The directions for escaping Bologna on Hitchwiki look fairly challenging:
“Take the bus to Casalecchio… change the bus… walk 200 metres until you reach the fences… Normally you can’t enter the service station… fences you can’t cross… a little parking lot of the service station staff… ring there and maybe they will open… If not, at the service station on the other side… a little hole in the fence… Crossing the motorway… a bit difficult… under the motorway through the building site, but it is muddy… easier to get off the bus one stop before it crosses the motorway… inside the service station, you can cross the motorway easily. Enter the building and go upstairs to the restaurant. .. down on the other side of the motorway. Attention: You are not able to cross the motorway in the morning… the restaurant is closed. But if you have luck, the barmen will help you.”
Blimey. Well, we’re up for it. Our first lift turns out to be our host Diana, who works in Casalecchio, so we only have to hop one short bus ride to the edge of the city. Here we find something Hitchwiki didn’t mention: there’s a trainline between us and the service station. We manage to find our way through allotments, clamber first over the trainline, then the ditch on the other side. Nobody ever said hitchhiking was glamorous! Now we’re outside the service station, AKA Fortnox – there’s a giant fence running all around it. We find our way to the gate Hitchwiki mentions and when some workers turn up in a van, I ask if they might let us in? The man wags his finger at me aggressively, “no, no, no, tutututut.” Great. Now what?
We walk around the perimeter, looking for an opening or lower fence. One part is a possible last-resort clamber which I’m not looking forward to, but then we find… some steps leading up to a small open gate! We walk up the steps and into the service area, grinning inanely and wondering how many poor unwitting hitchhikers have clambered over that wall. Must make sure to update Hitchwiki…
Inside the Autogrill I buy a coffee and ask the man I share a table with where he’s going. Turns out he’s going a good way in our direction and agrees to take us to Prato. Here we’re picked up by The Rock ‘n’ Roll Vicar (my words, not his). He’s not really a vicar, but he sings in churches throughout Italy and Spain. I speak Spanish with him and we listen to Lynrd Skynrd and Janis Joplin on the way to Orviedo, where our paths diverge. Our next lift is an economist. He’s soon to fly to Manchester for one day to watch a football match. He doesn’t want to see the city though, he tells us, only the football.
He takes us right inside the perimeter of Rome, but drops us at another Autogrill. We do a bit of table-diving (chips mostly) and find our last lift with six trainee priests in a minibus, all in their mid-twenties and on their way to the Vatican to meet another set of trainees for dinner. I sit in the back next to “Luigi”, who speaks good English. He lowers his voice when he says he initially had doubts about living such a controlled life, constantly obeying another’s orders. “But now I think it’s ok”, he adds. David had asked how he came to this path. “For love,” he says softly, “I wanted more love and now I have found love with Jesus which I can share with others… Perhaps you too will find your path,” he adds. “Oh, I don’t think so,” David replies. “But maybe…” “Hm.”
They drop us near the Cathedral and we find our way to the metro and over to our Couchsurfing host. I’m looking forward to meeting this Buddhist-Anarchist-cycling-enthusiast, if his CS profile is anything to go by.
We sit down on the bed exhausted while our host procedes to tell us all about Buddhism, the type of Buddhism he practices and it’s history, all unprompted. He opens up a shrine on the cupboard and and tells us what each part means, talks us through the printed parchment and repeatedly announces how simple and open his type of Buddhism is – not like those other types that won’t allow women or scholars to become enlightened, no – this Buddhism is for everyone. David and I watch him speak, bleary eyed. “Wow, I’m really tired,” I attempt during a pause. He nods briefly, and continues…
We agree to go to a Buddhist meeting the following night, politely declining the one this evening on account of how very tired we are. David manages to change the topic to Anarchism and asks about social centres, resulting in a tyrade about how he has tried to push the local couchsurfers into meeting in one of them, but they just won’t listen. “When you see the place,” he tells us, “you will agree with me.” “I’m sure we will,” says David and we change the topic to cycling. Now we hear about the many bike kitchens in the city and the Critical Mass on Friday, for which he kindly offers to lend us some bikes. There will also be a potluck at one of the bike kitchens tomorrow. “I’ve never met such a pushy Buddhist!” David whispers when we finally get left to sleep.
Our host has agreed we can stay for two nights, but we want to stay in Rome longer, so our first priority is finding a new place to stay. We borrow a bike each and cross the city through crazy traffic in search of a couple of social centres. Ex Snia is closed, but we meet two men there who direct us to Forte Prenestino, the second and more infamous place I’ve heard about.
It really is an occupied fort, complete with moat and warren of underground tunnels. We find the gate open and some people hanging out inside the entrance tunnel. One of the girls speaks English. I explain our sitauation and she says she’ll ask for us. She tells us to take ourselves on a tour and then come and find her again.
The place is amazing – tunnels and doors everywhere, covered in thirty years worth of graffiti, posters and art. There’s a cinema, cafe, bar, tea salon, infoshop, wine bar, massage parlour, theatre and a yard with lots of live-in vehicles. Memories of Pete and Princess bring a lump to my throat, I wish he was here to share this.
We find the girl again who says yes, we can stay for two nights – three at most. I’m so excited I hug her. She smiles and shows us to our room – down a tunnel, past a robot and up into a tower, is a small prison cell painted white with two single beds, neatly laid out – our own room – wow!
The girl has lived here for six years, the man who is accompanying us, twenty. Forte Prenestino has been occupied for almost thirty years. I wonder how many police hours have been spent puzzling over how to evict a fort?
We go upstairs to meet our neighbours, a Spanish girl and American guy, free travellers like ourselves. We share stories a while before the long cycle ride back to our host. I’ve already decided I want to stay at the fort tonight, even though we have one night left with him. We go to his place first to collect our bags and let him know, then jump the metro to the potluck, where friendly bike-enthusiasts welcome us like personal guests and ply us with red wine. A “Bike Kitchen” turns out to be a D.I.Y. bike-maintenance workshop, much like Cranks in Brighton.
Forte Prenestino is a squatted community, but strangely commercial. A meal in the cafe costs up to €6, a beer isn’t much below standard price, a cup of tea in the salon is €1.50… but they are letting us stay for free and they’re all very friendly. For sure I would stay here again.
Apart from Forte Prenestino and the bike kitchens, I feel like a big fat tourist in Rome. David and I visit the Colloseum (it’s very big) and the Palatina and Foro Romano ruins. I’ve always had a thing for ruins and ancient Roman ruins are really something to get excited about. I have the strange experience of watching an enormous communist demonstration from up in the Colloseum. A communist march and helicoptors in ancient Rome – how surreal!