Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Roman ruins and imaginary prisons: Piranesi at Palazzo Braschi

While frantically trying to find a plumber – the toilet flush panel on the wall had turned into an unstoppable waterfall – I reflected that I’d been spending a lot of time hanging around at home, being domestic and unsuccessfully attempting to fix various problems, and relatively little time out and about in Rome.

So, after a visit from Alessandro the idraulico and a bill for 140 I decided that I would treat myself in the afternoon. Instead of hanging around at home doing laundry and half-heartedly tidying my room, I’d get the bus into the centre and go to a museum instead. The fact that it’s now cool enough to consider venturing outside at 2pm is a cause for celebration in itself, and I felt I should make the most of it.

I visited the Piranesi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi (Museo di Roma), which was my second time at the museum this year. When I went to the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi back in February I had to queue for an hour to get in, whereas I was practically the only person looking at the Piranesis. Is this the difference between a Saturday afternoon vs a Wednesday afternoon, or does this reveal something about the popularity of the artists? When I mentioned Piranesi to a couple of people, they’d never heard of him.

I didn’t know a great deal about Piranesi – I just knew enough to know that I liked him. His evocative prints of Roman ruins and labyrinthine prisons had captured my imagination when I was a teenager, drawn to anything old or remotely Gormenghastian. I have a particular soft spot for his spectacularly over the top Appia Antica, which is like something from a dream:

piranesi appia

The Piranesi exhibition is very comprehensive, with hundreds of prints on display. I’d had no idea that he was that prolific, as I was only really familiar with a handful of his most famous works. During his life he was best-known for his images of Rome – a mixture of conventional pictures of sites such as St Peter’s and the Pantheon and some more obscure ruins.

piranesi forum

The Roman Forum

piranesi pyramid

The Pyramid of Cestius

piranesi minerva

In Piranesi’s time it was known as the Temple of Minerva Medica, but it’s actually a 4th century nymphaeum. It’s visible from Via Giolitti, and a familiar sight for anyone arriving at Termini.

Piranesi was a Venetian obsessed with Ancient Rome and its architecture. In fact, although he’s known as an artist, his way of seeing the world was more architectural than artistic. When confronted with hundreds of images of Roman buildings, pictures dissecting the details of Castel Sant’Angelo’s buttresses, and a whole series of etchings of columns created to refute a claim that Greek architecture was superior to Roman architecture, you begin to understand just how dedicated Piranesi was. A little fanatical.

And fantastical, too. I share Piranesi’s adoration (and idealisation) of Rome, and his tendency to see the more magical side of the city. His images evoke the feeling that I often experienced as a tourist in Rome – feeling completely dwarfed and overwhelmed by the size, grandeur and antiquity of the buildings. Looking at a church or a ruin once is not enough, but you feel like even if you kept staring, trying to take in all the details, you could never see it all.

Although Piranesi’s art shows a meticulous attention to detail, in some cases he plays with dimensions and perspectives to make buildings seem even more awe-inspiring. An article on the Paradoxes of Piranesi explains how the artist creates “an impossible panorama” of the Colosseum: “the section of ranked arcades nearest the viewer swells like something in a convex mirror, while on both sides the arches run off in vertiginous perspective”.

piranesi colosseum

Even more mind-bending is the series known as the Carceri (“Prisons”), apparently completed while Piranesi was in a malarial daze. Stare into the background of never-ending bridges and stairs and you begin to feel dizzy. Before Escher there was Piranesi:

piranesi carceri 1

piranesi carceri 2

The one area of the exhibition that fell flat for me was the 3D video of the Carceri. Unlike the 3D experience at the Domus Aurea (a brilliant use of technology that completely changes your perspective), the 3D re-imagining of the Carceri doesn’t really work. Piranesi’s hallucinatory prisons are stripped down to the bare bones of their architecture using rather beige computer graphics. All the magic disappears. Even the soundtrack – some relaxing plinky-plonky piano music – is all wrong. The unnerving industrial sounds of the Eraserhead soundtrack would be better suited.

Despite considering himself an architect, Piranesi was only responsible for one building in Rome – a building that the average tourist is probably completely unaware of. Behind a wall on the Aventine Hill is the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which Piranesi rebuilt for the Knights of Malta. It’s difficult to find good quality images online, but the Piranesi exhibition has a whole room dedicated to photos of the church. The monochrome interior is all the more beautiful for its relative simplicity. “Simple” when you compare it to other churches in Rome, at least:

piranesi church

When Piranesi died in 1778 at the age of 58 he was buried inside the church. Belonging to the Knights of Malta, the church remains something of a secret, and almost impossible to visit. If you’re not friends with a Knight of Malta, you’ll have to settle for a stroll around the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, the walls of which were designed by Piranesi, and a peek through the not-so-secret keyhole.

All in all, an excellent exhibition. Someone complained in the visitors’ book that there were “too many prints, not enough statues”, which is rather like going to the Sistine Chapel and complaining about the excessive quantity of frescoes, but you can’t please everyone.

The Piranesi exhibition ends 15 October. More information here.


