Newport, Rhode Island: The sailor’s mecca isn’t just for the rich and famous but it certainly looks the part

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms' deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms’ deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci


NEWPORT, R.I. — I am prone, on my back at the bow of an 80-foot sailboat with my foot propped atop the railing. If I moved 12 inches to my left, the sun would set between my feet. But I’m too relaxed to budge. The glass of champagne in my hand convinces me that there’s no better place in the world right now than sailing in the Sailing Capital of the World.

My girlfriend, the lovely and uber-talented photographer Marina Pascucci, is sitting behind me. The descending sun and lights of one of the world’s prettiest harbors reflect off her glasses like fireworks. Her beaming smile reminds me of the same one she flashed in Positano and Paris.

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Welcome to Newport, R.I. It’s a combination of Camelot and Monaco, America’s answer to every desperate immigrant’s question since they first started storming our shores: What is the American Dream?

Marina and I finished our nine-day New England trip with a visit to some friends who are living that dream. Gretchen and Peter Bloom have lived in Newport off and on since 1988. I met them in Rome where they lived for 17 years and escaped every sweltering summer to Newport. They haven’t changed their routine since moving from Rome to Washington two years ago.

She’s retired from the World Food Program and Peter, a native of Providence, R.I., 40 miles up the road, is retired from USAID. Between the two, they’ve been to 123 countries, including 40 in Africa. They lived in Sri Lanka. Yet there is no place in the world — not Rome, not London, not the beaches of Thailand — they’d rather be than Newport.

“I wanted a piece of Rhode Island,” Peter tells me. “I am a Rhode Islander. You have no idea how much of a Rhode Islander.”

He’s telling me this while we sit in their fifth-floor condo on a long deck overlooking historic, majestic and magnetic Newport Harbor. After three days, I learned how much of a Rhode Islander he is. It goes beyond the fact that this Harvard grad still pronounces my home state “Or-ee-GONE.” He’s as proud of Newport as I am of Oregon. He puts down his glass of wine and sweeps his hand across the bay. Pleasure craft from small motorboats to towering sailboats dot the harbor, some drifting in from a cruise around the Rhode Island Sound.

Newport is to sailing what Aspen is to skiing. That’s why Marina and I found ourselves on a sunset booze cruise of an 80-foot windjammer. The America’s Cup, the international sailing championship founded in 1851, was held here from 1930-1983. John F. Kennedy’s old boat is here. Ted Turner’s famed champion, American Eagle, is docked here. So is Intrepid, which won the America’s Cup twice. The International Sailing Hall of Fame is negotiating to move here from Annapolis, Md.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s not just sailboats. Jimmy Buffett has here a 245-foot yacht, the fourth-largest private boat in the world. Race car driver Roger Penske has a 200-footer. The harbor in Monaco may have more expensive yachts. But Monaco doesn’t have Newport’s ambiance, its casual sense of bliss. In Monaco, you go to be seen. In Newport, you go to do.

The Blooms go sailing but are smart enough not to own a sailboat. I’ve met too many people who say, “The second best day of my life was when I bought my boat; the best day of my life was when I sold it.” While boats may be money pits, they are the most leisurely way to travel. I’ve done week-long sailing trips in French Polynesia, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. Marina has sailed around Greece. There is no more restful sleep in the world than on the deck of a sailboat rocking on the South Pacific under a Polynesian sky. Peter was working in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1968 when he learned to sail 15-foot dinghies.

“I’m living in the sailing mecca of the world and I learned to sail in Lagos, Nigeria,” he says.

The Blooms actually live on Goat Island, a narrow islet less than a mile long and connected to Newport’s dock-lined southern shore by a short causeway. Goat Island is where they buried pirates they hanged in the 17th and 18th centuries, back when Newport rivaled New York as the most important port in the colonies. It later housed the Naval Torpedo Station until 1951. Today the Blooms look down along Goat Island’s southern shore lined with 19 modest harbor homes starting at about $1.3 million.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Sunset from the gazebo.


Romantic gazebos are spaced along the shoreline. Four big tables with chairs are pointed west for us to sit around and eat smoked gouda and drink good wine while a blood red sunset paints itself along the horizon. As the sun touches down, cannons go off from Newport’s three yacht clubs.

It’s the perfect spot for a wedding reception. In Newport, we were lucky to find a free gazebo. Newport is the nation’s second most popular wedding spot behind Las Vegas. But, as one local said, “Most of the weddings in Las Vegas are at 6 a.m. so I like to think Newport is No. 1.”

Every night we hear wild wedding receptions pulsating from a nearby building, forcing The Temptations’ “My Girl” to swirl in my head on a continual loop the next day.

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Walking around Newport, Marina and I feel like we’re exploring a nautical gingerbread land. The boating theme is everywhere on the long, straight boulevards lined with curiosity shops, tony cafes, sweet stands and souvenir stores. Down Thames Street we see U.S. flags with anchors in place of the stars. Flipflops sport fish on the soles. Jewelry are in the shape of nautical flags. A studio shows Onne Van Der Wal’s brilliant photos of giant sails and bows bopping up and down on the water, basked in a sunset. Then we pass the greatest name for a tackle store in the history of fishing.

Bite Me Bait Shop.

Try explaining that to an Italian woman still learning English. I admit, I had fun trying.

Newport’s action, however, is on the harbor. It’s like its own separate city. The southern shore of Newport is crawling with the breadth of American boating: kayaks, dinghies, motorboats, 15-foot skiffs, 22-foot J-class, historical windjammers. We walk in and out through the maze of shops and seafood restaurants and open-air bars where people eat thick clam chowder, drink big mugs of ice-cold beer and listen to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” over the loudspeaker. We can’t walk five minutes without running into little booths advertising harbor cruises scheduled from morning to sunset.

The Blooms pick us up and give us, not the nickel tour, but the million-dollar tour, which is the only way you can describe Newport. We drive by Washington Square, a wide swath of an area where they use a more civilized means of punishing thieves: a courthouse. People in red uniforms and black, three-point hats and wigs walk around in preparation for a reenactment of the Stamp Act protest from 1765. That’s when locals rioted over the British laying a tax on printed paper, one of the first direct taxes the British forced onto the colonies. We pass St. Mary’s Church where JFK married Jackie Bouvier, who grew up on nearby Hammersmith Farm, one of Newport’s mansions that became Kennedy’s summer White House. Later we see a photo of the Kennedys cutting their wedding cake.

