New Year’s Eve in Morocco: A call to prayer for all mankind as Islam beckons

Once Morocco's capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Once Morocco’s capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

FEZ, Morocco — Marina has a good sense of adventure but it has limits, like a girl losing her nerve at certain roller coasters. At least, I thought it did. That ended over the summer when she made a surprise suggestion for our now annual New Year’s Eve getaway.


I was startled. I said, “I thought you were afraid to travel to Islamic countries.”

“No,” she said. “I was afraid to travel to Islamic countries with an American.”

Fair point.

Fez's medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I come from a country where hating and distrusting Muslims has become part of many Americans’ DNA. That’s thanks to a president who doesn’t ban guns but does ban six Muslim countries. That DNA isn’t in me. I’ve traveled all through Islam and have met some of the most wonderful people in my life. I went to Tunisia a year after 9-11 and had half a dozen Tunisians offer their condolences.

I thought this angle would make a good travel piece: American travels to North Africa and shows America the peaceful people of Morocco. COME STROLL THROUGH A MEDINA! LEARN SOME ARABIC! BUY A CARPET!

Then I researched.

Turns out, according to The Guardian, 1,600 Moroccans went to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. About half were killed. Most of the others returned to Morocco once ISIS’ footprint began shrinking. Moroccans have been linked to terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels. Abdelhak El Khayam, head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (Morocco’s FBI), claims his organization has broken up 167 terrorist cells since 2002. They’ve arrested 2,720 suspected terrorists and foiled 276 terrorist plots.

What kind of fireworks is Morocco planning for us anyway?

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As it turns out, this is the lasting impression I had from five days in Morocco: I had just purchased a Christmas gift (not belated but for 2018) from a man in a long gray, hooded djellaba and was walking out of the medina, one of Morocco’s famed labyrinthian marketplaces. A man yelled at me, “MEESTER! MEESTER!” Tired of merchants trying to sell me everything from carpets to hookahs, I kept walking. He followed me. “MEESTER! MEESTER! PLEASE!” I ignored him.

I finally exited the medina and felt him grab my arm. I turned around, angry. The merchant in the gray djellaba was with him. The man who followed me said, “Sir! You paid this man 70 euros (about $85) instead of 70 dirhams (about $8). He wants to give you your money back.”

Feeling lower than Morocco’s lowest beggar, I apologized in three languages and instead of giving him 70 dirhams, I gave him 100. It should’ve been more.

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Making it more remarkable is 15.5 percent of Moroccans live on $3 a day, according to the World Bank. In November, 15 people died in a stampede during a food distribution in Marrakech. Unemployment is over 10 percent and the country spent billions during the Arab Spring to calm protests over the current state.

Morocco isn’t on Donald Trump’s banned list but every American should experience what I did before judging an entire religion. It’s why I come to Islamic countries. It’s why we came to Morocco.

We picked Fez, not only because it’s a direct 2 ½-hour Air Arabia flight from Rome but it has the world’s largest medina. No place on earth is there a larger car-free zone than Fez’s 540-acre medina where 155,000 people live in a maze of twisty, narrow alleys that seemingly never lead to an exit.

I’d been to Fez before. Morocco was my first third world country when I backpacked around the world for a year in 1978-79. Back then, Fez’s medina was a dark, dusty, scary cauldron of aggressive touts, beggars and thieves. Locals told me don’t go in without a guide. I did but only took right-hand turns along the surrounding wall. I returned taking left-hand turns.

A renovation in the '90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A renovation in the ’90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A renovation in the 1990s transformed the medina. Today the dust is gone and the stone pavement seems too clean to be real. It’s well lit with many wide-ranging restaurants and while the signage still makes it a confusing maze, I had no trepidation descending into its bowles without leaving a trail of rice to find my way back.

The medina is not antiseptic. It still makes you feel as if you’re in a chapter of “Arabian Nights.” We passed old men in older djellabas hunched over wobbly canes. We sampled dates and olives and almond griouats, the sugary, too-sweet-to-be-true almond treats from huge baskets sitting in front of tiny shops. Five times a day we heard the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, scratching through a loudspeaker. I had the same feeling I had nearly 40 years earlier.

Fez is as different as any place in the world. It crushes your sense of normalcy, like a splash of ice water on a winter day. You can’t sleep in Fez. Your eyes are always open.

The medina still has the little fresh orange juice stands where small boys squeeze you a delicious glass for 30 dirhams (1 euro). The carpet shops remain a center for some of the best products of the Arab world but nothing for a budget traveler. The bargaining merchants today are only a little annoying. In other words, they follow you screaming rapidly reducing prices for only 100 meters and no longer to your hotel.

A Moroccan stands in Bou Inania Madrasa, one of the top schools of the Koran in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez is a special place to Moroccans. The name comes from the Arabic word fa’s, meaning “pickaxe.” Legend has it that Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty which ruled Morocco from 788-974, used a pickax to create lines of the city when he founded Fez in the 9th century. It replaced Marrakech as the capital and remained until 1912 when the French invaded. General Hubert Lyautey, showing French snobbery isn’t a recent phenomenon, didn’t like Fez’s anti-French stance and moved the capital to Rabat.

Today, Fez remains Morocco’s spiritual and intellectual capital and home to the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, founded in 859. Unesco made Fez’s medina a heritage site in 1981, meaning its foundation must be preserved.

Marina and I traveled with Paola and Saverio, a couple who live down the street from me. Neither speaks English, let alone French or Arabic. I brushed up on enough of my old Arabic to at least earn big smiles from locals if not big bargains.

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We checked into the Zalagh Parc Palace, a five-star hotel with a pool that meandered around the hotel like an oasis. It was as cold as the Baltic in daily temperatures that dropped from the 60s to the 40s. A sexy bar and brilliant breakfast buffet made up for an indifferent staff, sketchy Internet and long, dark hallways that moved Marina to tell me, “This reminds me of that movie about the hotel in Colorado.”

So every time I walked to our room at the end of the hall I saw the two little twin girls from “The Shining” staring at me. Thanks.

