Benvenuti a Roma!
It seems fitting since we’re in Christianity’s HQ to begin with a confession – I’ve never been crazy about the place. It’s partly because the two times I’ve been weren’t exactly a load of laughs. The first time was as a kid, when I spent most of my Roman holiday in bed with glandular fever and acute tonsillitis. The last time was around 10 years ago, with my then partner. It was meant to be a break from a particularly tough time. Instead he and I fought like cat and dog.
Aside from that, the other reason I’m underwhelmed by what most people find to be an overwhelmingly beautiful city is my complete lack of the tourist gene. I know I should be struck with awe when I visit the Colosseum et al. And maybe, if I didn’t have to queue for hours, I would be. But any time I attempt to do the tourist thing I get really stroppy. In short, it ruins the ruins.
So, much like Paris, I’m hoping that by stepping off the tourist trail and exploring lesser known neighbourhoods, I’ll finally ‘get’ Rome.
Confession over, let’s get on with it. Rome – famous for the Colosseum, St Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps etc etc etc. Less so for Pigneto, our first neighbourhood in the eternal city.
Sitting just outside the Aurelian Walls that enclose Rome’s historic centre, Pigneto isn’t one of Rome’s 22 rioni but rather a quartieri urbani – one of the 35 districts that surround the historical centre.
I chose it on the recommendation of Lisa, an Australian blog follower who lives in Pigneto. She said it wasn’t charming or postcard pretty but worth a look.
Some history: While much of Rome is almost 3,000 years old, Pigneto is mostly a mix of low rise and high rise apartments from the 30s and 70s. Name has something to do with the curiously shaped ‘Umbrella’ pine trees in the area. Was working-class and dangerous, now trendy with an edge – pushers live on the same street that sells the best gelato I’ve ever tasted.
Part 1: Day one, a wander through the neighbourhood
Pigneto is only a 15 minute bus ride from the tourist trail but so far it’s escaped the spotlight. It helps that it’s not on a metro line (they’re building one, line C, but it’s delayed every time they discover yet another thousand year old bit of Rome) but the main reason is, there’s nothing much to see. Not a ruin in sight and aside from some lovely weathered buildings, pretty charmless.
Which is just fine with the locals. The ones we met were more interested in the low-key vibe of the place and the creative community that hangs out here…
First up we meet Mauro, a choreographer who’s lived here for 10 years. He liked Pigneto better when it was full of old people instead of the young crowd of today. “Too trendy now”.
Coco shows Mauro her dance routine – as you do when you meet a choreographer – then we wander around the back streets until we notice an open door – Francesca, busy at work fashioning pieces of wood into whimsical sculptures.
Around the corner from Francesca is architect Azzurra, who enlightens us about the extreme challenges architects face in getting anything done in Rome. Not only because of the ancient ruins but also the different approach to time – “It’s the eternal city after all”.
Later in the day we meet a beautiful family on a bike ride around the neighbourhood. Simone and his wife, Ana, live in Pigneto with their two year old son, Yago. While Ana loves it for its authenticity, Simone is concerned it may not be the best place to bring a child up.
By early evening Pigneto is picking up pace. On the pedestrian-only main street the food markets from the morning have been replaced by tables and chairs for the crowded bar/cafes. Someone’s giving a book reading, kids are running around, people are coming home on their bikes.
We meet Greta outside one of the bars. Originally from southern Italy she’s lived in Pigneto for years. To her it still feels like a little village, but one that’s more exciting than her home town.
Coco demands gelato so we finish the day with two scoops of fragola, per favore. Right near the gelato bar is our last Roman for the day, Roberta, a photographer. I comment on her look of senza reggiseno – bra-less. She says they don’t really get it in Rome but in Milan, for sure.
Part 2: La dolce vita
Life is sweet, particularly when you have some of the best gelato in all of Rome on your doorstep. Its maker tells me it’s because of the love he pours into it. Well, what he actually said was that he uses the best ingredients – but I reckon one of them is love.
Hanging around outside the bar we meet Adiba, from Bangladesh, and her mate, Chrisler, from the Philippines. Just two of the many nationalities that call Pigneto home.
While we’re talking pink…
Part 3: Aside from fabulous gelato…
Eating and drinking well is a national pastime in Italy and Pigneto is no different. Whether you’re after pizza or an aperitivo, there’s a handful of cafe-bar-restaurant options, from the classic unadorned to the hip retro-inspired and more chic.
Part 4: Inked
Pigneto may have a healthy mix of different groups, but they seem to hang out in their separate corners. There are the African guys (who politely refused my camera) on one corner opposite the laid back crowd that hangs outside “the cafe with the plastic red tables”. And then there are the tattooed all-in-black dudes outside the beer bar.
In fact, Pigneto in general seems to be tattoo central.
Part 5: Older Pigneto
Where we met two Marios and a Gina…
Part 6: You gotta have faith
There are hundreds of churches in Rome but I could only find one in Pigneto, and not a very memorable one at that. But there were quite a few street chapels and madonnelle, small shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Call me strange but I got so much more out of our time in Pigneto than I ever did in previous visits to the famous stuff in Rome. While the neighbourhood ain’t much to look at, it houses a diverse and interesting crowd that is mercifully tourist-free. But a word of warning – if you take the 105 bus there from Termini, hold on to your valuables – I almost had my stuff nicked by a sleazy little man I hope never to see again. Shame on him.
On the ‘home front’
As promised, a photo of Coco in Paris. She looks happy then but you should see her now – she’s landed in a world of pizza and gelato and she’s permanently beaming.
This suburb has been brought to you by Mackenzie Pronk Architects
See you next Monday.