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Rome’s neighbourhoods

From a pottery mountain to cool Pigneto, there are plenty of reasons to take the tram out of Rome and explore

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I’ve never forgotten my first walk on Palatine Hill, nor a morning I spent in the 15th century Capitoline Museums, on my first visit to Rome. I’ve returned many times and never tire of these blockbuster sights. I still crane my neck for a view of the Colosseum through the tram window. But these days, my tram is often travelling out of the centre. Away from the Vatican and centro storico (historic centre), there’s another side to the city. Not free from tourists — just vibrant neighbourhoods where you can enjoy Rome with the Romans.

A stall inside Mercato di Testaccio. Image: Getty

A stall inside Mercato di Testaccio. Image: Getty

Testaccio

The neat grid of arrow-straight streets and five-storey apartment blocks took shape in the early 1900s. But the new(ish) Mercato di Testaccio, a Roman institution that moved home in 2012, features stalls displaying everything from sandals to sea bream, plus reinventions of Roman street food.

Testaccio’s biggest — in fact, only real — topographical feature is Monte Testaccio, a scrubby hill 177ft high and over half a mile around, made from broken pots. After importing wine and olive oil from Spain and North Africa, the amphorae couldn’t be reused, so were dumped here.

Nearby, the old city slaughterhouse occupies a sprawling site of low-rise industrial brick buildings. Two of them, including the Pelanda dei Suini (the ‘pig-peeling building’), house MACRO, a contemporary art gallery with a shifting roster of installations and exhibitions.

Trading on its proximity to the abattoir, Testaccio is the place to sample quinto quarto cooking, a Roman culinary tradition. The ‘fifth quarter’, a poetic alias for offal, was the cheapest meat protein available. Sample local dishes like coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stewed in tomatoes) at Flavio al Velavevodetto.

A car on the streets of Trastevere

A car on the streets of Trastevere

Trastevere

Not so long ago Trastevere (‘across the Tiber’) was a cheap neighbourhood for Roman workers. The 1960s short stories of Pier Paolo Pasolini are full of the area’s rogues and scoundrels cracking out Roman slang. It’s now on the tourist radar, but high-season hawkers, tour groups and restaurant hustlers all cram into a few streets between its exquisite 12th-century Basilica, in Piazza Santa Maria, and the river.

Beyond, a warren of cobbled alleys offers up peaceful corners and a glimpse of the city before mass tourism. On Sundays, you’ll find a slice of Roman life rifling stalls at Porta Portese flea market — while there’s rarely anyone jostling to see the scandalous Bernini sculpture in San Francesco a Ripa church.

Trastevere has landmark sights, including Raphael’s frescoes at the Villa Farnesina and paintings at Palazzo Corsini. It also makes a good base, within sight (and a short walk) of the centre. I love Buonanotte Garibaldi, a boutique B&B set around a shaded courtyard that mixes a dose of tradition with contemporary textile artworks by Luisa Longo, whose studio is on-site. Room 1 has citrus, rosemary and dwarf-olive trees on a huge terrace I’d be delighted to find in a suite costing five times the price.

There are still unshowy Trastevere trattorias serving up tasty cucina romana. Among them are La Tavernaccia and Marco G, where Roman classics like cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino cheese and cracked black peppercorns) and gricia (with pork cheek and pecorino) are perfectly executed. Two of Rome’s best craft beer haunts are here, too: Stavio brewery bar in a brick arch by the Ponte dell’Industria, and in a little cave, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, or Macchè for short — if you step through a door to be met by a row of copper-coloured taps, you’re in the right place.

Street art in Garbatella, Rome

Street art in Garbatella

Pigneto & Torpignattara

Pigneto is renowned as the sort of place where even your accountant has her eyebrow pierced. In reality, it’s very approachable. Locals ooze warmth and their relaxed rhythm is easy to slip into. There are no Caravaggios (that I know of), but it makes a striking first impression. Where buildings in the historic centre are crowned with a baroque dome or Corinthian capital, you’ll see an unruly forest of TV aerials.

There are images everywhere. Walls are plastered with graffiti, political, aesthetic or a bit of both. Pigneto and neighbouring Torpignattara have some of Rome’s best street art. There’s a cluster around Pigneto Metro and on Via Fanfulla da Lodi, including Maupal’s giant 2014 eye. Via Alessi and Via Serbelloni, close to the station, have more.

