A trip to Rome’s Olympic Stadium is worth the hassle when Roma wins

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma  over Porto.

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma over Porto.


Did you know a comb could be a weapon?

And it’s not even a big comb, one of those knife-length jobs you slip in your back pocket, the kind James Bond may have used to cut a Russian spy’s throat. It’s a little round collapsible comb that pops out when you lift the lid and push up from underneath. For years I carried it in my left front pocket, not knowing I had a concealed weapon in my possession.

In Rome’s Olympic Stadium, it is.

Security guards confiscated it Tuesday night when I went through the gate. I asked the female guard what possible harm could I do with this, thinking maybe her tip would be handy if I ever meet a Trump supporter. She made a throwing motion as if hurling a fastball, showing pretty good velocity.

So they don’t want me throwing it on the field or at opposing fans. They were searching everybody everywhere. Pockets. Purses. Backpacks. Limbs. I thought I saw a proctologist on call nearby.

Welcome to the soccer game experience, Italian style.

I’ve seen nearly every AS Roma game this season but this was my first trip to see one live. I eschewed my normal mid-field press tribune seat for a 50-euro ticket with my fellow American expat/Romanista, Loren, an English teacher from Long Island who left Rome last June for Zurich. Two things she misses about Rome are the food and football.

We tried to get a group together but it wasn’t easy. Some begged out because it was a work night and a 9 p.m. start; others didn’t want to hassle with going to the stadium.

And it is a hassle. Even getting there is a problem. Rome is the only capital I know in Europe that does not have a train going to its stadium. One must rely on Europe’s worst public transportation system, Atac, only slightly more reliable than hitchhiking and not much safer. Unlike Rome’s buses, at least cars driven by psycho loners with butcher knives don’t inexplicably burst into flames. If you drive, you must park at least a kilometer away per the absurd security precautions. You never know when a suicide bomber frustrated with Roma’s coaching staff runs his explosives-laden Fiat into a panino stand.

Once at the stadium, the security is something akin to that at a North Korean nuclear facility. You show your ticket plus a photo ID to get through the first gate. The ticket MUST have your name on it to foil scalpers. I’ve seen some in Italy hover outside gates selling discount tickets to unwitting, casual tourists who are then denied entry but learn their first Italian word: ladro (thief).

Then you walk 50 meters and go through an electronic turnstile where you press the ticket’s barcode against a machine’s blinding light, unlocking the gate you walk through. Greeting you is a squadron of security guards who pat you down, feel your pockets and view grooming products as hand grenades.

At the same time you’re arguing the relative merits of combs, a monitor is photographing your face to match up in case a camera inside the stadium catches you hurling a javelin at the opposing goalie.

Still, coming to an AS Roma game as a fan is an experience I can’t get at my midfield seat with the video monitor in front of me and access to press room pizza. It’s definitely more exhilarating than sitting in the cramped upper room of my soccer pub with the other Romanisti eating fish ‘n chips and breaking down Brexit.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.


And Tuesday night was special: AS Roma-Porto, the Champions League knockout stage. It’s the perfect time to write an update on my favorite sports team. It’s the one liferaft of fandom I’ve grasped after 40 years as a crusty (“WHERE ARE THE STATS???!!!”), emotionally bankrupt (“When’s last call?”), cynical (see above graphs) sportswriter.

It has taken a while this season to hop aboard. The offseason was painful. Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, the Spanish sporting director known as “Monchi” brought over from Sevilla two years ago after directing it to 11 trophies, headed a purge of Roma’s guts. Gone went Alisson Becker, 25, in the discussion as the world’s best goalkeeper, to Liverpool. Midfielder Radja Nainggolan, 30, the heavily tattooed fan favorite and on-field enforcer, rejoined former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti at Inter Milan. Midfielder Kevin Strootman, 28, a major locker room leader, rejoined Rudy Garcia, another ex-Roma coach, in Marseille. In Alisson (a goalkeeper-record 62.5 million euros), Nainggolan (38 million) and Strootman (25 million) the club got 130.5 million euros in transfer fees.

With that they went out and bought a bunch of kids. Arriving from Dutch power Ajax came Justin Kluivert, 19, son of the former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, for 17.25 million. Patrik Schick, a 22-year-old striker from Czech Republic, came from Sampdoria for 9 million and attacking midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, 18, came aboard from Inter for only 4.5 million. The biggest acquisitions were Sevilla midfielder Steven Nzonzi, 29, fresh off helping France to the World Cup title, for 26.56 million; Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Javier Pastore, 29, for 24.7 million; and goalkeeper Robin Olsen, 28, from FC Copenhagen and who blanked Italy twice to send Sweden to the World Cup, for 8.5 million.

Financially they came out ahead but how much farther ahead on the field would they get banking on the future? And who is this Zaniolo kid? If he looked any younger his mom would hand him Orange Slices after games.

Juventus, the 500-pound carnivore and seven-time Serie A defending champion, added world icon Cristiano Ronaldo and was basically handed the trophy before the first whistle blew in August.

Roma started with 1 win, 2 ties and 2 losses and later lost to 14th-place SPAL at home, 2-0. Olsen was a serviceable replacement for Becker but the defense was terrible and Dzeko, who led Roma last year with 24 goals, was hurt and ineffective. The young kids were still getting comfortable. With veteran captain Daniele De Rossi out with a knee injury, the leadership was nil. In mid-December, Roma stood at 5-6-4 and Roma’s famously impatient and vicious fans had had enough.

On Dec. 16, before a home game against Genoa, the Roma Ultras organized a protest. Thousands didn’t enter until 11 minutes had passed in the game. Those already in the stands turned their backs on the field during player introductions and whistled loudly at the announcement of every player’s name but De Rossi and Zaniolo.

Roma won three of its next four, losing only at Juventus 1-0, to enter the winter break 8-6-5 but it hit rock bottom when it returned. On Jan. 27, it blew a 3-0 lead at Atalanta and tied 3-3 then three days later at Fiorentina got filleted in 7-1 in the Italian Cup, the national tournament not held in high regard except when it’s an excuse to fire the coach.

Eusebio Di Francesco, who arrived last season from Sassuolo and led Roma to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A, couldn’t have been on a hotter seat if the broiler was set on nuclear. James Pallotta, the embattled American owner, said he’d leave the decision to Monchi who steadfastly supported Di Francesco.

Di Francesco, a midfielder on Roma’s last Serie A championship team in 2000-01, has spent all season one step ahead of the executioner’s axe. Roma looked solid in a 1-1 tie against Milan then Dzeko, who awoke from his Serie A coma to score two goals at Atalanta, scored another in a 3-0 win at Chievo. The fact that Chievo is in last place was lost on the 51,000 fans who nearly sold out Olympic Stadium Tuesday hoping Roma could continue its Champions League magic.

Roma finished second behind Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage in which Dzeko had five goals in six games, giving him 15 in the competition for Roma all time, only two behind leader Francesco Totti, Roma’s living god. Roma is rising in Serie A as well, standing 10-8-5 in a three-way tie for fifth place, one point behind Milan for the fourth and final Champions League spot for next season.

