My favourite square in Rome is the Piazza del Popolo. On its northern boundary is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, wherein can be seen two of Caravaggio’s finest paintings, The Martyrdom of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul. To the south, guarding the entrance to the Via del Corso, are the two absurdly beautiful (and very nearly identical) churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto. And then, as if these cultural and artistic riches were not sufficient, trying to nudge into the piazza at its south-eastern corner, there is what is widely regarded as one of the very best lodging-houses in the Eternal City – the Hotel de Russie.
Why does it have the unusual name? Well, it was even more unusual originally – The Hotel de Russie et des Îles Britanniques. The Isles were dropped, however, when the place came to be crowded with Russian princes and nobility, rather than with the penny-pinching British. (Hoteliers can be a cruel lot.) Diaghilev and the stars of the Ballet Russe laid their heads here, as did Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Monsieur Cocteau even wrote about it to his mother: “I am in Paradise... I can pick oranges from my bedroom window.” Another Frenchman had a less happy time: the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte died here in 1891, a departure from this life noted on a plaque fixed to the front wall of the hotel.
This was 80 or so years after the building was erected in 1837 by an architect named Valadier. He it was who was responsible for setting out – in the style of the 18th century, with lots of stone balustrades – the gardens at the rear of the property. These zoom up the steep Pincio Hill towards the park of the Villa Borghese and are now one of the hotel’s chief assets. They form an oasis of beauty and calm in the centre of the busy capital city. And here are those orange trees, should you wish to emulate the talented Mr Cocteau – although you would need arms of super-human length to reach them from the window of any of the hotel’s 122 rooms.
My own accommodation was on the third floor, and its three windows looked out over the palms and pine trees of the garden. Room 329 was a ‘Superior Deluxe Double’ and therefore up to 1,375€ a night for two, according to season. (You will need to check on the hotel’s website for the price for specific dates.) This was a comfortable and stylish billet and I liked the sense of sophistication created by the colour scheme of white, grey and brown, enlivened by touches of gold (like the pedestal of the round table). As with the corridor outside – decorated with plaster casts of Antique friezes picked out with spotlights – this chamber was immaculately maintained. I saw no dents or scuffs at the De Russie.
My bedroom (air-conditioned, as you would expect) was entered via a proper hallway, with wardrobes and a safe. Natural lighting flooded in from the windows, and the means of artificial illumination were properly discreet. Two easy chairs provided the seating, and a writing desk awaited my literary endeavours. To the large television was brought a cd player, so that I could enjoy some soothing Elgar during my stay. It was good to find both a clothes brush and a shoe horn – items too often missing, even in grand hotels. Within the bathroom I found dark green marble, mosaics, spotlights, one wash basin, a bidet, a loo and a tub of comfortable size. Toiletries were by Forte Organics.
One of Italy’s most famous chefs – Fulvio Pierangelini, chef-patron of the Michelin two-starred restaurant, Gambero Rosso, in Tuscany (pictured) – oversees the menus at the Hotel de Russie and the Executive Chef in charge of the kitchen is the widely admired Chef Nazzareno Menghini. I was therefore full of the highest expectations as I buffed up the brogues and struggled with my collar stud, in preparation for my evening visit to Le Jardin de Russie.
In the warmer months, the dining is, indeed, done in the garden, but the air was now chilly, so my eating was by the white columns and under the crystal chandeliers of the dining room. The atmosphere was the one I like – tasteful luxury. The tablecloths were grey, the waiters – orchestrated by the charming maitre d’ Luciano Zanazzo, who looked after me tremendously well – were efficient and the good glassware was by Bormioli. I was pleased to observe that the napkins of those who left their places for a moment were replaced.
I began with a plate of fried porcini mushrooms – deliciously simple and simply delicious. Then, continuing the traditional theme, I tucked into excellent fettucine Bolognese, the pasta soft and yielding as I like it. But, without doubt, the highlight of the meal was the main course: sea bass, just grilled and served with olive oil and lemon. This was a really lovely fish, plated next to my table and served with mashed potatoes and broccoli. Absolutely delicious. I finished with a properly rich version of tiramisù, and felt that all was well with the world. (These four courses were 130€.)
The wine list has 421 offerings, ranging in price from 38€ for a white Frascati to 1,200€ for a 2003 red burgundy (Chambertin Grand Cru, Denis Mortet). Italy and France dominate, but the rest of the world – including Germany – is represented. Other bottles to catch my eye were: 1995 Ornellaia (520€), 1995 Sassicaia (530€), 2011 Masseto (800€), 1989 Mouton Rothschild (1,050€), 2001 Haut Brion (820€) and 1999 Yquem (480€). One of the four sommeliers, Antonio, made a brilliant recommendation to me, for which I expressed my thanks then and happily do so again now. This chardonnay from Abruzzo was magnificent – big, vanilla-laden, oaky, in that bold New World style which so appeals to my palate (Baronia di Carapelle, Feudi d’Avalos, Loreto Aprutino, 2014 – 98€).
I returned to the restaurant each morning to break my fast. I do love my breakfasts, and there was a great deal here to make me smile. Everything I tried from the buffet was of high quality. I liked particularly the crusty bread, the exceptional marmalade, the fruit (pineapple, melon, orange and persimmon), the hams and the cheeses. Eggs were cooked to order and brought from the kitchen – as was my imitation of my Grandfather’s breakfast. Porridge made with water, brown bread and butter and sliced, raw onion. It sounds odd, but it is wonderful. And it was wonderful here. It gave to me the energy for my days of joyful relaxation in Rome.
Not that I needed all that much energy, for outside my front door was the magnificent Piazza del Popolo. I did, it is true, indulge in the ten minute meander to the Spanish Steps, and I even occasionally ventured further afield. But, with a location this good, it seemed unwise to move too far away. Instead, I stayed for most of the time in my favourite spot in Rome – happy that I could return at any moment to the comfort and elegance of the splendid Hotel de Russie.
Via del Babuino 9, Rome 00187, Italy.
Telephone +39 06 32 88 81
Fax +39 06 32 88 88 88
Double rooms from 630€-915€, according to season, breakfast extra
Check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates and for special offers