Benvenuti a Roma! It seems fitting since we’re in Christianity’s HQ to begin with a confession – I’ve never been crazy about the place. It’s partly because the two times I’ve been weren’t exactly a load of laughs. The first time was as a kid, when I spent most of my Roman holiday in bed with glandular fever and acute tonsillitis. The last time was around 10 years ago, with my then-partner. It was meant to be a break from a particularly tough time. Instead he and I fought like cat and dog.
Aside from that, the other reason I’m underwhelmed by what most people find to be an overwhelmingly beautiful city is my complete lack of the tourist gene. I know I should be struck with awe when I visit the Colosseum et al. And maybe, if I didn’t have to queue for hours, I would be. But any time I attempt to do the tourist thing I get really stroppy. In short, it ruins the ruins.
So, much like Paris, I’m hoping that by exploring lesser known neighbourhoods, I’ll finally ‘get’ Rome.
Week one, Pigneto. So far it’s escaped the spotlight despite being just a 15 minute bus ride from the tourist trail. It helps that it’s not on a metro line but the main reason is, there’s nothing much to see. Not a ruin in sight and aside from some lovely weathered buildings, pretty charmless.
But I loved the place - while the neighbourhood ain’t much to look at, it houses a diverse and interesting crowd that is mercifully tourist-free. And according to my daughter, Coco, it has the best gelato - ever.
For week two in Roma I headed just south of the city centre to Garbatella, a planned garden suburb built in the 1920s for the working classes with an odd mix of faux ancient Roman and Fascist Modern that keeps it from being too pretty – or touristy.
Normally a sleepy neighbourhood where the biggest event is the signore gathering at the washing lines for a good natter, we happened to be there for a cultural festival on one day and a religious procession on the next. Very different occasions but both made a racket.
Rome may be all about the old, but it’s also populated by an energised, politicised, often pierced and tattooed youth. Which is why I chose a neighbourhood for week three that’s overflowing with bright young things, San Lorenzo. Originally working class, it’s now youth central because it’s right next door to Rome’s largest university.
Aside from the students, who enjoy the edginess of the neighbourhood while also being able to enjoy a boutique beer for much less than they’d pay anywhere else, I met 81-year-old Marcella. Turned out she was a famous dancer, singer and actress way back when. Still bella despite her years.
For the fourth and final Rome instalment, I wanted to venture further afield to the real suburbs of Rome. But neither Coco nor I had been 100 per cent, and the days were too short to stray far – with temperatures hitting 36-38 degrees C, you only start thinking about going out after 5pm.
Instead I explored Trastevere, a place I feared would be too postcard perfect and lacking in depth. But I was pleasantly surprised; unlike much of Rome, Trastevere manages to transcend its tourist hordes.
One of the oldest churches in Rome, Santa Maria, is tucked away in a corner of the neighbourhood’s main piazza. Not particularly grand or imposing, your eye is drawn more to the central fountain and the restaurants and bars that line the square.
But its interior is impressive – as are the events that take place here. On one day, a prayer vigil for the African boat people, the next, a glamorous wedding. Santa Maria may be a thousand years old but she’s still very much alive and kicking.
Of the cities we’ve visited so far, Rome seems to be the one that’s most infused with tourists. I suspect in fact that all the ancient pillars and ruins are only remaining vertical for the tourists; were the backpack-wearing, map-toting mobs to evaporate, I think the old stones would take a long last breath before crumbling to the ground. What would they have to live for without the tourists?
But Trastevere seems different to me. Yes it’s touristy, but the place has so much soul that it rises above the masses that come to eat, drink and be merry down its narrow lanes. Were the tourists to evaporate in Trastevere, life would go on here just fine.
It seems to have passed in a flash but that was a month in Rome. Did my experiment work? For the most part, yes. While Rome didn’t get under my skin in the way that Paris did, it was definitely third time lucky. I actually quite enjoyed looking at the old famous bits as we drove past them on the bus but what impressed me most were the people we met and the surprising neighbourhoods they call home.
So arrivederci Roma! Next stop, Berlin.
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