Apartment hunting in Rome requires patience, a good agent and short height

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the "chic" neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Celebrating on the balcony of my new home in Monteverde, the “chic” neighborhood of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Home hunting is never fun no matter where you live. But try looking for a home in a 3,000-year-old city. It’s like stepping through a time machine and emerging in post-apocalyptic neighborhoods where everyone is the size of penguins and living on top of each other. I read a lot about how crowded and chaotic Ancient Rome was, despite its bacchanalian image of gold goblets and bedroom fountains. I just learned first hand what some of the housing was like. I wonder if Caesar Augustus ever did.

After four years in my dream home, a 45-square-meter penthouse apartment with a huge 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber River, I moved. About three weeks ago I resettled across the river and up the hill in Monteverde, a leafy, upscale neighborhood my girlfriend Marina calls “chic.” Going from my old Testaccio neighborhood to Monteverde is like going from a working class, trendy ‘hood to upper middle class. I’ll be fine as long as I can overlook Monteverde’s fascist roots. For three weeks I’ve learned to overlook the swastika knife carved into my elevator door.

I never thought I could leave my old apartment without openly weeping. It was the best four years of my life. I had wild aperitivos on my terrace, made great dinners for Marina, wrote a lot of copy in my little writer’s nook next to my sliding-glass window. It was the happiest home I ever had.

However, I left for the dullest of reasons: security. In Rome housing, it’s standard to follow up a six-month contract with a three- or four-year deal, including a two-year tenant option. My landlady, a single mother non communicative in two languages, never gave me more than six months at a time. She never gave me a detailed explanation except for, “John, I don’t want to be married to you for three years.” The 900 euros I paid a month was always well below market value so I always signed. However, at the end of every six-month period I faced stress not knowing whether she’d renew my contract or raise the rent. Due to Italian tax laws totally beyond my comprehension, she could only raise it a certain percentage. However, she could throw me out on the street any time. Rarely did she tell me her intention until the day we sat down with a new contract. She only raised me once in four years so I always stayed on.

When you’re retired in Rome, small stress becomes big stress. Hell, the only other stress in my life was getting enough foam in my morning cappuccino. Facing housing uncertainty every six months became too much. After four years, I had enough. During an argument over upgraded and ineffective radiators I paid for, through my one raised rent, I told her the Roman ubiquitous “Vaffanculo” (Go fuck yourself). I started house hunting the next day.

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This apartment is bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) for the same 1,000-euro price. Photo by Marina Pascucci

There are two ways to go about finding a home in Rome. You can do it independently, scouring websites and want ads, meeting random agents or landlords in neighborhoods far and wide. Or you can go with one agency that knows your needs and notifies you of places likely suitable. I did both.

I have an excellent history with Property International (info@propertyrome.net), run by two kind, knowledgeable British women with deep roots in Rome. The first apartment Property International showed me in my first Rome stint in 2001 I took. The first apartment they showed me when I returned in 2014 I took. This time it took a little longer. My apartment in Monteverde was the third one I saw. I had to pay a month’s rent as commission but that’s standard and it’s the best bargain in Rome. An hour after I paid it, as I sat on my long balcony overlooking the treetops of Monteverde, I forgot I even spent the money.

The search, however, revealed the real lows of Rome housing. Like any major city, housing is your most crucial expense. In Rome, where the cost of living (food, public transport, entertainment) is so much lower than London, Paris and New York, rent stands out even more. The rent here isn’t nearly as high but finding quality is challenging.

One advantage I have is I’m American. Many Italians prefer us as many of their brethren, rental agents tell me, often don’t pay the rent. Italian laws heavily favor tenants and evictions are nearly impossible. Many Americans here are on rich government contracts or, like me, are retired and financially independent. I don’t live hand to mouth. I can pay a year’s rent at a time if they want. I’m a landlord’s dream — except for the, ahem, occasional cleaning lapse.

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My new kitchen even has a dishwasher. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But along the way, I saw some hovels only a fruit bat could love. Some examples:

* The first place I saw was in Parioli, Rome’s most hoity-toity neighborhood. Its tree-lined boulevards pass pretty cafes with outdoor seating in the shade. Foreign embassies aren’t far away and embassy personnel populate some of the roomy apartments with doormen and elevators.

This was not one of those places.

As soon as I walked through a scruffy patio into a ground-floor flat, I came to the bed. That was most of the living room. A small table took up most of the rest of it. A tiny adjacent room held a kitchen and washing machine. The landlord, who was also the tenant, was moving to New York. At least he won’t be shocked at how small the apartments will be there.

* Centro Storico would be ideal. Rome’s historical center is the city’s nerve center. I stayed here my first two months four years ago waiting for a permanent place and had a blast. How could I not? Every night I walked past a dozen bars, enotecas and pubs and twice that many restaurants and trattorias. The first apartment I checked was on a quiet side street just across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, the massive 2nd century mausoleum Hadrian built that later became a fortress. The apartment looked perfect. Big bedroom. Shiny wood floors. Roomy kitchen. Long entryway with a writer’s desk. Only 950 euros a month.

Where do I sign?

Then I looked in the bathroom. The shower was built for jockeys. I had to bend over to get my head under the shower head which made my ass bang against the side of the shower. It’s a great place if I never wanted to bathe.

* I’m familiar with the neighborhood of Aventino. So are history buffs. It’s the hill across Testaccio’s main drag and is home to beautiful churches, an orange garden and one of the best views in the city. I’ve had numerous picnics on Aventino Hill, one of the famed seven hills of Rome. According to myth, Romulus and Remus founded Rome on this hill.

Just up the road from my old neighborhood, I wouldn’t have to change my nocturnal habits much. After I saw one 60-square-meter apartment, I wanted to ask the agent if the last tenant was a vampire. It was darker than the inside of a hearse’s trunk. We visited in the early afternoon of a sunny day. We turned the lights off and the 1,100-euro apartment was nearly pitch black. Rome is sunny 10 months a year. This would feel like every day was winter in Norway.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.

The proposed writing nook in an apartment near Trevi Fountain.

* Undeterred, I looked at two other places in Centro Storico. One was on Via Lavatore, so close to Trevi Fountain I could almost feel the water splashing on the front door. This zone couldn’t be more touristy if it was along the shore of Splash Mountain. A few doors down from the flat, a restaurant advertised, in English, “ITALIAN CHEF.” One gelateria may be the only one in Italy serving banana splits. Menus displayed outside had more translations than The Bible. I heard more Japanese on the street than Italian.

I walked in as two other potential tenants walked out muttering to each other. The top-floor, 45-square-meter flat for 1,000 euros had a nice writing desk next to a small window. A kind gesture but the slanted roof was so low if I stood up suddenly I’d brain myself. I had to bend over to get into a storage room. Too young to stoop and too old to sacrifice, I politely declined and left wondering how Centro Storico had grossly slanted the market unfairly toward dwarves.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.

The palace of this Centro Storico flat was big but the doorways were small.

* Another Centro Storico apartment was just off the main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele about a spilled Guinness from my favorite bar, Abbey Theatre Irish Pub. The 55-square-meter, ground-floor apartment for 1,200 euros was in a giant palace where I imagined nobility or successful painters lived during the Renaissance.

Very short painters.

In two rooms the top of the door came to my shoulder. I’m not that tall. I’m only 6-foot-3. But I felt like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Vietnamese tunnel. Who lives in these places?

Some of the buildings are hundreds of years old, dating back to before the Renaissance in the 16th century. Back then, the average Italian was maybe 5-5. It’s still only 5-8. Most Italians would find these places ideal, especially if they wanted to learn the Japanese term for “banana split.” They’re welcome to them.

My writing post for the next four years -- at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My writing post for the next four years — at least. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I have found my new palace. My apartment is bigger at 55 square meters with a bigger living room, bedroom, kitchen, even bed. It has a real refrigerator, not like my old one that brought back memories of my freshman dorm. It doesn’t have the glorious riverside terrace but the wraparound fifth-floor balcony is a great place to watch the sunrise over the trees, cappuccino in hand. It even has — gasp! — an elevator. No longer will I have to hoof it up 90 steps straight uphill if I forget a pen.

