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.

Retired in Rome Journal: Mussolini’s Bunker a 2.4-mile maze of dark history and mystery

The German command post inside Mussolini's bunker. The Germans took it over after Mussolini ran out of power.

The German command post inside Mussolini’s bunker. The Germans took it over after Mussolini ran out of power.

Lovely Sant'Oreste -- and not so lovely me -- located just north of Rome.

Lovely Sant’Oreste — and not so lovely me — located just north of Rome.

Inside the entrance of Mussolini's bunker.

Inside the entrance of Mussolini’s bunker.


SANT’ORESTE, Italy — Romance pours from every corner of Italy like honey from a punctured bottle. Piazzas. Opera music. Wine. Mussolini …

… OK, so Italy has a dark side. I visited it yesterday. And that dark side is as black as a fascist’s heart — or the inside of the tunnels that Mussolini hid in during World War II.

I’ve had a weird fascination with Benito Mussolini ever since I read about him during my first stint here from 2001-03. He was a fierce nationalist who tried to make his country a player on the world stage. He had some leadership qualities that any general in the U.S. could admire. The son of a socialist blacksmith in the small Emilia-Romagna town of Dovia di Predappio, Mussolini got booted from the socialist party and founded Italy’s first fascist party. In his early years, he did a lot of good. He helped nationalize a language in a country fractured by dialects and millenium-long regional rivalries. He turned the swamps outside of Rome into commerce centers and charming, livable villages. And, as his legacy still states, he got the trains to run on time. He did nothing with the bus system, which still sucks, but that’s Rome’s problem now. His problem was he had this weird crush on Adolph Hitler, which, obviously, became the ultimate fatal attraction. Mussolini also ill equipped his military to the point where it couldn’t compete in a world war. What was left after the war was Mussolini hanging from his toes in a Milan piazza and Italy falling into an economic mess from which it took decades to recover.

(I had a first-hand encounter with Italy’s post-war troubles when I moved here in 2001. My then-girlfriend and I stayed in a small, family run pensione for a week while looking for an apartment. The owner’s mother was a young girl in Rome after the war. Today she still can’t eat tomatoes because as a girl, that’s all she had to eat.)

The trains aren’t the most obvious leftover from Mussolini’s footprint. He built a massive bunker in a mountain north of Rome. He said it was a weapons factory. In actuality, it was a hideout. Dark, eerie and cold, it exists today with just enough of his fingerprints to give you a feel of fascist Italy in World War II.

I toured one of Rome’s most off-the-beaten-path sites with good ol’ Rome Explorers, the terrific meetup group that brings Rome’s fascinating history to you up close and personal. Fourteen of us took a little regional train an hour north of Rome to the charming hill town of Sant’Oreste. It was another varied group. I was joined by a bunch of young Scandinavian women working for World Food Program, an Aussie and his Swedish girlfriend with WFP (WFP employs 1,000 people and seemingly every expat in Rome except for me and the Africans selling knock-off Gucci bags by the Vatican.), a Bolivian dental hygienist, an English journalist and some Italian history/hiking buffs.

Mussolini had the good sense of building his hideout in a spectacular setting. Sant’Oreste is at the foot of Mont Soratte, a forest-covered, multi-peaked mountain of modest dimensions but awesome views of the entire Lazio region. We all gathered outside a tiny caffe where gray clouds put the entire area in a cloak of mist, giving this region with the dark past an even more foreboding present. We walked a well-marked dirt trail that looked like a narrow service road. We soon came upon a red arrow pointing up — straight up — and made about a 20-minute steep ascent through thick forest. The cool 45-degree air was perfect for a strenuous stretch and reaching above the tree line made it all worth it. Below was all of north Lazio. We were only about 30 miles north of Rome yet all we saw was green farmland dotted with oak trees, small farm dwellings and rolling hills beyond.

Rainfall made negotiating the narrow, rocky trail a challenge as we traversed a saddle between peaks. We wound up at a small concrete church dating back to the early 4th century. It’s dedicated to Pope Sylvester, the Vatican’s first Christian pope who helped pave the way for Christian acceptance after centuries of bloody persecution under Roman rule. The Romans built this church in 300 AD as a temple to Apollo, not to mention as a lookout for invading armies that were attacking Rome in an increasing fashion. Pope Constantine persecuted Sylvester for his bombastic religious ways but when Constantine fell ill, Sylvester cured him in this church. After that, Constantine legalized the Christian religion and San Silvestro became its first pope.

Here, not far from where Sylvester slept, we had lunch.

Mussolini obviously never found inspiration in Sylvester’s kindness. While Hitler was toying with his obtuse affections (Mussolini built the Pyramide Metro stop near my new apartment strictly to impress Hitler on his first visit.) and the Americans were bombing at his heels, Mussolini went just outside Sant’Oreste and went to work. He built 2.4 miles of tunnels inside the mountain. Doors are two feet thick. Walls are eight meters of concrete. Started in 1937, it took him six years — not coincidentally until the time the U.S. ran Mussolini out of power. In 1943, with the big fat fuck gone, the Italian workers dropped their shovels and stopped digging. The Germans took it over which is why when we entered, we saw on one door, “ACHTUNG! ZSTRITT VERBOTEN” (ATTENTION! STRICTLY FORBIDDEN.) The first room isn’t terribly impressive. It’s a big open space with a white, rounded ceiling and scruffy floor. It’s very well lit. It could pass for an abandoned VFW post.

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