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