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Italy, 9-14 September 2015

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Our trip to Italy got off to a bad start. The flight to Rome was to leave Gatwick at 8.00 (so I thought). Applying my normal 3-hour getting there routine, the taxi was ordered for 5.00 – actually 5.15 – and the alarm set for 4.45. Ugh! However, things didn’t go to plan. First, I’d failed to reset my mobile to UK time, so it went off at 3.45. Second, when we got to Gatwick, I found that the flight was actually at 9.05, not 8.00, and it was delayed. All my fault, except the last bit. I was in a solemn mood for our protracted spell at Gatwick, even more taciturn than usual, finding it hard to spin out a croissant and a cup of coffee for two and a half hours.

But why are we going to Rome at all? Our friends, Martin and Tessa, are having a joint 60th birthday party (due compleanni significi, as it says on the invitation) at their house in Canalicchio near Perugia. And we thought, how nice it would be to combine it with a few days in Rome, so enabling me to look up old friends in the A&O Rome office.

Wednesday 9 September

The Rome airport, Fiumicino (or Leonardo Da Vinci - but he seems to have got forgotten) does not inspire confidence. It seems to be still under construction; and the terminal is seething: two related facts, I guess.

The easyJet flight is allotted the furthest carousel possible; and the wait for the bags seems interminable – another two related facts, presumably.

However, after we are reunited with our bag, things start to improve. Turning down the idea of the train, or a bus, into the city centre, we get a taxi and are driven at high speed to the hotel.

The re-introduction to Italian driving is abrupt. Our driver is in a state of constant despair at what he sees as the lethargic speed of the various vehicles in front – and also a bit of lane hogging, I have to say. He deals with these trials by much gesticulation and also driving so close to the back of the offending vehicle as to make you wonder if the train mightn’t have been a more relaxing option.

The hotel, the Fontanella Borghese, is small, located on the second floor of a small palazzo, accessed by a primitive lift, reasonably tastefully decorated and very Roman.

One part of the plan is to visit the A&O Rome office. I have tentatively agreed to do this at 4.00. What with the flight delay, this means a quick turn-around. I go alone, while Mary settles in.

I am greeted with the most effusive welcome, not having seen them all for a few years. Siobhan, the Scot (despite her name) who has always been in charge of the office, takes me round to see those who I remember and/or who remember me – and then leads me onto the terrace where there is a spread of canapés and prosecco. Very warm and friendly, as they always were when I was the visiting partner from “head office” in London. When would I be coming back? We need more of your seminars . . .

On my way back, I find myself in a tiny men’s clothes shop close to the hotel. This always happens in Rome. I spot some trousers in the window, to replace some I bought some years ago in Rome (now sadly with holes in them). What I find interesting is that I can easily buy clothes in Rome, whereas I can’t in London. Why? First, the clothes are nicer – to my taste at least. But, second, they fit. No pair of trousers in a normal shop in London (certainly not the likes of M&S) reaches down to my feet. In Italy they do. Do Italians have longer legs? - surely not. A mystery.

There’s another thing. There are many small shops. Walking from the hotel to, say, Piazza Navona (a ten minute walk), you pass two or three small men’s clothes shops, each often in some way connected to a producer of the clothes. It’s the same with restaurants and cafes: endless, small, privately (often family) run establishments. In contrast to London, where any small restaurant gets taken over by Strada or Côte. As for cafes – there are no Starbucks in Italy, are there? What a thought!

Talking of coffee bars, the way they work in Italy is distinctive: highly efficient, but apt to confuse the foreigner. You don’t go up to the bar and order. You have to go first to the cash desk, say what you want, and pay for it in advance. This is, of course, slightly more challenging for the foreigner as pointing won’t necessarily work – words are required. You then go to the bar, armed with your ticket. It’s not a bad system and maybe helps to allow an Italian barista to produce more cappuccinos per second than his or her equivalent anywhere else.

We have dinner with Massimiliano Danusso (who runs the Rome office) and Silvia his wife at a spectacularly good restaurant called Il San Lorenzo – certainly not part of a chain. It specialises in fish. We are encouraged to share an array of raw fish by way of a starter: raw prawns of various sizes, carpaccio of cod, tuna and other mysterious sea creatures, as well as sea urchins – the ones you don’t want step on when visiting their natural habitat; not a lot of edible matter when you get past the prickly exterior, actually. But in general, it was all delicious, even, I think, the sea urchins.

Thursday 10 September

The next day is for sight-seeing. To state the blindingly obvious, you can’t see Rome in a day. Luckily we’ve both been many times before, so it’s a matter of picking out a few things.

