Georgian wine: An 8,000-year-old tradition is popping corks around the world

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union's top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union’s top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.


TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.

About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.

Wine.

Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.

Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.

During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.

Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.

“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”

***

To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Kakhuri Winery's vineyard

Kakhuri Winery’s vineyard


Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.

The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo


Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.

The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”

Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.

But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.

And that was just Friday.

Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.

“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”

Georgian toasts, called "Supra," are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo

Georgian toasts, called “Supra,” are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo


They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.

Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.

Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.

“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”

How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”

And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.

***

I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.

The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.

Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:

Kakhuri Winery

Kakhuri Winery


KAKHURI WINERY.
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.

The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.

Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.

Kakhuri's tasting room.

Kakhuri’s tasting room.


Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.

My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.


ROSTOMAANT MARANI

This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.

With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.

“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”

I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.

When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.


This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.

“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”

His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.


TELAVI WINE CELLAR

Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.

“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”

He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.

Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.

“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”

Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.

“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.

My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.

Vita Vinea's family vintage bottle.

Vita Vinea’s family vintage bottle.


VITA VINEA WINERY

Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”

It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.

“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.

He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”

My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.

Me in Vaziani Company.

Me in Vaziani Company.


VAZIANI COMPANY
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.

I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.

After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.

It was also Stalin’s favorite.

Republic of Georgia: A hike through wine’s birthplace is a yummy treat but Georgians would like a bigger bite

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.


TBILISI, Republic of Georgia — The statue of St. George stands high above Freedom Square in this charming riverside capital. Like a gold beacon, the country’s namesake sits astride his bucking horse as his sword slays a dragon beneath him. Until 2006, the statue was Vladimir Lenin, another man who slayed a few dragons then created a nation of them. He also set the stage for one of Georgia’s favorite native sons, Joseph Stalin.

Georgia could use another hero, and maybe one not so violent. A country of only 3.7 million people, its tourism is starting to boom. More than 2.7 million tourists came in 2016 bringing in $2.16 billion. However, broiling underneath its growing international reputation like molten lava is turmoil and unrest. Keep in mind Georgia was once called “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union.” Sure, that’s a little like being the best violinist in Nebraska but after nearly two weeks in Georgia I can confirm that its food and wine are planetary stalwarts. Add in some mountain scenery and spectacular hiking in the highly underrated Caucasus mountains and you have an outdoors/culinary vacation few countries its size can match.

Georgia is the gateway to Western Asia. It’s a Christian Orthodox country bordered by the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan and Turkey with Russia still looming hauntingly to the north and Armenia peacefully to the south. Despite gaining independence in 1991, Georgia has two breakaway republics under Russian control called South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mysterious and foreboding, they are like Austin and the panhandle telling the State of Texas to take a hike and do not enter.

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo


Unlike other former Soviet republics enjoying prosperity such as Czech Republic and Lithuania, Georgia can’t find its serenity, even 27 years after communism. It’s basically run by its richest man, a former Soviet oligarch named Bidzina Ivanishvili whose fortune equals one third of the country’s entire gross national product. He founded the Georgia Dream party that now rules the country with somewhat of an iron fist. Protests abound. Tents have been set up in front of the Soviet-era Parliament building, a must stop on the Tbilisi walking tour. Protests and strikes are coming as common as street construction. As recently as May 12, 4,000 people protested the overnight drug raid of two nightclubs by setting up camp in front of Parliament and dancing well past midnight. Earlier this month, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned.

On paper, Georgia seems to have escaped the post-communist economic collapse experienced in much of mother Russia. Unemployment has dropped steadily since a 2009 high of 16.9 percent to 12. Its inflation rate is only 2.4 percent, and it’s second among all former Soviet republics in foreign investment.

But talk to the people and their dreams from the early days of democracy have yet to be reached.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.


With St. George looming above and the start of a warm summer settling in on a well-lit early evening, I sat down in one of the many outdoor bars ringing Freedom Square with Nika Tsiklauri. Short, fit, with dark, wavy hair and glasses, the 34-year-old has worked in a bank’s credit card office for 10 years and makes $10,000 a year. For extra money he rents out his family’s two extra rooms up the street as an AirBnB.

“There are many poor people in Georgia,” he said as we sipped an industrial-tasting Georgian beer called Taglaura. “They’re either poor because there aren’t enough high-income jobs or there are no jobs.”

He talked about how Mikheil Saakashvili took over in 2003 at the end of communism and “built the city from ruins.” Saakashvili took a pro-tourism, pro-West slant. He expelled corrupt politicians and attracted Western investments. He reconstructed old, crumbling districts such as the area around Freedom Square which is now one of the heartbeats of Tblisi’s pulsating nightlife.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.


But in 2008 Saakashvili’s military lost a costly war with Russia over South Ossetia. Bitter and defensive, he began governing with an autocratic air and became intolerant of opposition, thus ushering in the likes of Ivanishvili. Many feel the country is regressing.

