Trastevere: The Heart of Rome
By Martha Miller
While Rome entices with its extraordinary monuments, Trastevere, one of its
many distinct neighborhoods, captures the traveler's heart. Trastevere,
which translates to "across the Tiber River", was once considered the
outskirts of Rome. Allowed to develop its own flavor and now part of il
centro storico, it's the perfect place to glimpse a bit of the old world
while still enjoying the lifestyle of today's Romans.
Often described as Bohemian, homes bedecked with flower boxes and clinging
ivy intertwine with coffee bars, restaurants, and one-of-a-kind boutiques.
Buildings in terracotta, maize and wine cast a glow, like a daylong sunset. From the cobblestone streets to the overhanging laundry lines, senses are
pleasantly awakened with every step.
Equidistant from the Coliseum and the Vatican, Trastevere is an ideal place
to make a home base.
If arriving at Fumicino airport, save a bundle by
taking the train from inside the airport to Stazione Trastevere and from there catch a cab to your hotel.
As charming as Trastevere is, the winding streets can be a bit confusing. A
detailed map may be included in your travel book, but if not, it is well worth
spending another few euros to save time and limit frustration.
Start your visit at the outdoor mercato at Piazza San Cosimato, located one
block from Via San Francesco a Ripa. Tented booths display a bountiful
array of tantalizing fruits and vegetables.
It's an opportunity to observe
locals buying the freshest ingredients for the day's meals and then carrying
it all home in their trailing, 2-wheeled shopping carts. Vendors open their
stalls around 8:00am and close at 2:00pm.
Taking in the Sun
Trasteverini take full advantage of Rome's temperate climate. It isn't
unusual to spot a signora snapping peas and taking in the morning sun on a
chair just outside her doorway. Later in the afternoon, two blocks away,
men in Piazza San Calisto set up folding tables among the cobblestones to
play card games, ignoring cars squeezing in around them.
The most popular gathering place in the area is Piazza Santa Maria in
Trastevere. Dating back to the 3rd century, the church of Santa Maria in
Trastevere is the oldest in the city. Take note that there are no fewer than
80 other churches named for her in Rome. Visitors come to view the gleaming
mosaics by Pietro Cavallini and then linger on the steps of the octagonal
fountain to people watch and enjoy an aperitif at Caffè Di Marzio.
Saturdays almost ensure a wedding or two will take place. Tradition
dictates all guests and members of the wedding party must wait outside the
church to see the bride arrive. It is a very special moment that no Italian
wants to miss.
If it's Friday morning, you might see the local arrotino, or knife sharpener,
pedal by on his bicycle replete with whetstone. His distinctive bellow
signals the building's tenants to lower a basket from their window with
cutlery in need of honing.
In the late afternoon, it's common to take a passeggiata or evening walk.
Arched doorways, climbing ivy and pathways closed to traffic provide a
relaxed setting for strolling. Children gather to play in the piazzas and
neighbors catch up on the latest news. Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
could be called the piazza that never sleeps; street performers entertain
the crowds into the wee hours with music, fire juggling, acrobatics, and
At dusk, in adjacent Piazza Sant' Egidio, artisans and vendors set up tables
to sell crafts, jewelry, candles and more. A former convent turned museum,
Sant'Egidio's Museo del Folklore features exhibits portraying more recent
Roman life. One example is a photo exhibit highlighting the era of "La
Dolce Vita" and movie making in the 1950s.
Incidentally, if in need of a
little cinema therapy, the Pasquino theatre opposite the museum features
Through Piazza Sant'Egidio, veering to the right you'll arrive at Caffè del
Cinque, (Vicolo del Cinque 5), a bar situated at the intersection of five
streets; a good place for an early morning caffè, afternoon apertif or
latenight cocktail. Sit at a table outside if you dare; passing cars are
literally within arms reach.
Food in Italy is among the best in the world and fortunately, in Trastevere
you can eat well and cheaply at the local hangouts. One favorite is Da
Corrado (Via della Pelliccia, 39), just a few steps down from Caffè del
Cinque, a no-frills establishment, where atmosphere comes from the clientele
and the wait staff. Try involtini, thinly sliced meat wrapped around
vegetables and mozzarella.
To avoid a long wait, arrive before 8:30 pm and
take a good look at the menu posted outside before you sit down as there are
none inside. If you hesitate too long, the waiter will decide for you.
For a cozy dinner visit Il DuCa (Vicolo del Cinque, 56) where the
wood-burning pizza oven and dark, rustic surroundings, not to mention the
tasty pizza, will make you glad you came. Only one street over, Il Conte di
Montecristo (Vicolo del Bologna, 89a) serves up a mouth-watering swordfish
among other specialties. After your meal, sip an icy limoncello commonly
believed to aid digestion.
Funky Shoe Store
Moving down Vicolo del Cinque, look for little known gems like Jacche
Calzature, a funky shoe store offering sample shoes and those worn in
fashion shows for a hard-to-believe price. Outfitting
women and men, there are two locations, both in Trastevere: Vicolo del
Cinque 24/b and Via Benedetta 9.
