The other day, while listening to a podcast, I thought it might be a good idea to start recording bits and pieces from the people I meet here at The Beehive and the unique conversations that can often take place. I hadn’t really committed to it until the other morning.
To set the scene: guy comes in with a backpack asking if he can eat in the cafe even though he’s not a guest. He’s vegan and just found us online. He heads down for breakfast and when he returns to the reception, he asks if he can leave his bag here for a while. I asked how long a while might be and he said he needs it stored for a few days. I said I can store it until the evening, but that if he wants to hold it longer, he should check out the checked luggage at Termini.
A bit curious, I ask where he’s staying and he responds that he’ll be in a sleeping bag in front of St. Peter’s.
“Pause,” I said. “Mind if I record your answer?”
What follows is the first “episode” of Conversations with Guests.
If you want to experience small town life in Italy that’s a quick and easy distance from Rome without needing to rent a car – I highly recommend visiting the medieval hill town of Orvieto. Orvieto is easily reachable by train from Rome’s Termini train station and depending on the train takes 50 minutes to an hour & twenty minutes to reach.
Orvieto sits up on a rock which when coming from Rome you can’t really see from the train. As you exit the station at Orvieto, cross the piazza and take the funicular up into town. The original funicular started running in 1888 and used a water powered system. The ride up is a smooth and effortless 2 minute climb up the side of the rock past people’s homes, olive groves and vineyards.
Exiting the funicular station, you can walk up Corso Cavour one of the main streets located directly in front you and be in the town’s center in about 10 minutes. Or you can jump on the A bus that takes you to the front of the Duomo – Orvieto’s cathedral – in less than 5 minutes.
Many Romans come to Orvieto on the weekend to stroll around the town and have a nice lunch. Orvieto is in the region of Umbria and has loads of great restaurants serving local, regional cuisine. Cinghiale (wild boar), truffles, umbrichelli (a thick spaghetti-type pasta made with flour & water) and the Orvieto Classico – a dry white wine, are typical specialties of the area.
There are a lot of very good restaurants in Orvieto. Our family’s favorite is Trattoria del Moro-Aronne. This family owned and run restaurant is very popular in the guidebooks so usually crowded with visitors, but they have not lost their integrity as some places that get popular do – their food is great. When eggplant is in season go for the polpette di melanzane (eggplant patties) and their roasted potatoes. Their nidi di rondine with pecorino and honey is a cheese-lovers delight (warning – sweet & rich, but oh so good) and they make a fantastic porcini mushroom/truffle pasta dish. The owners, Cristian and his mother Rolanda are super nice and friendly. Bistrotters is owned and run by Emiliano & Ilaria who took over a long-standing restaurant that had seen better days and transformed it into this stylish yet casual spot. The staff are super friendly and they have a large outdoor dining area with good pizzas, pastas and great wine. Trattoria del Orso is the two-man operation of Ciro and Gabriele. Ciro will explain the day’s dishes and Gabriele cooks in the kitchen. I particularly like their pasta dish with mushroom and truffles and they have some excellent meat dishes (I’m told. Being vegetarian, I have to trust the meat-eaters I know). After your meal, ask Ciro for his latest digestivo. They make their own liqueurs out of natural ingredients such as bay leaf and other plants. A bit hidden away is Mezzaluna if you are looking for a quick bite to eat with local grumpy ambiance. The owner is a bit gruff, but does serve up what my daughters consider some of the best carbonara they’ve ever eaten and the price is right.
THINGS TO SEE & DO:
Dolceamaro – Corso Cavour, 78 – a chocolate shop with artisan handmade chocolates and cookies and in the winter – their excellent hot chocolate and in the summer, their gelato.
La Loggia – Corso Cavour, 129 – wine shop
Enoteca al Duomo – Corso Cavour 51 near Torre del Moro – wine shop owned by friends of ours who also have a location at the Duomo and owners of the Bistrotters restaurant mentioned previously.