“He promised people that the development of Georgia will be much faster so everything will be much better but some promises were not kept,” Tsiklauri said. “Like many people in Georgia, like 30 percent of Georgian people think he’s a man of Russia. He’s not interested in politics. He has billions of dollars. But he still feels he maintains his power and it will continue but it comes from Russia.”

Georgia is a classic case of how politics, egos, power and crisscrossing economic systems can stain an otherwise idealistic landscape. Like blood stains on a chef’s apron, Georgia marches on touting its food and wine and mountains. They put on a happy face for travelers and dish out grub, booze and scenery that we’ll all remember much more than resigning government officials, their faces masks of shame.

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo


I became aware of Georgian cuisine on my first trip to Russia in 2005. My contacts in Moscow glowed about their nights out in the Georgian restaurants scattered around one of the world’s fastest-growing restaurant cities. I joined them and marveled at its grilled meats, semi-sweet red wine and khachapuri, Georgia’s signature thick, gooey cheese pie.

Thirteen years later, I took the recommendation of a Tbilisi friend and dined at Barbarestan, a classic old Georgian restaurant that recalls images of pre-revolutionary Russia when the wealthy bourgeoisie dined in places like this. I walked across huge throw rugs on wooden floors under a vaulted brick ceiling with lanterns holding burning candles. Waiters dashed around in white dress shirts and suspendered trousers.

A waiter came over and handed me the cookbook. I thought it was going to fall apart in my hand. It was from 1914 and the inspiration for the restaurant 2 ½ years ago after a man found the book at Dry Bridge, Tbilisi’s open air flea market. Of the 807 recipes listed, Barbarestan makes 125 of them. The original cookbook dating back to 1874 is even more fragile and is under lock and key.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.


I ordered the Lazuri khachapuri, a big, round cheese pie with double cheese on top. It looks like a small, thick, Chicago-style pizza. Instead, its filled with Georgia’s salty gouda-style cheese. I tired of the cheese during hikes but baked in a pie, to go along with another Georgia classic, its walnut salad with sunflower oil, it was a great way to jump into a gastronomic paradise. The best part? The whole meal, including two glasses of wine, was all of 60 lari (about 21 euros).

Yes, as in Italy, no matter how depressed Georgians get about the state of their country, they always have dinner to look forward to. It all starts with wine which is apropos as Georgia is where wine began. It’s true. Archaeologists have found remnants of clay pots here dating back 8,000 years. They were used to ferment wine underground, making Georgia the birthplace of wine, a handle Georgians are never too modest to point out.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.


The center of Georgian wine country is Kakheti, Georgia’s far east region where sun-splashed wine vineyards share space with beautiful churches and castles, all with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. I took a marshrutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of public transport, about two hours to Telavi, the base for wine tasting.

Wine tasting in Georgia isn’t like in Tuscany or Napa Valley. It’s smaller scale in terms of number, facilities and popularity. The Telavi area has about 20 commercial wineries, all within a cheap taxi ride of each other. Many of the wineries were built during communism, meaning you have blockish, concrete, Soviet-style architecture as opposed to the castle-like fortresses and villas of wineries in California and Italy. In two days of wine tasting, I saw only two other customers, both British expats living in Georgia.

But in terms of quality, Georgian wine can share the table with the Italian reds and California whites. Any day. Georgia concentrates on three kinds of wines: dry reds, semi-sweet reds and sparkling wines. The 2015 Okro’s Wines Mtsvano Pet-Nat was voted one of the top 10 wines in the world by Esquire, and the number of other awards I saw covered the entire wall of the Telavi Wine Cellar.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.


And yes, most still use the same methods as 8,000 years ago when mankind, dressed in animal furs, raised toasts to celebrate the end of the last Ice Age. Almost every winery had a room with round deep holes where they buried the clay pots, called qvevri, to ferment the wine six months, just as their ancestors did. The end result is an all-natural wine without the mass sulfites and preservatives of American wine. At my last wine tasting, a medium-sized winery called Vaziani Company, I tasted 10 wines, all about half a glass each. Yet the next morning, I didn’t have a headache.

I couldn’t walk, but I didn’t have a headache.

Wine production in Georgia goes beyond the commercial wineries which are exporting all over the world, thanks to a Russian embargo, improved marketing and savvy travel writers (which I’ll contribute to in next week’s blog about Georgian wine). Many families produce wine in their own back rooms.

I visited Irakli Rostomashvili who restarted the family wine business, called Rostomaant Marani, after the communists came in 1921 and took over all wine production. He has a small stone tasting room next to a room of six qvevri. Rostomashvili epitomizes the Georgian love affair with wine.

Over a glass of his best-selling Rkatsiteli, a dry white wine, he said, “I like wine. For me, everything is wine. Without wine, everything is nothing.”

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.


