Belfast: The Troubles are over but a wary peace hangs over the most unique war zone on earth

Patrick O'Byrne and I in front of the Bobby Sands mural on Belfast's Falls Road. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Patrick O’Byrne and I in front of the Bobby Sands mural on Belfast’s Falls Road. Photo by Marina Pascucci


(First of two parts)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — I’m not a big guided tours guy, but I’ve taken enough during my travels to know that not many include this line from the tour guide:

“This is the most bombed hotel in Europe.”

We were passing the Europa Hotel, a 12-story monolith in downtown Belfast. It looks like many other four-star hotels in the world. Huge facade. Lots of glass. Big signage. It didn’t appear to show any damage from — get this — 36 bomb attacks. For nearly 50 years, from its construction in 1971, the Europa has been a 170-foot symbol of the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s 30-year civil war.

Marina and I like to get out of Rome for New Year’s Eve and what better place to party that night than Belfast? New Year’s Eve in Belfast just sounds drunk, doesn’t it? It’s the perfect formula: a city at peace enjoying a tourism-infused economic renaissance (See Part II later this week) — and an Italian girlfriend who’d never been drunk in her life.

However, my goal of preventing her from nursing a Guinness for an entire weekend was overwhelmed by the mind-numbing sights of the Troubles and the people who lived through it.

Our tour guide was one of those people. Patrick O’Byrne is a friend. We met in Rome last year while he was working with the European Union and started dating one of my language scambio partners.

O’Byrne, 53, was born and raised in Belfast and home for the holidays. He’s as Irish as a four-leaf clover on a leprechaun’s hurling stick. He refers to Northern Ireland as “the North of Ireland.” Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second-biggest city, is “Derry.” Tattooed on his arm is the shamrock logo of Celtic FC, Glasgow’s Catholic-based soccer power in the Scottish League. He despises Rangers, Celtic’s Protestant cross-town rival. (“I’m a 90-minute bigot,” he says.) His name couldn’t be more Irish if you wrote it in green. Patrick O’Byrne sounds like a guy who could drink six pints of Guinness and sing “Molly Malone” on a St. Patrick’s Day float.

He lived through the Troubles and his memory hasn’t faded through 20 years of peace. A bomb blew out his family’s window. He suffered two broken noses in brawls with Protestants. He saw riots nearly every weekend. He knew guys who were kneecapped three times.

“It was just a dirty, dirty war,” he said.

From 1969-99 the Troubles claimed 3,500 lives. Belfast Child photo

From 1969-99 the Troubles claimed 3,500 lives. Belfast Child photo


Belfast, a city of about 500,000, was always on my bucket list. Like Albania, North Korea and Paraguay, Belfast was one of those places I wanted to visit because I never knew anyone who had. I just remember seeing black-and-white photos showing ratty-attired men hurling objects at other ratty-attired men and heavily armed soldiers hovering over fallen youths in hooded masks. In the background was always what looked like a tenement building. Rubble seemed everywhere. I read 300,000 military troops served in a city the size of Colorado Springs.

Tourism was not high on Belfast’s priority list. When your best hotel in town is bombed 36 times, Rick Steves isn’t showing up anytime soon.

The basis of this conflict goes back 800 years and putting it in one paragraph is like tweeting the evolution of man. Suffice it to say Northern Ireland, populated a great deal by Scots who had also lost independence, was kept by Great Britain when it granted Ireland independence in 1921. While Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, nearly half the people are Catholics who view themselves as Irish. They claimed they suffered discrimination and wanted a united Ireland; the Protestants view themselves as British and wanted to maintain that connection.

Northern Ireland's unionists say they are British and not Irish. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Northern Ireland’s unionists say they are British and not Irish. Photo by Marina Pascucci


More than 3,500 murdered souls later, Northern Ireland is back where it started. The Catholics and Protestants have learned to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence. Mixing is more common. Still, tension simmers beneath the surface. Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph reported 71 victims of paramilitary-style assaults and shootings, including 20 deaths, in the 12 months leading to December. That’s more than one a week. The city’s problem is prosecution.

They can’t get survivors or witnesses to come forward.

The first thing I learned about the Troubles is to stop calling it Catholics vs. Protestants. This isn’t Notre Dame vs. Penn State. It has little to do with religion. It’s all about nationalism. It’s more accurate to call it nationalists or republicans (who consider themselves Irish) vs. loyalists or unionists (who consider themselves Brits).

During the Troubles, within those groups were:

The Irish Republican Army, the nationalists’ violent republican army.

The Ulster Defence Association, the loyalists’ paramilitary arm.

As we say in America, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. In Belfast, you can’t tell the type of neighborhood without a really good map — or a good guide like O’Byrne. I’ve been to 100 countries. No city in the world is like Belfast. No city has party lines mapped out in such a quilt. You can be in a nationalists’ neighborhood, cross a street and be in a unionists’ ‘hood, go a couple more streets and you’ll be back among nationalists. During the Troubles it was like a white South Central L.A. Falls Road and Shankill Road made international headlines in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s as the nationalists’ and unionists’ strongholds, respectively.

They are less than a mile apart.

“That’s why sectarian murder was so easy,” O’Byrne said. “It was easy to pick off the opposition. If they were walking down a certain pavement, they were Catholic or Protestant. Sometimes they got it wrong.”

O’Byrne picked us up at our Clayton Hotel, one of the glittery high-rise hotels that have popped up in Belfast the last 10 years. It’s two blocks from the Europa, a good place for O’Byrne to tell his tale. He was born in a mixed neighborhood in North Belfast, the son of a bar manager and housewife. He went to sea and is semi-retired.

William of Orange, on Sandy Row, is considered a  symbol of unionists' fight against Catholics.

William of Orange, on Sandy Row, is considered a symbol of unionists’ fight against Catholics.


He took us by a building with a giant mural of a man in the kind of white wig you see on British courts. It was King William of Orange, the king of England and Scotland from 1689-1702 and who fought against the Catholic king of France, Louis XIV. This was Sandy Row, a small enclave and the most unionist part of downtown. Like all Northern Irish Catholic students during the Troubles, O’Byrne went to an all-Catholic school. But he went to a mixed college near here.

