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Rome and Sorrento

Geoffrey Weill

Mar 14, 2022

Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Rome and Sorrento.

I was last in Rome in September 2020. It was literally a ghost town. Which was awful. And also wonderful. I had the privileged opportunity to see the Spanish Steps, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza Navona all utterly deserted. I could take photographs of gorgeous buildings, gorgeous statues, gorgeous fountains without having to wait for the hordes to clear my view. I stayed at an empty Hassler Hotel and ate at empty trattorias.

March 2022 is very different. There were crowds again in the Piazza di Spagna, there were crowds at the top of the Spanish Steps. There were even people walking up and down the 18th-century marble staircase. But no longer do they sit on the stairs to rest, lounge, gossip, chat, eat sandwiches, slurp Coke, smoke, sneak bags of weed, and shoot selfies. And this has nothing to do with Covid. Thirty months ago, the Municipality of Rome banned sitting on the Spanish Steps…to protect the marble, and to protect one of Rome’s most vaunted treasures from the scruffiness of the hoi polloi. In a snobby way, it’s a very welcome prohibition.

I arrived in Rome from Geneva in the last week of March, aboard ITA, the successor to the collapsed Alitalia. In Switzerland, Covid seems barely to exist. Nobody wears a mask unless on a bus. Rome, on the other hand, is still a city of mask-wearers, social distancers, vaccination-record checkers. But not for long. On April 1st, several Covid regulations ended in Italy. Ciao, Covid.

But, of course, the dying down of Covid (pun intended) has been replaced by another deadly crisis. Throughout the vastness of Fiumicino Airport, large blue and yellow signs welcome Ukrainian citizens, and direct them to an office where free accommodation and Covid-testing will be arranged for them. My flight parked at the new Terminal E, and I walked literally a half-mile past every designer shop on earth, and vast displays affirming that by 2030 Leonardo da Vinci airport will be carbon-neutral.

It’s always good to arrive in a big city early on a Sunday afternoon, the one time in the week when traffic promises to be at its lightest. The Mercedes sent by the Hassler flashed into the city, its progress only to be paused by, wooden barriers, roadblocks and diversions. It was the day of the Rome Marathon. Panting runners enrobed in aluminum sheets were limping home, surrounded by friends and family cheering them on. My driver had to make 54 turns to reach the hotel. Finally, he snaked the car into the Via Sistina. There was a crowd of paparazzi outside the Hotel de la Ville, where a tiny yellow Fiat 500 was parked in a doorway. Sir Rocco Forte was in town, it seems, throwing a party. We drew up at the Hassler, and the doorman, resplendent in cream pants, a long cream coat, and a cream and gilt-braid cap, rushed to open the car door and welcome me. I’ve been coming to the Hassler ever since 2004, when I first met its owner/general-manager/sorcerer, Roberto Wirth. Entering the Hassler is like a homecoming. The originally-Swiss Wirth family has owned the hotel since before the turn of the 20th-century. Roberto was born at was what then the family’s other establishment, the Hotel Eden. We’ve always gotten along famously, perhaps partly because we were born a mere 145 days apart (me first) and we see the world of 2022 through eyes that are similarly excited and similarly cynical. I was greeted “home” with bonhomie and warmth – a welcome that included, unlike in Switzerland, the necessity of examining my European Union Covid pass that’s saved on my phone. I was whisked to a gorgeous, square room whose balcony overlooks the Spanish Steps. I was starving. I rode the elevator to the seventh-floor terrace. Its stunning panorama of Rome starts from the left with the Forum, continues to the wedding-cake Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, on to the Pantheon (2,000-years-old and perfectly intact), and to the dome of St. Peter’s. After taking the customary iPhone video, and downing an Aperol Spritz and a heap of spaghetti carbonara, I felt revived.

The only other guests drinking on the terrace were Americans. Indeed, in both Switzerland and so far in Rome, barely the only “foreign” tourists I encountered were American. I heard no British English, no French, no German…just the twangs of the upper East Side, and red state drawls…something I found – as should readers of this column – immensely encouraging. I strolled a little but, scheduled for a knee replacement this coming September, I avoided a descent of the Spanish Steps, knowing that I would have to deal afterwards with their excruciating ascent.

I could have strolled to a trattoria, but my jaded palate and psyche have long outgrown the need to experience the hottest, newest, zippiest restaurant in town. And there’s something particularly cozy about eating in one’s hotel, especially when it’s just an overnight stay. And especially when the Hassler’s Salone Eva, with its red velvet chairs, its walls of books, its mirrors, its piano player, offers so cozy an embrace. The only other guests in the Salone were American: a father with three children who listened attentively to his lecture on Rome, and a family grouping of six. The silver-haired pianist played suitably Roman favorites, such as “My Way,” and “New York, New York,” and then after I sent him a glass of Limoncello, segued into Grieg.

