WEEKENDS AWAY: TRASTEVERE, ROME, AND SANTA MARIA
by Jonell Galloway
A weekend in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome lets you live and feast like a real Roman, if only for a short time. It is rich in history and culture, and plenty of fun and good food to boot. A little hotel we’ve found near Piazza Santa Maria will let you melt into this hidden corner of Rome.
A Little History about Trastevere
This side of the Tiber was Etruscan, until the Romans claimed it around the 6th century B.C. It was incorporated into the city of Rome’s 14 quarters by the Emperor Augustus with the “Trans Tiberim.” Thus the name, which means “across the Tevere,” the Roman name for the Tiber.
It was a plebian quarter, where the servants and laborers and the free citizens of Rome’s as well as sailors, fishermen, Phoenicians and Jews lived. It would be the principal Jewish quarter of Rome until the end of the Middle Ages, when the Ghetto, across the river from Trastevere, became the residential area to which Jews were henceforth restricted.
Renaissance Romans began building more noble villas around the edges of the ancient quarter, but the Trastevere of today retains its medieval, labyrinthine layout, full of narrow, winding alleys. It remains a working class neighborhood, with children playing soccer in the street, old people sitting on their stoops, and families gathering around a table in the street to visit. Trastevere lies between the western banks of the river Tiber and the Janiculum hill, one of Rome’s storied seven hills, that looms above it. It’s but a short 15-minute walk across the Tiber to the ruins of ancient Rome, the “salon” of Rome with its extravagant fountains, and only a little bit further by foot to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican. One of the liveliest gathering places is the square in front of the church of Santa-Maria-in-Trastevere, construction of which began early in the 3rd century with the church completed in the mid-4th century, and ultimately completed in Romanesque style in the 12th century, then converted in several other centuries, giving it an unusual combination of Ancient Roman details and varied architectural features from later periods. The octagonal fountain in the piazza is an ancient Roman fountain restored and enlargened in the 17th century by Carlo Fontana.
Santa Maria with church, with ancient Roman foundation in center. The piazza is full of life at night.
What to See and Do in Trastevere
The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria in Trastevere is undoubtedly the oldest church in Rome, and deserves several visits if you want to appreciate its full architectural and historical depth. Most of the mosaics date from the 12th century. They are illuminated at night, and the golden light of the façade fills the piazza with a warm glow.
12th-century gold mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere
The 22 granite columns lining the nave are said to have come from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla; the capitals are adorned with the heads of female pagan deities.
Numerous Roman funeral inscriptions can also be found in the church.
Eating and Nightlife
There is no shortage of reasonably priced osterie, trattorie and restaurants that serve authentic Roman food in a no-frills setting. The neighborhood is timeless, with its mix of historical architectural periods and lively local residents; it remains quintessentially Roman. If you want to pretend you’re Roman for a weekend, this is the place to do it.
Old cellars and stables have been converted into bars, discos and cafés, providing a lively nightlife scene, with customers spreading out into the streets when the weather is fine.
Signs like this demonstrate the colorful character of the locals, and offer contrast to our notion of contemporary, ultra-chic Italy.
Sidewalk cafés and restaurants preserve the romantic character of Old Italy, spilling out onto the streets. My favorite source of restaurants in Rome is David Downie’s Food Wine Rome. David is half Roman, and sees food through the eyes of a Roman. His recommendations are all about the authentic and the unpretentious, and you’ll seldom find tourists in the places he recommends.
While the Hotel Santa Maria is located in the very heart of the vibrant Santa Maria neighborhood just steps from the piazza, within the walls of this converted 16th-century convent, it’s so quiet and peaceful that you may think you’re staying in a remote Tuscan country house. The renovation is simple, but tasteful, with classic Roman terracotta floors and well-fitted bathrooms. Bedroom furnishings are tasteful, solid-wood reproductions. Almost all rooms are on the ground floor and give onto the courtyard. The few that do have a room above them (near the rooftop terrace) are not so quiet due to the tile floors. Otherwise, the clientele is quiet and respectful.
Courtyard with orange trees where you can eat breakfast or have a drink
One enters the hotel courtyard through a large, locked iron gate, so security is good. The L-shaped convent-cum-hotel with an inner courtyard enclosing a small orange grove boasts wrought-iron tables and chairs for leisurely sitting in the sun or eating breakfast when weather permits. The breakfast room is in a converted cellar, with breakfast consisting of an international and Italian buffet with something to suit everyone, offering freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee from a professional espresso machine.
The small rooftop terrace is furnished with chic wooden lounge chairs and armchairs. It’s a great place to have a drink before dinner, read in the early evening, or sunbathe during the day. The view of the surrounding rooftops and balconies of Trastevere is a photographer’s dream. All rooms have satellite television and air conditioning, as well as Wi-Fi, which can sometimes be unstable. Bikes are available for rental at the reception.
How to Get There
If you’re flying, take the train from the Fiumicino Leonoardo da Vinci airport station to the Trastevere station, about a 30-minute train ride, then take a cab, which should take about 10 minutes. This should cost around 15 Euros all-inclusive, versus approximately 50 Euros with tip for a cab direct from the airport. A cab ride from the Termini train station to the hotel should cost around 15 Euros. The hotel is lost in a winding street and difficult to access by car. Even taxi drivers get confused with all the one-way and dead-end streets. Study your map and know the names of the surrounding streets and squares, because the driver may be forced to let you off in another street around the corner from the hotel.
Reservations: http://www.htlsantamaria.com Address Vicolo del Piede 2 – 00153 Rome – Italy Tel. (39) 06 5894626 – Fax: (39) 06 5894815 Click here for map: Map to Hotel Santa Maria
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, What to Eat in France and What to Eat in Venice.