Caught in a Pottery Gang War but Ends on Palantine Hill – Rome Days 5 & 6

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View of the Forum from Palantine Hill. This must have been one busy place in its glory! It was a swamp drained by the Romans and then built upon. Much of it was stripped and destroyed to build the Vatican. It slowly returned to nature until it became a cattle pasture. The soil helped preserve and prevent further destruction.

End of Day 5


We took a relaxing train back to Rome from Ostia, and our plan was to take the subway back to our hotel. As we neared the transfer point, I realized that we were next to the Testaccio neighborhood. In ancient times this was the factory and warehouse area of Rome, and still remains a very working class area. Back in the Good Old Days of the Empire, it was the major manufacturing location for amphora. Amphora were pottery containers of all sizes used to store and ship olive oil, grain, wine, etc. Amphora did not have flat bottoms, and ended with a pointed or rounded bottom. You would never see shipping containers shaped like this today!  Amphora would sit in holes on racks in ships and it was quite efficient. They could stay upright on a swaying ship without tipping over. Pottery will break, of course, and two thousand years ago, they started piling all the broken pots and old rancid olive oil in one pile. And kept on piling in the same location century after century. It became so huge that it became known as Monte Testaccio, the 8th hill of Rome. It is enormous! I saw a TV show that said trendy restaurants had been built into the sides of the pottery mountain, and if you went inside you could see the walls were made of broken amphora.

The Testaccio district has historic slaughterhouses, and if you want to eat an offal dish (as in organs and intestinal based foods), this is the place to go.  I wonder if our word “awful” came from “offal?”  Rome is known for their ox tail stew, which was created here.

That was enough for me – I had to see this.  It took some persurasion, but I convinced George it would save us a trip to come back.  Off the train, and off in search of our pottery mountain.   As we exited the station, a surprise greeted us.  A pyramid!  The surprises never stop in Rome.   A 90 foot high marble pyramid built in the first century AD as a tomb for a wealthy Roman named Cestius. Cleopatra had just hit town, and it was fashionable to use an Egyptian theme.  And yes, there was a guy buried in there, but the tomb was looted in ancient times and again in 1660.  If you book in advance, small group tours are available twice a month.

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It was the end of the day, so this isn’t the best picture. The old city wall is still attached on the left side of the pyramid.

At the time our pyramid was built, Rome had strict rules forbiddingt the burial of  bodies within city limits, even if it was in a marble pyramid.  This area would have been the countryside, and well away from the population.  Rome grew rapidly, however, and by the time Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161 A.D., the pyramid actually became part of the wall of the city.  Just past the pyramid are the Protestant and British cemeteries. The poet Shelley is buried in the Protestant cemetery. The British cemetery was built for the soldiers who died in Italy during WWI and WWII; 10,000 and 40,000 soldiers, respectively.  It is sad, beautiful and lovingly landscaped.

The very next block, however, radically changed. Suddenly, everything was covered in graffiti, the sidewalks were in bad shape and the houses poor. Very poor. It was like turning the corner into another city. Monte Testaccio was only a few blocks further on the map, so we pushed on. By this time, it was very late in the afternoon, and we suddenly realized we were going to be in the dark, if we didn’t hurry.

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The neighborhood rapidly turned poor. I was afraid to take pictures of the worst of it, for fear someone would come out yelling.

Of course we went in the wrong direction and had to back track. On the map, we had to go down a small winding road that circled the mountain of pottery shards. Down we went, and the amphora mountain rises from its depths.  Such an interesting site!   In 2,000 years the pottery has broken down so now grass and trees are growing on it, with clumps of pottery sticking out.  In the guidebook and on the TV show, they said trendy wine bars were all around the base.

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What looks like stones is actually pieces of pottery. It was hard to get a good shot, it was getting dark. This was the only spot that had some sun on it. Not the best time to explore this area!

