Una Passeggiata a Roma – Part I

After the guided tour of the Vatican Gardens, I needed a day of just meandering around. No museums.  No art galleries.  No churches.  But where to spend such a day in a city that seems to have at least one of those around every corner?


Everywhere you look – churches, statues, columns galore.

My sense of the dynamics between the citizens of Rome and Florence is that it would be highly unpleasant for the vast majority of them to admit that their cities have anything in common.  But I think they would have a hard time denying that their cities do share one, not insignificant characteristic.  The major monuments of both cities are concentrated on one side of the rivers that run through their respective cities.

When I had needed a break from all the art and architecture and museums of Florence, I had taken a walk through the Oltr’Arno – ‘Across the Arno’ – the district on the north side of the Arno River (On the Other Side, Nov. 10, 2013).  Rome has its own Oltr’Arno.  It’s called Trastevere – which, in what may be an inconvenient coincidence, means ‘Across the Tiber’.  The perfect place for a day of meandering.

I was staying near Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers), a 10-minute walk from the Tiber River.


In the morning, the flower vendors set up their stalls at the west end of Campo dei Fiori.

I got an early start, before the tour groups started clogging up the streets, but it still took me a lot longer than 10 minutes to reach the river.  First of all there was the flower market. I had expected lots of cut flowers, but I was surprised to see so many plants for sale.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been.  I had already seen quite a few spectacular balcony gardens in the short time I’d been here.


Geraniums, petunias, bougainvillea, plumbago.  What haven’t they got in this balcony garden?.

In the middle of the piazza, high above the market is a statue of Giordano Bruno, whose free-thinking views collided with those of the 16th century Vatican.  In an effort to silence him, the Vatican put all his works on the Index of Forbidden Books, and when that didn’t work, had him burnt at the stake.   Shortly after the unification of Italy, the ‘heretic’ was given new life as a martyr to the freedom of thought that would hopefully prevail in the newly founded country.  The statue was placed on the exact spot where he had been put to death and positioned so that his defiant glare is directed for all eternity towards the Vatican.


Will someone please go up there and take down that plastic bag?


At the other end of the square, the fruit and vegetable vendors were still setting up their stalls.


This market has a gritty charm you will not see in the markets of Provence.


Carciofi (car-choe-fee). One of my favourites. They must be in season.

Eventually I reached the Tiber.  I crossed over the pedestrian bridge next to the island that inspired the Fontana di Rometta  (‘Little Rome’) we saw a couple of weeks ago at Villa d’Este. (A Cure for Road Rage…, Mar. 1, 2015)


Tiberina Island.

In Avignon, where seven Popes carried on the business of the Church during what some refer to as the Babylonion Captivity of the Papacy, the ancient bridge that was repeatedly swept away by the flooding Rhone River, is now one of the city’s most important and most visited tourist sites.   Even if you didn’t have a clue what you were singing – and undoubtedly mangled the words – you probably still remember the melody to the children’s song,  ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…

Sur le pont d'Avignon...

On days when the Rhône flows so gently, it’s hard to imagine it as the torrential deluge that has repeatedly swept away the Pont d’Avignon.

Like Avignon’s much celebrated Pont d’Avignon, the bridge in Rome was also damaged by periodic flooding.  But unlike Pont Saint-Bénézet, the official name of the French bridge, this one has come to a much less glorious end.  In the 2nd century BC the Romans christened it Pons Aemilius.   On second thought, given what the Romans would do a couple of centuries later to adherents of the new religion which threatened the established hierarchy, ‘christened’ is probably not the best choice of words.  In ogni caso, the ‘official’ name of the bridge now seems to be, not Ponte Emilio, the modern Italian equivalent, but Ponte Rotto.‘ (pone-tay roht-toe).  Broken Bridge.


Rome’s ‘Broken Bridge’.


While the crowds are lined up at the Vatican and Colosseum, Tibernina Island and Ponte Rotto languish in relative obscurity.

Finally I was on the ‘other’ side.  And once again, happy to be a piedi (ah pyay-dee).   On foot.  Because soon I came across what is possibly the most perversely worded road sign ever created.  It has generated a tsunami of vitriol in Italian newspapers.  Even the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the oldest institution in the world dedicated to the study and preservation of the linguistic purity of the Italian language – even older by several decades than its august counterpart in Paris, the Académie Française – has felt compelled to wade into the stormy waters.

