Rome is the perfect weekend destination for anyone with a sense of romance.
On a summer’s day it is difficult to imagine a more romantic or picturesque city than Rome. Capital of Italy and host to the Vatican, the tourist trail is well trodden by millions each year. But there is a side to Rome which is still relatively undiscovered, away from the hordes and just on the right side of edgy to provide some contemporary entertainment in this most ancient of cities.
Let’s get the practicalities out of the way first. The trip from the main airport, Leonardo Da Vinci is not a pleasant one. Trains run every 30 minutes and despite being described as express …they are not. For €14 each way you will get a seat and a view of the rundown graffiti covered suburbs of this sprawling city. Stick with it, for when you arrive to Rome’s Termini station you will be not only overwhelmed by the intense heat but also by the culture, history and vibrancy of the place.
We stayed at Leon’s Place – a boutique hotel about 10 minutes walk from the station and set off towards the business district. Now, if a WAG designed a hotel, it might look something like this. The ‘design’ hotel shrieks opulence and indulgence, from its smoked glass façade to oversized leather lounge chairs and a feather and glass chandelier atop a velvet swing seat. But don’t be mistaken into thinking that this WAG is all feathers and no knickers!
The hotel is housed in an eighteenth century palace and original features happily co-exist alongside modern monochrome flourishes including a man-sized mirror that also doubles as a TV screen and a never-ending beaded light.
But we’re not in Rome to sit in a hotel, no matter how glamorous. So off we go via the Colosseum to the up and coming Testaccio area. Out here we have a graveyard for non-catholic foreigners. Please stay with me. This is a beautiful, tranquil garden which is now and forever more home to the likes of Keats and Shelley. Just around the corner is an annexe to the larger MACRO gallery in the East (housed in a former Peroni factory).
The annexe is an exhibition space housed in a former abattoir – obvious as it is form the meat hooks and conveyor system still in place both inside and out. This eerie building is surrounded by old metal pens which sit alongside larger pieces of public art. Although there is no café, it is clear that this is where the hip and trendy artists of Rome like to spend their time. Nearby are numerous late night bars, clubs and cafes which take shabby chic to a new level. This is the place to be after dark at the weekend!
Not far away is the more sedate and prettier Trastavere area. Popular with students and tourists alike, you can find some good value local food and wine. Passing back over Tiber Island, we headed up past the Pantheon and across the city to our restaurant for the evening, the L’Olimpo, placed as it is atop one of the most striking hotels in Rome. The rooftop terrace offers spectacular views across Rome, taking in the Villa Borghese park, the magnificent Dome of St Peters and the Vatican through to the imposing Vittoriano (or ‘Typewriter’ as it is not affectionately known to the locals).
The Bernini Bristol Hotel is typical of grand tour glamour and has an impressive list of former residents, including Churchill, the Onassis family and the Queen. But it is the food we are here for today. Escorted to our table by the excitable and attentive Maitre’d, Fabio, we arrived in perfect time as the sun began to set over the vista of domes, towers and flickering lights of the city below.
Taking in the menu we quickly realised that this wouldn’t be a credit crunch meal. With a recommendation from Fabio, we enjoyed starters of seabass carpaccio with warm wild mushroom pudding (€24) and the house special, lobster (€45). Appetites already whet by the lobster amuse bouche, the champagne was soon finished and replaced by a crisp, delicately scented local frascati superiore. The fresh fish was in itself a meal which would have satisfied most for a lunch, but the Italians take their mealtimes very seriously. It is impossible to be in a rush. Although the service was relaxed, the waiters attended to every table with just the right measure of polite courtesy.
Our main courses were substantial portions of tuna with sweet and sour relish (€42) and a thick and succulent fillet steak with peppercorn mustard (€45), both accompanied by a potato cake and seasonal vegetables.
I won’t lie, I was almost beaten the first two courses. But putting my gym regime to one side, I was encouraged to move on to desert, albeit after an entertaining interlude watching the American matriarch and her vast family on the table beside us. Grand marnier parfait with blackcurrant caramel and a mysterious orange delight (a citrus tiramisu) – both provided a light and sufficiently sweet third course (€18 each).
Passing on the coffee, we were instead treated to a serving of limoncello in anticipation of a slow walk back to the hotel.
L’Olimpo is a luxury dining experience. The skill shown by the chefs is as much about their skill in selecting the finest ingredients, presentation and proportion as it is about preparation and delivery. Obviously the unique location, sense of Hollywood glamour and historical surroundings all play their part in making this one of the finest dining experiences I have ever enjoyed. If you chose to go, don’t forget your credit card otherwise you could be washing up for many years to come – albeit in one of Europe’s finest restaurants.
After a day pounding the cobbled hills, it was a pleasure to get back to our room at Leon’s Place where the king bed and oversized headboard were dwarfed only by the vast ceilings and extensive balcony. Even the bathroom was a testament to good design, with bespoke sinks and a bath and monsoon shower (itself a pleasant luxury).
Next morning we enjoyed breakfast served in the arched cellar. It was sufficient but not substantial with a choice of meats, cheeses, cereal and fresh fruit to set us up for another day exploring the sights of the eternal city.
Today was spent mostly exploring contemporary Rome. Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI has just opened in the North of the city. It’s a bit of a trek but you will be rewarded by a quiet, cool and blissfully modern gallery which is new to this city in 2010. Nearby is the Parco della Musica – a stunning series of 3 music auditoriums offering classical, choral, modern and pop music all year round, both undercover and in the open air – and Mussolini’s impressive but almost deserted Olympic stadium, swimming pools and athletics track, flanked by 60 marble statues each representing an Olympic game and region of Italy.
It is necessary to take in at least a few of the expected tourist traps. Of these I would recommend an evening stroll around the Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain when the crowds are more sparse. If you have time, head to the Villa Borghese where you can discover the vast park and it’s numerous museums (and replica Globe Theatre) by golf-buggy, rickshaw or Segway!
Rome is a wonderful city. My advice would be not to try and do it all at once. You can soon become fatigued not only by the seven hills, but the ancient ruins, churches and crowds of tourists around every corner.
Finally, if you’re heading back to the airport by train, leave plenty of time – it’s a long way from the entrance of the Termini to the correct platform! Ciao.
Flights available from most regional airports with a flying time of approximately 2 – 2.5 hours.
This article was first published at www.lawandmore.co.uk on 31 August 2010