“I’ve drunk once on this road with a Protestant friend, a student,” he said. “He took me into a bar somewhere. I said, ‘Don’t call me ‘Patrick’ in here.’”

I noticed the lampposts sported red, white and blue striping. Near my hotel is a fenced-in construction area for the proposed George Best Hotel. Best is considered one of the best soccer players who ever lived and the most famous athlete Northern Ireland ever produced. He’s from East Belfast, near the docks. That’s 100 percent unionist territory.

Memorials are everywhere. One showed a fresh-faced young man smiling as if watching a soccer match.

“He’d been shot or blown up,” O’Byrne said. “He’s a local lad, probably from the street, who was killed by the IRA or UDA or shot by the British. The loyalists fought the British on occasion. The army and police were against both sides.”

We drove down Sandy Row and saw a man standing outside a pub. He looked like any other Belfast citizen. O’Byrne didn’t need to know what street he was on to know who he was.

“He’s got Northern Ireland shorts on and he just came out of a Sandy Row bar so he’s definitely a loyalist,” he said. “If you see a Northern Ireland shirt, it’s a loyalist. If you see a Republic of Ireland, it’s 100 percent Catholic.”

We continued around downtown and passed a bar called Lavery’s.

“One of my favorite bars as a kid,” O’Byrne said. “It’s right here by Sandy Row but it was a Catholic bar. A few times we got raided by these boys who’d come in and start fights. It’s a student bar. But these guys on Sandy Row took all students to be Catholics.”

I asked how he got along with the unionist students after growing up in segregated public schools.

“It took us a while,” he said. “We were standoffish then we said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just go to the student union and get drunk.’”

We left downtown heading west and I noticed something. The signs on buildings and walls were bilingual: English and Gaelic, the Irish language taught in Republic of Ireland schools and Catholic schools in the North. We were on Falls Road, as synonymous with Belfast during the Troubles as hunger strikes and pub bombs.

Falls Road. Photos by Marina Pascucci

The mural wall on Falls Road. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Falls Road isn’t very long. It goes straight for about a mile then curves south. But it’s impossible to miss. In one section, only five minutes from downtown, murals stretch an entire block and around a corner for another block. They all honor the nationalists’ cause or others’ around the world. There was Nelson Mandela, Palestinian flags, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. One map showed the dwindling Palestine homeland on the West Bank. They were beautifully done and very professional.

Gaelic was the second language on the walls. O’Byrne is far from fluent but knew this translation: “Tiochfaiah Ar’ La’” (“Our Day Will Come”). Another in English read, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution.”

“Nationalists were second-class citizens for the first 50 years of the Northern Irish state,” he said. “Violence erupted in 1969 because of the suppression of the civil rights movement. That suppression led to the resurgence of the IRA and the Troubles.”

At the end of the block is a huge iron gate, swung open for cars to pass. During the Troubles it was often locked.

Further down the road, near a Sinn Fein office, is a giant mural of the face of the revolution. Covering the entire side of a building is a bright color mural of Bobby Sands. If you didn’t know his name, you’d look at his long, flowing hair parted in the middle and his huge smile and think he was a fifth Beatle. He wasn’t. He was the republicans’ leader who died in prison in 1981 during a hunger strike in which he didn’t eat for 66 days. He was 27. He inspired other hunger strikes that cost the lives of nine other nationalists.

Bobby Sands' funeral in 1981. Global Rights photo

Bobby Sands’ funeral in 1981. Global Rights photo


While O’Byrne said, in retrospect, the hunger strikes didn’t work, he said, “At the time I supported them. As a 16-year-old I absolutely supported them.”

We got back in the car and drove past Royal Victoria Hospital, the biggest hospital in the city and home to what O’Byrne says are “the best knee surgeons in the world.” Why here? They were needed. The IRA distributed punishment for petty crimes.

“If you were seen talking to the police, you were viewed as an informer and were shot,” O’Byrne said. “Back of the knee.”

We headed north through his old neighborhood and east where the shipyards made the biggest ships in the world, including the Titanic in 1911. The shipyards provide 100 years of bitter memories for Catholics who were never hired. It’s not funny but some of the jokes that emerged from the discrimination were.

“The dock workers were 100 percent Protestant workers,” O’Byrne said. “What were they doing in West Belfast when the Protestants were in East Belfast building the Titanic?

“They were building an iceberg.”

The Bayardo pub memorial on Shankill Road. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

The Bayardo pub memorial on Shankill Road. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Time, however, has somewhat softened O’Byrne. Jokes aside, he no longer waves the IRA flag. He knows the destruction it once wrought. He drove us down Shankill Road, the unionists’ epicenter. One corner is an open-air memorial to Bayardo, a pub the IRA blew up in 1975. On the memorial arch are the words, “5 INNOCENT PROTESTANTS MURDERED” with their pictures above. Behind it are gruesome photos of the carnage IRA bombs left in London and Paris among other cities. Under one reads: “IRA — Sinn Fein — ISIS no difference.”

I ask O’Byrne what would you say to a loyalist who said, “You were shit and terrorized the community”?

“I’d say, ‘We did,’” he said. “But you did the same to us.’ No community suffered more than the other.”

Every tale has two sides, however. In Belfast you don’t have to go very far to get it. It’s not much farther than going to a visiting team’s locker room. One Saturday morning all I had to do was walk three blocks from my hotel to City Hall. Belfast’s City Hall is one of the most magnificent buildings in Great Britain (or Ireland). Built in 1906, it covers 1 ½ acres and features four towers and a 173-foot copper dome. It dominates Belfast’s modest landscape like a castle over a vineyard.

Unionist Billy Dickson, in front of City Hall, says a united Ireland would cost Protestants their Britishness. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Unionist Billy Dickson, in front of City Hall, says a united Ireland would cost Protestants their Britishness. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Standing in front of it were a small group of people carrying the UK’s Union Jack flag. I asked one of them, Billy Dickson, 71, a Belfast native, what the peaceful demonstration was about. In 2012, the Belfast City Council ruled that the flag that had flown over City Hall would only be flown on statutory days such as the Queen’s birthday and national holidays.