Loren and I, being Americans, had to start our evening with a beer. Drinking in Olympic Stadium is an odd experience for an American. There’s never a line, especially weird since the 4-euro price is about half the price of beer in your average American stadium. Romans drink beer like Brits drink tea: slowly and sparingly. I’ve seen so few fans drink beer in the stadium I thought it wasn’t even sold, not because they want to curb rowdiness but because it flat out wouldn’t sell. Olympic Stadium is as sober as St. Peter’s.

We took our seat in the fourth row on one corner of the north end. It’s about as close to the field as you’ll get but with the eight-lane track still left from the 1960 Olympics, the distance from the end lines doesn’t make up for the low vantage point. However, we did get good views of the 3,500 Porto fans who came from Portugal to jam pack one section of the north end, cordoned off from the Roma fans by a tall Plexiglas fence, an empty section and an army of security guards, lined up like sentries on every step.

At 8:10 p.m., a good 50 minutes before the game, the Porto fans lit a fuse under a Rome fan base that only needs a cold shoulder to eat Plexiglas. They started hurling objects that looked like food and fluids over the Plexiglas into the Roma section. Roma fans responded with outstretched arms, the Roman hand gesture for “I mortacci tua” (May your entire family die.) Porto fans then waved the red cape by holding up a “FORZA LAZIO” banner and a jersey of Paolo Di Canio, the former Lazio player known for his fascism.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.


Not to be outdone, some Ultras in Curva Sud held up a banner reading “BASTARDO KOLAROV,” a biting cut to Aleksandar Kolarov, the veteran Serbian defender who has become the fans’ paddling boy for Roma’s defensive deficiencies. The banner was quickly removed.

Olsen was still nursing a calf injury and Roma started at goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, a 35-year-old journeyman making the biggest start of his career but I’d seen him make the second best save all season at Chievo and wasn’t worried.

However, Porto is no Chievo. It is the New York Yankees of Portuguese soccer — except Porto is still winning. It has won 28 Primeira Liga titles, second only to Benfica’s 36, but 10 of the last 16, including last year’s. It was in first place when it took the field on a clear 40-degree night Tuesday with clear memories of eliminating Roma two years ago.

The first half wouldn’t win over my old farm boy sports editor who called soccer “kickball.” Through 23 minutes, no team had a shot on goal. I looked at this glass as half filled and chalked up the 0-0 halftime score to a great defensive game, one I’d settle for after watching the bludgeoning at Fiorentina from an angry pub.

But Roma started pressing the action in the second half with Stephen El-Shaarawy skying an open shot in the 55th minute and Rome native Alessandro Florenzi hitting a bullet saved by craggie goalkeeper Iker Castillas, who led Spain to the 2010 World Cup title.

Finally, in the 70th minute, Dzeko outraced all of Portugal down the field and fed a perfect ball to a charging Zaniolo who slotted in the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Zaniolo did it again, taking a Dzeko shot that ricocheted off the pole into the corner to make it 2-0.

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline "A FAIRY TALE."

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline “A FAIRY TALE.”


Yes, Roma finally has a young star and Zaniolo is finally a bigger star than his mom whose selfies have gone viral. Yes, Francesca Costa’s shots of herself on the beach in bikinis and posing in miniskirts in front of the mirror is the mother of Roma’s baby-faced sniper. From whence came this 19-year-old who has five goals in 22 games and made his Roma debut at — gulp! — Real Madrid in the Champions League Sept. 19.

Born in the Tuscany beach town of Massa, the son of a former Serie B and C player came up through Fiorentina’s youth system but was released in 2016. He hooked on with Serie B Virtus Entella two years ago and in July 2017 signed with Inter where he became its developmental team’s top scorer with 13 goals. Last summer, Inter shipped him and Davide Santon to Roma for Nainggolan, one of Monchi’s many moves that made many of the more polite fans go, “Che CAZZO! (What the fuck?)”

Zaniolo was hailed long after a Porto goal in the 76th minute made it a 2-1 final. The goal made Roma’s return leg in Portugal March 6 a little more frightening (teams advance on accumulative score with away goals serving as the first tie-breaker) but considering our season, the 2-1 victory seemed like a stay of execution.

The crowd was remarkably subdued at the final whistle. The rollicking “Grazie Roma” sung by fans arm in arm didn’t have the usual verve. In an up and down year, polite team songs sometimes take a back seat to more symbolic post-game looks like the one right near me.

A young man in a gray hoodie facing the Porto section with two middle fingers waving in the air.

Want to be an American expat in Rome? Here are 10 tips to live by

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.

Members of the Expats Living in Rome Meetup group gather at Rec23 for their annual Tuesday aperitivo.


You’re standing in line for 60 minutes to pay an electric bill you don’t understand and think the postal worker taking your money is speaking medieval Bulgarian instead of Italian. You then go stand outside for 45 minutes waiting for a bus that should’ve arrived 30 minutes ago. You return home to a freezing or sweltering apartment, depending on the season, and cruise the web looking at other flats more suitable for Hobbits than Americans.

Welcome to life as an American expat in Rome.

I understand the appeal. You’re bored with your job. You hate seeing the U.S. turn into the Fourth Reich. You’re reaching that make-or-break age where you either change everything or continue your Bataan Death March into what’s left of Medicare or onto a fairway in Florida. You spent the best week of your life in Italy on vacation. You still look at that photo of St. Peter’s, back lit at midnight. Or you’ve read my blog for the last five years.

Let’s quit everything and move to Rome!

If this is you, I’m here to help.

As I wrote in my recent fifth-anniversary blog, my Rome honeymoon has worn off. However, the long list of positives (In fact, I list 48 in the blog) far outweigh the irritation of waiting for a bus. I love Rome. Retiring here was the best decision of my life, and I’ve never been happier. I’ll never live anywhere else.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way. You won’t find these tips in “Lonely Planet” or on a brochure at your nearest Italian consulate. They’re a survival guide that serves as a continuous loop through my brain as I walk the narrow cobblestone streets of my favorite city in the world.

I’m not the only one. Rome has Americans living here either on government contracts or as students, entrepreneurs or retirees like me. The Queen Bee of American expats is Patrizia Di Gregorio. She was born to Italians in the small town of Piedimonte Matese in Campania, moved to Schenectady, N.Y., as a baby and returned here in 2000. A year later, she started Expats Living in Rome, a terrific Meetup group that gathers expats from around the world and some Italians every Tuesday night for Italian and English lessons, a buffet dinner, lots of wine and beer and international conversations.

The group’s Facebook page has 21,000 followers.

Now, 47, she has given more advice to Americans in Rome than the pope. We exchanged anecdotes about the ugly Americans we’ve seen. I once had dinner with one acquaintance who ordered meatballs and was aghast when they served her polpette, little dry hunks of meat. Spaghetti and meatballs is served in Rome, New York, not Rome, Italy. Di Gregorio talked about how Americans can’t find anything to do from 1-4 p.m. every day when Italians have their pausa, the afternoon break.

I asked her how many Americans she has seen come here and not make it.

“Plenty,” she said, facing a big room full of tables in the Rec23 cocktail lounge where instructors are teaching Italian to expats and English to Italians. “One, the document situation is hard. I just feel like a little bit of Americans are spoiled. They feel they can live anywhere because they’re American.

“Any immigration, you’re going to have that. But Americans think they should bypass that because they’ve been stamped American. ‘I’m American! I can do whatever I want.’”

