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 650 posts

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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Is this Eataly? Nope, it's the Train Station!

We were shocked--in a good way--to discover Mercato Centrale Roma.  We had seen notice of its "Trastevere" night in the newspaper, but our expectations were low (and we never did figure out what the evening had to do with Trastevere).  We thought we might find some folks selling home-made jewelry and stands marketing healthy "bio" products. 

Instead we found an enormous multi-story food and entertainment complex, set inside the already spectacular, high-ceiling architecture of the postwar Stazione Termini. The designers somehow succeeded in keeping the spectacle of the curved brick ceiling while creating a comfortable, sheltered, human-size space below, like Eataly on a smaller scale. 

The American Bar

A great place for dinner (we had a savory cacio e pepe and a raw-artichoke salad), a sandwich, drinks (at American Bar"": a Ribolla Gialla for E5), or just hanging out while waiting for a train.

Our guess is that most of the thousands of people going through the station don't even know the 'mercato' is there, because it's so far from the front of the station (about three short blocks) and only on one side (the south/west side).  Mercato Centrale Roma is best accessed front the sidewalk along via Giolitti.    Bill
And if you are looking for 15 things to do within 200 meters of Termini, try these 2 posts:

Music on an upper floor 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sartogo's Santo Volto Church - a Top Ten Visit

Put the 2006 church of Santo Volto di Gesù ("the Holy Face of Jesus") on your top 10 list for modern Rome architecture.  Less heralded than US architect Richard Meier's 2003 Dives in Miseracordia (known as the "Jubilee Church"), Santo Volto is equal to Meier's work and in some ways surpasses it. It's also closer to the center of Rome and easier to get to.

It's hard to overstate the dramatic impact of Santo Volto in this somewhat run-down neighborhood of Magliana.  Rome architect Piero Sartogo inserted the church into the fabric of the community on a small plot of land, totally unlike Meier's church, which has been heavily criticized for not being "of the neighborhood."  Perhaps for these reasons, too, the church is so heavily packed for Sunday mass that one must get there early to get a seat.  Sartogo's collaborator and wife, Nathalie Grenon, confirms the people in the community are proud of the church.
The 'half dome' looming among the nearby apartment buildings.

Sartogo used the concept of negative volume to present in reality a half-dome, an echo of the Pantheon, but modernized.  Quoting Grenon in a 2013 interview with us:
     The site of the church is critical. It's the idea of a city; it's urban. The language of the architecture here is the mass and the void. The void becomes a dynamic element, the void is inserted by creating a mass; and so there's that tension, as there is tension between the urban environment and the sacred.

But Grenon won't call the building "post modern."  In her words:
Entrance, with rectangular shapes contrasting with the round 'cupola.'
We would say shades of Fascism's rationalist period, but Grenon wouldn't buy it.
She would say only that the materials are Roman.
      The Santo Volto cupola is a reference to the Pantheon, and its idea of the sacred. In the Pantheon the sphere is inside, while in our church, the two halves of the dome are separate: one represents the sacred and the other the profane. All of Rome is constructed with shapes that come from somewhere else.

Let's just say the effect is awe-inspiring.  As social critic Alain de Botton says of some churches, they're designed to make you feel the power of God--and this one does, perhaps even for nonbelievers.

Mimmo Palladino's 4th Station of the Cross (Jesus meets his
afflicted mother).
Santo Volto is a showcase for contemporary Italian artists. Sartogo and Grenon commissioned several of them to provide the liturgical furnishings.  There was no budget for this purpose, and they had to work almost for free.  Some were famous; some were young and not.  Noted artist Mimmo Palladino's stations of the cross are impressive and of this century.  Young artist Pietro Ruffo's  "face of Jesus" painting is hauntingly gorgeous.
Pietro Ruffo's face of Jesus, above the confessionals.

And then there's the crucifix.  It was originally designed by noted Italian artist Jannis Kounnelis, but the Diocese rejected his design.  Sartogo and Grenon had to come up with something quickly, before the Pope's visit.  She sketched out the crucifix, which was supposed to be temporary but has become iconic.  It's now for sale at the Vatican.

