Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A villa you can't see, and a great view you can

A couple of weeks ago, while living in the district "della Vittoria" (just to the north of its more famous neighbor, Prati), we decided to have a look at Villa Miani, which sits on the south shoulder of Monte Mario.  We had read about it in the newspaper: the first building on the site appeared sometime before 1835, and over time the buildings, adapted and restructured, functioned as a sanitorium and as a university for the Episcopal Church.  It belonged to a Venetian nobleman for the 50 years before 1981. Claudia Cardinale once lived there.  Today it hosts weddings and large social events--dinner for 600.  We were eager to see it.

No, you can't go up there.  
The road up to Villa Miani, via Trionfale, ascends the hill from near the southern end of Piazzale Clodio.  We took both the road and a stairway that shortens the route but is ill-maintained, bushes and tall grass erupting from both sides.  It was probably last cleared and swept 5 years ago.  Having reached the side road to Villa Miani, a guard made it clear that not only was the road closed to the public except for special events, but that views of the Villa from higher ground in back also were not possible.

We moved on, seeking a view of the Villa from higher ground in back (no matter what the guard said), via the road above, via Alberto Cadlolo.  The guard was right.  The Villa was visually inaccessible.  We wondered why the newspaper had made so much out of a complex that can't be seen, let alone visited, unless you're attending a big wedding (as apparently most of our Italian friends have).

Along that same road, however, we were able to catch a view of the back of the massive Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, which, unlike Villa Miani, can also be viewed from the front, albeit from a long way away.

The Rome Hilton.  Maybe the same architect as Corviale.  

Balconies of the wealthy.  

As the street ambles southward, via Cadlolo becomes via Fedro, lined by properties and apartments of the wealthy.  We noticed that the residents do little to tidy up outside their complexes and gates.

The road then turns east and into Piazzale Socrate.  We had never been there, and it's certainly not much to look at, we thought, having been victimized by Rome's fabled tree-trimmers.  Indeed, it could be Rome's ugliest piazzale.

Rome's ugliest piazza.  
But we were in for a treat.

Just beyond the piazza to the east, the hill turns steeply downward.  A fence--designed to keep

The site seems to attract guys.
onlookers from falling off the hill--had thankfully been breached in several spots, allowing us to proceed onto a small promontory.

With an extraordinary view, of St. Peter's and more.
Dianne, at Piazzale Socrate
Incredibly, this view was featured just a few days later (May 1) in Il Messaggero, our newspaper of choice this year (cheaper than La Repubblica, but still a hefty E1.40). According to the paper, which had surveyed social media posts by Romans and tourists, Piazzale Socrate was the most-favored place for "scatti" (snapshots), selfies, and "likes," ahead of such notable sites as the Pincio and the Gianicolo.  We don't quite believe that Piazzale Socrate is more popular than the Spanish Steps or the Trevi fountain for selfies and other pics--it's too out of the way for that--but the view is undeniably spectacular, and, some might think, the best in Rome.  Just don't fall off.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Behind the Wall - the Prisons of San Michele a Ripa

San Michele a Ripa from the side away from the Tevere - a feel for its
length and barrier to whatever is inside.
The long building - perhaps the longest in Rome at a third of a mile (500 meters) - faces the Tevere with no openings, looking like an impenetrable mass that holds nothing of interest.  In fact, the complex of buildings, San Michele a Ripa ("St Michael at the river bank" if you want a tortured English translation) has been used since the 17th century for a variety of purposes, from Catholic medical facilities to prisons to military barracks to arts institutions.  On a recent tour we took of part of this Trastevere block, the focus was on the 18th-19th century use of a substantial part of the complex as a prison/reformatory for women and children.

Carlo Fontana's boys' prison.

The women and girls' prison.
The original prisons - one designated for boys and one for girls - were designed by Papal architects of some fame. Carlo Fontana, a favorite of several Popes and designer of many fountains and chapels in Rome, started the boys' facility in 1701.  He was a rather ordinary practitioner of Baroque architecture and used these techniques, admittedly with severity because of the purpose, in the prison.

Ferdinando Fuga, who designed facades for notable Rome churches such as Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria Maggiore, added the female prison later in the same century.

The prisons have recently been restored and are open to tours.  At the same time that the prisons were considered modern approaches to incarceration (3 guards could monitor all the cells - not quite a panopticon, but similar), the treatment was harsh.  Boys considered "wayward and disobedient" to their parents ended up there with punishment and moral strictures that included rations akin to starvation.  An attorney who prepared a case for the state's Appellate Court stated in 1851 that the boys who emerged after 2 years were skin and bones, full of diseases and would rather be dead.
From the outside (interior courtyard) one can
see how small and high the windows are; no
one was going to get out of here.