The trendy wine bars on this side of the mountain were all graffiti covered (and I mean covered) walls of run down bars, with stinking dumpsters set in front of them. As they are built into the mountain, there isn’t a back door to be had.  Dumpsters sit next to the front doors.  It looked like we were looking at the back side of an alley of old, dirty places – only these were the front. And the people weren’t looking particularly trendy. Groups of young men who didn’t look like wine drinkers. If it was America, I would expect the Bloods or the Crips gangs to roll out of a bar.  So much for TV documentaries….and it totally inhibited my picture taking.  I guess I wouldn’t make a great investigative reporter/photographer!  We found out later this area comes alive late in the evening.  Apparently we were there before everyone woke up.  The people we saw were probably leftover from the night before.

And I’m walking with George, who is exhausted. He is slow when his engine is revved up, and his battery had died hours before. He was totally doing this out of his love for a pushy woman.  On the map, it looked like if we kept going, we would climb back out and hit a main street. I thought it would be safer to be walking on a street, rather than a gulley, in the dark, without lights. We climbed up out of the mountain and run smack into a bunch of warehouses, closed businesses covered in grafitti, and broken up streets with unsavory characters standing around. I’m not sure what to do. If we turn back, we are walking down an unlit road in front of a bunch of bars and no groups of tourists. If we go forward, I felt like we were stepping into a scene from West Side Story and we would be in the middle of a gang fight – or be the evening’s entertainment for all groups.

Weirdly, a horse-drawn carriage suddenly appears in the parking lot we are standing in. Okay, let’s take the horse carriage and have the old man drive us to the train station! I wave him down. He glances at me like he might stop, but a small car pulls up and frightens the horse. The horse starts rearing and acting crazy. The horse doesn’t like this neighborhood either! With a shrug, he gives the horse its head and they trot erratically off. Damn, no horse to the rescue!

George and I are flat unsure what to do. “They” say it is important not to look frightened – appear confident. Yes, that’s right. Two seniors who are confident that they are about to be mugged, or worse. Suddenly, four policeman, holding batons, with guns, and walking side-by-side like they are ready to do battle with the men in the parking lot, approach. Oh geez, this is not looking good, and the local rowdies are looking even meaner.  Spontaneiously, (and probably not a wise decision) I grabbed my map and ran up to the policeman closest to me and asked him how to get back to the train station. He looked at the unsavory characters and at us. He obviously thought we were the two stupidest tourists he had seen that day (and he was probably correct). He pointed the way we had come and sternly told us to go – now. Actually, he sort of shouted it.  No need to say it twice! We were off back through the unlit roadway as quick as two old farts can go.  I hate to think what might have happened if we had lingered.

George may not walk quickly, but he definitely moved right along. About a fourth of the way back, I realized a lone man was walking behind us. We were all alone in an almost dark wooded area, without lights.  Boogeyman time.  I quietly told George not to turn around but look confident and keep walking.  Nobody came out of the ring of  bars imbedded in the amphora (which might have been a good thing).  I tried to think how I could whack the guy with my backpack and take him down in an old lady kung fu move.  He slowly seemed to be overtaking us.  To get out of the gully, we had to ascend a long flight of stairs.  Great, George is not good on stairs.  But height would be an advantage when I swung my backpack against the boogeyman’s head.  Just as we reached the steps, the guy passed us with a smile and a friendly good evening greeting.  Oh my, I was ready to go buy a bag of adult diapers.  His presence, however, did keep both of us moving!

Back past the cemeteries, around the pyramid, through the old Aurellian wall of Rome and we were back on the subway. All was fine, nothing happened, but it was a reminder that all areas of Rome are not the same, and a few blocks can make a big difference!

Day 6 – Palantine Hill!

Today was our last guided tour, and it was a big one. I had arranged for a private guide for the Palatine Hill, which sits above the Forum. This was where the first group of people had settled in Rome. Actually, they were a group of thieves and robbers who took up residence there – away from anyone looking for them. These were the forefathers of the aristocrats of ancient Rome. They were so nasty that nobody would let their daughters marry them. If you have ever heard of the Rape of the Sabine Women, it was their story of kidnapping women from the Sabine folks over the hills to take for wives. If you were from these first families of Rome, you were of special lineage. I’m sure they glossed over the thieves and robbers part of the story.

