Italy in Books - Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

I seem to have a knack for picking books that don't represent the picture postcard Italy, that show Italy perhaps in a less than romantic light. With this in mind, I simply have to recommend Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano as an excellent book for those with an interest in the murkier side of Italy. There are no vineyards, no piazzas full of kids playing calcio, indeed la dolce vita is completely absent. Instead, these classic Italian scenes are replaced by an altogether different Italy. Dodgy meetings out at sea, where 'invisible' goods are loaded onto smaller boats and smuggled into Italy, turf wars just outside Naples, and a look into the dark heart of the rapacious fashion world are all detailed here. In short, Gomorrah is no 'Under the Tuscan Sun', but it is a fascinating read and forms my April entry for the Italy in Books reading Challenge. The other April reviews can be found here.

I don't know enough of the politics, nor the culture, to assess whether the book is truly representative of life in and around Naples, but it has opened my eyes to a world beyond my ken. It's fascinating and terrifying at the same time, and I often had to remind myself that what I was reading was a journalistic account of real-life happenings in Campania, rather than a fictious rollercoaster ride.
Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System

Gomorrah is an excellent piece of investigative journalism composed by Roberto Saviano. Thanks to the Camorra (the title of the book is a play on words) Campania, the region around Naples, has one of the highest murder rates in Europe, one of the world’s highest ratios of drug dealers to inhabitants, soaring levels of unemployment and cocaine addiction, and elevated cancer rates linked to toxic waste dumping. What I find fascinating is that it comes across like a war report, yet its author is a Naples resident simply trying to understand his city.

The Neapolitan Camorra, or "il sistema" as it is also known, is a vast world of small, loosely collected gangs. They form, split, descend into vicious feuds, constantly changing shape and structure, making it very hard to control them. 

Saviano writes beautifully, from the heart. He writes with passion, and his frustration at the stranglehold il sistema holds on his city is evident throughout the book. It's a must read. It destroys the myth of mafia while exposing the truth behind a very real problem, that affects a great number of people. I think Saviano was very brave to write this book, and I think anyone with an interest in Italy should do him the service of reading it.

A copy of Gomorrah can be bought from our Amazon bookstore (US).

Beatification of Pope John Paul II - what you need to know

The beatification ceremony for former Pope John Paul II will be held at the Vatican on May 1, 2011.  It's been estimated that 2 to 3 million pilgrims will to flock to Rome and the Vatican City for the ceremony and surrounding events. If you're coming especially for the Beatification, or you just happen to be in Rome around the 1st May, be warned, it's going to be very, very busy.

I'm expecting it to be busier than this on the day

Have you booked a hotel yet? Please tell me you have. If not, do it now! One option could be to stay in a convent or to look just outside of Rome. Naturally, on a blog entitled Lazio Explorer, I'm going to be a little biased, but stay with me here, there are plenty of interesting options. For example, you could stay in the papal cities of Viterbo (1.5hrs by train) or Orvieto (2hrs by train) or in Civita castellana, an easy, short train ride away (about an hour from Piazzale Flaminio in Rome). This might not be as bad an idea as it initially sounds. Friends of ours stayed in a beautiful hotel in Civita called Palace Hotel Relais Falisco, that we can heartily recommend. So if you're struggling with availability and prices for a hotel in Rome, don't fret, simply turn it into an opportunity to see a little more of Italy than you initially planned.

Anyway, back to the main event. If you want to attend the beatification itself, you don't need a ticket. The event is free and open to all, so you'll need to get there early and bring supplies. St Peter's square will be open from the midnight before the ceremony.

The programme.

Saturday, April 30. 

8pm. Circus Maximus.

Starting around 8pm, Circus Maximus in Rome will play host to a prayer vigil. Speakers will include His Eminence Cardinal Agostino Vallini.  Pope Benedict XVI will recite the final oration and bless the congregation via a live video feed. The vigil is expected to continue until around 10:30pm.

Sunday, May 1

9am. St. Peter's Square.

Hour of preparation, when the faithful pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together.

10am. The Beatification Mass.

At the end, a tapestry of Pope John Paul II will be unveiled. After, the Pope and cardinals will pray before John Paul's body in St. Peter's Basilica.

Visitors who cannot get into the square (and I imagine there are going to be a lot of them) will be able to watch the ceremony on giant video screens set up in areas around the square.

The rest of the day.

John Paul II's remains will continue to be in front of the basilica's main altar (known as the "Altar of Confession"), and pilgrims are welcome to venerate there.

Monday, May 2

10:30am. St. Peter's Square.

Holy Thanksgiving Mass.

The Cardinal Secretary of State, His Eminence Tarcisio Bertone, will give the Holy Thanksgiving Mass for the Beatification of God's Servant, with music by the Choir of the Diocese of Rome, Choir of Warsaw and the Wadowice Symphony Orchestra of Poland.

More information can be found on the EWTN Global Catholic Network.

Getting around

It goes without saying (but hey, I'm going to write it anyway), that Rome and the Vatican are going to be very busy on the days surrounding the Beatification. Try to plan ahead as much as possible. Trams, buses, and the metro will all be incredibly busy, and taxis very expensive. Try to walk as much as possible, not only to save money but simply to make it a more enjoyable experience. There is a special JPII pass available for 18EUR that gives not only access to all public transport in Rome (bus, tram, metro, local trains between Rome and Ostia) for 3 days but also gives a packed lunch on May 1st, medical assistance, access to Roma Cristiana bus tours plus many more. It sounds like a good idea.