One of Georgia’s best attributes is after two days of drinking wine and eating cheese pie, it’s not hard to work it off. I took a five-hour marshrutka ride to the town of Kazbegi, the heart of the old Georgian Military Highway and the entry point for the spectacular Caucasus. Hiking in Georgia is hiking off the beaten path. This isn’t the Colorado Rockies where signage resembles something off an L.A. freeway. It’s not the Alps where hikers sometimes outnumber sheep.

It’s often just you — and a path, straight up and straight down.

However, the peaks are more beautiful than the Alps and Rockies, if not as high as in Colorado. But six are more than 5,000 meters and the range stretches 1,200 kilometers from the Black to the Caspian seas.

They’re covered in snow all year round and they are spectacularly beautiful. Hovering over Kazbegi, a pretty little town of 2,500 at 1,750 meters elevation near the Russian border, is Mt. Kazbek, a gorgeous 5,047-meter extinct volcano. Just below it, like a jewel on a necklace, sits Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Church. It’s a 1,000-meter climb to the church and then you can hike all the way to the Kazbek base camp with gorgeous views back to the church and town below.

Not believing it could get better, it did. After two days of hiking (which I’ll chronicle in a blog in two weeks), I flew from Tbilisi to Mestia, home of the Great Caucasus in the far north. The 45-minute flight alone, just below the mountain peaks, rivaled the 1987 flight I took past the Himalayas into Kathmandu. Jagged, individual peaks, all covered in snow, outlining green meadows with specks of villages and wind-swept flurries off mountaintops beyond.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.


In Mestia, over three days, I hiked up to a ski resort, took a chair lift back up the next day and hiked to a TV tower then hiked 1,000 meters straight up to a legendary cross that overlooks the entire town. Everywhere I went, every turn I took, every step I made, I had a panorama view of an incredible snow-covered mountain range. In few spots did I see people. It was like walking alone through the Ice Age — except for the daypack full of food.

Each night I made the nightly pilgrimage to Leila’s, a restaurant-bar where in the morning I’d beef up for hikes with khikhlinko, thick, homemade Georgian bread fried with scrambled eggs, a dish so good you wonder why U.S. ski resorts haven’t picked up on it. It’s a native dish of the Svans, the ethnic group for which the Svaneti region is named. Tall stone towers the Svans used for defense are scattered around Mestia like middle fingers.

The Svans were known for taking blood revenge but you wouldn’t know it by the marvelous native dance performances they did every night inside Leila’s. A five-man band playing native songs on drums and guitars while a young guy in long, curly black hair twirled around the floor like a Swirling Dervish. I don’t like ethnic dance performances much. They seem too fake and stilted, packaged entirely for tourists. But in this isolated town in the heart of the Great Caucasus, with so many locals hanging out, it had an air of authenticity. Watching with a big glass of Saperavi, Georgia’s most famous wine, certainly helped me get into the mood.

The nine-hour marshrutka ride back to Tbilisi revealed the old Georgia that the new Georgia has failed to modernize. We chugged down in elevation and came across crude apartment houses with peeling paint and barred windows in small towns long past their usefulness. Factories that once churned out whatever product was essential in Soviet households lay barren and abandoned. Old women bundled up like babushkas wobbled unsteadily along dusty streets.

Once back in Tbilisi I met Anna Surguladze, 22, and her friend, Demetre Nikabadze. I know Surguladze from Rome’s Language Tandem Meetup group where we all sit around and butcher each other’s languages once a week. She represents the new Georgia where everyone under 30 is fluent in English after 11 years of study and everyone over 40 can’t count to three. She is a financial analyst but unlike many of her brethren, she doesn’t want to leave Georgia to find a better life.

“I have experience living abroad for a couple of years,” she said. “I want to have some impact on my society.”

We met at Cafe Le Toit on one of the many bustling side streets off Freedom Square. A gloomy waitress, representative of the generally lousy restaurant service around the country, couldn’t put a damper on the lovely trappings. Cafe Le Toit looks like your grandmother’s living room with big, comfortable chairs, flowered wallpaper and a gaudy chandelier hanging over it all. On the quaint balcony, I asked Surguladze what was Georgia’s biggest problem.

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi


“Education and economics,” she said. “It’s an education system that’s really outdated. It’s old. Nowadays today’s youngsters are much more free than their ancestors were, than their parents were, because they were raised in the Soviet era and they were taught to think the way it was written in their books. Nowadays in the schools these people teach youngsters, youngsters who are more free and liberal.

“These people who are the teachers, who are their parents, they’re from the Soviet Union. They don’t know what freedom is. They don’t teach children how to analyze things, how to think more openly. They just expect from the children to obey the rules. They don’t teach them creative thinking or help them to become grownups and about life.”

Later, Surguladze took us on a field trip up and down the narrow cobblestone roads in Tbilisi’s old town. With a flight at 3:30 a.m., my game plan was to pull an all-nighter, an easy task in Tbilisi. We wound up in a dive underground brick bar called Zoestan where I continued my tour across Georgia’s wine map, however unsteadily.

