For week two in Roma I decided to head just south of the city centre and explore a neighbourhood called Garbatella. I guess it’s only a 30 minute bus ride from Pigneto but it may as well be on another planet. In fact, it’s different from anywhere else in Rome as far as I can tell, a planned garden suburb built in the 1920s for the working classes.
While it verges dangerously on the picturesque at times, its odd mix of faux ancient Roman and Fascist Modern, as well as various slaps of paint about the place indicating the political leaning of the community as well as their favourite soccer team, keeps it from being too pretty – or touristy.
Some background… Post-WWI, Rome needed to house workers. They chose a big patch of empty land on some hills south of Rome and gave a handful of architects a brief – design a village-type settlement similar to the English garden cities of the time, complete with communal areas and tillable land.
The result? A large assortment of lotti (lots or blocks), each different but similar, comprising of low rise buildings set around central courtyards, with medieval, Renaissance and Baroque motifs scattered around the joint.
The name may or may not come from Carlotta, a woman who ran a local tavern, whose nickname was Garbata Ostella (courteous innkeeper).
Okay, let’s meander.
Part 1: Country life
To reach the lotti you have to walk five minutes from the Metro, past depressing blocks of crappy high-rise. You know you’ve hit the spot when you suddenly feel like you’ve been transported back in time – or at least somewhere far from urban Rome. The streets start to twist and turn, lined with two or three storey buildings in various shades of burnt orange and pale red. Passageways lead to courtyards inside the lotti, where the apartments look onto communal gardens, some more loved than others, and an area filled with rows of washing lines. Residents relax on outdoor chairs, kids kick a ball around and cats drape themselves over pillars. And because it’s spring, the whole place is dripping with green, purple, pink and blue.
Tourists don’t know what they’re missing.
Part 2: Lotto 30
After our initial wander, we honed in on one of the lotti – Lotto 30. It seemed to be the most social, with regular groups of residents congregating in various corners of the courtyard for morning or afternoon natters.
On one of our visits we met 27 year old Cecile who lives here with her young son, Riccardo, and husband. She explained how the lotti work – if you’re not born into one you’ve got Buckely’s chance of living here. Most of them are owned by families who simply pass them on to the next generation to enjoy. For example, Cecile is the third generation to be born here – her grandmother was the first and her young son, the fourth. Will she stay forever? Maybe not as she loves the sea but…
The gardens here used to be well tended but are looking a little lacklustre now. But what I loved about the courtyard was the pride of place given to the rows of washing lines. They are literally and metaphorically the heart of Lotto 30.
Next to the washing lines we met young sisters Nicole and Rebecca playing with fellow resident, Sophia, and a long-suffering pink-plaited rag doll.
The girls were busy making their rag doll as filthy as possible. When we visited the next day we found the doll had found her way into a washing machine and had been hung out to try – next to Sophia’s t-shirt.
Behind the washing, Marissa, Mirella and Rita had taken up their regular possie.
While we were there Anna and son Andrea, who we’d met a few days before, wandered in. She may only have come up to my waist but I still felt small next to her fierceness. Sweet fierceness that is.
I didn’t see many men sitting around shooting the breeze. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a little intimidated by the women of Lotto 30. Like Franco, who prefers to hang his washing out his window, thereby avoiding the need to venture down to the communal washing lines – and the signore.
Part 3: Holy smoke
There are a few churches in Garbatella, the largest one being the Church of Saint Francis Xavier. Built in the Fascist era of the 1930s, it’s striking for its lack of colour or embellishment – save for an appealing noughts and crosses pattern.
Now, I know little about the Catholic religion. So much so I had no idea that a major event on the Christian calendar, Corpus Domini, took place last Thursday all over Rome, with none other than the Pope presiding over one of the processions.
Well, someone must have said a prayer for me because it just so happened that the Christian folk of Garbatella didn’t celebrate on the actual day of Corpus Domini but waited until the weekend – on Sunday morning, when we happened to be at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier to take some final shots.
It seemed to be just a regular Sunday ceremony – until the entire congregation started to file out the door, led by two priests – one swinging a metal censer filled with incense and smoke, and another holding the Blessed Sacrament. I grabbed Coco and leapt off in hot pursuit.
What made it all the more interesting was that the evening before, Coco and I had seen the same streets being paraded on by an entirely different cast of characters – marching bands at the annual Festa per la Cultura.
Instead of nuns singing hymns…
we’d heard drums…
(We’d only popped our heads in briefly to the Festa per la Cultura – it seemed interesting but totally confusing as to what was happening where – hot and tired we left before it probably really got started.)
Anyway, back to Corpus Domini and the procession…
The procession wound up at a smaller church where everyone piled in for another ceremony. Waiting outside I descended on a few people who spoke English so I could quiz them about what we’d just seen as well as Garbatella in general. I was so busy talking to them I forgot to photograph the nuns as they left – but at least I snapped these two gorgeous things, the daughters of the families I was chatting to.
If Garbatella was an experiment in social housing, I think you’d have to say it worked. Although one resident told me she found it quite noisy at times because of the central courtyard, it’s precisely because of that design that it works so well. It acts as a shared outdoor living room, where residents meet to chew the fat, ask for help or just hand one another pegs. A case of architecture enabling relationships. Mind you, if you had a blue with someone it might just all be a little too cosy.
On the ‘home front’
I’m not sure if it’s technically spring or summer here – but it’s been hot, often hitting 29-30 degrees C. Nice if you are poolside but not when you’re pounding the tarmac, trying to engage potential subjects with just ten words of Italian up your sleeve.
My solution has been to make shorter but more frequent visits to the neighbourhood and always in the late afternoon. Which suits Coco fine – somehow we always seem to hit gelato hour when we venture out. And, terribly boring news for anyone except celiacs – they have gluten-free ice-cream cones here. Hallelujah! In fact, you can easily get hold of non-cardboard tasting gluten-free bread, biscuits and cereals in Rome – you just order them at any pharmacy and they have it for you the next day. Pronto.
Speaking of pharmacies and fast, Coco has an angry looking tonsil with an enormous white spot on it – I swear it appeared the moment I brought the maths books out. She’s taken to her bed and refuses to talk about quadrilaterals or parallelograms. Sheez.
This suburb has been brought to you by Belinda Radnidge
Seeing as we’re half way through our Rome chapter, I’d also like to say a big gelato-fueled ‘Grazie!’ to Rogerseller for sponsoring our time here.
See you next Monday.