7 October 2018

Vicarello

Are you sitting comfortably?





If you fly into Rome from Northern Europe in daylight, just after the cabin crew have taken their seats for landing, and just before you hear the clunk of the landing gear extending into place, you will have the Tyrrhenian Sea on the right and Lake Bracciano, or the Lacus Sabatinus as it once was, on the left.  Once upon a time you might have landed here, at Vigna di Valle





in your seaplane, for a stopover on your way to India or Australia, but now you plunge on to the flatlands of Fiumicino.




Anyway, imagine, if you will, your 'plane is glass bottomed, and that, just for a minute or two, it stops midair for you to take in the scenery..... Almost immediately below you you will see a blue swimming pool by a large, tiled building in the midst of green countryside.  There are some smaller, greyish pools in the greenery, with people calmly bathing in the steaming water.  These are the Bagni di Stigliano, a place of volcanic springs enjoyed since Etruscan times and highly esteemed by the Romans.  





If you see this complex, you will note that it is neither large, nor obtrusive, and it nestles in virtually unspoiled countryside, on the east of the Monti di Tolfa and just south of the Monterano Nature Reserve, with its ruined village, church and palace.





Directly east of here you will see the forests of La Macchia Grande di Manziana, the bubbling Caldara, with its white birches, 



then after that the forested slopes of the caldera that holds Lake Bracciano.




It is beautiful.  Not absolutely untouched by human hand, but still a green and pleasant land.











Imagine, if you will, this was Trumpland.  Golf courses, villas spattered amongst the woods, casinos and hotels aplenty.

Or, if it's possible, worse....

Well, hold your breath.






Trevignano Romano is a picturesque village about fifty kilometres north of Rome.  It sits on the shore of Lake Bracciano, a bottomless (some 160 metres deep, but even Jacques Cousteau failed to find the deepest point) lake which fills a 30 kilometre round volcanic caldera.  The village is dominated by the remains of an Orsini castle (destroyed in 1496 by one of the Borgia family) and a forested volcanic cone, known as the Rocca Romana, to commemorate the shrine the Romans created on its top.  Volcanic activity is still very much present in the area, with a derelict hot-spring spa at Vicarello (about three kilometres from the village) awaiting multinational corporation agreement on its redevelopment. 

And there's the rub....




Vicarello, which takes its name from Vicus Aurelii (Marcus Aurelius was here....), is the name now given to 1016 hectares of land which includes a small rustic trattoria, a crumbling palazzo where the erstwhile owners, the Collegio Germanico in Rome, used to hold retreats for the faithful, a large farm, which produces wonderful olive oil among other products, a chapel and the Casina Valadier, once used as a hunting lodge by the Orsini family.  Below this you can see the remains of part of the Trajan Aquaduct, which carried water, the Acqua Paola, into Trastevere in Rome.  


The trattoria at Vicarello

[I have to declare a personal interest here.  This trattoria was run for many years by a delightful family, and it was one of my favourite haunts.  On occasions I would take the train from Rome to Oriolo Romano and then walk down through the woods and fields to Vicarello and lunch at this trattoria - their Coniglio alla Cacciatore (hunter-style rabbit) was to die for - and then wander the last three kms home, full of good wine and benevolence.  The family moved to a slightly grander, independent location nearer Trevignano, and my friend, Rosa, moved in, keeping all the traditions of local produce and simple treatment.

Rosa retired recently, but I managed to confuse her with her younger sister in the steam of the kitchen (nuff said) and things were going well, though the last time I tried to get a table there, Ridley Scott had taken the place over to film a scene for All the Money in the World.  Not to be outdone, I pushed myself forward, reminding Ridley that I was a Replicant from Blade Runner..... Would you believe it?  He declared me illegal.....]


Nearby, down a gated lane, surrounded by woods and olive groves, there is a derelict hotel and outbuildings once known as Aquae Apollinares, or the Terme Apollinari (despite dispute with the not distant Bagni di Stigliano over the appropriateness of this name).  Here mineral water springs from the ground at 48 degrees Celsius, and (in the later 19th and through the 20th century) sufferers from arthritis and rheumatism, gout, post-fracture trauma and other delights would trek here to rest and be cured.  



The Albergo Terme Apollinari, 1936
During WWII this was briefly used as a German military hospital, and then in 1962 the hotel was modernised and flourished until the Società Agricola di Vicarello ran into financial difficulties and was sold.  By the early 1980s the baths were in ruins.