Young Georgians seem alive. They laugh. They go out. They dream. They protest. At least, they do much more than their parents did. Surguladze said there is a lot I didn’t see in two weeks.

“Many families are almost nearly starving,” she said. “They don’t have sufficient money to provide for themselves and their kids. Youngsters want to leave Georgia mainly because they think it’ll be better in Europe, with a better perspective.”

As I carried my backpack into Freedom Square to catch a cab, I said goodbye to Georgia, to the wine stores I walked by so many times and the teetering revilers I left behind. I took a last look at St. George, high atop the horse, still shining in gold well past midnight. He slew the dragon in the statue, leaving me with one lasting thought.

Georgia still has so many dragons to slay.

The world has many hidden treasures: Remnants of the Roman Empire

By Gary B. Keller

The Roman Empire was one of the most expansive and important civilisations the world had ever seen. Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the Roman Empire has an unrivalled legacy in art, politics, medicine, and city planning. Today, you can check out ancient the empire’s contributions to art and architecture by visiting some of its surviving infrastructure.

CHAPEL OF SAINT VITTORE

In the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Ambrogio is a small, hidden chapel that’s has a decorated floor-to-ceiling dome with ancient 5th century mosaics. While the basilica around it was destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, and redesigned over the centuries, The Chapel of San Vittore remains the same. Art historian Marina Zaigraykina discussed the craftsmanship of the mosaics, particularly the one on the golden dome depicting the martyr Saint Vittore, was unequalled at the time. You can find this in Milan, Italy.

SEPULCRAL ROMANA

In accordance with ancient imperial laws, the Roman city of Barcino buried its dead outside of city walls from the 1st to the 3rd century, resulting in small cemeteries near roads leading out of the city. One of those cemeteries survived to this day, in the modern city of Barcelona. It contains 85 graves, the remains of an estimated 200 people.

AMMAN’S ROMAN THEATRE

What is now the capital city of Amman in Jordan, North Africa, used to be part of the Roman Empire, and they left behind one of the steepest and most intact theatres they ever built. Amman’s Roman Theatre was built in the 2nd century and up till now, its 6,000-person capacity is used for musical concerts, poetry events, and other performances because of its steep cavea, which provides perfect acoustics.
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ROME’S BURIED CITY

Modern Rome was formed during almost 3000 years of building and rebuilding. Thousands of years of new infrastructure built beside and on top of the civilizations before it, which is why Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent, and short height. It’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that ancient Rome pioneered the very idea of proper city planning.

Forbes described the situation best when they called the city a complex archaeological layer cake. While most tourists congregate at the Coliseum, the Temple of Jupiter, and other aboveground Roman relics, not many are aware that underneath Rome lies intact remnants of its ancient past. Travellers can visit the Mithraic Cult chambers – underground places of worship for a mysterious religion practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th century.

The fact that many of these places have survived is part of the reason why the Romans continue to have such a strong hold on the modern imagination. The Roman Empire has been celebrated in fiction for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to the Oscar winning Gladiator. Historical Roman figures such as Julius Cesar and Spartacus are household names. Even those who don’t know their history will recognise their stories from films, TV, books, and games made about them. Spartacus in particular has been made famous through fiction and his connection to the famous Roman sport of gladiator fighting. The Stanley Kubrick film, which featured the iconic “I’m Spartacus”, is the most famous example, but the character has also appeared in other media. The Foxy Bingo game Spartacus Gladiator of Rome incorporates the famous story of the gladiator who led a slave uprising into its gameplay. With interest in the Roman Empire still running high across media platforms, more people will travel the world to seek out Roman treasures.

For anyone interested in history and culture, the Roman Empire remains one biggest reasons to travel and see the world.

(Editor’s note: As I organize my notes, quotes and photos from a long trip to the Republic of Georgia, this guest blog is written by Gary B. Keller, a history teacher with over 10 years experience. He has taught and traveled around the world and wants to share with fellow enthusiasts the places of interest he has found. In his free time he will be found with his nose in a book.)

Champions League final? The Vatican had its own championship soccer game

St. Peter's Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday's final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.

St. Peter’s Basilica offered an appropriate backdrop for Saturday’s final of the Clericus Cup, the Vatican soccer league made of priests and seminary students.


Every seminary student in Rome studying to be a priest sets himself on a personal mission. He is dedicating his life to carrying God’s message, to bring joy to people, to build fraternity among his fellow man.

Saturday afternoon the mission for Stephen Cieslak, ordained as a deacon just a week ago, is to stop a penalty kick from Robert Kayiwa, a seminary student from Uganda. There will be more important times in these two men’s lives, but without a Bible in hand and clerical collar around their necks, no moment may be bigger than right then.

The two were engaged in a penalty shootout in the championship game of the Clericus Cup, a Vatican soccer tournament involving 16 teams made up entirely of seminary students and priests. Organized by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, it started 12 years ago when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, wanted soccer to teach the “language of the world,” billing it “Prayer and Player.”

