Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, December 27, 2020

New Year's Eve in Italy in the time of Covid - Even in lockdown, some traditions remain

It will be New Year's dinner for 2
in 2020.

RST welcomes guest writer Mary Jane Cryan, who, originally from the US (she even went to college at D’Youville in Buffalo), has lived in Italy for more than 50 years. Mary Jane is THE expert on all things Etruria, the fascinating area just north of Rome that includes the lively city of Viterbo and of Vetralla, where she lives. See her terrific website here: Besides contributing to virtually every important guidebook to Italy and the region, lecturing on cruise ships, and speaking widely, Mary Jane is a prolific writer and publisher. Her own books in the past few years have focused on Etruria; her bibliography is on her website.

We have featured her fine work in two prior posts: one on Etruria, here:

and another on a Borromini monastery (turned luxury hotel) in Rome here:

Mary Jane brings her particular insight to this very unusual “Vigilia di Capodanno” – New Year’s Eve – and New Year's Day.:

2020 will be remembered for decades to come as the year to forget. The latest, rather strict, rules for the holiday weeks here in Italy are being enforced from December 21, 2020 to January 6, 2021.

The table set for a festive crowd in a prior year
and hopefully a year to come.
 This means travel between   individual regions and autonomous provinces is prohibited, except to return to one's primary legal residence. For this entire period, travel to second homes in other regions is prohibited, making Italians even more creative since this is the time when families generally gather together.

There was a rush on trains to get to family homes before the shut down. On 25 and 26 December and New Year’s, January 1st, leaving one's municipality was and is totally prohibited, except for work, health, or other urgent reasons.

Italians are coping with the restrictions by using their creativity: restaurants offer take-away menus which include bottles of spumante with orders. Country house accommodations (agriturismi) and hotels are serving dinner to guests in their own rooms or apartments rather than in the main dining rooms.   

Until this year, New Year’s was celebrated by young people gathering in major piazzas throughout the peninsula, mega concerts were held in Rome, and there was all night dancing in night clubs. I remember fondly one New Year’s evening spent at a concert in Bologna’s magnificent Opera House which ended with a rousing “Radetzky’s March” and bottles of spumante being shared with members of the audience and the orchestra.

What has been - and what could be - a rousing opera at a full opera house.

And a concert in a crowded
Those who stay home play bingo and other board games while waiting for the countdown to the New Year. Multi-course dinners, spumante and panettone are followed with the traditional dish of lentils, for good luck, at midnight. This year the number of guests around the dining table is drastically reduced due to restrictions on travel between towns and regions.

Surely traditions like fireworks, wearing red underwear and throwing old things out for the New Year’s will still happen throughout Italy, and, even though separated by rules and distances, families will be united in spirit and by modern technology to welcome in 2021.


                                                                        Mary Jane Cryan


Sausages by the fireplace - for 2.

Friday, December 18, 2020

A Contemporary Nativity Scene at St. Peter's: Visiting Piazza San Pietro before Christmas

RST is delighted to offer another guest post by our Rome friend Larry Litman, who wrote eloquently in March about being in Rome under one of the first lockdowns. Since we can't be in Rome, we asked Larry for a holiday offering. Here he visits Piazza San Pietro before Christmas and discovers an unusual presepe or crèche (as we called them in our family) as well as a gorgeous display of another 100 presepi.

Larry lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, before moving to Rome in 2007.  In the early 1970s he studied at Loyola University of Chicago's Rome Center, now the John Felice Rome Center on Monte Mario. "That was when I fell in love with the city of Rome," Larry writes, "and then had the dream of making Rome my home."

Larry is a retired teacher librarian at AmBrit International School and is active at St. Paul's Within the Walls (the Episcopal Church on via Nazionale).  He also volunteers at the Non-Catholic Cemetery. He has two adult children and two grandchildren living in New York City.

Visiting Piazza San Pietro before Christmas

A Christmas tradition for many Romans (and tourists) is to visit St. Peter’s Square and view the tree and presepe (crèche). Each year a tree is donated to the Pope from a different country and the crèche each year is by different artists.

When I visited the square on December 15th, there weren’t even two dozen people there. It felt strange to be in a space that is normally teeming with tourists and pilgrims. I also went into St. Peter’s Basilica. There was no line to go through the security screening, and once inside it was also practically empty.

The presepe figures this year have brought a lot of criticism. The life size ceramic figures are from Castelli in the Abruzzo region and were created by students and teachers of the “F.A. Grue” Art Institute. The Nativity scene featured several life-sized ceramic statues in a contemporary art style that “has its roots in the traditional working of Castelli’s ceramics,” said a statement from the Vatican. “The cylindrical ceramic statues surrounding Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus included a bagpiper, a shepherdess holding a jug and even an astronaut, meant to reference the history of ancient art and scientific achievements in the world.” (Source: Catholic News Service-CNS)

A special feature for 2020 is a display of 100 presepi in the Bernini Colonnade. The scenes come from around the world and reflect many different style of recreating the Christmas Story with figurines.