We started our trip with a walking tour of the medina. Walking tours in strange cities can be screamingly frustrating even with GPS and Lonely Planet. In Fez’s medina, it’s like you’re a rat in a lab maze with no cheese to lure you around the right corners. I told myself to revel in the mindless meandering. That’s good because we were lost in 10 minutes.

Marina and I at Bou Inaina Madrasa.

Marina and I at Bou Inania Madrasa.

We did find our way to Bou Inania Madrasa, built from 1350-57 and one of Morocco’s top schools for the Koran. We walked inside a large square lined with beautiful hand-carved walls. I walked by a small side room where a young man in a green skull cap knealed, facing east, muttering a prayer in Arabic.

Fez is a deeply religious city of 1 million people. While covering their heads isn’t required as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, many Moroccan women choose to do so. Some even wear the full burqa by choice. I arrived bound to respect Fez’s customs favoring modesty. I temporary lost my mind when I leaned over and kissed Marina, wearing comfortable shoes and red cords.

Then I heard a male voice. Oh, no! I’ve been kiss caught.

“NO PROBLEM!” yelled a young man loud enough to ring down the street. “GOOD! KEEP KISSING! IT’S GOOD TO SEE A MAN KISS HIS WIFE!” He came over and shook my hand. Maybe he was jealous. Then again, maybe he was just friendly. In other words, maybe he was just an average Moroccan.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.

Parts of the medina are a bit of a tourist trap. I saw very few Americans but many French who can communicate with the bilingual population. I veered us to one of the medina’s biggest drawing cards. The Cafe Clock has been around only 11 years but it has evolved into a must on the Fez to-do list. Located down two narrow alleys past walls of brilliant artwork, Cafe Clock is a five-story restaurant with a narrow staircase leading to a rooftop view of the medina. The bottom floor where we found a table had a very French feel with a skylight illuminating us all.

I ignored the total lack of Moroccan customers and ordered the signature dish: the camel burger. I’ve eaten strange animals before: zebra and hartebeest in Kenya, rat and dog in China, yak in Nepal. But this camel burger beats them all. It had little fat and was a little sweet, like the buffalo I often ate in Colorado. It’s made even better sandwiched between two pieces of fresh, homemade bread found all over the medina. And yes, the waiter assured me, Moroccans do eat camel.

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Walk through the medina for just 10 minutes and even non shoppers get itchy wallets. I’m one of the few men who likes to shop. Thus, to me, Fez’s medina is like a meth lab to a junkie. I Christmas shop all year round. I buy something in every country I’m in. By the time the third week of December rolls around, people are frantically power shopping while I’m standing on my terrace drinking a glass of Montepulciano and listening to Bing Crosby Christmas carols.

In Fez, I got a third of my family Christmas shopping done 51 weeks ahead of time. I could’ve done more but I doubt pointy Ali Baba shoes go over well in Eugene, Oregon. The medina’s sidewalks are lined with everything to decorate your home, from your living room to your bathroom to your closet. Hard scents of musk and lavender. Body oils made from olive trees all over northern Morocco. Oil paintings of everything from Berber nomads to veiled women. Ceramic shops filled with multi-colored dining and tea sets. Long-elegant kaftans in every color of the rainbow. Leather coats and belts and bags. Elaborately decorated jewelry boxes big enough to store a family fortune.

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The smells of leather and musk and olive oil and fresh bread fill the air and make me want to shop, eat and bathe all at the same time.

Shopping in Fez, however, requires skill. Price tags are merely for decoration. Bargaining isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. I’m a very good bargainer. It comes from my past as a budget backpacker where I counted every penny. Every lower price meant another night on the road. I was ruthless.

I still am.

One rule in Fez: You can not insult a Moroccan with your price. It’s impossible. The more they feint pain, the more they cry, the more they respect you. I always offer a quarter of the price tag. In the ‘70s, they said, “That’s a donkey price.” Last weekend when I bargained for a painting, the young merchant said, “That’s a Berber price,” proof of the discrimination this minority suffers in this part of Morocco.

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The rules are simple. Find something you like and pretend you don’t. Offer a price one quarter of what’s listed and wait for the merchant’s theatrics to meld into a counter offer. Stick to your guns. Wait for him to lower. He’ll be down to half price in no time. Go up a bit to show respect. If he doesn’t match it, walk out. He’ll chase you down with your price and pretend he didn’t really make 80 percent on the deal.

Marina didn’t have a clue. She’d jump up and down, gasp and pull something off a shelf and ask the merchant, “How much?”

“MARINA!” I’d gasp as the merchant’s smile grew into a smirk.

She learned the rules and Paola and Saverio were old pros. I left with a ceramic bowl for my parmesan, a belt and an orange painting of two camels in front of a yellow sunset. The others came away with oils, tile house numbers, bags, coasters. No problem if your luggage doesn’t have room.

Just a buy another bag in the medina.

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But what makes Morocco special are the people. In 1978 I met numerous Moroccans who studied abroad and returned home with college degrees to help their country. On New Year’s Eve day we took a road trip to Sefrou. It’s a city of 80,000 people 20 miles south of Fez. It’s known for its historical Jewish population and annual cherry festival, not to mention terrific views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance.

Sefrou’s medina is Fez light. It’s for locals only, where you can feed your family but not buy it Christmas presents. We wandered the alleys as the only Westerners and emerged hungry, having no tips on where to eat. A man selling scarves off a wooden table in the street pointed us up the road where we found a hole in the wall that won’t make any guidebooks.

It was Morocco out of central casting. An old man worked a grill behind a musky window showing diced rows of chicken, lamb and beef. The smells of grilled meats waifed through onto the broken sidewalk. Smoke filled the inside of the open-air restaurant, reminding me more of a boxing gym in Vegas than a dining spot on vacation. A woman in the back ladled huge pots of rice and soup filled with chunky vegetables and beans.

We took four plastic chairs and the food kept coming. Lamb kabobs. Beans. Soups. Rice. All were washed down with sweet mint tea. Soon a man with a prescribed limp, short, grayish hair and missing most of his upper front teeth came to our table. Usually the rule on the road is if a local approaches you, he wants something. If you want to meet locals, you approach them.