It’s no coincidence that Sinn Fein is now in Parliament and Belfast last year elected a Sinn Fein mayor, Deirdre Hargey.

“They alleged that some people found it offensive to have the flag of our country to be flying,” he said. “It’ll fly about 15 days a year, 20 at most.”

For the last seven years, a group of unionists have come here every Saturday, from 1-2 p.m., to wave the Union Jack. It isn’t organized. It has no group name. It’s just random people from around Northern Ireland.

“Imagine in the U.S.,” he said. “The stars and stripes have been flying over their town hall for 100 years and the town council decides to take the stars and stripes down and only fly it during statutory days. Now I can just imagine what would happen in America.”

To Dickson, the unionists feel very British despite deep Irish brogues that are no different than their nationalists’ counterparts. The Northern Irish Protestants fought in World War II and while many Northern Irish Catholics also did, the Republic of Ireland remained neutral.

They say the nationalists’ desire for a united Ireland is a shot at the unionists’ Britishness.

“The cultural war against the unionist people has continued, and it has continued up to this day,” Dickson said. “I think most people just want to get along with their lives. There’s always a minority who keep things going. Like Sinn Fein want to continue this cultural war. It’s why they’re using the Irish language. There’s nothing wrong with the Irish language but they’re using the Irish language as a weapon and beat the unionists.

“The vast majority of people here aren’t worrying about who’s a Catholic and who’s a Protestant. They go into the shops and go into the cafes and when the flag was flying there, I don’t think the vast majority of people noticed there was a flag there. So they made an issue of the flag when there wasn’t an issue.”

I asked what what would happen to Northern Ireland if it became part of Ireland.

“The greatest fear if there was a united Ireland tomorrow, we’d cease to be British,” he said. “We’d be British in our hearts still but constitutionally no. There are too many minorities in the world. We only have to be beaten once. We don’t intend to be beaten again.

“We’re the Ulster Scots. We’re the people who made the United States of America. We’re the frontiersmen of the United States of America. If it wasn’t for the Ulster Scots, you’d be singing ‘God Save the Queen.’”

This soccer pub has been a unionist stronghold. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This soccer pub has been a unionist stronghold. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I started my New Year’s Eve early. I made a beeline that afternoon to Shankill Road, which had no establishment O’Byrne felt safe to enter. He even lowered his voice as he talked near the Bayardo memorial.

It brought up a question I’ve had all my life about Belfast: How does one tell Catholics from Protestants? They look the same. They talk the same. They have the same blood.

It’s all about the pub and what street it’s on.

“The bars are regular bars,” O’Byrne said. “If you walk in and you’re not one of them, they’ll spot you like that. They’ll just start talking to you: What are you doing here, lad?”

Then came the key questions: What school do you go to? With Belfast’s educational segregation, you might as well hand over a birth certificate. What’s your name? Patrick? James? Conor? Catholic. William? Harry? Jack? Protestant.

As John, I could pass for both. I’m also a quarter Irish, a quarter English, a quarter Scottish and a quarter Swiss. I’m 100 percent WASP. I’m as ethnically boring as Wonder bread. I was raised Presbyterian in Eugene, Oregon, and went to Sunday school until my father bristled at it eating away at NFL games on TV. I’ve never been back.

So I had no fear walking into The Stadium Bar, a dive bar on Shankill featuring a pool table, two poker machines and cheap pints of Guinness at 3.50 pounds (about $4.35). I sat on a barstool and ordered a Guinness. My accent, as American as a Chevrolet commercial, made the question about where I’m from superfluous.

“Oregon but I live in Rome now,” I said.

“What brings you here?” said the friendly female bartender.

“What better place to spend New Year’s Eve than Belfast?” I said. “Plus I’ve never been here before.”

Next to me was a diminutive old man who talked to me for 10 minutes in a brogue so thick I didn’t understand a single word he said. I may as well have been in a bar in Bhutan. Next to him sat a much younger man who’d only give his name as Jim and wasn’t shy when I said I write a travel blog and pulled out my tape recorder. He told me about the riots he’d been in, about growing up hating people the same as himself.

I asked what’s the worst thing he ever saw. He thought for a moment. The man on the other side of him said, “His mother was blown up.”

Jim interjected, “No, my ma’s still living. My grandfather was blown up. In the Four Stop Inn. He was one of the first in the Troubles in 1971. I was 8.”

“Your grandfather was blown up?” I said. “You had to think about that as the worst? You’re not bitter?”

“I wasn’t bitter,” he said. “I just couldn’t understand what was going on. You live with it. Then you hate each other because you’re told by other people, This is the way you have to be. You were just brought up like that your whole life.”

Jim bought me a beer and I asked, “But how do you get over your bitterness? I’d still like to see some ex-bosses under a bus.”

“Because they’re the same as us,” he said. “They lost people the same way we lost people.”

Me and Mark Neill inside the Northern Ireland Supporters Club.

Me and Mark Neill inside the Northern Ireland Supporters Club.


I went next door to a pub O’Byrne warned me about. The Northern Ireland Supporters Club is a watering hole base for fans of the Northern Ireland soccer team. The Union Jack as well as the flags of Scotland and Northern Ireland fly over the front door. Inside are framed jerseys of a Northern Ireland side that has made the World Cup three times, the last in 1986. It even made the quarterfinals in 1958.

It’s a beautiful bar, polished and clean. Despite being built in 1980, it looks new. I ordered a Guinness and took a seat next to a table of five. I was introduced to Mark Neill, 48, a Belfast cab driver for 25 years who now runs a taxi tour of the Troubles areas called Black Taxi Tours (www.niblacktaxitours.com). Like the tour O’Byrne gave me, Neill’s is neutral. He said he shows both sides. But it’s clear on what side he sits.

“There was a lot of negativity in the Protestant community as if the Catholic community was always being downtrodden,” he said. “It was never the case. They view themselves as second-class citizens and Protestants as first class. But when you look back to history, we’ll see ourselves always as third-class citizens. We’re all third class, Protestants and Catholics.