That’s a big mistake, my fellow Americans. Life here is hard. The language barrier is massive. The bureaucracy is mind boggling. The social scene is polar opposite of the U.S. You need to be independent, confident and adventurous. Anything less and you won’t last three months.

We must realize that we are no different than the legally documented West Africans and Albanians and Syrians. When I renew my visa at the Questura, the police station that documents immigrants, I am no better than all the others with different-colored skin sitting around me. We all have one thing in common:

A willingness to do about anything to live here.

“Expats need to understand they’re immigrants regardless if you put the fancy word ‘expats’ next to it,” Di Gregorio said. “Any immigrant living anywhere, especially if you don’t know the language, you have to work harder in order to make it. And in this country, compared to the UK and the U.S. you’re not going to make as much.

“And you have to work harder to make that little bit they’re going to give you.”

I won’t give tips on finding a job. That’s a whole separate blog and, being retired, I have little experience job hunting. What follows is a guide to get you started once you arrive. Read it, clip it, keep it handy in times when you want to smash your head against a 2,000-year-old marble statue or execute the entire population.

Call it the American Expat’s 10 Commandments:

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.

Me with one of my many scambio partners over the years.


1. Learn Italian. This. Can. Not. Be. Emphasized. Enough. I’ve written about this before. Many Romans know some English. Some are conversational. Few are fluent. If you don’t know Italian, you’ll starve. In five years of shopping in two charming open-air public markets that sell the freshest, most natural food in the world, I’ve met two people who speak English.

I know people who have gotten by without Italian. However, they surround themselves with other expats or Italians who speak English. I don’t want to just talk to a New Yorker or a tour guide or a hotel clerk. I want to talk to my fishmonger, my barista, the guys in my gym. That’s where you get a sense of the Roman soul.

Take lessons. Language schools and tutors are all over Rome. But the best way to learn is either live with Italians, get a job where you speak Italian or get an Italian lover. You either live it, work it or sleep it.

For five years I’ve done scambios, language exchanges where you meet a local who wants to learn English. You speak Italian for an hour and English for an hour and correct each other. But women, be cautious.

Some Italian men use them to meet women. You’ll know when they ask definitions for body parts.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.

My old friend Claudia at Linari, my favorite bar in Testaccio.


2. Find a local bar. In Italy, “bar” means cafe. It’s where you go to get your daily coffee. Whether it’s cappuccino or caffe macchiato or caffe schiumato, discover your morning poison and go there frequently. Within three visits the local barista will know your name and your coffee preference. Soon you’ll be in daily conversations with him about current events and meet other regulars around your neighborhood. You can practice your Italian and start feeling like a true local.

Plus, you’ll drink the best coffee of your life.

Just this morning I was across the street at my Romagnani Caffe. I talked to Davide, my barista and fellow AS Roma fan, about Wednesday’s 7-1 humiliation at Fiorentina. He was very impressed with the new Italian word I learned.

Vergognosa (Shameful).

3. Buy a Metro pass. Do NOT buy a car. It’s not true Romans drive like drunk Formula 1 drivers. They do have brakes. They do stop, occasionally. The problem with cars is the expense. Owning a car adds about 20 percent to your yearly budget. Gas here is about 1.50 euro a liter. That’s about $5.70 a gallon. Besides, you’ll need the extra cash for the shrink after going crazy trying to find parking spots every day. This city is nearly 3,000 years old. It was not laid out with parking lots in mind.

The Metro pass gets you on the bus, subway, tram and regional trains. They go everywhere in the metro area. The pass is only 250 euros and I average about 500 trips on public transportation a year. At 1.50 euros for a single-trip ticket, that means I’m saving about 500 euros a year on transport.

That’s a lot of cappuccinos.

4. Find a rental agency. Expats move around a lot. They tire of roommates. In my case, they tire of landladies. You seek better contracts. You seek better neighborhoods. My 65-square-meter apartment for 1,000 euros a month in the “chic” neighborhood of Monteverde is my third home in five years. That’s not many for an expat.

The Internet is full of rental websites showing reams of vacant apartments in Rome. I’ve gone that route and found nothing that didn’t make me cringe, laugh or duck to get inside the tiny doorways.

Good rental agencies have the best properties available. I highly recommend Property International (info@propertyrome.net). They found my last two homes here (and my home when I lived here from 2001-03). Others they showed were very livable. The finder’s fee is one month’s rent but you’ll forget you paid it a week after you move in. Plus, they serve as a liaison between you and your landlord. That is invaluable.

Trust me.

5. Join Meetup groups. Romans are extremely open, curious and friendly, despite their cold reputation elsewhere in Italy. However, it’s somewhat difficult to come in social contact with them. Rome is a restaurant town; it’s not a bar town. People go out in groups, not individually. Bar hopping does not exist.

Meetups are casual groups united by common interests. I not only belong to Meetups Living in Rome but also Language Exchange (similar to Expats but different day), Internations (international clientele in business community), Rome Explorers (hiking and history) and Rome Wine and Food Lovers (wine tastings and restaurants). You meet at regular intervals in various places around the city. I meet new people from around the world every week. There are Meetup groups for all interest in the city (https://www.meetup.com/cities/it/rm/roma/).

For women it’s a safe haven from men who see Italian women as not nearly as sexual as they dress. Di Gregorio said her Expats Meetup is about 58 percent women and 42 men.

“I think expat women are targeted by these people with no life, no social skills and want to trap somebody for an hour and a half,” she said. “They don’t intend to meet up, period. They want to go exclusive to a small bar and just a you-and-I kind of thing, like a date. I do suggest not to do that because if you meet people at the event, if you like them you can continue to talk but at least you met the person and decide if you want to waste another hour and a half of your life.”

6. Buy Italian clothes. When you pack for your overseas move, bring a fraction of your wardrobe. Sell or give away the rest. You don’t want to walk around Rome looking like you walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog or a sporting goods store. It pained me to get rid of my college sweatshirt collection. But I look like a tourist enough. The last thing I want to do is be seen near the Colosseum wearing a University of Oregon hoodie.

Italy remains the international fashion capital and has the best clothes in the world. Rome is built for shopping. Entire streets, such as Via Cola di Rienzo and Via del Corso are lined with clothes stores.

Keep in mind the prices are geared toward female tourists so it’s not cheap. However, they’re also priced for local men. Thus, men’s clothes are not expensive. Twelve of my 14 pairs of shoes are Italian and each pair was so comfortable I could walk the old Appian Way as soon I walked out the door.

Also, Italy has saldi (sales) every January and July, lasting about a month. Stock up twice a year and you’re set for years down the road.

7. Get Rick Zullo’s Permesso di Soggiorno blog. Zullo is a friend and was the godfather of Rome bloggers (Rick’s Rome, http://www.rickzullo.com) until he moved to Florida four years ago. Before he left he wrote a terrific guide (https://rickzullo.com/permesso-signup/) on how to acquire a Permesso di Soggiorno, the holy grail of expats. It’s the visa you need to remain in the country. You must get it to remain Italy for a year and then renew it every year or two. It is wildly confusing.

Zullo’s blog is not. It takes you step-by-step, from going to the post office for the form to your Questura appointment and meeting face to face with immigration officials deciding your fate. In between, it covers every step in a concise, humorous manner. You’ll enjoy reading it. And you’ll be grateful when you walk out with that card that makes you legal.

Matteo Salvini’s immigration Nazis can’t touch you.

