Trastevere, the Heart of Rome

By Martha Miller

Simona and her mother Signora Orlandi make all the guests at Villa della Fonte feel like family. photos by Martha Miller.
Simona and her mother Signora Orlandi make all the guests at Villa della Fonte feel like family. photos 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.

Bountiful Array

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.

Street Performers

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 comical skits.

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.

Cinema Therapy

Incidentally, if in need of a little cinema therapy, the Pasquino theatre opposite the museum features English-language movies. 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.

The Vicolo del Bologna, in Trastevere.
The Vicolo del Bologna, in Trastevere.

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.

Spectular View

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 soccer games.

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 6:30am -2:00pm.

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.

Martha Miller, author of Times New Roman
Martha Miller, author of Times New Roman

Freelance writer Martha Miller of San Antonio, Texas, wrote a memoir about the two years she lived in Rome. It’s called Times New Roman, and is available on Amazon. 

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