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We pass the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a miniature Wimbledon complete with the green wood architecture and grass courts. Two weekend hacks look astonishingly out of place wearing all whites while patty-caking shots across the net in front of an empty grandstand.

As we go by the massive gray-and-white Renaissance-Norman mansion used to house the New York Yacht Club, I ask Peter how much it costs to be a member.

“I’ll never get inside,” he says.

 The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.


We continue along stately Bellevue Avenue and turn left up Narragansett Avenue to what attracts most visitors to Newport. In the mid-19th century, wealthy Southerners wanting to escape their steamy summers built summer homes on Bellevue. Then came the wealthy Yankees who went one step up and built mansions along the north shore facing the ocean. Today the mansions remain, a remnant of America’s Gilded Age. We pass monstrous French-style chateaus, Italian-style piazzas and Elizabethan-style manor houses, many surrounded by American-style fuck-you fences. Running along the north end is the Cliff Walk that offers stupendous views of the mansions on one side and the deep, blue Atlantic on the other.

The crown jewel of Newport’s long mansion necklace is The Breakers. It’s a 70-room, five-story Italian Renaissance palace sitting on 14 acres near the far northeast end of the peninsula. It has 20 bathrooms with 15 bedrooms on the second and third floor that housed the 40 servants. Marina and I walk in and above us are four giant chandeliers with 16 bulbs each. The opera house in Paris inspired the fountains and curving staircase. The dining room is the size of a ballroom with two huge chandeliers over a 10-foot-by-10-foot table decorated with Baccarat crystal. The columns throughout the house are solid alabaster. The walls are made from the famed cipollino marble in Italy, the same marble Michelangelo used. One bathtub is cut from a single block of marble. Every light fixture is fitted for gas in case the electricity ever goes out. If everything goes black, there’s a six-foot-high fireplace.

The Breakers' entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

The Breakers’ entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.


In 1855 Cornelius Vanderbilt III bought the grounds for $450,000 (about $12 million today) from money he earned in his huge New York Central Railroad empire. He hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a mansion befitting his label of “New Renaissance in the U.S.” Vanderbilt held huge parties on the gargantuan lawn that separates the home from the ocean. Walking around the grass you feel like you should be holding a champagne flute. CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper is Vanderbilt’s great, great, great grandson and is said to have stayed here on a few occasions.

Yes, Newport oozes money like honey squeezed from a tube. We see candy apple-red Ferrari convertibles and men whose shoes, shorts, matching sweater and shades are worth more than my entire wardrobe in Rome. The Brooks Brothers store has an elaborate flower garden in front of it. The city buses are as elaborately decorated as San Francisco cable cars. People rent cars that look like Lamborghinis.

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I


But unlike in Monaco, where everyone lies to impress each other, Newport’s populace is as down to earth as the mansions’ lawns that could pass for fairways at Augusta National. Newport originated in the 17th century as a place where people could escape religious persecution. Everyone is welcome in Newport. People kayak and bicycle and jog. They barbecue on their porches. Peter cooked us incredible teriyaki swordfish one night; Gretchen cooked us massive scallops the next. Locals drink beer and watch the Newport Gulls, the highly popular college summer-league team that plays in 81-year-old Cardines Field sporting a retro sign reading “BASEBALL GAME TODAY.” One block off the ritzy harbor, the east end of Thames Street sports old-fashioned barber shops, take-away pizza joints and an old-fashioned malt shop called Gary’s Handy Lunch that serves one of the better cheeseburgers I’ve had. Even Marina, a third-generation Roman, said the tomato pizza slice at little Via Via “was great and similar to pizza in Rome on the street.”

We drive through Brenton Point State Park, on the southeast corner where people fly kites in an expansive grass area across Ocean Avenue from the Rhode Island Sound. People picnic. I see a kid playing with a yo-yo. We drink a Rhode Island tradition, Del’s frozen lemonade, from a truck stand. Newport is like a sultan’s palace with a country town right across the street.

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After seeing so much water, we decide to get on it. The Aquidneck is the longest boat for harbor cruises in Newport at 80 feet long. We leave at 6:15 p.m. with a full boat and jovial crew who start passing out beer and champagne before we barely exit the slip. The Aquidneck is modeled after a 17th century storage vessel that was used to mail cargo up and down the coast. “It was the FedEx of its time,” one of the sailing guide says.

We pass Fort Adams which was built in 1851 and lasted through five wars but never fired a shot.

“The only thing fought at Fort Adams was boredom,” the guide says.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.


The sun is starting to set through the clouds as a party boat motors past playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” We pass the mansions standing like castles on grassy lawns. Seagulls fly through the setting sun slowly as if basking in the dwindling warmth. The temperature is in the high 60s but with champagne and Marina at my side, it feels much warmer.

Rome is paradise. But it’s paradise with flaws. The only flaw Newport has is maybe it’s too perfect. It’s like you’re afraid to knock a gum wrapper on the spotless street or you’ll suddenly burst into flames. Even the birds seem happy here. The opulence is gaudy. But you don’t have to be a member of the New York Yacht Club or bathe in a marble bathtub to enjoy Newport. All it takes is a seat by the water and a glass of champagne.

Of course, a sailboat helps.

Maine’s Decadent Coast: Art, seafood and witches brew up an inviting corner of America

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci


BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — One of the reasons I travel, besides self-loathing insecurity in college, was my family’s bookshelves. Our back room in Eugene, Ore., was lined with National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s. I’d pick one and transport myself to the wilds of Papua New Guinea, an island in French Polynesia or a museum in Rome.

