When in Rome: living the high life, for a high price

The Eternal City is a wonder, says Rod Gilchrist. Just avoid the gelato vendors

I SOMEHOW missed the Gelateria Antica Roma when I was in Rome. This is the gelato bar where Birmingham engineer Roger Bannister and his wife were charged €64 for four ice creams.

Their bill for tutti fruitis with extra whipped cream, or whatever it was, drew howls of outrage from the press amid cries of tourists being outrageously ripped off in the Italian capital. The rulers of the Eternal City kindly invited them back for another holiday, this time all expenses paid.

For those interested in visiting the new tourist attraction that is the Gelateria Antica Roma, it is an anonymous stall at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, just before you reach the fashion street of Via Condotti. Of course, you don’t have to go there to get ripped off in Rome. There are plenty of other opportunities around this theatre-set of a city – as indeed there are in any big city.

One chap who will not be indulging in the ancient sport of fleecing you as you traipse to the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, The Trevi Fountains, St Peter’s et al is the new Pope. He is a Pope so pious he refuses to wear the expensive, traditional red shoes of office, saying his cheap Argentinian slip-ons are quite adequate, thank you very much, and refuses to accept the luxurious Papal suite, preferring a humble Vatican flat. He has even rejected both the Holy See’s gold ring and cross. Too gaudy, apparently. Crikey.

Fortunately I have taken no such vows of sacrifice. Indeed, while not quite expecting an invitation to a Berlusconi Bunga Bunga party, I was looking forward to a weekend of conspicuous hedonism. Who cares what ice creams cost. When in Rome and all that…

And from where I am standing on the flower-decked terrace of the hilltop Hotel Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria, it all looks pretty good. Below lies the Eternal City, shimmering in a heat haze, the gold and green dome of the Vatican glinting in the early summer sunlight.

We all feel we know Rome even if we’ve never been there. It’s in our vernacular. “When in Rome do as the Romans do”, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, etcetera, etcetera. And that’s without the vivid cinematic images: Roman Holiday, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Gladiator and, most emblematic, La Dolce Vita.

Fellini’s masterpiece is more than 50 years old but its potency for tourists is as enduring as the city’s ancient monuments. It was at the voluptuous Trevi Fountain where Fellini filmed a wet-through Anita Ekberg attempting to seduce Marcello Mastroianni by splashing in the waters gurgling over the feet of the giant statue of Neptune.

Today there are more people here than at a Wembley cup final and they are making just as much noise, though I can hear some whisper respectfully “Oui Anita Ekberg nuto nuda” (here Anita Ekberg swam naked). In fact she didn’t. My guide, Benedetto, pushes us through the throng to the waters edge and tells me: “When the Pope dies they drop black drapes either side of St Peter’s. Italians loved Mastroianni and when he died they dropped black drapes either side of the Trevi Fountain in homage.”

The Trevi starred in an earlier movie, Three Coins In A Fountain, which suggested if you threw a coin over each shoulder, you would one day return to Rome. There were enough euros in the fountain to bail out Cyprus.

The power of movies to evoke mythical images extends to La Bocca Della Verita, The Mask of Truth, in the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Legend has it if you put your hand in the mouth of this God face and tell a lie it will bite it off. This provided the most memorable moment in Roman Holiday when Gregory Peck pulled his arm out with his hand apparently missing, hidden up his sleeve.

Peck was improvising but Audrey Hepburn didn’t know this and screamed with shock. It was so real they kept the scene in the picture. Kids in Gap shirts are queuing up to repeat the trick, laughing their heads off when flapping sleeves are pulled from the mouth. What larks.

I find myself on this Roman holiday the only male in a party of five women, so for the moment the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum – where 10,000 animals were slaughtered in the first 100 days of its opening – and St Peter’s must wait while we giddily trip down The Via Condotti, eyeing the sensuous suede and leather creations in exclusive boutiques.

