Saturday, 12 September 2009

Designer Hotels

I recently stayed in Rome and for convenience sake I took a 'secret location' hotel which usually is a well priced, decent hotel in the middle of a city - and I have found these to be really good from this company over the years.

This one was advertised as a 'Designer hotel close to the Vatican' and it was not a snip at £115 for the night but it included breakfast at least. When the taxi arrived, we had just gone past the Vatican Museum and followed the Wall into a small square where there is often a market and gone down Via Crescenzio a short way. The driver indicated the hotel was across the way and pointed to a small building with a drab exterior that looked like a modern bank branch which had fallen on bad times, which actually turned out to be correct. The entrance to the hotel was up a small alley to the right and was appropriately named 'Orange Hotel' as everything about it was orange, including the retro look squeaky plastic chairs and a small library with a Vespa in it with an orange seat. The tiny reception was an Ikea-style conglomeration you might find in an ultra-cramped study and I waited for a few minutes until the receptionist clad in an orange T-shirt finally arrived and checked me in as if it was a real chore.

The hotel was fashionably grubby in all the corridors, the sort of grubbiness that you are not sure has been put there for effect or because they hadn't bothered to clean it. The room was not large enough for a cat the squeeze in and turn to lick its backside let alone be swung around and I found it hard to find a free space other than the bed to put my bag to unpack on it so that when I bent over my bum did not bump into a wall and make over-balance. The bed had a bench at the end with a long cushion covered in squeaky orange plastic as did the tiny work table's chair so that everywhere you sat it sounded as it you had enough wind coming out to power a turbine. The bathroom was reassuringly orange and small also - the shower was superb, hanging from the ceiling with a head big enough to drench you and no fluctuating temperature.

I worked a while using a €10 WiFi for a day's connection which is very good value in Italy although it was slow and intermittent - I suppose you pays your money etc. I went out for an evening meal and the street was disconcertingly unlit and very dark. I strolled toward the imposing view of the Vatican at night, turned right into the piazza and right again down a wide main street with lots of expensive, named shops. Less than a few hundred metres down it was obvious there were no restaurants so I turned left and walked two blocks down and found a lovely little grill called Angelini's and sat outside. I took the owner's recommendation of the minestrone with rice in it, which was meal in itself and superb, followed by a fillet steak in a pepper sauce with a mixture of cold, fried vegetables which was tasty and too big. It was washed down with half a litre of house red and some sparkling water followed by two espressos, the second of which was clapped to my table with the waiter shouting 'forte!' and punching the air. With tip, the meal was €40 - great value so close to the Vatican.

I went back to the hotel pretty bloated and decided to try the Terraza bar and restaurant on the top floor where there was supposed to be a jacuzzi. The jacuzzi was a floor up and tiny but the bar/restaurant looked like the kitchenette of a tiny flat complete with a 50's style cheap dresser, a few curtained booths with wash basins in (that looked ominous) and a large, orange Smeg fridge freezer. The small bar was just a formica top with no drinks to be seen and I asked for a wine and sat outside. There, a long table with a couple of families with small children, were being hosted by a young African priest named Father Gabriel, who was leading them in a couple of gospel songs when I arrived. I sat down and tried not to watch as they all sang, waved their arms and swayed along.

When they finished singing, a rotund lady stood up and started making speeches, addressing the children in turn by name and telling them how they should not forget the last few days for the rest of their lives and how they would never be closer than the 60m they were from the 'Papa' today. To my amazement, she then went around the table and each person, including the the children said a little piece too. I nervously tried to think of something to say just in case I was asked next when a voice to my right said, 'I'd like to say something too.' I peered into the murkiness of the far corner of the roof top and discerned the ample shapes of two Americans who had been quietly dining in the dark. The lady walked over and said her piece too, something along the lines of how this spiritual trip had changed her life and she would renew her faith every day from henceforth.

Father Gabriel looked pleased at his growing flock and before his eyes could settle on me I got up and left. I spent a fitful night's sleep as the airconditioning unit was so close to my head that if I turned it on it made a loud noise and blew cool wind into my left ear. Next morning I saw the flock again,munching the spartan breakfast on the rooftop, excitedly talking about the trip home. Father Gabriel miraculously appeared from nowhere with what appeared to be his twin brother and led them in prayers over breakfast while the teenage boy munched open-mouthed along with the words, cereal spilling from his mouth. I ate quietly before another American family of mother and son argued to my right. He was a disabled boy I would reckon early twenties in natty shorts, and it seemed everyone but me were pilgrims as they argued about what he had said to the Father. The boy pleaded with his mother and I felt like joining his cause, I felt so sorry for him.

Breakfast over, I checked out and couldn't get away fast enough. Orange Hotel was a curious place - I would never stay there again by choice but there was an odd charm. While I may not be an ardent believer, I constantly admire those who have such strength of faith that they can unashamedly sing and make speeches in a restaurant.

As for, this was the first flirtation with disaster on one of their 'secret locations'. Having just stayed in Milan at the AC Milano for £92 with breakfast under the same scheme, this was a huge disappointment. Further, the AC Milano was just a 5 minute walk from the Corso Como where in the week you can take 'Happy Hour' and pay €6 per cocktail and eat as much of the superb tapas as you want for free. Corso Como is fun and vibrant and my particular choice was the 'Pitbull' bar where a spritzer cocktail of wine, campari and soda was excellent and the food superb, particularly the chilli wraps and battered potatoes.

So be wary on the secrets for the future and check the locations first then check to see if it sounds like the Orange in Rome while beware of the 'designer' label, as that usually means small, quirky and not full of the basic things you normally like in a hotel whose absence is explained by the 'Designer' status.

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