Rome Travel Guide

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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.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Derek Bruno's "Primary": the Destruction of a work of Wall Art, Ostiense

We're not alone in our interest in the wall art of Ostiense, a gentrifying industrial district on the south end of the city center.  For several weeks we've been walking the area, admiring the creativity and skill of artists from around the world.

For the most part, graffiti writers (some skilled, but working in a different vein from wall artists) and taggers (mostly just scribbling) have respected the larger works, leaving them untouched--or mostly so. 

That's not the case with the geometric piece by Derek Bruno, below, a truncated version of the work of art we found here in Ostiense.  The excellent app StreetArtRoma (links below) describes Bruno as a participant in the international Graffuturism movement, whose members are interested in Futurism's venture into velocity and movement.  "In Rome," writes StreetArtRoma, "the artist painted a white line that represents the measure of reality, crossed by three squares in perspective, symbols of imagination."  Sadly, the work known as Primary has been overwritten and severely damaged by an inferior talent, to the point where it has been virtually obliterated.

It so happens that we lived above Bruno's Primary, which is located in Piazza del Gazometro.  We could see what's left of it--a yellow triangle--from our 9th-floor balcony.  Here's what it looked like, from our balcony. 

And what it looked like close up, thanks to a talentless graffiti "artist" named Guzo. 

Vergogna.  A shame.

StreetArtRoma has a Web site and Facebook page, but the streetartroma app is the best, by far.  Here's the link to the Android App.  There's an Apple one as well.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An Ostiense View, to the south of Rome

We've been living in Ostiense, not far from the Pyramid, on the 9th floor.  Although the view from our balcony is to the south--and hence does not encompass the Centro Storico--it is in its own way, we think, not only fascinating but spectacular.  We offer it here in a 30-second sweep (wobbly, yes--we don't take many videos).  Below the video, for connoisseurs, is a left-to-right description of what you're seeing (also available on YouTube at

9:30  In the distance, the Alban Hills (Colli Albani), and closer in, the beginning of the neighborhood            of Garbatella
10:00   The peak at right is Monte Cavo and beneath it and just to the left, the city of Rocca di Papa
10:30   The tall building with lettering is the headquarters of the Lazio Region, of which Rome is a                  part.  Just to its right,  the cupola of San Francesco Saverio, in Garbatella.  This was the first                parish visited by John Paul II after he became Pope.  
11:00  A Calatrava-style bridge, the Settimia Spizzichino bridge, named after a Jewish woman who               was deported to the concentration camps in October, 1943--and somehow survived, the only               Rome woman to do so.  The structure bridges the Metro "B" line and the Lido train and              connects Garbatella with the Ostiense quartiere.  
           To the right of the bridge, wall art by Clemens Behr (he also has a piece in Tor Marancia - for a fuller description, see the app, streetartroma).
11:30   Cupola of Santa Maria Regina dei Apostoli da Montagnola, c. 1950
9:30-1:00, forefront: the remains of the Mercati Generali (General Markets) of Rome, constructed c.                 1913, abandoned 2002.  Now supposedly being reconstructed, but we've seen no workers there, despite the presence of a crane.  
12:30  The slim campanile of the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Saint Paul outside the wall).                The church burned down and was rebuilt--sumptuously--c. 1850
1:00  The squarish building in the distance is the Colosseo Quadrato (square coliseum), formally                   known as the Palazzo della Civilta' Italiana, c. 1940, located at EUR as part of what was                       supposed to be a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Fascist March on Rome (the war                             intervened).  
          To its left, also at EUR, and only partially visible, the tower known as Il Fungo (the                             mushroom)--something like Seattle's Space Needle.  
          To its right, also at EUR, the church of Saints Peter and Paul
2:00   Across the broad via Ostiense, an old industrial area, now in part vacant, rapidly being                          transformed into housing and museums.  And beyond Ostiense, and across the nearby
           Tiber River, the Marconi quartiere
2:30    Round metal structures known as the gazometri (gas meters).  These structures once held                    expandable gas liners.  They're considered icons of Rome's industrial-era skyline.   

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Open at 5:30 a.m., close at 9 p.m., no vacations: the life of a newsstand owner in Rome

Open at 5:30 a.m., close at 9 p.m., take 4 days off a year.  That's the life of our local Italian newsstand owners.  Perhaps understandably, their children don't want to inherit the business. 

Sonia and Alessandro  - a lot of togetherness.
We've been buying our daily paper the last few weeks--since we moved into the Ostiense neighborhood--at this (photo above), our closest "edicola" or newsstand.  Because we never saw anyone except the same man and woman in the small stand--which seemed open every minute we walked by it, and because the two of them seem to have an amiable relationship in a very small space, we asked one day about their working relationship.  

Alessandro's father is in the stand, in this photo
from the 1950s, before the stand was moved
to the other side of the railway overpass.

Alessandro and Sonia, both good-natured and seemingly happy, explained they've been married for almost 35 years, and they own and run, without help from anyone else, this classic Italian "edicola."  

Now on the other side of the overpass.

