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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Where To Stay In Rome (And Albania)

Palazzo del Grillo (left) & Parco dei Principi

I suppose this post should really be something like "Where I Stayed In Rome (And Albania)" but I'm hoping that some of the ideas-- even if not the specific locales-- will be helpful to travelers even beyond people looking to experience a vacation vicariously. But let me start at the very end of my trip, one night in Rome before catching a flight to London and then on to home in L.A. You see, the trip this time involved an extended stay in Rome in the beginning-- and I'll get to that in a moment-- followed by a week or so of busing around Albania. But it was that one night in Rome at the end, basically insurance against unreliable airplane travel, that had me worried.

I've been to Italy many times in the past, first when I lived in Innsbruck, Austria and could easily drive down to Verona or Venice for a weekend and later when I was running Reprise Records and could never find enough excuses to visit our wonderful affiliates in Milan, where I became so well known at the hotel, the Principi di Savoia that my suite was always my suite. (The Four Seasons Milano is also spectacular, arguably the best Four Seasons in Europe, and many of our bands preferred to stay there which is why I did sometimes as well. But in the end, it was the classic Principi I always preferred.) The Principi was a relative bargain too. They always gave me a room for around $600/night while the Four Seasons charged around $850. I felt I was doing the TimeWarner shareholders a solid by staying at the bargain hotel.

But Milano isn't Rome. And I'm no longer an employee of TimeWarner and now pay for my own hotels. In the past when I've gone to Rome on TimeWarner's dime I stayed at the Russie, conveniently located between the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. I would have been happy to stay there again on our one night in Rome at the end of the trip. The cheapest double in the joint was almost $1,000/night (breakfast not included). And it wasn't that fabulous, not when I'm putting up my credit card. Andre, the wonderful travel agent who first found me the Russie when we were both at TimeWarner, suggested a hotel nearby that he says is the only 5--star bargain in the whole city, the Parco dei Principi right on the Borghese Gardens surrounded by mansions, many of which are now embassies. It's just outside the Aurelian Walls-- so the $40 set fee taxi ride doesn't apply and the minute and a half it takes from the gate costs you about $25 in the cab-- but the hotel is just as nice as the Russie and much quieter. It cost us around $350 for a double which they upgraded (a courtesy to Andre) to a deluxe room. Roland wasn't a huge fan of the decor, which he termed "Louis XIV meets Liberace," and the antiquated awkwardness of not having a viable, usable Wifi system makes it a no-go for business travelers. But they did have the absolute most wonderful bath towels I've ever used and everything about the hotel is absolutely elegant.

One of the things about Rome that few tourists realize-- and the Romans never talk about (if they even realize it themselves)-- is that the city is tiny and as complicated as they try to make it, once you get the hang of it, you really can walk anywhere. Someone might tell you that the Borghese Gardens are a million miles from the center; it's a 10 minute walk to the Spanish Steps. We decided to say arrivederci to 2009 at an intense Michelin-star restaurant, il Convivio Troiani on a tiny pedestrian street near the Tiber just north of Piazza Navona. The concierge at the hotel was delighted we were eating at such a wonderful restaurant-- and was it ever!-- but he was horrified when I asked him if we could walk there. In his mind it would be like walking from the Four Seasons in Manhattan to Chinatown or from the Four Seasons in West Hollywood to the Water Grill downtown: undoable. It turned out to be a super-direct 20-30 minutes gorgeous stroll that added to the glamor of the evening.

I know this post is supposed to be about where to stay, not where to eat, but I can't not mention how over the top we both are about il Convivio. They describe the cuisine as a "modern, revisited version of traditional Italian fare. Don't expect pizza or meatballs and spaghetti. The chef kept sending out goodies all night and every single detail was explained to us by a superb waiter in the tradition of professionals whose job wasn't so much to write down an order and schlep out some dishes, but to make you feel you were having the best meal of your life. I started with orange scented organic barley with porcini mushrooms and black truffle uncinatum (hold the duck tartare) and Roland got going with fried zucchini flowers with buffalo's mozzarella, anchovies creamed, sweet and sour red pepper spicy sorbet. Between the incredibly rich starters and the stuff the chef had sent out, we were already full. My main course was salt cod cooked with artichokes, potatoes, truffle and sweet garlic sauce and Roland had organic oxtail "vaccinara style" with mashed spicy potatoes and mushrooms. He also ate 2 pieces of 6 varieties of homemade bread that he said was mind-blowing. Neither of us was interested in dessert but he wound up eating 12 of them that the chef sent us.