Women in the female section often were those in the sex trade, whom the Church wanted to reform, or perhaps just punish.

The city took over this Papal facility in 1871.  With some interruptions (use as a prison for political prisoners from 1827-1870, for example), the complex's use as a reform prison lasted until the end of the 1960s.  In her biography of the great 20th century Italian writer, Elsa Morante, Lily Tuck mentions that Elsa's legal (though not biological) father "worked as a probation a boys' reform school located at Porta Portese."  This would've been in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and clearly this was the place.

One can admire the architecture and at the same time be horrified by what transpired within these walls.

Art work being restored in the prison hall.
The large halls of the prison now are being used for restoration work on paintings.  There are some tours of these facilities to admire that work, and part of the space now can be rented for business meetings!

An excellent pamphlet on life in the prisons and on the architecture is available in Italian.

Our tour was part of the extensive Ville di Roma a Porte Aperte series sponsored by turismo culturale italiano.  April's focus was on Trastevere.
This plaque, from 1704 states that Clement IX is responsible
for this institution for lost and incorrigible adolescents,
who here are instructed in becoming more subservient (my
loose Latin translation- anyone is welcome to elaborate on it).


Monday, May 28, 2018

Cows first, then Sheep: Rome trims up its Parks

Rome is going backwards, back to the Rome of a century ago, when oxen were used to plow the earth around the Altare della Patria in Piazza Venezia (above).

In a world of tractors, power lawn mowers, and weed-whackers, the city's populist mayor, Virginia Raggi, has asked the city's environment chief, Pinuccia Montanari, to tackle the weed problem in Rome parks by employing--you won't believe this--sheep and cows.  It's well known that both species east copious amounts of "grass," and it shouldn't take long to turn fields of 2-3 foot weeds into neatly trimmed soccer fields and play areas.

Casa del Cinema bar and restaurant, Villa Borghese.
After the city's wettest spring in years, the weeds are of serious concern.  The region's premier park, Villa Borghese, looks reasonable, especially compared to the others.  But it, too, is mostly weeds, trimmed here and there--though never meticulously--so picnickers can picnic without fearing that their children will disappear in the green expanses beyond the blanket.

The photo at right is Villa Borghese.   But the nice grass which the children are enjoying (our granddaughters are upper and lower left) is artificial, put in by the restaurant/bar at Casa del Cinema.  They know what people (those who can afford it) want.

Weeds could be 2 feet high

Villa Adda, an enormous mile-long half-mile wide expanse on the city's northern edge, has always been rather primitively maintained, and we're glad that some elements of it, elevated stretches to the west, in particular, retain a mystery; there's a pleasure in feeling one could get lost, or just feel a bit lost.

Not bad, but not the best, for picnicking 

That said, the most utilized portions of the park, including a small lake at the north end and a lovely wooded glen just to the east of the lake, are not maintained with the attention they deserve.  Narrow paths around the lake are in the process of being swallowed by weeds.

The glen.  8-10" weeds.  

The wooded glen is an idyllic setting for summer social activities, if only it were mowed and trimmed.

The large stone paths running north and south in the park remain open, but fallen trees to the side have not been removed; instead, they're marked off with yellow "crime" tape.  One hillside expanse, obviously mowed when the weeds were long, resembles a farmers' hay field, ready for the foliage to be picked up.

Soccer in the weeds, with garbage cans for goals.  Anything
shorter wouldn't show up.
In Villa Adda as elsewhere, many Romans have given up soccer for informal volleyball, which can be played above the weeds.  On the Sunday we visited, we did find one soccer game, played in tall but not intimidating grass, between goals made up of trash cans.

Half a bike path available.  

Weeds present problems for bike paths too--in this area and elsewhere in the city.

But let's get back to our sheep and cows.  Montanari, who's in charge of the effort, says the animals will be used only in parks on the "periphery," and she notes that sheep are already doing the job on an experimental basis in Parco della Caffarella, to the south of the center.  We can testify that there have been sheep in the Cafferella for years, but we would take exception to the implication that their purpose there is to cut the grass; they're part of a working farm in that park.