“But politicians made the divide, that one was better than the other. That was never the case.”

Like all Northern Irish, he’s seen his share of horror. He’s seen people shot, seen them take their last breaths just a few streets away from where we sat.

“If you listen to the IRA over the years, they tried to justify it as a war,” he said. “The British Army didn’t hide behind planting bombs. The British Army was right there in uniform. The IRA was raising a terror campaign. They were a counter offensive. A lot of the Protestant counter measures were because of attacks on their homes.”

I asked the million-dollar question: How do you feel about the Catholics here feeling Britain took over Ireland and they want their country back?

“Protestants came here 400 years ago as this part of Ireland was sparsely populated,” he said. “We came and made it our home. We started building roads. We started building towns. This became the more developed part of Ireland. They feel they came and built it. They populated it. They made it their home. They’re not going back.”

Despite all he’s seen, all he’s read, Neill said he’d have no problem if my friend walked in — as long as he didn’t promote the IRA. It has been 20 years since the Troubles ended. Northern Ireland is more prosperous economically. Visitors, like me and Marina, are discovering it.

I asked him through all this if he’s still bitter.

“No,” he said. “Before, growing up in these areas I wouldn’t have any interaction with anyone on the other side of the wall. Now I work with Catholics. I wouldn’t feel safe on Falls Road but we work together and it stays at work.

“I just see people for what they are. Those people are just like me. I realize we’re all the same. We’ve all had the same social problems. We all live on the same streets. We all work together. One man’s loss is no worse than mine; my loss is no worse than his.”

I later joined O’Byrne and his family for an early New Year’s Eve celebration. We laughed. We drank. We toasted. We drank some more. I went into 2019 thinking that Northern Ireland could teach a lot to the world, including me. I remain bitter at people for a lot less. No one ever blew up my grandfather. I was never denied employment because of my roots. Still, I have two ex-bosses I’ll never speak to again. I could never share a beer with a Trump supporter. No way.

I wish I came here during the Troubles, to feel and see true hatred from people who live across the streets from each other. But better late than never and Northern Ireland has become a safe haven with a haunting history. The people are sharing equality, jobs, lives and pints of Guinness, if not pubs and schools.

Maybe they all realize what I always have: Spilling Guinness is better than spilling blood.

Next: Belfast is a new tourist hotbed.

Italy off the beaten path 2019: Day trips from Rome and an Amalfi jewel

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.


I never make New Year’s resolutions. Why make one on Jan. 1 when you can make it on July 1? Or March 15? You’re going to wait until the new year to stop drinking boxed wine? It’s a cop out.

If you’re going to resolve to do something in 2019, do this: Travel to Italy. Yeah, my adopted country is starting to lean right. The guy running the country has a Donald Trump bobblehead doll on his Fiat’s dashboard. But deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has no effect on Italy’s great beaches, delicious food or priceless museums.

What will have a lasting effect in Italy is where you go. Fifty million tourists come to Italy every year. Those of you who have done the American tourist triangle of Venice-Florence-Rome should look farther afield. Find a unique, truly Italian experience that is away from the mass hordes you saw the first time around yet has much of the beauty you crave when you come here.

This is where I come in.

I’ve been to 18 of Italy’s 21 regions (missing only Calabria, Molise and Valle d’Aosta) and they all have little towns full of charm and medium-sized cities viewed only as a place to go somewhere else. My girlfriend, the able-bodied photographer, Marina Pascucci, and I stumbled onto a few more places this year.

So when you pull out your 2019 calendar and plan your vacation, add my annual Italy Off-the-Beaten-Path to last year’s inaugural list . Clip it and press it on your refrigerator with a Chianti bottle fridge magnet. It’ll remind you to stop buying wine in hardware stores.

Heretofore are 10 places you likely have never heard of and can add to your next itinerary, in alphabetical order. (Caveat: Do NOT come in July or August, unless otherwise noted. It is stifling hot and the height of tourist season everywhere):

Bolsena

Bolsena


Bolsena (pop. 4,000): Italy has some famous lakes — Como, Guarda, Albano — and Lago di Bolsena often gets overlooked. So does its town. Located about 80 miles north of Rome, Bolsena makes for a memorable day trip from the city’s chaos. The 44-square-mile lake is one of the largest volcanic lakes in Europe and is a fabulous place to swim and sunbathe. The town is oh, so charming. It’s situated on a hill where narrow, cobblestone alleys lead up to a medieval center and the 13th century Castello Rocca Monaldeschi. Have a Prosecco in Piazza Matteotti and poke your head in shops specializing in local foods.
Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo

Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo


Bolzano (pop. 107,000): It’s the gateway to the Dolomites. Many come here as a base for their trekking, camping and skiing but stick around town for a couple of days. Few places in Italy are like it. It’s only 20 miles from the Austrian border and consequently is bilingual. You’re just as likely to hear “Guten tag!” as “Buongiorno!” Consequently, it has a German touch. Tyrolean buildings, some looking like Disneyland castles, share space with pastel-colored buildings on narrow cobblestone streets. Throughout history it bounced from Bavarian rule to Austrian to Napoleon back to Austrian then finally Italian in 1918. It’s only 30 minutes to great hiking and close to 29 ski resorts. Bolzano is a good place to stay cool in July and August. Be sure to dine at Hopfen & Co., for local cuisine such as the leg of pork and the best sauerkraut you’ll ever have.
Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo

Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo


Cesanatico (pop. 26,000). It’s a quiet respite from the crazy cheek-to-cheek beach in Rimini 30 miles to the south. Cesanatico feels like Venice with its long canal, bridges and marine museum but is a quiet Adriatic port town. Lots of hotel accommodations to provide for the excellent beach that is pleasant and comfortable except for the two crazy summer months. Have a glass of wine on pink antique couches in the kitschy cafe called La Saraghina Ubrica then fine dine at Ca’ Nostra (“Our house” in the Emilian dialect) where you try Emilia-Romagna’s scrumptious antipasti. But don’t miss the region’s signature sauce, ragu, on strozzapreti, the short, twisty pasta named for the shape of rope that can strangle priests.
Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo

Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo


Frascati (pop. 22,000). Like picnics? There are few better places to have one than here. It’s only 12 miles southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills. Here is where they make the famed Frascati white wine, a fresh, light wine perfect for picnics, especially with the porchetta (sizzling, suckling pig) sandwiches they serve in the small main piazza. Frascati is famous for its 16th century villas. Popes, rich cardinals and Roman aristocracy built them and they remain today. You can’t miss Villa Aldobrandini, a hulking structure with beautiful Baroque gardens open to the public. Take a picnic and a bottle of wine and walk up the hill to the statue park and dine amongst the marble gods, or find a spot in the grassy park near Aldobrandini. For history buffs, Frascati was Germany’s Mediterranean headquarters until 1943 when Allied forces bombed half the buildings, killing 1,000 Italians and 150 Germans.
Marina and I in Itri

Marina and I in Itri


Itri (pop. 11,000). Marina and I discovered this little town while we stayed in the beautiful Casa Cerqua Landi B&B, complete with swimming pool, in the hills above Sperlonga, maybe the best beach in Lazio. Itri is an ideal place to stay for an Italian beach vacation. It’s only eight miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea and 90 miles south of Rome. It is real Old Italy where the elderly gossip in the quiet town piazza and the gelateria is the town social center. Located on the old Appian Way, Ancient Rome’s road to the sea, it is famous for its Gaeta olives, which have their own festival the first Sunday of every August, and its sauteed wild game like boar, rabbit and pheasant. Even in July it was void of tourists. And it’s cheap. The two best Neapolitan-style pizzas we’ve ever had, a beer and a glass of wine were only 20 euros at La Tavernetta.
Sunset in Praiano

Sunset in Praiano


Praiano (pop. 2,000). The Amalfi Coast is a magnet for romantics and those visiting Italy for the second time. If you want to avoid the crowds in the towns of Positano and Amalfi, try this little village in between. Praiano sits atop a rocky cliff with spectacular views of the royal blue Tyrrhenian below. I had a beautiful AirBnB overlooking the sea with just a short hike up to the village. The excellent SITA Sud bus system runs regularly, connecting Praiano with the other coastal towns. If you’re adventurous, you can hike the seven-mile trail named appropriately Santiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods). It begins in Praiano and goes along the Lattari mountains with gorgeous views of the ocean. It’s about three to four hours to Positano. But stay in Praiano and get some local cheese, bread and wine, sit in the piazza and look at the fantastic sunsets every day. For a dining option away from the crowds of Positano, try Trattoria San Gennaio and have the tagliatelle with clams.
Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo

Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo


Radda in Chianti (pop. 1,600). If you come to Italy for wine, particularly Chianti, Radda is the perfect base. It’s the capital of Tuscany’s Chianti country. Located nine miles north of Siena and 22 southeast of Florence, it’s a medieval walled city and nearby about two dozen wineries. Its cobblestone alleys make for the perfect stroll and it’s not big enough to attract crowds. Get a winery map and take off. If you only have time for one, I suggest Castello di Volpaia, voted No. 3 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2018. One caveat to Radda in Chianti: You’ll need a car. Rent one in Florence.
Santa Marguerita

Santa Marguerita


Santa Margherita (pop. 10,000). Go ahead and join the parade of moving flesh hiking along the Cinque Terre. Stay here. Santa Margherita is a quiet fishing village turned retirement town just 40 miles along the coast north of Monterosso, the most northern of the five Cinque Terre towns. Santa Margherita is right out of a Italian fairy tale: 18th century lanterns illuminating palm trees lining a beautiful promenade along the harbor where million-dollar yachts dock. I stayed at the Hotel Continental, overlooking a swimming pool and a private beach on the Gulf of Genoa. Eat at Da Michele, the best seafood place in town, and try the fresh grilled orata. Everything is about two-thirds the price of stuffy Portofino, three miles to the south.
Spello. YouTube photo

Spello. YouTube photo


Spello (pop. 8,500). This medieval walled city is in Umbria which is the only one of 21 Italian regions that does not border a sea or another country. Umbria may have fewer outside influences than any other region and Spello is in the heart of Umbria. Inside its three huge gates is a city made of stone with overflowing flower baskets lining narrow alleys and small piazzas. It features the Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore, a 12th century confection of white architectural splendor, and the 13th century town hall. Stop by La Bottega di Teresa where Teresa sells some of the best olive oil in Italy and local honeys, cheeses and salamis. Spello is the perfect off-the-beaten-path town to stay in while visiting St. Francis’ old home in Assisi seven miles to the north.
Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Trapani (pop. 70,000). The Sicilian island of Favignana is one of our favorite weekend getaways. We don’t fight the necessity of spending our last night in Trapani to catch the 70-minute early morning flight back to Rome. Located on the far western tip of Sicily 65 miles west of Palermo, Trapani is best known as the gateway to the Egadi Islands (Favignana, Levanzo, Marettimo). We like Trapani for its wide walking mall in its town center, excellent Sicilian cuisine (our favorite cuisine in Italy) and the long promenades on the water. Despite its relatively large population, Trapani remains more of a fishing port than a tourist destination except on Good Friday when it hosts the longest religious festival in Italy. It’s an all-day affair consisting of 20 floats depicting scenes from Jesus’ final days. It has played in Trapani every Good Friday since 1612.

Christmas gifts for 2018: The list to all those naughty and truly evil


Italians don’t give many Christmas gifts. They have this weird concept of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas, of family, religion and a lot of food thrown in. A lot of food. They don’t need Santas parading through pizzerias or Christmas lights on the Colosseum.

However, I’m still an American. Even living in Rome I still love American generosity, if not commercialism, of showering people with presents, of enjoying shopping malls and public markets. I Christmas shop all year, even when I travel. I bought my family gifts from four different countries. Italy doesn’t make a car big enough to haul all my presents to Marina’s Monday.

And being the generous capitalist that I am, I now give gifts to newsmakers around the world, both near and far. I’m a little different than Santa. I give gifts mostly to those who’ve been bad instead of good. It’s why my biggest box is headed to Washington, to the Dehydrated Orange Peel denigrating the world every day from the White House. Not that the box will get there on time. That’s another gift I’m giving in Rome.