I’m paying the same 1,000 euros as my old place but the key is this: My landlord, a gentle, kind, married guy who’s my same age, gave me a four-year contract. This entitles me to a resident’s card which, in turn, gets me a family doctor. That’s important as I’m starting to approach the age of some of Rome’s lesser monuments. I get utilities in my name which means lower bills.

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I went from a double bed to a queen. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In other words, I left heaven and found a soft place to land. I have four years to explore a new neighborhood, make new friends, discover new restaurants and drink in new bars. Monteverde has a deep, haunting history waiting to be studied.

In the meantime, I don’t want to meet the guy who carved that swastika.

Anniversary in Venice: A beautiful city in turmoil

Lido is one place to escape the crowds in Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lido is one place to escape the crowds in Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VENICE, Italy — It’s a sunny May morning, and Marina and I are sitting in the lap of opulence. Marina isn’t a high-maintenance traveler. She doesn’t need five stars on a hotel’s front door or china with her airplane food. She likes a breakfast buffet. That’s about it.

But in Venice, where we are celebrating our three-year anniversary, we find ourselves in a 16th century palace. A real palace. The huge living room has large oil paintings over elegant couches we can see in the reflection of the wall-to-wall mirror. Outside the window we hear the warbling of a tenor serenading a Japanese couple in a gondola below. Our bedroom is old, stained wood with a king-size bed and old portraits of ancestors who lived here in past generations.

Our living room in our 16th century palace.

Our living room in our 16th century palace.

This palace, or palazzo in Italian, was built in 1600. It was the time when Venice had receded as Europe’s greatest naval power into the cushy role as perhaps Europe’s cultural capital. It had charged from the Renaissance to the Baroque period with flashy paintings and contemporary music. Not that it had become a full-fledged tourist destination, but it also had 12,000 registered prostitutes.

It’s 400 years later and the owner of the palace sits by the window. The sounds of a steady parade of tourists crossing the small bridge over the narrow canal below us drift into the room. Gianni Piani, 54, grew up in this palace. He still lives here. But Venice is changing. Piani is changing with it.

“I am in love with Venice,” he says. “But for my family it’s impossible to live here.”

Venice gets 25 million tourists a year and locals are getting angry. Alamy photo

Venice gets 25 million tourists a year and locals are getting angry. Alamy photo

Marina and I have been to Venice many times before but never together. I’ve always maintained it’s the most romantic city in the world and my previous visit in 2015 did not dissuade me. Neither does this one. You can’t overestimate the positive absence of cars in a city built on 118 tiny islands. Sipping a spritz, Venice’s signature drink, on a small, quiet canal. Turning a corner onto a narrow, cobblestone pathway to see a fisherman mending his nets. Hearing accordion music while munching cicchetti, Venetian antipasti, as the sun sets on the water.

It’s like living in a science fiction movie where a world has banned the evil automobile and people are falling in love around every corner.

Unfortunately, in Venice the science fiction movie is headed for a tragic ending. Remember “Escape from New York”? Call it “Escape from Venice”: Terrorized inhabitants wildly flee a city before evil invaders sink it under the sea, never to be seen again.

In the height of the Venetian Empire in the 14th century, Venetians fended off Genoa and Hungary. In the 21st century, it’s losing to a new threat, one that has gone from friend to foe.


According to CISET, the International Centre for Studies on Tourism Economics, Venice had 25 million tourists in 2016. That’s nearly 50,000 a day. That’s just under its current population of 54,000, a number that will likely drop even more after you finish reading this blog.

Even small canals are getting crowded with gondolas. Photo by The Beauty of Travel

Even small canals are getting crowded with gondolas. Photo by The Beauty of Travel

In 1931, it had a population of 164,000. When I first visited Venice as a 22-year-old backpacker in 1978, it had 2 million tourists. Marina calls Venice “The city for lovers.” True. But it’s also a city for people with Yankees ball caps, backpacks, selfie sticks and fanny packs, most following tour guides holding little flags. On Sunday and Monday this past Easter weekend, 220,000 tourists poured into Venice.

“Forty years ago there were more tourists of higher quality,” Piani says. “Artists, intellectuals and so on. Now we have tourists who come in the morning, they spend five euros, they dirty the town and go away.”

This year alone, two tourists were arrested swimming in the canal. Two drunks were seen dancing near the hallmark Rialto Bridge. Public urination is common. I can also confirm, so is public drunkenness.

Piani is pissed. He’s not alone. In July, an estimated 2,000 Venetians took to the streets — and lagoon — protesting the uncontrolled tourism, claiming it has destroyed their quality of life. Piani agrees. When he was a child in the 1960s, he played soccer in the streets and rode his bike freely along the narrow pathways. His father swam in the canals.

A lone gondolier paddles up the Grand Canal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A lone gondolier paddles up the Grand Canal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

That was before nine or 10 cruise ships started docking here daily, some with 40,000 passengers.

“The school of my kids, it’s impossible to reach,” Piani says. “We need to wake up very early to arrive on time because the vaporettas (public transport boats) are always full of tourists. Going there on foot is impossible because you have to cross the town, skipping groups of tourists or the cruise ships.”

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, a stylish, independent 56-year-old businessman who also owns Venice’s popular pro basketball team, has come under heavy fire for not fulfilling campaign promises of stemming the problem. He has loudly talked of charging day-trippers and installing turnstiles and barriers to redirect tourists to lesser-visited sites. Locals would carry a Venezia Unica card to move about freely.

A gondolier with Giudecca, the southern most neighborhood in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A gondolier with Giudecca, the southern most neighborhood in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Governments have struggled to pull the trigger on such measures due to the city’s economic dependence on tourism. But Brugnaro sounds like one of the people, telling Corriere della Sera, “The mayor must have power to close the city off on crowded days.” Once a British couple complained to his office after getting charged 500 euros for a seafood dinner near St. Mark’s Square and a Japanese couple was charged 120 euros for lobster pasta. Brugnaro called them, on the record, “cheapskates.”

But the rise in tourism has made Venice one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I learned that first hand after we checked in and I quenched my thirst with a bottle of Peroni in a simple, tiny cafeteria. Peroni is the Budweiser of Italy, a beer you can get for 1.50 euro in working class bars in Rome.

I paid 4.50. Piani says the day before he bought 10 apples for 12.50 euro. But it’s not just the day to day prices that is turning Venice into a theme park. Tourism has made renting more profitable than owning. Piani has another house he had while in college that’s 75 square meters and rents it out for 200 euros a day. I feel I’ve got a bargain paying 150.

Despite the crowds, it's easy to find quiet, narrow canals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Despite the crowds, it’s easy to find quiet, narrow canals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Many Venetians have left their family home to less expensive places in Cannaregio, near the Jewish Ghetto and the train station, or Mestre, the last town on the mainland before the four-kilometer bridge takes you to Venice.

“Young people nowadays, or as it happened to me, they inherited a palace,” he says. “Otherwise, what do they do? Where do they go? In Mestre you can buy a flat with 120,000 euros and can sell a 50-, 60-square-meter house in Venice at 500,000-600,000 euros.

“I have a friend who lives in Sicily now. He owns a palace, a really beautiful palace at Rialto (Bridge). His daughter doesn’t want to deal with that house any longer. She lives in Mestre in a modern flat of 80 square meters and she never goes to Venice.”

However, there is a reason 25 million tourists come here a year. Venice is drop-dead gorgeous, still. If you know where to go, as Marina and I do, you can have a tranquil, romantic weekend without dining next to some accountant from L.A. As I’ve written before, the key to visiting Venice is get away from the Grand Canal. Its inlets are logjammed with gondolas. Its sidewalks are cheek to cheek tourists. The vaporettas bouncing back and forth at the stops are big and crowded.

Marina and I celebrating our three-year anniversary outside Al Timon wine bar.