Becoming Italian: un colpo d’aria


After four years of living in Italy, I’m starting to become a bit less English, un po’ piu’ italiana. Here are some examples:

a) August turned me into an Italian housewife. I wasn’t working and had nothing else to do, so while Valeriano worked I did most of the cooking, food shopping, laundry and “gardening” (ie: trying to keep our pot plants alive). One evening I prepared a Sicilian pasta dish (sardines, raisins, herbs, pine nuts) and peaches with wine and we had dinner on the terrace with our flatmate Tom, and then ended up having a conversation about parenting techniques with our neighbour Florinda. I felt as though I’d aged twenty years and changed nationality.

b) I made a deliberate choice not to buy a train ticket. I was coming back from the beach at Santa Marinella, and I got to the station 10 minutes in advance. With only one ticket machine, a long queue and the prospect of waiting an hour if I missed the train back to Rome, I decided to chance it and get on the train without a ticket. If I got caught by an inspector, I would try to negotiate with him. The inspector didn’t come, and I got away with it. A risk I never would have taken in England…

c) I got angry with a bank and threatened to report them to the Carabinieri. CheBanca! (CheBancadimerda!) deserves an entry of its own, but long story short, their cash machine stole 250 euros from me three months ago and I’m still trying to get the money back. The Italian way to get things done is to be persistent, make a fuss, and if all else fails call the Carabineri. Sto imparando.

d) I understand the point of bidets and have even used them on occasion.

e) I experienced a colpo d’aria.

What is a colpo d’aria? Literally, it’s a hit of air. If you’re not Italian, I imagine you’ve never experienced this before, and are puzzled by the idea of air being dangerous. But once you know what a colpo d’aria is, a lot of Italian behaviour makes sense. Closed windows on hot buses? Refusal to sleep near a fan? A scarf in summer? All ways to prevent the dreaded colpo d’aria…

Until recently, I never took it seriously. I thought of it as an example of Italian hypochondria, as imaginary as la cervicale (neck pain only suffered by Italians) or male al fegato (liver pain only suffered by Italians). While there are hypochondriacs of every nationality, it seems to be particularly pervasive in Italy. An extreme example is a woman I once heard of – a friend of a student – who thinks that sweating is dangerous. Before her son and husband go to bed, she blasts them with a hair-dryer to make sure they’re sweat-free. She’s also been known to creep into people’s rooms while they’re sleeping and hold a mirror under their nose to check that they’ve haven’t died during the night, so she’s obviously fulminata and not representative of the average Italian, but still.

While the dangers of sweating are still up for debate, there’s no doubt about air. Drafts are dangerous. Changes of temperature can practically paralyse you. Sceptical? So was I, until I woke up one morning and couldn’t move.

I was staying at Valeriano’s family home in Cassino. When I woke up and tried to get out of bed I felt an excruciating back pain, centered around my shoulders and upper back. More disturbing than the pain was the lack of obvious cause. I’d never had backache in my life, so why should I have it now? It wasn’t as though I’d been lifting heavy things or straining my back in any way.

Valeriano, of course, had the answer. “Colpo d’aria,” he said. “All the changes of temperature. Yesterday was really hot, but the windows were open in the taxi on the way to Termini and there was some wind, and then there was the air-conditioning in the station, then the heat as we walked down the platform, then the air-conditioning on the train, then heat again as we arrived in Cassino…”

Valeriano’s father was similarly unsurprised by my condition. “You slept with the windows open,” he said, as if that explained everything. It was August. Of course I was sleeping with the windows open and spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned spaces.

I wanted to find something else to blame – the mattress, perhaps – but could think of no logical explanation for the pain. I shuffled around the flat in agony, and when I was offered a shawl to protect me from the air-conditioning, I accepted instead of scoffing. I had no choice but to believe. Colpo d’aria is real.

This month marks the four year anniversary of my move to Rome. While I’ll always be a straniera, I’m starting to feel more integrated, speaking the language more fluently and gaining a deeper understanding of the culture. If that means experiencing Italian illnesses too, so be it.

Where to swim in (or near) Rome


I’m at a loose end. It’s too hot to do anything during the day. My boyfriend is at work, and most of my friends are out of Rome. I should be grateful I’m not working, but instead I’m spending hours feeling bored and hot and restless, filling the hours with Netflix and subpar Jackie Collins novels until there’s enough shade on the terrace to sit outside.

August in Rome becomes much more manageable if you’ve got a holiday planned. The next best thing is to treat yourself with occasional trips to the beach or pool, which is what I’ve been doing. A couple of times a week I go to the Piscina delle Rose in EUR, balk at the price of getting a lettino and ombrellone and do it anyway, or go to one of the beaches near Rome.

My usual beach of choice is Santa Marinella, but the general consensus is that nearby Santa Severa is superior, so I decided to spend the day there for a change. It’s just 3.60 and an hour from Ostiense, and when you arrive at Santa Severa there’s a little shuttle bus that will take you to the spiaggia libera (free beach) near the castle or one of the private beaches further up the coast.

I was planning to stay on the bus until we reached the private beach, but as we stopped at the castle a lady nudged me and advised me to get off there instead. “E’ bello,” she said simply. So I got off the bus and walked past the 14th century castle of Santa Severa, across the ground that was once the Etruscan port town of Pyrgi, until I reached the beach.

Historical setting aside, the beach of Santa Severa didn’t strike me as being obviously superior to other Roman beaches. The beach was pretty crowded and – the inevitable downside of being a spiaggia libera – not the cleanest. But I was there now, and I thought I might as well give it a try. Apart from anything else, it was too hot to consider traipsing up to the private beaches.

I paid 12 for a lettino and ombrellone and approached the group of young men who ostensibly worked there. They were lounging in deckchairs and paid no attention to me as I stood there with my receipt. When I asked for my lettino they shrugged and looked at each other.

“I think they’re finished,” said one of them.

“But I’ve already paid.”



“Are those lemons on your bag?” said another one.



The first guy finally dragged himself out of his deckchair and went to look for a lettino. Far from being finished, there were actually about 200 of them stacked up just metres away from where they were sitting.

Good customer service is hard enough to find at the best of times, and I probably shouldn’t have expected it from a half-asleep 19 year old on an August afternoon. But to his credit, he did actually carry the lettino and ombrellone instead of getting me to do it myself, and set them up a few feet away from a noisy family.