8. Learn patience. Americans are notoriously impatient. I was notoriously impatient even for an American. Everything takes a lot longer in Rome. Good Lord, you wait in a post office to pay your electric bill. It took me 48 days to get my Internet transferred from my previous apartment. PosteItaliane delivers packages to you — kind of when it feels like it. You get better odds in Las Vegas.

The most important Italian word you will learn is tranquillo. It’s just like it sounds. Stay calm. It’ll get done. Just give it time. Take a newspaper or your Italian homework to the post office. Make friends in your corner bar where you’ll work waiting for the Internet. Don’t go postal on PosteItaliane. You’re in Rome. What, you’ve got a corporate meeting to get to?

9. Take a cooking class. I’m not a good cook. However, I’m a good cook in Rome. The ingredients are so fresh and so tasty and so healthy, I can butcher a pasta dish and still make it better than anything I made in the U.S. Once you peruse the open markets, where everything is shipped farm fresh that day, you’ll want to cook.

Cooking classes are all over the city all year. In one I learned to cook zucca ravioli. I hate pumpkin. Pumpkins are made to be carved, not eaten. I now like zucca ravioli.

You’ll be surprised how much weight you’ll lose. Between the natural ingredients, smaller portions and all the walking you do, you’ll get in the best shape of your life.

Plus, learning to cook is a must for economic survival. Rome restaurants aren’t terribly expensive but eating out every night will end your retirement — or your stay — in a hurry. You don’t want to wind up eating cold pasta on the banks of the Tiber.

So take pride in a sink full of dirty dishes.

10. Leave an impression. I consider myself a mini ambassador to the United States. Many people I meet around Italy have never met an American. How they view me when I leave is how they may view Americans in general.

Americans have a reputation of being loud (I’m guilty as charged), arrogant (not anymore) and fat (nope). Be conscious about being nice. It isn’t hard. Italians are very curious people. They’ll always ask you questions about your life. Ask them about theirs. Show an interest in their culture, their holidays, their families.

Do not talk about money. Do not make your first question, What do you do for a living? Do not criticize the culture. (Although verbally filleting the public services and government corruption is fair game. You’ll sound like a local.)

Men, respect women as you’ve never respected them before. Roman women have evolved. They’re independent, ambitious, strong. The men still live with their moms. The women are dying for men who respect them for who they are and not just what they look like.

When you date, don’t touch them. Wait a few dates. Have deep cosmic conversations with them. Cook them dinner. Barring unmasked physical flaws, overt cheapness or wearing a University of Oregon hoodie, you’ll likely see them again. And if you do, don’t cheat on them. Roman women are dying for loyalty. It’s a rare quality here.

Well, there you have it. Hope that helps. Living in Rome remains a paradise for me. It’s a great life when your biggest stress is getting enough foam in your cappuccino, when your biggest decision is to drink red or white wine. So keep staring at that photo of St. Peter’s.

It still isn’t that far away.

Owning a winery in Italy not as easy as toast but this couple is toasting now in the land of St. Francis

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas' and Rizza's 800-year-old house in Umbria.

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas’ and Rizza’s 800-year-old house in Umbria.


TODI, Italy — So you want to have a winery in Italy, huh?

Sit on your porch looking out at your vineyard on the hill, sipping the fruits of your labor under a warm sun, a plate of pasta in front of you as the church bells peal from a nearby village?

Getting thirsty? Getting antsy? Getting dreamy?

Here’s one reality.

You’re in sleeping bags on the floor of an 800-year-old stone house with no electricity, heat or water. It takes you seven years to get a building permit. You realize that your land really isn’t your land. You have no money and take equipment from cartoonish strangers on the promise you’ll pay them later. How?

Who knows?

Yet there’s another reality about the wine making business in Italy.

“With little money and just lots of work, you struggle but you know what? The truth is, we didn’t start off with this dream. We started off with an idea. That has turned into, honestly, a dream life.”

This sage advice comes from one Ev Thomas, a 69-year-old American artist who indeed is living the dream of many bored, overworked Americans with a fine taste for wine. We’re sitting in the living room of his stone house built in 1272, around the time Marco Polo set sail for China and St. Francis of nearby Assisi ditched his penthouse for prayers. The wood fire in the cast-iron fireplace warms the stone house like a dozy bathrobe against the 40-degree temperature outside.

Art is everywhere. Thomas’ paintings of the sea and a set of stairs hang on the walls. In the dining room is a table that once belonged to a family of Raphael art collectors from the 16th century.

“You’ll have lunch — and breakfast, what the heck? — where Raphael probably ate at this table,” Thomas tells me.

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I met Thomas and his Sicilian wife, Claudia Rizza, at the Sangiovese Purosangue wine tasting event in Rome’s Radisson Blu hotel last weekend. They stood out in a room filled with dozens of wineries for two reasons: one, he’s an American; two, their Terramante winery is in Umbria. Sangiovese is a delicate grape that’s the main ingredient of such Italian wines as Chianti, Brunello and Montepulciano. All are prominent in Tuscany, the brightest star in Italy’s wine constellation.

I’ve always called Umbria, just to the south of Tuscany, as Tuscany Light. It has all the things Tuscany has (wineries, walled hill towns, lousy soccer) as its northern neighbor but with a fraction of the tourists and lower prices. Umbria is the only one of Italy’s 21 regions that does not border a sea or another country. Of all the regions with histories stretching back millenniums, Umbria may be the least influenced by outsiders.

The biggest influence remains a humble saint.

Francis Bernardone, better known as St. Francis of Assisi, was a wealthy, carousing son of a rich cloth merchant and a French noblewoman. After a year in prison and a bad illness, Francis went into the army in 1205 but a holy vision changed his life forever. He tossed away his gold, grabbed a robe and spent his life helping the poor and living in a cave.

Now enter Ev and Claudia, living in what amounted to a cave. What they discovered is neighbors and Umbrians farther afield who went out of their way to make their idea come to fruition. The people weren’t curing the sick, but they did help an American’s winery get started.

“In the U.S. you could never do this,” says Thomas, tall, fit, bearded and looking younger than 69 years. “You never could. You have to understand that this zone is unique. There is still deep underneath the Umbrians in this area are still connected deeply with St. Francis and the mentality of St. Francis.

“It’s beautiful. And it’s one of the reasons I like it so much.”

This story began in 1997. Thomas, raised on Chicago’s North Side, had gone to the University of Washington and later to San Francisco at age 25. Working as an artist and part-time at an art gallery, he met Claudia in ‘97 at a museum event. She moved back to Italy and they reconnected in 2000 when the American Academy of Rome brought him over as a visiting artist for three months. They then brought him back a year later.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.


They eventually moved to her native Marsala, Sicily, where Thomas continued to make and sell art. However, in 2004 he wanted someplace closer to Rome which he loves and has an airport for convenient shipping.

“We took a compass and drew a circle around Rome,” Thomas says. “We just started round the perimeter of Rome and out and out and out until we found something we could afford. We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t find anything and we were getting kind of desperate.”

They arrived in Todi, a charming collection of stone houses, palaces and lightly trodden windy alleys on a hill 35 miles south of Assisi. The locals, unlike Californians, were encouraging them to stay. They found this house.

Then they learned the price.

“We said, ‘Oh, well, there’s no point then. We can’t afford this place,’” Thomas says. “They said, ‘No! Just make the family an offer because you never know.’”