Marina and I celebrating our three-year anniversary outside Al Timon wine bar.

Walk two minutes and you’ll find a quiet canal. We ventured to one of my favorite neighborhoods: Cannaregio, in the north end and home to the Jewish Ghetto and some of the most authentic local food in Venice. We hung out at two lovely, quaint wine bars on the Rio di San Girolamo. Al Timon and Vino Vera have nice picnic tables on the narrow canal with a little bridge that had a fraction of the foot traffic of the one outside our room. We sipped spritz, a Venetian invention made with bittersweet Aperol, Prosecco and soda water, and Pinot Grigio, one of the hallmark wines of Venice’s Veneto region. We munched on cicchetti of goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on bread, and prosciutto, brie and bell peppers on bread.

The forecast rain never came and we watched Venetians floating home on quiet motorboats as the sun set behind the bridge. Hey, can 25 million tourists be wrong?

Cannaregio is a quiet neighborhood near the train station and home to the Jewish Ghetto.

Cannaregio is a quiet neighborhood near the train station and home to the Jewish Ghetto.

The next night we dined at Osteria da Alberto. It’s in Cannaregio on that iffy edge where the crowds from Rialto stretch inland. Rialto is a mess, a pedestrian traffic jam, the Fifth Avenue of Venice. So many selfie sticks hover over the bridge it looks like it’s covered with miniature TV antennas. But we weaved through the maze of alleys and souvenir shops to a small bridge no more than 10 feet long. We looked down a tiny canal lined with centuries-old buildings of yellow, red and orange.

Next door at Alberto’s, old pots hung from the ceiling and local knick-knacks and black and white photos of old Venice, the Venice before cruise ships, hung on the walls. Soft jazz played on the loudspeaker. Marina noticed everyone around us spoke Venetian. I had a nice orata, or sea bream, which came out as a whole fish and Marina skillfully filleted.

At Sepa, they don't pour you a glass of wine. They pour you a bottle. Photo by Marina Pascucci

At Sepa, they don’t pour you a glass of wine. They pour you a bottle. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Working our way back to the Grand Canal, we found the darkest of Venetian bars. Sepa, Venetian for cuttlefish, is a tiny hole in the wall with two huge wine barrels serving as tables next to a whole display case of cicchetti — sardines, meatballs, little ravioli. Around the corner, a waiter filled a half-liter bottle with Pinot Bianco which he poured from a spigot in the wall. Marina and I stood in a dark alley listening to Venetian we couldn’t comprehend while she patiently waited until I finished the wine.

Every trip to Venice is a new discovery. You get that with 118 islands. Marina and I went to one of the bigger ones for one of the most tranquil experiences we’ve had here. Lido was once a magnet for the European rich and famous in the 19th century. Walking the quiet streets you can still see the massive villas they bought all now sporting pointy, iron fuck-you fences.

The view from the back of the five-star Hotel Excelsior in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view from the back of the five-star Hotel Excelsior in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the last stop on the vaporetto line is well worth the trip, especially in May. It’s before the long, white-sand beaches get busy in June and the Venice Film Festival begins in September. With the beachwear shops, the mansions and the lovely tree-lined boulevards, it felt like Newport, Rhode Island, before the crowds come. A short bus ride to the north end put us in the Aurora Beach Bar where we sipped spritzes and watched a black immigrant putting lanterns in the Israel olive trees shading us for the disco pub later that night. Alice Merton’s “I’ve Got No Roots” played on a loudspeaker. Only two other people lounged on the beach chairs as the sun splashed off the Adriatic Sea just beyond.

A short walk away is the Palazzo del Cinema where Hollywood’s elite gather to preview the next year’s top films. Unfortunately, the experience of being on the same steps as Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Dustin Hoffman evaporates in light of a building that looks like a fascist airport. It’s a long chalk white, two-story monstrosity void of decoration. Its lack of imagination belies the imagination it shows inside.

A quiet piazza in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A quiet piazza in the Lido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lido’s highlight, instead, is Malamocco. Called “The Little Venice,” it’s a neighborhood on the east end that’s a series of narrow canals. On this Saturday, it was deathly quiet. Not a soul in sight. We walked past a piazza with mineral water in buckets and a wedding inside a church. Down the alley we sat down at a great trattoria that’s a local watering hole. Al Ponte di Borgo is a crude pink building with a green awning and so dark inside I almost needed a flashlight to find the bar. It’s self service where I pointed to the octopus salad behind a display case. Two overweight, loud men behind the bar pulled out two big unlabeled jugs of red wine from a cooler. No menus. No English. Not even any Italian.

This was real Venice, unvarnished and unabashed.

Octopus salad at Al Ponte di Borgo.

Octopus salad at Al Ponte di Borgo.

Marina had a heaping fried fish platter and my octopus salad was a gnarly mess of tentacles. And very fresh. How fresh? The octopus still had shit in it. Yes, you read that right. It was real shit. And I did try it. It tasted like … well, shit. But the the rest of the meal was great and we chatted with the table of Venetians who talked about how Roberto Salvini, the leader of the fascist, racist La Lega political party that’s gaining a foothold in government, will lead Italy from its abyss.

We left Venice the next night vowing to return, undeterred by the crowds, the prices, the hassles. Venice is one of the most unique cities in the world, the most romantic city in the world. I’ll never tire of returning. But I haven’t lived here 54 years. I never played soccer in the streets or swam in the canal. Piani has. He also has a plan.

We will always return to Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We will always return to Venice. Photo by Marina Pascucci

He’s moving to Sicily.

A man remains in a coma as Champions League semi shines another spotlight on AS Roma’s vicious soccer fans

A hammer-wielding Roma fan approaches Liverpool fans April 24 in Liverpool. An attack left Liverpool fan Sean Cox in a coma. Times of London photo

A hammer-wielding Roma fan approaches Liverpool fans April 24 in Liverpool. An attack left Liverpool fan Sean Cox in a coma. Times of London photo

Peter Mooney is one of those European soccer fans who could tell you the best pubs all over Europe. He has followed his beloved Liverpool to Madrid, Barcelona, Dortmund. This week he found himself in Rome where he packed a little lighter. What did he leave back home in England?

Anything red.

I met him Tuesday night in the best pub in Rome, my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub in Centro Storico. He sat at the end of the bar wearing shorts and a nondescript shirt. He nursed a beer with his son and brother-in-law, also Liverpool fans and also wearing earth tones. They didn’t think it was a matter of packing. This week it was a matter of survival.

“We haven’t told anyone we’re Liverpool fans,” Mooney said. “We haven’t worn our tops. We’ve come here sort of incognito.”

Sport’s value to society is it unites the masses. It’s where a seven-figure stockbroker can sit in a dive bar in Queens with an unemployed iron worker and high five after a touchdown. At Abbey Theatre, art historians sit with coffee jockeys and scream at the flat screens.

But in Europe, soccer can also divide the masses. In Rome, soccer has become a lightning rod for the kind of violence that transcends world news. Over the last week, it struck hard here again. Before AS Roma’s first leg of its Champions League semifinal at Liverpool last week, a brawl between the two fan bases erupted outside the stadium. Sean Cox, a 53-year-old married father of two, who comes to Liverpool from his native Ireland for games, was left in a coma. Two Roma fans are charged with beating him half to death with belts wielding metal buckles. Filippo Lombardi, 21, and Daniele Sciusco, 29, two members of Roma’s vicious ultras fan group, remain in custody in Liverpool. Their charge of attempted murder has been reduced to the seemingly tame violent disorder and wounding/inflicting grievous bodily harm.

Meanwhile, Cox remains in a coma with his wife by his side. Officials are mulling an attempt to take him out of his induced coma but his condition hasn’t changed since the attack nine days ago.

I remember watching video of the brawl that night. It reminded me of the street fights that made English soccer the most feared grounds in the world in the 1980s. A pack of half dozen fans threw wild haymakers at a single individual who flailed away with his head down, trying to avoid the punches. I don’t know if it was Cox. Bodies moved in waves and fists all over the street. Later I saw a prone body, Cox, under two concerned fans as others scattered.

