A Capital Car
Mark Nicholls finds a new way to explore Rome, before seeking relaxation in the Umbrian countryside
Red, pink and a two-tone blue and cream; our convoy of tiny Fiat 500s cuts a head-turning swathe as we scamper through the backstreets of central Rome. There was laughter, waving and an inevitable cacophony of toots and hoots as our drivers ferried us around the Italian capital with a mix of brake, accelerator and horn. For a couple of hours, we weaved our way through Saturday afternoon Rome; cruising past the Vittoria Emmanuel monument, along the banks of the Tiber catching glances of the Colosseum in the distance and driving up the famed hills for panoramas across the skyline. For a whacky, whistle-stop tour of Rome, a Fiat 500 is absolutely the way to go.
Sun-roof open, I found myself snuggly cramped up in the rear while my travelling companion and our driver Paolo enjoyed marginally more space in the front. But squeezing into a Fiat 500 is a great new way to get a fresh perspective on the Italian capital. And they were certainly an attention grabber as the 1970s originals of the Italian classic motor car found their ways into parts of the city that other, more modern, vehicles simply could not reach (think Mini Cooper, Michael Caine and Italian Job).
At every turn, people were waving, raising eyes from dishes in street-side trattoria, stopping to take photographs or coming up to admire the vehicles, which are part of a fleet of nine operated by the innovative Rome500 experience tours. We hooked up with Alvise di Giulio, who runs the tours, with fellow drivers Jacques and Paolo and were soon whizzing away from the comfort of the modern A.ROMA lifestyle hotel and into the city centre. Alvise, who has his own love affair with the Fiat 500s, tells me: “For me, it is a way to bring together my passion for the Fiat 500 and my love of Rome and show them both off to people who visit our city.”
After the tour, there’s always time to return to the highlights of this magical city and visit the many other attractions such as the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and St Peter’s, the Parthenon, or simply people watch with a glass of wine in hand in a café bar in the Piazza Navona.
Our group eventually headed back to the A.ROMA hotel to freshen up, relax and enjoy dinner in this modern suburban retreat. Whilst Rome holds an age-old charm with its vibrant blend of Roman Empire ruins, the artistic gems of the Renaissance masters, architecture, shopping, culture and gastronomy, the contemporary A.ROMA lifestyle hotel sits in the rolling green hills of the outskirts. With 276 rooms, the Taiwan-based LDC Hotel Group has brought it up to date with elegant designs, an outdoor pool, large private gardens, dining, a spa, conference rooms, and international cuisine.
The following day, still buzzing from the Fiat 500s of Rome, we headed out of the city and north into the Umbrian countryside and to the quite different setting of the Villa Monte Solare. Whilst part of the same hotel group as A.ROMA, it is the older, more considered, country cousin. Set in an historic manor house, the rooms ooze character with quirky and beautiful furnishings, comfortable beds and book-lined shelves. There is a breakfast room, but for much of the year – even late October – it is warm enough to take coffee, croissants and fresh fruit outdoors.
The Relais Villa Monte Solare, once the private home of an aristocratic family, can trace its history back to 1780. Today it is a spa resort which embodies rural living with Italian charm with the original features preserved, including the murals, cotto floors and period furniture. The villa, close to Perugia and in 80 hectares of land, has panoramic views of the rolling Umbrian hills across vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees and neighbouring medieval villages.
Activities include biking, hiking, truffle hunting, wine tasting, olive oil tasting and cooking classes, which are held in the villa’s on-site kitchen and created especially for guests. Restaurant Dolium makes the most of its home-grown products and wines to deliver daily and seasonal dishes that are characteristic of the region.
The Le Muse Wellness area, with two treatment rooms, is a place to indulge body and mind. With the ambience of an old apothecary, there are innovative and intriguing treatments, which often reflect the wine of the region (such as the Montefalco Sagrantino Red Wine treatment)…wines which sommelier Emanuela Amodeo is equally keen to showcase. Outdoor pools have views over the olive groves and down to other properties on the hillside estate as well as a tennis court.
The Villa Monte Salore is ideally placed for exploring the Umbrian region, whether that is heading to Panicale with its renowned church and the streets of the hilltop village overlooking Lago di Trasimeno, or venturing to Assisi, which was our first destination. Standing pontifically over the landscape of Umbria, the St Francis of Assisi church is one of Italy’s great ecclesiastical institutions, a white wedding cake of marble dominating the town and surrounding countryside.
Within, it is adorned with artwork, wall paintings, and a magnificent altar, and below is the crypt containing the tomb of St Francis. Near the town, is the Sanctuario di San Damiano, which was restored by St Francis in 1206 and where he famously wrote the Canticle of Creatures.
Later, we returned to the Villa Monte Solare with its secluded gardens and rooms of individual character and style – our peaceful Umbrian haven as a base to explore the region…and a relaxing contrast to the vibrancy of Rome and the busy buzz of the Fiat 500.