In my experience, when on a beach in Italy you’re never more than a few feet away from a noisy family (the adults making more noise than the children), or an amorous couple (the woman plucking her boyfriend’s eyebrows), or a group playing Neapolitan card games and tossing their cigarette butts in the sand.

The sand was not particularly clean. Neither was the sea. I spent most of the afternoon reading and listening to music on my lettino, enjoying the breeze. Because while Santa Severa may not be the most spectacular of beaches – it’s certainly no Sardinia – it’s without a doubt meglio di niente. Given the choice between a so-so beach and another afternoon of boredom in my stuffy bedroom, I’ll take the beach every now and again.

Here’s a brief guide to pools and beaches near Rome, all accessible by public transport. I can’t drive – learning is next on my to-do list – so I have to make do with the metro and regionale trains instead.


Swimming pools in Rome are not cheap. Unless you’re a member of a gym, expect to pay anywhere from 10 to 80(!!) euros for the privilege of using a pool. The nicest pools are the ones belonging to hotels, but unsurprisingly they also tend to be the most expensive.

I go the Olympic swimming pool in EUR known as Piscina delle Rose. It’s a 5 minute walk from the metro (EUR Palasport) and there’s a lovely big pool with decent facilities. If you just want to swim it’ll cost you 10, and if you want to include a lettino and ombrellone it’s around 20.

A more in-depth outdoor pool guide at Romeing


Ostia – The closest beach to Rome. It’s about 30 minutes on the train from Porta San Paolo (next to Piramide) with a 1.50 metro ticket. There’s a range of private and free beaches, including the Cancelli (a short bus ride from the station). It’s the most convenient option, but downsides include water quality and crowds. As Cosmopolitan notes, the water hasn’t been crystalline since the time of Romulus and Remus, and the beach resembles the Grande Raccordo Annuale (ring road) at rush hour.

Santa Marinella – about 45 minutes on the train from Termini/Ostiense/Trastevere. The great advantage of Santa Marinella is that when you step off the train it’s just a 5 minute walk to the private beach. The beach is clean, the water variable. Expect to pay around 20 for a lettino and ombrellone, and don’t make the fatal mistake of arriving at midday on a Sunday in summer.

Santa Severa – about an hour on the train from Termini/Ostiense/Trastevere. The beach is technically walking distance from the station, but it’s not a particularly pleasant walk (no shade, no pavements), so I’d recommend taking the shuttle bus. Santa Severa is a good option if you don’t want to pay for a private beach, and you can still get a reasonably priced lettino and ombrellone if you want. Facilities are pretty basic but okay.

Anzio/Nettuno – about an hour on the train from Termini. There’s a range of private and free beaches, all of which are pretty average. Anzio’s selling point is that it’s a nice little town in itself, with some decent restaurants and interesting history.

These beaches are the ones I consider to be the closest to Rome, or the easiest to access using public transport. If travel time or transport isn’t an issue, beaches such as Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta are generally considered to be much nicer.

A final word of advice – if at all possible, avoid pools and beaches on weekends in July and August. The crowds can be horrific. Not quite as bad as the generic overcrowded-pool-in-China picture that does the rounds in the media every summer, but still. Not pleasant.

Some more links:

The best beaches within easy reach of Rome

Rome’s 8 best beaches easily accessible by public transport

Top 10 beaches near Rome

A day from Rome: 4 beaches in Lazio worth visiting

Reverse reverse culture shock

After four years Rome has become home, so when I return to my other home – England – I experience the occasional moment of reverse culture shock. Expecting to hear Italian, my brain shuts down when the man at the till in M&S speaks to me in rapid English. Used to the anarchy of driving and road-crossing in Rome, I dither on the side of the pavement in London. Forgetting just how cold the English summer can be, I shiver despite my multiple layers of clothes and tights, and wonder where I can buy an umbrella (no useful umbrella-men pop up in the street when it rains England).

I’ve just spent five weeks in England, mainly working at a summer school in Cambridge. I overcame my initial reverse culture shock and adjusted to a routine of canteen meals, long coach journeys, and shepherding large groups of teenagers through national treasures such as Warwick Castle, King’s College Chapel and Westfield.

I was ready to return to Rome. I’m always ready to return to Rome, craving sunshine and pasta after just a couple of days away. But I wasn’t prepared for the reverse reverse culture shock.

Culture shock was when I came to Rome for the very first time as a tourist and was overwhelmed by the heat, the traffic and the language barrier. Reverse culture shock was when I returned to England after a year of living in Rome and felt like a foreigner. Reverse reverse culture shock happened for the first time after four years of living in Rome when I stepped out of the plane and into an oven.

I’d spent the past month reading about heatwaves and droughts, listening to Valeriano complain about the heat during every Skype conversation, and seeing this kind of content on Facebook:

roma sole

Yet somehow, sitting in my spider-filled room in Cambridge and watching the rain slide down the window, it just didn’t feel real to me.

I spent my first evening in Rome in a state of shock, opening up all the windows and shutters in my flat and wondering where all the air had gone. We have no air-conditioning, only fans that have little effect when the temperature hits 40 degrees. “Potremmo comprare un pinguino,” said Valeriano. Buy a penguin? Had the heat caused him to lose his mind already? But then I understood that he was referring to a Pinguino with a capital “P” – a kind of portable air-conditioning unit. Not an actual penguin.

The following morning a monstrous insect flew into our kitchen – a nightmarish cross between a dragonfly and a wasp – and we discovered a gecko living under the cooker. For a moment it felt like Rome had become another planet – a burning rock with no air, alien creatures emerging from the cracks.

