Mrs Smith and I like to think of ourselves as seasoned city-breakers – we’ve seen the sights and quaffed the cocktails of most glamorous European hotspots, and this is both of our second time in Rome. Miss Smith, our 10-month-old companion, is less well-travelled – and as our taxi drives through the outskirts of the Eternal City at dusk, towards our hotel Mario de’ Fiori 37, she’s getting her first glimpse of foreign soil. She lets out an excited screech as our car slows in traffic on the cobbled Appian Way.
Our driver doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, during the journey, he’s spent more time winking and waving to Miss Smith in his rear-view mirror than watching the road. This bodes well. The main reason we’ve chosen to come to Italy on our first foreign break as parents – it’s our honeymoon in fact – is that former Naples-dwelling Mrs Smith assures me ‘Italians love children’. By the time our car stops outside the honey-hued exterior of Mario de’ Fiori 37, just around the corner from the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, Miss Smith has charmed her first Roman. Our driver has repeated the word ‘bella’ so often that it sounds as though he’s singing the refrain to ‘Tell Me More’ from Grease.
Mario de’ Fiori 37 is not a hotel in the traditional sense of the word. It describes itself as ‘luxury suites’ and, as such, concentrates on providing cool, cutting-edge accommodation rather than trying to sell itself on the basis of its bar, restaurant or in-house spa. The advantage of such places is that you get to stay in the sort of room you’d normally only dream about. But the flipside is that there’s little else there. There’s no cocktail-mixing or canapé-munching going on in this hotel lobby – just a desk, a comfy-looking sofa and chairs, and a low glass table strewn with Bulgari brochures.
The success of a hip hotel such as this depends entirely on the quality of its rooms and, happily, those at Mario de’ Fiori 37 hit all the right notes. Our first-floor corner suite – which overlooks both Via Mario de’ Fiori and Via della Croce – is decorated in elegant whites, creams and browns, with the occasional flash of light wood and subtly lustrous copper to liven things up. Furnishings are plush and suitably expensive-looking, and the huge bed, surrounded by a velvety purple banquette, is as expansive as a gladiatorial arena.
The bathroom, with its enormous toffee-coloured marble bath, giant shower cubicle and separate lighting system, is equally impressive. I’m particularly taken by the dual sinks – which, after years of getting ready for bed alongside someone who never fails to flick their contact lenses towards the plughole at the exact moment I rinse my toothbrush, represents the epitome of luxury – until Mrs Smith ruins the moment by emptying a bag of baby bottles into it.
On previous breaks, it would have been about now that Mrs Smith and I headed out into the city for our first drink of the holiday. But, even though there’s no bar or restaurant at Mario de’ Fiori 37, we’re hotel bound thanks to the small matter of the baby monitor’s range. It’s a dilemma I can’t picture the great Roman philosophers ever wrestled with – though Plotinus and his mates probably weren’t big on babymooning. Armed with a few useful Italian phrases, courtesy of the helpful concierge, I dash around the buzzing bars and restaurants on Via della Croce, and return with a chilled bottle of prosecco and two take-out pizzas. Twenty minutes later, we’re sitting on that sofa in the lobby enjoying an unorthodox yet surprisingly romantic meal.
The next morning, after our earliest-ever city-break night, we get up at 6am, and take the Metro to the Vatican. Even at this ungodly hour, the queues to get into St Peter’s Basilica are longer than the Pope’s Easter blessing, and we decide to leave the holy delights within to the troops of backpack-sporting priests, who stream into the colonnaded square by the coachload. As we make our way towards the Vatican-flanking Borgo district, Miss Smith careers after some pigeons and straight into the arms of a nun, who’s so ancient that she looks as though she may have actually been a contemporary of Jesus. Various ‘bellas’, blessings and some very un-protestant exuberance follow, while our slightly bewildered toddler wipes rusk-smeared hands across her wimple.
Miss Smith’s place in heaven assured, we wander around Borgo looking at cheap papal tat: Benedict XVI tea towels, John Paul II rugs – we even toy with the idea of buying a ‘Sexy Priests 2010’ calendar in which 12 David Miliband lookalikes in dog collars smoulder in various black-and-white poses. Then it’s time for lunch. We find a table outside a restaurant on Borgo Sant’ Angelo and attempt to feed Miss Smith while we sip cold, crisp glasses of Lazio white and await our plates of spaghetti alla carbonara.
When our pasta arrives, Miss Smith abandons interest in her own mush and points eagerly. The resulting blonde, blue-eyed baby slurping up spaghetti is too much for the Italians milling around our table, and we spend the rest of our meal surrounded by hand-clapping waiters, camera-toting tourists and yet more excitable nuns. If you’d asked me years ago, this wouldn’t have been quite how I’d have pictured a highlight from my honeymoon.
In the afternoon, we wander the gloriously atmospheric alleys and piazzas of Rome’s Centro Storico, coming across crumbling palazzos, beautiful classical statues and centuries-old remains at every corner-turn. We see Raphaels and Caravaggios that still hang in the churches for which they were originally commissioned, we eat ice-cream in the shadow of obelisks that once towered over Cleopatra and we peer excitedly into the window of the official AS Roma store on Piazza Colonna, where lank-haired Italian footballing icon Francesco Totti is signing autographs.
By the time we return to Mario de’ Fiori 37, our feet are every bit as overawed as our senses, and a lie-down on that enormous bed beckons. By virtue of her age, Miss Smith has bagsied our stylish suite for the next couple of hours, so we plan to make do with that sofa downstairs again. No matter. It’s Mrs Smith’s turn to nip out and get the prosecco...