England has heroically cleaned up its hooligan act. The English government has used video to arrest violent fans and pull their passports. I remember covering England’s 2006 World Cup opener in Frankfurt against Uruguay, and the English were as respectful as the Royal Family. However, Mooney is used to violence.

He’s a retired cop.

He just never expected he’d have to relive bad memories in Rome.

“In those three (other) cities, they’ve embraced us,” Mooney said. “In fact, they’ve invited us into their bars: ‘Come drink with us.’ They’re football fans! It’s a game of football! And unfortunately, we’ve come here and it’s a little worrying, yes.”

Liverpool gave their 5,000 fans coming to Rome a litany of instructions to remain safe. It designated two areas in the city to congregate: Centro Storico and a bar near the Colosseum. Don’t go anywhere near Ponte Milvio, the historic bridge that’s a massive Roma stronghold near Olympic Stadium. To get to the game, they were all gathering in Villa Borghese, Rome’s huge park, and pile into buses. After the game, they were to remain seated for two hours until Roma fans left before police escorted the English back onto the buses.

Said one Liverpool fan I met, “The media has told us we’re going into a war zone.”

This isn’t just about worries of retaliation. This is about Roma history. After four years here and 5 ½ over two stints, I’m slowly learning my beloved club has developed one of the most violent reputations in the world. And they’re particularly active against English clubs. According to media reports:

* In 1984 after Liverpool defeated Roma in a shootout for the European Cup (predecessor to the Champions League) at Olympic Stadium, “dozens were slashed by knife-wielding hooligans.”

* In 2001, before Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Roma in the UEFA Cup, Roma fans stabbed six Liverpool fans and police had to fire tear gas. During the game, Roma fans threw coins, golf balls and rocks at the 4,000 Liverpool fans in their designated corner of the stadium. Other Roma fans invaded the neutral section between fan groups, broke away seats and hurled them over the Plexiglas fence into Liverpool’s section.

* In 2006, three Middlesbrough fans were stabbed and 10 others treated for injuries.

* In 2007, five Manchester United fans were stabbed in their behinds — yes, their asses — before their Champions League game in Rome.

* In 2009, an Arsenal fan was stabbed by fans who stormed the Arsenal fans’ bus.

* On Oct. 31, Chelsea fans were attacked outside a pub.

This doesn’t include the 2014 Italian Cup final between Napoli and Fiorentina when Napoli fan Ciro Esposito died from a gunshot to the chest. He was 29. Roma ultra Daniele De Santis was sentenced to 26 years in prison, later reduced to 16 on appeal. Roma wasn’t even playing. Two years later, Napoli built a monument honoring Esposito. Roma fans desecrated it.

It’s not the only time Roma was linked to violence without its team showing up. Before the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans and a fence collapsed, killing 39 people, mostly Italians, and injuring 600. The lasting theory in England is if Roma hadn’t attacked Liverpool fans the year before, the Heysel Stadium disaster never would’ve happened.

What have I got myself into? My transformation from sports writer to sports fan has apparently landed me in the middle of a new Roman Empire in which Romans attack fans instead of countries. Half my wardrobe is red and yellow. I’ve made a point never to wear Roma gear in other European cities.

One major factor that attracted me to AS Roma way back in 2001 is it wasn’t Lazio. Our bitter cross-town rival has a fascist reputation in which its history of racist incidents is too long to print. The Internet has only so much cyberspace. Yet the history of shame my own fan base is writing makes me leave the laziali alone. After all, who the hell am I to talk?

Who are these people? I’ve been to Olympic Stadium numerous times and never even seen a shoving match. I’ve watched games on TVs filled with romanisti in public places all over Rome and never once encountered the type of savage thug I’ve read about. I even encountered a huge table full of Roma ultras in La Fraschetta di Castel Sant’Angelo, a designated Roma trattoria, and they welcomed me with open arms. All I had to do was flash my AS Roma keychain. Through traveling to 101 countries, I’ve said Romans are the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Yet somewhere deep in the bowels of this rabid fan base is a soft underbelly of violence that bely Rome’s worldwide reputation as a place of beauty, art and love. It’s like you open up your cabinet of expensive china and a rat leaps out.

I’m a student of history. I learn from it. That’s why I ventured out Tuesday night figuring I’d encounter 5,000 bloodthirsty Liverpool fans bent on revenge. It didn’t happen. Campo dei’ Fiori was nearly empty when I stopped for a beer at The Drunken Ship, one of Rome’s wildest bars, at about 6 p.m.

Abbey Theatre was packed. Yet I saw no one in red. Liverpool fans were pounding the beers but no one was drunk. No one was angry. Everyone was happy. In fact, during Liverpool’s Champions League charge through Hoffenheim, Germany; Moscow; Maribor, Slovenia; Seville, Spain; Porto, Portugal; and Manchester, England, not one Liverpool fan has been arrested.

They came to Rome with a surprisingly level-headed perspective. Mooney indicated the “riot” in Liverpool wasn’t as widespread as the video indicated.

“There was one piece of trouble,” said Mooney who attended the game. “Some Roma fans essentially, when everybody went into the grounds, at the very last minute went around to another part of the stadium at the home end and picked on a small group of middle-aged men who were about to get into the stadium. It wasn’t a big crowd.”

It also helps that English hooligan has become nearly extinct, not only thanks to the government but basic economics.

“If you look at the demographics of Premiership fans nowadays, it’s still working class but we’re sort of middle class,” Mooney said. “Because it’s so expensive to go to a game now that you haven’t got the same sort of people going to soccer.”

Underneath the jacket of Christian Dalley, a Liverpool fan living in London, was a white T-shirt with a red outstretched hand, indicating the five Champions League titles Liverpool has won.

“I’m going subtle,” he said. “My friend and I flew over from London Monday and our Facebook has been blown away. We had 120 hits, everyone saying, ‘Be safe. Be safe.’ We’re going to a football match! This is ridiculous! We’re not going to Syria.”

Added his friend, Ali Farwana, a Lebanese-American, “Anybody came to look for revenge is complete bullshit. We came to support Liverpool.”

At the end of the evening, I returned to Campo dei’ Fiori where the red army finally arrived. Only, of course, they weren’t wearing red. About 200 Liverpool fans had gathered outside I Gigante della Notte bar hysterically singing Liverpool’s famed theme song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

A huge police paddy wagon was off to the side. Some police stood behind, looking bored. Feigning naivety, I asked one fan why no one was wearing red.

“The Roma fans are very violent and we’re trying to avoid being attacked,” said Joe Cocorachio of Bournemouth, England.

I asked if they’ve met any Romans who found out they’re Liverpool fans.

“Not so far,” Cocorachio said, “but the night is young.”

With this atmosphere as a backdrop, Wednesday’s game became almost an afterthought. Then again, when Roma lost 5-2 in Liverpool in the first of the two legs, the dream of advancing to its first European final since that ‘84 game had been pretty well crushed for a week. Yes, Roma stunned Barcelona 3-0 in the second leg of the quarterfinals to advance on away goals but Roma played well despite losing 4-1 at Barcelona. In Liverpool it was awful. Terrible mistakes in the midfield caused Roma’s defenders to get overrun by Liverpool’s cheetah-fast forwards. Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian superstar Roma sold last year and preceded to become Premier League Player of the Year, had two goals and an assist and a pyramid named after him.

The atmosphere in Olympic Stadium before the game was very family oriented.

The atmosphere in Olympic Stadium before the game was very family oriented.

When I reached Olympic Stadium, the crowd at River Cafe across the street spilled up and down the road. Yellow smoke obscured some of the patrons roaring songs and chants, believing Roma still had a chance. Inside the gates I found almost a carnival atmosphere. Children played foosball with their fathers. Kids posed with life-size cutouts of the Roma roster. An MC yelled out contest giveaways on a polished stage. I walked into the press entrance and the ever-present orchestra playing classical music didn’t present much of a violent image.