The area comes into its own after dark. The pedestrian section of Via del Pigneto, between Via l’Aquila and Via Macerata, is always lively. Here you’ll find Mezzo, a tiny speakeasy with a four-storey rack of cocktail spirits and a line in top-notch vermouth. Personal highlights beyond this strip include Birra+, a grungy temple to craft beer; Necci has Pasolini cachet, dating to the filming of Accattone, and the same owners just opened DaLodi, an organic gelato and pizza parlour. You enter nearby Spirito by ringing a vintage phone in the back of a late-night sandwich shop; an urban-meets-Bond feel to the ground floor is enhanced by creative mixology.

Pigneto is also one of Rome’s most diverse dining areas. You could comfortably walk between knockout Ethiopian cuisine (Mesob), Italian fine dining (Primo al Pigneto), burgers and a beer (Birstrò), Indian, Japanese, tapas and more. The British Corner is a tea room more English than anywhere in England.

People outside the Basilica, Santa Maria, Trastevere. Image: Alamy

People outside the Basilica, Santa Maria, Trastevere. Image: Alamy

Garbatella

The story of Garbatella began in 1920 at Piazza Brin. Here, the first stone was laid on a peculiar turreted block, with its Renaissance-style loggia and a Roman arch down the middle, ushering you to a communal garden beyond. From here, city architects created streets — Via Garbatella, Via San Aduatto, Via Passino and Via Fausto are fascinating — whose squat blocks are decorated with rustication, sinuous gables and other baroque flourishes, and Roman-style stone gargoyles. The inspiration behind this architectural oddity was the English ‘garden suburb’, and evicted residents of the Roman borgate, slums and shanty towns were moved into it.

Nobody’s totally sure where the name came from. This short-lived experiment in low-density public housing was supposed to be called Concordia. The Fascists wanted to rename it Remuria. But perhaps, after a local innkeeper who gained some renown, it’s always been known as Garbatella.

More recently, larger blocks have been decorated with monumental street art, including a crowdfunded Sten and Lex geometric composition at the corner of Via Caffaro and Via Vettor. And downhill towards the Tiber, the buzzing nightlife zone around Via Argonauti and Via Libetta has made Garbatella an Instagrammer’s dream.

It can sometimes feel cut off, a self-sustaining village, just a couple of Metro stops from Circus Maximus. It has justly fêted restaurants, Ristoro degli Angeli among them, but at lunchtime places like Il Girasole are the soul of Garbatella. Romans chow down, half-listen to snatches of news or sport on the radio. On my last visit, deep-fried baccalà (salt cod) followed by pork cutlets and fried potatoes served simply with rosemary and wedge of lemon, in a portion I struggled to finish, came in under €10.

Is it an unlikely spot for one of Rome’s most memorable museums? Maybe. Centrale Montemartini houses part of the Capitoline’s huge antiquities collection inside a power station abandoned in the 1960s. It’s the only place in Rome where you can view 2nd-century portrait busts framed by the blackened hulk of a 1930s diesel engine. A vast boiler room has a large mosaic showing scenes from the Roman hunt, dug from the Horti Liciniani. The museum is quiet, making for easy interaction with the exhibits — and more satisfying than the Vatican.

When in Rome…

Eat Roman-Jewish street food
Tasting carciofi alla giudica (artichokes aromatised with lemon and deep-fried) or fior di zucca (stuffed pumpkin flowers) is a hands-on experience.

Save room for gelato
Florentines (or perhaps Sicilians) may have invented ice-cream, but the Romans perfected it. Look out for branches of Fatamorgana and Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè.

Explore EUR
The 20th-century EUR district (pronounced eh-oor) was intended to be a showpiece of Fascist-era architecture until the Second World War halted construction.

Go underground
Everywhere from the Vatican to the Appian Way to a municipal park in Garbatella has caves and catacombs to explore.

Carry a water bottle
All over the city, nasoni (drinking fountains), dispense cool drinking water — that’s free — straight from the aqueducts.

Essentials

Use Loco2 to book train travel from the UK to Rome, travelling by Eurostar to Paris, then the Thello sleeper to Milan and the Frecciarossa high-speed service on to Rome. Book the Buonanotte Garibalidi via Sawday’s Italy; doubles from £177. A RomaPass costs €38.50 for 72 hours of public transport, with free admission to two museums and discounts at the rest.

Published in the October 2016 guide issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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