When you’re in the midst of the chaos of an urban city center like Rome, it’s difficult to imagine that just a few kilometers out of town you’ll find a rural idyll with green hills, rolling green pastures, olive trees, grapevines, sheep and horses. Yet just 40 minutes by train north of Rome is a beautiful area called Sabina that easily rivals Tuscany and Umbria for its green and natural beauty.
I used to take horseback riding lessons in the Sabina area, but when I was pregnant with our third child, I was told very sternly by my midwife that horseback riding and pregnancy do not mix. Unfortunately, I never did go back to my lessons, but recently, thanks to our friends at Convivio Rome, I have been spending time in the area again.
Convivio Rome is small tour company run by Sally Ransom and Guido Santi, an Australian-Italian couple who offer cooking tours out of their home in the small medieval town of Toffia as well as wine and olive oil tours of the surrounding Sabine countryside. They were kind enough to invite me first on an olive oil tour last year and then a wine tour a year later this past April.
The only way to see this area is by car and Sally and Guido meet and pick you up in their own vehicle at the Fara Sabina-Montelibretti train station located 40 minutes from Rome’s Tiburtina station. The countryside here like many parts of Italy is agricultural and there are orchards and vineyards a plenty.
The area of Sabina has been cultivating olives and making olive oil for thousands of years. In fact one of the oldest and largest olive trees in Europe, “l’Olivone” is located in this area and has been dated as being over 2,000 years old!
The olive oil from the Sabina are is one of the few olive oils to earn the DOP label (protected designation of origin) and many consider the olive oil here to be some of the finest in Italy.
Wine is equally important to the area and its cultivation started with the Etruscans in the area back in 800BC. We visited the Tenuta of Santa Lucia owned by the Colantuono family who have been wine producers in the Abruzzo region for 50 years and who bought the current vineyard in the Sabina area 10 years ago.
They are small producers, but their wine is exported as far away as the US and Japan. The grapes they grow are Malvasia, Falanghina, Pecorino, Syrah, Merlot, Montepulciano and Sauvignon.
We spent the day following the wine-making process with Massimo, a young oenologist, who explained in depth the scientific and technical aspects of wine production. Then we had a few tastings – a white and a red, along with some bruschetta and local oil.
Sally and Guido then took us to the nearby tiny borgo of Farfa, home of the Abbazia di Farfa (Farfa Abbey) and to Benedictine monks since the 600s. The borgo is small and seemingly perfect with an eclectic mix of people – I’ve seen tai chi practitioners to yogis to teenagers playing football in the local park in town.
There are only a handful of shops and places to eat including a place called i 4 Monaci where Sally & Guido took us for a light snack lunch and more local wine. This eclectic shop specializes in funky artisan products as well as many organic Italian skin care products and they sell an incredible homemade dark chocolate with hazelnut and pistachio.
A 3 hour tour turned into 4, but Sally and Guido were very patient and drove us to the train station afterward. Personally it was very gratifying to see visitors to Italy getting off the tourist path and I had a wonderful time with a diverse group of people who by the end had developed a camaraderie after a fun day together.
If you have some time while in Rome, but don’t have a car, just contact Convivio Rome. Their tours are very reasonably priced and getting out to the Sabina countryside is easy and hassle-free. Wine and olive oil are inherent parts of Italian culture and are revered worldwide – it’s worthwhile taking the time to learn more about them while you’re here.
In the center of Rome alone there are over 100 museums. They range from the most visited (Vatican Museums ) to the oldest (Capitoline Museums ) to another that many people consider has one of the most exceptional collections of art under one roof. ( Galleria Borghese )
While these museums are definitely worthwhile to visit, the last time I visited the Vatican Museums in 1995 I was so overwhelmed by the hot, sticky crush of humanity that all these years later I’m still in shock over it and have never gone back. Granted, I should probably give it another try, but for now, I’ve got other fish to fry.
There’s something I like about those places that are off the radar and that are not so well known and less well known means less people which is a huge plus for me. Context Travel’s tours in the public interest offers the perfect opportunity to explore those unnoticed gems in Rome and they started their season with a “Hidden Museums” series. The series features tours of four museums that are often overlooked and yet full of important and interesting works of art, free of the masses and yet in an easily doable and digestible 1.5 hours.