I’m starting to adjust. The heat is intense, but it’s a little less humid today and I’m finding cheap solutions. The Pinguino is too expensive, but I can hang out in air-conditioned bars, supermarkets and restaurants, and plan emergency trips to the swimming pool or beach.

As much as possible, we avoid going out during the day, and live for the evening. Late at night we sit on the terrace, watching the stars, the planes, the shadow of a woman doing her ironing on a neighbouring terrace. Last night we waited for the full moon to cross a TV antennae and savoured the last tiny breath of wind before returning to the furnace of our bedroom to watch Pranzo di Ferragosto, the ultimate August-in-Rome film.

If you’re in Rome this summer, I hope you manage to stay cool. If you’re not in Rome and you’re thinking of visiting, I recommend waiting a bit. Here, we’re all dreaming of October, or – quite unexpectedly – missing the wind and rain on Southport Pier.

Walking from Rome to Castel Gandolfo


My friend Julia likes walking. She walked from Canterbury to Rome once (and wrote about it here) – a journey of 3 months and 1,600 km. I was there to meet her when she arrived in Piazza San Pietro, looking surprisingly well for someone who had spent more than 80 days trekking across France and Italy with a heavy backpack.

Last week Julia walked from Rome to Terracina (southern Lazio) on the Via Francigena with a group of students from her university. The journey is 140 km and takes only 6 days. Compared to the Canterbury-Rome journey, it’s a breeze.

I agreed to join Julia on the first stretch of the walk, starting at Circo Massimo and ending at the hill-town of Castel Gandolfo. 24 km is manageable, I thought. I occasionally walk to work (Testaccio to Montesacro – 11km in 2 hours), and doing just over double didn’t seem too ambitious. Although my boyfriend, friends and colleagues thought I was mad for wanting to spend my entire Sunday walking, I was sure I could do it. If Julia could walk for an average of 20km a day every day for three months, I could certainly cope with a single day of walking.

The route was another incentive. Most of the walk is along Appia Antica, perhaps my favourite place in the world. I usually reach a certain point of the road and then turn back, resisting the temptation to keep going on forever. This was a chance to discover what lay beyond…


We met at Circo Massimo at 9am on Sunday – Julia and her fellow Kent students, miscellaneous friends, and me and my flatmate Tom. We walked past the ruins of Terme di Caracalla and through the ancient gate of Porta San Sebastiano which now marks the beginning of Appia Antica. The first part of the road was surprisingly busy, filled with Ancient Roman soldiers and people handing out flyers. There was a kind of “open day”, with everything from fancy dress to folk music to food stalls. On any other day I would have stayed to check it out, and spent more time exploring the archaeological sites, but we had to stay focused and keep walking. There was a long way to go…

We went past the familiar landmarks – the enormous, castle-like mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman general), headless statues, the lonely ruins of Villa dei Quintilli, the farmhouse that sits surreally on top of an overgrown tomb – until we reached a stretch of the road I’d never been to before.

Approaching Ciampino, there’s a strange blend of city and countryside. The road is lined with olive groves and fields, but you can see warehouses and the airport in the distance. When the planes are landing, they drown out the birdsong and the bleats of the sheep.


(A side note – while most of Appia Antica is kept clean and well-maintained, part of the road near Ciampino is absolutely filthy. Beer bottles, paper plates, plastic bags and condom wrappers everywhere. It’s almost as if someone’s torn open a hundred bin bags and scattered the contents along Rome’s most beautiful road. Very sad…)

Beyond Ciampino, Appia Antica became more rural. In some parts the ancient cobblestones disappeared, and the road became a mere dirt track. Nothing but long grass, dirt, wildflowers, wind, and the midday sun. No other people, apart from the occasional cyclist. The last group we’d seen – a yoga class stretching on the grass in front of an ancient wall – seemed like a distant memory.


It was around this point that I began to suffer a catastrophic hayfever attack. “Catastrophic” is not an exaggeration. It was an hour of sneezing my head off, sneezing until my throat hurt and my head ached and I could barely see the road in front of me.

Appia Antica comes to an abrupt end in the town/suburb of Santa Maria delle Mole. We stopped at a bar for lunch, though none of us were hungry. The heat meant that an ice-cold Fanta was a much more tempting option. Still sneezing, I considered the possibility of ending the walk and returning back to central Rome. I was such a wreck that I couldn’t imagine getting any enjoyment out of the rest of the walk, and the combination of physical tiredness, mental tiredness and the heat meant that I was reluctant to continue, especially as the rest of the walk would be uphill.

But it was obviously fate. Julia had Claritin, and I would have had to wait an hour and a half for the next train to central Rome. “Besides,” said Julia, “we’re nearly there. Only a few more kilometres.”

Those last few kilometres were the hardest. We were in the rural hinterland of Rome, an area that’s too close to the city to be considered true countryside, but which nonetheless feels like the middle of nowhere. We trekked through pseudo-country lanes, past sort-of-farms, very vicious dogs and countless signs giving directions to Damiano’s birthday party. At one point we reached a dead end that shouldn’t have been a dead end; the farmer had decided to block access to the main road by arbitrarily constructing a high fence. Half the group decided to take the risk and climb the gate, while the more cowardly half (me included), fearing possible dog attacks/angry farmers/fence accidents, turned back and went the long way round.

We climbed. We passed the villa where Damiano’s birthday party was being celebrated. Then we climbed some more. And then, at last, we saw the sign that said “Castel Gandolfo”, and we crossed the road to admire the view of Lake Albano – a very inviting shade of blue.

