We’re in the heart of Rome, standing with our backs to the Piazza di Spagna, searching for our luxury hotel, which should be exactly here,and we find – a metro station. Some mistake, surely? But no. Rome is an ancient place, specialising in the unexpected. To our right, an arched stone doorway appears, only a few steps from a hole-in-the wall pizza place and the metro entrance – and so does Roman paradise.
Glassed off from the street bustle, the tiny reception of Il Palazzetto (the building that houses the Wine Academy) leads to a remarkable wrought-iron and marble staircase (as featured in Bertolucci’s 1998 film Besieged). The stairs wend upward to the garden restaurant, library and salon/wine bar, and further to rooms and a rooftop terrace. (A petite lift, complete with floor mosaic, is available for those who can’t or won’t do stairs.) As there are only four guest rooms, the place feels as if it is ours: all ours. With no signs of other occupants, it is as if we have walked into our own Roman villa. Cool.
Getting us more aquiver is Il Palazzetto’s location. This island of serenity and elegance lies in the heart of the Roman tourist beast, only a few short metres from the Spanish Steps. In fact, the view from the terrace onto the 18th-century landmark is absurdly perfect – you’re the envy of every tourist who looks at you as if to ask, ‘How’d you get there?’. Little wonder that the Roman family who once lived here preferred it to their palazzo. The bedroom views of the Steps and the Vicolo del Bottino are also ridiculously spectacular – not that you’ll stare out of the windows for long.
The private spaces are quiet and airy, lulling the world away. Kingsize beds are swathed in voluptuous yet unisex fabrics and the plasma TV screen is Goldilocks-size (ie: just right). The marble bathrooms seem demure. Upon inspection, they’re quite naughty, with their discreetly-mirrored walls, large old-fashioned showerheads that can easily wet two,and a bath huge enough for a pair of dirty people.
Three years of refurbishment have restored the once-abandoned Il Palazzetto to a balanced, timeless style. It is more informal in style and atmosphere than its big sister, the Hassler Hotel (where you go for breakfast: no breakfast in bed here as yet, alas). Now it is home to Rome’s International Wine Academy, which means there are 400 different wines available at dinner. (Fortunately, the wine tasting every evening is limited to four bottles.) The restaurant's two spaces – the covered garden and the Library room – serve wildly tasty traditional dishes given a modern touch by chef Vincenzo di Tuoro. And the service couldn’t be more helpful or wittier. (‘This is not dangerous,’ says one waiter as he gestures to a bread roll – then to the latest bottle: ‘This is.’) So any lovers staying at the Wine Academy will be faced with the eternal question: ‘Do we stay here or go out?’ Choosing between the Inner Rome or the Outer Rome has never been so ruddy difficult.
If you can tear yourself away from this palatial heaven, ignoring the bottles of luscious wine in your mini-bar, the most exclusive quarter of the city is at your feet, literally. You won’t even need a friendly Roman taxi. The upmarket shopping streets of Via Condotti and its environs lie on a gentle slope away from the hotel entrance. For a quick, no-frills slice with a genuine smile, Pizza Mariotti is that odd place we saw facing the hotel entrance. It turns out to be a godsend for the starving: the room is so lovely that we regularly miss lunch. Another salvation is the ordinary-looking Caffetteria DoBar on Via della Carrozze. There, kindly waiters help make embarrassing map-reading a less painful event.
Despite being told that Romans don’t do pre-dinner drinks, we decide to chance it and scamper cross the hotel’s metal catwalk to the front of Trinita dei Monti. From there, we trot along to Hotel Aleph. This is a Philippe Starck homage with a playfully decorated bar, lined with gratis snacks. We sample a bit too much of a very delicious really-I-mustn’t-but-yes-please prosecco called Deco Conti Bernardo before we stagger out to a cab. (Roman taxis are consistently great: clean, fast, professional and multilingual.)
Following in Fellini’s forksteps, we go against our concierge’s advice and head to Otello alla Concordia on Via della Croce, where the great director himself often dined. Alas, the place – heaving yet unremarkable – did not live up to its illustrious past, reminding us of any depressing greasy spoon off London’s Old Compton Street. Both feeling like idiots for not listening to Wine Academy wisdom, we drag our sorry tails to Via del Babuino, to the beautifully minimal indoor/outdoor Stravinskj Bar, which lies within Hotel de Russie. After considerable lubrication (prosecco not as nice as that at the Aleph), we head back to the hotel.
This one-time home street of Fellini is an antique-lover’s dream, but a road that loves men more than women: cobblestones seem purpose-designed to wrench off all high-heeled footwear. (As if Fellini hadn’t done enough to us that night, what with his less-than-illustrious favourite restaurant. Next time, we’ll listen to what the concierge says.) In the morning, we are feeling worse for wear and tear, but we sleep in soundly, not hearing a single tourist shout. We learn one thing for certain, however: when in Rome, wherever we went and whatever we did, we returned to the Wine Academy with slight regrets that we’d left at all.