One day I ran across a story on the Maine Coast. I never thought much about Maine. Other than it being the far northeast corner of the U.S., I figured it was populated by lumberjacks firing slap shots from the wing and lobsters on city councils. I immediately recognized Maine natives when they mangled the name of their prize resort town of Bar Harbor into “Bah Hawbah.” My own naivete is usually an indication that it’s something I must explore. I read on. It told of quaint harbor towns, isolated islands, an artsy populace and lobsters. Lots of lobsters. The Maine Coast became one of the few American destinations on a bucket list the length of the Eiffel Tower.

More than 40 years later, I finally made it last week. My girlfriend, Marina, had visited the U.S. four times but never New England; I’d never been to small towns on the Maine Coast. With Norwegian Airlines’ bargain-basement 500-euro round trip ticket from Rome to Providence, R.I., (an unheard of price from Rome in August), it was a tailor-made for her August break.

We started in Portland, Maine’s major city, where we met my good friend, Hal, a fellow refugee from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the ‘80s. We both survived a string of cretinous sports editors and a skinflint publisher to blossom elsewhere. He returned to his hometown of Portland where he is looking toward approaching retirement like a fisherman seeing shore. Hal is a true Mainer. He didn’t pronounce his first “R” until he was 28. Like most of Maine, which has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1992, he has a liberal bent. He said the state is carried politically by Portland, No. 2-city Bangor and the nature-loving, arts-driven towns along the coast. It gets more conservative the farther north you go.

“The far north is Alabama,” Hal said.

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland's Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland’s Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


He met us in Portland’s Old Harbor. It’s a huge stretch of inner-city portages that hasn’t lost its charm by its size. Big ferry boats and weathered fishing boats dock in the big harbor. Restaurants serving up lobster rolls and clam chowder line the docks, all overlooking a cobalt blue Atlantic Ocean. The smell of fish and salt and soup filled the warm air. Souvenir shops that were once rough-and-tumble fisherman bars are on nearly every corner. One sports a sign reading, “The lobster you’re eating now was sleeping on the bottom of Casco Bay today.”

I’d visited Hal before. That was two years ago in February when all of Portland was blanketed in snow and the temperature was in the high 20s. Its famed Portland Head Light, the oldest of Maine’s 52 working lighthouses, looked ready to guide Russian icebreakers.

Last week it was in the high 70s, marking Maine as one of the few places on earth comfortable to visit in August. The sky was the color of the South Pacific. Seagulls happily flew overhead, singing loud and sweet. Tourists were everywhere.

As we stood waiting for our ferry to my first Maine island, Hal talked about Maine’s political scene. I had trepidation about visiting the U.S. It was my first visit since the November presidential election sent my country and planet tailspinning into inevitable doom. I didn’t know how I’d react if I met a supporter of the Cheeto-faced cumsicle we elected. I promised Marina I wouldn’t get into any bar fights. The best way to avoid it is go against one of my tenants for travel: I would not talk to locals.

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I shouldn’t have worried. In Maine I’m safe. Hal said Maine has a liberal soul but recently developed a conservative voice. The governor is Paul LePage, a small-town redneck who catapulted into the governor’s chair from his mayor’s job in Waterville, Maine. He made the biggest tax cuts in Maine’s history and disparaging remarks about minorities, gays and abortion among other liberal hot points.

Sound familiar?

“He calls Portland ‘The People’s Republic of Portland,’” Hal said with a proud smile.

This area we were exploring goes by another name: the Decadent Coast. It’s where artists and environmentalists, retirees and young couples tired of the city, gather to carve out a life where free thinking is the only thought worth having. If I’m going to spend 10 days in a country that has never been more divided in my lifetime, the Decadent Coast is my kinda place.

Peaks Island is one of 4,600 islands listing a Maine address. Along the 20-minute ferry ride, we passed what looked like a flooded fort.

“It’s our Civil War fort,” Hal said. “It was half completed and then the war ended.”

Peaks Island is one of the idyllic islands I may have seen in National Geographic. Its tiny two-lane main road meanders along the coastline dotted with big houses with sweeping verandas. People cruised by on bicycles and golf carts with not a tee box in sight. Lycra-clad yuppies on expensive bikes waited for ferries talked of staining their wood houses. Pampered dogs panted happily.

Me, Marina and Hal at the Inn on Pikes Island.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.


We sat for lunch at The Inn on Peaks Island, which occupies the bottom floor of a huge gray townhouse with a roomy dining porch. For months I had raved to Marina about Maine lobster. Last year Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobster worth a cool $533 million. More than 4,000 miles is a long way to get disappointed. She wasn’t. The lobster brought to our table filled the length of the plate and was as meaty and juicy as any in the world. The best part? Where else can you get two lobsters with salad and a large sandwich, plus beer for $70? In Rome you’d need a lobster loan.

On the drive north, Marina discovered one of the factors in America’s massive (pun intended) obesity problem. I don’t remember going 15 minutes without passing a Dunkin Donuts. It makes the near libelous claim of having “America’s greatest coffee.” Marina ordered a cappuccino and nearly needed a crane to lift the grotesque paper cup to her lips. Dunkin Donuts does, however, have fantastic donuts. Covered in chocolate and white icing and chocolate bits or chocolate glaze, they are as addictive as crack cocaine and nearly as dangerous. I tried explaining to Marina that when I lived in Denver donuts were the perfect hangover cure. Unfortunately, Italians drink so little the Italian language doesn’t even have a word for “hangover.” Marina looked at me savoring a speckled chocolate glaze with the same curiosity as someone watching a hippo eat in a zoo.

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Our base for our Maine exploration was Boothbay Harbor, a village of about 2,000 people wedged in between two rivers flowing slowly into the Atlantic. It served as a fishing camp for the English in the 17th century and remained a fishing center through the 19th century. At one time, its vast harbor held up to 500 ships. Today, tourism has overtaken fishing as its bell cow. Its twisty, narrow, one-way streets above the still charming harbor attract visitors from around the state. Bar Harbor, spoiled long ago, gets more of the national mob.

We took one of Maine’s many bed & breakfasts and got a big break when we checked into the Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. A family had cancelled that morning and for another $10 a night we were upgraded to an executive king suite. It had a huge deck overlooking a peaceful inlet at the base of a forest. We stood on the deck and watched the sun glistening off the meandering river. A dog chased a ball into the water. Seagulls chirped above. The sun set just behind the pine trees as the temperature dipped to 70, which felt like a cloudburst in a desert after Rome’s sweltering summer. I took my novel to read but it remained overturned on my lap. I just wanted to look.