Palatine Hill was the Nob Hill or Beverly Hills of today. It was for the rich only, and became THE place to locate your palace. Another bucket list item was a tour of the Palace of Augustus.  And it was closed for rennovation!  Damn.  But this means another trip to Rome, which is fine with me.  We toured extensively the palace of Septimus Severus. He built over top of the Flavian Palace (they built the Colosseum), who had built over top of Nero’s palace. You can see layers of each palace in different areas. This palace covered over 30 acres – it is hard to imagine how gigantic this place was. That doesn’t include the yard – this was just the building area.

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Looking down into ruins of the palace. It’s hard to fathom the luxury. Queen Elizabeth would be right at home.
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Guido, our amazing guide. I’d really recommend a private guide if you want the full experience. It is worth the cost.
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There was a modern art exhibit in different rooms of the palace. This one seemed so out of place. A big bear relieving himself… just didn’t fit with the surroundings. Septimus Severus must have been turning in his grave over this one.
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Guido taught us how to tell the different ages of the palace by the construction of bricks. Not only the original construction, but restoration over the centuries. He also explained building techniques and how the master masons kept walls level and true. Fascinating!

We spent three happy hours learning about how it was built, the massive tunnel system for slaves and servants, politics – it was incredible. Our guide Guido was knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor. It was a lot of walking for George, and it was pretty hot, but he was very kind and kept finding places for him to sit in the shade. He also showed me caper plants, which grow like weeds around there. Pine trees are so different than in Oregon.  Tall, with fairly long needles with a round canopy of needles at the top only. They call them umbrella pines, because they look like an umbrella with a long, tall handle. They are also the source of pinoli nuts; a gourmet variety of the pine nuts. They are the primo ingredient for pesto sauces. Because they are so flavorful, a smaller amount is used than regular pine nuts. And they are dreadfully expensive. We also saw cork trees, which are used to make wine corks, of course! After all, this is Rome!

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Capers do not grow in grocery store jars! They are considered almost a weed and grow everywhere.
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See the umbrella pines in the background. We are on a walking path around the horse exercise area. Ladies would come walking and admire the hunky guys working out their horses.

After three hours in the sun, George and I both were ready to wilt. George wanted to have a nice lunch, so Guido took us to a non-touristy restaurant on a side street and left us there. It turned out to be an incredible restaurant, often visited by celebrities. Guido was very proud, he secured us the same table that Al Pacino had sat at; there was a picture of him on the wall over the table. Good old Al aside, the food was simply amazing, and the prices were good.


George wanted wine, and ordered the house wine. The restaurant has been there for over a hundred years and the fourth generation now runs it. The current owner is a lovely young woman, who speaks fair English. She looked at George and said it was a large carafe – was he sure he could drink it all. He assured her that he would try. I dropped my jaw, because I sure wasn’t going to help him! He was hot and dehydrated, so he guzzled a bottle of sparking water and then managed to kill off most of the wine. George isn’t a big drinker, he likes a glass of wine with dinner some nights. This was pretty ambitious!

We started with an incredible bruschetta topped with ricotta cheese, arugula pesto, fresh tomatoes and anchovies. Okay, it was to die for – plain and simple, For the first course we shared a bowl of pasta with a sauce of black pepper, pecorino cheese and black truffles. Oh. My. Goodness. For the second course, George had some spaghetti thing, and I had baked sea bass with olives and capers. I thought I was going to explode at this point, but somehow made room for some lemon gelato. And no, I did not count the calories or the points!

