Poor old Rome. It seems to have had its day –at least in the popular imagination. There was a time in the 1960s when Rome was fearsomely glamorous. Hollywood stars shot their movies at the city’s Cinecittà Studios; this, after all, is the city where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton famously fell in love during the shooting of Cleopatra. It is here that Clint Eastwood made his reputation in a series of spaghetti Westerns. And if you sat long enough at a table at a pavement café on the Via Veneto, you would see the jet set drift by.
But all that was a long time ago. Burton and Taylor are both dead. They don’t shoot many English-language movies at Cinecittà any longer. The only spaghetti Western that poor old Clint Eastwood can shoot these days would have to be called A Fistful of Hair. Even the tourists give Rome a miss. They go to Venice, and increasingly to Florence.
Like most people, I’d kind of given up on Rome, I went there quite a lot as a child, but in my adult life, even though I go to Italy at least once a year, I avoid Rome.
This year I decided that perhaps I’d been too unfair. I knew that food critics often complained that Rome had the worst food in Italy. But it was time to go and check it out for myself.
And so, I stayed in three different hotels and checked out two others. I ate at touristy places and neighbourhood restaurants. I did the whole tourist number, visiting the Forum, the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and God alone knows what else. And I walked the streets of Rome till my feet hurt.
The first thing to be said is that I’m glad I decided to put aside the prejudice and give Rome a chance. And the second is: I loved it! Ignore what the cynics say.
There is no city in the world quite like Venice. But if you take that out of the reckoning, then Rome is my favourite city in Italy, far better than nearly everywhere I’ve been in that country.
So why did I love Rome? Well, mostly because the city is beautiful. It’s not grand and chic like Paris. But it’s gorgeous and charming. The roads are narrower than Paris, there are more pedestrians, more trees and no matter where you turn, you’ll find a beautiful and interesting structure. Much more than most European capitals, this is a city made for walking. And wherever you walk, you’ll see something surprising: a man dressed as a Roman Centurion talking urgently into a mobile phone; a Hindu swami levitating above the pavement; a pretty girl arguing with her boyfriend at a street café; and even thousands of Bangladeshi immigrants selling everything from knock-offs of Prada bags to bottles of mineral water.
You can do the touristy thing at two levels. There is ancient Rome (the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed, the house where Augustus was born etc.) which I love. If you enjoyed the Rome TV series or watched Spartacus or Gladiator, then you should go to the Colosseum and the Forum. Both are quite spectacular. And then there’s medieval Rome, which I am less keen on. I thought the Vatican was a nightmare: thousands of tourists shoving and pushing in an enclosed space. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel lives up to its reputation but if you want works of art, don’t waste time on the Vatican Museum and go to the Uffizi in Florence instead.
And all the religious stuff just passes me by, I’m sorry to say, with all that bogus European pretence about a blonde Jesus when we all know that he was actually a dark, Semitic type and that ancient Rome’s involvement with Christians was restricted to killing and crucifying them.
But if you’ve done all the touristy stuff (or given it a miss) then you can enjoy the gardens of the city. The Villa Borghese area is far more stunning than say Hyde Park, the Tuileries or Central Park. There are little piazzas in residential areas of Rome, dating back thousands of years, that are more beautiful than famous historical monuments in other cities.
And the food is nowhere near as a bad as the critics claim. At Palatium, a chic but relatively inexpensive restaurant run by the local government of the area to promote regional specialities, I had a terrific chicken cooked in a thick yellow gravy of eggs and lemon that I’ve never seen on any menu outside Italy. At the famous 72-year-old coffee shop Sant’Eustachio II Caffè, I had what many people regard as the world’s best espresso. (It was pretty damn good, I’ll admit).
At Roma Sparita, in the residential part of the now touristy Trastevere neighbourhood, I had a delicious pizza bianca with porcini mushrooms. At Sora Lella, another famous Rome institution dating back decades, I had the local specialties of an oxtail stew and pasta carbonara.
But the best meal I ate in Rome was at Vascello, a small neighbourhood restaurant high up in the largely residential area of Monteverde. The restaurant is run by two Sardinian couples who serve unfancy home cooking (the tastiest amatriciana I’ve ever had) and well-priced local wine. They hardly get any tourists and so were intrigued that I had made the journey from the centre of Rome to try their food. But no, I was hardly their first Indian customer, one of the lady owners told me proudly. “Jhumpa Lahiri now lives in Rome. She has a flat nearby and she is here all the time. Such a beautiful girl!"
Rome has many, many great hotels. When I came here as a child, I remembered two hotels: Hassler Roma and the Excelsior. Hassler Roma is still the same: small, elegant, classy, run by the same family for decades. I had met Roberto Wirth, the owner, when he visited India for the opening of Travertino at the Delhi Oberoi so it was good to catch up with him again and to dine at Imago, the hotel’s Michelin-starred modern Italian restaurant.
The Excelsior was the grand Rome hotel of the sixties and so it was a bit of nostalgia trip for me to stay there again. It is now a Westin, still expensive (I paid more there than I did at the two other hotels I stayed in), has those wonderful grand public areas and large rooms. But though room service, housekeeping and the breakfast room were all first-rate, the hotel now has a sadly down-at-the-heel air about it because of the sloppiness of the front office, a bunch of useless concierges, and a certain carelessness. For instance, the person who led me to my room pointed proudly to a small box of cookies and declared “A little gift for you.” Only, it wasn’t. The gift was meant for somebody else because it came with a note (in Italian) addressed to a completely different guest. All quite sad because it is, potentially, a really grand hotel.
The Regina, opposite the Excelsior, is a boutique hotel run to luxury standards by the Baglioni group. I enjoyed staying there and discovered that in Francesco they had the best concierge in Rome. They also have a wonderfully elegant penthouse apartment (about 10,000 euros per night, so forget it!) which they showed me, pointing out that one of their first guests in that suite was LN Mittal.
I’ve written about the elegant (and expensive) Hotel de Russie before so I’ll only add that it gives you a glimpse of how glamorous Rome must have been in its sixties heyday. This is definitely a jet-set/private-plane kind of place! My favourite hotel in Rome, however, was the venerable old Hotel Eden, down the road from the Excelsior and now a member of the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester group. It was a perfect match of old-world rooms and truly excellent and gracious service. If you ask me to pick just one deluxe hotel in Rome, then the Eden is the one I’ll pick. (I also paid about 30 per cent less than I did at the Excelsior for an experience that was 100 per cent better.)
By some coincidence, the week after I came back (via Istanbul – there were no direct India-Rome flights), Air-India launched its flight to Rome. So it’s now easy to get there. And compared to Paris, Florence, London, Zurich, Venice or Vienna, Rome is the cheapest destination for hotels and food. So, if you are going West, put it on your schedule!
From HT Brunch, June 22
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