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The suite’s bed was about a $5 cab ride to the bathroom. Complete with swimming pool and a breakfast featuring fresh blueberry muffins, fruit and frosted cinnamon rolls, we were in New England heaven. Not that Marina was happy but I heard her say “Boothbay Hawbah.”
Marina on the river behind our B&B.

Marina on the river behind our B&B.


Our next road trip was an exploration of all the cute Maine coastal villages I read about as a kid. However, before leaving Boothbay Harbor city limits, a public market rubbernecked us onto its grass lot. We wandered around sampling homemade maple syrup, local cheddar cheese, grass-fed beef jerky and fruity jams. Locals chatted about upcoming arts fairs and the weather. It’s a slice of Americana Marina never saw in her Italian textbooks.
Maple syrup at the public market

Maple syrup at the public market

Maine produces 90 percent of the world's wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Maine produces 90 percent of the world’s wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The drive up Maine’s Highway 1 (Marina: “Does every state have a Highway 1?”) is an environmentalist’s dream. A thick forest separated us from the crystal clear Atlantic. The small towns had as many dinosaurs as it had litter. Small blueberry stands lined the highway, reminding me that Maine produces 25 percent of the world’s blueberries and 90 percent of the wild ones.

Our first stop was Rockland, a community of about 7,000, seemingly half with a paintbrush and art studio at home. We stopped at a store called The Flower Goddess, a combination flower shop and art store. Co-owner Mark Anderson is from Long Island but has lived here 40 years and chatted with me about his personal paradise while Marina perused the collection of colored beads for her trollbeads bracelet.

“I would never live anywhere else,” Anderson said.

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci


Tan, fit with thinning hair, Anderson calls Rockland “the arts capital of Maine” and it has attracted so many artists, “there are too many to count.” The Harbor Square Gallery has pieces such as a sculpture of the top half of a hippo for a cool $26,000. The nearby Farnsworth Art Museum is considered one of the top regional museums in the country.

Rockland is a friendly happy town that drops to about 2,000 inhabitants during the off season. Anderson never locks his home. He never locks his car. In fact, it stood outside the shop with the keys in the ignition.

“Why not?” he said. “That way I always know where they are.”

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci


I asked about their wide, round candles. They seemed odd in an arts and flowers store. Not in Maine. New England has an eerie history, not just of revolution but of witchcraft. Salem, Mass., just 175 miles to the south, was the site of the famed witch trials of 1692 when 156 people were accused of witchcraft and many burned at the stake. While most were probably innocent, Anderson said witchcraft is still practiced in this part of Maine, putting the “decadent” in Decadent Coast. The place has a healthy dose of pagan population. The candles are spell candles to inspire feelings ranging from evil to stimulation. He also carries tarot cards and crystals, minerals capable of amplifying vibrational energy. I saw dreamcatchers, looped ornaments designed to fend off bad dreams.

I asked him if he has eye of newt.

“No, I don’t deal with perishables,” he said.

He thought I was serious.

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci


Continuing north, we stopped in Camden, a former shipbuilding town that has the prettiest harbor in Maine. Long and broad, it’s lined with everything from motorized dinghies, to motor boats to tall, majestic windjammers. It’s all set in front of mountains of the Camden Hills State Park, so inspiring I wanted to drop my pad and pen for an easel and brush. Tourists sat under umbrellas along the harbor waiting for harbor cruises.

Marina panned her eyes along the water and towering boat masts and said, “No Italians come here.”

We later took a seat at the Seadog Brewing Company. Maine’s beer scene, befit a population with artsy tastes, has been booming for years. My fellow journalist, Kate Cone, even wrote a second book about Maine beer last year called “What’s Brewing in New England: A Guide to Brewpubs and Craft Breweries.” Every pub has a different local beer they boast and each one seemed to be better than the last. I had something called a Sea Dog Pale Ale. Ice cold, unlike some beers you get in Rome, it went perfect with my blueberry salad.

Blueberry salad

Blueberry salad


A note about the food in Maine: It’s more than Dunkin Donuts and lobster — (although that combination would be great for a hangover). The environmentalists and artists live healthy and eat healthy. The menus are dotted with seafood. Over three days we had stuffed amberjack, clam chowder, seafood chowder, smoked salmon and haddock. Combined with the lobster roll I had when we started the trip in Boston, if I had anymore seafood I’d meow.

We finished the day in Belfast where the working-class vibe and down-home eateries transport you back to Maine in the ‘60s. The shipbuilding plant the size of an airplane hangar housed a yacht that could comfortably fit the Maine Coast Guard. We walked along the harbor and rested on a grassy knoll where a young woman sunbathed and a man slept. An old man sat sunning himself with his feet on the rock wall.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.


While working class, Belfast maintains the same unwavering optimism and cheery outlook the Decadent Coast has about life. Buying groceries, I saw the clerk was a teenage boy wearing a football camp shirt. I asked how good the high school football was in Maine. He thought for a minute and finally said, “It’s not the worst.”

Badly in need of exercise after way too much driving — and stopping at nearly every Dunkin Donuts — the next day we drove around the peninsula from Boothbay Harbor. On Pemaquid Point is perhaps Maine’s most moneyed lighthouse. At least, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse is on the back of every Maine quarter. Built in 1827, leveled by the sea and rebuilt in 1835, the lighthouse itself doesn’t stand out. It’s the setting. It sits up the hill looking down at the royal blue Atlantic Ocean. Hard rocks form a comfortable walking path that lead to the shore where little pools form for wading. The temperatures were in the high 70s but the wind off the sea kept us as cool as clams before the chowder.