So look at this annual edition of Dog-Eared Passport not as a blog but as a satirical, tongue-in-cheek gift bag to the evil and incompetent. Which leads us to the first gift I’m delivering …

Business Insider photo

Business Insider photo


To the Cowardly Lyin’. A cage. It only seems fair. If Donald Trump put immigrant children in cages, shouldn’t we give a cage to the most petulant child who ever served as president?

To Italian TV. HBO. The only country in the world with more boring TV is maybe — maybe — North Korea. Italian television is made up of panel discussions with people screaming at each other in studio, bad American TV shows such as the new “Hawaii Five-O” and old Italian films not made by Federico Fellini. Even if I was fluent this would be torture.

To Monteverde — A song. So many great songs have been written about places in Italy. Someone should write one about my new neighborhood. It’s the one on the hill, the one with trees always providing shade in the summer and corner cafes providing warmth in the winter. This is a special place in a special city. I have found a new home within a home.

Daily Express photo

Daily Express photo


To Atac. Fire extinguishers. Not that Rome’s buses are old, but they are developing a nasty habit of suddenly bursting into flames. At least the ones who actually show up do.

To Scandinavia — Beer loans. After visiting Norway, Sweden and Iceland over the past two years, I spent more money on beer than maybe on rent. Every bar up there should have a banker at the door offering attractive terms on 13-euro beers, including the “special” $37 craft beer I saw in the Scotsman pub in Oslo.

To Moneydiaper McStupid — A cellmate named Honey Buns. After Robert Mueller finishes with him, Trump will face so many charges ranging from illegal payments during a campaign to treason, he’ll land in jail before he’ll ever pick up another sand wedge.

To Eusebio Di Francesco — A timeshare on the Amalfi. The embattled coach of my beloved AS Roma has been about one loss away from losing his job the entire month. The papers say the owner wants him out; the sporting director wants him to stay. Roma is in seventh place, not high enough to even qualify for any continental tournament next season. Roma plays tonight at Juventus which seemingly hasn’t lost a league game in four years. The decision seems inevitable. Here’s hoping the man who led us to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A last season has a soft landing.

To Bar Marcucci. A Michelin star. I have developed an unhealthy addiction to its homemade conchiglias. That’s “seashell” in Italian and the seashell-shaped pastry filled with chocolate and dusted with hard sugar, along with its killer cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) is the perfect way to start a day in Italy.

To Willie Taggart — A bowl game against Oregon. After he ditched my Ducks after one year, he led Florida State to its worst football season in 43 years. Under first-year coach Mario Cristobal, Oregon went 8-4 and has the fifth-ranked recruiting class in America. Bring blindfolds, Seminole fans.

To PosteItaliane — A stamp showing a post office employee shrugging. That’s exactly the response I get every time I ask why a package wasn’t delivered. This year’s problem occurred when I mailed my box of Christmas presents to California on Nov. 20. On Dec. 4 I received a notice saying they couldn’t deliver it because I wrote “Regali (Gifts)” on the customs form instead of itemizing each present. I asked the drone why did they wait two weeks to notify me? He shrugged. Too bad I couldn’t translate into Italian, “Shrug this.”

ASRoma.com photo

ASRoma.com photo


To AS Roma fans — A deep Champions League run. I’m inspired by the passion of my fellow Romanisti in the face of a disappointing season. They still fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud — except in an organized protest — and travel passionately to away games. They now show their frustration through whistles, not empty seats, the way it should be.

To Brett Kavanaugh. Impotence. He made himself out to be a victim during a sexual assault hearing while the woman who accused him had to quit her job and has been on the run from redneck Trump supporters ever since. A man with 83 ethics complaints against him is now serving on the highest court in the U.S.

Observer photo

Observer photo


To Ama. Cats. Lots of them. You’ll need them for the army of rats that will soon be crawling around the piles of garbage gathering on Rome streets. Lunar eclipses come around more than Ama, Rome’s sanitation service, picks up garbage. Part of the street in front of my building looks like an alley in rural India.

Matteo Salvini. A Donald Trump statue. Why not? He’s following in his racist footsteps over immigration. Italy’s deputy prime minister backed a program in the Northern Italian city of Lodi, ordered by mayor and fellow League party member Sara Casanova, in which immigrant parents must show proof of financial hardship from their native countries in order for their children to eat in the school lunch program. Otherwise they pay 5 euros, not to mention 210 for the school bus every quarter. Salvini, however, to his credit, heard the cries of 300 children and dropped his support.

To Juventus. A match-fixing scandal. It seems that’s the only thing that has ever stopped it from winning the Serie A title. It’s a record seven straight scudettos and counting and it has already almost lapped the field. It has 15 wins, 1 draw, 0 defeats. It’s eight points up on Napoli, 14 on Inter Milan. Italian soccer has gotten as boring as the Scottish League.

To the Man of Steal. Mandarin lessons. Trump needs to communicate with the Chinese, not threaten them. His mangling of the trade talks with China has been a huge contributor to the market losing 15 percent this year, mostly in the last 2 ½ months. It’s why I’m wondering if my fifth floor apartment balcony is high enough to do the job if it gets much worse.

Crux Now photo

Crux Now photo


Genoa. A bridge. In fact, Mayor Marco Bucci promised a new bridge by Christmas 2019 after the Morandi bridge collapsed in August, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

Italian public transportation. Engineers. That way they won’t build bridges that collapse, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

To Silvio Berlusconi. A seat in the European Parliament. Yes, he’s thinking about running for office again, at age 82. Why not? Compared to Salvini and Fuckface von Clownstick, Berlusconi looks like Caesar Augustus.

To the National Rifle Association. A scoreboard. That way, it can keep a yearly tally of all the people in America who die in mass shootings. The 2018 tally, according to the Gun Violence Archive, is 334 mass shootings (defined by four people shot or killed in the same incident) with 14,080 dead and 27,119 wounded. That’s one mass shooting nearly every day. Take a bow, NRA.

