Monte Testaccio and the Via Crucis
For most people, Monte Testaccio means nightclubs, bars and restaurants – places like Flavio al Velavevodetto, Checchino dal 1887 and Alibi, which circle the base of the hill. When tourists ask me for directions to Monte Testaccio on a Friday night, it’s because they want to go clubbing, not because they want to visit the hill.
Monte Testaccio – the actual hill itself – should be a tourist attraction. It’s an enormous artificial hill made up of broken shards of Roman pottery – an atmospheric patch of wilderness in the heart of the modern city, offering panoramic views over Testaccio and beyond. The Ancient Romans used this spot near the port to throw away old terracotta vases, and over the years the pile grew into a hill. Surprisingly scenic, considering it’s essentially an ancient rubbish dump.
Why are there no tourists? The answer is simple – it’s virtually never open. I’m not sure exactly why it’s closed, but at least since I moved to Rome in 2013, the gates have always remained firmly shut. The most I ever got to see was a window at the back of a restaurant blocked by dense layers of pottery shards.
It was an intriguing glimpse, but I wanted more. After a few years of living in Testaccio, it was frustrating that the place that had given the neighbourhood its name was still off-limits.
While discussing my frustration with fellow Testaccio resident and blogger Isobel (Testaccina), she suggested I attend the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday. This is the one day of the year when the gates of Monte Testaccio are opened to the general public, and anyone can wander up the hill to watch the procession.
At 3pm on Good Friday, I passed through the gates and followed a group of elderly people up the steep, uneven path of Monte Testaccio, listening to them grumble about the climb. Although I spotted the occasional bewildered tourist, the vast majority of people on the hill were locals who had probably been attending the Via Crucis procession every year for decades, shunning the more famous Via Crucis (led by the Pope through the centre of Rome) for a ritual closer to home.
When we got to the top of the hill, there was some time to explore before the ceremony began. Walking through the long grass, with 2,000 year old amphora shards beneath my feet, I went to the far edges of the hill to admire the view. To the east, an industrial panorama – the slaughterhouse complex and the Gazometro of Garbatella. To the west, rooftops and greenery – the terraces of Testaccio, the cypresses and umbrella pines of the Protestant Cemetery, the Pyramid, the churches and monasteries of the Aventine Hill.
The Via Crucis was conducted by a priest in sunglasses, backed by some Carabinieri, nuns and choirboys. As they progressed through the stations of the cross, some teenagers in jeans and t-shirts dutifully lugged the loudspeakers across the hill. Meanwhile, an archaeological lesson continued in hushed voices beneath the trees – cross-legged children studying pictures of Roman pottery, paying no attention to the familiar story of Christ’s suffering that blared through the loudspeakers.
I’m not Catholic, but I might have been tempted to stay till the end of the ceremony if it hadn’t been for a sudden, severe attack of hayfever. Besides, I thought to myself, it’s not as though there are going to be any surprises in the story of the Crucifixion – we all know how it ends.
After the strange, dreamlike atmosphere of Monte Testaccio, walking back along Via Galvani was a return to chaotic, real-world Rome, with men delivering towers of fruit and vegetable crates to the restaurants of Monte Testaccio, and motorcyclists crashing into each other and then hurling abuse at each other in the middle of the road, while cars honked impatiently. Rome is a city of contrasts…
Visiting Monte Testaccio
If you want to visit the archaeological site, you have a few options.
-Wait for the Via Crucis procession on Good Friday, like I did. The gates are opened shortly before 3pm.
-Sign the petition to open Monte Testaccio and keep an eye out for guided tours (in Italian).
-Book a private tour with Katie Parla.
-Book a group tour (in advance, on the phone).
You can also get some idea of the sheer size of the hill by walking around the base, with particularly good views on the Citta’ dell’Altra Economia side. While you’re there, stop for lunch at Flavio al Velavevodetto and order the cacio e pepe…