In fact, the stand has been in Alessandro's family since 1929, when his grandfather started with a smaller stand on via Ostiense, just on the other side of the railroad overpass that is one of the markers of this neighborhood.  His father continued the business and moved it to the location it's in now, after the war damaged some of the infrastructure around it and the bridge was widened to handle more traffic.  

One can barely see Sonia and Alessandro; the edicola is crowded with
items to sell - from toys to tomes.
We asked Alessandro when he started working in this family business.  "Sempre" [always], he said; essentially, as we would say, "forever."  We asked the couple when they eat lunch or dinner. Dinner, they said, is usually at 10 or 10:30 p.m.  Alessandro ticked off the days they were closed:  Christmas, "Santo Stefano"  (the day after Christmas), New Year's Day, and Easter.  That's it.  It gives new meaning to 24/7. 

The newspaper business, said Alessandro, is "in crisi" (in crisis), and so is the newspaper stand business, it appears.  A stand even closer to us remains shuttered with a "vendesi" and "affitasi" (for sale or for rent) sign on it. And one reason the couple never has anyone else help them is, as Alessandro said, because they don't have the "soldi" (money) to pay anyone else.
Nearby stand with "for sale/for rent" sign.

Alessandro is constantly rearranging the
merchandise - to sell more.
Looking at the stand, it is, as most of them, very "vistoso" (showy, colorful), because in addition to selling print media--magazines, newspapers, books--they sell lots of toys, as well as CDs, DVDs, maps, wrapping paper, some arts and crafts, lottery tickets, used books and vintage comic books.  We have seen Alessandro constantly arranging and rearranging the enormous display that surrounds the edicola, inside and out.  The "gadgets," as Alessandro referred to them, are promoted by the publishers to help the newsstand--and the publishers--survive.

Also critical to the stand's economic well-being are its regular customers, Alessandro said.  The neighborhood has changed dramatically since the huge central fruit and vegetable market (I mercati generali) closed in 2002, after more than 80 years of operation.  Now instead of the "piu' sano lavoratori" (more sane, normal laborers), said Alessandro, there are people coming to the neighborhood in the evening to eat at the many new upscale restaurants and, he said, get drunk. This isn't the clientele that will buy his products.  

In many ways the edicola is another example of the changing demographics of Rome neighborhoods and the demise of the Italian small business owner and, yes, the artisan, a demise often lamented in the newspapers Alessandro and Sonia sell.  

Alessandro, laughing, described himself as the last man standing.  And what will happen when he retires?  Their four adult children all have college degrees, of which they are rightly proud, and they will not take over the business.  He and Sonia hope to sell the stand - that's their retirement.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

There's a new Sheriff in town, and he's on the Spanish Steps

One of Rome's characteristics is the sense of freedom one feels on its streets.  Not much is regulated, or if regulated, not enforced.  Motorists sometimes drive the wrong way down a one-way street. With the possible exception of the Historic Center, parking is a free-for-all, with cars frequently sitting astride pedestrian paths, motor scooters--and cars, too--on the sidewalk. Unlike Seattle, nobody gets ticketed or warned for jaywalking.  The streets are famously strewn with trash, some of it thrown there, with intent.  Restaurants and pizzerias are notorious for taking up all of the sidewalk (and part of the street) with tables, often in violation of the permit they acquired from the city government, and it's not uncommon for residents to build illegal (abusivi) rooms on the roofs of buildings (occasionally, but only occasionally, someone gets caught).  African immigrants sell knock-off goods in places where they have no permits to operate--and must be ready to wrap everything up in a hurry if the police decide to act.  Late night/early morning, noisy public partying--known as the "movida"--takes place in a variety of locations around the city, from Ponte Milvio to Ostiense.  At the beaches in Ostia, a new regulation prohibiting eating in rented "cabins" is flaunted--and not a single fine (multa) is levied.
And so it's unusual when the police take enforcement seriously, and it's especially unusual when the enforcement takes place in a space known, by Romans and tourists, for romance, relaxation, and recuperation. We're talking about the Spanish Steps.

It started, it seems, when tourists couldn't resist sticking a foot in La Fontana Barcaccia---the historic fountain at the foot of the Steps---or, in at least one case last year, taking a chunk out of the fountain with a hammer and screwdriver.

That's intolerable, to be sure.  But the policing of the Steps we noticed recently was only marginally related to the fountain.  The police officer we observed, moving among the hundreds of people on the Steps, was perhaps engaged in a form of  "broken windows" policing, a method based on the idea that preventing minor "crimes" (window-breaking) would send signals that would in turn reduce major crimes (theft, robbery, assault).  The overall goal seems to be the maintenance of "decorum." According to new regulations, among the breaches of decorum will be sitting on the edge of an important fountain, like the one beneath the Steps (possible fine: 160 Euro).  Fine for taking a dip: 450 Euro.

In the few minutes we observed, our Steps policeman:
a) scolded a couple for eating a sandwich while seated on the stairs
b) told a woman who had taken off her shoes to put them back on--all with a finger-wag.

So, if you're thinking of spending some time at the Spanish Steps, don't go into the fountain, don't sit on the edge of the fountain, don't eat on the stairs, and keep your shoes on!  


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.