Larry Litman

Below are 7 of the 100 presepi  - traditional, and not so traditional; you can pick your favorite. Photos by Larry Litman.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Castel San Pietro: of War Monuments and Movie Sites

In thinking about places we miss - and that are often missed period - my mind landed on Castel San Pietro, a small town above Palestrina. I planned to write that Palestrina (dating back farther than the 8th century BC) is one of the more important cities within 25 miles of Rome, but Wikipedia gives it short shrift. 

It gives even shorter shrift to Castel San Pietro, calling it "now occupied by a few poor houses and a ruined medieval castle of the Colonna family."  Whoa! Don't think the locals would like that description.  In fact, they worked hard to make Castel San Pietro a much-used movie site, especially in the 1950s, because of its picturesque setting. One can see Rome from its heights. Gina Lollobrigida starred in the 1953 "Bread, Love and Dreams" (Pane, Amore e Fantasia), filmed in the town. There are a dozen or so placards around  explaining the film sites in both Italian and English, though we've never seen a tourist of any nationality - or anyone speaking English.

We've always liked hiking up - and it's waaay up - to the "Rocca" or castle ruins (see photo at top) that form part of this small town above Palestrina. It's sort of (if you count going up and over the hill town when you don't have to) on our way to a hike we like that takes one down to ancient aqueducts - and Horace's tree - if we could ever find the latter.

What we found the last time we were wandering the town, looking for a coffee bar, were two war monuments, neither of which we'd seen in our previous walking around.

One monument was to the Italian combatants and Holocaust victims from the area who died in World War II, with this statue combining the two types of "caduti" - "fallen." Photo left.

The other monument, photo below, is accompanied by an inscription that reads, "In this place, on 6 July 1944, three young boys, playing with a war ordinance left over from the war, were made innocent victims. This monument is a testament to that incident, and stands against every war, past and present, against the shame of landmines and in honor of civilian victims. 8 December 2004." The Germans had left the area by early June, 1944

The two monuments together are a chilling testament to the horrors of war. And they make our casual escapade through the town, and down into the aqueducts, an after-thought. 

More later on the hike, which we do almost every year when we're in Rome, and Palestrina, home to the great 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose statue stands in a central town square, and to the fictional site where the pact with the devil was made in Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus." Mann spent some time in Palestrina in the late 1890s.


Friday, November 27, 2020

Things I Miss in Rome (Part III)


Things I miss in Rome (3rd installment):

1. Watching Romans enjoy themselves at large social gatherings

2.  Wall Politics 

3.  Iron work as an art form

4.  Roman informality. A table for 2 while you get new tires. 

5.  Hiking with animals


Monday, November 16, 2020

The German World War II Cemetery, Pomezia

The German World War II cemetery in Pomezia, 25 kilometers outside of Rome, is a calm, well-maintained green space.  We first ventured there on the advice of our friend Virginia Jewiss, a Dante scholar and author of an essay on the Pomezia cemetery [linked and quoted below]. She knew we toured towns founded - from scratch - by the Fascists in the Agro Pontino, the flat plains that run from the Castelli Romani to the sea (malarial plains for most of their existence, and hence, little occupied before then). [This post follows an earlier one about the town of Pomezia, its Fascist architecture and its vaccine industry.]

We had a second goal - to find the grave of the father of a German woman, who had posted online that she wished to have a photo of her father's grave. We had seen her post in our efforts to find information about the cemetery location and hours.

What struck us first about the cemetery was the immensity of it - the numbers of crosses - only some of which are in the photo above. On closer inspection, we were even more struck by the fact that every cross represents 6 soldiers - so one must multiply this vision by 6 to have a sense of the 27,000+ soldiers who are buried here. Here is a one of the crosses; 3 names are on the other side as well.  

There's a "Herbert Gräbner" on this cross.

Jewiss's article, written after we went to the cemetery, points out the bisecting path through the graves leading to a large memorial in Roman travertine (see photo at top). She notes the two soldiers, facing the cemetery (see photo at bottom), and, at the back of the monument, female figures - an old woman, as she says, "clearly a mother figure" and "a wife and small child."  (Photo below, left)

There - at the back - she says one also can read the inscription (in German flowing into Italian without pause) on the monument:


Here the Dante scholar takes flight, pointing out these words are from the third canto of Paradiso by the nun, Piccarda, who was forced to break her vows. And, that this inscription is "startling": "Rarely--if ever--do the inscriptions [in a war cemetery] derive from another national tradition, let alone from a belligerent nation in the conflict."

The inscription is translated as "In His will is our peace."

Jewiss notes the "extraordinary moral complexity" of honoring a sacrifice "made for a dishonorable cause" (something Americans still struggle with relative to the Civil War, of course). And goes on, "what is the Italian poet doing in a German cemetery, why this verse, and why is it carved on the back of the memorial?"

She suggests the quotation means--at the simplest level, "a utopian expression of hope that God grant peace to the dead, that his will remain unfathomable." There's much more in Jewiss's piece, including statements such as this one: "The soldiers here are both in exile from their patria and recognized as citizens of the wider world of the dead." You will profit from exploring her analysis in more detail. It's here.

Jewiss also notes that most of the soldiers in this cemetery were killed after the Italy-Allied Forces armistice of Sept. 8, 1943. That was the case with both of the Graebners we found, and the father of the German woman who wanted a photo of her father's final resting place; they died in 1944.

