A light May breeze caressed the petals of the full palette of flowers that rimmed the rooftop garden of the Les Etoiles restaurant in the Atlante Star Rome hotel. The flowers glowed in the last light of the sun as it sank behind St. Peter’s cathedral and the full moon rose over the ancient spires of what has to be one of the world’s most romantic cities, la bella Roma. It was our last night together as a group, and more than one of us had tears in our eyes as we thought of having to leave this city of incredible beauty, antiquities, gastronomic delights, art, and history—not to mention some of the most amazingly, painfully stylish shoes I’ve ever seen.
My group had arrived five days earlier on American Airlines' direct flight from JFK Airport in New York, which was newly instituted earlier in the month. The cushy seats, AA’s much-heralded extra leg room, and nonstop video opportunities from the DVDs handed out in business-class assured that we were relatively well-rested and entertained when we arrived at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino International airport.
In less than an hour, we were checked into the Westin Excelsior Rome on Via Veneto, which is just as swank as it appeared to be in Fellini’s famous movie, La Dolce Vita. Starwood has recently plowed $30 million into restoring this 316-room grande dame, including restoring the hotel’s beautiful façade, building a new fitness center, returning its 32 suites to their former splendor, and redoing the famous attached Doney Bar, where people congregated at all hours of the day and night. The Excelsior can hold up to 500 in its largest meeting room, and has a total congress capacity of 1,140 people.
Despite my room’s truly "heavenly" Westin bed, I didn’t sleep much during my Rome sojourn—there was just too much to see, do, and, of course, eat.
Out and About in Rome
Our tour organizer was kind and built in some free time to experience the city on our own, but he also arranged for us to take a city tour and a guided visit to the Galleria Borghese with tour guide Carlo Beliuti from Roma 7 (www.roma7.it). I’m not usually one to wax enthusiastic over a tour guide, but Carlo’s explanation of one of Bernini’s statues actually brought one of my colleagues to tears with his eloquence and ability to explain how the changes in art reflected changes in society’s philosophies. Plus, the guy never seemed to get tired, and we never could come up with a question that he couldn’t answer (with verbal footnotes, no less). We toured the archeological park in the center, were wowed by the Colosseum, and the Pantheon, well, that’s just something you have to experience yourself. But get Carlo to explain the history and meaning of the skylight—it’ll give you chills.
The ancient gods mingle with modern life everywhere in the city, with churches integrated into ancient Roman temples and open-air fruit and vegetable markets cohabitating happily with crumbling forums. While the traffic can be a little crazy at times, cars do stop for bedazzled pedestrians in the crosswalks, and I heard that a new law has been instituted against horn-honking, which makes for a much quieter city than I remembered from a trip there 20-odd years ago. And cleaner, too. In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, many of the city’s buildings and monuments have been cleaned of centuries of grime. The city also built a new tour bus parking area near the Vatican, easing the congestion in that area during the peak tourist seasons. The museum itself has revamped its entranceway to help move the lines of eager tourists through more efficiently. (Hint: time your trip to the Vatican for between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., when most people are at lunch, to avoid the lines for this popular attraction.)
St. Peter’s was staggering in its beauty and grandeur, and my visit to the Vatican, while exhausting at the time, was beyond anything that could be explained in words. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s grand work, has been completely and painstakingly repaired, and the colors in the panel of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden were as though they had just been painted yesterday. By the time we staggered out of there, we had a serious case of culture overload, so we went to sniff the azaleas blooming on the Spanish steps, check out the street vendors in front of the Castel Sant’Angello, and stand in wonder in front of the fountain in Piazza Navona. But wherever you go, you can’t escape the beauty: Even on the most humble streets, colorful flower boxes and ancient friezes surprise you at every turn.
Food, Glorious Food
Of course, one of the highlights of any visit to Rome is eating, then eating some more, then going out for a gelato to top it off before waddling to the next sightseeing spot. Appetizers at the Doney Bar, dinner at the Champagnerie, the private dining room at St. Regis Grand Hotel’s Vivendo restaurant--who could ask for anything more?