They offered what they could afford — two-thirds less. The owner didn’t laugh. He didn’t explode. He agreed. But then there was the matter of the geometra, the pseudo real estate agent who helped them find the place.

“They get a percentage,” Rizza says. “We were short 500 euros. We said, ‘We’re going to buy but you’re going to have to cut your fee.’ And he did. We had no excuses. He agreed so now we have to BUY THE FUCKING PLACE!”

The home, located at the end of a long dirt road on a hill on Todi’s outskirts, was once a tiny fortress and still sports the three-story stone tower used as a lookout for marauding armies during war-torn Umbria in the 13th century. At the time of purchase it looked as if it hadn’t been refurbished since then, either. What is now the dining room was outside. They lived in the tower and what is now the living room. They slept on the floor the first night. It was February and their lone heat was each others’ bodies. The fireplace was gutted. Thomas tried to make a fire and the whole room filled with smoke.

“It was kind of a hole,” Rizza says.

They returned to Sicily to regroup and came back in the summer. They hooked up a shower in the back and used the sun to heat plastic bags of water. Things were looking up. At least they were clean.

Then the good samaritan Umbrians, all seemingly came from St. Francis’ family tree, offered help. The couple met a “crazy” builder fishing on the neighboring Tiber. Ol’ Italo, “Mr. Italy” as Thomas calls him, rarely wore shoes and walked with a gait of Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But he was pretty handy with his hands and offered to fix the entire house to their liking for 10,000 euros. They borrowed the money from Rizza’s brother and Italo moved in.

Italo noticed nearby an old vineyard, a throw-in during the purchase. He asked if he could take the grapes. Sure, they said. Why not? They weren’t going to do anything with them.

What do they know about making wine?

“The next spring I came up to check on things and he was here,” Thomas says. “We agreed to meet, He said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to try the wine!’

“‘What, the wine is ready already?’”

“‘Oh, yeah! It’s much better this way. It’s fresh.’”

“Oh, it was the worst wine I’ve ever tasted,” Thomas tells me. “But I couldn’t tell him this. When I went back home to Sicily, I told Claudia, ‘Jesus, that was the worst wine I’ve ever had. We can make better wine than that.’ So we started making plans.”

Thomas dug into research like he’d soon dig into the soil to plant vines. He connected with friends in the California wine industry for advice. He went to California to take weekend classes.

They returned to Umbria popping their corks about someday popping real corks. Then they ran into the biggest roadblock, bigger than money or weather or vine disease.

Italy’s bureaucratic red tape.

Turns out, landowners own only one meter of land underneath the surface. In Umbria, which has very strict rules for planting grapes, you must buy the rights to plant and then wait for permission before planting vines. For an American, that’s as foreign a concept as the Italian language.

“He was like, ‘This is my land!’” Rizza says. “‘And I do whatever I want to with my land!’

“‘No you can’t.’”

“‘You and your stupid Italian mentality! You’ll never go anywhere!’

“He was planting and I was chasing after him to comply with everything.”

The couple are laughing now. We’re eating ribollita, a hearty farmer’s vegetable stew, and ossobuco, the famed Lombard dish of veal shanks braised with fresh vegetables, white wine and broth. We’re sopping up the sauce with fresh Italian bread and washing it down with their lovely Sangiovese wine on Raphael’s old table.

You couldn’t have a better Italian winter afternoon if Paolo Sorrentino directed it. Suddenly, the red tape and labor and worries seem a lifetime ago.

“You have to go through somersaults,” Rizza says. “We did it the first portion because we planted a half hectare at a time. We decided to put up the money ourselves just so we didn’t have to go through the bureaucracy.”

Expansion and equipment were other matters. They applied for a building permit in 2008 and didn’t receive it until 2015 and they had to rebuild the living room and veranda area. Equipment for making wine? What equipment? Where would they find it? Where would they get the money? Turns out they had a neighbor named Fabrizio who sold farm equipment and was, obviously, another descendant of St. Francis. He had a duster. It cost 1,500. They didn’t have 1,500.

Fabrizio said, “OK, I trust you guys. Don’t you worry. Take the duster. Pay me when you can.”

They later bought a sprayer from him and every month, the couple paid him a little bit, borrowing money from Rizza’s mother, using Thomas’ pension with Rizza selling some ceramics and working at B&B in Magione 40 miles to the north.

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo


In 2007, they were ready to make wine. Again, the neighbors came to help. Three jovial elderly men came by to help collect the grapes. They brought a plastic vat that was bigger than the Fiat Panda it rode upon and dragging a destemmer behind it. All five went to work.

However, it wasn’t really work.

“They’re really old guys,” Thomas says. “They’re between 85 and 90. But they’re spry and smoking cigarettes like fiends. By the end of the night, after doing all this stuff and getting it into the vat, I never had so much fun in my life. I laughed so hard because these guys were great. They loved life.

“That got me hooked.”

Thomas made two barrels of what he thought were two pretty good wines, made with 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. Terramante (www.terramante.com, info@terramante.com), a combination of the Italian words “terra” (land) and “amante” (lover), was born. So were Iubelo and Laudatus, his two wines named with local ties. Iubelo was the name of a poem written by Umbrian friar Jacopone da Todi, who following St. Francis’ lead, gave away all his possessions. He also wrote “Stabat Mater,” which remains one of the great hymns in the Catholic Church. Laudatus, a Sangiovese-Sagrantino blend, comes from a Latin word, laudato, which means “praised” and is all through St. Francis’ religious song, “Canticle of the Sun.”

Cute names, but the true test was taking it to California where his friends would judge.

“They said, ‘This is great wine. You should actually try to sell this stuff,’” Thomas says. “‘You should really think about making wine.’”

His research continued. He looking into the best clones, the best planting materials, the best harvesting strategy. He became a sponge of wine knowledge.

He only had five rows of grapes but little by little the plot grew. He now has five acres and through 12 years of trial and error, has produced a wine that is starting to sell and get recognition. One Belgian passing by loved the wine and bought a couple of cases. What Thomas and Rizza didn’t know was that man’s wine club was voted as the best wine-tasting club in Europe. The club returned and bought 50 cases more.

Then wine writer Jane Hunt, a master sommelier, liked the Iubelo and asked Decanter magazine to consider it for its list of top 100 wines in the world under 50 euros for 2017.

The winery

The winery


We get in their car and go farther up the hill to their winery. The three-story stone building overlooks the gorgeous green Umbrian valley. The small building, where friars also made wine in Medieval times, holds 14 barrels and two tanks. He takes a plunger and squeezes out enough from a tank to fill half a wine glass. It’s their best vintage yet, he tells me.

It’s cold. It could use some time on a kitchen counter. But it’s fantastic, rich and fruity and clean.

We walk back outside and I look out at the hills beyond. The farmland is partitioned off like a quilt with olive orchards on top, vineyards in the middle and grains and sunflower plantings in the bottom. I made a mental note to return for some fall colors that might make New England look like Cleveland. It’s noon. I hear church bells peal.

Beauty isn’t the only advantage an Italian winery has over California. After all, have you seen Napa County in summer? No, the biggest reason is economics. Thomas and Rizza struggled early but in California owning a winery is something you only see in movies, which is about the only type of people who can afford it.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.


