A four-day break to Italy, two in Rome and two in the countryside of Umbria, seemed like a good idea when I booked it.
Less so as the date neared and Britain’s airports seemed to be drowning in a tsunami of passengers desperate for a holiday but confronted by shortages of staff, long delays and lost bags.
Despite my wife’s protests (she likes to take a well-stocked wardrobe when travelling) we decided to take only hand luggage.
Ian Walker and his wife checked in to Rome’s Hotel Hassler as part of a break in Italy lasting four days – two spent in Rome and two in the countryside of Umbria. Above is the view from Hotel Hassler’s seventh-floor terrace
It proved a wise choice as we skirted round the scary-looking queues for bag drop and got lucky with security – just 25 minutes from entering the airport to reaching the departures lounge.
Our fortune held as the BA flight at the end of May, although full and 45 minutes late to take off, made up time and landed only 15 mins behind schedule.
At Fiumicino Airport we met our pre-booked taxi and arrived 40 minutes later at the legendary Hotel Hassler. Founded in 1893 and run with elegance and efficiency by the charming staff, it is a lasting testament to its late owner, Roberto Wirth, fifth generation of the renowned Swiss hotelier family, who died earlier this month.
The lobby of Hotel Hassler, founded in 1893 and ‘run with elegance and efficiency’
The Hassler boasts one of the most enviable views in the world.
With famous sites including the Vatican and the Pantheon visible from its terraces and balconies and its enviable location at the top of the Spanish Steps, it’s easy to see why scores of A-listers from Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra to Princess Diana, George Clooney and Tom Cruise checked in.
We were fortunate enough to stay in the same suite as Audrey Hepburn when she filmed 1953’s Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck, and posed on the marble Steps with an ice cream in an iconic shot recreated 365 days a week by tourists from all corners of the globe.
Opulent interior wood panelling, a tripod-mounted telescope, bespoke desk and bar area, were complimented by cream sofas, pale wool carpets and large mirrors, reflecting the timeless class of a bygone era. The beautiful terrace that spans the length of the room has an electric awning that can be opened or closed in sections allowing for full sun or shade and is a beautiful place for a morning coffee or sundowner overlooking the rooftops of Rome.
Ian and his wife stayed in the San Pietro Suite, pictured, the same suite that Audrey Hepburn stayed in when she filmed Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck
‘Opulent interior wood panelling, a tripod-mounted telescope, bespoke desk and bar area, were complimented by cream sofas, pale wool carpets and large mirrors,’ Ian writes of the suite
The ‘beautiful’ terrace that spans the length of the San Pietro Suite has an electric awning that can be opened or closed in sections allowing for full sun or shade, Ian explains
According to Ian, the suite’s terrace is a beautiful place for a morning coffee or sundowner overlooking the rooftops of Rome
Our evening arrival meant we only had one full day to explore the Eternal City before moving on, so we dragged ourselves away from Hepburn’s luxury bolthole to enjoy cocktails – Princess Diana pronounced the Hassler’s Bellinis the best she had ever tasted – before dinner in the fairy-lit Palm Court garden, while planning a whistle-stop walking tour.
We started early the next day with a pre-breakfast 7.30am date at the 135 Spanish Steps, so named because the Spanish Embassy was once located below, in the Piazza di Spagna.
We had the beautiful view from the 16th-century church, Trinita dei Monti, at the top, almost to ourselves. The absence of crowds also revealed the full splendour of the Fontana della Barcaccia by Pietro Bernini, translated literally as ‘fountain of the ugly boat’, nestling at the base of the steps.
The name refers to the inspiration for the lovely water feature, which was an ‘ugly’ little barge once stranded on the same spot when the River Tiber flooded in 1598.
The Piazza is also the start of Rome’s most fashionable street, Via Condotti, home to Valentino, Prada and Bulgari flagship stores as well as Keats’ and Byron’s favourite coffee shop, Caffe Greco.
Ian and his wife planned a ‘whistle-stop walking tour’ of Rome while dining at the hotel’s fairy-lit Palm Court garden (pictured)
Fortified by an excellent breakfast back at the Hassler, next stop was the Trevi Fountain, a ten-minute walk away.
The world-famous Baroque fountain, the largest in Rome, was as striking as when I first saw it 30 years ago – 86ft (26m) of gleaming white travertine rising from a 161ft-wide aqua pool, dazzling four-deep rows of tourists, happy to make room for two more in front of the Nicola Salvi-designed masterpiece.
We moved on to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, and went with the flow of a river of people that thinned out once through the admission gates. Three hours gave us a fascinating glimpse of life under the Roman emperors. No doubt they would have approved of the revitalising ice-cold beer we enjoyed by the grand Piazza Venezia, before continuing our walk on to one of the best-preserved buildings of ancient Rome, the Pantheon.