Entering the stadium, however, you felt the atmosphere that has often been compared to the Roman Colosseum, circa 100 AD. The jam-packed crowd of 63,000 was roaring before any player even took the field. So many red and yellow flags flew in the ultras’ Curva Sud, that end of the stadium looked like a giant quilt.

Also, no fans in the world boo like Roma fans. Philadelphia’s? It’s the College of Cardinals in comparison. Liverpool’s goalkeepers came out to warm up and the whistles sounded like 60,000 really pissed off bees. It got even louder every time Salah kicked the ball — in warmups.

Three rows of security guards were between the Liverpool section and Curva Nord. I thought I saw two red shirts.

The cauldron cooled in nine minutes. That’s how long it took for Radja Nainggolan, my favorite player and one of the best midfielders in Europe, to make a weak back pass to defender Federico Fazio who was leaning back at the time. Roberto Firmino intercepted it, passed it to Sadio Mane’ who found himself one on one with goalkeeper Alisson Becker. It was no contest. Liverpool was up 1-0 and 6-2 on aggregate. Roma had to score four times and Liverpool hadn’t give up four goals since a 4-1 loss at Tottenham Oct 22, a span of 37 games.

Nainggolan buried his head in hands and looked like the only place he wanted to be was anywhere in the world but the middle of Olympic Stadium.

Liverpool celebrates after advancing to the Champions League final. Evening Standard photo

Liverpool celebrates after advancing to the Champions League final. Evening Standard photo

Roma won 4-2 to lose only 7-6 on aggregate, but it wasn’t that close. Roma tied it when Liverpool’s clearing kick hit James Milner in the head and into the goal and Georginio Wijnaldum headed in a deflected corner kick that the entire Roma defense whiffed on. Roma scored two more in the final three minutes, the last from Nainggolan’s penalty kick on the last play of the game.

The officiating was awful. Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Loris Karius, who has read all season how his club is eyeing Becker in the off season, nearly tackled Edin Dzeko in a race to the ball. Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly hand batted Stephan El Shaarawy’s shot inside the 18-meter box. Neither received a penalty kick, causing Corriere dello Sport to scream in the next day’s headline, in a rare case of homerism, “INGIUSTIZIA! (INJUSTICE!)”

I didn’t go to the mixed zone to talk to players who are reluctant to talk even after the biggest of wins. I joined the mob out the exits. Bankers, barristas, cobblers, waiters, car salesmen and one pseudo journalist walking in more quiet resignation than anger. We could still hear “You Will Never Walk Alone” from the marooned Liverpool fans as we poured into the packed streets.

Some hope remains. Roma has three games left in its season and is tied for third with Lazio, four points ahead of Inter Milan for one of the four guaranteed spots in next season’s Champions League. The team is aging. It’s underfunded. Its proposed new $1.5 billion stadium is more dream than reality.

What appears more real is its fans’ reputation as one of the most vicious in Europe. I am part of that fan base. Two thugs’ apparent actions in Liverpool brushed us all with a stroke of a brush that’s painting a very ugly picture of us. Again. Hell, I’m a retired sportswriter from Oregon. I’ve been called vicious with my words but not my knives.

Roma installed video cameras at all stadium entrances before the 2015-16 season and the intrusion became part of the ultras’ protest that lasted more than a season. Yet, unlike in England, the system isn’t working. Sean Cox remains in a coma.

And the rats remain in the china cabinet.

Testaccio: An ode to a true Roman neighborhood

Reading my Corriere dello Sport in my neighborhood was a daily ritual over the last four years. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Reading my Corriere dello Sport in my neighborhood was a daily ritual over the last four years. Photo by Marina Pascucci

How do you say goodbye to a neighborhood that feels more home than your hometown? How do you thank people who embraced you for four years without speaking your language? How do you explain sorrow over moving, when you’re only moving two kilometers?

Rome does that to you. Testaccio does that to you. It’s a neighborhood few tourists know and not many Romans know well, as I do. But unlike the Eternal City, my home isn’t for eternity. This weekend, after the four best years of my life, I’m moving. I’m going across the Tiber River and up the hill to Monteverde, an upscale, green neighborhood peppered with huge trees and modern eateries and home to the biggest park in Rome.

I’m excited, anxious and curious. But I’m also filled with sorrow and melancholy. As I’m writing this on my 35-square-meter terrace, with the sun peeking over my penthouse roof, I can see the opposite bank of the Tiber below me. Yet with this move looming, that river seems as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

It will be tough to leave this 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber.

It will be tough to leave this 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber.

I don’t want to move. From the minute I set foot in this palace of an apartment, I knew I’d found a home, hopefully permanent. I covered the walls with artwork and photos. I filled my closet with red and yellow AS Roma gear. I nurtured my landlady’s plants and lined the terrace with flowers of purple, white, yellow and red. On my terrace I entertained, ate, drank, wrote and bathed in the sun, like an old Roman senator easing into retirement.

So why leave? It’s for a boring reason: security. My landlady, for reasons she never fully explains, refuses to give me more than six-month contracts. Every six months I had to sweat out a rent increase or even a 30-day notice. Negotiations consisted of “sign or leave” the week a contract expired. She would never discuss it leading up to the next contract. However, due to weird Italian tax laws way beyond my comprehension, she only raised my rent once. The 1,000 euros I pay a month remain well under market value. I always signed.

However, when you’re retired in Rome, little stress becomes big stress. If I eliminate that stress every six months, I’ll have nirvana: a stress-free life. Who wouldn’t want that? So I found another penthouse apartment that’s bigger (55 square meters vs. 45) with a bigger kitchen, living room, closet, bedroom and even bed. It doesn’t have the same romantic terrace but it has a wide balcony that wraps around the entire apartment.

A courtyard in Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A courtyard in Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

My girlfriend, Marina, is ecstatic. She’s a third-generation Roman who has always called Monteverde “chic.” She’s also ecstatic she has a stress-free boyfriend. I signed a four-year contract which, under Italian law, allows me to get a residency card, a family doctor and utilities in my name and, thus, cheaper bills. It’s for the same 1,000 euros with a smaller condo fee (68 vs. 100). It has an elevator. No longer will I have to hike up 90 steps if I forget a notepad. A bigger, cheaper gym is only three blocks away. An old-fashioned Roman public market is only two tram stops away. Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s 455-acre park, is just beyond that. I’m excited, too, in a way. I’ll live in Rome the rest of my life. After four years, it’s time to explore another neighborhood.

Now it’s time to say a heartfelt goodbye to my old one.

Rome’s neighborhoods are very distinct, as different in appearance and vibe as different countries. Centro Storico is where remnants of Ancient Rome are everywhere you look. Nearby Monti, anchored by the Colosseum, is hip and maybe the most vibrant in the city. L’EUR is where Mussolini’s dream of a fascist neighborhood fell short, leaving it to become a relatively modern, comfortable zone with wide boulevards, big buildings, a man-made canal and terraced lawns.

Mauro in my edicola. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Mauro in my edicola. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Testaccio has changed through the years, too. Once so working class it was referred to as “the real Rome,” it has gentrified some. Older couples started selling their apartments to the young professionals. Soon it became one of the hippest places in the city yet still keeps its down-home Roman image. Located a little more than a mile south of Centro Storico — In about 15 minutes I can walk to Circus Maximus where they held the chariot races — Testaccio remains a true Roman neighborhood. The only tourists it attracts come for AirBnBs and tours of our famous public market, Mercato Testaccio. It has no hotels, no pubs, hardly even any postcards. It’s where old people sit in tree-filled Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice and speak the old Romanesco dialect.

It’s where I don’t understand a damn thing.

It doesn’t matter. It’s here where I perfected what I call my “piazza mentality.” When down, mad, frustrated, go to a piazza. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the world’s great cities. You don’t hear traffic. You hear birds. You don’t eat dust. You eat gelato. I solved most of the world’s problems, including some of my own, sitting in the shade in that piazza.

