Patricia Cleveland-Peck

“ITALIANS stay with their families, there won’t be anyone about.” “It will either be freezing or rain all the time.” “Everything will be shut…” These were just some of the warnings we received when we told friends we were going to spend Christmas in Rome.

We went anyway – and had a fabulous time. Admittedly we were blessed with something nobody can foresee – brilliant weather, sunshine and blue skies everyday – which rendered the woollies, coats and rainwear we’d brought completely redundant.

Loading article content

Perhaps the most serendipitous thing about the trip however, was the area in which we chose to stay - Trastevere. Rome can be overwhelming with so many museums, monuments and paintings to see that you need a great deal of energy if you’re not to collapse with fatigue. Trastevere ( it means ‘across the Tiber’) is almost a microcosm of the big city with just enough galleries, monuments et al to satisfy one’s cultural appetite and plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to cater for one’s physical being. It is a very old neighbourhood (even by Roman standards) with painted houses and tiny twisting lanes known as vicoli many of which are pedestrianised, which meant we were able to enjoy almost all the area had to offer on foot. Here we appreciated another advantage of coming at this time of year – there were no crowds. Further, should you want to explore the better-known Roman attractions it is just a stroll away across the Ponte Sisto to the Centro Storico with the Foro Romano and the Colosseum but a short tram ride away.

The next stroke of good luck was to find the hotel, Hotel Santa Maria, (www.hotelsantamariatrastevere.it) a small family run establishment which was excellent value. Our room was clean and comfortable and contained all we needed. The breakfasts were good and later the breakfast room served as a bar where a complimentary buffet of canapés was served on a couple of evenings. There was also a Sala Ospitti, a guest sitting room with TV, computer, comfortable chairs and a good selection of books. The rooms are set around a courtyard and we learned later from the friendly owner Valentina Gallo that the hotel was built on the site of an old convent belonging to the Poor Clares, so when designing it her husband, an architect, tried to preserve something of the feel of the old cloister. Now tables and chairs are set out there beneath glossy leaved orange trees, which on our visit were laden with glossy-leaved fruit. In the evening it was even lovelier as during the festive season these trees are threaded with fairy lights, creating a truly magical scene.

Christmas decorations in the streets came fairly late to Rome as it was believed that they diluted the Christian message but things have now changed and in Trastevere there was little doubt that Christmas was coming. On the way to the hotel we had spotted a life-sized Father Christmas outside a cafe and seen fairy lights strung across the streets and around the buildings. We were staying near the Basilica di Santa Maria in front of which is a fountain said to be the oldest in Rome. The Basilica too one of the city’s oldest and the first to be dedicated to the Virgin. The façade of its arcaded portico is decorated with a glittering golden mosaic depicting Mary and the baby Jesus.

This part of Trastevere, west of the wide Viale Trastevere also contains the two most prestigious grand houses open to the public. Palazzo Corsini and Villa Farnesina, which in fact are opposite to each other. We found Villa Farnesina a total delight especially as we seemed to have it to ourselves. It is a big, lavish palazzo set in great gardens built in the early 1500s for the fabulously rich papal banker Augustino Chigi who was something of a joker: for a bet he held a lavish banquet where delicious food was served and music played. The guests admired the gold hangings on the walls – which Chigi then had whisked aside to reveal that they were actually dining in his stables! In 1518 he held a party in his logia on the banks of the Tiber where the food was served on gold and silver platters which were then thrown dramatically into the river– but of course what the guests did not know was that nets had been placed on the river bed to catch them...

Just across the road is the baroque Palazzo Cortini, which now houses part of the national art collection. Here we found glorious paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Fra Angelico, Van Dyck et al. The Palazzo was previously the palace of the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden who moved into it with her court in 1662. She too threw great parties in this magnificent setting.

Behind the Palazzo Cortini, on land which previously formed part of the estate, Rome’s botanical garden stretches up towards the steep Gianicolo Hill, effectively the backdrop to Trastevere. Once again this is a little known gem and apart from a couple of families with children running around and enjoying the space, we seemed to be the only visitors.

We were told that the view from the Gianicolo Hill is spectacular but were a bit daunted by the long, steep climb –until that is until we found out that a little electric bus would carry us painlessly right to the top. We got off at the Piazza Garibaldi and admired the big statue of the hero on his horse – the hill was the site of one of Garibaldi’s battles for the unification of Italy – before being amazed and delighted by the panoramic view of the whole of Rome.