To Marina Pascucci. Vatican sainthood. For having the Job-like patience with my lousy comprehension of her crazy language, for her understanding of the oft-difficult life of the American expat, for her putting up with my anti-Trump rages. May I fly to every corner of the earth with you. May I share every bottle of wine with you. May you continue to bend my passport. Ti amo, dea.

Buon natale, everyone. Try not to get shot, torched or go broke.

My neighborhood ASD Trastevere chases soccer glory in ancestral land of Tony Soprano

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.


AVELLINO, Italy — My long-awaited transition from sportswriter to sports fan has had its drawbacks. It’s kind of like leaving a long-time marriage then stumbling through the dating world again, getting in touch with heartbreak you haven’t experienced since high school.

My love for AS Roma has transformed my stylish penthouse apartment in Rome into a not-so-trendy red-and-yellow theme. I have AS Roma pennants, AS Roma flags, AS Roma couch pillows. I have AS Roma pot holders, for God’s sake. I even have two AS Roma boxes in my windowed cabinet just because, well, they say “AS Roma.” They’re even empty. I could wear AS Roma gear every day for a month and never wear the same thing twice.

My entire apartment looks like the bedroom of a teenage boy.

Every year I give Roma’s schedule to my girlfriend so she knows she’s free during that three-hour time period every week. I long ago free kicked my professional objectivity. When I watch my team gag like rabid dogs I want to execute the entire roster.

Now into my sixth soccer season in Rome, I’m experiencing something new, one few American sports fans ever feel.

Split loyalties.

Can a true sports fan give his heart to two teams in the same sport? I am. I find myself drifting up my hill to a small soccer field with a grandstand on only one side. Here I have become one of the growing number of fans following ASD Trastevere, a team in the bowels of the Italian soccer’s long hierarchy.

It’s in Serie D. That’s fourth division. That’s not even professional. It’s semi-pro. It’s like being a Yankees fan yet having season tickets to the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones.

I first wrote about Trastevere when I discovered it three seasons ago but now the love affair has advanced from a cheap fling to genuine feelings. Part of it is in April I moved to Monteverde, the neighborhood where Trastevere Stadium sits just a 15-minute walk away. I’m a one-stop tram ride down the hill to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood where the team was founded in 1925.

Also, ASD Trastevere is on pace to make history.

Me posing in front of Avellino's wolf mascot inside the stadium.

Me posing in front of Avellino’s wolf mascot inside the stadium.


It’s in first place. If it finishes first, it will advance to Serie C for the first time since 1947-48. That’s Serie C as in third division, as in TV coverage, salaries, league money, legitimacy.

Then consider this: As recently as six years ago, ASD Trastevere did not exist. In seven seasons it has gone from Terza Categoria, the sixth division of the amateur ranks, to the brink of Italian pro soccer. While A.S. Roma has vacillated between Champions League fame and the coach hopping on and off the hot seat, I’ve watched ASD Trastevere slowly rise in my backyard.

On Sunday I went along for part of the ride.

I joined the team’s braintrust, president Pier Luigi Betturri and vice-president Bruno D’Alessio, along with friend and ANSA sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, on a 155-mile road trip against second-place US Avellino. Avellino, about 40 miles northeast of Naples, has two claims to fame: One, it hosted the greats of Italian soccer as a Serie A member from 1978-88; two, it served as the ancestral home of Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.” The show is dead but the Camorra crime syndicate remains alive in the Campania region.

Betturri owns Carlo Menta, the wildly popular Trastevere restaurant where photos of Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra share wall space with ASD Trastevere strikers. I could tell business was good when we met at the restaurant and hopped in his silver 2016 Maserati Ghibli.

“It has a Ferrari engine,” Betturri told me.

That explains why we tore down the autostrade at about 155 kilometers (95 miles) an hour. I’ve gone on a Trastevere road trip before but this was the first time with the president. Betturri, trim, always sharply dressed and looking much younger than his 65 years, was raised in Trastevere, back before it became Rome’s party central. Once slave quarters and a Jewish neighborhood, it evolved into a fish market and a close-knit home to many true Romans. It was considered the Brooklyn of Rome.

“It was populated by the neighborhood people,” Betturri said as I tied my seat belt into a double knot. “Then in the ‘70s came the artists, the painters, the actors, the journalists, the communists.

“It’s changed a lot. But its soul still remains.”

Financial problems sidelined Trastevere soccer from 2002-12 but since he took over in 2012 the club has expanded its footprint past the ‘hood’s birrerias, trattorias and pizzerias and gone across the bordering Tiber River. Two weeks ago Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based national sports daily, did a double-page spread on the club’s success. I’m seeing more people around Rome wearing red Trastevere gear, much of it sold from the Trastevere Store that opened two years ago near his restaurant.

But while nirvana may be on the horizon, demons await. Moving to Serie C would require a different stadium. Trastevere Stadium is as picturesque as an Italian model with the greenery of Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s largest park, forming the backdrop behind the team benches. But it seats only 800 and has only one entrance. It can not be expanded.

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo


Betturri told Corriere dello Sport that one alternative could’ve been 30,000-seat Stadio Flaminio, built in 1959 and the site of Michael Jackson concerts, Italy’s national rugby team and the 1989-90 season for AS Roma and Lazio, its inner-city rival, while Olympic Stadium was being renovated. But the rugby team left for Olympic Stadium in 2011 and Flaminio is in full-fledged post-apocalyptic decay, an empty shell overtaken by weeds and civic neglect. It would be easier to renovate the Colosseum.

He told me two viable options are Stadio Casal del Marmo, a 2,250-seat facility in northern Rome which has been home to other Serie D clubs, and 9,980-seat Stadio Raul Guidobaldi, home to Serie C FC Rieti. But it’s in Rieti, 80 kilometers north of Rome. Trastevere’s one “in” is D’Alessio is friends with the Rieti mayor.

Also, Betturri’s expenses would explode. Serie D is semi-pro, meaning some players don’t get paid; others get some. Few get enough to live on. Serie C payrolls are about 500,000 euros. He’ll need to sell a lot of pasta carbonara.