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We backtracked around the peninsula and stopped at Dodge Point. It’s a network of trails snaking through a thick forest and empties out onto the Damariscotta River. It’s a leisurely, flat two-mile hike under a towering canopy where the sun breaks through the tall pines. We reached the river that was as calm as a countryside lake. We saw one lone house along the entire river. We didn’t see another person. We took off our shoes and waded in the warmest the river would be all year. In the 70s, maybe it’s not swimmable but definitely good to soak after five days in the Great Northeast.
Marina in the Damariscotta River

Marina in the Damariscotta River


Later in our room, ESPN blasted from our big-screen TV. I hadn’t heard American sports in nearly a year. Yet news of baseball and the McGregor-Mayweather fight and even the approaching season of my favorite sport, college football, couldn’t get me to turn my head. Instead I sat on the balcony, drinking a glass of Chardonnay, watching gulls dive for fish. I could smell the sea salt from behind the pines. The sun started to fade.

With all the turmoil and anger and separation in the U.S., it’s good to come home and see America is still beautiful. It’s decadent — in all the right ways.

Rome in August is when Romans flee and Rome is your own personal trattoria

This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.

This was Via Marmorata, the main drag in my Testaccio neighborhood, last week at 5 p.m.


(Editor’s note: I’m away on vacation (yes, even retired expats have vacations, when they date Italians who work) and I’m re-running a blog from two years ago about the glories of Rome in August. Enjoy.)

Living in a tourist town such as Rome has its disadvantages. It’s crowded. Your view is often impeded by the silly white fedoras all the tourists apparently get at baggage claim. You’re often embarrassed to be American when some tourist walks into a cafe and asks, “Where is St. Peter’s? Thank you very much.” (How tough is it to learn the word “Dove”? It means “Where is?” And any tourist who says “Thank you” instead of “Grazie” should be made to swim the Tiber until infected by diseases contracted from rat urine.)

But in Rome, one month is hugely underrated: August. I recently ripped Rome in July (https://johnhendersontravel.com/2015/07/09/july-is-worst-time-to-be-in-rome-or-anywhere-else/) . It’s hot, crowded, touristy. Everyone is sweating. An empty bus seat is a rumor. However, when I turned my calendar page from Il Vittoriano to Piazza Navona, Rome changed. Half of it emptied. I’m actually sitting on buses. I’m sitting on the subway. I’m no longer twisting my body in yoga positions to avoid roller bags and gypsies’ lightning-fast hands. I’m walking down the middle of streets downtown not worried about runaway Fiats passing idling cars stuck in traffic.

Rome, in August, is fabulous.

It’s shocking how fast Rome empties in August. It’s like every Aug. 1, the Allied troops invade. Romans flee as if Rome is burning again. It’s uncanny. The reason goes into the mentality of the Roman mind, a habit that has gone on since possibly the Renaissance. Romans love the sea. Rome is only 20 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea which has a coastline 620 miles long. Rome’s region, Lazio, is dotted with cute little beach towns such as Fregene and Sabaudia and Terracina and Sperlonga and Gaeta. About 75 percent of all businesses in Italy are family owned. Not only do their employees want to vacation at the sea, so do the employers. So they all close up shop for most of August. It’s the hottest month of the year. Schools are closed. It makes sense.

Piazza Testaccio is usually buzzing with people and activity.

Piazza Testaccio is usually buzzing with people and activity.


It peaks on Aug. 15. That’s Ferragosto. It’s the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary and marks the biggest vacation day of the year. This is when you roam around Rome and see so many corrugated iron doors pulled down shut. My video store is closed. My enoteca is closed. My cleaners are closed. My tabacchi is closed. My vegetable stand in Mercato Testaccio is closed. My Piazza Testaccio is nearly empty, void of children kicking plastic soccer balls and couples kissing on benches. It is so quiet, Suddenly, my neighborhood has turned into North Platte, Neb.

Still, this is one of my favorite times in Rome. Last week I had dinner at La Cantinone, about the only restaurant open in Testaccio and home to the best lasagna I’ve ever had. I didn’t need reservations. I just showed up and I was about the only person on the patio, facing the old fountain in the modern piazza. I went to my subway station at Piramide, usually packed with commuters coming in from or going to connecting trains to the suburbs. The subway platform was empty. I had beers with friends at Antilla, in Trastevere, Rome’s old bohemian section so packed in July you must walk sideways down the narrow, windy, cobblestone alleys. On this day, we sat outside the tiny sun-splashed pub with our artisan Italian beers and watched whatever left in Rome’s world walk by. My randy Australian friend barely had enough women to hit on. The nights are even cooling.

The platform of my Piramide subway stop.

The platform of my Piramide subway stop.


Despite the closures, August is a terrific time to visit Rome. Centro Storico, Rome’s historic center, remains largely open. Prices have dropped from the peak in July. Believe it or not, August is not considered part of Rome’s high tourist season. You can always find something open. You just may have to knock on a few more doors. And at least you can sit on public transportation while you roam the city looking for a place to eat. Bus and subway service is not cut one iota. The only negative is if you come to Rome to meet Romans, you’ll be stuck meeting only waiters and bus drivers. If you want to meet the locals — and that’s why I travel — go to the sea.

Or, better yet, come in the best month of the year to visit Rome. It’s when the days have cooled and the backpackers have left. It’s when the Romans have returned and so have their tans. Come when skies remain blue and the tomatoes still taste as sweet as apples, crushed on the homemade pasta you eat while sitting in a quaint garden trattoria on a cobblestoned alley. Come when it’s the Rome of your dreams.

September.

My transition from sportswriter to sports fan becomes a half-empty glass as I dread start of soccer season

This painting of A.S. Roma's wolf can be seen from much of my Testaccio neighborhood where the club was born in 1927.

This painting of A.S. Roma’s wolf can be seen from much of my Testaccio neighborhood where the club was born in 1927.


A college basketball coach once told me something that best explains the relationship fans have with their sports teams. He said, “Some of these fans want us to win even more than we do.” For 40 years, I catered to those fans. As a sportswriter in suburban Seattle, Las Vegas and Denver, I worked day after day, month after month, year after year, to print every tidbit of information about whatever team I covered. I uncovered the truth, I criticized, I praised. The fans were often vitriolic, either wanting me or the entire coaching staff publicly executed.

Now I’m one of them.