Fez's Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Zakaria Naccri was different. He spoke very good English after only three years of university many years ago. He said his father fought with the French against the Nazis in Southern Italy at the end of World War II and in Indochina in 1954. He’s still alive, an old man with diabetes at home in Sefrou.

Naccri, 52, spoke whimsically of French occupation. He contracted polio at age 2 before the French eradicated it from the country. When a flash flood nearly buried Sefrou in 1950, the French dug the river deeper and built a bridge. The town had 25 hotels. Today there are only four.

“Jewish. French. Berbers. Arabs,” Naccri said. “There was tolerance. The French bought the Berbers land and animals. When the French left, it all went back to the Arabs.

“I like Jewish. French. Arabs. Berbers. I like all people.”

“So you’re not Donald Trump?” I asked.


He led us back to the taxi stand, along the way pointing out a 99-year-old man still working, selling wicker brooms and looking surprisingly healthy. We had some of the best tea of our lives in a sprawling cafe where men watched a Moroccan league soccer game and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” played on a loudspeaker.

When we parted, we collected about $5 worth of dirhams, promising we’d look him up if we ever returned. This time I meant it.

One reason we chose Morocco for New Year’s Eve is Marina and I don’t like New Year’s Eve. We wanted to avoid Rome on the one night of the year Romans get drunk. They have this nearly Pavlovian response to rare hammerings by throwing empty beer bottles. In Fez, few places sell alcohol. Drunks would be non-existent.

While Moroccans don’t drink much, they have learned the fine Western art of price gouging. Most of the restaurants I called from Rome had fixed prices of 75-80 euros a person. I was tempted to tell them I thought anal sex was a sin in Islam but I merely hung up. I had some restaurant recommendations in the medina but Marina wanted nothing to do with the medina at night. I tried to reassure her.

“The medina is safe,” I said, acting like an American. “There aren’t any guns.”

She steadfastly refused. So I went to the front desk to get my confirmation.

“The medina is safe at night, isn’t it?” I asked.

“No,” the desk clerk said quickly.

“Huh? Why? What happens?”

“Everything. Don’t go after 6 p.m.”

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L'Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on  New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L’Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We called around town and found one restaurant with its normal menu. Zagora is in Fez’s new town, just west of the medina and where you find supermarkets and retail stores. We passed crude, neon-lit nightclubs with pulsating music already at 9 p.m. Zagora was set back from the street and lit up in red neon. I felt like I was entering a brothel. I might still have. It was empty. Not another table was occupied — on New Year’s Eve.

We tentatively took our seats and my fears faded when I saw the menu. Ever play the parlor game: What meal do you order the night before you’re executed? Mine was on the menu.


It’s a dish made of chicken, egg, cinnamon and almond surrounded by filo dough and covered in powdered sugar. I fell in love with it in Moroccan restaurants in the U.S. but in Morocco it’s usually reserved for special feasts. Zagora had it and it was as good as I’ve ever had. We ate in front of bored waiters and a concerned owner who no doubt wonders if price gouging is the way to attract Western travelers on New Year’s Eve.

The Berber band on New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Berber band on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We repaired back to the safe sanctity of the hotel bar where a group of 10 Berbers in green djellabas played scratchy music that made me want to take a souvenir dagger and dig out my eardrums. I heard this music once before and it’s tolerable in a Tunisian desert — off in the distance. In a hotel bar right out of “Casablanca,” we had to take refuge in a ballroom with dance music.

Still, every American should visit one Muslim country. If they had, we never would’ve invaded Iraq. Think about it. No ISIS. No Donald Trump. No fear. A new year dawns. Too bad more Americans aren’t chased down by Moroccan shop keepers.

Christmas gift list for 2017: Guess who’s been the most naughty and not nice at all

Buon Natale tutti! Merry Christmas everyone from the Eternal City where Santa Claus decided to take up residence this year. Turns out, the North Pole heated up to where that long white beard and big red suit are just too warm. I just saw him walking through Piazza Navona on his way to see his elves in their workshop (they split, too) and I told him many morons, er, people in America think the higher temperatures are just cyclical.

“Cycle this,” he said as he stormed by me.

Well, I followed him and peeked at his gift list for all those naughty and nice. Turns out, the naughty ones are getting the most gifts which is why his first stop will be Washington. No one on Earth was more naughty than that Talking Yam we have in the White House.

So here’s the list. I’m sorry for ruining the surprises but after the year we all had, we’ve had enough surprises:

Donald Trump sees Vladimir Putin in a crowd.

Donald Trump sees Vladimir Putin in a crowd.

Donald Trump — A polar bear. Maybe that lone patch of ice that broke off from global warming finally melts under him and he comes knocking on the Mango Mussolini’s front door. I hope the bear likes Cheetos. How does that Paris Accord look now, you Fanta Fascist?

Tiber River — Cats. It will need them after Rome mayor Viginia Raggi launched a campaign to build beaches along the Tiber nest summer. Rats do the breaststroke in that filthy river.

Italian soccer — Straitjackets and a chair. Make Italy’s biggest embarrassment since Silvio Berlusconi watch next summer’s World Cup without them. They can watch Iceland. They can watch Panama. They can watch Sweden, the team that knocked them out like a pack of choking, rabid dogs.

All U.S. had to do was beat Trinidad & Tobago to make the World Cup.

All U.S. had to do was beat Trinidad & Tobago to make the World Cup.

U.S. soccer — Orange slices. Isn’t that what American kids get after games, win or lose? So what if the U.S. lost to Trinidad & Tobago to prevent them the World Cup? There were treats afterward!

Pope Francis — A seat in the U.S. Senate. I want to see how the Cheeto Benito and his pack of Nazi Republicans react next time they discuss tax cuts for the rich and he quotes, again, St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

Giuseppina Projetto

Giuseppina Projetto

Giuseppina Projetto — A Perugina chocolate endorsement. The world’s oldest person, a 115-year-old Sardi now living near Florence, said her secret is she swears by chocolate. If chocolate’s the secret to a long life, I may some day challenge her.