Then, because Castel Gandolfo was built by sadists, we climbed some more to reach the historic centre, before collapsing in the piazza and drinking some very well-deserved beers.

After nearly seven hours of walking, none of us really had the energy for sightseeing, but Castel Gandolfo is a pretty little place – the Pope’s summer retreat – and easily accessible from Rome. If you don’t fancy walking, you can get the train from Termini (40 minutes).

Those of us who weren’t continuing to Terracina got the train back to Rome. Typically, there was no ticket office, only a broken ticket machine. We explained the situation to the guard on the train, who sold us tickets with a mandatory 0.50 fine per ticket. He acknowledged that it wasn’t our fault, but apparently there was no way of selling us the tickets on board the train without including the fine.

That’s Italy for you. Dysfunctional, beautiful.


Bring on the next adventure…

Canzone #7: “Tammurriata Nera” by N.C.C.P. (1981)

Music is everywhere in Naples. There are street performers all along Spaccanapoli, and shops blasting music at full volume on a Sunday morning, even in the sleepiest streets. There’s a piano at the central train station, and on my last visit a group of men – strangers, as far as I could tell – were gathered around the piano, singing traditional Neapolitan folk songs.

“Tammurriata Nera” is a Neapolitan song from the 1940s. Written during the war, it’s an ironic account of a local woman’s affair with a (black) American soldier. She then gives birth to a baby boy. The central theme of the song is the colour of the baby’s skin, which can’t be denied:

Ca tu ‘o chiamme Ciccio o ‘Ntuono,
ca tu ‘o chiamme Peppe o Giro,
chillo, o fatto, è niro, niro,

(Call him Ciccio or Antonio,
Call him Peppe o Giro,
Whoever made him is black)

In other words, you can call him whatever Italian name you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that his father was black.

Is it racist? Well, yes. According to James Senese, child of a Neapolitan woman and a black American solider:

Tammurriata nera è una canzone razzista, fai attenzione, non sentire la musica, ascolta le parole: offendono una donna bianca che fa un figlio con un nero. Insomma dice che ‘o guaglione è ‘nu figlio ‘e zoccola. Ti dicessi che è stato facile direi bugia. Dovevi conquistarti una tua dimensione e quando sei bambino non è automatico, te lo devi imparare a forza. Io mi guardavo e lo vedevo che non ero come gli altri. Figurati gli altri: “Sî niro”, sei nero, questo era.”

It’s a song where all the focus is on the child’s blackness, and so “otherness”. Yet it’s not entirely negative – although society’s response is to raise a collective eyebrow, there’s no sense of rejection. Just acknowledgement of an undeniable difference.

The lyrics are all in Neapolitan dialect, so unless you’re from Naples you probably won’t understand the majority of it. But even without any knowledge of Neapolitan (or even Italian), you can appreciate that it’s a powerful performance.

This version of “Tamurriata Nera” is performed by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, a group that’s been performing traditional Neapolitan songs since the 1970s. I haven’t really explored their discography yet, but when I first discovered them – listening to a record a palla during a visit to Valeriano’s family home in Cassino – this song also caught my attention. Most of my favourite Italian music tends to be at the poppier end of the spectrum, so it makes a change to listen to something darker, stranger, almost Arabic. Can’t beat a bit of incomprehensible wailing in dialect, where virtually the only word you understand is baccala’ (cod)….

Mortacci tua, Carlone: restaurant adventures in Rome


Valeriano and I agree about most things.

There are a few exceptions: Brexit; dogs wearing coats; whether Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize; the dangers of electric fans; what causes various illnesses; bidets; eating out at restaurants

Valeriano is not a fan of restaurants. He prefers cooking, eating at home, and not being ripped off for a plate of pasta. It’s an attitude shared by many Italians. During a discussion with my teenage students about whether eating out in Rome was good value, I suggested that it was, “As you only pay something like €10 for pasta.” “10!” they cried, “That’s too much!” Their reasoning is that you shouldn’t waste money on a basic pasta dish with cheap ingredients. If you can make it at home for a fraction of the price, why order it at a restaurant?

But I live in Testaccio, where paying 9-13 for a primo is standard, and it doesn’t bother me. As an ex-Londoner, restaurant prices in Rome generally seem reasonable. 20 for some pasta, bread, a side dish of vegetables, wine and water? Sounds good to me.

On average, I probably eat out 2-3 times a week. Sometimes I drag Valeriano with me.

Da Carlone, Via della Luce 5

This trattoria in Trastevere was recommended by a friend of Valeriano’s, who enthused about the enormous portions of pasta. It’s a smart, old-fashioned little restaurant in the quiet part of Trastevere, and we were lucky to get a table without booking. The waiter referred to Valeriano as my “marito“, which was a first.

Of course I was going to order cacio e pepe – the delicious, extremely comforting combination of pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper that I practically live off. Valeriano decided to order it too, and for 26 (“mortacci tua, Carlone”) the waiter brought us an absurdly enormous dish of pasta to be shared. It was for two people, but it could easily have been shared by four.

Because cacio e pepe is such a simple dish, its few ingredients tend to be added in lavish quantities. Un sacco di cacio, un sacco di pepe. I always say there’s no such thing as too much cheese, but there is such a thing as too much pepper, as we discovered at Da Carlone. It seemed like the cook had taken inspiration from the videos on Tasty, dumping fistfuls of pepper into the dish.

Mortacci tua**, Carlone,” said Valeriano, gulping down water in-between mouthfuls. And to the waiter: “C’e’ tanto pepe.”

Si chiama cacio e pepe,” the waiter shrugged. “Senza pepe sarebbe…” Yeah, we get it. As the name suggests, pepper is a fundamental ingredient of cacio e pepe. But in this dish, Valeriano joked, there was enough pepper to hospitalize someone.

