Like the Rubicon, which Julius Caesar so famously crossed in 49 BC, the River Tiber is forever associated with Ancient Rome in my mind. This is thanks to Shakespeare who, at the start of Anthony and Cleopatra, gave Mark Anthony the epic line: “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.” It’s a play I learnt by heart at school.
Mark Anthony makes a heartfelt expression of his love to the indomitable queen-cum-goddess Cleopatra. She, he is saying, is more important to him than Rome and the whole of the Empire, of which he is one of its three rulers. “Excellent falsehood!” is her response, leaving Anthony twisting and turning in the wind unable to grasp her capriciousness.
These words came to mind crossing the River Tiber on the Ponte Fabricio on our way to the Trastevere district. Rome’s great history seemed spread out before us as we walked to the Isola Tiberina, the small island that sits picturesquely in the middle of the Tiber. It’s a beautiful place, home to the Basilica San Bartolomeo all’Isola which dates from 998 AD, and a hospital established in the 16th century.
We’d spent the morning wandering around Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto, and were headed for lunch amongst the fascinating narrow lanes of the Trastevere. These two areas are incredibly atmospheric and shouldn’t be missed if you’re visiting.
Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is a place loaded with meaning. Founded in 1555, all Jews in Rome were required to live in this area, which was prone to flooding from the nearby River Tiber. Rome wasn’t unique, there were Jewish ghettos across Europe, but Rome’s ghetto was controlled by the Vatican and Jews had to swear loyalty to the Pope.
Life in the ghetto was made deliberately miserable, and it was renowned for its overcrowding and poverty. Surrounded by high walls and locked gates, the inhabitants lived in near isolation from the city around them, to the extent that they developed their own dialect. The walls of the ghetto were only torn down in 1888, the last in Western Europe.
The ghetto was largely demolished and little survives today. Slightly over 50-years later the Nazis would reinvent the Jewish Ghetto as part of the Final Solution. Europe’s Jews would once again be forced to live in crowded squalor, exploited by their captors before being sent to their deaths in the Concentration Camps. The medieval concept of the ghetto would have been well understood to all in the 1940s.
Today the area is home to an impressive synagogue and plenty of streets lined with restaurants. It is also right next door to the Teatro Marcello, an ancient Roman theatre. Crossing over the Tiber we headed to the Trastevere district, which is filled with enchanting cobbled streets and glorious piazzas.
We wandered at length through the area before having an al fresco lunch just off the Piazza di Santa Maria, home to the Basilica di Santa Maria. It’s an area with a distinct feel. In part that’s down to its working class history, but also because it’s reinvented itself as a trendy area of bars, restaurants and clubs. There’s a touch of London’s Hoxton about it, just with a backdrop of medieval buildings.
This is the area to come for good food, alternative cocktails and beers from microbreweries unknown to the outside world. It’s also where I bought a €3 ice cream from a street side gelateria, and was rewarded with the largest portion of ice cream I’ve ever eaten in one sitting. It was hot, I’m certain I deserved it.
This is definitely a part of Rome to be explored in greater depth the next time I visit … and not just because they serve huge ice cream portions for a ridiculously small amount of money.