Some travellers swear that the best way to experience a place is to follow the locals, and live as they do. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking. For me, travel is as much about enjoyment and treating myself to things I wouldn’t do at home, as it is immersing myself in culture. Yet there is something to be said for at least trying to ‘feel’ local, and when it comes to Rome, there’s no better place for this than Trastevere.
I’m not going to harp on about how ‘authentic’ Trastevere is. It’s an overused word that I can’t stand, and I’m sure many Rome locals will say that it’s still a very touristy area and a far cry from where many of them live today. However, separated from the rest of the city by the River Tiber, Trastevere has escaped modern development and retained it’s medieval charm and local identity. It’s the sort of place where laundry is still strung across the streets, and plants drape themselves over colourful wooden shutters, probably helping to hold the crumbling buildings together. To the casual observer it appears to have changed little over the centuries. A fabulous place to stroll aimlessly through labyrinthine ochre alleys and eat at sleepy pavement trattorias.
Trastevere is one of those places that just tugs at the heart strings. And that’s ok. If you’ve never had a holiday romance, then you’re about to experience your first…
1. Bustling piazzas
The piazza is the beating heart of the district. It’s a place of community and entertainment, and it’s here that you’ll discover tourists, locals, expats and students all congregating to enjoy the same atmosphere. The Piazza di Santa Maria is the centre of Trastevere. By day the square is used for markets and cultural events, and the 15th Century fountain becomes a perch for the gelato eaters, in search of a little respite from the afternoon sun. A relaxing spot to watch the world go by. Yet by night the square is transformed into a lively hot spot for drinkers and diners, who are often treated to a serenade from musicians who just happen to be passing by. Laughter spills out onto the romanticly lit square, and aromas of Italian cooking captures the imagination. It’s the sort of place where you’ll end up actually purchasing that tacky plastic rose from one of the opportunistic touts trying their luck with dining couples. Not because the rose is any better than the hundreds of others you’ve seen around the world, but because the vendors are charm personified, and you can’t help but get carried away by the romantic magic of the piazza.
Hubbie, however, managed to hold his nerve.
2. Romantic churches
It’s no secret that the Romans do churches well.
Nowhere in the world have we come across so many surprising little gems, tucked away down secret alleys or hidden behind an unprepossessing facade. We’re not at all religious but always make time for a few churches, and learnt long ago that bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Our favourite in all of Rome was the Basilica di Santa Maria which overlooks the Piazza of the same name.
Do you believe in myths? Apparently on the day Jesus was born a fountain of pure oil spouted from the earth right here, signifying the coming of the grace of God. The church was thus founded on this spot in the 4th Century and a column by the alter marks the exact location of this miracle. The basilica of today was rebuilt in the 12th Century by Pope Innocent I, using material from ruined sites such as the Baths of Caracalla. Which explains why there’s not much left over there!
Inside the ceilings are alive with frescos and gold, and the faded 12th-13th Century mosaics include the famous panels by Cavallini depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. I hadn’t heard of him either but agree that they are worth seeing. Pope Callixtus (the founder of this church) is buried here.
So is the head of Saint Apollonia. Nice.
3. Backstreet trattorias
Trastevere is where iconic red and white checkered table cloths rub shoulders with bowls of creamy spaghetti and bottles of oil that you’re not entirely sure what to do with. It’s where diners sit on rustic chairs along the pavement and lure in passers by with their steaming plates of calzone. It’s also where you’ll discover that a carafe of wine is way cheaper than a can of coke, and your drinking habits will never be the same again. Still, if Jesus decided it was better than water, who are we to argue!
It was the chalkboard with “We are against war and tourist menu” that caught my eye outside the Aristocampo on Via della Lungaretta. Definitely two of the worst things in the world so this sounded right up our street.
Obligatory salamis hung from the wooden rafters and wax encrusted wine bottle candles cast romance all around the cosy room . After battling my way through a delicious platter of cured meats that was just for starters, I was mildly chided by the waiter for ordering lasagne as my main. Apparently the idea of lasagne originally came from ancient Greece, not Italy, and today is a typical dish of Naples. And therefore a ridiculous thing to eat here in Rome. So I sheepishly changed my mind, despite the fact it was on their menu. When in Rome…
Damn fine spaghetti though! Although didn’t that originate from China…
4. Quaint guest houses
Accommodation in Rome isn’t easy to find. It’s either notoriously expensive, or has too much lace and mismatching old furniture for my taste. Sure, this is no doubt ‘traditional’ Italian design, but if I’m paying good money I don’t want to feel like I’m staying in an antique shop. Just a personal thing. I wanted somewhere quaint yet modern, and central yet quiet. I know, I want the whole world on a plate sometimes, but a girl has got to have standards!
So I looked at Trastevere, and soon found a charming local bed and breakfast called Arco del Lauro where an ensuite double starts at €85. It’s a perfect little spot, nestled under an ancient archway in a warren of cobbled alleys, gleaming rustic oranges and browns in the sun.
We had a room on the ground floor room overlooking a small internal courtyard which meant there was no outside noise. It did, however, also mean we could hear every word of the rather fiery argument coming from the Italian couple in a residential part of the building upstairs. Perhaps it was as well we couldn’t understand what they were shouting at each other. Gotta love a bit of Italian passion. Just not at 6 o’clock in the morning. We loved the ‘help yourself’ mini pantry in the small but perfectly formed public hallway area. There were yogurts, biscuits, cakes, orange juice, coffee and even home-made limoncello. I was sold! I love limoncello.
Breakfast has often baffled us in Italy. Mainly because it rarely exists and when it does, it’s usually a sorry affair to be eaten off a tray in the bedroom. Although disappointed, we weren’t surprised to learn that breakfast at Arco del Lauro was at a separate cafe in a little piazza just around the corner rather than at the guest house itself.
Yet once there we finally understood! There’s simply nothing quite so divine as sitting outside in the morning sun, gradually waking up with an enormous cappuccino and waiting to be presented with a freshly baked warm croissant. It’s a most civilised way to start the day.
5. Peace and quiet
There aren’t any major sights in Trastevere which is a blessing in disguise. Sure, many visitors venture in and it certainly isn’t a place where only locals hang out, but you won’t find any tour buses in this neighbourhood. By day you’ll bump into other tourists, clutching their maps and their selfie sticks, and innocently succumbing to the lure of the ‘tourist menu’. Yet by night most return to the outside world and once again you have Trastevere all to yourself. Plus a few locals and the odd cat. Most tourists stick to the main streets, but if you explore a little deeper and further away from the river, the quieter it becomes. There’s also very little traffic so it’s the perfect place to get lost whilst still feeling safe.
Tips for Trastevere
- Remember many businesses are closed on Mondays, and several of the churches shut at midday for a few hours, so plan your visit accordingly.
- Avoid restaurants with a ‘tourist menu’, this isn’t the ‘real’ Rome!
- Europeans eat later than us here in the UK, so having dinner at 8 or 9pm is entirely normal.