Residenza Napoleone III
Waking early in the morning at Residenza Napoleone in Rome, for several minutes I thought I was still dreaming. And that's not exaggeration, or metaphor, but simply the absolute truth, and possibly the only way I can convey what an extraordinary experience staying here is. I opened my eyes and found I was lying on a vast bed, so comfortably I felt I was floating; drawn around me were heavy silk canopies, and in the dawn light I could just make out, six feet above my head, two vast wrought-iron candelabras suspended on thick ropes from an ornately carved double-height ceiling. And then a sleepy arm reached out from across the bed, and I realised that this was not, in fact, a night-time princess fantasy but a real-life princess experience.
The Residenza Napoleone is much, much more than a luxury hotel. Luxury hotels provide an idealised version of real life; staying here provides a privileged glimpse into a quite different world. It is not really a hotel at all, in the traditional sense, but rather probably the poshest bed and breakfast on the planet: a suite of three rooms in the Palazzo Ruspoli, one of Rome's most historic palaces, which is hired out to paying guests. The enterprising Principessa Letizia Ruspoli – who with her husband and grown-up children still divides her time between this home, a country seat and vineyard in Tuscany, and her riad in Marrakech, Dar 7 – has hit on this venture as a way of maintaining the family in the style to which they have been accustomed since the 14th century without resorting to selling off Caravaggios.
So there is no bar, no restaurant, no 'scene', here; what there is, instead, is gobsmacking beauty, an extravagant amount of space, and meticulous service. From the Via Condotti, a pair of wooden double doors (easily high and wide enough to accommodate a horse and carriage) conceal a wide, sweeping marble staircase lined with busts of Roman emperors. A butler shows guests into the apartment, which opens with an elegant dining room hung with moss silk wallpaper and lined with oil paintings of ancient Roman monuments; 12-foot-long velvet curtains frame a pair of deep window seats.
The next room is equally elegant, but less formal, a primrose yellow drawing room where, on arrival, we found the side tables laid with trays of snacks and drinks (including a bottle of Chianti Classico from the Ruspolis’ vineyard) and the air scented with posies of jasmine in antique silver jugs. The bedroom beyond boasts six vast oil paintings, a bed fit for an emperor, and a delightful bathroom with walls of old marble, rich and creamy as gorgonzola, and mirrors foxed and golden-hued with age – fabulously flattering to the complexion and, therefore, supremely nourishing for the spirit.
The Ruspolis have a long tradition of being marvellous hosts. Alexander Dumas, in his novel The Count of Montecristo, indicates the terrace of the Palazzo Ruspoli as the best location from which to watch the Roman carnival. The dressing table in the Residenza Napoleone is crammed with things thoughtful hostesses place in their spare rooms, like adaptor plugs and spot stain remover for clothes. And when Letizia's husband baulked at the notion of installing the flat-screen TV expected by modern guests in the drawing room, the princess circumvented the issue by hiding the screen behind a grand oil painting, a marvellously Da Vinci Code touch.
It was very tempting not to leave at all. Luckily, the Ruspolis have supplied the yellow drawing room with piles of encouraging guide books. The Spanish Steps, with the adjacent tiny and enchanting Keats-Shelley House, are five minutes walk away; if even that seems too much effort, you might still manage to potter the ten yards across the road to stroke the handbags in the fabulous Fendi flagship store. In any case, since only breakfast is available in house, you will eventually be driven out by hunger. Happily both Letizia and her manager, Beatrice, are women of impeccable taste and happy to recommend and reserve the best dinners in Rome.
We returned from dinner to find the candelabras in the bedroom each twinkling with dozens of candles, and a digestif tray of grappa and truffles on the bed. So with a flick of a switch we climbed onto the bed, lowered the projector screen and pondered the DVD selection. (Mr Smith wanted Gladiator, I preferred Roman Holiday; we settled on Troy.) The scene-setting fairies reappeared before breakfast, when we emerged from the bedroom to find a fire of pine cones blazing next to our beautifully laid breakfast table.
Since the success of Residenza Napoleone, a second suite, the Roof Terrace, has been opened in the eaves of the palazzo. This is very different: a charming hideaway, with rooms almost miniature in scale, but with a spacious multi-level terrace from which to gaze over the rooftops of Rome. Both suites are frankly divine. What can I say: get here. Even if you have to sell a Caravaggio.