In 1989 the new owners, Schroder Asseily & Co Ltd. (who provide financial advisory services from 41 Upper Grosvenor Street, Mayfair) began planning a great new Spa, under the name of The Vicarello Partnership, which included Mannai Trading & Investment Co. Ltd. (from Bahrain), two Cypriot companies and the Harkness company, which is based in Grand Cayman.  The project comprised a hotel complex, commercial facilities, 271 villas and three golf courses.  Italia Nostra and other environmental agencies, understanding what damage this would cause to the natural environment and considering the historical value of the location, opposed the plan and in 1994 the then Minister for the Beni Culturali, Alberto Ronchey, blocked the proposal and in 1999,  with the approval of regional law Number 26 on the part of the Region of Lazio, the Parco Naturale Regionale di Bracciano-Martignano was initiated.

Unfortunately, although the offer was on the table, the Region of Lazio did not take up the option to actually acquire this superb natural park, not even in 2014 when The Vicarello Partnership broke up.

And so, with the help of a certain Italo-Australian broker, John Cassisi, this jewel of unspoiled land has recently passed to Chinese buyers, for somewhere between 16 and 25 million euros (the deal has been cloaked in secrecy and so no details are available and estimates vary), or something in the region of 20,000 euros per hectare.....  




No one knows precisely how many people currently live in Trevignano Romano.  When we resided there in the eighties and nineties the received wisdom was that around 2,500 people lived there in the winter and that that figure might rise to as many as twenty thousand at times in the summer.  A recent (2008) census figure put the population at
 5,819 but many of those will not be permanently resident.  

And more will never mean better.....



Trevignano from the Rocca degli Orsini, with La Chiesa dell'Assunta 


Until the second world war Trevignano was little more than a fishing village, and metalled roads did not reach it.  Then, in the fifties, market gardening flourished and the villagers prospered by getting up early and trucking their produce into the Rome central markets in the early hours of the morning.  The fertile volcanic soil was perfect for tomatoes and salad crops, beans and leaf vegetables.  For a while, until the coastal strips to the north and south of Rome caught up, there was a boom. 

When, inevitably, that faded, the village was on the map, Gianni Agnelli’s Fiats were everywhere, the roads had been tarred, and Trevignano became a desirable place for holiday outings, then second homes, and then even commuters.  Instead of being a tight jumble of close-knit houses around the church, with the occasional villa along the shoreline, the march of apartment blocks away from the medieval centre began, but it remains a quiet village, busy in the summer, but sleepy like a cat in the winter.





And so, I put it to you, what possible need have 'the Chinese' (whether an individual, a corporation, or a multinational) for a small, historic, beautiful parcel of land and derelict buildings in the unspoiled natural wonderland of the Monti Sabatini, unless (and I admit this is a possibility, though implausible) they are lovers of natural Italy?



Unfortunately it is unlikely that a development on the modest scale of the existing Bagni di Stigliano would generate sufficient return on the necessary outlay for distant landlords.




So, wondering what these various entities really want out of a remote, beautiful, small corner of Italy, I would suggest that the motive is either to launder money (by buying and then eventually reselling), or to make quick profits which can only result in the ruination of the natural environment and the degradation of the existing human social and historical balance with that nature.




Understandably, perhaps, there will be people in the locality who would enjoy the potential wealth foreign money might bring; there will be employment, more visitors with more money, but, in the long term, when the cement has replaced the chestnut trees there will be no more porcini....








If you are, currently, sitting comfortably, then I would advise you to make the most of it, as I fear that greedy eyes are even now thinking how they can develop and profit from your nice comfy seat.....

And the world will not be a better place for it.







As Francesco de Gregori sings, 
in Viva L'Italia,


Viva l'Italia, presa a tradimento,

l'Italia assassinata dai giornali e dal cemento...







4 October 2018

Roma - Back in the glue pot again!

Towers of Silence.....




I am watching Trust, a sprawling dramatisation of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in 1973.  It takes me back, sort of, to Rome in the 70s.  Getty was expelled from St George's English School a little before I taught there, and the whole affair was over a couple of years before I arrived.... but I claim a remote connection, and, in the midst of the herds of tourists on my recent visit, I feel a sense of belonging.... 

