Letter from Rome: Hotel de la Ville Roma Redux
By Marc Kristal
The tourist’s week I spent recently in Rome was – as it always seems to be in that unusual city – a dream of perfection. The sun came out every day and turned my scarf and gloves unnecessary. The low winter sun made silhouettes of the stone pines in the Borghese Gardens; I inhaled the aroma of dry wood and heard the bambini scream with pleasure as they painted their mouths with gelato. A mischievous waiter, seeing me unhappily seated at a two-top beside a banquet of two dozen raucous revelers, discreetly included me in their wine service. In the Coliseum, selfie sticks – lances of the 21st-century Centurions! – flailed against the gas-flame blue of the sky. I even made a discovery: the Roman street musicians are the best in the world (their secret: they don’t push).
The only disappointment I encountered, alas, was in the Romans themselves. Again and again – and from people well integrated into the country’s la dolce vita class – I heard the same sobering incantation: ‘There is no future for us in Italy.’ The economy, the corruption, the Mafia, the political paralysis, the pessimism and the cynicism, always waxing and waning in the rhythms of Italian life, seemed to have reached critical mass. The coffee was perfect, the monuments still melted your heart, but the dominant mood was disperazione. The consensus was absolute: Everything had to change.
So it may seem counterproductive for me to advocate for the maintenance of the status quo at InterContinental De La Ville Roma, a storied dowager with one of the best locations in the city, on Via Sistina near the top of the Spanish Steps. My advocacy may seem especially strange as, some seasons ago, in these very same e-pages, I remarked on how run-down the hotel had become and called for a make-over. I’ll stand by that. There is a fine spider’s web of fraying elegance overlaying the place: the carpets, drapes and fabrics need replacing, the corners of wallpaper have curled and paint is scuffed and faded, and I hesitated before flinging my jet-lagged carcass onto the sketchy bedspread (though only briefly). But this is cosmetic stuff – essential, expensive, but not radical. What the De La Ville Roma needs to avoid is a gut renovation that replaces its idiosyncrasy with the modern-day luxury of minimalist decoration, incomprehensible lighting systems, and neo-Bruce Weber art, the luxury that screams, look how global I am, look how much money we spent. No, the old-school charm of the De La Ville Roma, with its strangely shaped and arranged guest rooms, indifferently decorated terraces with their gobsmacking views, legendary Nero-esque breakfast buffet, opera-set décor, relaxed and clubby lobby bar, its quiet and anonymity and Roman everydayness, its resolute unhipness, and almost comically friendly and attentive staff, all of whom seemed to have been shipped over from the set of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy – all, all of this must stay the same.
Call me sentimental, but remember, if you will (actually, if you can), the Beverly Hills Hotel before it closed for a big makeover in 1992. It was somewhat shabby and out of date, a condition famously symbolized by the fact that the rooms had window-unit air conditioning rather than central air. If you were a snob or a square, those window units were a liability, but the hotel’s cooler contingent saw them as key icons of the hotel’s appeal, part of its hipster semiotics, along with the swank signage and banana-leaf wallpaper. When the place reopened a zillion dollars later, there may have been central air, but the place was chill in Fahrenheit only. It was the Beverly Hills Hotel in quotes, its soul and savor extracted – the hostelry version of a Stepford Wife. (The same thing happened, by the way, to the Beverly Wilshire, were you could at one time find John Wayne peeling the hookers off of his arms in the El Padrino bar, and a pre-face lift Warren Beatty feeding movie-star catnip to the checkout girls at Brentano’s bookstore. Sic transit gloria glamour.) Death By Renovation: Do we want to see the same fate befall the De La Ville Roma?
In fact, while other great Roman hotels have been ‘upgraded,’ and new places have come on the scene, the De La Ville Roma remains layered with its suave history. During the Roman Empire, the land formed a part of the Gardens of Lucullus, developed by the great general and politician whose name is synonymous with extravagant gourmandizing; beginning in the sixteenth century, a monastery occupied the site, and what is today the hotel’s inner courtyard functioned as a cloister. In 1924, the Hungarian architect József Vágó combined the multiple structures into a hotel – which quickly became one of Rome’s most prestigious – and its modern life began: the hotel’s back door made it a popular choice for philandering politicians, and the place became a favorite among film stars, rock musicians, and supermodels. And it’s comfortable: With 192 rooms (24 of them suites), the De La Ville Roma isn’t especially large, and the public spaces, though mostly high-ceilinged, are intimately scaled, which offer the hotel the welcome flavor of a private villa, a quality enhanced by the multiple terraces and balconies.
The availability of the outdoors, the curiosity encouraged by the terrace-ringed communal courtyard, give the De La Ville Roma a distinct companionability, a sense of community echoed in the second-floor outdoor dining terraces and the Emperor’s Terrace, the rooftop bar/restaurant that opens in the warm months.
I know. My Italian friends are right. The nation needs to change – to confront, and vanquish, the liabilities that have beavered away at its greatness and now threaten to drive out its best and brightest daughters and sons. But a second visit, and perhaps my own maturation, has reminded me that some things should be eternal. Rome is one. And the world beyond the revolving door at Via Sistina 69 is another.
Visit the InterContinental de la Ville Roma