Varco means passage.   As one apoplectic journalist points out, in every Italian Post Office, in every state or business office in the country for that matter, the sign ‘sportello non attivo‘ means that the wicket is chiuso (kyu-zoh). (ilfattoquotidiano.it/2013/06/12/varco-attivo.)  Logically, by extension, a sign indicating that something is attivo, means that it is open and you’re free to go.

Another journalist, obviously even more incensed, writes about imbroglio, inverted logic and massacres by swindlers. (www.ilgiornale.it/news/interni/1017838.html).  I checked the automatic English translations.  They are not bad, but if you do have a look, you will see that, strangely, some words have been left untranslated, leaving one to wonder if the translating program had been designed to avoid words that might offend the tender sensibilities of us English readers.

While most of the entries rant and rave about the misleading wording and the heavy fines that Italian and foreign drivers alike have incurred since the system was set up in late 2007, the Accademia della Crusca, in keeping with its mandate, takes a more measured, more scholarly  approach.  (Maybe none of its members has been hit with a fine yet.)  It turns out that, unbeknownst to all except those who set up the system, it is not the varco that is attivo or non attivo, but the electronic controls which monitor the varco.  If the control is attivo, that means it’s ‘on’ and you can’t go.


VARCO ATTIVO – the most perverse road sign ever.

Two fellows with shopping bags walked past the contentious sign.   Sure enough, there was a market just down the road.




Roman zucchini and behind them, a zuccone like the ones I’d seen on the Amalfi Coast.


All the fixings for a ‘special’ minestrone.  Did the vendor have bags already made up?  It would be a pity to spoil his display.


Even if you don’t speak Italian, spinach, broccoli florets and chicory are easy. But ‘capata’? I had no idea, so I  asked the vendor.  It’s Roman dialect.  The ‘proper’ Italian word, which I know and which would have been used if we were in Tuscany, is lavata (washed).


If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of vino rosso, you’ll know what this sign means.


Next to the beans, more artichokes. They are definitely in season.


But wait a minute. The Prince of Brittany? I got the feeling the vendor would have preferred I hadn’t noticed the box.


Almost time for the fishmonger to pull out his awning. The sun was rising fast and the fish that had been in the shade when I arrived was now in full sun.


Is it just me, or does it look like these two are having a little smooch?

Time for the morning’s second cappuccino and even though I was meandering, I knew exactly where I wanted to have it – Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.



Plumbago. My favourite blue flower.


Miraculously no-one honks their horn and they somehow manage to avoid hitting each other as they make their way through the piazza. Sometimes I wonder if these tight spaces don’t lend themselves to a greater civility than the wider streets back home.


Another favourite. Brugmansia aka Angel’s Trumpet.  Imagine the garden behind that wall.


Brilliant! When the Wisteria (on the left) is finished blooming, the Bougainvillea takes over.


Persiane and wisteria.

I had a general idea where the piazza was and only had to ask twice. Somehow, looking at the map seemed like cheating.


Santa Maria in Trastevere


Opposite the church, the perfect place to watch goings-on in the piazza.

An indication of the effort and expense required to keep the persiane in good repair.

How much effort – and expense – must go into keeping the persiane in good repair?


A few locals, somewhat worse for wear, gathered around the fountain.

A policeman walked by the half sober locals – perhaps a glance was all it took to keep them in line – and went over to a young man who had been sleeping in the doorway to the left of the fountain and – very gently – woke him up.



My cappuccino arrived and then people started coming out of the church. I had been so engrossed watching the locals that I hadn’t noticed the hearse on the other side of the fountain.


Weddings and funerals, like so much of life here, always strike my North American eye as surprisingly public affairs.



Mourners and passersby milled around, including one woman who looks as confused as I often feel when in Rome.


One woman sat on a marble stump, watching the proceedings. From my viewpoint I assumed she was one of the mourners.


Until she and a companion I hadn’t noticed before went over to the church entrance.  Were they Roma?  Would the nun would give them something?   She didn’t.


Nor did the nun who came after her.  But she didn’t shoo them away.


Time to continue meandering – and have a look at some menus.  Soon it would happily, once again, be l’ora di mangiare.  TBC

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