20 minutes later, an ambulance arrived. An elderly lady at another table was taken out for a check-up. Meanwhile, a band squeezed themselves between the tables and performed traditional Roman folk songs, serenading us as Valeriano coughed and I inhaled the remaining pasta.

Would Valeriano eat there again? No. Would I? Probably. I recommend Da Carlone if you’re extremely hungry and feel like a challenge.

A Japanese restaurant, Prati

Japanese food is very popular in Rome. For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. Why were there so many Japanese restaurants in Rome when there were hardly any Japanese immigrants? Chinese restaurants made sense – lots of Chinese people living in Rome. But as Japanese food is no better than Thai or Indian food, for example, the Japanese restaurants popping up all around the centre didn’t make much sense to me.

Even the Italian teenagers I know – those who firmly believe in the supremacy of Italian food, even distrusting foreign food as pleasant and inoffensive as hummus – can’t get enough of sushi. Why?

Another student of mine explained that the sushi trend began in Milan. One good Japanese restaurant opening in Milan was enough to create a trend in Milan, which has since been copied in Rome. Although I don’t deny that Japanese food can be really good, it seems that the prevalence of Japanese restaurants in Rome has more to do with fashion than the superiority of the cuisine.

Late last night, on a whim, Valeriano and I decided to try a Japanese restaurant. We were in Prati – the upmarket neighbourhood near the Vatican – and felt like splashing out, and trying something else for a change. I eat Japanese food occasionally, but Valeriano had never even tried sushi.

I was a little apprehensive, convinced that he wouldn’t like it. While he appreciates Indian and Lebanese food, somehow I just couldn’t see him enjoying sushi. I couldn’t see him appreciating the restaurant either. It was a stylish, slightly pretentious place with black walls, dim lighting and an indoor fountain. In the toilets there was a fancy, waterfall-style tap and 360 degree mirrors that gave you a view of yourself from every angle. Seeing yourself in profile can be a bit disconcerting sometimes, and I’m not sure it’s the ideal bathroom experience, having a minor existential crisis while you wash your hands. (“Is that what I really look like from the side? Is that how other people see me? Who am I?”)

We were both a bit out of place, with our scuffed motorbike helmets, me accidentally wearing my cardigan inside out, Valeriano in his Joy Division t-shirt. He had no idea what to order, and I wasn’t sure either. I’m not used to sushi menus without pictures.

In the end we ordered miso soup, edamame beans, a rice dish with vegetables and fish, a sushi/sashimi mix and a bottle of white wine. Valeriano found everything disgusting apart from the wine, and, much to my surprise, the miso soup, which he declared buonissima. I thought everything was just about okay, but not exceptional. I’ve had much better sushi in Rome, and given the restaurant decor and prices, I’d been expecting something a bit more special.

Mortacci tua,” said Valeriano when he saw the bill. We saw our waiter not-so-discreetly snorting cocaine behind the bar. “No wonder it’s so expensive. Our money pays for the furniture, the fountain and his cocaine habit…”

To conclude: Valeriano’s first and last sushi experience. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant, but Temakinho (Prati and Monti) and Sampei (Viale Regina Margherita) are very good for sushi. If you like that kind of thing…

** “mortacci tua” is a very Roman expression that could be translated in a myriad of ways – “fuck you”, “son of a bitch”, “bastard”, “motherfucker”. More literally, it means “fuck your dead relatives” and it ranges from extremely offensive to comical depending on the context. As an exclamation, it’s “mortaaacci tuuuuua”, uttered in a tone of outrage and disbelief. If you want to say “fuck their dead relatives”, it’s “mortaaacci looooro”.

Monte Testaccio and the Via Crucis

monte testaccio 1

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.

monte testaccio 2

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…

For alternative accounts of visiting Monte Testaccio check out blog posts at Testaccina and An American in Rome.

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…

An A-Z of how Italy made me fat


I’m not actually overweight. Well, that depends on who you ask. Valeriano affectionately calls me “cicciona”, while my family have been more blunt. But even if the title is an exaggeration, living in Italy has certainly made me put on weight. Happy weight. A combination of indulging in delicious food and alcohol and, considering that most of the weight gain has taken place over the past year, perhaps the inevitable weight gain that comes with being in love.

Love aside, these are the main culprits:


There are two kinds of aperitivo. The first is a drink with some nibbles – usually crisps and nuts. The second is a drink with endless food – bread, cheese, meat, salad, pasta. You would think that the second kind of aperitivo would be more dangerous calorie-wise, but it’s actually the first. The second kind replaces dinner, but the first comes before dinner, and is essentially an excuse for having a massive, salty snack before a proper meal.

My favourite places for aperitivo in Rome are L’Oasi della Birra (Piazza Testaccio) and Momart (Viale XXI Aprile, near Piazza Bologna). The second is particularly indulgent, and definitely a substitute for dinner.


I never drank beer when I lived in England. The idea of drinking a pint of any liquid just never appealed, and I never craved it. Then I moved to Rome, discovered that it was acceptable to drink a small bottle of Peroni instead of a pint, got into birra artiginale, and found myself living around the corner from L’Oasi della Birra (“the oasis of beer”). Although I don’t drink large quantities of beer in one go, I certainly drink it a lot more than I used to. It’s especially hard to resist in the summer. In England it’s never hot enough to really crave beer, but once it gets to 30 degrees in Rome…


Cacio e pepe
Aka the most delicious thing in the world. Cacio e pepe is a Roman pasta dish, usually made with tonnarelli, tagliolini or spaghetti, and liberal quantities of pecorino cheese and black pepper. It’s the ultimate comfort food. If I see it on the menu at a restaurant – which is almost always – I find it very hard to order anything else, and I’ve also learned how to make a decent version myself. Everyone has their own opinion about where to find the best cacio e pepe in Rome (see this guide by An American in Rome), but my personal favourites are Da Felice, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Il Cantinone (all in Testaccio) and La Taverna Romana in Monti.