The following morning, I met in the lobby with Robertino Wirth, the charming 30-year-old son of Roberto, who is being groomed for succession. Having attended the American school in Rome, his English is a pinch better than mine, and his Italian a whole lot better. We engaged in a FaceTime call with Roberto, still at home in a tee shirt after staying up late to watch the Academy Awards. I don’t think I ever saw Roberto more buoyant. And not because Will slapped Chris, but because “Coda” had won best picture. You see, Roberto Wirth was born deaf and has become one of Rome’s, Italy’s, the world’s leading fighters for equality, and training for the deaf. His accomplishments are many. He not only owns and runs what is arguably the best hotel in Rome, as well as four gorgeous additional properties, but he also heads an array of charities that help the deaf. He signs in several languages (only after meeting him did I learn that sign language is distinctive in every tongue – and even British, American, and Australian English, are signed differently), and he manages to speak both Italian and English quite clearly.

Robertino shared with me the new brochure for Roberto Wirth’s “Gems” that comprise not just the Hassler itself, but the lovely Hotel Vannucci (a mansion built at the turn of the 20th-century by Italy’s king for his favorite mistress) in Umbria’s medieval Città della Pieve; the rural hamlet of Borgo in Bastia Creti; the Parco del Principi in Tuscany; and, last but certainly not least, the jewel-box Pallazetto, whose terrace is like a box at the opera overlooking the stage that is Rome’s Spanish Steps.

A cab took me to the giant Rome Termini Station for the 75-minute whoosh to Naples aboard a sleek Frecchiarossa (Red Arrow) train that has the exterior aerodynamics of a Japanese bullet train. I was seated in the “silencio” car, where graphics demand that cell-phones, music, and speaking are strictly prohibited. Yet, as the train slid out of the station, I realized I was the only passenger in the car, and, had I wanted to, could have chaired an intercontinental Zoom meeting, or flamboyantly sung the entire score of “West Side Story,” and nobody could have cared.

The promised 75-minutes later, the train eased into Naples’ Central Station, proving that even without Mussolini, Italian trains can run on time. I’ve oft been told that Naples station is notorious for rampaging hordes of vagabonds and rogues, but I have never actually seen any; and, anyway, those that do exist seemed to have been on strike that morning. At the exit, a driver bearing a sign with my name was nowhere to be seen. I waited, five, ten minutes, then called my hotel in Sorrento to inquire about his whereabouts. Paola seemed vastly concerned and told me she’d check with him and call me right back. Five minutes later, we spoke again. She was flustered and apologetic that the driver was “bloccato nel traffico” and would I please take a taxi. “It should not cost more than €110.” I dragged my luggage (I am noted for having won several Nobel Prizes for Over-Packing) to the front of the line of at least fifty taxis, and inquired who would like to take me to Sorrento. In seconds, a middle-aged driver leapt for my bags and was stowing them in the trunk but still hadn’t responded to my questioned “quando costa?” Here we go, I thought, a Neapolitan vagabond. “€120,” he said, and I really couldn’t be bothered to argue that it was ten more than Paola’s instruction.

He drove swiftly, and within minutes we were on the two-then-four-lane autostrada racing south. To protect himself from passengers’ Covid, a vast sheet of not exactly stretched polyethylene was draped from the car’s roof behind the front seats, affording me a view that blurred everything and caused me to feel both seasick and that my cataracts needed urgent attention. I opened the window and looked out at Vesuvius, factories, car dealerships, farms, palm trees, and, eventually, small villages with spring flowers bursting from window boxes. The taxi meter was clicking away, and I began to think it surely would have been cheaper just to have gone with the meter rather than fixing a fare. By the time we reached the promontory that overlooks the fabled Bay of Sorrento, the meter read €48.

We screeched to a halt in Sorrento’s suburbs, and then proceeded at five miles an hour through narrow, choked streets that were pretty and peopled. It felt rather lovely to be able to peer at everything in real time – through the side windows, natch. Policemen with red and green wands directed us around construction, and finally after weaving, and turning, we emerged into the Piazza della Vittoria. There was the epic bay again, with Vesuvius and Naples in the distance; and there was my hotel, the Bellevue Syrene. We drove into the small parking bay, the meter clicked to €60 Euros, and then, bingo, I realized the driver now had to make his way back to Naples. Thus, he was not a rogue at all. It irked me that even well-traveled-me sometimes succumbs to tourist paranoia.

I’ve been to Positano and Amalfi a dozen times, but as far as I can recall, never once to the Sorrento that was famous and rhapsodized a century before either emerged from being obscure fishing villages. The Bellevue Syrene dates from 1820 and sits precariously on a high cliff overlooking the panorama that brought Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Hendrik Ibsen, to tears and literary inspiration.

In 2022, the Bellevue Syrene is a member of Relais & Châteaux. So you immediately know it’s going to be marvelous. And it is. I entered a vine covered walkway that gave on to a terrace where guests were lunching at white wrought iron tables and chairs. I walked on, past the 1820 beige and cream stucco building, into a contemporary glass-enclosed lounge full of comfy couches, marble tables groaning under piles of hefty art books, giant arrangements of seasonal flowers, and a fabulous collection of curiously eclectic, post-modern chairs.