{er...To the city, not the tourists, y'unnerstan?} 




This was my street, in Trastevere, where I lived on the second floor of 169 Via di San Francesco a Ripa....




They were exciting times, for many reasons.  Kidnapping was one thing.....  The deaths of three of my transvestite neighbours, found shot and dumped on the periphery of the city after some drug deals went wrong, added to the spice of life.....  In the Caffè di Marzio, in Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, a hundred metres from our door, my flatmate was stabbed in the stomach, in exactly the spot from which I took this photograph....






Unsurprisingly, things have transmuted. Trastevere is now trendy, in a Montmartyrdom sort of way, with lots of bright young things and laughter and spritzers and chips....  Despite defacement, the sign on this Caffè hasn't changed....




But its interior and nature has....  You would never have got a beer here in the seventies.  It was coffee or milk, and a digestivo, and that was about it.


But not everything e cambiatoSanta Cecilia still rests her marble head under the altar in her church....





And round the corner the finest fifteenth century cloister in Rome, if not the world, that of the Pia Società di S. Giovanni dei Genovesi, is still fairly difficult to access....





But despite the trends some of the narrow lanes and alleys in this part of town, where Genoese sailors stopped over while their ships were unloaded on the Ripa Grande, are still quiet and atmospheric....




And some, at least, of the restaurants maintain the post war charm that Fellini and co - and Peck and Hepburn - celebrated.... 




Across the river, in Roma propria, between Largo Argentina and Piazza Paganica, I pause at the doorway of via Sant'Elena, 8, known to have been home to one of the covi (hideouts) of the Brigate Rosse in the '70s,  possibly even the place in which Aldo Moro passed his last hours on the night of May 8th/9th 1978, and where he was shot in the back seat of the red Renault 4, in the garage of what now claims to be a fish shop.





I look up at the shuttered windows, not unlike my own flat across the river, and wonder what secrets they could tell....






And I look round the back, at the dingy, narrow Vicolo dei Falegnami, down which Moro may have been hustled and into the back door of via Sant'Elena, 8,






Before being killed, stuffed into the boot, and driven to be 'discovered' in Via Caetani, right outside one of the stations of the Fiamme Gialle, the Guardia di Finanza, Cossiga's Teste di Cuoio, a branch of Italian Military Police whose role, amongst others, is to be anti-terrorist.  They also have a pleasant beach resort at Fregene, where Aldo Moro is thought to have been held for a while before being brought into the city to be murdered..... from where he got sand in his trouser turn ups.....





Beware of the Griffons, I say!





Yes, Rome is full of secrets.  Mutterings in huddles of bandsmen,  





Quiet phone calls from men in suits,





Whispers in the darkness of churches,





Or painful sighs behind closed blinds in secret service offices,






Rome has always been like this.  In the middle ages, powerful families sealed themselves inside towers like this, La Torre dei Capocci,







Or like this one, the Torre dei Conti, built at the beginning of the thirteenth century by Pope Innocent III, mentioned by Petrarch, and then partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1348....






Then there's the granddaddy of them all, the massive Torre delle Milizie, also from the thirteenth century, but leaning perilously above the ruins of Trajan's Forum, and reputedly the site where Nero fiddled when Rome burned....







Towers of silence.  As Dylan sang, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere....






But light still shines on the tourists in the city, mostly happy and oblivious to the darker side of history.  They take their selfies by the Fontana di Trevi,








Relax awhile in the Piazza di Spagna,  where Little Pauly dances alone in Danny Boyle's Trust.  Climb the steps to the church of Trinità dei Monti (hard by the Hassler Hotel where Tony Soprano ate his last pound of Foie Gras)....






Gape at the columns and the ruins of the Imperial Forum,







And wander aimlessly on the unnaturally white Carrara marble of the Wedding Cake, the Altare della Patria, in saluting distance of Mussolini's office in the Palazzo Venezia....







Me, I'll sip a beer and read my book, 







And peer down at the dark street below, secretly wishing it were yesterday,








Then in the morning,







Is that really the time?








I must pick up my bed,

And walk....








And get back to sniffing at secrets in this dog-forsaken city....









And, trust me, a dog will have its day,

Or maybe it is the wolf, the wolf that suckled Rome and made it what it is....

Free to Roam

(You are, secretly, being watched)





Trust me....