Above is The Hassler Bistrot. ‘It’s easy to see why scores of A-listers from Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra to Princess Diana, George Clooney and Tom Cruise checked in,’ writes Ian
According to Ian, The Hassler boasts one of the most enviable views in the world. Above is the view from Imago, the hotel’s sixth-floor Michelin-starred restaurant
The hotel (pictured centre-right) sits at the top of the Spanish Steps, so named because the Spanish Embassy was once located below, in the Piazza di Spagna
In Greek its name means ‘devoted to all Gods’ with the dome’s oculus, a 29ft (8.7m) opening, was intended to allow those inside a direct link to the heavens. The choice of guided tours in Rome is endless, and can be done with much less effort using Segways, electric bikes, taxis and buses, but we loved walking our own route, finding new pleasures at every turn.
Quieter, shaded piazzas, hosting lesser-known statues, sculptures and townhouses squeezed into narrow cobbled streets with proud window boxes cascading with colour, were a wonderful build up to the classic show-stoppers we managed to cram into our day.
It was bliss to return to the Hassler, with its cloak of effortless luxury, superb service, Michelin-starred food and a chilled drink on our lovely terrace.
An aerial view of Rome with the Colosseum at the centre. Ian’s tour of the ancient amphitheatre gave him a ‘fascinating glimpse of life under the Roman emperors’
We said ‘arrivederci’ to Rome in the morning and caught a train from nearby Roma Termini arriving an hour and a half later at Chiusi-Chianciano Terme, where a ten-minute taxi ride delivered us to the charming Hotel Vannucci.
This recently renovated 30-room boutique-style sister hotel of the Hassler, set in the heart of the beautifully preserved medieval town of Citta della Pieve, on the Umbrian, Tuscan border, is the birthplace of Renaissance painter, Pietro Vannucci – ‘Il Perugino’, master of Raphael.
Some of his work is on display at local churches and museums, which along with historic monuments, restaurants, bars, and shops, are all a short walk from the hotel where lovely Lena runs reception and is a font of knowledge about the town of her birth.
Ian and his wife’s next stop was the Hotel Vannucci, pictured, in the beautifully preserved medieval town of Citta della Pieve on the Umbrian, Tuscan border
The pretty garden is a great place for a chilled beverage and features a delightful pool decorated with a lion’s head fountain and a patio of sun-bleached clay pavers reflecting a local brick-making tradition dating back to the 12th century.
Creation of the hotel dates back to 1897 when the illegitimate daughter of King Vittorio Emanuele II, Vittoria Spinola, after a somewhat racy past, built two connected villas to host rich Roman tourists.
Today the hotel is accessible to all but retains the feel of an elegant country residence.
Cocktails, wines from the nearby Lake Trasimeno vineyards and fabulous meals using local produce are a highlight. Highly prized local saffron and extra virgin olive oil are put to good use at the hotel’s own cookery school next door, a new venture that has proved very popular with guests.
According to Ian, Hotel Vannucci – which dates back to 1897 – has the ‘feel of an elegant country residence’
Pictured is Luca Bartoccioni, chef-owner of Il Pizzicagnolo in Citta della Pieve, who served Ian ‘melt-in-the-mouth focaccia stuffed with sausagemeat, pulled pork, cheese and pickled broccoli’
A relaxed walk around the hillside town reveals treasures such as the Doumo Santi Gervasio e Protasio where there has been a church since the seventh century. Though small by cathedral standards, it contains a wealth of art and a fascinating crypt that reveals preserved sections from the 13th century.
Other highlights include the narrowest street in Italy, Vicolo Baciadonne, an ‘alley to kiss women’ that’s just 50cm (19.6in) to 60cm (23.6in) wide; a metal and glass walkway, not for those of a nervous disposition, offering breathtaking views of the valley below; and colourful banners marking the town’s three territories that historically represented conflicting social classes – the knights, the bourgeoisie and the peasants.
The wide curved streets, the preserve of knights, allowed them to escape attacks with crossbows and arrows, while the fleeing lower classes found refuge in the squeezed alleyways, too narrow for pursuit by those on horseback.
Back in the main square, there is no better place to appreciate all the town has to offer than at the simple barrel tables and rickety stools of Il Pizzicagnolo.
We asked chef-owner, Luca Bartoccioni, to choose our lunch. He served us melt-in-the-mouth focaccia stuffed with sausagemeat, pulled pork, cheese and pickled broccoli, washed down with a local red wine. He called it street food – we called it divine.
Purchased in 2018, Hotel Vannucci was Roberto Wirth’s most recent acquisition. Though a complete contrast to the Hassler, both hotels are a testament to his genius for knowing what guests want – even before they do.
In a rare interview in Rome, he revealed: ‘During the pandemic, my son and I would come to the hotel at 8am, unlock the doors, do some work around the building then at 6pm we would lock up and go home with only the police on the streets. It was heart-breaking.
‘Now the hotel is full and normality seems to have returned.’
A few days after our return from Italy we learned of Roberto Wirth’s untimely death. I am glad he got to see his beloved hotels full once more.