Roy Moore — An Alabama prison cell. Wait’ll he starts spewing gospel on the heels of his sentence for molesting underaged girls and it reaches his cellmate, Sweet Cheeks.

PosteItaliane — A postage stamp for the Western Hemisphere. It should have a silhouette of an Italian postal worker shrugging his shoulders because that’s exactly what I get when I ask why they still don’t have a stamp for the Western Hemisphere.

Concetta Riina

Concetta Riina

Concetta Riina — Decaf. The daughter of Salvatore “Toto” Riina, the former mob boss who died in prison last month, opened an online espresso store called Uncle Toto. No surprise. Italian mobsters are now pressuring cafes to promote certain coffee brands from which they can skim profits.

Fox News — Leashes. That way, Adolf Twittler can take its reporters for walks after they finish interviewing him while sitting on his lap.

A.S. Roma — A scudetto. A fourth national Serie A title would turn my Testaccio neighborhood, where the team formed in 1927, into the club’s week-long party headquarters. I want to dance under the lights of Chiesa di Santa Maria Liberatrice. And I hate to dance.



Bolt — 50 euros. That’s my present to the little dying kitten Marina and I saved, unconscious against a curb on Skiathos, Greece, 16 months ago. He’s alive and well at the wonderful Skiathos Cat Welfare Association.

National Rifle Association — Knives. They’re just as effective as guns. You just can’t kill as many people with them. But then, it takes courage to use a knife. Maybe this isn’t a good idea. They’d all return them, wouldn’t they?

A.C. Milan: A red sailboat. That way it can disappear when it sails away into obscurity on its sea of red ink. The club has suffered 265 million euros in losses over the last three years and face UEFA penalties for blowing the 30-million euro limit right out of the water. Milan spent 200 million euro last off season and for that it has an eighth-place standing out of 20 teams, 18 points out of first, at 7 wins, 3 ties and 7 losses.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin — Three rounds in the octagon with Cyborg. This year he decriminalized domestic violence if it doesn’t cause serious injury. I wonder how much he has kept up with his judo.

Donald Trump — A Trump Tower in Puerto Rico. Then who is Genghis Can’t going to complain to when he can’t turn on the lights?

Starbucks: A paper shredder. The coffee company that has ruined more neighborhoods than World War II is opening stores in Milan and Rome next year with 300 more planned. They’d better get rid of the paper cups that its army of customers parade around towns holding. Italians only drink out of ceramic. Italians think drinking coffee in paper cups is strictly “schifo!” (disgusting!)

Rome soccer fans: Tickets to a Cleveland Cavaliers game. Let’s see the reaction they get when they start making monkey sounds at LeBron James.

Men — Free porn. If the locomotive libido of the modern male is too much to control, control it in the comforts of your own home. Don’t do it against the backside of women on crowded buses, with your hand in their crotch or in your hotel room during an, ahem, emergency business meeting. Women aren’t taking it anymore, guys. And it’s about time.

Me — A sweater. The 550-euro city-mandated valves work great on my three radiators — if I lay on them naked. My apartment is freezing.

Marina Pascucci

Marina Pascucci

Marina Pascucci: A dog-eared passport. My girlfriend, my fidanzata, my travel partner, my reason for living, may we always have the wind at our backs and the sun in our faces as we travel the world together, forever. Ti amo, dea.

Matera: World’s third oldest city rocks Basilicata in more ways than one

The Sassi (The Stones) was once abandoned less than 40 years ago but now is Matera’s nerve center and site of 25 movies, including “The Passion of the Christ.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

MATERA, Italy — Living in Rome makes it easier to grasp the history of civilization. After all, it’s nearly a 3,000-year-old city. Almost all of mankind came after it. Much of the world today modeled itself off what Rome created, for better or worse. This city came before the birth of Christ for, um, Christ’s sake.

Now imagine a city that’s 6,000 years older than Rome.

Imagine what is now Italy was nothing more than mountains and marshes and fields. Jesus wouldn’t be born for 7,000 years after this city became established.

I am in the middle of that town now.

Calling Matera’s old town old is like calling Jupiter distant. I’m standing on the lone road, two stone lanes so narrow two cars must squeeze by to pass without sideswiping. Looking up I see a hodgepodge of houses. No, call them dwellings. Or how about shelters? They are piled on top of each other as if some giant built a model city on a mountain with pebbles. Some are built right into the rock, perfect for storing food before electricity.

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera's Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera’s Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The yellowish-white stone give Matera a uniformity that takes me back to Sunday school and textbook images of the Holy Land, of chickens clucking and dodging oxen in the dirt-strewn road, of bearded carpenters hammering wood in dusty roadside workshops. I keep thinking I’ll see Jesus trudge through town with a cross on his back which is exactly what Matera’s 60,000 inhabitants saw here in 2003 when Mel Gibson filmed “The Passion of the Christ.”

On the watchability meter, I rank the film down there with “Caddy Shack II.” Yeah, OK, Mel. We all know you say the Jews killed Jesus but do we have to see a man get flogged for two hours? Nevertheless, Gibson knew no town on earth could better replicate a time from 2,000 years ago.

That’s because Matera really hasn’t changed much since then.

Matera is the world’s third oldest city, according to Traveller magazine. Only Aleppo, Syria, and Jericho, Palestine, are older. So unless you like your pizza in a war zone, Matera is the place to explore. Matera was first inhabited in the Paleolithic Era which ended about 10,000 B.C. Back then, Matera’s inhabitants were discovering stone tools and how to hunt and gather. It has been continuously inhabited for the last 9,000 years.

However, the neighborhood where I’m standing and where my Marina and I are staying, wasn’t around less than 40 years ago. It was abandoned, an empty shell of a novelty. It was a forced evacuation, long overdue from a time after World War II when this neighborhood was rife with malaria, where people lived with no running water or toilets, where the infant mortality rate was 40 percent. In 1948, justice minister Palmiro Togliatti called this area, known as the Sassi (Italian for “stones”), a “national shame.”