The first was the Palazzo Altemps, which I’d never seen and had only recently heard of, possibly because it’s been closed for a long 15-year restoration. It gets three stars from the green Michelin guide.

The special feature of the Palazzo is that it contains a collection of ancient Roman statues that have been “restored” in a way which we wouldn’t allow or even contemplate today but which was completely acceptable when it was done in the 17th century. If a statue was missing an arm, or even a head, Bernini was called in to use his imagination and replace it.

The most famous exhibit is actually not Roman but one of the very rare Greek survivals from the 5th century BC; it hasn’t had any restoration. It’s called the Ludovisi Throne, gets three stars from Mr Michelin and has on the back of it the well-known bas-relief of the naked Aphrodite being helped out of the water by her attendants (left below); and on the side, the young girl playing a flute (right below).

We then make our way to another recently opened palazzo and gallery, the Palazzo and Galleria Doria Pamphili, right in the centre of Rome, just north of the Piazza Venezia. It has been owned by the Pamphili and then the Doria Pamphili family for some 400 years since the time of Pope Innocent X. It is spectacular, both as a gallery with major paintings and sculpture, but particularly as a palace, built and tended by a powerful aristocratic family.

All this is greatly enhanced by one of the best audio guides I have ever come across, presented by none other than the present scion of the great family, Jonathan Doria Pamphili. He, speaking with the accent of an educated Englishman (which is perhaps what he is, having apparently been born in London in 1963), manages to give the whole guide an obviously personal touch, explaining how his family still live in part of the palace and how he and his sister used to get into trouble as children roller-skating on the tiled floors.

The most famous exhibit is Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X, which shows the Pope as a recognisable human being. He was apparently shocked by it: much too realistic. Some contemporaries, according to the gallery guidebook, thought him an ugly man with an expression similar to “that of a cunning lawyer” – can one say worse? Frankly, if that comment is right, Velasquez may have been a bit flattering.

Innocent X, whatever his looks showed, was an important figure in 17th century Rome – when, of course, the Pope was head of the government of Rome and the surrounding territory. He was a Pamphili and made his brother a cardinal, as one did. The brother, however, renounced his cardinalship (if that’s a word) in order to marry. This dismayed the Pope, but did enable him to take over the Palazzo and father the family whose descendents still run it.

Our final sight was to be the Jesuit church, the Chiesa Del Jesu. In we went, almost immediately to be chased out. It was 1.00pm, closing time. The church would be closed till 4.00, allowing the sacristan his three-hour lunch break. It was our first exposure to the iniquities of Italian opening and closing times. Actually, things are improving by slow steps. An old guidebook said one of the museums was closed (bizarrely) on Wednesdays and Thursdays – the two days we happened to be in Rome. But no, it is now open every day – except Mondays: that still seems to be a rigid tradition.

On the way back to the hotel, I thought of seeing again the Caravaggios in the San Luigi dei Francesi. I found it to be closed only on Thursday afternoons: what was it today? – Thursday afternoon. It’s ridiculous that the Roman Catholic Church can’t find the people to keep their amazing buildings open every day.

Piazza Navona is full of painters and caricaturists, displaying their wares and their skills. The latter advertise by showing caricatures of the famous: Obama, William and Kate, Putin – and Mr Bean, the most famous Englishman, I suppose.

Lunch at Da Luigi, in the delightful piazza outside the A&O office. Excellent, as usual – it is well frequented by A&O people. Dinner at Lagana, near the hotel – recommended by the hotel. Good, but not as good as Luigi.

Incidentally, the A&O office is in the Palazzo Sforza Cesarini. It was built by the famous, or infamous, Borgia pope Alexander VI and given to the Sforza Cesarini family as a reward for voting him in as Pope. Is it too late to have a public enquiry?

Friday 11 September

Today we decamp to Canalicchio.

Renting a car has proved a minor challenge, largely my fault. Without thinking very hard, I rented a car when booking the flights, led by easyJet’s website into the clutches of Europcar. Nearer the time, I started to picture us driving to a small hotel in central Rome and trying to park the vehicle. Fearing the worst, I rang the hotel to ask about parking. The man, though polite, plainly thought he was talking to a madman. I quickly ditched the idea of picking up a car at the airport. I tried to cancel it but Europcar don’t change anything booked through easyJet. As already noted, we took a taxi, me licking my wounds.

But then I realised that all might be well. I spoke to Europcar and asked if I could simply pick up the car two days late. No problem, although it might be a different car. As I hadn’t remembered what car I’d booked, I could handle that.