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.

Drums and face paint: The look of the Collegio Urbano fan.


Saturday was the morning of the Champions League final. About 1,500 miles to the north in Kiev, Ukraine, Real Madrid and Liverpool would play before a worldwide TV audience and two fan bases that don’t take a back seat to any in the world. Going from one extreme to another Saturday, I took a bus to Centro Sportivo Italiano’s nice sports complex a long goalie kick up the hill from the Vatican City walls.

Past a basketball gym, swimming pool and soccer fields of various dimensions is a main field with a small grandstand where the third-place game had just finished. I met Mark Paver, an Englishman who just won third place with Gregoriana and is a four-year veteran of the tournament. Tall, lean and fit, he looks younger than his 42 years. I asked him why he plays soccer while studying to enter the priesthood.

“It’s a chance to be a Christian with one another and secondly to be seminarians with one another,” he said. “In my case, at this point, to be a priest and create an environment and set an example for others to see and think, ‘Oh, yeah. Those are normal guys. I can be a priest, too. I can be a Christian, too.’”

Paver started playing soccer at 6 years old in Manchester where he later played in semipro leagues for several years. Most of the players in the tournament played as youths then in other cities as they went through their religious studies. These are serious, pious men, dedicated to a religious calling where righteousness is at the forefront of their lives.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.

Fans packed the small grandstand, capacity 200.


But they play soccer. Many soccer players communicate on the field through conversational profanity. I asked Paver the obvious question.

Do you ever hear swearing?

“We picked a different way to live our vocation but we’re still human beings,” he said. “We still have blood running through our veins. And that blood goes to our heads sometimes.”

I asked what’s the worst he’s ever heard. He paused.

“I’m not sure I can repeat it,” he said, finally. “We try to let each other know when we think we’ve been wronged. Let’s say that.”

I walked through the fence onto the field in front of the two finalists who entered side-by-side in single file, just as Real and Liverpool would do later that night. These two teams were from opposite sides of the world: an American side with THE perfect nickname, the North American Martyrs. Their opponent was the defending champion, Pontificio Collegio Urbano, a group from all over Africa. Pope Francis even greeted and congratulated them at the Vatican earlier in the week.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.

Also in the grandstand, next to the Africans, were the Americans. No need for a fence in between.


Appropriately, the Martyrs were dressed in red, white and blue and Collegio Urbano wore uniforms of bright yellow and white. They looked like sprinting Vatican flags.

Without their religious gear, they looked like any rec league players, except the African team was almost universally short and the Americans were almost all boyish and almost, well, virginal. But they were all fit. I was curious about the level of play.

“I’m 42 years old and I’m still playing it,” Paver said. “That answers your question.”

If the level isn’t high, the passion is. The small grandstand seating 200 was packed, all with mostly students from the 80 seminaries around Rome. On one side hung red, white and blue bunting, the kind you see draped around baseball stadiums during the World Series. Behind it and the Cyclone fence were Americans yelling “USA! USA! USA!” and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” On the other side, Africans with yellow and white stripes painted on their faces banged drums and sang the entire game, ranging from Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” to the rhythmic chant, “VAI! VAI! VAI! COLLEGIO URBANO! (GO! GO! GO! COLLEGIO URBANO!)”

The soccer wasn’t as bad as I thought. They passed well. They dribbled efficiently. They had a plan. Cieslak made a nice stop on a free kick then a cool one-handed grab of a corner kick. His counterpart, Emmanuel Umanah of Nigeria, had a couple of sliding stops on one-on-one confrontations.

Yeah, guys dribbled the ball out of bounds a couple of times. They kicked the ball over the goalpost more than under it. Cieslak’s goalie throws looked like a third baseman pegging one to first base. None of it bothered the fans who kept up the beat of the drums and the Americans’ chant that couldn’t prevent me from smiling: “LET’S GO MARTYRS!”

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.

Goalkeepers Emmanuel Umanah of Collegio Urbano and Nigeria and Stephen Cieslak of the North American Martyrs and Portland, Oregon, before the shootout.


Regulation ended in a 0-0 tie, leading to the penalty shootout, leading to Cieslak staring down Kayiwa. With the Martyrs converting their first penalty kick, Kayiwa took a long run and kicked a medium-speed line drive to the right — just about where Cieslak was waiting. Kayiwa walked back slowly with his head down. Umanah, showing fraternity, gave Cieslak a fist bump. Matthew Goldammer, a hulking redhead who looks a transfer from the Vatican rugby team, banged one off the left goalpost, making it even.

But Collegio Urbano’s Victor Tibanyendera from Tanzania skied one over the goalpost and William Nyce scored easily to clinch the shootout, 4-2, sending him storming into a sea of hysterically happy seminary teammates.

Cieslak, 26, comes from Portland in my home state of Oregon and went to De La Salle North Catholic High School. A goalkeeper since second grade, he showed up as a freshman and quickly became the starter when the regular keeper got angry and punched the ground.