This is Linari’s fault. Cornetti are the Italian version of croissants – a breakfast pastry that accompanies coffee. They can be plain (semplice), filled with cream (con la crema) or wholegrain with honey (integrale). Depending on where you get them, they can be pretty unremarkable, but I have the misfortune to live near the bar/pasticceria Linari, which does excellent coffee and equally excellent cornetti. For my first couple of years in Rome, I had a cappuccino and cornetto at Linari pretty much every morning, but I’m trying to be more restrained these days. The barista used to automatically bring me a cornetto, even without me saying anything, until I told him I was a dieta. Incidentally, another barista at Linari asked me a while ago if I was incinta (pregnant). Not incinta, just cicciona.


As you may have guessed from my appreciation of cacio e pepe, I really love cheese. All cheese. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten any kind of cheese and not liked it. I live near one of the most famous cheese shops in Rome, Volpetti, and normally manage to resist the temptation (thank goodness it’s so expensive), but every now and then I treat myself. Other local temptations include the cheese selection at La Fraschetta and the Sicilian food stall at the mercato that sells peppery goat’s cheese from Agrigento.

But if I had to choose one cheese, it would be mozzarella di bufala. So good. As that rare thing in Italy – a vegetarian – I tend to get offered huge amounts of mozzarella. While everyone else is eating meat, I stuff myself with cheese. Valeriano’s father recently served me up a massive ball of mozzarella at lunch, as a substitute for chicken. “I can’t eat all that!” I exclaimed. I then proceeded to eat all of it.

Ice cream parlor

Gelato is the kind of dessert you pretend doesn’t count as dessert. If you pick a fruity flavour, it doesn’t seem particularly decadent, and in the summer you can find yourself eating it on a daily basis. Part of the problem is seeing tourists eating it all the time. They’re on holiday, so of course they’re going to treat themselves, but you can’t really behave like a tourist if you live in Rome. It’s not good for your waistline.

Gelateria of choice: Panna & Co in Testaccio, or Fassi near Piazza Vittorio. Flavours of choice: stracciatella, pistacchio, cioccolato, gianduia, mango e zenzero, pesche al vino


I once shared a flat with a French boy who was very dismissive about the quality of Italian bread. In general, I’d agree that most Italian bread is nothing special – it’s more something to fill up on than indulge in. But an inevitable consequence of eating out at restaurants regularly is that I consume far too much bread, picking at the bread basket while I wait for my primo to arrive.

Bread is an example of love and food combining to make me fat. I hardly ever bought bread when I was single, but Valeriano insists that no meal is complete without it (and that wasting or throwing away bread is a mortal sin).


My excuse for eating so much pasta – I always get home late from work (9-10pm) and am starving. I need to cook something that’s quick, easy and filling, and pasta is the obvious choice. Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, in butter and sage sauce. Pasta alla norma. Fettuccine with mushrooms and truffle. Cacio e pepe. Penne all’arrabbiata. Add a glass of wine and a side dish of cicoria ripassata and I’m in heaven.


Pizza (romana)
Non-Romans don’t think much of Roman pizza. “It’s not real pizza,” they scoff, “More like a cracker.” Roman pizza is very thin, and very crispy. It’s delicious though, and less guilt-inducing than the thicker, more calorific Neapolitan pizza. I usually go to Il Grottino in Testaccio when I’m craving pizza. While I’m waiting I watch the pizzaiolo at work; it’s strangely hypnotic. Definitely an art. The pizza at Da Remo is equally good, and I go there when I’m the mood for the real Roman experience – brusque waiters, chaos, suppli and paper-thin pizza that melts in your mouth.


Pizza (napoletana)
The Best. Nothing beats a proper, doughy margherita, made with the best tomatoes and the best mozzarella. If I lived in Naples I would probably weigh twice as much. My favourite pizzeria in Naples, Da Michele, recently opened a branch in London, and there was a lot of hysteria on social media. Neapolitan pizza has that effect on people. Although I do object to Da Michele being labelled as “the place where Julia Roberts eats pizza in Eat, Pray, Love”… So what? Neapolitans have been making spectacular pizzas for more than a century, and the famous pizzerias in Naples have had people queuing in the street long before Julia Roberts set foot in Da Michele.

I think you’re safe getting a pizza pretty much anywhere in Naples, but I’d particularly recommend Da Michele, Trianon and La Locanda del Grifo (pictured above). I was too traumatised by the queue at Di Matteo to go back. The pizza was sublime, but waiting an hour for the table and another hour for the pizza made me too angry to appreciate it properly.

The best Neapolitan style pizza I’ve had in Rome was at O Sole e Napule (Via Aosta 17 and Via Olevano Romano 67). My first attempt to try the pizza at O Sole e Napule was with Valeriano, early on in our relationship. I was coming down with some kind of horrible virus that evening, but I was so determined to enjoy my pizza that I went ahead and ordered anyway, despite my increasing nausea. The mere smell of the pizza made me feel worse, so we got it to take away instead, in the hope that I’d feel better later. I didn’t. I ended up getting out of the car and, much to my mortification, throwing up in the street. I think Valeriano ate my pizza cold the next morning. Since then, I’ve been back several times and had much better experiences…


In general, I don’t really have a sweet tooth, and I find it fairly easy to avoid the temptation of sweets, chocolates, etc. Tiramisu is the exception. During my first month in Rome, a friend (thank you Giulia!) introduced me to Pompi – essentially tiramisu heaven. As well as the classic tiramisu, they do pistacchio tiramisu, strawberry tiramisu, and banana and chocolate tiramisu. Elsewhere, I’ve also heard of “birramisu” (beer tiramisu), though I’ve never tried it.

