In Rome, as in all large cities, the location of one’s hotel is important. If it is near the Piazza del Popolo, you are doing well. On the square’s 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 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’. (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-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. Members of staff – orchestrated by the charming maitre d’ and sommelier, Raffaele Ruggiero (pictured, with your correspondent and waiter Nicolò) were friendly and efficient, and the good glassware was by Schott.
It being the season of the truffle, I was able to indulge in the divine fungus with my first three courses, Nicolò acting as the master of the shaving. First, the slivers of truffle covered a fried egg – a classic combination which was delicious in its simplicity. Then tagliolini with butter received a similar bountiful blanket of gastronomic treasure, and its luscious aroma and ravishing taste was quite startling. But, best of all, was my main course – roasted John Dory with mashed potato, made very special indeed by its luxurious covering. I ended with an enjoyable version of pear ‘sfoglietta’ with ricotta ice cream.
The wine list has 465 offerings, ranging in price from 28€ for a white colonna from Lazio to 1,350€ for 2015 Montrachet, Louis Latour. Italy and France dominate, but the rest of the world – including Germany (a riesling auslese by Dõnnhoff is 135€, half) – is represented. Other bottles to catch my eye were: 1998 Ornellaia (530€), 1997 Sassicaia (620€), 2015 Masseto (1,200€), 1995 Latour (1,250€), 1989 Mouton Rothschild (1,050€) and 1988 Margaux (980€). I greatly enjoyed my chardonnay from Abruzzo, which was well-structured and refined, in the manner of a good white burgundy (Baronia di Carapelle, Feudi d’Avalos, Loreto Aprutino, 2015 – 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.
Via del Babuino 9, Rome 00187, Italy.
Telephone +39 06 32 88 81
Fax +39 06 32 88 88 88
Check the hotel website for the rates for specific dates and for special offers