Finally, whether you're in Rome for 3 days or 30, don't just do the main tourist sites (although still do them, they're fantastic!), but try to get off the beaten path, live like a local, try everything once and enjoy it, after all, when people talk about Rome they always think non basta una vita!*

* One life is not enough

Happy Birthday Rome!

Buon compleanno per il 21 aprile!

According to legend, approximately 2765 years ago, Rome was born! Yes, that's right. Cities can be born. You got a problem with that? (and if you have, you may struggle with the rest of this article)

Almost the big 3-0(-0-0)! I remember the young Rome like it was yesterday. You know the story... two boys, twins, lost and alone. Dumped in a little wicker basket on the river, old mother Tiber, drifting towards destiny. They were raised by a she-wolf, learnt the way of the wolf and lived happy ever after in a Jungle Book/Dances with Wolves kinda way. Actually, err no. It's better than that. According to the legend, the twins were found by a she-wolf, who suckled them and protected them until a Shepherd and his wife took them in and raised them (presumably without the wolf, given their disagreement over lambs). Apparently, when the two boys, Remus and Romolus were adults, they took it upon themselves to found a city (now that's entrepreneurial spirit!)

The Capitoline Wolf. You can see the real thing in Musei Capitolini

Romulus wished to build the new city on the Palatine Hill but Remus preferred the Aventine Hill. They agreed to determine the site by consulting the omens (or augury, as I believe it is known). Remus was the first to see six vultures flying in the sky. This, as you know, is only a good sign, augur-ily speaking. Soon after Romulus saw twelve vultures. Remus saw the birds first but Romulus saw more. Brothers eh? In the disputes that followed, Remus was murdered by Romulus. According to Ovid Romulus invented the festival of Lemuria to appease Remus' resentful ghost. With his guilt truly sated, Romulus decides to crack on and names the new city Rome, after himself. Naturally. 

What with such charm, charisma and the knack for settling a dispute by death, it was only a matter of time before Romulus's little baby Rome starts to attract all kinds of folk. including landless refugees and outlaws, mostly men. Soon after, King Romulus decides that in order for Rome to prosper, they need women! How did Romulus get women? He threw a party! (for Neptunus equestris as it happens) He invites all the local people, including the Sabine tribe from the nearby hills. After they'd all eaten and had a few drinks, on his signal, the Romans grabbed all the women and took them inside the city. This is known as the ratte delle Sabine, or abduction of the Sabine women. Ratte, or raptio in Latin, is where the English word 'Rape' comes from. So, despite the stories of Titus Livius (or Livy, as he's known in English, a Roman historian), I'm guessing it wasn't the best end to a party. Obviously, the Sabine men weren't too happy about this and went off to find their weapons and attack the Romans to get back their women. However, according to Livy (and Wikipedia), Romulus spoke to each of the women in person "and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying the right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and--dearest of all to human nature--would be the mothers of free men." Apparently, he also threatened to kill anyone who tried to take them back. Kind of a new spin on the whole 'happy ever after' thing.

And so, the great city of Rome, a city that gave birth to an Empire, gave us roads, aquaducts, sanitation, viniculture and much much more, was born. Given life by a man suckled by a wolf, who stole a load of women from a neighboring tribe and then threatened to kill their parents, and who killed his own twin brother. Italians do like a bit of drama don't they ;)

Sadly, the truth may be more boring. Archeological digs have revealed that the site of Rome has been inhabitied since prehistory, with the first settlement on Capitol hill being founded during the Bronze Age in 1400 B.C. And the she-wolf? Well, some people think that this comes from the Roman slang 'lupa', which, while sounding like latin for a she-wolf, actually means prostitute.

Which story would you prefer to believe? The one about the wolf, or the one about a village slowly getting bigger?

Either way, Rome will be celebrating it's birthday on the 21st April with a series of ceremonies, traditional dancing, gladitorial battles and festivities. The main events will be on the Aventine Hill, between the Capitoline Hill and Testaccio districts. There will also be fireworks display over the Tiber, the best viewpoints for which are the Capitoline hill (also known as Campidoglio) and Giardino degli Aranci, near the Aventine Hill.

The full programme, in Italian, is here.

*Updated 2013.

Culture? In Rome?? Only next week...

OK, that's not strictly true. Rome is full of culture every day of the year, but next week, that culture is free!

Starting this Saturday, for 9 days (9th till 17th April), all state-run museums, monuments (yes, the Colosseum), archaeological sites and exhibitions will have free entry thanks to Italy's settimana della cultura.

This isn't just restricted to Rome, but is an Italian-wide Cultural event. There are over 300 events scheduled across Lazio alone. Of course, if you fancy, you could head up to Florence to the Uffizi or down to Naples to check out Pompeii.

At some sites, like the Colosseum, you'll still need to queue up to get a ticket, and, as it's free, it'll pay if you get there early as many sites could be busier than usual. For example, for the Colosseum, the queues are often shorter at the Palatine Hill entrance (the ticket covers both the Colosseum and the Foro romano/Palatine hill).

There are a few exceptions, such as privately-owned museums, the Planetarium and the Capitoline Museum (which does have a reduced entrance price instead) and, of course anything to do with the Vatican, as it's not part of Italy.

For a full list of museums, monuments etc., that are participating in the cultural week, click here (list in Italian).