I’m not by nature the kind of traveler who claps when the airplane wheels make contact with the tarmac, but I want to burst into applause if not full-throated song when the American Airlines 777 jet carrying me from New York touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.
Past a nonchalant Covid regulator greeting the plane but stopping no one, I sauntered. Past the serried ranks of the world’s most courteous immigration officers (“Buongiorno signor, how was your flight today?”) I breezed. In the still quiet airport, baggage reclaim gets sorted in a jiffy. I could have kissed the broiling ground as I exited the terminal into Rome’s summer sunshine. It’s been 21 months since I was last in my beloved Italy, barely a sneeze in history, but to me – perhaps appropriately in this well-named city – an eternity.
I ignore the mendacious taxi touts who pretend that Uber no longer works at the Rome airport, slyly telling arriving passengers that they should travel with them instead, and head straight to my already waiting Uber. My driver is a big, brawny Roman and his cab is a big, butch Hummer, the size of an armored truck.
And then we’re away, sweeping into a still almost traffic-free Rome in the hazy, early morning light. Along the bank of the Tiber we go, whisking past Diana’s Temple, past the Great Synagogue and Street of the Hebrews, past the Hungarian Academy, the fearsome Fountain of Mascherone and the sainted House of Bulgari, until Castel Sant’Angelo comes into view on the opposite side of the river. (Which has me wondering, as ever, from which of its crenellations Tosca actually flung herself.)
And then, a stop at a red light, a decisive right turn and, like an arrow reaching its target, we are slap bang in the center of Rome, insinuating our way down narrow Via dell’Arancio to the discreet entrance of Hotel Vilòn, which is to be my Roman home for the next few days.
Unlike their Milanese cousins, Romans do not start their workday especially early. All is quiet at this hour in the street, but there’s a murmur of activity as the hotel receptionist buzzes me in, as if he has been waiting for me.
“You’re joining us from New York this morning, sir? Such a long journey. But, of course, your room is ready, you must immediately relax.” It’s a directive, not a suggestion.
A wash-and-brush-up, as we used to call it, perhaps, but beyond that I’ve no desire to relax. I have been relaxing for nearly two years. I want to get out and see Rome. But first I want to see the Vilòn, and I’d like some breakfast at the hotel, which is starting to yawn awake, with a waiter laying up tables in its jewel-like courtyard, ferrying pots of coffee to a few early risers.
A soot black espresso dispatches any lingering, threatening hint of fatigue from the overnight flight and miniature pastries – baby berries with custard, cheesecakes, sticky hazelnut tarts, as dainty as they are sweet, served on blush-pink, gold-rimmed Richard Ginori china – provide the necessary sugar rush. A savory, hot dish follows, either Eggs Benedict or strapazzate – ambrosial, soft-scrambled eggs with local Cacio cheese and zucchini – and they guarantee the morning fuel.
In the Vilòn’s 18 guest rooms, the ergonomics deploy in the most intelligent, well-thought-out way, which is to say maximum efficiency combined with a heightened aesthetic. Plug points are where you want and need them and even the shower is a thing of beauty – practical beauty, because there’s not much the Romans don’t know about bathing.
Heavy drapes will much later ensure the best night’s sleep, blacking out as they do the insistent, early morning Roman sun and opening (at a more civilized hour) to reveal the beautiful classical garden of the Palazzo Borghese, which the hotel adjoins (though does not have access to).
At evening turndown, my toothbrush, toothpaste and other personal items will be arranged like soldiers on a facecloth in the bathroom. The minibar will be restocked, bottles of still and sparkling water will be replaced and heavy crystal glasses put down, all the better to drink from.
In the meantime, though, there on the doorstep of what feels entirely like your own private townhouse is the River Tiber, the Spanish Steps (still tourist-free at the time of my visit), via Condotti – Rome’s famed shopping thoroughfare – and Nino, always my first restaurant stop in Rome.
Leaving the hotel, I bring down an extra pair of suit pants that needs to be stitched at the side seam. The concierge looks crestfallen. “Oh, sir, I am mortified, we cannot do them today. It is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29), and it is a holiday in the city.” (I had no idea). “But tomorrow, of course, if you will be so kind to wait, we will have them repaired by the seamstress.”
Outside the door, Fendi is barely farther than the end of your arm, rubbing shoulders with the tiny produce market of Monte d’Oro. Zanetti, which sells the most exquisite watches and pens, is a few yards farther on. You don’t find this typically Italian juxtaposition on Madison Avenue (eggplants and artichokes at $3 a pound next door to $5,000 watches) – and nor would you want to. Such glorious contrasts and dichotomies, after all, are the reason we travel.
Returning to the hotel on my second afternoon, after a gentle shopping trip around the Campo Marzio district, Vilòn’s concierge greets me. “Sir, your suit pants have been repaired and have been delivered to your room.” (Indeed they have and they have been pressed to boot.) “And we found this little notebook at the bar earlier and deduced it might be yours.”
In the bar – where the bartender has his aromatics lined up in droppers along the counter, and beautiful creatures, who look as if they have come directly from a movie set at Cinecittà Studios, waft in and out at all hours – the spirally chandeliers look like whipped cream atop gelato. Vilòn’s own restaurant, meanwhile, Adelaide, named for the hotel’s neighbor, Princess Borghese, has a wonderful cucina of its own. Chef Gabriele Muro’s deceptively simple Mediterranean menu offers treats like spicy amatriciana (for which Muro has in fact won a coveted culinary prize), marinated amberjack with latticello (buttermilk), succulent roasted veal shoulder and a “Mont Rouge” strawberry financier.
I have loved many hotels in Rome – the landmark Hassler at the top of the Spanish Steps; the patrician Hotel Eden; the impossibly chic Inghilterra, which is looking gorgeous, I have to say, after a recent facelift. But it’s Vilòn that is piercing my heart with its Cupid-like love arrows right now.
Maybe I’ll pick up with the others again one day, but for me, at this moment, for work or for play, Hotel Vilòn is where I proudly want to hang my Borsalino in the Eternal City.
For more, visit hotelvilon.com. For Vilòn’s newly-opened, five-star (but slightly more populist) sister hotel in Rome, Ma’alot, visit hotelmaalot.com.