Except maybe a meal al fresco at Ristorante Galeassi in the historic Piazza S. Maria in the Trastevere region across the Tiber river from the center, where twisty cobblestone roads open unexpectedly into charming boutique-lined squares. Trastevere also is the happening nighttime scene for local teens and 20-somethings, and the place is jumping late into the night, even on a Sunday. Another open-air dining delight is Pierluigi in Piazza de Ricci, close to Piazza Navona and the other sites of the city’s historic region. But if you want real Italian pizza, you may want to steer clear of the bars in the tourist areas, where the pies may not always be those crisp, light pizza’s the city is known for. Try a local restaurant in Trastavere, or in the Testaccio area near the food market, for that delicious, traditional Roman treat.
The Place to Meet
While there can be no doubt that Rome is an incentive destination par excellence and a sightseer’s, gourmand's, and shopper’s heaven, it’s also a real, working city with lots of real, workable meeting space. Since the Colosseum hasn’t been open for group business for quite a while, the largest congress spaces are in the EUR district, which is just outside the city center and can be reached easily by the Metro line. While the planned 12,000-person new Centro Congressi Italia convention center project has been moving forward in fits and starts (it currently is scheduled to open in 2005), EUR, which stands for Esposizione Universale di Roma, currently offers the Palazzo dei Congressi-EUR, which can accommodate up to 3,500 attendees and offers 43,000 square feet of exhibit area. The Palafieri, also known at Fiera di Roma, is the largest congress center in the city and one of the largest in Italy. It has a 754,000-square-foot exhibit area, and can accommodate up to 18,000 attendees between the Palafiera theater, the Tecnofiera, and smaller Meetingfiera rooms. The Sheraton Roma Hotel and Conference Center can accommodate conventions of up to 2,000 and banquets for up to 1,100 people. The area also hosts the EUR Sport Palace, which is being restructured and is scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2002 with congress halls and other event and meeting facilities.
There’s also no shortage of meeting space in Rome’s hotels. In addition to the Excelsior, meeting hotels include the Cavalieri Hilton, with total capacity of 2,100 and numerous small breakout rooms. While I don’t know if he had any meetings, musician Paul McCartney, who was in town to give a free concert for 500,000 outside the Colosseum during our visit, stayed at the luxurious Hassler Villa Medici at the top of the Spanish steps, which has meeting space for 200. The St. Regis Grand Hotel also can accommodate groups up to 900, and there are numerous smaller meeting spaces scattered throughout the city’s hotels.
For those who want to meet American-style—you know, in-room coffee pots and full spa facilities—the Crowne Plaza Rome at St. Peter’s is a good choice, with regular shuttles to and from both the airport and the city center. Surrounded by acres of parkland, you feel like you’re in the country in the midst of a bustling city when you stay at this hotel. Its conference center includes six meeting rooms and 8,073 square feet of exhibit space, as well as an elegant executive boardroom with its own restroom facilities, including a shower.
But for me, with no real business agenda other than to soak up the locale, the trip to Rome was pure pleasure. Before leaving, I had to indulge that tourist urge to throw a Euro into the Trevi fountain in hopes the legend was true, that it would ensure I’d return to Rome one day.
The Italian Government Tourist Board and the local Rome Tourist Office (Azienda di Promozione Turistica di Roma) stand ready, willing, and able to help you with anything your group might need, from hotel information to meeting space to arranging tours and other activities.
Contact the Italian Government Tourist Board at 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10111; (212) 245-5618; www.italiantourism.com; firstname.lastname@example.org. The Rome Tourist Office's head office is located at Via Parigi 11 - 00185 Roma; 011 39 06 48 89 91; www.romaturismo.it ; email@example.com Visitor Center Via Parigi 5 (Piazza della Repubblica) Mon-Sat 9 - 19 - Closed on Sundays --Sue Pelletier