However, the Serie C federation gives each club from 400,000-1 million euros, depending on the team, compared to the 20,000-30,000 Serie D receives. Betturri admitted a far-flung idea that maybe Serie C will let Trastevere compete as a semi-pro team and remain at Trastevere Stadium.

Of course, this is all so much wine talk until they actually win their Girone G, one of nine Serie D groups, the winners of which get promoted to Serie C. Betturri remembers two seasons ago when Trastevere had a comfortable lead going into the last month of May and lost the title by one point.

“I guess we weren’t ready to move onto the professionals,” he said.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.


Maybe in Avellino, the biggest game of the season, they’d be more professional.

The town of Avellino has 56,000 people right smack dab in the middle of Campania. You won’t see Avellino in any guidebooks or in the pages of Architectural Digest. It has that drab uniform feel of a quick rebuild. It’s the result of an Allied Forces bombing raid that cut off a German Panzer division in 1943 and compounded by earthquakes in 1980 and ’81.

The stadium, Stadio Partenio Lombardi, was built in 1971 but looks like it got bombed in ‘43, too, and never rebuilt. Its green, yellow and white paint is peeling. About half the double-deck stadium is closed off, leaving most of the grounds holding 26,000 looking empty and cold.

But during those Serie A glory years of the ‘80s, Avellino packed in more than 40,000 for games. Then began a slow slide into irrelevance, dropping to Serie B then C then bankruptcy in 2009. After resurfacing and climbing back to Serie B, the federation booted it last spring due to incomplete paperwork concerning a bank guarantee. The penalty?

Serie D.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.


As we arrived at the stadium well early of game time, we sat in a circle with some disgruntled Avellino fans, including Pasqualino Vuolo, Avellino’s accountant last season. He left the team after the controversy, through no fault of his own, making him the perfect source for an objective opinion. I asked him what he thought of those responsible, mainly Cosimo Sibilia, the federation vice-president who’s from Avellino and didn’t lift a finger for the club.

Vuolo gave me the two-fingered “cornuto” sign, the Italian hand gesture meaning, roughly, someone is fucking your wife. In other words, I curse you.

“I don’t like people who don’t help the team,” Vuolo said. “They’ll come today but they didn’t help us when we needed them.”

Luigi Fossacreta has been an Avellino fan for 50 years. He’s seen it all, from visits by Juventus and Inter Milan to now: a visit from a Rome neighborhood team. I asked him what’s the difference in play between Serie D and B. He turned me around and pointed at Betturri’s Maserati.

“The same difference with a Maserati and a Fiat 500,” he said.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.


The game started and about 7,000 fans crowded two sides of the stadium. The green and black flags, one with a skull and crossbones, and roaring songs gave this a Serie A feel in passion if not in play. Avellino isn’t a shadow of its former self. Players, unchallenged, kicked the ball out of bounds. They lost simple passes off their foot. They looked slow and uninspired.

Trastevere seemed jacked up by maybe the biggest crowd they’ll see all season and making a giant leap toward history. Stefano Tajarol, arguably the face of the club at 37 years old, scored in only the seventh minute when a free kick inexplicable scooted through the goal box.

Seven minutes later, Daniel Sannipoli, one of Trastevere’s teenage prospects at 18, headed in another free kick to make it 2-0.

Avellino never threatened. Sannipoli scored again off a deflected free kick and Davide Lorusso made it 4-0 on a penalty kick, causing Partenio Lombardi to erupt in vicious whistles, the European boo. Fans chanted “TIRATE FUORI LE PALLE!” (TEAR OUT THEIR BALLS!)

Flags stopped waving and fans screamed, “DOVE SONO I GIOCATORI? MERITIAMO DI PIU! (WHERE ARE THE PLAYERS? WE DESERVE MORE!) Two fans below us started screaming at each other in the indecipherable local Irpinian dialect, obviously in agreement about the team’s suddenly embattled manager. Maybe they said something about cement and the Bay of Naples. I couldn’t tell.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.


This is what I missed in 40 years as a sportswriter? I wonder when I will reach that level of bitterness, where I react to defeat with threats of bodily dismemberment.

After the game, a 4-1 Trastevere rout, Avellino’s players walked to the stands and acknowledged their ultras as is tradition. The whistles became so loud, nary a player raised their hand in thanks. They merely trudged back to a depressing, dank locker room.

Darkness had descended on Campania but a bright glow appeared around Betturri as he landed the Maserati back on the autostrade.

“They were great!” he said. “They were fantastic against Avellino, against a team that’s second.”

The season is only at the halfway point but Trastevere is 10-2-2 for 32 points, two ahead of second-place — and oddly named — Latte Dolce (Sweet Milk), a club named for a neighborhood in Sassari, Sardinia. (As I said, the Premiership this is not.) I asked Betturri how optimistic he is about promotion.

“In soccer,” he said, “you should never be optimistic.”

He does see one area he can count on more than the great collapse of 2017. This team is older. Sunday’s starting lineup averaged 24 years of age, a year older than two years ago. It has only six teenagers instead of seven.

They have a rising young star in Lorusso, 22. Parma, in Serie A, wanted to buy him near the end of last season but a foul up in red tape botched the deal. That sent him into a funk that extended to the start of this season. But he’s broken out of it, leading the team with six goals.

The leader remains Tajarol, a scruffy-bearded striker who has toiled for 15 seasons in soccer’s lower echelons, including Trastevere two seasons ago during the collapse. Along the way he’s been a truck driver and a factory worker to make ends meet. However, he tasted Serie C with Lupa Roma from 2014-16 and appears set on sticking around until he does it at Trastevere, too.

“That would be the ultimate,” said Tajarol he said. “I was 33 and if I go back it would be a dream. I’d be really happy above all for the younger guys. For me it’s important but for the younger guys more.”

And for me, too. I’m 62. I likely won’t live long enough to see AS Roma bring home a title to my adopted city. However, I may only wait a few months to see ASD Trastevere bring one to my adopted neighborhood.

Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.


I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj


While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare


Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo


I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo


Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo


Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo


Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”

Cefalu'

Cefalu’


We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.