It’s terribly hard to say anything original about Rome. Whenever one thinks about the Italian capital, a smorgasbord of clichés (oh gosh, there’s one now), threatens to suffocate all original thought. The Eternal City is to some extent a victim of its own mythology, a legend fanned by the countless writers, artists and dilettantes who have sought inspiration along its winding mediaeval streets and through its grand piazze. Like Paris, London, New York or half a dozen other great world cities, it is a place so imbued with grand mythology and history that it feels overwhelming even in contemplation.
As a first-timer, I was simultaneously excited and faintly terrified. What if the Italian capital didn’t live up to expectations? What if it rained all the time? What if Mrs Smith was carried off, side-saddled, by a handsome young man on a Vespa? Hotel Palazzo Manfredi sits in the shadows of Rome’s almighty Colosseum, we’d heard, proudly parading the ancient site from every window. We meandered there with the grim determination of two people that have underestimated a substantial walk and are incorrectly shod as a result.
The hotel is located further from the city centre than we had realised. The breathtaking views are considerable, as is the traffic. Italian drivers, it would seem, have a unique attitude towards pedestrians. Avoiding them is less an obligation, and more a sport. Those who understand the subtle etiquette of looking their potential murderers in the eye and tricking them into feeling guilt tend to scuttle across without harm. Those who try and behave as they might in any other civilised country usually escape unblemished, but it can be a close call.
Thankfully, tiredness and terror evaporate the moment that we arrive at Palazzo Manfredi. Less grand than many of its competitors, the hotel provides a friendly welcome and a cosy reception area with amusingly quirky touches, such as a sofa with a psychedelic picture of Sgt Pepper-era Beatles on it. Interiors mix upholstered velvet with marble, arched windows; its 16th-century classical framework has had sleek, architectural adaptations to freshen things up. What it lacks in fripperies it makes up for in a likeably unpretentious vibe that makes it easy to kick off your shoes and loll about in an indolent fashion, like many a Roman before you.
After a welcome glass of prosecco on the upstairs terrace, and a toast of the views over the city, we’re shown to our spacious room. It boasts a dazzling array of facilities and goodies, with everything from an exercise bike to a Tivoli audio system that is so sophisticated that Mrs Smith let out a little cry of fright when she saw it, suspecting it of the devil’s work. I tried to work off some of the quantities of pasta and pizza eaten on the trip on the former machine, but it was no use; I lasted a mere couple of minutes before retiring, quite defeated. I ignored Mrs Smith’s caustic remarks about stamina and staying power.
It would have been remiss not to have sampled Aroma, the much-acclaimed restaurant on the top floor, where chef Giuseppe Di Iorio takes traditional Italian cuisine and approaches it with contemporary gusto. It’s a place where tasting menus come with a slice of Rome BC: sit back and breathe in the centuries as you dine overlooking the Colosseum and the Forum. Mrs Smith and I were gently steered towards a the mixture of sweet and savoury, with highlights including a gutsy, satisfying ravioli filled with mascarpone and cocoa, and a hearty rabbit dish that, as usual, made me grateful that it was still socially acceptable to eat something furry with ears that people keep as pets. Mrs Smith pretended to be appalled at my tuneless singing of Bright Eyes, but I didn’t see any of the beast left on her plate.
However, away from this fine dining, most of the places that we took succour at tended towards the unpretentious; the sort of backstreet establishments where one can get a litre of cheap but highly drinkable wine and a couple of pizzas and still have change from €20. A couple of favourites were Dar Poeta, located in the hip Trastevere neighbourhood, and the splendid wine bar Del Frate, about the best option around the Vatican: it served me some of the best carbonara I’ve ever eaten, complete with a distinctive and deliciously satisfying Roman pasta rigatoni. We didn’t see any priests there, but we did see a remarkable young man, whose facial hair was styled in such a way as to resemble a sort of reverse mullet.
Of course, we did all things cultural and historic. The appeal of the Colosseum may be eternal, but when you’ve had your fill of this Roman relic, most of the other key players in this outdoor museum of a capital are a short walk from Palazzo Manfredi. If you’re in a hurry, the best bet is to eschew the more obvious attractions (you don’t need to queue for an hour at the Colosseum) and head up to the glorious Villa Borghese, which boasts a stunning collection of Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings, as well as a magnificent garden. And, crowded and jostly though it can be, the Sistine Chapel is still as essential as ever. Gaze up at the Michelangelo paintings that adorn the ceiling, including the smaller-than-you-expect The Creation of Adam and the mighty and Last Judgement, you remember that Italy is the home to some of the greatest artists, thinkers and iconoclasts who have ever lived. And not just people who want to run you over, at high speed, by a historic monument.