The allure of Rome has cast a spell through the ages for its narrow streets, church domes, plundered treasures, and golden light. I was mesmerised, magically restored.
My hotel of choice is the grand neo-Renaissance Regina Baglioni on the tree-lined Via Veneto, the glorious main drag of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It has that special Italian elegance, marble-floored foyer, cascade of sweeping stairs, black-and-white film-star photos, and a charming director, Signor D’Este, who even managed to please US Secretary of State John Kerry during his stay.
One of the city’s best locations, it’s a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps, and I could run through the gardens of the Villa Borghese every morning, where you disappear among the frothing white marble fountains and sprawling pines.
My guide, Alessio from Imago Artis, was waiting for me after breakfast, hot on the heels of previous clients Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Floyd Mayweather, to impart his knowledge of the Eternal City.
Apparently, I was after a more “indepth” understanding than they were. Together we embarked on our own version of Roman Holiday, where I fancied myself Audrey Hepburn and he my Gregory Peck.
It was the full gelato on the Spanish Steps, the full history of Piazza Navona, champagne in the shadow of the Pantheon, the Arch of Septimius Severus. In Rome, you spin through so many ages and eras, it’s a heady, dizzy experience.
I ate at the Baglioni’s chic Brunello restaurant, in its seductive art deco atmosphere. The chef will prepare whatever you like, with a touch of spontaneity that smacks of the real Italian kitchen. He produces dishes that are imaginative works of art, with a wine list to match. And if you want cocktails and fun conversation to begin or end your evening, sit at the bar.
I loved Peppone, a family trattoria that has been around over four generations. It is one of the oldest in the city, with a hard-working chef, home-style atmosphere, and fresh, sweet products that come straight from the local market.
Pierluigi is more upmarket and an institution in Rome. It is renowned for its fish, and it didn’t disappoint with the spaghetti all sarde and puntarelle. It sits in one of the piazzas among lots of Renaissance buildings.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg chose it while in Rome for his honeymoon, followed by a visit to the original Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber.
He and his bride ate Carciofo alla giudia, the traditional crispy fried globe artichoke of Il Ghetto. The area was finally cleared in 1870, but the dish lives on as a speciality of Roman Jewish cuisine.
Rome’s Great Synagogue is still within the original ghetto, which housed the oldest Jewish community in Europe until October 16, 1943, when the SS arrived in the early hours. This was the start of the deportation of 1,000 Jews. Only 16 returned.
If you really want to channel the freewheeling spirit of Roman Holiday, a Vespa under the stars is something you’ll never forget. My journalist Roman friend, Anna-Maria, took me on a hair-raising scooter ride round the city, past the huge, shadowy Colosseum, Theatre of Marcellus, Victor Emmanuel monument, and even down quaint Via Margutta, where Peck’s character lived, now lined with small, fascinating art galleries and workshops.
It sits behind the elegant Via Condotti, where the wealthy shop.
I prefer to splash out at Empresa on Via dei Giubbonari, which has cool, trendy, original pieces you won’t find anywhere else. I barely took off my new, red, hand-made boots. As this is an historic year in Rome, the Jubilee of Mercy, I visited all four Papal basilicas. I entered through the Holy Doors of Mercy, usually sealed from the inside and opened only for Jubilee years, supposedly cleansing all your sins.
Mine are mainly an excessive love of food and wine, which makes Italy such a perfect fit. The basilicas are extraordinary feats of architecture and beauty honed by Borromini and Bernini.
On my final day, I walked up the Gianicolo Hill behind buzzy, thriving Trastevere, with views from the summit of angular roofs, cupolas, and half-standing ancient ruins.
Rome’s poetry is in its past, its vestiges of times gone by from Julius Caesar to the heady, messy period after the fall of Mussolini and Golden Age of Italian cinema, with riches plundered from everywhere from Jerusalem to Britain.
As Tennessee Williams wrote in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, where his title character is mourning for her husband: “You are in the right city, Mrs Stone. We understand loss here.
“For that place of glory, history, sheer delight, and excitement you must visit before you die, Rome is the pinnacle.”