A winery in Napa or Sonoma is cool. It’s sexy. Yes, it’s expensive but the tax write-offs are great. The California wine scene has gone corporate. You don’t find wineries in former friars quarters.

“What is happening in California, particularly in the Napa Valley, is land values have gone up tremendously,” Thomas says. “In part this is a result of large international investors as well as, in some cases, personalities. Multimillionaires who go in and buy something because it’s always been their dream to have a winery.”

Thomas says an acre of land in California goes for between $250,000-$750,000. For a minimum five acres, that’s more than $1 million. Thus, that section of Bay Area real estate is outrageously expensive. So, frankly, are the wines.

“As a consequence, it’s difficult for a lot of the original family wineries and they’ve been sold,” he says. “That name may still exist on the winery but they’ve been bought by a large corporation or a group of wealthy investors. So if you’ve invested that much money, it’s not possible to get a profit even if you’re selling your wine at $85-$90 a bottle.”

Their California friend in the family wine business recently sold his winery and moved to Umbria and is starting a small winery to make Cabernet and rose’. In Umbria land goes for about $4,000-$5,000 an acre and in Tuscany, except for the over-the-top Bolgheri region, it’s about $30,000.

“If he sells a bottle here for $15-$20 he’ll end up with a larger profit margin.”

Thomas and Rizza don’t have aspirations of getting rich. They hope to break even next year and maybe if they acquire more land some day they’ll make a profit. They should. I was never a huge Sangiovese fan. I’m a Barolo, Piedmont guy. But his Iubelo is the best Sangiovese I’ve ever had. It’s rich with clean acidity and a bushel of red fruit. It’s great with cheeses, pasta or a Florentine steak. I’m taking home a bottle to make my pasta amatriciana even tastier.

“Sangiovese, when you take it into your mouth and it’s the right temperature,” Thomas says, “it has this quality of blood.”

Now that he’s up to his taste buds in Italian grapes, he may become the touchstone for Americans with similar ambitions of starting a winery in Umbria. I ask him what advice he’d give.

“Decide what part of Italy,” he says. “Take some time. Drive around Italy. Make sure this region is what you’re interested in. What does this region have to offer you that fits into what’s important to you. Maybe the Piemonte is more you. Maybe Puglia is for you. Then of course, are you an urban person or are you a rural person? Very basic life decisions like that to begin with.”

Living in Italy I’ve noticed some of the happiest people living here are wine people. I can see why. They’re outside in beautiful country. The weather often reminds them of heaven. They’re making a product that is not only delicious but healthy. They meet interesting like-minded people.

For me, a glass of wine always represents a celebration of a good day’s work even for someone like me who doesn’t work. But here in Umbria, it’s deeper than that. As Rizza quotes St. Francis:

“If you work with your hands you are a worker. If you work with your hands and your head you are an artisan. And if you work with your hands, your head and your heart you are an artist.”

Responded Thomas: “I still think of myself as an artist, even with what I’m doing.“

Salute.

Five-year anniversary in Rome: Honeymoon is over but the happiness and love remain

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


Shortly after I moved to Rome five years ago today, a fellow expat scoffed at the rockets and red glare that swirled around me as I talked about my love for this city. She said, “The honeymoon wears off after about five years.”

Today is my five-year anniversary since I arrived from Denver with a duffel bag, a roller bag, a computer bag and lots of dreams and fears. Well, guess what?

She was right.

Rome’s problems are beginning to mount. So are my headaches. Topping the list are public services that are right out of the Pony Express era. It took my Internet provider 48 days to switch over to my new apartment. I switched services recently and got my Internet knocked out for another week. I ordered a new debit card on Dec. 26, after a cash machine ate my other one, and it’s still gathering dust in Milan’s airport.

However, still, there is no place I’d rather live. After all, every city has its civic embarrassments. Rome’s public services are the worst in the western world, the city is the filthiest capital in Europe and the local government has been rife with corruption scandals.

And Denver has the Broncos. So it all evens out.

Besides, making up for a city’s flaws is a glorious new apartment, good health, better friends and a bright future with a beautiful, talented girlfriend who loves to travel as much as I do.

Tonight Marina and I will return to Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a wonderful trattoria near the Colosseum where I dined the first night of my arrival with my kind expat mentors from across the alley, Gretchen and Peter Bloom. It’s a Jan. 11 ritual, one I plan on continuing the rest of my life.

But it would help if my debit card arrived.

Another Jan. 11 ritual is my blog listing all the reasons I love living in Rome. No honeymoon is perfect. No marriage is perfect. Any life in Rome is better than life right now in the United States. The U.S. has bigger problems than a lousy post office.

So, once again, here is all the things I love about this city. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of items to list:

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street greets me with “Cappuccino bencaldo e cornetto cioccolato?” before I even give him my regular order of an extra hot cappuccino and a chocolate croissant.

I love how Romagnani Caffe’s cappuccino bencaldo is better than mine and always worth the extra 1.10 euro and the effort to get out the door.

I love Trevi Fountain before dawn, when all you hear is the splashing water.

I love never having a car with so few places in Rome and Italy you can’t go by tram, train, plane, bus or boat.

I love paying only 250 euros for a year public transportation pass, meaning my transportation in Rome costs less than $25 a month.

I love the slightly burnt outer crust on a wood-fire pizza.

I love how pizzeria waiters will always let you make up your own pizza off menu. My regular: gorgonzola and sausage.

I love strolling at night behind Il Vittoriano, the giant 1885 monument known as Mussolini’s Typewriter, and seeing the empty Ancient Forum glowing in perfect light and eerily quiet.

I love having coffee bars on opposite corners on my block, a cozy enoteca around the corner and a beer bar around the next corner.

I love how few bars have bouncers.

I love how the sun reflects off the lake 10 months a year up the street from me in Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s biggest and most underrated park.

I love the gorgonzola in pear sauce at Renato e Luisa, my favorite restaurant in Rome.

I love Lazio wines.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love finding great wine bargains for under 10 euros in any enoteca.

I love the sexy terrace at the Radisson Blu hotel, the perfect place to see Rome’s most beautiful people from around the world at an Internations event.

I love how the nut lady at my Mercato Gianicolense pulls out her special stash of salted almonds from under her counter when she sees me approach.

I love how Birroteca Stappo, my new local bar, has my name on a card and I get a free beer when I reach a certain number of beers.

I love how Birroteca Stappo carries Italy’s growing list of delicious craft beers.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I love how Max, my fishmonger, knows to cut a smaller tuna fillet for Marina on the days I cook for her.

I love how AS Roma’s ultras fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud every game, regardless if Roma is winning or losing, if they’re cheering or whistling.

I love watching Lazio lose.

I love Roma 3, Lazio 1, Sept. 29.

I love the white chocolate cornetto and pistachio cream cornetto at Sweet Paradise, the pasticceria near Marina’s.

I love the handmade Italian leather shoes Marina bought me for Christmas.

I love writing on my penthouse balcony on a Sunday morning, with a cappuccino at my side, with the birds chirping and church bells ringing up the street.

I love the No. 8 tram: Two blocks from my door and direct to Centro Storico in 10 minutes.

I love wine tastings every month without ever having to visit a winery.

I love my elevator. (Yes, elevators are near novelties in Rome. It’s a 3,000-year-old city. My previous three buildings had no elevator. It was sometimes a pain but no resident was fat.)