In keeping with the area's authenticity of a real neighborhood, plastic
likenesses of David and glittery miniature coliseums are absent. Instead,
unique shops echo the artisans of the Roman Empire. Turn right at the end
of Vicolo del Cinque and make time to visit Polvere di tempo, (Via del Moro,
59) where the unifying theme is well, time.
Interesting curios include
handcrafted hourglasses, sundials, globes and kaleidoscopes. The giant
18-hour hourglass alone is worth the trip.
If you find yourself longing for some English-reading material, The Almost
Corner Bookshop (Via del Moro, 45) carries all types of books and an
especially good selection of historical and fictional titles.
Gourmet Food and Wine
Backtrack a short distance to Ferrara, (Via del Moro 1/a-Piazza Trilussa
41). "Upscale" best describes this gourmet food/wine shop and restaurant.
A gift-boxed, 100-year-old bottle of balsamic vinegar will set you back
about e270. For the rest of us there are reasonably priced Italian
specialties including capers, olives, pesto and tomato sauces. Prices range
from e0.70 for a chocolate to e900 for a rare bottle of wine.
Ambling up the street behind Piazza Trilussa, be sure to stop in at Checco,
(Via Benedetta, 7) a favorite coffee bar of the locals, for an espresso and
cornetto or pastry. Try the pine nut torta for something special and if
chocolate's your thing, you won't be disappointed with the thick and steamy
chocolato caldo. Go ahead and splurge a little when asked if you want it "con panna" - with whipped cream on top.
For excellent pizza by the slice, exit Checco and turn left continuing
straight to find La Boccaccia (Via di Santa.Dorotea, 2). This is more an
eat-and-run type of place, but is definitely worth finding if for no other
reason than to sample the potato and cheese combination. Delizioso!
For a light lunch, cafes and bars feature tramazzini. These white bread
sandwiches cut crosswise, with various fillings, are delicious and
economical. Pull up a chair at Caffe Settimiana, (corner of Vicolo della
Scala and Via di Santa Dorotea) and enjoy lunch while taking in a close up
view of Porta Settimiana, a gate in the Aurelian Wall dating back to 1498.
Road to the Vatican
Follow the straight road that starts on the other side, Via della Lungara,
and it will lead you to the Vatican. A brisk walk, will take you there in
about 25 minutes.
With a multitude of churches just steps apart, one can easily compare
different influences. Aiming away from the Aurelian Wall and ambling up Via
della Scala, visit Santa Maria della Scala for a rich taste of Baroque
design. The simple façade gives no clue to the heavy ornamentation inside.
For dinner, wander the back streets beyond Vicolo della Scala to find small
but stellar restaurants like Trattoria "da Lucia" (Vicolo del Mattonato, 2).
After dinner, stop for gelato at Gelateria alla Scala, (Via della Scala 51)
which prides itself on using only natural ingredients.
For a spectacular view of Rome, head up to Mount Janiculum. You'll pass the
church of San Pietro in Montorio; built on the site where Saint Peter is
believed to have been crucified. Also famous for its cloister and artwork
including Bramante's "Tempietto."
A bit further up the hill is Fontana dell 'Acqua Paola, a grandiose fountain dating to 1612. Across from the fountain
and next to the Spanish Embassy is a photo op not to be missed. Numerous
domes dot the urban vista and on a clear day, you can observe the snow-capped Colli Albani, the hills behind Rome. Other easy-to-spot points of
interest are Palazzo Venezia and Castel Sant'Angelo.
If you want to get a workout or just need to get in touch with nature, the
park at Villa Pamphili, further up Mount Janiculum, is the place to be.
Void of tourists, this running, walking and biking trail draws old and young
alike. During the weekdays, grandparents pushing strollers are common and
on the weekends, couples and families arrive to picnic and exuberantly cheer
When in Rome...
Water pours continuously from fountains here and all over
Rome. Refill a bottle without worry, as it is clean and safe to drink
unless posted signs say otherwise. To do as the Romans do, place your
finger over the waterspout to redirect the flow to the small hole on top and
quench your thirst straight from the resulting mini geyser.
Bargain hunters will be happy to know about the Porta Portese flea market.
Located off Viale Trastevere, beginning at the corner of Via Portuense and
Via Ippolito Nievo, the savvy shopper can stock up on new and used items
including beautiful picture frames, prints, jewelry, trendy clothing and
many more good buys. Go early to avoid the crowds; hours are Sundays
Visit Rome any time of year; off-season is considered to be November to
February when hotels are usually less expensive and museums and
archeological sites are less crowded. February and July are good for
shopping clearance sales. August has a slower pace because the majority of
businesses close for ferragosto, summer vacation.
Generally, Trastevere is
safe, but use common sense and keep an eye on your belongings. As in other
parts of the city, purse-snatchers and pickpockets are a concern.
With its multitude of must-see historical sites, Rome can be overwhelming.
For a genuine look at how today's Romans live, visit Trastevere. It very
well may be the most memorable part of your trip.
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