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As I view the chock-a-block stone structures, which come together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, I also see dozens of tourists climbing the narrow stairs snaking through the hill and walking the street. Call Matera old. But also call it one of the great comeback stories in Europe. The Roman Empire never rose again.

But Matera did.

“The greatness of this city is they survived all the way from Paleolithic time. So there was a vision of the world.”

Speaking is Vincenzo Altieri, 46, a born-and-raised Materana who owns the La Dolce Vita Bed & Breakfast where Marina and I stayed for three nights last weekend. He has seen Matera grow from an impoverished shell of its former self to a cleaned-up historical site to a Hollywood magnet to one of the growing tourist attractions in Italy.

Today, Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Forty years ago, you couldn’t get a plumber to come here.

“We take pictures of the city because every day is different,” Altieri says.

Marina, Roman born and raised, had never been to Matera. Like the rest of us, she’d heard stories. We saw photos. I saw “The Passion of the Christ.” I hated the movie but behind the whips, yelps and blood, the scenery was good.

Matera, at 1,315-foot elevation, is not difficult to reach but takes time. Not wanting to risk driving in snow — although the postcards of Matera dusted in white are mesmerizing — we took a bus. The big, modern pullman took seven hours, south through Campania and Puglia before slicing into Basilicata. It’s Italy’s forgotten region, a land of only 570,000 people squeezed between the beautiful beaches of Puglia, the islands of Campania and rural charm of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.

Basilicata is where savvy travelers go to avoid the beaten path. Its once fertile forests are now a mosaic of wheat fields, olive groves and grapevines. The Lucanian Apennine mountains cut through the spine of Basilicata, putting Matera to the east almost in their shadow. Basilicata has a history of toughness. When a discussion of unifying the country swirled in the mid-19th century, loyalists to Basilicata’s ruling Bourbons rose up in violent protest against any political change.

That fighting spirit continued in Matera where 30 years ago they took back the abandoned honeycomb landscape and turned it into their homes again. It is in that neighborhood where Marina and I woke on a crisp, clear 45-degree day, the perfect temperature to roam.

Matera has three sections: The two Sassi neighborhoods are the more impoverished Sasso Caveoso in the south and the more spruced-up Sasso Barisano to the north. To the west is the new town where the Sassi’s great unwashed were moved, most by force, in the 1950s and where Altieri grew up though he wasn’t part of the exodus.

To the east of the Sassi is the Parco della Murgia Materana, featuring a huge gorge with a river snaking through it and hiking paths crisscrossing up the side. It’s as rugged as the people and it’s the panorama we’re gazing at as we climb the first stairs behind Altieri’s B&B.

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We walk down a narrow path overlooking the gorge and come across St. Lucia, an 8th century Benedictine convent. It’s one of 170 churches in Matera. That’s one for every 350 people.

“We have more churches than Rome,” Altieri jokes.

It’s 6 euros to enter St. Lucia along with 12th century San Pietro Barisano and 13th century San Giovanni farther north. I always balk at paying to enter a house of worship but here I marvel at the 12th century frescoes, including a rare breast-feeding Madonna. The walls are blackened from age and the two giant white stone pillars are lit from below. It feels more like a haunted house which somehow fits with the theme of Matera.

We walk north along the one main road, Via Madonna delle Virtu, with its spectacular views of the Sassi to our left and the ravine to our right. We cut left up a tiny staircase leading to the Piazza Duomo. Its 12th century cathedral is Matera’s centerpiece, its Christmas ornament where a 52-meter tower can be seen from every vantage point in the Sassi.

From the spacious surrounding piazza, we can see a panorama of the gorge with its tufa walls and tufts of grass in between. Between groups of tourists, including a wedding party where the couple posed with the church in the background, we could hear the river rapids below.

Continuing our journey, we stay on the narrow path above the mob and could smell garlic and hot olive oil emanating from the small houses, some surrounded by potted plants on tile courtyards. Italian food seems to taste better in the countryside, and our stomachs begin to churn despite the filling breakfast of focaccia with tomatoes.

In the tiny wine bar of Vicolo Cielo, we see how Matera reinvented itself into modern Italy. Despite being built inside a cave, Vicolo Cielo is a hip, casual enoteca/sandwich shop where we sit on a big, overstuffed couch. Across from us, under the white, naturally arched ceiling, sits a shoeshine chair, for no apparent reason.

As Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” plays on the loudspeaker, the young waitress brings me a panino (not “panini,” Americans) of crudo ham, gorgonzola cream, tomatoes and lettuce between thick slices of Basilicata’s famous soft bread.

Cheese plate at Caveoso

Cheese plate at Caveoso

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

A benefit to modernizing a hovel into a tourist center is Matera’s food options are tremendous. Besides bread, Basilicata is known for its terrific cheeses, including a scrumptious Caprino a Vinacce displayed beautifully at Caveoso, another restaurant built into a cave. At Morgan, one of the first restaurants established in the Sassi in 1997, I had two of the best sausages in my life, taken from Cirigliano, 15 kilometers from Matera. I also took a recommendation for Soul Kitchen, one of Matera’s most elegant restaurants where my unique potato ravioli was filled with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce. Washed down with the local Primitivo house wine served all over town, Matera hits all the gastro points.

You need fuel. The town is bigger than you think and there are so many strange things to see. It’s like a living funhouse with a religious bent. One of Matera’s most bizarre sites is San Pietro Barisano. The church was plundered in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving the altar empty and some of the surrounding statues without heads. But below the floor is a maze of narrow passageways with 4-foot-high niches in the walls. This is where they placed corpses during draining. The close quarters are too much for the slightly claustrophobic Marina but I inch my way along the walls imagining dead bodies lined up like bowling pins. As I touch a wall, some of the tufa crumbles in my hand.

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As we walk from church to church, I can’t help noting that it’s not a coincidence so many were built in a town that looks like old Bethlehem. You feel as if you’re walking through one giant presepe, the native scenes from the Holy Land you see all over Italy as Christmas nears.