My ex-boss inadvertently cured my tiramisu addiction by turning up at the office one day with several boxes of Pompi tiramisu. I find tiramisu is one of those things you have to actively crave. If you don’t actually want it, eating a large tiramisu can be something of a chore. The experience of feeling compelled to eat tiramisu just to be polite put me off for a while. Even though a branch of Pompi recently opened in Testaccio I have yet to visit.


Wine goes well with pasta. I eat a lot of pasta. I drink a lot of wine. I’m not much more knowledgeable about wine than I was before I came to Italy, though when I meet up with my friend Luca – a sommelier-in-training – he shows me how to swish and sniff and taste, rather than just gulping it down.

Some of my favourite places to drink wine include:

Il Goccetto (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14) – Cosy enoteca in the centro storico with great choice of wine and nibbles. Extra marks for having a very pretty ceiling. It’s friendly too. I once got a round of applause after coming out of the toilet, with everyone cheering my name (for no obvious reason).

Fafiuche (Via della Madonna dei Monti 28) – Another cosy enoteca, this time in Monti, specialising in the Piemonte region. There are more than 600 kinds of wine, and the aperitivo is very good.

La Fraschetta da Sandro (Via Galileo Ferraris 5) Very very Roman. This is where old men go to get drunk in Testaccio. The clientele is 99% Italian men – hardly a tourist (or woman) in sight. It’s something ridiculous like 2 euros for a generous glass of vino sfuso, and the food – bread, cheese, cold cuts and vegetables drenched in olive oil – is similarly good value.

Testaccio blackout


I’m walking home after work at around 9.30pm when I bump into my flatmate, Tom, on Via Marmorata. He’s standing in the street, looking slightly confused.

“What are you doing?

“I’m looking for a shop that sells candles. But nothing’s open at this time…”

It turns out that there’s been a power cut. Not just our flat, or our building, but the whole block. Part of me is excited – I’ve never experienced a proper power cut before – but I’m also disappointed that my cooking plans have been thwarted.

As we climb four flights of stairs in the dark, we pass our neighbour, the Actor (his motorino was the only one to survive the Motorino Inferno of 2016), and exchange greetings. I ask Tom if he’s talked to any of our other neighbours about the blackout. He hasn’t. But there’s nothing to say, really – we just have to wait it out.

Stumbling around in the flat, guided by the light of our phones, we find a few candles – a couple of scented candles from my room, and some dusty tealight candles in a kitchen drawer. I think of that episode from Friends where there’s a power cut, and their improbably spacious flat is filled with an improbable quantity of candles. Who has that many candles? It’s another example of their unrealistic luck and privilege – gigantic apartments, successful careers, a coffee shop sofa that’s always reserved for them, and 50 candles in storage.

Determined to cook, I light the scented candles in the kitchen and begin preparing something simple – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chili). I step out on the balcony and see all the darkened windows of the neighbouring buildings – it’s slightly eerie, how it’s all pitch black. Then I hear the familiar miaow of the neighbours’ cat, Gedeone. This chubby Siamese is a regular visitor to our flat. In fact, I don’t think he understands that he doesn’t live here, as he seems to view it as an extension of his own home. Whenever he sees one of us on the balcony he wails, demanding to be let in.

I open the front door and Gedeone runs in, rubbing himself against my legs. He has a habit of walking between your legs as you try to walk, which is particularly perilous when you’re cooking in a candlelit kitchen. An accident waiting to happen. I shoo him away from the candles and the frying pan and get back to cooking. By this point the mixed smells of the candles (red berry and cinnamon, spiced apple) is overpowering, and slightly off-putting. When you’re eating pasta, you want to smell the pasta, not choke on the aroma of scented candles.

After dinner I go to my room and wonder how to pass the time. No electricity means no internet, no light to read, no hot water for a shower. My laptop is fully charged, my phone at around 50%. As sources of light, they’re not much good, but in this moment they seem like the last, fading remnants of civilisation.

From my bedroom window I can see the street lights, the windows of the enoteca illuminated. The blackout is only affecting my small corner of Testaccio – a dark island surrounded by street lights and bright windows. It’s dark here, but it’s only temporary, and elsewhere there’s still plenty of light.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like in Ancient Rome. Back when night really meant darkness, when there were only candles and torches. Instead of brightly illuminated rooms, the occasional patch of flickering light.

21st century Rome may be much brighter than Ancient Rome, but there’s at least one place that would have been brighter in the past. After dark, the monumental ruins on the Palatine Hill practically disappear. Unlike the illuminated columns and archways of the Roman Forum, there are no lights here – just a vast, shadowy outline against the night sky. What would it have been like 2,000 years ago, when it was home to the emperors? I imagine rows of torches, banquet halls blazing, candles burning late into the night in the frescoed study of Augustus.

There are no lights now. Go to Via dei Cerchi – the street that divides Circo Massimo from the Palatine  – late at night. The street is lined by lamps, but on either side you’re surrounded by the dark remains of Ancient Rome. It’s like walking down a brightly lit pier, in the middle of a black sea.

Back in Testaccio, peering at the dim screen of my computer, I become aware of the hall light miraculously turning on. The blackout is over. While I’m relieved to have electricity again, in a strange way, I enjoyed the blackout. A few hours of darkness puts things in perspective.

Time to stock up on candles…