Travel: The writing's on the walls of Rome

Lilian Pizzichini trawls the bars and cafes of the city's working- class district to find its mysterious mural poets
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The Independent Travel
FILM-MAKER Pier Paolo Pasolini was once called the Italian civic poet of his generation. With his poetry, and with films like Accatone, he saw his country in a way that its leaders and power-brokers do not and cannot see it. And he saw himself as part of a long line of poeti Romaneschi, their language derived from the dialect of the working-class district of Trastevere, which translates as "across the Tiber" - which it is, if you're coming from the direction of imperial Rome.

I spent my Roman holiday tracking down evidence of these poets' work. Not as onerous as it sounds: their legacy takes the form of pamphlets stuck on the walls of rough-and-ready bars and cafes throughout the city. They are written entirely in the dialect peculiar to Rome and which is mocked throughout Italy as a coarse bastardisation of classic Italian. In fact the Milanese are so offended by its coarseness that they have adapted the Roman motto, SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romanus), into an insult: Sono Porci Questi Romani - They're pigs, these Romans.

But I like its earthiness, and a fine example can be found around the corner from the majestic Piazza Navona, at the end of Via dei Governi Vecchi in a paninoteca (sandwich shop) where labourers, carabinieri and students have been gathering each afternoon for a slice of freshly baked pizza topped with bresaola and rugetta and a glass of Frascati spliced with sparkling mineral water, since the end of the Second World War. The proprietor, his face dusted with flour, slams great lengths of piping hot pizza on to the counter. He cuts a slice off, you choose your topping. He's gruff, he's in a hurry, and if you speak English, he'll simply pass you by.

But this is as good a place as any to start a tour of the artisanal poetic tradition in Rome. Here, the poem scribbled on the wall above the oven is by an anonymous Lazian troubadour from the 1950s. It hymns the praises of Lazio's working men and their beloved football club.

Inevitably, the paninoteca is being crowded out by formidably expensive antique shops and boutiques catering for Roman signorine, but for 2,000- odd lire (the wine is complimentary - litre bottles are arranged on the wooden counter), the tourist weary of the splendours of baroque, classical and renaissance Rome can savour a glimpse of Pasolini's city.

Then, by crossing the fume-infested traffic tunnel that is Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and cutting across the exquisitely elegant Piazza Farnese, you'll reach Ponte Sisto, which Pope Sixtus IV built at the end of the 13th century to connect "mainland" Rome to the narrow alleys, low walls, and passageways of Trastevere.

Its inhabitants would claim they are more Roman than the Romans. It is still home to the butchers, clerks and bus drivers who service the rest of the city; some even claim they can trace their ancestry back to the sailors who choreographed the epic sea-battles at the Colosseum. Near the Porta Settimiana, Via della Lungara begins its long, straight path to St Peter's. But on it, shielded by a garden of tall pine trees and laurel hedges, is the secluded Villa Farnesina. Perhaps because it is so well hidden, hardly anyone visits it, and yet it is the most harmonious example of Renaissance architecture in the city - the artist Giorgio Vasari ecstatically noted that its edifice "was not built but born". It is also the place where in 1513, locals claim, Raphael fell in love with a Trasteverean baker's daughter while he was painting the frescoes that decorate it. His portrait of her, La Fornarina, can be seen in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. A brown-eyed Roman beauty, she is decorously decolletaged and bears his name on her bracelet.

But back on the Via della Lungara, with its crammed-together, honey- toned buildings, and washing lines dangling from low windows, I followed the scent of garlic and rosemary into the ancient Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere with its dazzling gold mosaics telling the story of the Virgin's life. Just before noon, the square is empty, its fountain gurgling quietly, and incense drifts from behind the mosaic facade of its second- century church. I attempted to gain entrance to the Museo del Folklore e dei Poeti Romaneschi, but, this being Rome, it was closed. Undefeated, I went to the adjoining, tiny square, complete with its own tiny, sliver of a church, and Bar San Callisto, where you can sit all day drinking foamy hot chocolate and munching on bruschetta.

Once I'd tired of watching junkies busking, students posing and artistic types sipping Campari, I headed for Trastevere's other great church, the frescoed Basilica di Santa Cecilia, which stands on the spot where the patron saint of music was martyred for her belief - by being exposed to hot vapours in her caldarium for three days. It is said she sang throughout her ordeal. And when that didn't finish her off, she was decapitated.

Trastevereans like their food simple - Piu se spenne, peggio se magna ("the more you spend, the worse you eat"), so a good place to test that theory is the osteria on 10 Via Benedetta, Checco er Carettiere. For three generations, Checco the delivery man's family has been serving quinto quarto tripe, tongue, calf's head, kidney and brains to the faithful. Checco's even has its own dialect poem, which no one could translate for me, dedicated to Roman butchers.

But in order to taste the real thing, the tripe that Rome is famous for, I had to go to the charnel houses of Testaccio. This is one of the most historically dense areas of Rome, yet it is defiantly working-class and untouched by the tourist trade. It is rather ugly, full of run-down tenement buildings, a massive, derelict abattoir and a covered market more concerned with content than style. But Testaccio has its own gateway, the 1,700-year-old Porta San Paolo, one of the most perfectly preserved sections of the Aurelian wall. It was named after St Paul who passed through it on his way to be executed. Around the corner in the leafy, tranquil Protestant cemetery are the graves of Shelley, Keats and 400 British soldiers who died during the march on Rome in 1944.

Rather like the East End of London, Testaccio still bears testament to the Second World War. Radio Londra is a night-club, but it was once the Resistance movement's head- quarters. They would gather in an ancient cellar under Monte Testaccio to listen to broadcasts from England. When I went there, it was gay night, with half-naked dancing boys writhing in cages. As for the stubbly mound that towers above it - it is made entirely of discarded pot shards. Testaccio was ancient Rome's port warehouse district, and when the dock workers unloaded wine, oil, olives and grain they would hurl the amphorae into a pile; the resulting hill is 35 metres tall. I still have the segment of a terracotta pot that was dug up, allegedly, from under the straggly grass.

It was time for my date with destiny, my table groaning with tripe. Testaccio is where Romans from all around the city come to eat. Its taverns are famous for their tripe, flavoured with mint and cloves and grated pecorino romano, and oxtail stew. They are unassuming places with wooden tables and no printed menus - the waiter announces the day's specials as you sit down. Most of them don't have names. But so close is the connection between this downtown neighbourhood and its defunct Mattatoio that the fare is resolutely quinto quarto. I had spaghettil all'amatriciana (cured pig's cheek, chilli and a few tomatoes), abbacchio arrosto (milk-fed lamb), but, strangely, I just couldn't face the tripe. Maybe next time.



Getting there

Lillian Pizzichini travelled as a guest of Magic of Italy (tel: 0181- 748 7575). It offers three nights in Rome for pounds 465 per person, including return flights, transfers and four-star b&b accommodation in the Hotel d'Inghilterra. Three nights in the three-star Hotel Morgana costs pounds 285 per person, including return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation. Go (tel: 0845 6054321) offers return flights to Rome from pounds 70.

Italways (tel: 0171-935 9356) offers three-star accommodation from pounds 35 per person, per night in a central hotel.