My recollection is that the German woman's father was Felix Klose (one of the photos we sent her is at right).  We were able to look up the location of his burial ground in the book kept at the entrance to the cemetery.

Above the book (photo below) is the sign reading: "Nambücher...Friedhof Pomezia...Gefallene A-Z" - "Book of names of the fallen, Pomezia Cemetery."

After we sent her the photos, the daughter of the fallen soldier wrote us back: "My father died of his wounds in Rome and was buried in Rome, then he was moved  to Ponetzia [sic] in 1966. It was a small stone like flat cross on the ground. I have a picture of it and I always wanted to know he ever was moved again and when. Again I thank you so very much, you don't know how pleased I am to know and see the place at last.  I would like to know when he was moved for the second time.  He still is in my heart, never forgotten, Best wishes and thank you again from the bottom of my heart.., Mrs E.S."

As in many war cemeteries, this one was founded well after the end of the conflict (it was inaugurated in 1960) and gathered the remains of soldiers from all parts of areas in and around Rome, as was the case with Mrs. E.S.'s father's remains. 

Front of monument, with soldiers in greatcoats "looking at their fallen comrades."

The first lines on the cross at right read "Ein Deutscher Soldat" - "A German Soldier," with no dates. An unknown soldier, of which there were many in this cemetery.

We left the cemetery on this lovely road (photo below), observing the diligence of some of the young Germans who were maintaining it.


Friday, November 6, 2020

Things I Miss in Rome (Part II)

                   Things I Miss in Rome, 2nd Installment

Public Housing Projects

Decorated Vehicles


Roman Tree-Trimming

Relaxed Cats 


Saturday, October 24, 2020

The town of Pomezia, 25 km from Rome - of vaccines, Fascism, World War II

Bill looks like he's in a de Chirico painting here in Pomezia

We were surprised to learn that Pomezia, a small town created from scratch by the Fascists (inaugurated in 1939) in the Agro Pontino outside of Rome, is the site of the maker of one of the most promising Covid-19 vaccines. We knew nothing about that when we visited the town - several times in years past. We tried to figure out how we missed such an important industry. You may have heard of the Advent vaccine. That vaccine is being developed by Advent, which is an offshoot of Pomezia's IRBM, together with Oxford University. Some recent information on this vaccine trial is here. It's the Astra-Zeneca vaccine whose trial was halted for a while and is now restarted.

Our mission in the times we went to Pomezia was to view the Fascist architecture (see here for a reference to other forays) and visit the WWII German Cemetery. In those days, we were exploring the iconography of war cemeteries in and around Rome (e.g. here).  

Dianne posing with enormous fasci
 in a doorway, likely to the town hall.
The year is listed as "A. XVII E.F. -
Era Fascista, year 17 (or 1939)

We stopped in Pomezia's main square to get the requisite coffee (see Bill above) and saw some signs indicating there was to be a celebration of Garibaldi. We think that's the subject of the painting above.

We didn't have to look hard for the Fascist architecture.  Here are a couple examples (left and below, plus photo at top). There are more at the end of the post.

We then headed to the cemetery, which is only a short ways out of the town center. It's beautifully maintained and peaceful, the resting place of almost 30,000 German soldiers, some of them "unknown." 

I'll skip a description of the cemetery here, since our friend and Dante scholar, Virginia Jewiss, has written eloquently about it, and I want to give more space to her analysis in a later post.

The question remains, where is the famous laboratory making these vaccines, and why did we - who scour towns and cities - miss it?

It turns out the lab is very close to the town center, across the notorious via Pontina. It appears to be not very visible from the road (on a higher piece of land).  No doubt we scootered right past it.  See maps below.

IRBM Science Park. Pomezia's town center is at the upper right. This photo is looking South.

The map below right shows the IRBM plant on the map - at Google's inverted red drop -  with Pomezia's town center just to the West. The red cross below the green space (the town cemetery) shows the location of the German Cemetery - so obviously, we scootered right by the IRBM facility.

Italy's important connections to the Covid-19 vaccines also include a glass manufacturing company near Venice, founded in 1949 to make bottles for perfume and liquors, now devoting itself to glass vials for the vaccines. Forbes featured the family-owned company in an article here.

Jewiss says there's some irony that Pomezia, a town designed to laud the Fascists, is the resting place of Germans who fought with, and then against, the failed Italian regime. I view the cemetery as a cautionary reminder of the wages of war, and Pomezia now as a sign of the future - waging a different war - against the virus.

More on the German cemetery, and some of Jewiss's interpretations of its iconography, in a subsequent post.


Church - a central church was a
part of all the Fascist "new towns."

Pomezia's "GIL" or  youth center
(Gioventu' italiana del littorio -
the Fascist youth movement party),
the letters framed by two fasci.


A 50th anniversary monument (1990), testament to the town's forefathers - note the hand-driven agricultural equipment as the main symbol.

The ubiquitous "Bar dello sport,"
with a very nice 1953 decoration above the door,
echoing the style of Fascist figures
and also the town's agricultural founding.