Three landmark hotels offer the perfect window onto Rome


Even visitors to Rome are implicated in the civilizing concept that all but rules life in Italy: la bella figura, the premium put on appearances. A Roman's personal façade is constructed out of everything from the neighborhood he lives in to the car hedrives. By the same token, a traveler's choice of hotel goes a long way toward delineating his profile. Each of these three hotels paints a different picture of the people who frequent it; all confer una bella figura.

The day I was due to check into the Eden, I sheepishly called to change my reservation from a double to a single. It seemed extravagant to keep the larger room when the friend I'd planned to travel with suddenly dropped out. "All our singles are booked, Mr. Petkanas, but please don't worry," the reservations manager told me. "We will find a solution."

The solution was a beautiful, choice single overlooking a cityscape adorned with palms, cypresses, and parasol pines. As I later learned, the Eden specializes in employing can-do men and women whose idea of a bad day is one in which guests have no problems to solve. Another example: These were the dog days of summer, and it wasn't until 11 p.m. that I realized my room, however beautiful, wasn't a room but a pizza oven. Without skipping a beat, the night manager proposed moving me herself to a part of the building that hadn't been zapped by the sun. Did someone say "obliging"?

The second wonder of the Eden is how it manages to achieve an atmosphere of intimacy, given its size: 101 rooms and 11 suites. It is bigger than its main competition, the Hassler, yet feels smaller, more manageable, and knowable, as if it were about to shake your hand, if not put its arms around you. And while the Eden is only a couple of blocks northeast of the Spanish Steps— the Villa Borghese can be tantalizingly glimpsed just over the garden wall— it seems neighborhoods away from the frenzy. In other words, it is ideal for people who don't need to feel they are smack in the thick of things. Indeed, one lovely advantage of the Eden's residential setting is the opportunity it offers travelers to insinuate themselves into daily Roman life. The nearby cafés, shops, news kiosks, and postcard racks are all mercifully lacking in fellow tourists.

Founded in 1889, the Eden was reborn in 1994 following a two-year, closed-door, $17.3 million makeover. The resulting lobby, with all that chic beige stone, makes you feel grander than you probably have a right to feel. Guest rooms are done in the confident, sophisticated, slightly anonymous nineties hotel style that works as well in Rome as it does in Singapore and San Francisco: elaborate asymmetrical window treatments, the odd antique marquetry chest of drawers, plenty of good upholstery. So easy to live with. I could have stayed a week— make that a month.

Unfortunately, the Eden is already looking a little dog-eared. The desks in some rooms are seriously nicked, the graying pileless carpets scarred with stains. No one should be asked to sleep in a bed with a dust ruffle like the one I saw, streaked with grease. Not at these prices.

The good thing about the hotel's problems is that a little vigilance can solve them. The Eden deserves it.

49 Via Ludovisi; 800/225-5843 or 39-6/478-121, fax 39-6/482-1584; doubles from $450.

When I worked as a cub reporter at the Paris desk of Women's Wear Daily in the early eighties, the Hassler was part of my life. Twice a year I had to endure the dozens of phone calls our office secretary made to reserve a room during the Rome couture shows for my legendarily picky boss, fashion titan John Fairchild. I decided I would forever be disqualified from staying at the Hassler because, unlike "Mr. Fairchild" and his fellow regular Elizabeth Taylor, I simply wasn't demanding enough.

The wonderful thing about pickiness is that, with a little eavesdropping, it can be learned. By the time the heavy glass doors of the Hassler swung open for my arrival last summer, I had become world-class difficult.

Established in 1885, the big daddy of Rome hotels commands one of the most enviable positions in the city: the top of the Spanish Steps. As a result of this bit of geographic bedazzlement, many of the 85 guest rooms and 15 suites have heart-stopping views of the basilica of St. Peter's, the twin bell towers of the Trinità dei Monti church, the wedding-cake monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, and more gorgeous palazzi than there are forms of pasta.

The rooms themselves are courageously impervious to fashion. Gay swag-and-bow friezes, pom-pom-fringed curtains in front of lacy sheers, and watered-silk wall coverings are the order of the day. Pink and pistachio is a typical color combination. Sounds troppo?It works.