The only curiosity was having to go back (south west) to Fiumicino, in order to drive north. But actually that wasn’t such a bad idea. Picking up a car in central Rome and negotiating one’s way through the northern suburbs would be a Class A nightmare. Driving from Fiumicino onto the ring road is and was (relatively) straightforward.

Sorry. End of boring story about car rental!

We had time for a leisurely lunch in Todi. The tourist season must be drawing to a close. Todi was pleasantly un-crowded. We parked right in the main piazza and enjoyed our tagliatelle con funghi porcini while admiring the mediaeval buildings around us.

* * *

We arrive at Canalicchio. It’s a village on a hill, as they mostly are in Umbria, but in this case almost entirely taken over by the hotel, the Relais il Canalicchio. Martin and Tessa’s house is a few hundred yards away, down the hill.

The events of the weekend start on Friday evening: we are promised an opera, no less. We’ve been told that it’s short!

We assemble at the local trattoria, the only enterprise not apparently taken over by the hotel. All 100 (or is it 200) of us are bussed in several gigantic vehicles to the neighbouring town of Bevagna, where the opera is to take place.

The first surprise is the venue – we not knowing whether it’s to be outside in the open air or inside in a church or some kind of town hall. We go to the centre of Bevagna and are led into the most spectacular, small, presumably 18th century theatre. Even though we’d been to Bevagna and knew the building, we had no idea that it contained such a marvel.

The opera is a 17th century farce by Scarlatti. We are told in an introduction given from the stage by Martin’s old friend Simon Littlewood that the opera had had a chequered history. It was written as an Intermezzo, that is a short, light-hearted piece to be done during the interval (or, sometimes, two intervals) of a longer, more serious offering. In this case, the serious opera was Ambleto, better known to us as Hamlet. The trouble, back in 1715, was that the singers objected so strongly to the tone and content of the intermezzo that it wasn’t put on at all – or at any rate not then.

You can slightly see what the problem was. The intermezzo, called La Dirindola, is a knock-about exercise in taking the piss out of serious opera and particularly pedantic tutors of operatic singing. The plot – not complex – involves a lecherous tutor coaching a sexy, but not very musical, young singer, who in turn fancies the castrato. Plenty of opportunity for farce and general mayhem! The girl’s mother gets involved, with possible, but not very obvious, parallels with Hamlet.

Anyway, the performance is a delight; funny (even though in Italian); and highly professional, the singers being young, aspiring singers, mostly from Perugia and nearby.

As a kind of encore, they sang the quartet from Rigoletto, followed by Happy Birthday for Martin, the day actually being his 60th birthday. A wonderful, moving and exciting evening.

Saturday 12 September

Breakfast at the hotel. The hotel seems to get low marks from those we talk to. (It doesn’t seem to us as bad as all that.) One warned us – in the hearing of the receptionist – that the breakfast was “ghastly”. Again, perhaps a bit strong.

Italians don’t, of course, do “full English” and the cereals are basic and certainly come straight out of boxes. Italian bread never seems to me among the best. Curiously, bearing in mind that we’re in Italy, the fruit is mostly tinned. And the coffee, even by non-Italian standards, is pretty bad. Perhaps all this does amount to “ghastly”.

We decide on a little trip into Perugia, which brings me to another minor grouse – partly at the hotel, partly at the modern world. I ask at the desk where one can best park for the historic centre. All the girl can do is offer directions to Perugia, as supplied by Google Maps. No, we know how to get there. Where can we park? Vacant expression. All she seems able to do is go into Google. One of the guests, hearing this exchange, said that there was a car park near the bottom of an escalator up to the centre, but obviously couldn’t quite direct us there. Eventually, we found it by following the directions given by a patient, friendly, but monolingual policeman in one of the central squares. No help from the hotel. Maybe there’s a suggestion book: “Get some staff who know what’s what. And tell them not to rely on Google.”

We get into Perugia (despite parking dramas) by about 10.30, or at least well before 11.00. I am conscious of the need to get going as anything we want to see may well shut at 12.00, and not open till late afternoon (see above!). The delightful Collegio Del Cambio, I find, does indeed shut at 12.30, but this just allows us to fortify ourselves with a decent cup of coffee before seeing it. The Collegio consists of two small rooms, decorated with beautiful frescoes by the local man, Perugino, tutor to Raphael. The rooms also have wonderful carved wooden seats around the walls, where the good merchants of 15th century Perugia did their money changing.