The only problem with tourism is the other tourists. In Rome, where tourism was more or less invented, they traipse around in huge groups in high season, with their backpacks and sneakers and shorts, swamping the Spanish Steps, gawping at the Trevi Fountain, dripping ice-cream onto the Colosseum. Worse is the horrible moment when you catch your reflection in a shop window and realise that, contrary to the mental image you’ve been entertaining all day, you are not in fact a chic Italian in handmade shoes and tailored linens, but a sweaty tourist fumbling with a camera and map. Shock! You are one of them, the great uncouth swarm, the one blot on this otherwise perfect city. Thankfully, there is a solution: stay at the Residenza Napoleone III and live out your fantasy of being a suave Italian for the weekend. For this is not a hotel – those are for tourists – but your own private palazzo on Rome’s smartest street.
On our first morning, Mrs Smith and I return from a stroll along Via Condotti, past branches of Fendi and Ferragamo, to find a cluster of holidaymakers reading an official information panel outside the Residenza. It explains that the building dates from 1556 and that in the late 16th century it was transformed by its owner, a diplomat for the Medici family, into one of Rome’s grandest residences. It goes on to note a ceiling inspired by the Sistine Chapel, the dozen busts of Roman Emperors that line the corridors, and the staircase with 100 marble steps (‘regarded as one of the marvels of Roman civil architecture’), before regretfully telling readers that, though it sometimes hosts exhibitions, the building is not normally open to the public.
At this point, I draw from my pocket a small brass key attached to a green velvet rope. As the tourists look on, I step towards the huge wooden gates that fill the building’s arched stone entrance, open the small door within a door, and go inside. Smug? Noi? The building is actually called the Palazzo Ruspoli, after the family who bought it in 1713. Today, the Ruspolis still live here, but along with running a chic riad in Marrakech, they rent out two apartments, calling them the Residenza Napoleone III, after the French emperor, who used to stay here when visiting Rome.
Walking up the marble staircase, past the busts and the frescoes, then along the wide and high corridors, our steps echoing on the stone floor, it feels as though we’ve broken into a private museum. There’s no reception desk, restaurant or bar – all of which helps if you’re trying to forget you’re a… well, you know. There’s just a discreet butler to bring breakfast and make reservations for dinner (should you wish).
Our apartment, the Roof Garden Terrace Suite, is reached via a spiral staircase. There’s a tiny bedroom, a bathroom (stocked with Bulgari products and pretty soap containing rose and lavender petals), and an upstairs sitting room. If you’re seeking slick hotel minimalism, the latest gadgets and decor in a hundred tones of taupe, this is not your Holy Grail. If you’re a bit bored of all that, and fancy somewhere with lots of character, you’re at the right address. Staying here feels as though we’ve borrowed the lived-in flat of a distant aristocratic relative. Surfaces are crowded with objets d’art, the walls are bookcase-lined, there are paintings and statuettes of racehorses and piles of auction catalogues. Instead of a notepad, there’s a stack of wine-bottle labels from the family’s own vineyard. A panama hat hangs on a hook,
in case you forgot yours.
But the real draw is just beyond the sitting room: throw open the French windows and you are in a capacious private roof garden with the most incredible view over the Italian capital, among olive trees and bushes of mint, thyme and lavender. On our first day, it rains, but the second dawns warm and bright; we eat breakfast under a parasol outside, listening to the bells ring out from the city’s churches and trying to work out which of the endless terracotta domes are the Vatican’s.
Testament to how truly ‘Roman’ our Residenza Napoleone apartment already has us feeling, by the middle of day two, I’ve left an extra shirt button undone and I’m making expansive hand gestures. But if you want to pretend you’re an 18th-century royal, you need to book the Napoleone Suite: it is jaw-droppingly lavish, with three vast, high-ceilinged rooms, full of golden chairs, antique mirrors, tapestries and huge oil paintings. In the breakfast room is a notable 18th-century painting by Giovanni Paulo Panini; in the living room, an oil masterpiece in an ornate frame swings off the wall to reveal a massive TV. The marble-lined bathroom hides behind another artwork, and a widescreen film projector is concealed in the drapes above the immense bed. Buckingham Palace isn’t a patch on this.
Of course, Rome has the best sights of any city (not to mention world-class gelato), so we spend a happy couple of days pounding pavements and gawking alongside the tourists at the Pantheon, St Peter’s and the Keats museum. But ultimately, nothing compares to the pleasure of retreating from the fray to the roof of our own palazzo, cracking open a bottle of prosecco and watching darkness settle over the city.
Reviewed by Tom Robbins, travel editor
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Smith extra at Residenza Napoleone III
A bottle of Anagallis wine from the Ruspoli family's vineyard in Chianti, plus late check-out if availability allows