Standing in St Peter’s square on a brisk, sunny October afternoon, I stare up at one – just one – of the 284 giant pillars that surround St Peter’s square. I’m lost for minutes, wondering if anyone has ever figured out how much just one of them weighs. How much they would all weigh, together. How they got it standing up there in the days before machines and technology. Where the hell it even came from, and how many slaves were used to get just this one, single pillar, out of 284, standing upright…
That’s the thing about Rome. It’s not just the fact that its ancient buildings still exist, so well-preserved, that leaves you reeling when you visit the place – it’s how absolutely bloody massive everything is. That’s what makes you really feel the history of the place, just imagining the logistics of it all. How on earth it was even built in the first place, never mind how it’s still standing.
As gorgeous as Rome is, and as phenomenal as its most famous sights are, after a few days it can begin to feel like there’s almost too much spectacle (first world problems, I know). Queues, and crowds, and people selling selfie-sticks (yes I bought one) and bobbleheads (and yeah, I bought a Mario Balotelli one). SO many giant marble and stone columns, gilded churches, incredibly wide streets, mammoth ancient buildings, huge open piazzas, larger than life statues, world-famous works of art… Rome doesn’t do things by halves, and amazing as it is, there are times when its relentless grandiosity can become a little overwhelming.
I just don’t think I can marvel at one more thing, like.
Trastevere is the breather I’ve been looking for. Trastevere, which translates as ‘across the Tiber’ (or ‘beyond the Tiber’ if you want to get all Latin and accurate about it), is the terracotta-hued antithesis to all of Rome’s bigness. See, in ancient Rome the right bank of the river was the place to be. That was where all the marble and chariots were at, where the gladiators battled and the lads raced their chariots, and emperors chilled in their vomitoriums. Trastevere was… the other side. A little bit forgotten over on the left bank. Only connected to the rest of Rome by one wooden bridge, and left alone to just be itself. And thank god.
I love it, from the moment I step off the river bank and into its gorgeous little streets. It’s a medieval warren of cobbled streets that twist, and turn, and take you from café to trattoria to bar (and then a few more bars afterwards), with a few charming piazzas and churches along the way. The buildings that line the snaking streets are all coloured some soothing shade of yellow, terracotta or a faded peach, and glossy ivy drips from walls and cables to create leafy canopies overhead. There’s always a vintage-looking car somewhere in sight. Walking through it after spending a day seeing Rome’s biggest sights feels like taking your bra off and sticking your tracksuit bottoms on after work on a Friday evening.
Full disclosure – like pretty much everywhere in Rome there are still plenty of tourists around so don’t expect miracles. But you will see a little more of regular Italian life here too. Elderly Italian mamas doing their grocery shopping, laundry hanging on lines high up between apartments, that sort of loveliness. To get a little further away from it all, you can easily walk from Trastevere up to Gianicolo, one of Rome’s seven hills that offers an amazing view over the whole city. I spend a long time up there trying to spot everything and figuring out where all the major sites are in relation to each other. It’s a lovely place to be at sunset, watching night fall over the city before heading back down to a little trattoria in Trastevere for dinner.
Of course, there are the same tourist traps here as there are everywhere else in Rome. There are people selling the bobble-heads (the Mario Balotelli one is actually hilarious though) and all the other tourist tat, and waiters trying to entice you off the street to come and eat in their restaurant. So, put on your best poker-face and ignore them all. If you want, follow my tips for finding good restaurants in Rome to help you find a good spot in Trastevere. Alternatively, head straight to Marco G and order the sharing platter, which among other delicious things, contains the most beautiful fresh ricotta you’ll ever taste. For dessert, get some remarkably good gelato from Del Viale (personally, I’d recommend the pistachio and walnut, but you do you).
The nightlife’s really good here too. As far as bars go, San Calisto (Piazza di S. Calisto) is great; beers are cheap and the place has a nice little vibe, but you’ll probably enjoy just wandering through the streets and stopping for a drink at whatever places take your fancy, too. Look, this is the thing about Trastevere – the whole point of it is just to wander and enjoy the lovely buzz in the streets. Spend your cash on some silly souvenirs, stand and watch the street performers in the main square, and then find a spot to sit and sip a glass of wine while you daydream about how you’re going to decorate your apartment when you run away to live here.
Flights to Rome
- Dee Murray