I am able to go to the main art gallery, the National Gallery of Umbria, at more leisure, having established that it doesn’t close till 11.00 at night – have I understood this right? Italian opening hours are of course a scandal. I seem to remember that in the late 1990s, when I used to come to Italy a lot, a wise and powerful politician (whose name I’ve forgotten) was taking the matter in hand. Now, certainly, the major collections, such as the Perugia gallery are open all day. But the smaller ones are often not. And, as already noted, churches normally close for three or four hours in the middle of the day. Perhaps the Pope should take a leaf out of the politicians’ book and sort it all out in a sensible fashion.

I went into the gallery partly to see one of the great Piero della Francesca altarpieces that they have there. But I made two discoveries: Benedetto Bonfigli, who was a tutor to Perugino; and Bartolomeo Caporali. Both were Perugian artists of the Renaissance. All of the above are beautifully shown in the gallery, which must have had a refurb fairly recently.

Before we move onto the main event of the weekend, the great party (which is going to be very Anglo-Saxon, even though Martin and Tessa seem very much to have embraced, and been embraced by, the local community), let me add a general, not very profound thought. Italy is a splendid mixture, on the one hand, of conservatism, keeping and treasuring the old and traditional, and on the other, seizing on modern technology. The conservatism means that restaurants continue to do what they always have, and do it better and better. Similarly, cafes are apparently unmoved by the global pressure, seen in most other places, to ape Starbucks and the like. All of which represents an important reason why people like us want to visit the country. On the other hand, Italians are not slow to adopt new technology. They must be the keenest users of mobiles and smart phones of any race on the planet. I have yet to spot any young girl, walking on her own, without a mobile seemingly glued to her ear. And I’ve already noted our receptionist’s fixation with Google. One area where Italians may like to explore the possibilities of modernity is plumbing. Two thousand years ago the Romans were obviously way ahead of all of us. Today, I feel they need to do a bit of catching up.

* * *

Saturday evening is the great party. It all starts off in a wild and exuberant way. A dozen or so members of the local brass band, all clad in bright red T-shirts, rush in amongst us, jumping energetically and, at the same time, playing their instruments at high volume. A good and unusual way to get a party off in the right spirit.

Martin’s old friend and colleague, Tim Hely Hutchinson, made one of the many speeches, presenting Martin with a cheque – funded by most of the guests, in lieu of a present – to pay for a fresco. The fresco is to go on the main internal wall of a building everyone refers to as the pigsty. The pigsty, as was, is being rebuilt and will be a separate house largely to be used by Martin and Tessa and their co-owner, cousin Anne and her friend David.

Dinner takes place on three long trestle tables set up under the olive trees. All is elaborately arranged with a seating plan to cover all 200 guests.

Then dancing, first to the brass band, who seem to be keen to carry on; after that, to a live band on a specially constructed terrace by the newly half-constructed pigsty.

One boring reflection occurred to me only afterwards. What would have happened had it rained? In fact we have been blessed by almost unremitting sunshine. But Italy in mid-September can, of course, provide dramatic storms.

Sunday 13 September

The day after – recovery day, rather needed by me as I only crept into bed at 2.00am.

A “Recovery Lunch” was planned at an agriturismo just down the road. The signs to it said “Country House”, a phrase that seems to have got into the Italian language.

The main event of the lunch was the prize giving for the best limerick. Everyone who contributed to the fresco was invited weeks ago to submit a limerick. The winners did well with references to the pigsty. Mine didn’t score very highly in such erudite literary company. It referred to the last time we came to a similar party, 10 years ago, when Martin and Tessa, having been together for 20-30 years, announced that they had just got married. Here it is – you need to know that Deruta is a nearby village:

When we were last in Deruta

Our Martin turned out as a suitor

Who had he found?

With such talent around!

Why! No one but Tessa was cuter.

Martin has said that we’ll all get copies of the winning entries.

A final word about the weather. We made our way down to the “Country House” for lunch in slightly overcast but pleasant conditions. As soon as we had sat down to eat – indoors, happily - the heavens opened and delivered the kind of storm that only Mediterranean climates can. It was all over by the time we started to wend our way back up the hill. How kind of the Almighty to delay it by 24 hours.

And a final word about the pigsty. Tessa gave us a little tour before we left. It looks as though it will be even nicer than the existing house – with a terrace and big windows looking out on the magnificent view over the Umbrian hills. We saw the builders building an internal wall with special, environmentally friendly and sustainable bricks, made (believe it or not) of cannabis or Indian hemp, a name which makes slightly more sense in the context of building material. All the walls have this material inside – to provide insulation. The plants are grown, according to the builder, in the north of Italy – not Colombia or Afghanistan.

Tony Herbert

15 September 2015

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