Lemon trees, gravel courtyards, butterfly sanctuaries, fragments of Ancient Roman wall… Even in frenetic Rome, you can come home to your own private garden at a b&b or boutique hotel
Every year, the environmental pressure group Legamb-iente produces a report on the ecological awareness of Italy’s 103 provincial capitals. Rome generally comes somewhere in the bottom half of the table. This is a big city, with all the problems of pollution, noise, transport and overcrowding that entails – and its public administrators have been slow to implement the wide-reaching green policies the city needs if it really is to remain Eternal. However, there is one league table in which Rome always scores 10 out of 10: for the amount of public green space within the city’s boundaries.
This is as much a case of luck as foresight. All three of Rome’s largest public parks were originally private estates, bought or absorbed by the city recently enough to be preserved as civic green spaces. The Borghese Gardens were created at the beginning of the 17th century by cardinal Scipione Borghese around the villa of the same name as his own private "garden of delights". To the west of the centre, the 445-acre Villa Doria Pamphilij was, until 1965, the back garden of the family that bears its name. Italy’s royal Savoia dynasty owned the northerly Villa Ada – today the largest public park in Rome – until they were sent into exile in 1946.
Today, all three are owned and run by the municipality, and locals use them enthusiastically for picnics and strolls, jogging, rollerskating, cycling, impromptu football tournaments and even the occasional cricket match – the latter generally involving the capital’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. You’ll see plenty of people communing with their laptops, too – all three parks are included in Rome city council’s free Wi-Fi scheme, which also takes in squares and tourist meccas such as Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain (see www.romawireless.com for more information).
There are other, smaller parks too, dotted around the city – including the wonderful Giardino degli Aranci or Parco Savello on the Aventine hill, with its winter-fruiting orange trees and view across the Tiber and the rooftops of the centro storico to St Peter’s. Another example is the equally panoramic Gianicolo, where courting couples smooch, oblivious to the busts of Risorgimento heroes that look on (not as sternly as they once did, as most of them seem to have had their noses knocked off). If all you need are swings and a slide for the kids, head for Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice in Testaccio, or Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere. They are hardly cutting-edge playspaces, but they will do.
What do you do, though, when you want to come home to a garden after a hard day’s sightseeing? Easy – check into one of Rome’s garden hotels, which come in all shapes, sizes and price brackets. The following are personal favourites.
Via del Babuino 9. Double rooms from €450.
Designed by neo-classical architect and urban planner Giuseppe Valadier, the garden of this luxury Rocco Forte property near Piazza del Popolo rises on a series of landscaped terraces towards the Pincio. The Stravinskij bar – a great place for an aperitivo even if you’re not staying – occupies the lower courtyard, fringed by lemon trees, while the terrace above is used by the hotel’s Le Jardin de Russie restaurant, which since 2008 has been in the hands of one of Italy’s top chefs, Fulvio Pierangelini. Beyond this is the Secret Garden, a place of gravel walks among verdant plots of greenery which were planted in consultation with the local branch of the WWF to create a butterfly sanctuary. The interiors and bedrooms are equally charming – and unlike many of the Hotel de Russie’s design rivals, the hotel’s sexy, classic-moderne style of décor has aged surprisingly well since its turn-of-the-millenium opening.
Via degli Ibernesi 30. Double rooms from €210; Master Garden Rooms from €450.
The best-kept garden secret in Rome has to be the delightful walled bower on the fourth floor of this characterful, stylish boutique Inn at the Roman Forum is partly built – hence the fourth-floor garden. To enjoy this very Roman giardino segreto, though, it’s not enough to stay in the hotel – you have to reserve one of the two Master Garden rooms, which have exclusive use of the green space. If you’re feeling possessive, you could even take them both.
Vicolo del Piede 2. Double rooms from €175.
This good-value 18-room refuge feels like a little village in the centre of Trastevere. Carved out of a 16th-century cloister, the Hotel Santa Maria consists of a series of low, single-storey rooms set around a pretty gravelled courtyard, where breakfast is served – weather permitting – under the orange trees. The decent-sized rooms are done out in warm colours, with vases of cut flowers and bright photo-realist paintings guarding against rainy-day gloom. For those relaxing in the courtyard over a glass of sparkling wine after a hard day’s sightseeing, the rural illusion is challenged only by the washing strung out to dry in the apartment blocks that loom above the hotel on three sides.
Via Garibaldi 83. Double rooms from €220.
Textile designer Luisa Longo runs one of Rome’s most luxurious b&bs in this still rustic corner of old Rome. A gate in a high wall on a Trastevere street leads into a delightful magnolia-shaded courtyard surrounded by two low-rise houses daubed in yellow ochre. The atmosphere is somewhere between Chianti and Mexico; but it’s all very romantic and tasteful, with a touch of flamboyant eccentricity in the hand-painted silks by Longo herself which liven up the three simple bedrooms. Breakfast at Buonanotte Garibaldi is a real treat: no plastic-wrapped croissants here, just a mouthwatering array of fresh fruit, homemade cakes, freshly baked bread and other temptations.
Via di Valle delle Camene 3c. Apartment €160 a night including breakfast.
It doesn’t come much more personalised than this: an upmarket b&b with a single guest apartment in the only corner of Baron von Hoffmann’s sumptuous Roman residence and park that escaped appropriation by the Italian state after the First World War. Current owners Francesco and Viviana Agnello di Segneferi have turned an annexe of their villa into a charming bolthole decorated warmly with antique furniture, mosaics and tiles. There’s a private patio bordered by a fragment of Ancient Roman wall, and the shady garden with its gravel paths is yours to wander through. Best in summer (it can get a little gloomy out of season), Dependance Valle delle Camene is perfect for a couple looking for a very private Roman hideaway.