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Trastevere and the Ghetto

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New York has its Greenwich Village, and Rome has its Trastevere. In Trastevere's case, however, the sense of being a world apart goes back more than two millennia. The inhabitants don't even call themselves Romans but Trasteverini, going on to claim that they, not the citizens north of the river, are the true remaining Romans. No matter: A trip to Trastevere (literally, "across the Tiber") still feels a bit like entering a different time and place. Some call it the world's third-smallest nation (after the Vatican, No. 2). A living chronology, the district remains an enchanting confusion of past and present. With its charming, crumbling streets lined with medieval bell towers and chic osterie, this is one big little town where strangers don't remain strangers too long.

Though in the geographic heart of the city, Trastevere and the Ghetto have always been considered outsiders. Trastevere began as a farming settlement for immigrants from the East; until the 14th century, it wasn't even considered part of Rome. Since then, locals regard them as a breed apart, with their own dialect and traditions. The Ghetto—historically known as the Ghetto Ebraico (Jewish Ghetto)—was established by papal decree in the 16th century. It was by definition a closed community, where Roman Jews lived under lock and key until Italian unification in 1870. In 1943–44, the already small Jewish population there was decimated by deportations.

In a city where the past counts at least as much as the present, this history of exclusion endures, and has shaped the present-day neighborhoods in some unexpected ways. Today, Trastevere and the Ghetto are two of the city's hottest real-estate markets, sought after by Italian lefties and bohemian expats, who value their history as much as their earthy, old-fashioned atmosphere. True Trasteverini are now few and far between, most of the older generation having sold their now valuable family apartments, and most of Rome's Jews live outside the Ghetto. But something of them remains. Trastevere's new residents promote a new kind of outsider identity, embodied variously in yoga centers, social outreach programs, and innumerable funky bars. The Ghetto, while undergoing some of the same changes, remains the spiritual and cultural home of Rome's Jews, and that proud heritage permeates its small commercial area of Judaica shops, kosher bakeries, and restaurants.

The heart of Trastevere is the lovely Piazza Santa Maria, presided over by the gilded and floodlit church of the same name. Nearby are a variety of historic churches, set in alleys and sunny piazzas, but the greatest artistic treasures are to be found a short walk to the north, in Raphael's frescoes at the Villa Farnesina, and the Baroque paintings, including a Caravaggio, in the collection at the Palazzo Corsini. The neighborhood's greatest attraction, however, is simply its atmosphere—traditional shops set along crooked streets, peaceful during the day, and alive with throngs of restaurant- and partygoers at night. From here, a steep hike up stairs and the road to the Gianicolo earns you a panoramic view over the whole city.

The turn-of-the-20th-century synagogue, with its museum dedicated to the history of Jewish Rome, is a must for understanding the Ghetto. Tight, teeming alleys lead from there up to Giacomo della Porta's unmistakable Turtle Fountain; nearby is the picture-perfect Palazzo Mattei. Via Portico d'Ottavia is a walk through the olden days. Most businesses in the Ghetto observe the Jewish Sabbath, so it's a ghost town on Saturdays. At its east end, the street leads down to a path past the 1st-century Teatro di Marcello. Separating the Ghetto and Trastevere is the Tiber River, but they are connected by one of the world's prettiest "bridges"—the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island). Cross over the rushing river by using the Ponte Fabricio, the oldest bridge in Rome.

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