Splendour and decay in The Eternal City

A whistle-stop tour of Rome and Umbria

Photograph: Carlos Ibanez/Unsplash

Our last Italy feature predates the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout combined with severe energy shortages throughout Europe.

These, and yet another election notwithstanding, the Italian economy has registered modest growth and is tipped to grow faster than that of its EU neighbours and partners.

My whistle-stop tour started with a two-day visit to Rome, this writer’s favourite European capital. By all accounts, this writer’s partiality is shared by many – far too many, one might say, as in the first week of September, throngs of tourists had overtaken the Trevi area, providing of course much needed post-pandemic revenue.

Rome is one of the oldest cities in Europe and its architectural beauty is unrivalled. The city is no museum, however, but a living, breathing home to some 3 million people; a number which swells substantially at the height of the traditional holiday season.

From my hotel, on the other side of the Ponte Cavour, I can see the most visited areas of Rome: the famous shopping street, Via dei Condotti; the Piazza di Spagna, and the Trevi Fountain; the sprawling palazzos and churches of extraordinary, transcendent beauty and monumental significance beyond.

Narrow and modest cobbled streets that bear the marks of ancient history ensconce countless restaurants and boutiques. 

The tail end of summer is just as hot as its beginning, with temperatures rising to 33 centigrade at midday. Stone and concrete radiate the heat absorbed over an entire season of sunshine, but this swelter does not deter the large tour-groups of mostly American origin. You can easily spot them: either on the trail of a guide bearing aloft a little flag; or else from their meandering, taking pictures and selfies in front of this or that famous landmark.

When night falls, the eateries heave with diners, a sight which must be a relief to the countless small business owners after the late couple years of lockdown.

One tends to overlook certain things: the peeling facades, some festooned with climbing greenery; the odd bank of exposed wires and the leaking air conditioning units; the smell of sewers, sweat and discarded rubbish. 

You’re in  Italy, after all, and the decay is priced-in, expected almost – the grandeur of history comes with that willing blindness to the cracks and tattered edges.

If you are after an authentic meal that is also value for money, you need to head towards more residential areas. Tourists are notoriously less demanding than the locals and have little to no loyalty; their value is captured in  a single night of spending, and perhaps the Instagram endorsements they share afterwards.

In the locally patronised establishments, you’d also observe the marked difference between the tourists in T-shirts and sandals, and the perennially stylish natives. They exude effortless elegance, the men in white shirts unbuttoned at the neck,  the women  universally sporting  pared-down but ultra-chic dresses.

They look better, they order better too; and, generally speaking, they subscribe to the good manners that Northern Europeans seem to have consigned to history.

The First Musica is one of three Rome hotels in the Pavilion hospitality group. The building, a symphony of glass and copper coloured detailing, overlooks the Tiber river (hence the address, Lungotevere, or along the Tiber). Just across the Cavour Bridge is Rome’s most fashionable and historic district.

This gives First Musica a unique and special advantage – it is, on the one hand, removed from the congested tourist hub, and yet, within a short walk of everything.

The rooms are nothing short of spectacular with their floor to ceiling windows. Interestingly, the shower room has the same configuration, so much so that as you step into the shower, you feel suspended above the river. 

All 5 star hotels are created to offer ultimate comfort. This hotel has an added tech advantage – from the sound system to all things click-operated – and feels more modern than similar  establishments in Rome (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter).

The décor is on par: slick shelves replete with coffee table books editions; a hand-painted baby grand piano in the lobby; copper coloured grill partitions; and a cool roof terrace with a neatly shaped Japanese tree dominating the subtle green wall landscape. 

There are, in fact, two roof terraces: one for breakfast, another for cocktails and dinner. 

The entire orientation is towards the river and the emphasis is on maximising the views, giving the place a generous feel in terms of proportions and height.

In pictures: The First Musica, Rome

Staff are incredibly obliging and attentive, really in the best Italian hospitality tradition. 

The restaurant menu is minimalist but does offer some very interesting choices (I had a pizza fritta and an oversized portion of a green salad). The only omission, from a personal point of view, was rose wine by the glass. 

Breakfast is a la carte, rather than the ubiquitous buffet, and well-worth the visit on its own merit.

I look forward to visiting the other hotels in the Pavilion Group as each has its own identity, hence the names: First Dolce and First Arte. As a matter of fact, for the two days running, a small platter of exquisite sweets appeared on the table of my suite, directly from First Dolce. 

A friend who picked me up to give me a lift to Umbria, my next destination, told me the hotel had hitherto been a sad, totally dilapidated building. 

The vision and taste of the owners have created something very, very special and made the most of the spectacular location.

The hour and a half drive to Montefalco, Umbria, takes us through the affluent suburbs of Rome first and then, after leaving the motorway, through an increasingly forested landscape, with a range of mountains fringing the road in the distance.

For a good long stretch there are hardly any towns and villages in sight.  Yet within a close distance are Perugia, Assisi and Spoleto.

Assisi is of course the birthplace of St Francis and famous for its Basilica of St Francis, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also a major centre for the arts.

Spoleto, a small town of many churches, basilicas and even a monastery, boasts a Roman amphitheatre and is where the Festival dei Due Mondi takes place.  The Festival of the Two Worlds is an annual three-week extravaganza of music, theatre, dance performances and the arts.

Umbria is home to native red grape Sagrantino, as well as Sangiovese, Colorino and other indigenous Italian varieties. The exceptionally tannic Sagrantino has a mandatory long maturing lead time, and produces robust reds, characterised by high alcoholic content, rich fruitiness and finesse. 

The dessert wine produced from the same grape, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, is highly prized with very good reason.

The small town of Montefalco pre-dates Roman times. If you look it up on the map, you’d see that it holds almost dead centre of Italy which, in the country’s narrow and long topography, makes it ideally placed to both reach many major cities within a short drive, and escape them if one wishes to. It is this very remoteness, the quality of “hidden in plain sight”, that makes it so special. The new owners of Villa Zuccari, an Italian villa built and extended between the 16th and 18th centuries, bought the property in 2019 for this very reason.

A famous architect once described the vernacular Italian villas as “melding into the most beautiful landscape”.

And so it is with Villa Zuccari. Approaching it via a short driveway and then going up the stairs towards the vast formal terrace, you are rewarded with the sight of a wide terracotta pink building surrounded by mature trees. 

My bedroom suite was on the top floor and had its own large terrace, revealing far reaching views towards the pool and gardens and green hills beyond. The succession of vaulted ceilings of the suite, the raised sitting area platform, the corner bathtub, and vast bathroom with large porthole windows give it a unique character. 

Returning to the lobby area and walking towards the bar and restaurant, the most striking feature are the original Castel Viscardo terracotta floors.

The restaurant itself is relatively small, arranged as the dining room of a private country home.

The food is outstanding and makes Villa Zuccari a gastronomic destination in its own right.

Our party was served seafood tartare to start, followed by a superbly cooked, round-shaped, herb-crusted steak. I finished with a few slices of Pecorino, accompanied by a fragrant Montefalco Passito, with a perfect balance of sweetness.

Breakfast the following day was served on the vast trellised terrace overlooking old chestnut trees, watching the heavy rain give way to glorious sunshine. 

An absolutely magical experience and a welcome escape from the throngs of tourists everywhere else in Italy, cut short by the sudden announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. 

In her mid-pandemic words, ‘we shall meet again’.