Post university, I packed up my bags and decamped to Rome for four months. It was one of those plans that had only the most rudimentary of details covered; my strategy, such as it was, was to drink litres of Italian wine, smoke pretentiously thin cigarettes and wander around aimlessly, looking wistful, like a latter-day Lucy Honeychurch. Only minus one highly imaginative maiden aunt and with much less scandal surrounding the ill-advised snogging of inappropriate signori.
Where I would live was a more vexed question, as I only really began to realize after such a time as I’d moved into a youth hostel near the station (the folly of youth), where the mad proprietress would first endear herself by throwing jolly spaghetti parties and later undo such convivial good work by trying to enter your locked room at 3am for reasons known only to her. Which is how it came to pass that I developed an obsession with the Hotel de Russie.
In a bid to escape the wild-eyed and unpredictable mistress of the house, I would escape early each morning, following a path that inevitably lead through the Piazza del Popolo, and towards the luxury grand dame that lies just off it for a gaze at the Prada-clad regulars, no doubt fresh from a morning’s shopping on the Via dei Condotti. All roads might lead to Rome, but for the wise (or the spoilt. Or the covetous, for that matter), they lead to the Hotel de Russie.
And so it was with eager anticipation that a decade on, we glide out of the taxi, past the liveried footman, so resplendent in their tops hats and so effusive in their welcome and into the convivial bosom of the hotel. It could hardly live up better to the much-hyped image my brain had produced; the Rocco Forte-owned behemoth gleams in its sheer beauty as outsized vases of flowers adorn this surface, and little cabinets of jewels shimmer in that cabinet.
It is obvious why the likes of Picasso and Nijinsky liked this place so much (both accordingly have suites, with private terraces, named after them); after all, it represents a secret garden in the city, its tiered giardino stretching up part way to the Villa Borghese park that towers above it. The cognoscenti of the city, meanwhile, know Hotel de Russie not only as an exceptional hotel, but as home to the ultra chic Stravinsky Bar, whose restrained-lavish aesthetic make it the ultimate place to impress for a warming cocktail in the winter, or for quite the most picturesque aperitivo in the city during the summer months, when its habitués repair to the private Piazzetta Valadier.
After eyeing up its menu and making mental notes for later, we wend our way upstairs for an inspection of the room, which is, happily, every bit as fittingly luxurious as the public spaces are. And just in case we needed further convincing, a snappily dressed room attendant appears on cue with a wintry cocktail that warms us in readiness for a stroll into the streets below, which are sublime in the winter mists, devoid of the summer hordes. We venture to the Via Governo del Vecchio for a retreat from the rain in the city’s cosiest wine bars (though little excuse is needed for a visit to the bottle-lined rusticity of Vino Olio) before crossing the river to sample the preternaturally good pizzas purveyed by Dar Poeta in the Trastevere.
The next night, we swap rustic charm for high end fine dining, courtesy of the hotel’s Jardin de Russie, presided over by the uber chef, Fulvio Pierangelini, whose philosophy is encapsulated by his maxim that: ‘The simpler the food, the more we have to pay attention because margins of error increase. Simplicity in the kitchen is an arrival point not a starting one. You need courage for simple cooking.’
And so it is proved; Roman-style artichokes are the ultimate expression of the city’s classic dish, while ravioli cacio e pepe is precisely the kind of simple dish that proves Pierangelini’s pedigree. It is perfectly al dente, it is unfussy and, in short, it is exactly what Roman cooking should be. John Dory with artichokes (no, we can’t get enough) and olive oil mash is the kind of dish that food memories are made of.
If the Hotel de Russie is the grand luxury standard against which other five-star hotels should measure themselves, then The Lord Byron hotel, just outside the city’s walls, on the edges of the Villa Borghese park, is the escape from which to repair from your escape. We walked in beauty like the night to the quiet, rarefied streets just close to the Museum of Modern Art and the British School at Rome where it sits, all striped canopy, diminutive exclusivity and refined elegance. The welcome is polished, and the sense is that this is a place for sophisticates; the fashionistas can have central Rome – here is a place cultivated for the unhurried, the cultured and the distinguished. It is where habitués of the Hamptons would surely stay if transmuted to the eternal city.
Furthering this impression is the achingly chic interior, which is all art deco elegance, from the strong lines of the armchairs in the communal relaxing room to the sumptuous marble bathrooms, and then through again to the playful Marilyn prints that adorn many of the walls.
Service is, meanwhile, all you could ever want – either from a monument to the 1930s or, indeed, from a classic Roman stalwart. Silverware reigns, as each sumptuous, fish-dominated course is revealed theatrically from beneath a dome, while an impeccable and venerable maitre’d dances attendance with a charm rarely seen nowadays.
We round off our stay with a walk through the nearby gardens in the crisp cold air to search for the statue of that great Romantic poet who lends his name to the hotel. We find him, in amongst the busts of philosophers and leaders and make a solemn vow to the mad, bad and dangerous one that we should be back every year.