My transformation from sportswriter to sports fan began shortly after I retired and moved to Rome in January 2014. I reattached myself to the fortunes of A.S. Roma, a legendary soccer club that lured me into its cultural kaleidoscope when I lived here the first time from 2001-03. This time it’s different. My Italian is better and I read the national sports dailies. This website gets me into Olympic Stadium’s press tribune for games. I found a fan club around the corner from my apartment in Testaccio, the neighborhood where A.S. Roma was formed in 1927. I found a pub in Centro Storico that shows every game on Roma’s schedule.

I bought enough A.S. Roma paraphernalia to outfit a souvenir store. I have A.S. Roma T-shirts, sweatshirts, warm-up top, slippers, bathrobe, watch, pennant, scarf, wallet, bookmark, photo album. I have a giant A.S. Roma flag in my bedroom. My girlfriend, Marina, often surprised me on dates by giving me new A.S. Roma underwear. I have become a full-fledged romanista.

The transformation never became so apparent than after games. In the U.S., I scrambled out of my press seat to interview the players while forming in my brain a halfway decent opening paragraph I’d turn into a story in less time than most people take to write to-do lists. In Rome, after a game ends, I order another beer or head to the closest wine bar to the stadium. However, as a fan there is one colossal downside.

Sometimes I don’t feel like drinking.

After 40 years of objectivity choking me of all subjectiveness, I now comprehend the fans’ anxiety, their depression, their anger. It hasn’t been easy being an A.S. Roma fan since I’ve arrived. Roma is a perennial second-tier club in Serie A, Italy’s top league. I take little solace knowing that only one club is first tier. Juventus’ six straight league titles, known as scudettos, kill my optimism by Halloween when Juve starts pulling away from the pack. Of the four major European soccer leagues — England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Serie A — no other club has ever won six straight league titles. In France, Lyon won seven straight Ligue 1 crowns from 2001-08. Juventus is favored to match that this season.

I don’t hate Juve like most Roma fans. I love its city, Turin, too much. However, I’ve learned to distrust Juve fans. All over Italy are Juve fans who hop on the bandwagon because they’re too boring to ride a wagon without company. Rooting for Juventus is like rooting for Goldman Sachs. After every conversation with a Juve fan, I check my wallet.

The new Serie A season starts Saturday with Roma opening Sunday in Bergamo against Atalanta, last year’s upstart. My blood is beginning to race. I’m devouring every word about Roma in Corriere Dello Sport. I can already taste the Nastro Azzurro at Abbey Theatre pub. I also have a feeling in my gut that so many of my readers had throughout my career. It’s a gnawing, an intuition that you tell everyone around you is true.

We could really suck the great big green one.

A reader once wrote me that about a story I wrote carving up Colorado’s football program. I have no idea what it meant but it sounded pretty negative. It seems particularly appropriate here. Also, take this with a grain of salt. There are people who see the glass is half empty and people who see the glass is half full. I see a glass so barren it has formed cobwebs. Combine that with my journalist’s ingrained pessimism, and you have a Roma fan who may watch the season with my fingers covering my eyes.

Keep in mind European soccer is different than American pro sports. Europe has no amateur draft. Bad teams in Europe are like moldy cheese. They can’t get good in a hurry. In the last 15 years, Major League Baseball has had 10 different World Series champions. Serie A has had three. La Liga has had four, Bundesliga and Premiership five. In Scotland, no one but Glasgow-rivals Celtic and Rangers has won the title since 1985. There is a bigger discrepancy of wealth in European soccer than on the island of Manhattan.

European teams are fueled by ticket sales and TV money and unlike in the U.S., TV money is not equally distributed. In Italy, the rich get filthy richer. Serie A signed a three-year, 2.82-billion euro deal that runs through this season. However, only 40 percent of the money is distributed equally. Another 30 percent is distributed based on club appeal. Plus, Serie A gets 300 million euros from overseas rights in continental competitions. Only 40 percent of that is divided equally. The rest goes to participating teams. So two seasons ago, Juventus received 122.8 million euros from TV. Carpi received 25.2 million. Needless to say, Carpi, a town of 70,000 where the 5,000-seat stadium was so small it had to play in nearby Modena, dropped to Serie B the next season.

Equality in ticket sales is a geographic impossibility. In Serie A, stadiums range from Milan’s 80,000-seat San Siro to Spal’s 12,348-seat Stadio Paolo Mazza in Ferrara. Juventus’ Allianz Stadium seats a relatively modest 41,570 but there’s one difference.

Juventus owns the stadium. It’s one of only three clubs in the 20-team league that reaps all stadium profits.

A.S. Roma's proposed 1.5 billion euro stadium.

A.S. Roma’s proposed 1.5 billion euro stadium.


Which brings us to Roma’s dilemma and my angst. Its Boston-based owner, James Pallotta, is trying to build a $1.5 billion stadium about five miles southwest of me in an open, green area called Tor di Valle. Since the club formalized a construction agreement in 2012, the stadium has been one of the biggest hot potatoes for a city hall already bereft with problems ranging from disastrous public services to mafia corruption. City officials have mocked the original blueprint, told Pallotta to find another space and rejected the proposal before finally approving it in February. Meanwhile, the trash still never gets picked up.

Next month they’ll start a new planning process. In the meantime, the club signed a new lease with Olympic Stadium until 2020. Considering it takes that long to get a newsstand built in Rome, I’m not optimistic that Pallotta will get the stadium before I start babbling incoherently in a rocking chair about creeping fascism.

Luciano Spalletti

Luciano Spalletti


Neither does Luciano Spalletti. He’s the manager who led Roma to second place last season, its third runner-up in four years. So pessimistic of the club’s future, Spalletti is the only soccer manager I know who turned down a lucrative extension to go elsewhere. He’s now coaching Inter Milan which finished seventh last season. He left based on Inter’s new Chinese ownership which promised big investments but takes over a club deep in debt.

He left a club furiously paddling to keep afloat for another drowning in red ink. What does that tell you?

Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah

Wojciech Szczesny

Wojciech Szczesny

Antonio Rudiger

Antonio Rudiger

Leandro Parades

Leandro Parades


Following Roma in the off season was like watching Michelangelo’s Madonna crumble in the middle of St. Peter’s. First, striker Francesco Totti retired to the front office after 25 years as Roma’s icon. Then Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player, went to Liverpool; Wojciech Szczesny, arguably Serie A’s best goalkeeper last season, left for Juventus where he’ll take over for icon Gianluigi Buffon next season; Antonio Rudiger, their best defender, went to Chelsea; and Leandro Parades, a serviceable midfielder, escaped to Russia and Zenit-St. Petersburg.
Eusebio Di Francesco

Eusebio Di Francesco


In Spalletti’s place is one Eusebio di Francesco, whose claim to fame is taking Sassuolo from Serie B to Serie A in 2013. He got fired the next year, then came back a few months later and led them to sixth place last season and qualification for the Europa League, the continent’s second biggest club tournament. Di Francesco, who played on Roma’s last scudetto-winning team in 2001, may be a fine manager. But excuse me if I’m not excited about a team of Roma’s caliber taking its coach from a club that sounds like a porn film.
Hector Moreno

Hector Moreno


With limited funds, Roma brought in players who didn’t light up Rome chat rooms or it
Gregoire Defrel

Gregoire Defrel

Cengiz Under

Cengiz Under

s 24-hour A.S. Roma radio station. They brought in two defenders from Holland in Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord), who’s out until October with knee surgery, and Hector Moreno (PSV Eindhoven) who isn’t a shadow of Rudiger at center back. A third defender, Aleksandar Kolarov, played seven seasons for Manchester City, winning two titles, and earned 68 caps for Serbia where he was Serbian Player of the Year in 2011. Gregoire Defrel came from Sassuolo to take some scoring pressure from Edin Dzeko, whose 29 goals led Serie A last season, but Defrel hasn’t shown much in preseason. Cengiz Under, a young Turk (Literally, he’s from Turkey and its national team) may be the most promising new offensive player and looks young enough to be their academy ball boy. Allison, Brazil’s national goalkeeper but who lost the starting job to Szczesny last season, is elevated to starter.
Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez


They tried getting a marquis name in Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian star who led Leicester City to the shocking Premiership title two seasons ago and was named Premiership Player of the Year. But Leicester wanted 40 million euro and Roma wouldn’t go past 35 million. Roma has never spent more than 30 million on a player in its history.

They had a respectable showing in their U.S. summer tour. They lost to Paris-St. Germain and Juve in shootouts and beat Tottenham Hotspurs. They lost at Seville in a friendly only 2-1, all of which I followed in the papers. Sunday night my soccer withdrawal became too much and I made an early pilgrimage to Abbey. Its bacon cheeseburger and beer were a lot better than Roma at middling Celta Vigo, which finished 13th in La Liga last season. In their last tuneup before the season began, De Francesco started a squad that included only three starters. What, this is the NFL and he was afraid they’d get hurt? This is a team in transition, on its sixth manager in six years and in their last tune up he starts the B team.

My second beer hadn’t arrived before Roma trailed 2-0 after 22 minutes. Defender Federico Fazio, captain by default, nearly poleaxed an opponent in the penalty for the first Vigo goal and the fourth goal scored when he watched a cross go by like a little kid looking at a running puppy. They trailed 3-0 after 27 minutes and 4-0 at halftime.

At halftime, De Francesco reportedly exploded like a shaken bottle of fine Prosecco. He put in eight starters who held serve before losing 4-1. As Roma fans turned off their TVs at various points of the public execution, evil cross-town rival Lazio was stunning Juventus in Olympic Stadium, 3-2, to win the Italian Super Cup.

Juventus’ loss is a red flag for the rest of Serie A but from what I’ve seen and read Roma does not have the capabilities to fill the gap. We’re picked third or fourth, depending on the poll, with steady Napoli having the best shot at dethroning Juve and winning its first scudetto since Maradona led it to the 1990 title.

The season hasn’t even started and my descending hopes are already halfway to the gutter. Soon, they’ll join a thousand cigarette butts and maybe some shredded sports pages. I don’t have my objectivity to protect me. I don’t have deadlines to occupy me. I just have faith ingrained in the city and neighborhood I love, a faith that is more painful than joyful.

This is my fifth season in Rome. I’m wondering how fans do this for generations. I’ve never been to Buffalo. However, I now know what it’s like to live there. I’m discovering that the life of the fan isn’t all burgers and beer, high fives and cheers in the night. It’s anger. It’s frustration. It’s sadness. It’s resignation. Maybe fans were right.

Maybe I did have the perfect job.

Mussolini — yes, Mussolini — to thank for Lazio’s beautiful beaches

About 80 years ago this area was a swamp. Today this stretch of sand, part of Riviera di Ulisse, is one of the best beaches in Italy.

About 80 years ago this area was a swamp. Today this stretch of sand, part of Riviera di Ulisse, is one of the best beaches in Italy.


GAETA, Italy — The golden sand stretched for miles on both sides of me. Nary a pebble pricked the bottom of my feet as I poured myself into the Tyrrhenian Sea. I waded out to my chest where I could see my feet through the translucent blue water and for dozens of meters around me. Was I just south of Rome or in French Polynesia?

I looked back to the sand and the Riviera di Ulisse doesn’t have as many palm trees as Tahiti. It has a long row of pink geranium trees mixed with a small forest bearing the famous Gaeta olives. A small sea wall separates the beach from some tasteful, casual beach restaurants and bars where my Marina and I retired as a break from laying all day on cushioned lounge chairs under an umbrella.

Marina and me on the Riviera di Ulisse.

Marina and me on the Riviera di Ulisse.


Thank you, Benito Mussolini.

Rick Reilly, the best sportswriter of my generation, once advised never to write a sentence that has been written before. I’m pretty sure no one has ever written thank you to Mussolini, at least not in the last 70 years or so. Yes, he is a big reason Marina and I don’t have to board a plane or boat to relax on some of the best beaches in Europe. Our beach is 85 miles south of Rome on the Riviera di Ulisse, named for Ulysses who plied this waters during his adventures in “The Odyssey.” It’s an underrated part of the Lazio region that is sprinkled with cute towns and beaches that get more gorgeous with every kilometer you drive. Foreigners don’t come here much. Italians do. They know the convenience and pleasure of this area known as Agro Pontino, particularly now during Rome’s driest summer in the last 60 years. Where else in Europe can you get a tan and swim in a crystal-blue sea then eat a seafood feast for two with a bottle of local white wine for under 70 euros? Italians also appreciate this area for another reason.