Grenon holding a replica of the crucifix she

Grenon's interview contains more fascinating comments.  It's here in TheAmerican/inItaly online magazine.

The church is open as most churches are; with a break in the middle of the day.  To be safe, we suggest going before noon or from 4-7 pm.  Impressive as it is outside, you will want to see the inside too.  Via della Magliana 166.  The church is about 3/4 mile (1.3 km) from Piazza Meucci at the southern end of the Marconi district.

As some of our loyal readers know, we have made the modern churches of Rome a project.  For posts on churches, put 'modern church' in the search engine.

Additional photos below of, first, Meier's Jubilee Church and then several more of Santo Volto.


Richard Meier's Jubilee Church.  The exception that proves the rule:  this day
we saw people enjoying the somewhat isolated church piazza.

Entrance doors to Santo Volto - echoing Renaissance church bronze doors.
Outside the half-cupola, in the open volume.

Play and contemplative space in back, nestled in the community.

From inside the church - through the back 'wall' and crucifix-
 one can see the neighborhood apartments.

Nathalie Grenon with the crucifix she designed--
now on sale at the Vatican.
Schematic of church and list of artists.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Walking to Trullo: for Art's Sake

The plan seemed reasonable, to Bill, anyway.  We had had heard that the working-class Rome suburb of Trullo--we'd been there once before--had been redecorated by volunteer street artists, and we wanted to see the community in all its new glory.  We decided to walk--Bill did, anyway--from our apartment in Monteverde Vecchio, 6.4 google map kms (3-3/4 miles one way): down via dei Quattro Venti, right on via Portuense, across via Isacco Newton, left on via del Trullo.  Voila!

Via Portuense is one of Rome's less fashionable streets, but even so, not without interest.  Early on we noticed (right) a building that had once been a gas station, perhaps a car wash. Many elements, frequently modified.  Concrete block, air conditioning, a covered terrace, a nice old wall, a tattered banner and, of course, graffiti.  In a curious way, a delight.

Further on, a sad memorial to a tragic accident: a young woman, Valentina, had died at that spot.

And two very different buildings, side by side: on the left, what appeared to be a municipal building, constructed in the 1930s; on the right, an apartment complex, perhaps of 1970s vintage, with its brazen rounded balconies.

An architectural find on via
dell'Imbreciatto.  Modernist
brutalism, recent vintage.  

Just beyond, we discovered a flaw in our plan.  Via Isacco Newton is an enormous highway, and there are no sidewalks on the fast-moving portion of via Portuense that crosses it.  Only Evil Knievel would walk that route.  So we doubled back to via Pietro Frattini and turned south through the 'hoods, onto via dell'Imbreciatto, right onto a country road, right again along Isacco Newton and over it, on a bridge, then up the hill and down the hill into Trullo.  Including the doubling back, this route is about 8.2 km, or roughly 5 miles.

Trullo has, indeed, been upgraded, as your exhausted duo discovered.  We didn't see any burning trash cans this time around.  Many of the 1930s housing project buildings that dominate the area have been decorated in one way or another: some simply and playfully--the kind of work that could be done by an untrained crew with a bit of direction. There's lots of poetry, too.

Others have benefited from the first-rate work by professionals.   Several examples follow.

Many other buildings, including the market, sport wall art.  At left, the decorated wall of an eyeglass store. Below, the market.

"The voyage is a search for hidden courage that knows no bounds."

View from the bar.

There's a comfortable bar in the center of town where you can sit outside on the covered patio and watch the main street traffic and the kids playing in the park across the street.  Best on a Saturday.

Worth it.  But don't walk.  We took the bus home. Weak!

PS - Posts on other areas 'upgraded' with street art include those on Quadraro and the Nomentana train station.  The book, "Global Rome" also investigates this phenomenon.

In Trullo, even the trucks are painted!  The graffiti on the building at center is older, not part of the remodeling.