7 October 2018


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...

Post scriptum:  My informants tell me that the China connection intends to reconstruct the hotel and reopen the spa, and perhaps that will be that.....  All good if so.  Work for local people, minimal disturbance to the environment, and a reconstitution of a once-valued asset to the locality.

Time will tell.  I am not an economist, but something here does not add up.....

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