The Fontana delle Anfore in Piazza Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Fontana delle Anfore in Piazza Testaccio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Testaccio has two great piazzas. Santa Maria Liberatrice, across the street from the church of the same name, is my anchor. It’s where I buy my newspapers at the edicola and where I eat my breakfast staple, cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) and chocolate cornetto, at the nearby cafe, Linari, home to the fastest service in Rome. Two blocks away, historic Piazza Testaccio housed Mercato Testaccio for 100 years before it moved south a few blocks five years ago. Today the piazza is a flat cobblestone square with the Fontana delle Anfore in the center. Built in 1927 by Pietro Lombardi, it moved down the street to Piazza dell’Emporio in 1935 and returned to Piazza Testaccio three years ago. On any given weekend afternoon, you dodge soccer balls kicked by children and their fathers, still showing skills 40-50 years after they hung up their cleats. The wives and mothers sit on the wood benches ringing the piazza, gossiping and eating paninos.
Orazio in L'Oasi della Birra, home to 1,500 wines and 500 beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Orazio in L’Oasi della Birra, home to 1,500 wines and 500 beers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On one side of the piazza is my local watering hole. L’Oasi della Birra features 1,500 different wines and 500 different beers from around the world. It also has one of the best aperitivos in Rome. Ten euros gets you a buffet of pastas, vegetables, quiches, rice dishes and a variety of cold cuts, topped with some of their designer chocolates they sell on the side. Their covered patio seating with picnic tables is where I held many scambios (language exchanges), cardinal reunions (fellow Yank expats John Samuels and Jeff Larsen and I played cardinals in HBO’s “The Young Pope”) or just plain wanted a buzz (its delicious Centaurus on tap is 12 percent alcohol).

The top destination in Testaccio, however, became my daily ritual. Mercato Testaccio marks the pinnacle of La Dolce Vita’s food pyramid. The white-walled, open-air market is filled with the best fresh foods Italy has to offer. Those Sunday farmers markets in America where you pay $2.50 for an organic tomato? Those are sold every day in my market at a fraction of that cost. Walk around and suddenly the most hardened bachelor gets in the mood to cook. Who wouldn’t when you see prosciutto with nary a trace of fat, tomatoes so sweet you eat them like apples, bricks of parmesan with major bite, lean sausage, clementines and oranges perfect for morning juice, fresh loaves of multi-grained bread, tuna steaks caught that morning in the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea, fresh pasta sold in a dozen different shapes, fat green and purple grapes, bufala mozzarella shipped up from Campania, cheeses from all regions of Italy.

Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.

Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.

Shopping in Mercato Testaccio isn’t just a necessity to a healthier life. It’s a social experience. Over four years I’ve gotten to know the merchants I frequent. They’re like neighbors. I shopped at the same supermarket in Denver for 23 years. I never knew the name of a single clerk. They never asked me mine. But when I make my rounds after the gym I always stop by to see Federico, the butcher and Lazio fan who always reminds me of every Roma loss — with a smile. There is Alessandro the pasta man, another laziale who puts our differences away to suggest the best types of pasta for certain dishes. Then I buy fresh fruits and vegetables from Paola and her sister who wake in the countryside at about 4 a.m. to drive into Rome with their produce.
Federico and pajata at Mercato Testaccio.

Alessandro the pasta man.

I got to know Antonella, the cheese lady and frequently ask about her ailing husband I met at the hospital and their new grandchild. Then there is the fishmonger, covered in blood and carrying a knife the size of a machete, greeting me every Tuesday and Friday (the days the fish are caught) with “Centottanta e quindici (180 degrees for 15 minutes)” because I can never remember how long to bake tuna. I always go to the same places. Going to another place for vegetables feels like sleeping with another woman.
Ruins of the 2,000-year-old warehouse that used to house olive oil around the corner from my apartment. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ruins of Porticus Aemilia, built in 174 BC to house olive oil and other goods around the corner from my apartment. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Testaccio’s working-class history goes back to Ancient Rome where it served as a warehouse for olive oil, grain and other goods shipped up the Tiber from the Tyrrhenian. Around the corner from my home stands the remains of Porticus Aemilia. the warehouse built in 174 BC. The shell of the structure still covers nearly the entire block and was one of the key storing facilities for Ancient Rome. Locals tell me Julius Caesar occasionally strolled my street checking supplies.

However, the ancient Romans had a dilemma. What do they do with all the terracotta pots carrying the olive oil? The demand for olive oil 2,000 years ago was so great, Rome had to import some from Libya and Tunisia. They couldn’t recycle the pots so they dumped the fragments in a pit where what is now seven blocks from the Tiber. They covered them with lime to kill the smell of the rancid olive oil. Finding it a convenient dumping ground, the Romans continued the practice until 250 A.D. when new type of pots were made.

Marcello, my flower man in my piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marcello, my flower man in my piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

To this day the pile remains. The estimated 53 million pieces stand 115 feet high. The fragments were known by the Latin name testae, and the neighborhood became known as Testaccio, meaning “bad fragments.” The pile, called Monte Testaccio, was abandoned after the fall of Rome but during the Middle Ages was used as a communal site for jousting exhibitions and feasts. In the 20th century, some savvy locals discovered the spaces between the terracotta fragments provided a breeze. They built houses and wine cellars into the side of the mountain. Today, Via di Monte Testaccio rings the mountain and is home to the most raucous nightclubs in Rome, none of which, I’m proud to say, have I ever entered.

To get to Mercato Testaccio from my gym, I must pass the remains of what was the largest slaughterhouse in Europe during the 1800s. I pass huge warehouses that housed animals until they were butchered and hung on hooks that still loom overhead where I walk. The poor workers were often paid in offal, all the awful parts no sane person would ever eat. Their industrious wives, however, made dishes, some borrowed from the even poorer Jewish Ghetto, that have remained staples in restaurants around Testaccio. There is trippa alla romana, soup made from the lining of a cow’s stomach; payata, the intestines of milk-fed calves; coda alla vaccinara, oxtail stew; and baccala’, fried cod.

Sometimes I think Roman cuisine is all based on a dare.

The building where A.S. Roma was born in 1927. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The building where A.S. Roma was born in 1927. Photo by Marina Pascucci

While those dishes remain, the slaughterhouse closed after World War II when locals started complaining about the smell. Today the MACROS houses a music school, the architecture department of Roma Tre University and art exhibits. Sometimes you’ll see a demonstration for animal rights. Yes, some things in Testaccio have changed.

During the early 20th century, Testaccio was a slum, a dump, a place of criminals and thieves and violence. However, Benito Mussolini, in one of the many underrated things he did for Rome, ordered a renovation of the neighborhood. I hear my building was one of those reclamation projects.

Testaccio truly is AS Roma territory. This graffiti along the Tiber is across the street from my flat. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Testaccio truly is AS Roma territory. This graffiti along the Tiber is across the street from my flat. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It was also about that time when my beloved A.S. Roma was born. In 1927, in an unimposing building three blocks from me, the club was signed into existence. Until a few years ago it housed the Roma Club Testaccio, a place old-timers — and one expat American journalist — could sit and watch Roma games on a big screen. Today, the club has moved near the market and the old headquarters is now a sports betting parlor. From 1927 until 1940, Roma played in Campo Testaccio, across the street from Monte Testaccio. Today, it is a weed-filled vacant lot with some lasting remains of the old grandstand. It’s too historic for the city or local romanisti to change a thing.

In some ways I’m moving out of my comfort zone. Marina warns me that Monteverde was built by the fascists and still is home to many evil laziale. However, the local stadium is home to ASD Trastevere, the Serie D team I also support. I’m sure I’ll get to know the coffee jockeys and pizzeria owner. I’ll have grand aperitivos on my balcony overlooking the forest of trees spread through the neighborhood. I’ll be fine. I’m retired in Rome. How can I not be happy?