Was it because he swore, he showed anger, he failed to show moral restraint and the school benched him to teach him a lesson?

“No,” Cieslak said, “He fractured his wrist.”

OK, it wasn’t the first dumb question I’ve asked in my career. Soccer is, in a small way, part of the plan for all these future priests. It’s not only to show their human side but it helps them work on the same skills they’ll need in a future parish.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to grow in fraternity,” said Cieslak who soon goes to a parish in tiny Tillamook, Oregon, for a year. “A lot of the things we try to do in seminary formation is to relate to each other on a fraternal level and on a personal level. When you’re out playing with other guys who are working toward the same goal, working to become priests, it’s amazing.”

Being a sportswriter for 40 years, I know athletes pray before games. I asked Cieslak who would God favor in a game if both sides are seminary students and all are praying.

“He favors us all,” he said. “There’s no favoritism with God.”

Then what’s the point of praying? I asked.

“It’s to thank God,” he said. “Thank God for our athletic gifts, gifts of our bodies and we can glorify him and we can glorify him whether we win or lose.”

The two sides greet each other after the game.

The two sides greet each other after the game.


But what does He think when you swear?

“We’re all capable of sin,” he said with a smile.

Soccer and religion transcends the world. Umanah, 28, the Collegio Urbano goalkeeper, started playing when he was a little boy in Nigeria and his friends kept taking him by the hand from midfield to the goalpost.

“They said, ‘Since you’re not good, stay here,’” he said. “‘If the ball comes, you take it.’”

Like the others, Umanah sees a direct connection between soccer and the priesthood.

“The world today, just like Pope Francis tells us, it’s a world that really needs people to go to the different areas to find people,” said Umanah who’s studying canon law. “I think football, apart for the passion I have for it, is also entering society and meeting people like me who are out in the world and trying to dialogue.

“Just like every other social activity (soccer) puts you in contact with people. For example, I never knew some of these footballers. Today, we and the Americans got to know each other. Now we know each other from different realities, from different countries. We get to share our stories and experiences.”

Later that night, I went to my soccer pub and watched Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius make two of the biggest errors I ever saw a goalkeeper make. In the Champions League final. In front of the world. He was last seen walking across the field crying, trying to hide his face and tears with his jersey. It was a night that may scar him for life. I’m interested to see what will happen to him, if he’ll ever recover.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.

After the game the two teams joined in prayer.


It’s all about perspective. A few thousands miles and even more levels below the action in Kiev, Umanah put the Vatican spin on sport.

“Today was a very nice match,” he said. “We could really see the evangelical spirit. If someone gets down, the other one helps the person. To me, that is the gospel.

“We lost and I’m smiling.”

Rome public transportation: A fiery controversy leaves me waiting for answers — and a bus

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo

In 2 1/2 years, 46 buses have caught fire, just one of many public transportation problems in Rome. Repubblica Roma photo


The app on my cell phone mocks me.

I stare at it and so often it lies. It’s maddening, like the worst girlfriend you ever had, one that keeps returning to haunt you. It must have a mind of its own. Can apps have evil souls? The app is called Citymapper. It gives me the public transportation route from any Point A to any Point B in Rome. It also lists the time of arrival of every bus to every bus stop. Only one problem.

The bus often doesn’t arrive. The app says “in 6 min” then “in 12 min” then in “8 min.” By the time the third bus was supposed to arrive and doesn’t, I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary of Romanaccio, the sub-dialect of the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. The Romans around me remain calm, standing serenely as if this is as much a part of their day as their morning cappuccino.

Rome, once the most powerful society known to man, a city that has many of the world’s greatest museums, the best food and most beautiful architecture, struggles to move its citizens along its potholed streets. It has, without question, the worst public transportation in Europe. I know. I’ve been in every European capital except for a couple in Eastern Europe, and I never rent a car.

Besides buses not showing up, they are as packed as any in urban India. Buses and the limited three subway lines are often not air-conditioned, the bus tires go flat, drivers often go on strike and women get fondled.

Oh, yes. About twice a month a bus will inexplicably burst into flames.

It’s a mishmash of explanations, kind of like the fall of the Roman Empire. Corruption. Incompetence. Disorganization. And of course, the root of so many problems in Italy, the Mafia. But crime bosses are bit players, mere dime-store hoods in this drama that would make a good TV series — as long as the actors had cars to get to the sets. Good Lord, Rome has the only bus system in the world where the drivers don’t take tickets.

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on a typical day trying to get around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After nearly 4 ½ years in Rome, public transportation is the one area where my honeymoon has worn off. I arrived in Rome from a completely different perspective than most locals. I was born, educated and worked my entire life in the western United States. Out West, public transportation is a rumor. Not one person from San Diego to Seattle could tell you what bus to take for any tourist site. Buses were just something that held up traffic. Growing up in Oregon 22 years and working in suburban Seattle for a year and a half and Las Vegas for 10, I didn’t once take a bus. Never. Ever. Not even one time.