One agricultural expert has weighed in on the Mayor's sheep and cows idea, first proposed on her Facebook page.  The problem, he says, is that sheep eat with their heads low to the ground; they're bottom feeders.  But in most parks the grass is already so high that the sheep won't be able to find their food.  Hence the need for cows, which are top feeders.  Looks like a tandem deal: the cows go in first, followed by the sheep.

As other have noted, sheep and cows bring with them an enormous amount of excrement.  Watch where you put your blanket!

We imagine another problem.  Sheep and cows require herding and restraint.  Restraining cows often means barbed wire--probably not a good idea in the parks (though there is already plenty of it).  Sheep can be herded, by dogs (trained to treat humans as threats to the sheep--as we know from experience) and by human sheep herders.  These days, most of the herding in Italy is done by eastern Europeans from Bulgaria and Romania, just the sort of immigrants most Italians are hoping to keep out.  We think Italians, even if unemployed, will not likely take to herding sheep in the parks.

Some have found humor in the situation.  In the 4th Municipio (Colli Aniene-Tiburtino), a group known as "Merlino" (named for the sorcerer Merlin) has cut-outs of lions, zebras, and giraffes in the tall weeds of the area's parks (Baden Powell), green spaces (via Grotta di Gregna), and boulevards (Palmiro Togliatti).  It's a jungle out there!

Lion in the weeds


Newspaper photos: Il Messaggero

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Rome Mini Market: Suddenly Controversial

It's after midnight in your corner of Rome, and you need a bottle of wine, cookies, milk for your morning cereal, some cheese and fruit.  There is no 24-hour supermarket.  One small chain grocery closed at 10, another at 8.  Where do you go?  To the MINI MARKET, of course.

There are lots of mini markets in Rome, and the numbers are up.  In 2016 there were 1432 mini markets.  In 2017, 1622. 

The prices are higher than at the grocery stores--you can expect to pay E9./10 for your Ribolla Gialla (white wine), rather than E7.  But at 12:25 a.m., convenience is everything.  The mini market it is.

Mini Market, Salario
We're not sure why mini markets are flourishing.  We know that Rome has become a late-night (or later-night) city.  A decade ago, one could wander the Centro at 10 p.m. and not find a place to get a plate of pasta ("abbiamo buttato l'acqua per pasta" - "we've thrown out the pasta water," we heard at 10 p.m.).

No more.  The Movida--that late-night gathering of young drinkers/partiers, once concentrated in Campo de' Fiori, Ponte Milvio, and Trastevere, has spread to Ostiense, middle-class Piazza Bologna, and other locales.  Grocery store hours failed to meet the growing demand for late-night drinks and food.  Mini markets filled the void.  Similar growth has occurred in frutterie--small stores selling fruits and vegetables, and sometimes wine.

The rapid rise of the mini market has not been universally accepted. Indeed, the department of Rome's city government that regulates this sort of commerce recently passed a regulation freezing for 3 years the number of mini markets, frutterie, and other small shops, including self-service laundries, places that roast chickens, gold-buying centers, and massage parlors. 

Mini market app for Rome
What's going on?  One theory is that the authorities dislike the late-night drinking that these small businesses encourage, or abet.  That's certainly a factor. It's well known that young folks, especially, buy their late-night alcohol at mini markets. Best evidence for this interpretation: there's actually an app for Rome's late night mini markets, one apparently designed to help thirsty youth find the closest one.  Appropriately, the app takes its name from the Bangladeshi, the largest mini-market ownership group after native Italians. At right a screenshot of the app, "Bangladino" [just type "bangladino" in the App Store search blank].  It shows you the mini markets around your location, when they close, and the price of a beer (in this case E1.5) for comparison shopping.

But you can't get a beer while selling your gold, or at a massage parlor, at a laundry, or at some of the frutterie we've frequented.

The real story has to do with who owns the mini markets and other small shops. Of Rome's active mini markets in 2018, the majority are owned by Italians (1,473); Bangladeshi own 664; Egyptians own 48; and Romanians 40.  It makes sense that new immigrant groups would be active in mini markets and related businesses; these small stores require minimal capital, allow new owners to profit from extended hours (involving the whole family) that long-established, Italian-owned businesses are unwilling to sustain; and they would seem to be an obvious place to begin the process of achieving middle-class status.

in della Vittoria

Even so, it seems clear that the inroads made by new immigrant groups in these businesses are disturbing to Italians, some of whom see themselves as wrongly displaced, victims of globalization and immigration.

Anxieties about immigrants and the Italians they presumably displace: that's the reason for the 3-year moratorium on mini markets, et. al.