All this while, George is working on the wine. For the most part, George is a quieter type of guy in public. But put a liter of wine into him when he is hot and dehydrated? Oh my, He decided he had really picked up on the Italian language and the words were just flowing out of him. Unfortunately, it meant putting an “o” on the end of every word. When the waiter came up and asked if we wanted anything, George grins broadly, sweeps his arm and says loudly, “Yes, I would like some ice creamo!”  Ice creamo? Oh oh. I realized that the wine might be having an effect. I can’t remember when I have seen George in his cups, but this is apparently it.

Next, he said something about his napkino, and when the waiter brought his little debit card machine, George exclaimed “Oh look, he has a little machino!” At that point, I gave him the stink eye and told him to sit quietly. He grinned broadly and said Italian was really pretty easy, once you got the hang of it!

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George is not much of a smiler, but this is a big grin after drinking the liter of wine. We walked to the Metro through the Subura district. This is the area Julius Caesar grew up in. His mother owned a seven story apartment building, filled with people of different cultures. It was not Palantine Hill! He learned to speak several languages, and enjoyed different cultures growing up there, which helped him be a popular hero to the common man.

While his speech was much more voluminous, his speed wasn’t. We ambled slowly to the metro stop and made our way back to the room. George had a wonderful nap. I went for a walk and was going to buy some gifts. Unfortunately, I forgot my wallet, so I just had a nice stroll and enjoyed the sights. As it is Friday, the town is filling with visitors and the streets were crowded with people pulling suitcases behind them. We will be leaving on Monday, and already I am sad.

After our enormous lunch, we skipped dinner. Instead, we had dessert on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel. It has a panoramic view of the city of the city at night. All of the major monuments are lit and shine like golden treasures all around us. It truly is a spectacular sight to sit in the warm night, eating a bowl of  fresh sweet fruit and a cup of Italian coffee. God bless Weight Watchers, but a bag of Cinnaliscious crunchy snacks and a cup of Folgers just isn’t the same.

We are living every moment and enjoying it to the fullest. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that! In the words of my loving husband – “That’s Sweeto!”



Author: Traveling Grandma

As an aging mother of six and grandma to seven, travel was always a dream. Diapers, work and an eccentric high-maintenance husband just seemed to keep those trips a distant desire. Eventually, however, the kids potty trained, lived through the teenage angst years and left the nest to start their own families. Work still gets in the way for my husband, but it does help pay for the trips! Can't do much about the eccentric, high-maintenance husband; after 36 years I have reconciled that he will never pick up his underwear. He's my partner for life, travel companion and can always be counted on to do something totally odd. It makes for a good story, and besides - without his major financial contribution, we would sitting at home year after year, watching yet another rerun of NCIS. Due to a major health scare, I recently retired - and love retirement! I have always LOVED to cook. My love of food, and birthing those babies, led to an 85 pound weight gain. After joining a weight loss program, I shed the weight, went to work for them and found a new career. For me, it was a dream job. How many people can say they loved their job? I got to work together with people and help them live a healthy lifestyle, and lose weight. And it changed the way I cook! Instead of coating foods with fat and/or sugar, I've learned to bring out the real flavor in foods and keep them healthy. It's a joy to travel the world and explore new foods. I'm always on the lookout for different foods and willing to try almost anything. George, my husband, is always aghast at my choices. He's looking for a McDonald's while I'm trying to find the best local eatery. Checking out grocery stores and food forums in different countries is endless fun. Bringing back cooking ingredients keeps the memories alive every time they are used in a recipe back home. Paprika from Budapest, Sumac from Turkey, dried squid from Japan....what a lucky person I am to experience it all. Life is interesting everywhere, and there is always something humorous to be found, even in my own backyard of Mt Hood, Oregon. I love to journal and people have been telling me for years to become a writer. As Medicare is now a prominent part of my life, I figured this was as good a time as any. If I don't do it now, I'll be writing stories about my neighbors in the nursing home. A big trip will probably be whacking along in my walker to the day room to watch the Travel Channel. I take heart that Colonel Sanders started his finger lickin' fortune late in life because he wasn't afraid to try something new. So here I go!

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