We had been worried that we would find all the restaurants shut over the Christmas period. True, some were closed on Christmas Eve, when Italians celebrate with a the big family meal after midnight mass but in Trastevere we had no difficulty finding enough good restaurants open for us to enjoy splendid even without booking in advance.

In fact as Christmas drew near what we particularly enjoyed was seeing people out en masse, not as tourists but locals buying food for their feasts. Romans are loyal to their neighbourhood markets and in the Mercato San Cosimato we appreciateg from the lively banter how important being part of a community is to them. The produce of course was a delight, colourful and seductive; yellow courgette flowers, scarlet strawberries, vivid broccoli florets and violet aubergines made a very cheerful scene. We watched stallholders taking young artichokes, rubbing them with lemon and trimming them to look like roses and enjoyed seeing the profusion of different fish including bucketsful of live eels.

On our way out of the market we saw people pouring into a shop on the corner of the piazza called Drogheria Innocenti. We pushed out way into what was simply the most amazing grocery store we’d ever come across. Though very unassuming from the outside and a warren of little rooms inside, it was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of magnificent goods from all over the world; sacs of beans, sacks of flour, sacks of every sort of pasta, dozens of types of coffee and tea (including Earl Grey) plus sweets, wine and much more. The variety was incredible, not only were there basics but also luxury items to rival Fortnum & Masons including candied fruits, marzipan, marmalade, Tiptree jams and even marmite!

From here we made our way across the busy Viale Trastevere to the eastern section of Trastevere where the second important Basilica, that of Santa Cecilia is to be found. This was apparently built on top of the saint’s house which in turn was on top of a titulus or house where early Christians met. It is an impressive building with a spacious courtyard and an elegant façade. We noticed that this district, at one time very working class, in common with much of Trastevere, is now on the way to becoming trendy – with lots of new galleries, antique shops and boutiques.

We did however tear ourselves away from Trastevere several times to cross the river. The Centro Storico was noticeably more crowded but still nothing like as bad as in summer. We made our way to the Piazza Navrona which at one time hosted Rome’s biggest Christmas Fair. Now, because of illegal hawkers selling tacky stuff and suspicion of other corruption, this has shrunk to simply a carousel and a few decorations. We did however, admire the vast piazza itself which in Imperial days was used for chariot races and later, incredibly, flooded for boat races. We also loved Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers topped by an Egyptian Obelisk. After this we visited the baroque church Sant’Agnes in Agone where we were intrigued by one of the little nativity scenes or presepi which are to be found in most churches. In these Baby Jesus is absent from the crib until Christmas Eve.

Another day we wandered along Via del Corso which was strung with lights. Locals said that the display was not as good as it had been in the past as the Mayor had decreed that not too much should be spent on decoration - but it looked festive to us. The most Christmassy street however, had to be Via Condotti where, a well as lights strung across the road, the more exclusive luxury shops vie with each other to put on the best window display.

We had seen several Christmas trees and there were more scattered all over Rome: The Colosseum forms a dramatic background to one; the one in front of the rather grim Altare della Patria in Piazza Venetia claims to be the biggest and the one in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the most spectacular.

Of course for many people a visit to the Vatican is the high point of a Christmas trip. Be warned though, midnight mass there starts at ten. To attend the Mass you do not have to pay but you do need a ticket and it is advisable to apply early, see http://www.papalaudience.org/papal-mass.

For tickets to the Vatican museums for which you do have to pay, see https://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va. The Vatican Museums in common with most of the state owned attractions do close on 25th and 26th December but in St Peter’s square you can see a nativity scene with life sized figures at all times. Midnight mass is celebrated in almost all the churches in Rome (and does begin at midnight but get there in good time) including our favourite of Rome’s iconic buildings, The Pantheon. A good number of churches too host concerts at this time.

If your interest are more secular, there are several ice rinks in Rome and the outdoor one beneath Castel Sant’Angelo which is open from early December until mid-February is very popular.

We did not find either that the short period when some shops and State Monuments were closed was inconvenient. In fact we took the opportunity to visit the Ghetto on Christmas Day where we had the choice of several good restaurant and the experience of a completely different but delicious Christmas Lunch. Neither did the lack of public transport (which in most cases shuts down from the after noon of the 25th until the morning of the 27th) prove a problem – we planned tram or bus trips for other days and anyway found we learned a lot more about Rome by exploring on foor

So don’t be put off- Rome at Christmas is a great experience.

See www.turismoroma.it, www.hotelsantamariatrastevere.it