They know in the 1930s this whole area was a swamp.

Southern Lazio was a mosquito-infested, malaria-riddled, miserable, soggy, randomly populated dump not worthy of life other than insects and Nazis. It had been like that since Ancient Rome when Caesar Augustus, whom some say was Rome’s greatest emperor, built a canal to drain the marsh and develop agriculture. But when the canals weren’t maintained during the Roman Empire’s roller coaster ride between rule and ruin, the swamps returned.

Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a united Italy, started draining the swamp in the late 19th century but didn’t finish the job. In 1928, the population in this entire region was all of 1,637 people, most of whom lived in shanties across the boggy fields. The Red Cross investigated and reported that 80 percent of the people who spent one night in the marsh developed malaria.

Imagine how cheap that beach-front property could’ve been.

A propaganda poster showing Mussolini helping rebuild Agro Pontino.

A propaganda poster showing Mussolini helping rebuild Agro Pontino.


Then came Mussolini. Named prime minister in 1922, he directed Alessandro Messea, the director-general of the department of health, to, pardon the expression but take this literally, “drain the swamp.” Mussolini took the plan to Parliament in 1929 and the next year cleared the scrub forest. He constructed 10,700 miles of canals and trenches, dredged the rivers, dyked the river banks, filled the holes and built pump stations. The last channel, the one that leads to the Tyrrhenian Sea, was dubbed Mussolini Canal.

Soon, cute little towns started popping up: Latina in 1932, Sabaudia in 1934, Pontinia in 1935, Aprilia in 1937 and Pomezia in 1939. Gaeta, the nearest town to Papardo’ Beach, became an important seaport.

In a weird way, Mussolini will always be linked to bufala mozzarella.

In a weird way, Mussolini will always be linked to bufala mozzarella.


In 1933, the project employed 124,000 people. Many were poor from the Veneto region near Venice. When the project was completed, 2,000 families were settled in two-story houses and given a farmhouse, an oven, a plough, a stable, cows and land. To this day, many people around here still speak the Venetian dialect.

What is often overlooked, however, is during the project those workers were interned in camps enclosed by barbed wire. Many developed malaria. Many quit.

And oh, yes, Benito, about your friendship with Adolf Hitler …?

Tomato production is huge in Agro Pontino.

Tomato production is huge in Agro Pontino.


Marina and I discussed this over a superb breakfast spread of chocolate-ricotta muffins, fruit and steaming, foamy cappuccino with Maria Dea, the owner of our gorgeous lodging outside Sonnino, a small town of 2,000 climbing the side of a cliff above the sea. Casale Re’ is an agriturismo homestead in a sprawling two-story white stone house with a warm swimming pool complete with a steady stream of fountains spewing water along the side. Outside our room has views of the rich agricultural fields Mussolini cleaned up and the sea beyond. Fresh grapes hang from vines next to the parking area and would later be on my breakfast plate. A restaurant is under construction behind the pool.
Casale Re'

Casale Re’


Maria told us official papers show the building is from the 19th century but thinks it was built 200 years before that. Casale Re’ is difficult to find. We spent way too much time crisscrossing the narrow, windy country roads that passed under bridges and ran along canals. But we curbed our frustration by marveling at the olive orchards, agricultural fields and high stacks of watermelons in the country stores. We went by factories that produce the luscious bufala mozzarella that always makes me swoon when eating it on a bed of fresh prosciutto. We’d drive along narrow roads shaded by Mediterranean pines and pass flatbed trucks with their payloads stacked with bright red tomatoes like giant cherry Jujubes. Giant rolls of grain the size of tanks (Mussolini reference entirely intended) lay side by side under a wood shelter.

From October to December, long after the sea has cooled, this area is crawling with Italians who flock here for the best olive oil in the country. With fresh produce everywhere and famous olive oil, the food here is even better than the beaches. In Pontinia for lunch, we stumbled onto an agriturismo called Pegaso 2000, a two-story red structure with potted plants lining a patio. Inside were stained-wood tables with cast-iron chandeliers and a family that has run the place for generations. The fettuccine ragu di manzo (wide pasta noodles with a tomato sauce of ground steak) beat anything I’ve ever had in Emilia-Romagna, the birthplace of ragu. The best yet is the pasta, vegetables, bread, wine and bottled water (the tap water here isn’t THAT clean still) were all of 17.50 euros.

Ambrosia 23

Ambrosia 23


We stepped up for dinner at Ambrosia 23 in Terracina, one of the beach towns that dot the seaside like beach balls. On a small road along the canal, we sat in dark brown wicker chairs with red and white flowers on the table and exposed stone walls. I went local, eating the spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and bufala mozzarella, a fantastic combination only made better knowing everything was made or picked within a short walk from our table.

Joined by another couple from my neighborhood in Rome, we had three seafood pasta dishes, octopus salad, grilled calamari, baccala’ (Lazio’s famous fried cod), a basket of fresh bread and a bottle of white Riflessi wine from nearby San Felice Circeo.

Of course, Mussolini never got a chance to taste the cod of his labor. He sold out Italy at the hands of Hitler and by the time he was hanging from his toes in Milan in ‘45, the Nazis had taken over this region. They stopped the pumps, opened the dikes, refilled the marshes and devastated the population. Italy had switched allegiance to the Allies and this was Germany’s version of biological warfare.

However, the major structures for water control survived and Agro Pontino, was restored. The last case of malaria, thanks also to the invention of DDT, came in the 1950s. By the year 2000, this area’s population had grown to 520,000.

Like Richard Nixon whose ties with Red China were overshadowed by the Vietnam War, Mussolini’s clean-up job in Lazio will be buried under the weight of setting back a country for years through misguided fascism.

Which means his legacy will be greater than the fascist the U.S. has now.