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  1. Wealth
November 26, 2008

Rome with a View

By Spear's

The luxury is forte but the tone is pianissimo at the Eternal City’s stealthily sumptuous Hotel de Russie, says Paul Mungo

The luxury is forte but the tone is pianissimo at the Eternal City’s stealthily sumptuous Hotel de Russie, says Paul Mungo

According to a survey carried out earlier this year by the Rocco Forte Hotels group, the top end of the travel sector remains remarkably resilient, despite the effects of the credit crunch and the surreally seesawing financial markets. Suite revenue has actually increased, as have bookings: at Brown’s Hotel in London, one of the Rocco Forte properties, suite occupancy is up 8 per cent on 2007, which the group calls ‘quite astonishing’ and would seem counter-intuitive at least.

But the group also notes ‘a small drop-off’ in business from US visitors. The slack has been taken up largely by Middle Eastern bookings, and to a lesser extent by Russians and Asians, which tells you all you need to know about where the wealth is coming from and who it’s going to — the post-American world crystallised in the form of hotel booking statistics.

Still, any suggestion that the upper end of the hotel market has dodged the effects of the economic downturn is clearly good news for the Rocco Forte group, whose Rocco Forte Collection is a chain of determinedly luxurious properties in eleven European cities, including Florence, St Petersburg, Berlin and Geneva. Five more hotels will open in the near future, among them the company’s first outside Europe — in Abu Dhabi, Marrakech and Jeddah.

The Collection is unashamedly grand and offers what it calls ‘the Art of Simple Luxury’. This means, essentially, stylish, elegant design, in which each hotel in the Collection reflects its location and country. These are not anonymous business hotels; they are individual and distinctive properties that blend into their settings and evoke a sense of the cities surrounding them. There is also no gilt, no bling. The hotels are all in the very best of taste.

The Hotel de Russie is the Collection’s Rome flagship. (The Collection’s Hotel de Rome is in Berlin. Obviously.) The name reflects the property’s association with the Russian Imperial House and, more prosaically, its proximity to the dropping-off point for passengers on the horse-drawn coach service from St Petersburg in the 18th century — a ‘service’ that would have taken two to three weeks of bone-jarring travel and occasioned a certain amount of danger.

The hotel is located between two of Rome’s most famous piazzas, the Piazza del Popolo just to the north and the Piazza di Spagna, with the Spanish Steps, to the south. Its entrance is discreet: a door on the Via del Babuino and a small sign. If you didn’t know it was there, you could miss it.

Inside, discretion extends to the lounges and reception, in muted, Mediterranean pastels, minimally decorated, with furnishings meant to evoke the modernism of the 1930s and 1940s. There is none of the hauteur or bustle of a grand hotel; it’s welcoming and tranquil, with the air of a well-run family hotel somewhere in the countryside, rather than a five-star, fairly majestic hotel in central Rome.

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The muted aesthetic continues in the rooms and suites, which are comfortable and big and come with all the usual conveniences — fax, modem, a plethora of telephones and televisions — but lean toward quiet elegance rather than brash opulence. It’s that good taste again. The hotel is very proud of what it calls its ‘suite experience’ (which may well be a very bad pun), including in-suite check-in, in-suite breakfast, complimentary movies and internet, a very useful packing and unpacking service, and a mobile phone for complimentary local calls, pre-programmed with a direct line to reception and the concierge. This also may be very useful, but I proved far too technologically inept to work it. The suite’s nifty little JBL iPod docking contraption was equally well beyond my hi-tech expertise.

The suite I stayed in looked out over the hotel’s heart, the giardino segreto, a terraced ‘secret garden’ that leads up to, though doesn’t quite join, the gardens of the Villa Borghese. Originally a small vineyard, by the early part of the last century it had developed into a sort of orchard, with orange and fig trees.

Now restored, it contains ancient palms and yew trees; blossoming, newly planted orange groves; and rose bushes. Sitting in it, looking up at the hotel, with its reddish-ochre walls and rustic shutters on the windows, the impression is of being somewhere by the seaside. The hustle and bustle of Rome, just beyond the hotel’s front door, seems a long way away.

Perhaps because of its serenity, the garden became the centre of my stay at the Russie — breakfast on the terrace in the morning, drinks in the afternoon in the courtyard just off the Stravinsky Bar, and dinner in the evening at an outside table at Le Jardin de Russie, the hotel’s first-class restaurant, which offers, unsurprisingly, ‘classic Italian’ dining. It’s a fairly light and original sort of classic Italian, with an emphasis on fish and imaginative but quite simple interpretations of well-known dishes.

Hidden away in the ‘secret garden’ is another secret — the Butterfly Oasis. This is exactly what it promises to be: a green area higher up in the terraces of the garden that is home to a variety of wild, indigenous species of butterfly. Set up in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, it opened in May 2006 and serves as a sort of environmental barometer.

Butterflies don’t thrive in contaminated areas; their presence in the Hotel de Russie’s gardens shows that there is little pollution in this small green oasis in the centre of Rome. (If you want to see butterflies, it’s best to time your stay in the hotel for the months of February to September, when the adult butterflies — farfalle in Italian — emerge from their cocoons.)

The hotel’s location makes it convenient for shopping in the small streets around the Via dei Condotti, where Rome’s most famous, and priciest, boutiques lurk. It’s also just a five-minute walk from the Spanish Steps and the Keats-Shelley Museum, and a ten-minute stroll to the Trevi Fountain, should you wish to join the hordes of tourists queuing up to sling a coin into the water. More interestingly, the Colosseum and the ruins of the ancient Roman city centre, the Forum, are just a short taxi ride away. Even closer is the Borghese Museum — round the back of the hotel.

If the shopping and sightseeing become too much, the hotel has an antidote in its Wellness Zone. Spas have become a luxury signifier among five-star hotels, and the Wellness Zone offers what has become the world-standard menu of health and beauty treatments. There are aroma techniques, body massages, body wraps, detox therapy and saltwater baths. The Zone’s location — just beside the Stravinsky Bar — perhaps makes it very convenient for detox therapy.

The Hotel de Russie is not cheap, and does not pretend to be. Ordinary rooms start at about £300 a night (depending on the wildly fluctuating exchange rate) and suites can be had at around £400. The staggeringly luxurious Nijinsky Suite, situated on the sixth and top floors, rents for £9,500 a night and includes a 239 square metre, flower-bedecked terrace overlooking the rooftops of Rome, a huge bedroom, dressing rooms and bathrooms, a kitchen and bar area and a dining room that can seat ten people — all, of course, in the very best of taste. 

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