And, yes, Rome is a city you will have to work hard at finding a bad place to eat. Every meal we had there was fantastic, even in the restaurants with no Michelin stars. OK, back to the where to stay thing. If you follow this blog, you already know that my travel preference is to stay in places for weeks at a time and rent houses or-- in cities-- apartments. That's how we started the trip in Rome, a few weeks before our one last night at the Parco dei Principi.

I started my search online months ago, looking at the listings for apartments in Rome. There are tons of them. I found what I was looking for at, a spacious two bedrooms/two bathrooms flat in an old 17th Century palace in the quiet, funky Monti neighborhood behind the Forum, a hop, skip and a jump from the Coliseum Metro station. There's a highly functional, well-equipped kitchen, a large dining room and large living room... and excellent Wifi (and free local phone calls). Here's the online description:
The aristocratic PALAZZO DEL GRILLO, 17th century, in the very heart of Old Rome OVERLOOKING the archaeological area called the IMPERIAL FORUMS between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, is the perfect location for all who want to have one of the great sites of antiquity right outside their windows. The Palazzo del Grillo, decorated by artists of the Bernini School, is a famous example of Roman Rococo architecture. COLISEUM is less than 5 MINUTE WALK from the apartment. Also EASY WALK DISTANCE TO ALL THE MOST IMPORTANT TOURIST SITES. THE APARTMENT: deluxe accommodation for 1-6 persons: 105sq m / 1135sq ft apartment (all modern comforts: dishwasher, washing machine, AIR CON, INTERNET) on second floor with ELEVATOR/LIFT, consists of: the large double LIVING ROOM with dinner area and relax area, 2 BEDROOMS (second bedroom usable as study too), 2 BATHROOMS, KITCHEN. Safe, quiet, easy walk distance public transportations and public garage.

It was a fraction of what two rooms in an equivalent hotel would cost-- or even one room! No, we didn't have the Frette sheets or the fancy towels but with what you save, you can afford to buy them and take them home! And after a few days you start to feel like you're part of the neighborhood and that you're living a normal life, not just a time and space cut-out from reality (which, no doubt, many people prefer).

OK, I know I'm going to give short shrift to Albania now. But let's be real; more people visit Rome in a day or two than Albania in a full year. Most people who do visit go in the summer and hang at the Adriatic beaches. We went in the winter and the beaches we passed, around Durrës on the way inland to Berat (AKA, Berati), looked overdeveloped, commercialized and distinctly unappetizing.

The best hotel in Tirana is the Sheraton. It's a kind of western oasis and makes the inevitable immersion into Albania-- if you plan to leave the capital, which is a MUST-- a little easier. The Sheraton has worldwide centralized booking and they charge too much. But if you book a night through them, you can make a deal with the hotel for further nights based on local rates, which are about half. The hotel is a typical modern business hotel with a great gym and indoor pool, decent rooms, wonderful bathrooms compared to anything else you're going to find in the country, Wifi, etc.

We booked the rest of our trip through Albania Holidays, paying in advance and leaving everything up to them. It couldn't have gone more smoothly. And the hotel rooms out in the country cost around $25-30/night-- so there's plenty of room for errors. We picked what looked like the best and most interesting hotel (mostly bed and breakfasts really) in each town. The one exception was in Fier, an unexpected find that is basically not even mentioned in the tour books but is a prosperous town in the middle of Albania's oil and petrochemical industry. It's kind of the Houston of the country. The Hotel Fier is smack dab in the middle of town and was a real hotel with all the amenities. In Berat and Gjirokaster we stayed, respectively, at the Mangalemi and the Kalemi, each very heavy on the charm, the cultural authenticity and a little light on the amenities. It was well worth the trade-off.

I guess I should mention that the weather is way nicer in Albania than an hour away in Italy, where it was really cold and rained almost every day. Albania is noticeably warmer and less rainy. We liked Gjirokaster best: