After a few hours to dry off and have lunch (namely pizza and gelato) on Friday afternoon I made my way down to Trastevere, south of the Vatican but on the same side of the river, for Urban Adventures’ “Trends and Traditions” tour. This was an area I had never explored previously, and as it doesn’t hold the attractions crowds normally flock to, feels a bit more off the beaten path.
My guide, Vanessa, is an Italian archaeologist and it turns out her grandmother was born in Trastevere. It was really nice to have a sense of connection to the area that way. It emerged I was Vanessa’s only guest, so it was wonderful to have a one-on-one experience. We started on the right bank of the Tiber and looked across the river at Tiber Island and St Bartholomew’s Basilica. It was the first spot of many on our walk where the layers of history became apparent; the facade is from the 17th century, but the bell tower dates from the 12th century. It was built on the site of a Roman temple, as have many Christian churches in the city. The island was used for quarantine and one of the earliest hospitals in Rome was located in this area.
Trastevere was historically a working class area, though some families with local workshops grew quite wealthy and had more luxurious residences nearby. Gentrification has taken hold and there are many trattorias and bars that draw a trendier crowd. Still, many of the streets are narrow and winding and have a much quieter feel than the Centro Storico, or where I was staying in near the Vatican. The pleasure of Trastevere is just wandering through its streets; I couldn’t tell you what route we followed. The start and end points perhaps weren’t terribly far apart, but it still seemed we covered a lot of ground.
We stopped at the Basilica of St Cecilia who is a local saint and has an annual procession on her saint’s day. A thermal bath of the type in which she and her husband were both horrifically martyred has been preserved in part of the church; a wedding was taking place when we were there, so we didn’t linger. I’d love to go back and explore further when the church is quiet. The exterior wall has a fascinating mix of marble plaques and carvings from earlier eras; materials were repurposed again and again from ancient buildings to create churches. Vanessa pointed out several Greek and Roman columns made of different marbles from different eras inside various churches.
Another, even more ancient church is the Church of St Benedict. We passed by it twice; the first time the doors were shut but when we went by again, Vanessa excitedly pointed to it and said we had to go in, as it’s not often open to the public. It’s easy to miss, but if you cross the bridge from Tiber Island, keep walking straight ahead into Piazza di Piscinula
I know it’s a bit difficult to see in the floor photo, but all the mosaic tiles are made up of reused green serpentine marble and red porphyry. Porphyry was one of the most prized materials in the ancient and medieval world; it comes from Egypt and is second only to diamond in terms of hardness. The technique and patterns of mosaic work in St Benedict’s were invented by the Cosmati family of artists in the 13th-14th centuries and give their name to the style, which Vanessa said is called cosmatesque.
We stopped at a local biscottificio called Innocenti for a snack. Given the queue inside, it seemed likely that the many biscotti and sweets on display were worth waiting for. Though they’re sold by weight and many people were leaving with bags full of assorted biscuits, I got away with just buying a couple chocolate-dipped treats. The flavours immediately brought back memories of childhood cookies from Italian-influenced bakeries in Pittsburgh.
Vanessa showed me the apartment building where her grandmother grew up, pointing out that the overall space would have been shared with another family. During the war, the black market was nearby. We talked about historic Italian immigration to America and Australia, and how once again Italy is in a difficult economic situation and how many are struggling to find work.
It was a pleasure to meet Vanessa and explore an area a little less well-known, but equally worth visiting. While you don’t need a guide to explore Trastevere, I certainly appreciated and benefited from Vanessa’s knowledge of architecture and art history. Being able to have a one-on-one tour felt more like a casual chat with a friendly local, and while I couldn’t guarantee all Urban Adventures experiences would be so intimate, this one was welcome chance to connect with a different way of seeing Rome.
I was the guest of Urban Adventures as part of #ExpRome
Check out additional photos of Trastevere on my Facebook page
- A Tale of Three Tours – Vatican Museums
- The Saturday Six – Lauren Fitzpatrick of Lateral Movements