I was here to meet a client; not this hotel, but New York and Connecticut’s Laura Blair, whose arranges stays for the moneyed at some of the most prestigious and purposefully secret villas, castles, châteaux, mansions, and palazzos on earth. We were here to see three of the most exclusive in the next days, homes so storied and exclusive that one of America’s most patrician, celebrated and style-obsessed glossy magazines had commissioned a noted writer to join us for the house-tours. We scarfed down plates of spaghetti laced with lemon, cream and shrimps, and gazed at Vesuvius. This was my first encounter with Julia Waller, Laura’s sidekick, who is, along with Laura, responsible for not only visiting, inspecting and vetting the homes they are renting to their high-net-worth and even-higher-expectation clients, but also for dealing with their thousand needs, questions and concerns before, during and after their stays. Both Laura and Julia are professional to the core. And humorous to the core. Mouthfuls of pasta were interwoven with gales of hilarity. But there were other gales of which Laura and Julia made me aware. Our visit two days hence to the tiny Li Galli islands off Positano, with its sprawling home once owned by ballet super-diva, Rudolph Nureyev (where we were to be both wowed and blissfully lunched), was looking increasingly iffy because of an expected storm.

I was ushered to my room whose balcony overlooks the bay. The room is all white, simply yet luxuriously furnished. There are highly colored paintings on the walls – modern, yet evocative of Roman and Renaissance scenes and couplings. Uncharacteristically, I chose not to nap, but to wander Sorrentine lanes and alleys, with their boutiques, restaurants and dozens of emporia selling the region’s legendary ceramics – plates, bowls, sculptures, and most prominent of all, ceramic lemons by the dozen, hundred, gross, ton. I discovered an antique shop that sells perfectly matted original color advertisements from the 1920’s. There was one for the Venice Lido. €18. Of course, I now own it.

The next afternoon, as we were finally made aware that the visit to the Li Galli islands was definitely annulato, Christopher Bollen, commissioned by the glossy New York magazine to memorialize this trip, arrived from Paris. Chris, midway into a seven-month writing residency in the fourth arrondissement, has published six novels, including “A Beautiful Crime.” The minute I had learned of his assignment, I had rushed to Amazon to buy it, read it, and, ultimately, admire it. Christopher is tall, rail-thin, blond, witty, erudite, and was carrying a chic leather tote bag which was his entire luggage for his three-day visit. Stunned, I told him that’s about the size of what would accompany me to a quick lunch in New York.

Not needing to unpack, Chris immediately joined Laura, Julia and me for the ten-minute stroll to the cliff-top Villa Astor, one of the epically costly vacation villas that Laura rents to the mightily advantaged. To classify Villa Astor as a “vacation villa,” is like calling Grandma Caroline Astor’s palazzo in Newport a cottage. Built in the early 19th-century atop Roman ruins, it is a three-story square mansion set within six-acres of breathtaking, manicured botanical gardens. To wander through a six-acre plot in this most-storied strip of Italy’s coastline, where a simple bungalow with sea-view costs millions, is simply astounding. In 1905, the house was acquired by the American-British businessman and politician, Lord William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), and thus acquired the sobriquet “Villa Astor.” Remodeled in the 2010’s by the Parisian uber-designer, Jacques Garcia, it is a combination museum-palazzo, with six glorious bedrooms and bathrooms, imposing reception rooms, Astor’s study, and space for dining indoors and outdoors on the giant terrace that overlooks the Bay of Naples. The ground floor resembles a museum more than a home, with an array of Greco-Roman sculptures set atop ancient plinths, wall murals, vast tapestries, and mosaic floors. The celebrated, from Princess Margaret to Sophia Loren, have stayed here – but the new owners, and Laura and Julia, are rightly obsessed with maintaining their anonymity, as well as the privacy of those who pay six-figure sums for a week’s rental.

Chris was bowled over, frantically taking notes and shooting iPhone pictures. I was bowled over not merely by the “villa” and its grounds, but by learning that Chris, who looks and acts not a day over 26, is actually 46. It’s both inconceivable and infuriating. But his charm, wit, curiosity, and total lack of “I’m-an-important-writer” bullshit, made him an utterly endearing traveling companion.

As the Bellevue Syrene is built down part of Sorrento’s cliff-top, guest rooms are both above and below the entrance level. Breakfast is served in the dining room on level “minus one.” It’s an all-white room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the section of the Mediterranean known as the Tyrrhenian Sea. The courtly maître’d explained that the buffet tables are in the next room. We walked through a tiny corridor and entered a square room with marbleized terracotta walls, murals in trompe d’oeil frames, an intricate mosaic floor, and a view of the sea. This is not a mere “room.” It’s a re-creation of a home in pre-eruption Pompeii. I was too busy gasping even to look at the array of breakfast offerings. And then this “room” leads into yet another re-creation of Pompeii, with more breakfast items. It is glorious, and beyond it stretches another wisteria-bowered, clifftop terrace at whose white wrought-iron tables we should have been breakfasting had it not been a chilly 45 degrees and gusty.

But breakfast in this Relais & Château Pompeian wonderland, and the visit to the Villa Astor, were merely preludes to the real reason for Chris’ and our visit to this epic corner of Europe. In my next column, I’ll reveal all.

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