This is why the most beaten path to Matera has been made by the movie industry. Twenty-five movies have been made here, starting with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” In 1979 came the hit “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Later, in 2006 they filmed the Jerusalem scenes in the remake of “The Omen,” my favorite movie of all time. Last year Morgan Freeman pounded the stones here in the filming of “Ben-Hur.”

A statue on a resident's courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A statue on a resident’s courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the film that launched the flood of tourists was “The Passion of the Christ.” For three months the crew took over the town. In fact, right next to our B&B, Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, fell during one of his many savage beatings.

“You’re living here so you’re living on the set even if you don’t want to,” Altieri says. “You see Romans. You see camels. You see horses everywhere. You get used to it.”

Ironically, a generation earlier, another movie had a bigger influence on the Altieri family. In the 1950s, most of Matera’s population lived in the Sassi. Today the city has a sample cave in which we saw a room about 50 square meters where 12 people lived. That didn’t include a horse and chickens in one of the rooms. A bed was shoved in the corner under a small loft. An iron pot sat under the bed. That was the toilet. The room had no drainage. No electricity.

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This was 1965. It was during this time the government, tired of the black stain Matera put on the Italian landscape, started moving people into the new town.

During this time, the older brother of Altieri’s grandfather went to his first movie. It was “King Kong.” Suddenly, the Meterana saw themselves as the government did: as backward as an oxcart.

“Just by the images he realized, ‘OK, there are skyscrapers, women without moustaches, fancy dresses, cars, boats, airplanes, animals I’ve never seen,’” Altieri says. “There’s a different reality out there.”

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Altieri grew up in a typical Italian family with 11 other members. If all roads lead to Rome, few led to Basilicata. They were nearly isolated. The government all but forgot them. Then in 1986, the government allowed families forced out of the Sassi to return and fix them up with their own money.

In 1999, Altieri took a two-story building just off the main road. A software engineer at the time, he started to rebuild. He shows me photos of our room at that time and it was a barren pit. It looked like a flood had hit it. But he went to work and later turned it into a thriving B&B with a patio overlooking the sassi.

“This place (Matera) was meant to share,” he says. “There was a wisdom of looking at the world and saying, ‘OK, we can do better even though we have no resources. We will succeed.’”

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s our last night, and we go to Sunday mass. I’m not religious but living in Italy, mass is a cultural event. Marina goes regularly, and I learn more about her life and my adopted country’s traditions by sitting in church for 45 minutes. It’s was held in San Giovanni, made of gray and white stone, beautiful in its simplicity.

The priest, a short, young man in a brilliant purple robe, talks about how the real sense of life is having time for brothers and sisters and family. He says modern man doesn’t have faith, that he must keep the faith.

Matera has kept the faith for 9,000 years. That’s a passion Christ could appreciate.

AS Roma bringing joy to this once doomsday fan as it shocks Champions League

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.

No cheering in the press box.

It’s what I learned as a young sportswriter. Even before I learned my ABCs and first cliche, I learned the importance of objectivity. You do not cheer for the team you cover. You cheer for your story. You cheer for your accuracy. You cheer for your scoops. And you make damn sure you do it all on deadline. That laptop — or 1929 Royal typewriter as was the case when I began in the mid ‘70s — is the barrier between the team in front of you and your heart.

My Samsung computer has dropped its screen. My heart is in my fingers, the ones typing away about the new team I love. After retiring to Rome nearly four years ago, ending my 40-year career as a sportswriter, my transition from sportswriter to sports fan has hit nearly every fan’s octave, both high and low: Disgust when AS Roma lost to Spezia, a second division outfit from Liguria, in the Italian Cup. Joy when we defeated evil Lazio, 4-1. Embarrassment when I stormed out of a bar before the end of a 6-1 thrashing at Barcelona. Confusion when coach Luciano Spalletti jilted us for Inter Milan after leading us to second place in Serie A last season.

Today, as the season finishes its first trimester, I am experiencing something new. It’s something all fans seek and few sportswriters can fully comprehend until they experience it themselves.


I now understand what drives fans to paint their faces in school colors, wear team jerseys when they’re 50 years old and write angry emails to sportswriters. My AS Roma is, as the cliche goes, surprising everyone but itself. It has turned everyone’s doomsday prediction, including my August blog, into so much shredded newsprint. It has done it all season but after Tuesday night all of Europe now bows its head, as legions of conquered citizens once did to the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. (OK, I just compared my soccer team to the most powerful civilization in man’s history. That’s the beauty I’ve discovered about fandom. One is allowed hyperbole.)

On a frigid Tuesday night in old Olympic Stadium, AS Roma defeated Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan and finished first in Group C of the Champions League. It’s the toughest club competition in the world and maybe the toughest tournament, even more than the World Cup. We finished ahead of Chelsea, an international soccer blueblood, and Atletico Madrid, Champions League runner-up in 2014 and ‘16. This is like my University of Oregon Ducks winning the Pac-12 Conference football title three straight times after they won all of 11 games during my four years in college. The Ducks actually did win the title three times. However, journalism washed away my subjectivity long ago, like a windshield wiper brushing away tears. My hometown college team became just another name in a headline.

This is different. AS Roma has reached my bloodstream. The club was born in 1927 in my Testaccio neighborhood, in a small office down the street from my apartment. It’s now a sports betting parlor but the yellow and red Roma logo remains on the wall, however faded from a century of rain and disappointment, from obscene graffiti left by evil fans of cross-town vermin Lazio.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.

I watched games in that office when I lived in Rome from 2001-03. Today, I am a regular at Abbey Theatre, an Irish pub near Piazza Navona where I have frighteningly found myself on a first-name basis with every waiter and manager. I no longer quote Dante. I quote Mike, the hilarious manager from Dublin who’s as Irish as a pint a Guinness on a hurling pitch. During one of my many spiels about how much I love the Italian people, I asked him what he thought. “The Italians I like,” he said. “It’s the Irish I can’t stand.”