But part of me will always miss waking up to see the dirty Tiber flowing below and sitting outside my sun-splashed Linari reading about Roma’s triumphs and failures. I’m hoping the prosciutto in Monteverde’s public market is just as lean, its tomatoes just as sweet, its parmesan just as biting.

One last aperitivo Saturday night. This is about a third of the people who came. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One last aperitivo Saturday night. This is about a third of the people who came. Photo by Marina Pascucci

More than anything, I hope I find a neighborhood that embraces me as much as Testaccio did. A zone that fed Ancient Rome fed me for four years. As I fill my rented van with my last backpack of belongings, I’ll look back at the old brick building one last time.

Arrivederci, Testaccio. Grazie mille. Non cambiare mai. Ma mi hai cambiato per sempre. (Goodbye, Testaccio. Thanks so much. Don’t ever change. But you changed me forever.)

Lisbon: Sing a song to Portugal’s oft-embattled capital

People in Lisbon have reason to sing and fado can be heard all over the ancient neighborhood of Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

People in Lisbon have reason to sing and fado can be heard all over the ancient neighborhood of Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Arms and the Heroes, who from Lisbon’s shore,
Through Seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they waged, what seas, what dangers passed,
What glorious empire crowned their toils at last!

— Luis de Camoes, “Os Lusiadas,” 1572

LISBON, Portugal — I’m standing below Camoes’ statue in, appropriately, Praca Luis de Camoes, a pretty plaza in the middle of downtown Lisbon. He stands regally, a knee slightly bent, holding a sword in his right hand. He looks more like a sailor battling Amazonian Indians than the greatest writer in the Portuguese language. He’s considered Portugal’s Shakespeare. Camoes wrote mostly of love and longing with poetry that has touched hearts and minds from Portugal to Macau.

In “Os Luisiadas” (The Lusiads, the mythical name for the Portuguese), instead, he wrote of Portugal’s conquests. In the 16th century, Portugal was the scourge of the open seas. It was Europe’s wealthiest monarchy. Vasco da Gama (India), Pedro Cabral (Brazil), Ferdinand Magellan (around the world) were just some of the explorers who made huge discoveries or did world firsts.

Camoes also made his mark by drinking himself penniless, hitting on the king’s queen and mistresses, killing a man and losing an eye in the army. They’ve learned to take the bad with the good in Lisbon. Its history is rife with international triumphs, terrible leaders, natural catastrophes and civic comebacks.

Today it’s on one of its upswings. Its economy is growing. Its unemployment is dropping. Officials from around the world come to Lisbon to study its revolutionary softer approach to drug abuse. No longer is Lisbon that European capital too far out of the way to visit. It was the destination for 10 million tourists in 2016 with some of the cheapest prices in Europe and its famed port wine that packs much more wallop than that wimpy sangria of their hated neighbor, Spain.

The view from Largo das Portas do Sol in Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view from Largo das Portas do Sol in Alfama. Photo by Marina Pascucci

While an earthquake in 1755 leveled most of Lisbon back to the Iron Age, one area brings back memories of when Portugal was Muslim and Moors roamed the streets and governed the town. Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood stretches up a steep hill leading to the 11th century Castelo de Sao Jorge. Between our bed and breakfast across the street from the mighty Rio Tejo and the castle’s ramparts lies a labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys that twist and turn like a blackberry bush. The dark, narrow staircase near our B&B ascends steeply onto a walkway where restaurant staffers are setting up red chairs for another night of wine, women and song. A few feet up the walk on a tiny square, three black men sit on plastic chairs chatting and smiling. They’re in a better mood than the man on the next level up, sleeping in a pup tent with a sign in front reading, “Help any way you can.” A fisherman’s hat sits nearby with a few stray coins.

It’s not nightfall yet fado, Portugal’s version of the blues, is already drifting in the air. I look around and can’t tell where it’s coming from. The singers who dress to the nines and entertain diners probably haven’t woken yet. I see no sound machines. I see the music is coming out of Alfama’s windows. I’m hearing fado in stereo.

The route of old-fashioned Tram 28 takes visitors on a beautiful 40-minute ride through the city. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The route of old-fashioned Tram 28 takes visitors on a beautiful 40-minute ride through the city. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Too bad I hate fado. Well, I hate most music and fado, screeching songs of bittersweet love born on these very working-class streets, joined my list of genres with which I can’t be in the same room. Lisbon is called Europe’s Havana. It’s not just because you can’t walk anywhere, particularly Alfama, without hearing music coming from someone’s window, a plaza or an idling car. It’s also a city that is recovering from a brutal regime, has inspired important writers, however tortured, and where the people can forget their problems in music and most importantly, for me, great alcohol.

My lovely and talented girlfriend, photographer Marina Pascucci, recently took me here for my birthday over a long weekend. She’d been to Lisbon before, stayed in the Alfama and regaled me with tales of dimly lit alleys, romantic restaurants and lovely walks. I’d also been to Portugal. In 2010 I went to Porto where I fell dangerously in love with its legendary port wine and learned the hard way that it’s about 20 percent alcohol.

Our room at B. Mar Hostel & Suites.

Our room at B. Mar Hostel & Suites.

I spend much of the night of our arrival trying to keep Marina from throwing herself in front of one of Lisbon’s historical street cars from sheer embarrassment. The hotel she reserved, the B. Mar Hostel & Suites, gave us a room only a refugee could love. The double bed was shoehorned into the room so tight we had to nearly enter it from the foot of the bed. The closet consisted of four hooks on the wall.

I don’t care. I read enough about Alfama to know people from all over the world descend here for a taste of Old Portugal. And we are in the middle of it. Alfama hotels are outrageously expensive for Lisbon, ranging from 150-250 euros. I forgave her.

Marina and I spent New Year’s Eve in Fez, Morocco, home of the world’s largest car-free zone, known as a medina. Alfama reminds me of Fez. The few cars can barely negotiate the narrow alleys climbing the hill. Alfama is also Lisbon’s most social neighborhood. We stroll past neighbors sitting on stoops, talking below flapping laundry. Merchants stand outside their tiny shops, not barking at customers but engaging in conversation with passersby.

Me with a Tawny Red, Portugal's famous port wine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me with a Tawny Red, Portugal’s famous port wine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

What Lisbon has thankfully added since the Moors’ departure in 1147 after 400 years is some of Europe’s best booze. I became familiar with port wine in Porto, Portugal’s No. 2 city 200 miles north of Lisbon, and very familiar with a Portuguese hangover. Who knew wine could hit like brandy? They’ve been growing grapes here since the Romans arrived 2,000 years ago. Thank the British, who never met an alcohol they couldn’t swill, for adding the punch. During its war with France in the 17th century, England faced a – gasp! – wine shortage. It signed a treaty with Portugal to produce wine and, according to legend, added brandy and grape juice to help preserve shipment back to England.

What I found is my favorite sweet wine, perfect for an after-dinner drink or, in our case, a daily nutrient in Lisbon. As the day’s dreary drizzle drifts away and darkness approaches, we find a little hole in the wall with two tables outside where a young, hip couple and old man have glasses of beaming ruby red wine. Ginjinha da Se is a local hangout where a heavily tattooed waitress serves us a variety of Portuguese cheeses and a glass of Tawny Red, considered port’s table wine. Next to us a grizzled local in dirty clothes digs into a cheese and meat plate. A string of lit Christmas balls hangs on the wall next to rough pencil drawings of Lisbon scenes.

Portugal's elixir to the gods. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Portugal’s elixir to the gods. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina is a typical Roman teetotaler and is used to abiding my pursuit of exotic alcohol. In Lisbon I find the perfect target in ginjinha. It’s Portugal’s traditional cherry liqueur. Cherry being my favorite fruit, it’s a perfect combination. Down the road and down a slight incline, we discover another little spot called Casanovas. Behind a tiny bar with only two seats stands an old man poured tall narrow bottles of ginjinha in small, bell-shaped shot glasses. We sit in the back on overstuffed round pillows next to two local business women and walls lined with photos of old Portuguese entertainers. Ginjinha is so sweet, after two sips you have an insurmountable quest to find vanilla ice cream to pour it on.

