A couple of weekends ago, after waking up unusually late to find a heavy grey sky outside the bedroom window and a lunch appointment lurking just over an hour away, I pulled on a wooly sweater-dress (my winter uniform for any situation in which I want to be both cozy and reasonably pulled-together), grabbed my camera, and tucked an umbrella into my bag before heading out the door and across the bridge linking my neighbourhood with Trastevere for a quick photo walk.
I usually think of Trastevere as being split into two sections – the popular, touristy part that spreads out from Ponte Sisto and hums with activity day and night, and the much calmer section sliced off by the busy Viale Trastevere, full of quiet corners and whole streets where you can find yourself totally alone. But there’s a small third section of Trastevere, a section that seems almost forgotten, which is exactly why it makes for such a pleasant wander.
As an area, it’s actually a bit odd. Fronted by a row of rather stern-looking buildings encrusted with many, many years worth of grime and pollution from the snarl of traffic constantly making its way down the Lungotevere, and accessible by a long, sloping street – Via della Lungara – that seems devoid of personality and interest, it’s not the kind of neighbourhood that immediately invites exploration. There’s a restaurant or two on this street, a dull-looking bar with a dour-faced barista, and a couple of very dusty shops that appear to be untouched since the 1980s, at least – but the rough grid of streets radiating off of it are noticeably non-commercial. While there aren’t shops and restaurants, there is a rather high number of rusty gates, walls and closed-off courtyards, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that the area is also home to a prison; the rather notorious Regina Coeli.
I’m probably making this area sound unappealing. I certainly spent ages using Via della Lungara exclusively as a way to reach the lively part of Trastevere, ignoring everything before that point. But one day, feeling curious, I turned the corner, started wandering, and realized that this section of Trastevere has its own kind of charm – a rusty, worn, jagged kind of charm, one that lets you focus in on texture and quirks and those strange details that can end up getting too smoothed over in the more frequently-visited neighbourhoods. Here, there’s also a good deal of silence – fewer cars, fewer motorini buzzing by, nobody trying insistently to persuade you to step into a restaurant. You might hear someone shouting in rough Roman dialect though, or a flock of Rome’s resident acid-green parrots squawking from a nearby tree. And more than maybe any other area of the city, there’s a strong sensation that someone, most likely a little old lady, is watching from behind the curtains of an upper window somewhere.
This little section of Trastevere extends back to the base of the Gianicolo, the hill that looms over the neighbourhood, and there are a couple of streets that unexpectedly turn into staircases. My favourite is the imposing flight of stairs at the end of Via di Sant’Onofrio, draped with vines in the summer and carpeted with slippery red leaves in the fall, lined with the kind of perfectly worn walls, windows and doors that could inspire almost anyone to pull out their camera. If the entire area has a kind of undiscovered feeling to it, this is the point where you will feel it strongest – turn your back on the busy Lungotevere down below, and it’s not hard to feel like you’ve suddenly been transported to a small town somewhere.
This is one of the things that I love about Rome, and one of the things that makes for a great wander: That right in the centre of the city, a few minutes away from one of the most tourist-laden, guidebook-friendly neighbourhoods around, you can still find little pieces of authenticity, all rough around the edges – an area that’s fascinating precisely because it’s doing absolutely nothing to try to persuade you to come explore.