Rome: live history, breathe history, sleep history

by Lee.Marshall

Rome, Italy - In a city that cohabits so casually with its illustrious past, why not stay in a piece of history?

There are few cities where history leaps out at you from every corner as it does in Rome. Chunks of the ancient world adorn walls, and bits of aqueduct sprout like mushrooms between modern apartment blocks. Bulky palazzi still bear the names of the city’s aristocratic families, while churches like San Clemente are historical layer cakes, shading from Baroque to Roman as you descend the stairs.

This historic full immersion need not be confined to sight-seeing. Many of the city’s centro storico hotels, too, allow guests a privileged insight into the city’s past and the characters who peopled it.

At the Hotel Teatro di Pompeo (largo del Pallaro 8, doubles from €180), for example, your breakfast will be served in a cavernous space carved out of Pompey’s theatre, built in 55 BC; the original opus reticulatum brickwork of what was the theatre’s monumental portico is still visible on the walls. Upstairs, the simple bedrooms have more modern comforts, including satellite TV and air-con (though there’s no lift, so be prepared for a climb). But it’s the setting that makes this welcoming little hotel a delight. A stone’s throw from campo de’ Fiori, with its morning produce market which has been a daily feature since 1869, the hotel is located in the warren of narrow lanes which follow the groundplan of the ancient theatre: check out the report on a recent dig there by King’s College London (www.pompey.cch.kcl.ac.uk) for detailed information.

The oldest hotel in Rome? Even better: according to the owners, the Sole al Pantheon Hotel Rome (piazza della Rotonda 63, doubles from €210) is the oldest continuosly operating hotel in the world, with a tradition of hospitality extending back to 1467. Only a handful of the hotel’s rooms actually overlook the Pantheon, but there’s no denying that being confronted by the temple to all the gods every time you walk out the front door truly leaves you feeling that you are steeped in history. Inside, rooms are elegant and unfussy, and the well-equipped bathrooms all have whirlpool baths. The little courtyard where breakfast is served is particularly pretty.

If you prefer the buzz of staying with a Roman family with an illustrious history, the honour doesn’t come cheap. But if you’re prepared to splash out, you’re in for a unique experience. Princess Letizia Ruspoli presides over Residenza Napoleone III (largo Goldoni 56, from €1400 a night), a sumptuous suite of rooms in her family’s massive 16th-century Palazzo Ruspoli, which is handy for the exclusive designer shops of via Condotti. Two splendidly plush reception rooms lead to a bedroom with a fairy-tale bed… except this one comes complete with projector hidden among the ruches so you can watch DVDs while luxuriating in your exquisite linen sheets. If you can’t bear to leave your accommodation for a moment, there’s a kitchenette for preparing your own meals.

The Ruspolis trace their ancestry back to AD800. The Spalletti Trivellis are parvenus in comparison, but their residence hard by the Quirinale presidential palace has been in the family since the late 19th century; the current count, Gian Giacomo, converted the villa into a stately 12-room hotel in 2004. Each room in the Villa Spalletti Trivelli (via Piacenza 4, doubles from €350) has been given its own colour scheme and character, but all have works from the owners’ collection of antique prints hanging on their walls, as well as beautiful Fiandra linen on the beds and magnificent bathrooms. High ceilings and a slight patrician aloofness can give an impression of coolness at first, but a free mini-bar and access to comfortably stately reception rooms – including a magnificent library – downstairs helps dispel this air, as does the charming garden where meals can be served.

The history of Rome’s luxury hotel scene is best sampled at the St Regis Grand Hotel Rome (via VE Orlando 3, doubles from €350), the Eternal City’s very earliest blow-out hostelry when it was opened by Swiss hotel wizard César Ritz in 1894. A $35 million makeover late last century restored the sumptuous ballroom to its original splendour, and polished up the massive chandeliers which illuminate a super-elegant array of regency and empire furnishings. Massive burnished mirrors adorn the walls of the opulent reception room downstairs. Many of the richly-coloured bedrooms and suites are frescoed, and all have lashings of marble in their bathrooms.

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?