Abbey Theatre has two rooms upstairs reserved for Roma fans, we romanisti, who eat the best pub food outside London and scream at every shot, goal and cagey pass. Each score, each victory, the room explodes like anything I saw in America’s high-tech sports bars. I’ve hugged more Italian strangers than Silvio Berlusconi. I’ve expanded my vocabulary of Romanaccio profanity.

That wasn’t supposed to happen this season. We were all prepared for a fall. From the old man in the Roma scarf on the park bench in my piazza to the local newspapers in my newstand, everyone saw AS Roma plummet. We were going to drop in the Serie A standings like the Italian economy. Spalletti fled from what he thought, not entirely unjustified, was a club that is destined to be a second-tier Italian power. Also fleeing were Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player who left for Liverpool, Antonio Rudiger, likely Roma’s best defender, for Chelsea and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who became national icon Gianluigi Buffon’s understudy for a season at Juventus before taking the reins next year. Francesco Totti, Roma’s best player in history, retired after 25 years with his hometown club.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.

In their place came guys who would only excite their WAGS, (the European acronym for “wives and girlfriends.”) In came midfielder Aleksander Kolarov, a Serbian midfielder from Manchester City; Gregoire Defrel, a forward from Sassuolo; defender Hector Moreno from PSV in Holland and a young Turkish kid named Cengiz Under. Allison Becker, last year’s Brazilian backup, stepped in for Szczesny. Replacing Spalletti came Eusebio Di Francesco, also from Sassuolo, a mid-table Italian club in Emiglia-Romagna which made me smirk every time I heard the name.

Millions of euros went into AC Milan’s lineup. Napoli kept its team intact. Juventus has won six straight titles. We were doomed. At least Abbey’s fish n’ chips were good.

Then something clicked. We started to win. A new defense sparked by Becker and the gritty, tattooed Kolarov only allowed three goals over an 11-game stretch. Only a 3-3 tie to mighty Chelsea, a victory in itself, cracked the great Roman wall. Edin Dzeko, Serie A’s top scorer last year, scored seven goals by October. Depth off the bench has been fabulous. Di Francesco screamed and cajoled, urged and massaged. He never let up on the pedal. Stunningly, Roma has 11 wins, a tie and two losses, good for 34 points and fourth place, five points behind first-place Inter. And Roma has played one less game.

Juventus has already lost twice. AC Milan didn’t meet the expectations mass cash infusion brings and fired its coach. Roma, seriously, has a shot at its fourth title, called the scudetto, in its history and the first since 2000-01.

Roma's 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.

Roma’s 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.

In the Champions League it opened with a 0-0 tie against Atletico then Chelsea came to Rome and Roma beat it like a bowl of eggs, 3-0. Roma was on the verge of advancing to the Champions League knockout stage from one of the hardest groups in the tournament. I started wearing my AS Roma watch every day. I’d walk down the street with my AS Roma sweatshirt and hear “FORZA ROMA!” cries from passing cars. I had inner joy I couldn’t get from writing a good story. In sportswriting, you’re only as good as your last byline. As a fan, one win and joy lasts all week.

It’s like love without the phone calls.

On the last night of group competition, I needed a closer look. I put on my reporter’s fedora and went to the stadium. The only AS Roma gear I wore were underwear, a gift from my girlfriend, Marina, a third-generation romanista herself. Roma stood in second place in Group C with eight points, two behind Chelsea which hosted Atletico, sitting third with six. All Roma had to do was beat Qarabag, dead last with two, or hope Atletico doesn’t beat Chelsea, and Roma advances as one of the two top teams regardless if it wins, loses or ties.

The old gray lady that is Olympic Stadium was subdued. Curva Sud was filled with ultras again after an agonizing two-year fan protest but the 35,000 didn’t have its usual cutthroat roar. Maybe it was the 41-degree weather at kickoff. Maybe they’re already spoiled by success and viewed Qarabag, missing four starters due to injury and suspension, as a mere speed bump to the inevitable destination.

As it turns out, Roma shared in the crowd’s lethargy. We’re not sharp. We’re passing out of bounds. We’re skying shots over the goal like football punts. Dzeko is continuing a late slump. I want to scream at the team, “FAI SCHIFO!” (YOU SUCK!). But, as there’s no cheering in the press box, there’s no profanity, either. Qarabag (car-ah-BAHG), the four-time defending Azerbaijani champion, isn’t laying down. It’s obvious it didn’t come to Rome to shop. At halftime, it’s 0-0. In London, Atletico and Chelsea are 0-0.

I’m getting nervous. Last month I watched Italy choke like gagging, rabid dogs in World Cup qualifying. I have no affiliation with this country. I have developed very close ties to this city. Blowing a Champions League knockout berth and the 20 million euros that comes with it would not sit well on a long, freezing post-midnight walk home along the Tiber.

Radja Nainggolan is soul of Roma.

Radja Nainggolan is the soul of Roma.

But in the second half, our relentless pressure finally pays off in the 53rd minute. Radja Nainggolan, our Belgian bulldog of a midfielder, sends a back-heeled feed to Dzeko whose shot is blocked by brilliant goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic. The ball pops in the air and Diego Perotti heads it into an empty net. The woman reporter next to me stands up and cheers. The memo obviously didn’t reach Rome. I limit myself to a quiet, long exhale.

Moments later, Atletico scores to lead 1-0. Roma must win if Atletico does. My nerves return. My foot starts tapping and not because of the cold that has dropped to 38 degrees. But Qarabag can’t muster much of an attack and Chelsea ties it in London. The scores stand. When the bell sounds, Roma had claimed first place over Chelsea due to head to head results. In Rome this is huge. While Roma has advanced to the knockout stage eight of its last 10 Champions League competitions, it has only finished atop its group once, in 2008-09. It means an easier opponent in the knockout stages that will be announced Monday.

Keep in mind Roma has never won a European tournament. It finished runner-up in the 1983-84 European Cup, the predecessor of the Champions League, and runner-up in the 1990-91 UEFA Cup, European soccer’s version of the NIT.

“It’s a result nobody dared hope for when the draw was made,” said Daniele De Rossi, a Rome native who replaced Totti as the club’s face. “I am particularly glad as Roma had some real embarrassments in Europe over the years so this has cleaned up the image in Europe in a way.”