The girls and I duck in and out of a wedding dress shop that used to be a church, where much coo-ing takes place at the bridal gowns. We hit a chocolate emporium and finally land at Louis Vuitton, which boasts a stupendous white marble spiral staircase, all sweeping curves, illuminated with film-set lights that could grace Caesar’s Palace. This used to be a cinema (it seems every shop used to be something else) and four short films play in the background on an endless loop.

On we press in blazing sunshine to the Piazza del Popolo, where we are drawn to a large crowd surrounding a squadron of Caribineri who in turn were posing, as Italian polizia do, around their latest fast pursuit car. A Ferrari? A Lamborghini? No, it is the new British Lotus Exige, its bonnet painted dark blue and the top snow white.

“Why have you forsaken your own supercars for a British car?” I ask the captain.” A cruel smile. “Lotus helpa outa our economy. They giveita to us for free, so whyanotta?”

It’s lunch time, and the hunger-making aroma of Italian cooking is wafting from noisy pavement cafes. We dive into a cool courtyard for tortellini and other delicacies and recall our dinner last night at La Pergola rooftop restaurant at La Cavalieri. This is where Michelin starred chef Heinz Beck stirs the pots.

When he cooked for the wives of the G7 leaders, both Michelle Obama and Cherie Blair requested the recipe of his signature Fagottelli dish, a taste sensation in which pecorino cheese, black pepper, egg yoke and whipped cream are trapped inside pasta. I can easily imagine this being prepared in the White House kitchens but find it more difficult to see it being served by Cherie in Tony Blair’s pantry.

We are invited to taste wines from 400-year-old Greek vines with each of the seven courses (black cod with anchovy vinaigrette, lamb with artichokes, cannelloni filled with salty pine seed). By the end I am on very good terms with Bacchus.

Our hotel, the Rome Cavalieri, is, like the city itself, gloriously extravagant. It is set on a verdant hilltop above the city in 15 acres of parkland (a shuttle bus makes passage in and out of the city effortless). The gardens are decorated with distinctive umbrella pines, statues of emperors and an Olympic-sized heated swimming pool that is lapped by manicured lawns on which a pack of stone lions prowl. In the early morning when I take a dip, steam rises eerily like mist from its glassy surface. The hotel boasts a museum-standard art collection, including a silk screen Warhol of dollar signs in the penthouse and a £30m Tiepolo triptych. Sadly the manager Serge Ethuin had to put this Venetian masterpiece behind glass when a small American boy was discovered throwing darts at it.

Rome Cavalieri celebrates its half century this year. And, just in case anyone in Rome didn’t realise, it has erected a giant number “50” on the roof, which is so big it’s a danger to passing aircraft. This love of the theatrical extends everywhere, from a caviar massage in the spa to gold sheets in the bedroom.

The concierge will arrange the most extraordinary amusements. The last time I was in Rome I was taken to gladiator school, given a beaten steel helmet, sandals, shield, tunic and wooden sword and taught to fight like Spartacus.

This time, it was the Pope I wanted to see, or at least his Sistine Chapel. Benedetto was once again my guide through Michaelangelo’s masterpiece. He instructed me in the aspects of redemption, pointing to those unfortunates on their way to hell, but Italians cannot stay serious for very long.

“And you see this figure here,” he said pointing to a devil like creature on his way to the fires. “He is being dragged down by his testicles, symbolic of sexual crimes. We know of this man today. It is Tiger Woods.”

The joy of Rome is that it is an inside-out city. Its history is on full view rather than hidden away behind closed doors in a museum. Arrivederci Roma: I’ll be back. I made sure by tossing coins into the Trevi. Next time, I’ll try those ice creams.

NEED TO KNOW

WHERE TO STAY:
Night rates at Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria Hotels start from €290 for a deluxe room, inclusive of VAT and breakfast for two people.
For further information call :+39 06 35 091 or log on to romecavalieri.com

HOW TO GET THERE:
Flights by Monarch Airlines from Luton to Rome, including taxes, £126.99 return.
monarch.co.uk