Their first featured museum was the Centrale Montemartini. “Gods & Machines” was the perfect title of the first exhibit that took place here at this former power plant turned museum space when it was restored back in the 90’s. Many ancient Roman sculptures from the Capitoline Museums found a home here.
The pieces here are beautiful and the contrast between the industrial and the classical in this art nouveau style building is striking. There were only a handful of other visitors when we were there and yet so surprising considering what an exceptional and very unusual space it is.
The second tour was of the Museo di Roma in the Palazzo Braschi (the first photo in this post is of the grand staircase). Palazzo Braschi looks out onto Piazza Navona and was the last papal building in Rome constructed in the late 1700’s and giving it the nickname “the last miracle of St. Peter.” The museum is full of very detailed paintings of a Rome long since gone and it was fun trying to guess which part of Rome we were looking at before reading the title of the painting. An unusual touch is the classical music played in the grand staircase leading up to the different floors.
Context’s next Hidden Museums tours will be of Palazzo Venezia in Piazza Venezia on 27 May and the Museum of the Middle Ages in the EUR neighborhood on 24 June. Tours must be booked on-line and are only €5. Tours start at 5pm and last 90 minutes.
I lived in Panama as a child and I was a bit of a wildish creature. I spent 6 years barefoot and most of my waking hours were spent without walls – the worst punishment I could receive from my mother was being made to stay inside for the day. One of the highlights of our neighborhood was a hill that my friends and I dubbed “Clay Hill”. We played on it a lot and in the rainy season that hill became a slippery, red, muddy mess, but as children do – we were oblivious and we played on despite the mud and the wet.
Unbeknownst to many, Rome has its own “clay hill”. Monte Testaccio is not really a mountain, but a huge hill made up of the shards and fragments of amphorae dating back to the 1st century BC. Amphorae were terracotta pots used to carry a variety of products and the ones to carry olive oil were not reusable so they were discarded after use. These discarded pots are what formed Monte Testaccio. Estimates of how many amphorae were deposited on here range from 20-50 million. I’ve always been curious about this hill and it was great to explore it recently with Katie Parla of Parla Food.
Before the walk up, Katie showed us a bit around the part of the Testaccio neighborhood just surrounding the bottom of the hill. We stopped by Testaccio’s food market which was moved to its present location in 2011 and which is overlooked by a mural of “La Lupa” – a 20 meter tall depiction of the Capitoline She-Wolf by Belgian street artist, ROA, that was commissioned by the residents of the building.
During the walk we observed the beginning stages of the dismantling of the Big Bambù installation by artists Mike & Doug Starn at the MACRO Testaccio which had been a beloved part of the Testaccio landscape for the past 3 years. The MACRO Testaccio is located in what were the former city slaughterhouses.
From the grounds of the MACRO and the Città del Altra Economia – a fair trade complex also located here – Monte Testaccio from the distance looks like an ordinary green hill. However, its uniqueness is more apparent the closer you get as you can see from this path leading up the hill.
At the top of Monte Testaccio is an iron cross. For years, the summit served as the final stage of the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) for the Pope during the Good Friday celebrations which now take place at the Colosseum. Some of the views from Monte Testaccio look out into the area of early industrial Rome in the Ostiense neighborhood and the Gazometro structure that was built in the early 1900’s – now no longer in use.
On another side of the hill Katie pointed out the birthplace of the football team, AS Roma, the pitch where the team had its first games back in 1929, abandoned in the 40’s and turned into an illegal dumping ground. Still standing are 4 lights surrounding the pitch and some stadium seating. You can see the top of the Pyramid of Cestius – Rome’s own pyramid – in the background.
As we walked back down the hill what came to mind was “where the hell else in the world could I do something like this?!?” Rome truly never ceases to amaze me!
Katie’s next visit of Monte Testaccio will be on Rome’s 2,768th birthday on 21 April.
Be sure to visit one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, Flavio al Velavevodetto, built into Monte Testaccio.