To its great credit, the Hassler was more than up to me. Whereas concierges across the Continent have wilted while helping me plan my day's eating itinerary, Dimitri Polyzopoulos drew on seemingly endless reserves of good-natured stamina. It was perfectly easy to find the strap for raising the exterior metal curtain in my room— but no phone description could make me see it in my tired state. The man sent to let the sun in did not make me feel like an idiot, though he was certainly entitled to. When I thought I had forgotten a pajama top in the room I was checking out of, the housekeeper joined in the hunt as earnestly as if I'd lost a diamond bracelet from Fred Leighton. (The top was in my suitcase.)

The quality of service is assured by Roberto Wirth, the second generation of his family to run the Hassler, and the fifth to be in the hotel business. But personnel isn't the only thing the Hassler has going for it. For shoppers in need of a fix, perhaps the highest concentration of designer boutiques in the world can be reached in less time than it takes to say "Anna Molinari." The retail orgy begins at the bottom of the Steps with Dolce & Gabbana (you wouldn't believe the number of kids I saw handing over $65 for a dumb, albeit logoed, T-shirt) and extends along the Via Condotti and the network of streets around it.

In need of a reality check, I headed to the Hassler's courtyard bar, where a staff member explained in the most elegant way possible that my shorts were unacceptable. Back when I thought I'd never be problematic enough for the Hassler, "no shorts" was part of my picture of the hotel. May that rule never be relaxed.

6 Trinitý dei Monti; 39-6/699-340, fax 39-6/678-991; doubles from $375.

You've heard about the rooms with the billion-lira views of the Pantheon?They do not disappoint. But what you may not have heard is that they sit atop or face a McDonald's.

Surprisingly, the disgust passes quickly, the only residue a vague feeling of disbelief and annoyance like an itch you can't scratch. The storefront of America's best-loved fast-food franchise is discreet, and you are, after all, on one of the most ravishing squares in the world, the Piazza della Rotonda, in one of the most ravishing cities in the world. Can a cheeseburger ruin your holiday?Get over it.

The Albergo del Sole al Pantheon is among the world's oldest hotels, or, depending on who is recounting the legend, the oldest hotel going: it has been accepting paying guests since 1467. Although many notches below the Hassler and the Eden in terms of service, staff, décor, and amenities, it is priced only about 25 percent below them. What you're paying for is location. Kinetic Piazza Navona, which many consider the very embodiment of Rome, is minutes away on foot.

The Sole al Pantheon's other drawing card is eccentricity. If you're in the right mood, this quality can be delightful. The building itself is riddled with levels— just when you think you've walked down enough three-step staircases to get you somewhere, a four-step staircase takes you back up almost to where you began.

The lobby is furnished with an ensemble of steel chairs and sofas adorned with rams' heads. White leather probably wasn't the best choice for the buttoned seating in the public salon, but what the heck. Hall niches are filled with giant sculptures in unglazed terra-cotta— swagged and pedestaled urns piled high with fruit. The 24 rooms and seven suites are appointed in a similarly hit-and-miss way, but the clunkiness throughout is endearing. The only things that absolutely must go are the miniature plastic garbage pails on the breakfast tables.

All the hotel's windows are double-glazed, but given the din, which can be pitiless, rooms on the piazza may admit noise at a level that is out of the question for you. For this reason, you shouldn't rule out courtyard accommodations. The rooms that directly overlook the Pantheon— all suites, and all in the hotel's annex— are 107, 111, 226, 501, and 503. The other rooms on the square (the 06, 08, and 10 lines, plus 312) have side vistas of the monument. Mine was one of these, its window jambs cleverly faced with mirrors to maximize the view.

My own revenge on the noisemakers took the form of an early breakfast. Except for a flower seller with a massive bundle of gladioli balanced on her head, and a street sweeper with all the aesthetic qualifications of a doorman at the boutique of that most Roman of couturiers, Valentino, I had the piazza to myself.

At the first whiff of Egg McMuffin, I bolted.

63 Piazza della Rotonda; 39-6/678-0441, fax 39-6/6994-0689; doubles from $285.