For a true grasp of what Lisbon is about, however, you must push yourself away from the bar and learn its history. This is a city that’s had its heart broken more than a teenage boy. Invasions. Lousy kings. Natural disasters. Coups. It’s amazing the place is still standing. The Portuguese think so, too. They are famous for being among the biggest complainers in Europe. No one underestimates their country more than the Portuguese who are known for complaining about everything from prices (it’s among the cheapest countries in Europe) to its bureaucracy (come to Rome, baby) and out-of-control tourism (your gross domestic product hit 17-year high last year thanks to a 13-percent jump in tourism).

Back under Camoes’ statue, I dive into Lisbon’s history. I’m not a big guided tour guy but many European capitals do free walking tours. A tour of Reykjavik, Iceland, last May was terrific so I brave pouring rain to walk the cobbled streets of Lisbon with Eduardo, a wise-cracking, self-deprecating young Portuguese.

Some things I didn’t know about Lisbon:

The Moors brought azulejos, their beautiful hand-painted tiles, to Portugal in the 15th century and they can be found all over Lisbon. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Moors brought azulejos, their beautiful hand-painted tiles, to Portugal in the 15th century and they can be found all over Lisbon. Photo by Marina Pascucci

* It’s the second-oldest capital in Europe behind Athens, founded in 1200 B.C. It beat Rome by nearly 400 years.

* The Phoenicians found the Tejo calm and made it easy to dock. They docked and stayed for 1,000 years. Unlike the Romans who left monuments like business cards around the world, the Phoenicians left no evidence they were ever here.

* It has been invaded more than an army refrigerator. After the Phoenicians left came the Romans for 500 years, then the Barbarians, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Spanish. “The Visigoths were lazy,” Eduardo says. “I think we inherited that from them.”

* Coca-Cola was illegal here until 1974. It was considered too capitalistic, which tells you something about the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Lisbon has been the working place for some of the worst leaders in Europe, a string of corrupt swindlers, liars and frauds, not that I have reason to talk, being from the U.S. But look at some of the guys who led Portugal through history:

Statue of King Dom Jose I in Praca Do Comercio. Dreamstime photo

Statue of King Dom Jose I in Praca Do Comercio. Dreamstime photo

King Dom Jose I. He was the king during the earthquake of 1755. It leveled almost the entire city — except for Alfama. Churches collapsed and those who weren’t crushed burned alive from the falling candles. Then came tsunamis that killed even more. A reported 90,000 of Lisbon’s population of 270,000 died. After the earthquake which destroyed his palace, King Dom Jose became claustrophobic and never again went inside a building. He lived outside of Lisbon in a giant tent. He came into the city only twice.

Under his orders, he had a statue built of himself. It remains today anchoring the massive riverside Praca do Comercio, a proud man astride a steed. But if you look close, you can see how the townspeople who hated him got the last laugh. The horse is small with a bow tie on its tail. It’s not a war horse. It’s a show pony. He didn’t know. The horse is trampling snakes, supposedly representing his enemies. No. The snakes were added to scare away pigeons. To this day, no pigeons land on the statue. It’s also facing the river. He wanted it to represent himself as a sentinel. Nope. In actuality he’s facing the river because he never looked at the city. His back is facing town.

King Joao VI. Wikipedia image

King Joao VI. Wikipedia image

King Joao VI. In the 1670s gold mines were discovered in Brazil and soon Brazil became Portugal’s sugar daddy. They shipped 90 tons of gold a year to Portugal as well as jade and diamonds. Portugal became the richest country in Europe. In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte told Portugal to stop trading with England or he’d attack. King Joao took the gold and fled to Rio de Janeiro and made Rio the capital of the Portuguese Empire. Lisbon turned into nothing more than a dock. The French then took the dock, the English took it from the French and the Portuguese fought off the English.

The Portuguese told King Joao to leave Brazil and come home and he said, “Thanks, but have you seen the weather down here?” The king finally returned but told his son, Pedro, to keep order and gold in Brazil. In 1822 Pedro declared himself emperor of Brazil and made it the most important province of the empire. He recognized Brazil’s independence and that collapsed the Portuguese empire.

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Tumblr photo

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Tumblr photo

Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Hired as the minister of finance in 1928, Salazar led Portugal to its largest economic growth in 400 years. Hailed as a hero, he was given total power in 1933. (Seen this script before? Same ending.) He rewrote the constitution and outlawed all political parties and labor unions. He made it illegal for more than three people to gather. He started PIDE, Portugal’s version of the Gestapo. He had friends interrogated.

During World War II Portugal was officially neutral and Salazar used the country’s natural resources to play one side against the other. Portugal was lousy with tungsten mines. Tungsten is used to make bullets, light bulbs and tanks, which somewhat come in handy during world wars. He began a bidding war between England and Germany and England wound up paying four times the original price. Filthy rich Portugal became one of the few Western European countries during the war that didn’t suffer rationing or blackouts. Thus, Salazar stayed in power.

Lisbon's subway system is one of the cleanest in Europe. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Lisbon’s subway system is one of the cleanest in Europe. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Salazar liked Adolf Hitler as a leader but disliked his racism, which is like saying you like vanilla ice cream except for the taste. While Salazar claimed he was not a racist, one of Hitler’s prize Volkswagens was found in Salazar’s collection. His government reigned until a military revolt in 1974, making it the longest dictatorship in Europe.

Today the leadership is quite different. Take drugs. Lisbon is a relatively safe city and one reason is it decriminalized drugs in 2001. It started treating addiction as a disease instead of a crime. The government hired public health companies to make treatment more readily available. After a brief uptick, drug use dropped dramatically. Heroin use plummeted from 100,000 users to 25,000. HIV infections dropped 90 percent since 1999. Overdose deaths have dropped 85 percent and the drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe, 1/50 of the U.S. It is now known worldwide as “The Portuguese Model.”

Portuguese cheeses. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Portuguese cheeses. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Portuguese cuisine will never be accused of being addicting. It’s heavy and its reflected in much of the population. One of its signature dishes is called francesinha, a big sloppy mess of ham, sausage and beef inside two slices of white bread and covered in bubbling, melted cheese. It looks as if it was invented by two drunk frat guys at 3 a.m. Francesinha is Portuguese for “Little French” and was actually invented in the 1960s by a Porto native who returned from France and wanted to add a twist to Portuguese cuisine.

Our meals in Lisbon were hit and miss. At Santo Antonio de Alfama, near our B&B, I had a wonderful duck thigh with orange and olive salad along with brie cheese and raspberry sauce and the best fried potatoes of my life, small and crispy and delicious with a mayo-herb dip.

But then we escaped a downpour into a seafood restaurant with the schlocky name of Sea Me near Praca Luis de Camoes. Marina’s allegedly fresh calamari was so frozen inside she had to send it back. My grilled sea bass, chosen off a bed of ice, consisted of about six bites for the larcenous price of 25.62 euros.

The counter at Adega Portuguesa, a local diner. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The counter at Adega Portuguesa, a local diner. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We eventually found more authentic places away from Alfama’s center, on the riverside near our hotel. At Vila Flor, a modern, airy place with high bar tables, I had a wonderful mixed grill of smoked sausages, ham and chorizo with rice and a sausage pate.

It’s clear tourism has helped fuel Lisbon’s economy. The Castelo de Sao Jorge has some of the most spectacular panoramic views of any castle I’ve ever visited but the restaurants and wine bars descending from it are comically touristy. Every restaurant posted menus in multiple languages. I think one was translated into Apache.

The economy is hopping is Lisbon and people have time to relax. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The economy is hopping is Lisbon and people have time to relax. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Still, Lisbon is one of Europe’s jewels and always has been, despite the turmoil, devastation and incompetence. The view from the castle reveals a sea of red-tile roofs, majestic church towers and a mishmash of neighborhoods carved up by narrow, cobblestone alleys. Too bad Dom Jose’s horse is facing the river. He’d like what he’d see.