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Living in Rome

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Heuser
Globe Staff / February 6, 2005

ROME -- On a warm Friday night last fall, the parking lots of Trastevere began to fill, slowly and ineluctably, with scooters. Anyone who has visited Italy knows that scooters are everywhere -- you start to wonder if all Italian teenagers are solemnly granted scooters on their 16th birthdays -- but on this one night, it felt extreme.

Scooters were cramming the edges of the sidewalks and spilling over into the cobblestone alleys. They wedged themselves in narrow slots between cars nearly as tiny as they were; they leaned colorfully and haphazardly against cracked and graffiti-covered ancient plaster. They buzzed around me in the tiny streets like horseflies.

The riders crammed themselves with equal vigor into the surrounding bars and cafes. They were all young, and the whole district soon developed a talky energy that made it feel somehow different from other places I had visited. I wondered why.

Then a thought washed over me in a gratifying wave: I am hanging out where actual Italian people hang out.

Every big city, it seems, has at least one neighborhood with a reputation for ''authenticity," the sort of place where locals spend their nights, heavy on lifestyle and light on monuments. In Boston, it might be the South End, full of restaurants but well removed from the Paul Revere House and Faneuil Hall. In Manhattan, it could be Chelsea or the Lower East Side.

The search for such a neighborhood in a European city famously overrun by tourists is a sport in itself, especially if you are someone who might have once, on his honeymoon, dragged his wife through eight blocks of dangerous slum to discover the one bar in town with no other Americans in it.

I can't take credit for finding Trastevere (pronounced tra-STAY-ver-ay) though: My wife was in Rome on a research fellowship, and she announced it was where we were staying.

I had never heard of it. Friends who had spent more time than I in Italy kept describing Trastevere as funky, or trendy, or on the rise, which all struck me as diplomatic ways to say ''run down." As it turns out, there are several things to understand about an ''authentic" neighborhood in Rome. First, it has a McDonald's. Second, it has a movie theater playing ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (whose Italian title translates to ''If You Leave Me, I Will Erase You"). Third, the population of the neighborhood between noon and 3 p.m. is mostly American and French tourists with Lonely Planet guidebooks and sensible brown walking shoes. The locals, of course, are shuttered in their ancient houses lamenting the influx.

Still, by the standards of the rest of Rome, Trastevere is virtually undiscovered. Though it's just across the Tiber River from the Forum, and a quick walk from the Vatican, it feels like a place apart from the central city's urban grandeur. That cuts both ways, of course. I arrived by train (Trastevere has its own station, shrouded in scaffolding and plagued by gypsies), and my introduction came as I took a tram along the main street, the Viale Trastevere. Despite the elegant name, this was the sort of street I had worried about when people used the word ''authentic" -- busy, dangerous, dirty. Flickering neon signs and curled posters evoked the shabby and depressed Italy of the 1940s and '50s. Later, I would come to feel the main purpose of the Viale Trastevere was to divide two very charming sets of side streets in as forbidding a manner as possible.

It was only when we got off the main drag and began to walk the curling side streets that the dense, peeling charm of Trastevere began to unfold. The neighborhood was mostly spared the garish hand of the Baroque popes and aristocrats who erected their famous palazzos and churches around the city, and the result is a tight neighborhood of 19th-century shops and tenements -- though tenements no longer -- punctuated with remarkable Romanesque churches. (This sense of distinctness apparently has ancient roots. The neighborhood's first inhabitants were Etruscans, an earthy crowd that stubbornly resisted mingling with the imperial Latins who erected monuments to themselves across the river.) Guidebooks call the overall effect ''rustic," but that's not quite right: It's a bit of city that never lost its soul to ceremony.

The heart of Trastevere is a 12th-century church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, which anchors a neat public square with cafes around the edges and a tiered fountain for a navel. In front of the church's 1,000-year-old brick bell tower and 400-year-old marble portico, children kick soccer balls around the paving stones during the day and couples promenade after dark. One night, we saw a fire juggler entertaining a crowd. One cafe, much frequented by tourists, specializes in tall tulip glasses of fresh orange juice. Another, much frequented by Italian teenagers, specializes in female servers wearing tight shirts. More important, I eventually realized, is the total absence of the accordion players and woeful caricature artists who infect the more famous piazzas across the river.

Like many Italian churches, Santa Maria is open in the morning, closed much of the afternoon, and then open again well into the evening. I ducked inside one day when our schedules coincided. The first thing I noticed was the ceiling, a gilded canopy with a coffered surface of almost absurd depth, leading to a brilliant gold mosaic circling the top of the apse.

