All roads lead to Rome. Once they enter Rome they become streets—little winding streets packed with traffic. Eventually, the cars that make up the traffic stop in some semblance of what is generally known as parking. In Rome, however, the entire concept of parking is somewhat different than it is on the rest of the planet.
When you walk around in Rome you get the nagging impression it’s the cars themselves that determine where they go to roost. The drivers are like little parasitic organisms—gut bacteria or something—residing in their innards, expelled from time to time so the cars can get on with their lives. Thus, when walking around a piazza, you can easily believe that the cars have not been parked, that instead they are nesting.
There is no neighborhood in Rome in which this is more the case than in Trastevere. This is on the other side of the Tiber (Tevere, in Italian), across from the ancient magnificence of the Forum, the Coliseum, etc. For many years, Trastevere has been one of the best places to spend the evening if you happen to be in Rome. For that matter, even if you don’t happen to be in Rome it might well be worthwhile to go there just to spend the evening in Trastevere.
The neighborhood is traversed by the Viale Trastevere, a broad boulevard, but you don’t want to go there. You’re much better off wandering around the tiny streets and the little piazze that seem to be almost accidents, existing only because a street decided to widen a little, or because two or three happen to have come together at some point.
That’s one of the things about Rome: some cities are obviously planned, other cities are more chaotic yet bear the marks of their various creators, but Rome seems to have built itself. There’s a warmth in the place that isn’t generated by the inhabitants but rather by the cobblestones and the buildings themselves. The inhabitants just bask in it. You can’t really enjoy Rome to the fullest unless you learn to bask in it as well, but the process of learning this particularly Roman skill is one of the most enjoyable educational experiences you’ll ever undertake. Once you master it you can easily spend entire evenings just strolling around in Trastevere, stopping in a trattoria here, a pastry shop there, or just sitting on the steps of the fountain in the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere watching couples stroll by.
Anyway, back to the cars. There tend to be relatively few in the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere—which is really more or less the center of the neighborhood. I’m not sure why this is the case; the square does represent the largest expanse of potential parking space around. I assume that either the police actually enforce parking laws in this piazza (in stark contrast to their behavior in the rest of the city) or perhaps it just doesn’t present the right nesting environment for the cars. If, however, you head down any of the streets leading out of the piazza, then you’ll soon come across ample examples of automobile nesting behavior.
The cars tend to congregate in piazze as opposed to parking in the streets themselves. This can be explained by simple evolutionary theory: if even a single car were to stop in one of the streets, which are barely wide enough to drive through in the first place, then this would effectively block the street, therefore cutting down on potential mating opportunities. The piazze are the only places they can come to rest while still leaving some semblance of passage.
For instance, at the Piazza Tavani Arquati I recently observed the automobile equivalent of an orgy. In the center of the piazza were 14 cars, all parked in a big cluster, most facing each other. A further 25 were parked along the edges. These had the appearance of waiting until they could jump into the fun in the middle. There was just enough room for other cars to creep through this stationary mass in vain attempts to find some empty spot, but of course empty spots don’t exist.
It should be said that I have seen someone actually park. This was in the Piazza S. Calisto, where another jumble of 16 cars squatted in the center, and one of those large, hideous family Fiats had just come across that rarest of things—an empty space. I stopped to watch the maneuvers, which were delicate and involved. Two men stood outside the car, making violent hand motions to the driver, a young woman, who was attempting to squeeze the Fiat into a space that was just barely wide enough for it. This operation was observed by myself and a bored-looking dog sitting in the car next to the wiggling Fiat. I was making notes so as to better write this whole thing up, and after a few moments the two men waving their arms noticed me standing there scribbling on a piece of paper. This made them very apprehensive. They kept shooting poisoned glances at me, and I realized that they might think I was some kind of parking spy reporting back to the carabinieri. Not that this deterred them, of course. After a few more wiggles, during which I stopped writing and tried to smile innocently, the young woman actually succeeded in inserting her car into the space, and then somehow managed to open the door and, with much effort, squeeze herself out. Once they left, the dog went back to daydreaming about whatever dogs daydream about (other dogs, I guess) and the car sat contentedly in its group of peers, scoping out the Audi in front of it.
This general pattern, a cluster of cars in the middle of a piazza, usually with cars lining the edges, is the norm in Trastevere. You’ll find it in almost all the larger piazze (which are neither all that numerous nor all that large). The smaller piazze often don’t have the sheer space for a good cluster, but they’ll still have as many cars as possible lining the sides. For instance, in the Piazza di Santo Rufino (total of 18 cars, most nose-in, some lining the edge), I came across a real gem—the ultimate Roman car. It was a tiny old Autobianchi, maybe from some time in the ’60s, untouched by the polluting effects of car washes or repair shops. The roof was held on with prodigious quantities of brown tape, and the seats were worn to the point of having white fluff poking through what remained of their covering. In front of this car sat a disinterested dog, on a leash that appeared to be simply draped over a little handrail on the building behind it, probably in nominal deference to some little-enforced leash law. He looked as friendly as did the Autobianchi and vaguely wagged his tail when patted on the head.
The cars are of course supplemented by legions of scooters. Italians love scooters. Once, when traveling to Milan for an important business meeting, I was picked up at the train station by a distinguished, elderly Italian colleague in an impeccable suit, who had proposed to take me to the meeting himself. To my surprise, instead of going by car or by cab, he handed me a little skullcap helmet and invited me to get behind him on his Vespa, after which we went zipping through the traffic for a good half-hour, our briefcases lodged in front of his feet. “Only way to travel in this country,” he shouted through the slipstream. Needless to say, in Rome every spot that isn’t occupied by a nesting car is occupied by a resting scooter. I recently saw a young couple waiting at a red light on a beaten scooter, both with those little helmets, she clutching his waist with one hand and a rose in the other. I can’t imagine anything that better illustrates Rome—traffic and romance.