In 23 years in Denver, particularly after living in Rome from 2001-03, I adopted more of a European lifestyle. I often took the bus downtown, site of my office and favorite watering holes. But in Denver, the only people who took the bus were the crippled, the poor and one environmentally conscious sportswriter. One New Year’s Eve, Denver’s bus company, the Regional Transportation District (RTD), offered free bus service all night. I took it downtown — alone. I was the only one onboard. Everyone else preferred to drive and drink. Then drive.

Is it any wonder that two years ago 10,500 people in the U.S. died from drunk driving?

RTD tries. Many Denver buses come only every 30 minutes until 8:30 p.m. Then it’s one per hour. I never blamed RTD, saddled with a true chicken-or-egg dilemma. They don’t have enough money to send out more buses; they don’t have more money because few people take the bus. For RTD to change its schedule it must first change American society. In the U.S., if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a life. Automobiles in America represent everything from your income to your political party. Yes, cars disgust me.

This is why when I retired to Rome its public transportation provided such a soft landing. From my perspective, Rome’s public transport was pretty damn good. At least, it was good enough to not add 25 percent to my yearly budget on a car — or add 25 percent more time wasted trying to find parking spaces. Buses go everywhere. The subway runs every five minutes. My Citymapper makes maps obsolete. I pay only 250 euros for a year’s pass. Last year I made 621 trips on buses, trams, the subway and regional trains. At 1.50 euro per ticket, that means the pass saved me 681.50 euros. That’ll buy a lot of wine.

I'm not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. "Merda" in Italian means "shit."

I’m not the only one frustrated as this graffiti at a bus stop confirms. “Merda” in Italian means “shit.”


But then I recently wondered about the price I really pay as I waited on busy Via Nazionale in a driving rainstorm, looking at the electronic board above the bus stop indicating my No. 170 bus would arrive in three minutes. It never came. Then it would arrive in seven minutes. It never came. Then eight minutes. By the third whiff, I hopped on another bus and patched together a new route home.

Frustrated? Yes. Fortunately, I didn’t burn alive.

In July 64 A.D. Rome burned for five days. To this day, no one knows who caused it. Many blamed Emperor Nero; Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. What ensued was the Roman Empire’s first persecution of Christians, or, as advertised outside the Colosseum concession stands during gladiator games, “Christians on a Stick.”

It’s nearly 2,000 years later, and Romans still can’t figure out what causes fires. Drivers blame bad maintenance. Rome prosecutors blame corruption. Romans blame skinflint passengers not buying tickets. Everyone, however, does agree with the numbers. On May 8, the ninth bus this year caught fire, this time on Via del Tritone, the popular street near Trevi Fountain. The last escaping passenger had barely stopped praying before another bus not far away went Mt. Vesuvius, too. That made it 10 in 2018, meaning we’re well on our way to surpassing last year’s total of 22 which surpassed the 2016 total of 14. That’s 46 bus fires in less than 2 ½ years.

Cities have 46 tire sales. They don’t have 46 bus fires.

The organization running Rome’s public transportation system is called Azienda per i Trasporti Autoferrotranviari del Comune di Roma, or ATAC. I’ve suggested changing the acronym’s meaning to Authoritarian Transport Agency of Corruption but something was lost in the translation. ATAC is as popular in Rome as box wine. It receives less respect than Starbucks. Nero remains more beloved. Mussolini has nothing on ATAC. At least he got the trains to run on time.

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo

Some drivers blame the fires on aging buses, some of which are 15 years old. The average lifespan is six or seven years. Wanted in Rome photo


Romans have even adopted a name for the bus fires: flambus, a play off of ATAC’s previous name, Trambus. ATAC is just lucky the only person injured was a woman May 8 who had minor burns on her arm. In a city with 2,000-year-old backlit monuments and some of the most beautiful women in the world, it takes a lot for Romans to stop and stare. What usually does the trick is a 45-foot bus engulfed in flames rising to the sky and its tires exploding like small bombs.

One journalist was quoted in The Local, Rome’s English-language online news source, saying, “Only in Rome does a bus explode in the heart of the city and people immediately blame ATAC, with no thought of terrorism. It says a lot about our emergencies.”

Only in Rome can Islamic extremists become comic foils. After one bus fire, the TV ran a headline loop at the bottom of the screen reading, “Breaking News: ATAC claims responsibility for the attack in Rome.”

The center-right newspaper Il Foglio ran a headline over one fire story reading, “ATAC Akbar!”

Not everyone is laughing. Claudio De Francesco, the regional secretary of the Faisa-Confail union, which has gone on strike over the issue, told RomaToday that “It’s not safe with ATAC. By this point drivers can only pray that nothing happens, and we don’t even want to think about what will happen when it starts getting warmer.”

