The Eternal City has managed what the Russians never could: knock out 007. Daniel Craig was shaken and stirred as he was carried unconscious by a wailing ambulance to hospital when the Aston Martin DB 10 he was driving in a high speed chase around the Tiber river hit pot holes while filming Spectre, the 24th Bond film.
Craig banged his head on the roof of the Aston, and excited Romans were still talking about it when I checked into Hotel La Cavalieri, high on a hill above the city, which from its flower bedecked terrace offers a movie-makers’ dream panorama of the gold and green dome of St Peter’s.
Craig had been scheduled to shoot a parachute jump into the Tiber from the most beautiful bridge in Rome, the Ponte Sisto, until heritage officials shook their heads, thwarting Bond once again. The bridge is considered sacred and said to be haunted by Donna Olimpia Pamphili.
She was Pope Innocent X’s lover, who crossed the bridge every night on her way to his bed. Donna ran the protection racket around the City’s brothels and brought him the gold that propelled him to power. She was also his brother’s wife. It’s ironic that, flushed with her money, he paid the Spanish artist Velazquez to paint his likeness, anticipating a flattering portrait. Instead, history has judged the work to be a damning psychological study of the black heart beating behind the public face he showed his congregation. “It’s too realistic,” he gasped in horror when he saw it.
The painting today hangs across the Tiber in the Villa Pamphili while, ironically, Francis Bacon’s disturbing modern interpretation of it, The Screaming Pope, has pride of place in the Vatican itself; not exactly what the corrupt old rascal had intended.
This story perfectly captures the drama of Rome, imperial capital for the Caesars, throne of the Popes, a place like no other for lurid glamour, political intrigue and Bunga Bunga style sexual excess, all against a backdrop of high culture.Rome’s ancient attractions – the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, St Peter’s – give it the appearance of a movie set. The Hollywood connection goes all the way back to films like Roman Holiday, Cleopatra and La Dolce Vita. More recently, Bond isn’t the only movie to have been filmed here. There’s also been a remake of the swords and sandals epic Ben Hur. Morgan Freeman, who was staying down the corridor from me, plays an ageing gladiator, who teaches a slave (Charlton Heston in the original picture) to become a champion chariot racer.
In the heat of early summer the beautiful young Romans lounged around the elegant, off centre sweep of the Spanish Steps. Either side of the staircase loom two bastions of English influence: the house once occupied the poets Keats and Shelley and the Babington tea rooms.
At the foot of the staircase a British family from Dudley were once charged €64 for four ice creams at the Antica Roma café, causing such a scandal that the city the tourist board invited them back, all expenses paid. I can reveal a new sensation in Rome’s gellata bars: blue Viagra ice cream.
When in Rome, it’s fun to roam. The Spanish Steps tumble into the fashion street Via Condotti (home to Gucci, Valentino and Bottega Veneta), eventually leading to the Piazza Mattei. Film buffs might recognise the piazza from the scene in The Talented Mr Ripley when Matt Damon bundles Freddy (Jude Law) into the boot of his Alfa – spoiler alert – after murdering him.
I headed for the Trevi Fountain where Neptune towers over snorting sea horses. It was here that a soaking-wet Anita Ekberg seduced Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. But horror: the water has been drained and scaffolding defaces its statues.
“In the film Three Coins in the Fountain it was said if you threw a coin over each shoulder you would one day return to Rome, so everybody does,” explained my guide. “Do you know how much money they take out of the fountain each week? €40,000.”
It’s lunchtime and the aroma of garlic, olive oil and pasta wafts from the bustling pavement trattorias, reminding me of the previous night’s dinner at La Pergola rooftop restaurant at La Cavieleri, where Michelin starred chef Heinz Beck works his magic. When he cooked for Michele Obama she requested the recipe of his signature dish Fagotteli, a taste sensation in which black pepper, whipped cream, egg yoke and pecorino cheese are encased inside pasta.
La Cavalieri, like Rome itself, is gloriously extravagant, a Ducal palace crammed with paintings, tapestries and sculptures. Even Rudolph Nureyev’s costumes from the Royal Ballet are here. A £30m Tiepolo triptych hangs in the marble reception, sadly now behind glass after an American schoolboy was discovered throwing darts at it.
The hotel is set in fifteen acres of manicured parkland, adorned with cooling Mediterranean umbrella pines, scented by lemon trees, high on a hill above the city. It’s a serene castella where guests can escape the heat of the city centre, but easily accessible by a regular shuttle bus. Stone lions patrol the lawns guarding the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Bronze dolphins shoot jets of water. In the spa I enjoyed a gold facial. “Do I look like Goldfinger?” I asked my masseur as she applied 18 carrot strips to my crumbling visage. “No, King Tut,” she giggled.
I didn’t make it to the Colosseum, that high alter of public cruelty where ten thousand animals were butchered in it’s first days of opening and almost as many Christians (although for a laugh I did once enrol at Gladiator school, where I was given a wooden sword, steel breast plate, shield, tunic and taught to fight like Spartacus, while feeling like an extra in a Carry On film).
I did, however, manage to duck into the Sistine Chapel. Gazing up at Michaelangelo’s painting of God touching the hand of man, he told me: “Pope Julius 11 was an impatient pontiff. He told Michaelangelo, who tried to get out of the commission, ‘paint the ceiling or hang’. But Michaelangelo got his own back. He showed the Vatican’s chief censor being bitten in a delicate place by a snake and the Pope himself is depicted consigned to hell. Even Adam is shown picking the apple in the garden of Eden, the message being that man not woman was responsible for original sin.” Benedetto points to another tableaux in which a desperate offender is being dragged by his testicles to the fires of hell, punishment for sexual crimes. “We know who this is,” he says, “Berlusconi!”
So much to see, so little time. We all feel we know Rome because it’s so prominent in the vernacular. “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, “When in Rome do as the Roman’s do,” even Monty Python’s “What Have The Roman’s Ever Done For Us?”. But it’s still a city of surprises. Who’d have thought Pope Francis was into cricket and hosted an English team captained by author Sebastian Faulkes against a Vatican eleven? Or that he would sanction a calendar with each month featuring a hunky young priest?
Rome is a city which savours its own wonderfulness, and why not, when even James Bond has to accept defeat here.
From here to eternityEven in ancient Rome, the city was referred to as “eternal”. This is because Romans sincerely believed that no matter what happened in the world, no matter how many wars were won or lost, the city itself would go on forever.
NEED TO KNOW
Citalia (01293 731 753, citalia.com) is offering a four night city break to Rome staying at the five star Rome Cavalieri on a B&B basis from £779pp – saving up to £415 per couple. The offer includes one free night, an airline discount and return international flights from London Gatwick with British Airways.