I love watching couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee at an outdoor cafe.

I love how outdoor cafes let couples while away an entire afternoon with a cup of coffee.

I love how the buildings along Via della Conciliazione perfectly frame St. Peter’s when I pass the long boulevard leading to the church on the No. 23 bus.

I love the white chocolate that goes over my black cherry gelato then solidifies at Brivido, my favorite gelateria, in my old Testaccio neighborhood.

I love fettuccine al salmone affumicato (smoked salmon fettuccine) anywhere, especially the way Marina makes it, with a glass of crisp white Frascati wine.

I love 3.50-euro beers in San Lorenzo, the university neighborhood.

I love free laser surgery.

I love the view from the Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican with St. Peter’s to my right and Castel Sant’Angelo, Hadrian’s giant mausoleum, to my left.

I love the beautifully illuminated wall of beers at Open Baladin, which remains one of the top birrerias for Italian craft beer. The wall makes it look more like a museum than a beer bar.

I love red and yellow.

I love she-wolves nursing.

I love the ruins of the Ancient Roman warehouse around the corner from my old apartment and walking by it every day thinking Julius Caesar may have walked these same steps to check supplies.

I love 100-euro Italian suits during the twice-annual saldis (sales) at King Boutique.

I love the ivy strung all along Via Margutta, a narrow cobblestone street lined with antique and art galleries near Piazza del Popolo.

I love the pizza amatriciana at 72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria in Rome.

I love Sunday passeggiatas (strolls) down and around Centro Storico’s narrow, twisty alleys through the piazzas and past the shops, the pizzerias, the trattorias and the enotecas with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love the word francobollo (stamp). It’s the one word that makes me sound more Italian when I pronounce it.

I love Sensi di Vini, my local enoteca and maybe the coziest wine bar in Rome with only two tables.

I love photo exhibits with black and white photos of old Rome when the war was over and Italians were falling in love again.

I love Marina, the most beautiful woman in a city full of them.

Belfast emerging from the depths to become a Titanic travel destination

Built in 2012, the Titanic Museum is one of the many of Belfast's new draws. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Built in 2012, the Titanic Museum is one of the many of Belfast’s new draws. Photo by Marina Pascucci


(Second of two parts)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Rivers are underrated as romantic venues. The moonlight cruise of the Seine River in Paris remains one of the most romantic hours of my life — and I was alone. The Thames with the illuminated Tower of London and Big Ben hovering over it is always a beautiful sight. Even Rome’s filthy Tiber, at night, looks like the Seine in spring.

The River Lagan in Belfast? Not so much.

Still, there we were, Marina and I, leaving Rome to ring in the new year in what for 30 years was Europe’s most violent city. We were sitting on the Lagan on a boat that shipped coal in from the Netherlands during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s civil war from 1969-99. Cruising the Seine with Tchaikovsky on the loudspeaker it was not.

But it was close.

This boat no longer shipped coal. Instead it’s home to Holohan’s on the Barge, one of Belfast’s two Michelin-star restaurants. Built six years ago, Holohan’s made the United Kingdom’s Most Romantic Restaurant list for 2017.

Living in one of the most romantic cities in the world, Marina and I can give Holohan’s two hearts up. We sat in the corner at a small, polished-wood table, looking out at the water and the Queens Bridge and Queen Elizabeth Bridge. Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” played over the soft loudspeaker. Locals chatted at the cozy, curved, wood, fully stocked bar.

We dined on smoked mackerel appetizers. We ate turkey and ham with sage, onion and apricot stuffing. We tried boxta, the traditional Irish potato pancake from County Mayo. It was as good as anything I’ve had in numerous trips to Great Britain — or one previous trip to Ireland. I wasn’t surprised.

After all, this is the new Belfast.

While under the surface some simmering tension remains from the Troubles (see Part I), this has become a peaceful city. It is a city that has put down its gun and picked up a pint of cold Guinness, the Guinness that tastes better on the Irish isle than any other place in the world. The battle fatigues are gone and the Brooks Brothers suits are in. Rubble and barbed wire are replaced by new hotels and renovated bars.

This is a city that is partying like its British and Irish cousins.

“It’s a world away from what it was before,” said Mark Neill, 48, a cab driver for 25 years who does tours of the Troubles spots called Black Taxi Tours (www.niblacttaxitours.com). “Kids in the city center are enjoying themselves. You can feel the positivity now. Ten years ago it was still a bit raw, but you saw the potential.”

Twenty years of peace, plus funding from the United Kingdom, has made Belfast boom. The number of overnight visitors has gone from 440,000 in 1995 to 980,000 in 2011 to 1.5 million in 2017. Six hotels opened last year bringing the total to 38 and rooms to 5,000, nearly doubling the number of 3,000 from 2006. That includes the $70 million, 23-story Grand Central hotel with an observatory tower on the top floor and the $33 million AC Hotel, the first in Belfast from the Marriott chain. The famed Muriel’s Cafe Bar is planning a $450,000-pound rooftop extension. A George Best Hotel, named for one of the greatest soccer players in history and the most famous athlete Northern Ireland ever produced, is planned to open near City Hall this year.

“If you’re a tourist and visiting here, this is one of the safest places you’ll ever be,” Neill said. “People are very friendly.”

Typical Irish breakfast at the Clayton Hotel.

Typical Irish breakfast at the Clayton Hotel.


The attractions here go beyond being able to sit in a pub without getting blown up. It’s off the beaten path. You don’t see the hordes you see in London and Dublin. I didn’t see a single American wearing a Yankees cap. Restaurants and wine bars offer upscale alternatives to the rough-and-tumble pubs that made Belfast famous. (Thai fish cakes with a Spanish Tempranillo at Harlem restaurant downtown anyone?) And, yes, indeed, the people are friendly. Locals painstakingly gave us directions. Old-timers described life during the Troubles in painful detail. Busy waiters gave us history of their restaurants.

Belfast isn’t as out of the way as you think. While you can fly into Belfast, we flew into Dublin and an Irish friend drove us the 90 minutes north. The line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is so blurred, the border doesn’t even have a marking, let alone a checkpoint.

We lounged in style at the four-star Clayton Hotel, part of the British/Irish hotel chain, which featured a terrific spa and an outrageous, sprawling breakfast buffet that made us skip lunch a couple of days. Another huge draw for Belfast: It’s relatively cheap. For this four-star palace we paid only 351 euro (about $400) for three nights — over New Year’s Eve.

Cheeses and jams at St. George's Market.

Cheeses and jams at St. George’s Market.


The Clayton is right in the heart of the center, four short blocks from beautiful and gargantuan City Hall, built in 1906 and featuring four towers and a 173-foot copper dome. We were also just down the street from St. George’s Market. It’s Belfast’s weekend crafts and food market and the perfect place to start or end your trip. Wandering around the stalls in an enclosed space the size of a high school gym, you’ll drop the stereotype of bland Irish cuisine. We sampled curry sauce, bought aged Westcombe cheddar cheese, salivated over the crepes and smoothies. We talked to locals who hand-made costume jewelry and painted landscapes of an Irish countryside so green the paintings look made with one color.

A two-piece band played Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You.” It was a good day. It wasn’t the welcome-to-Belfast moment I expected after yearning for so many years to visit a war zone.