ATAC doesn’t just have bus fires. As an organization it’s a dumpster fire. It is 1.3 billion euros in debt and hasn’t turned a profit since 2006. Of its 1,350 buses, 500 were in the shop last June due to faulty air-conditioning or other problems, according to The Italian Insider. ATAC’s crack PR team jumped to the rescue, claiming the number was only 380. So it’s good ATAC cleared that up.

Many of the buses, including one that exploded this month, are 15 years old. Transportation experts, according to The New York Times, say a bus’s lifespan is about six or seven years. Thus, the list of maintenance problems would scare an Indy 500 pit crew: Overheated engines. Oil and gas leaks. Tires flat in a few hours. Jumping gears. Faulty brakes. One time last year the hand brake of a parked bus disengaged, sending it careening across Piazza Venezia, a massive roundabout with traffic similar to what swirls around the Arc de Triomphe. The bus hit a Smart car and injured a woman.

In 2016, a nuclear engineer named, appropriately, Manual Fantasia took over vowing to return ATAC to respectability. A 2017-19 industrial plan called for electronic tickets and an additional 500 administrative police to join 200 current ticket inspectors.

The electronic tickets never surfaced, meaning freeloaders are still hopping on and off the bus like children on a merry-go-round. In my previous three years in Rome, I was asked to show my pass, called a Metrebus Card, twice. In the last year, I have been checked about once every two months. Enforcement is improving. Getting caught means shelling out a 104-euro penalty on the spot, a fee that apparently deters no one. I see fewer tickets shoved into the buses’ little yellow machines than I do empty seats.

Adding to the nightmare are a fleet of drivers who no doubt hate life. You’ve heard stories about Rome’s traffic and drivers. Imagine spending eight hours a day driving a 45-foot bus through that mess. Adding ticket taking is apparently beyond their skill set, although they do manage to text at 50 words a minute during red lights.

My new approach to Rome's public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new approach to Rome’s public transportation problems. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Public transport strikes are also as common in Rome as wine tastings. No place else in the world do I know of where strikes are announced ahead of time. In fact, ATAC has its own web page listing all the fractured periods of operation and bus lines that shut down. And sometimes drivers act on their own. Strikes in Rome aren’t always over higher pay and better benefits. Sometimes they go like this:

Guido: “Hey, Giuseppe, you working today?”

Giuseppe: “Yeah, I’m driving the 170.”

Guido: “Want to take a break? I have a problem with my ex.”

Giuseppe: “Sure, I could use a caffe.”

So Giuseppe skips three rotations of his bus line while sitting at a sidewalk caffe listening to Guido verbally charbroil his ex-girlfriend. Then guys like me wind up walking through the rain to find another bus.

The most recent commissioner tried requiring drivers to punch a clock, which drivers responded with by striking and driving their routes slower than the horse-drawn carriages hauling tourists.

Every new elected official vows to stamp out Rome’s Whac-A-Mole corruption rackets. In 2015 Rome prosecutors investigated corruption in awarding contracts without due process, siphoning funds for sham consulting contracts and laundering money in San Marino bank accounts. The amount of dirty money involved topped 1 billion euros, according to Wanted in Rome.

In the past ATAC has been accused of printing counterfeit tickets, bribing politicians and nepotism.

Overlooking all this has been a string of mayors who have made no one forget Caesar Augustus. Gianni Alemanno (2008-13) of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party was tied to the Mafia. He allegedly accepted more than 125,000 euros from Salvatore Buzzi, the leader of Mafia Capitale, Rome’s local Mafia chapter. Buzzi’s previous claim to fame was on June 26, 1980, he turned on Giovanni Gargano, a corrupt judge who threatened to blackmail him, and stabbed him 34 times.

Buzzi and 40 others went to prison last year for pocketing public works funds. Consequently, like a junkie losing his dirty drug, the city fell apart. Alemanno’s successor, Ignazio Marino of the center-left Democratic Party, resigned after he was investigated for embezzlement, fraud and forgery tied to an expense receipt scandal.

His replacement and current mayor is Virginia Raggi, a 39-year-old former lawyer elected specifically from the outside of Rome’s stench-spewing political cauldron to clean up the corruption. But before she could show her clean, virgin hands, accusations of corruption started knocking off her cabinet members like plucked mallards. She went under investigation for abuse of office and giving false testimony during the investigation of one of her associates.

Alemanno and Marino were both cleared of charges as was Raggi of abuse of office although she remains embattled. Next month she goes on trial giving a false statement to an anti-corruption official, a procedure she encourages to clear her name. Consequently, Rome mayors seem no more empowered to clean up ATAC as they do the city streets, which have made Rome the filthiest capital in Europe.

Still, I happily hop on my No. 8 tram from my new apartment to Centro Storico. I’ll take the No. 871 to my lovely park, Doria Pamphilj. I’ll board the subway’s A Line to visit my Marina on the west side of town. I still love living here. It oozes history. It just doesn’t learn from it.

Yes, Western Civilization, Rome is burning again.