Santa Maria has a focal point in that bright mosaic (and a revenue source, since you have to plug increasingly costly one-euro coins into a machine to illuminate the thing), but like a lot of Italian churches, it is intensely, almost overwhelmingly decorated around the edges. One side chapel is home to an intricate ''who's who" portrait of the Council of Trent, which established the standard Latin Mass in the 1500s. The paired chapel on the other side bears the coat of arms of England's Henry IX, who paid for its remodeling centuries ago. (If you didn't know there was a Henry IX, well, neither did England. He was the last Roman Catholic pretender of the Stuart line, and just one of the many expatriates who spent his final days, and cash, in Rome.)

Once outside the church, I headed down to the public market. About two days after arriving, I had thought I understood Trastevere pretty well. There was the main street, there was the piazza, and a long narrow lane of shops connected them. It took me about five days to realize I was missing most of it. The neighborhood was confoundingly easy to get lost in, but kept repaying my mistakes with charming new vistas. One of these is the public market at Piazza San Cosimato, nearly abandoned at night, but which every morning erupts into a bustle of fruit and vegetable stands. (The piazza is undergoing renovations this winter, with the vendors relocated to nearby Piazza Mastai.) I stopped at a cheese seller's booth and the vendor cut me one slice after another, a flurry of sheep's milk cheeses I had never seen in the United States. Just off the market was a narrow street, boarded up and silent at night, but a parade of specialty food shops -- one selling only pasta, another sausages, another fish -- during the day.

The streets between the piazzas are filled with shops that afford quick glimpses of the craftsmanship for which Trastevere is known: a woman who glues and binds her own decorative books, two young artists who painstakingly stamp out unique prints on an antique manual press.

The market is a three- or four-minute walk from the main piazza. A three-minute walk the other way brought me to Santa Maria della Scala, a quiet Baroque church whose dusky interior felt like the attic of a chandelier shop. The silence was almost palpable, but the sense of muffled piety was completely undermined by the side chapels decorated with a carnival of garishly colored marble in purples, pinks, and oranges.

The name Santa Maria della Scala can be translated as ''Saint Mary of the Staircase," which hints at another one of Trastevere's curious virtues: It is a deeply aerobic experience. The neighborhood, bounded by the river on one side, is nestled on the other against the Gianicolo, the ancient Janiculum, by far the tallest hill in Rome. In a city with no skyscrapers, the Gianicolo turned out to be an unparalleled place to gaze on the cityscape. I climbed it every day I was there. Walking west from Santa Maria, every back street turned sharply upward into a steep road or a stairway, twisting through dripping rock faces into a series of little plazas that mounted one after another, the tourists in their sensible shoes panting for breath and the view of Rome getting better and better.

The hill is famous for its piazza and statue dedicated to Guiseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), who commanded an army of poets and beatniks to noble failure against the French artillery. (Romantic failure is a very Italian thing to commemorate.) The hill is also home to a lavish Baroque fountain, the best botanical garden in Rome, and a winding stairway in which you pass bas-reliefs of the Stations of the Cross.

As with most of the gems here, however, the most famous thing on the hillside is hidden. Attached to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, named on the misunderstanding that St. Peter himself was martyred here, is a precise little chapel by Donato Bramante: the ''Tempietto," or little temple, an architecturally ideal circle of columns surmounted by a dome. I tried to visit several times, but never managed to arrive when the church was open. In fact, I never managed to figure out when it was supposed to be open, so the perfect little temple stayed tantalizingly aloof behind an iron gate.

This was the daytime Trastevere, a lockbox of hidden sights and unexpected vistas. At night, the scene changed. Down slid the gates on the food shops; up went the shutters on bars and restaurants. An abandoned-looking building on one corner became a warm and inviting bar for a drink with friends; across the street was Enoteca Ferrara, one of Rome's trendiest wine bars. There are no grand temples of gastronomy in Trastevere, but there are some great places to eat: Pizzeria Ivo draws people from across the river to sample its perfect, one-person Roman pizzas (not just tomato and cheese, but gorgonzola-apple and a host of other combinations). There is also Ristorante da Paris, which, despite the name, specializes in the classic dishes of Rome: fried artichokes, pasta and chickpea soup, and a rich oxtail stew.

The night of the scooters was a Friday. Trastevere's shopping streets filled up that evening, the daytime bustle of the stores overlapping with the nighttime buzz of cafes and restaurants. All at the same time you could get a handbag, a pizza, a pair of trendy sneakers, and an after-dinner drink, and you could do it among hundreds of young Romans flocking to the neighborhood.

It did not matter that I had missed the Tempietto, and broken a sweat on the hill every day, and spent an entire week in the Eternal City without ever laying eyes on St. Peter's. Tonight, amid the noise of the Vespas, it felt as if we were truly living in Rome.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@globe.com.

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