I ventured down to the mixed zone, oft times a futile gesture as few players talk after games. Perotti even walked by without a word. I managed to chat with Nainggolan, a Belgian-Indonesian whose entire body is a tattoo canvas. He wears his hair in a mohawk of different colors, depending on the day. He looks like he eats raw cattle. In a bench-clearing brawl, I’ll take Nainggolan and Kolarov and you can have the rest of Europe.

I asked him about the differences made by Di Francesco. The former Roma player had never coached in the Champions League and his glasses and beard make him look like a waiter.

“Every player on the team knows what he has to do,” Nainggolan said. “When we change, four or five players, three players, the important thing is every player knows he’s important.”

As I was leaving, I saw Di Francesco prance past the mixed zone. He was smiling like the kids who hold players’ hands as they march onto the field. What’s Italian for “I told you so”?

“I’m satisfied because nobody believed we could qualify at all,” he said. “They assumed we’d be eliminated. Now it can all happen. I say why not?”

In the art capital of the world, a small shop in Rome keeps a dying art alive

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.

Anyone started Christmas shopping yet? I’m done. I’m almost always done by early December. I don’t waste time. I don’t bull rush shopping in one harried night in a mall. I shop all year. Wherever I go around the world I find something for my family in the States. In fact, I bought my first present for this Christmas on Jan. 1. This year my family is getting, in the mail, gifts from Thailand, Laos, Sweden and France as well as Italy.

Too bad. Only 1 ½ miles from my home in Rome I found a place that truly would provide a unique gift. Historical, too. Bottega Mortet is home to a family of artisans who have carried on a tradition that long ago nearly disappeared. In the early 20th century, the area between Piazza Navona and the Tiber River was chock-a-block with little shops specializing in gold and silver art objects. These artists rubbed elbows and dust with carpenters, cobblers and tailors.

Carpenters, cobblers and tailors can still be found all over Rome. Gold and silver artisans? They’ve gone the way of the horse and buggy. But like the one or two horse and buggies that clop through my Testaccio neighborhood to cart tourists around nearby Centro Storico, some gold and silver artisans remain. They’re just not for tourists. They have a market ranging from learned art collectors to the Vatican.

From a marketing standpoint, Bottega Mortet may as well be underground. I found the shop after 30 minutes roaming the narrow roads and twisting alleys north of Piazza Navona. Today the neighborhood is lined with carpet shops, small outdoor cafes and souvenir stores, all anchored by the 18th century Palazzo Sant’Agostino. I had to ask a cafe coffee jockey for directions. He pointed down the street to a large tower that looked torn off a castle somewhere. In the adjacent building I walked through a cutout door no more than 5 ½ feet high into Palazzo Scapucci, built in 1444 for the powerful Frangipani family.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.

I found myself in a quiet courtyard with various doors. Not a single one had a sign. A tall man wearing a moustache and a dusty black apron stood outside one door talking on his cell.

“Dove Bottega Mortet?” I asked.

He pointed to his door. I entered and saw sitting on a stool in a dark corner Paolo Pugelli. Wearing a long gray smock, he was looking under a small spotlight at a table filled with little red art objects. Above him was a small loft holding busts of ancient sculptures. Maybe this is where all the heads of headless statues I see in Rome museums end up.

Pugelli is 62 years old and has been a fine metals artist since he was 14. He is the cousin to the Mortet family, of whom Andrea was busy in an adjacent room equally cluttered. Dante Mortet had just left. I walked along an ancient wood floor past stacks of dusty books crammed in a chimney space. An old glass case held a replica soccer World Cup trophy, gold figurines and gold coins.

It’s as far from the high-end art shops along tony, ivy-lined Via Margutta as you can find but they are no less valuable.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.

Bottega Mortet is not a store. Bottega means “workshop” in Italian. It started in the early-1950s, bridging a gap between a dying Italian art and the modern consumer. Michele and Andrea are sons of Aurelio Mortet, who started the business. Another Mortet has a store outside of Rome.

While Michele took little hammers and chisels to little gold objects, I asked Paolo why this charming place is one of a dying breed.

The base used for the pope's hat and ring.

The base used for the pope’s hat and ring.

“It’s true that many things changed in this work,” he said. “Also the taste of people changed. The entire society changed. How could I say, the way of interpreting beauty and art changed. Once upon a time, people wanted a special, particular object and they used to go to artisans. Nowadays people often prefer to buy name-brand objects.”

That means malls, touristy stores along Via del Corso, lobbies of five-star hotels. How boring.

Anyone can come into the shop and look around. However, the shop runs almost entirely on individual commissions. People get an idea of what they want and discuss it with one of the family members. They put their heads together and come up with an idea. The family has a good reputation, at least according to one customer.

Pope Benedict XVI.

When he reigned across the river in Vatican City from 2005-2013, Pope Benedict had a representative come down to the shop about six or seven years ago. They wanted a specially, handmade gold cross.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.

Paolo took out an old copy of L’Osservatore Romano, The Vatican’s daily newspaper founded in 1861. On the front page is Pope Benedict, the cross swinging conspicuously around his neck. The pope liked it so much, his office invited Paolo to come for a rare private audience with some professors.

“I answered that I thought it wouldn’t be right to go there,” he said. “I’m not a professor. There’s no sense because in your life you must be humble. I was very pleased but I’m already very happy that the pope was wearing my cross. That’s enough.”

For a man who has done his job for 48 of his 62 years, Paolo hasn’t lost any excitement for his craft. He has zest in his voice, a gleam in his eye. I asked him what he liked about his job.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano.

“I always loved design and art,” he said. “I am somebody who is so lucky to have found what I like to do. I think it’s everybody’s dream to have a job with passion. I always say that if you do your job with passion you are very lucky. To become rich, you must steal. Work must be made with passion and this is the richness.”

For anyone wanting a handmade gold, silver or bronze figurine and have an idea you always wanted to bring to fruition, you can contact Bottega Mortet at 39-06-686-1629 or