Video of Titanic workers are on the carnival-like ride in Titanic Belfast. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Video of Titanic workers are on the carnival-like ride in Titanic Belfast. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Belfast’s biggest draw, however, is a paradox, a perfect symbol of its city. Titanic Belfast is as modern as what Belfast has become and as eerie as what it once was. Built in 2012 for 101 million pounds ($130 million), the museum consists of a series of angular wings. It’s intended to represent ships’ prows but cynical locals think it looks more like an iceberg, an unfortunate misstep considering this is next to the shipyard where they built the Titanic.

The 130,000-square-foot museum took us from the beginning to well after the end. It starts with a look at Belfast’s boom years in the 19th century for the city’s world-leading linen industry. Huge placards and photographs took us through the history step by step, including the first involvement of Harland and Wolff, the legendary shipbuilders whose cranes, still sporting the H&W logo, remain a Belfast landmark. Then it goes from the construction to the launch to the fit-out to the maiden voyage to the sinking and to the aftermath.

You probably know that the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, killing 1,517 on board. Some things you probably know about it:

* It took 15,000 workers 26 months to build.

* Eight people died during the construction, mostly by execution. But one 14-year-old boy (No, child labor laws weren’t in place then.) when he fell off the two planks that held workers aloft — without safety harnesses.

* The ship carried 75,000 pounds of meat, 40,000 eggs — and 8,000 cigars.

* A first-class cabin cost 26 pounds (about $33).

* After the experimental launch on May 31, 2011, it took a year to fit out the ship. It included a Turkish bath, smoking rooms in all three classes and 16 pianos.

The museum is extraordinarily user friendly. It has nine interactive galleries, but the highlight was Marina and I stepping into what looked like a roller coaster seat. A mechanical arm took us up through a makeshift, dimly lit shipbuilding yard where we saw weirdly realistic, 3D laborers building the ship, like two sweaty men hammering some of the 3 million rivets with hand tools. The ride was hellaciously noisy, purposely made to realistically show what caused many of the laborers later to go stone deaf.

The last room is a terrific modern video of the discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard in 1985 who used a submarine to photograph it 2.4 miles down on the ocean floor. You hear the play-by-play commentator of what they see, from stylish dinner plates to heating mechanisms.

Marina and I like to get out into rural areas when we visit cities. The year before in Fez, Morocco, we spent New Year’s Eve day in Safou, a small town with a big medina, no tourists and a great local hole in the wall where we ate like royalty for pennies.

The Giant's Causeway. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Giant’s Causeway. Photo by Marina Pascucci


This time we went to Northern Ireland’s greatest natural attraction. The Giant’s Causeway is 60 miles from Belfast on Northern Ireland’s northernmost tip. You don’t need a clear day to see Scotland 25 miles to the east. I had never heard of the Giant’s Causeway. It sounded like a mall.

Our Irish friend assured me it wasn’t. Patrick O’Byrne, 53, is a Belfast native who I got to know last year while he lived in Rome working with the European Union. He drove us out of Belfast through beautiful green meadows, green farmlands, rolling green hills. It was so green, even the sheep look green. I’m from Oregon. I know green.

Northern Ireland is greener than St. Patrick after a three-day binge.

“We say Ireland is a plain picture inside a beautiful frame,” O’Byrne said.

Marina and Patrick at Lilly's.

Marina and Patrick at Lilly’s.


We first stopped for lunch and found a place right out of central casting. In Bushmills, home of the famed 235-year-old whisky, we entered Lilly’s, a black-brick diner with a small menu on the wall. Dominating it is the fish ‘n chips which came out as a giant slab of deep-fried cod on a foot-long bed of French fries. It was big and greasy and oh, so good. Poor Marina may have gained back the two kilos she put on in the U.S. in August then lost in Rome.

Up a few miles the road comes to a stop at the North Atlantic Ocean. We parked in a packed parking lot and walked toward the sea. On a windy, 50-degree overcast day, the Atlantic looked cold and gray and foreboding, like you’d see in a shipwreck film. As we cleared a small hill, we saw it: 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, looking like little stone Legos, stacked on top of each other stretching for about 100 meters. Hugging the sea, some of the piles were nearly 40 feet high.

Trying to walk on them was like walking on icy sawed-off logs. I scrambled all over the place. I took little solace in knowing people have tripped along here since the Dawn of Man. The Giant’s Causeway was formed 50-60 million years ago after a volcanic eruption shot molten fluid up through chalk beds to form a lava plateau then contracted.

Bushmills is home to the famous Bushmills whisky. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Bushmills is home to the famous Bushmills whisky. Photo by Marina Pascucci


That’s the geological explanation.

The local fable is a giant from Irish mythology called Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool which sounds like an Irish rock star) took up a challenge from a Scottish giant named Benandonner. He told ol’ Fionn to build a causeway across the sea so they could meet. But when Fionn saw how big Benandonner was, his wife disguised him as a baby and hid him in a cradle. Benandonner saw the size of the baby and, figuring if that’s the size of the kid the dad must be a nightmare, ran back to Scotland and destroyed the causeway so Fionn couldn’t follow him.

The tale also lends credence to the Irish’s feeling of superiority over the Scots as Benandonner was, obviously, a complete and utter moron.

It’s a sobering story, one of the few sobering moments you could have in Belfast if you so choose. That’s one reason I chose Belfast for New Year’s Eve. I’ve never been there, what better place to spend New Year’s Eve than Belfast and I have a girlfriend who’s never been drunk.

With the O'Byrnes at the Crown New Year's Eve.

With the O’Byrnes at the Crown New Year’s Eve.


She and I took different paths to midnight. She shopped and rested while I prowled the old Protestant stronghold of Shankill Road doing interviews for my Part I blog on the Troubles. I started interviewing at 2:30 p.m. which, in Belfast, means I was bought a Guinness before I pulled out my pen. By the time I reached the O’Byrne family at 6, I already had five pints and thoroughly conflicted ideas on who the bad guys were in this conflict.

But I know who the good guys are now. They’re the Belfastians. The O’Byrnes met me at the Crown, Belfast’s most famous pub established in 1849. It’s not only a symbol of great victorian architecture but also of the Protestant-Catholic conundrum over the centuries. Story has it that Patrick Flanagan, the Catholic owner who refurbished it in 1885, argued with his Protestant wife what to name it. She won and it was named the Crown to honor the British monarchy. Flanagan, however, got the last laugh. He put the crown in mosaics in the entrance floor so every customer would tread their feet on it.

After a couple more rounds with an Irish family that never stopped laughing, I poured myself into Home Restaurant, where I met Marina, sober as Mother Teresa. The Home is one of the many all-natural farm-to-table restaurants that have popped up in Belfast the last 10 years. Built in 2011 near City Hall, it specializes in local produce and my herb-roasted chicken was a great chaser for a belly full of Guinness.

Marina and I at Brennans' as midight approached.

Marina and I at Brennans’ as midight approached.


Later, surprisingly, Belfast was relatively tame on New Year’s Eve. The O’Byrnes continued the local tradition of celebrating at home while we went across the alley from the Crown to Brennans’. It has transformed into a shiny two-story pub where the Guinness is cold and cheap and flowed all night.

So did we. Marina said later I actually danced. I told her I’d need video proof. But I don’t need proof that I loved the rest of Belfast.

Like the city, I welcomed 2019 in peace.