista--a woman--who seems not to take it seriously.  We do not return. We call this bar TRENDY BAR or COLD COFFEE BAR.

Fattori - always busy, communal tables, very hip, great pastries.
We reject any bar that's a big hangout for men, especially old men--and Rome is full of older men, most of them "pensionati"--retired.  They commandeer the tables outside and smoke.  Here's an example, on via Prenestina, of an OLD MEN'S BAR, or, at this hour, a MEN's BAR.

Now we are in trouble.  We've been trying a coffee bar a day and still have not settled on a bar.  How will we establish ourselves in our new neighborhood.  Never fear.  There are more bars to try.  We've been eyeing a place not far from TRENDY BAR.  The name outside is Sami Bar.  It has tables outside (but no trees and no umbrellas) and some decent seating inside--and customers.

The three folks running the bar are in black outfits (or white blouses) with red half ties--designed to look like full ties, tucked in.  We like the outfits, appreciate the artifice.  And the bar has a certain modernist near-elegance.  But once again, the coffee is not hot enough!  Perhaps we could have coached them to make it hotter.  This we call RED TIE BAR.

Our story has a happy ending.  We found OUR BAR (that's what we call it) on the corner of via Prenestina and the railroad tracks that cut Pigneto in two.  It has a heritage (1931) but lacks the veneer of oldness in part because the building that originally housed the bar was torn down and replaced in the late 1930s.  The name is Berardo Caffe' (though inside, in an effort to market the bar to younger folks, they call it "Moby Dick"--photo right). It has the the advantage of being right next to another news stand, where we purchase the daily paper (Il Messaggero this year).

A big burly guy runs the register while younger folks make and serve the coffee.  The cornetti are just fair - varied, but not made "in casa."  However, the coffee is tasty and--now important to us--hot.  Sometimes the bar gets very crowded, but that's OK; it's a sign they're doing things right.  Unfortunately, just recently the guy who in the photo below is running the espresso machine was doing the dishes (it's done right in front of the customers) in the narrow space here where that day a woman was running the espresso machine

"Our bar"

(they trade off these tasks).  The two of them had a lengthy argument; it appeared he thought she wasn't pulling her weight.  This is not appropriate bar behavior, and should it become a daily occurrence, we'll be looking, once again, for OUR BAR.


Other coffee wanderings about which we've written include:
Meet you at the hospital for coffee.
Coffee in the traffic circle.
The stand-alone coffee bar.
Caffe' Natalizi (one of our favorites - in Salario).