In January, after AltaRoma fashion week was over, I checked into a gorgeous suite in the south-west corner of the original building. The hotel’s beautifully weathered shutters, the leafless wisteria branches creeping up its walls, the omnipresent traces of fin-de-siècle sophistication giving way to the elegance of the Art Nouveau and silent-film eras….all of this was the perfect backdrop for a damp winter holiday in Rome.
And the fact that the patio garden was under renovation (re-opening this spring, right after Easter) meant I could take my breakfast and cocktails by the Belle Époque fireplace in the famous bar. Locarno possesses various personalities for every season.
Hôtel Locarno opened in 1925 and was built by the Swiss Locarno hotel group. Almost instantly the hotel became a destination for silent-film stars (Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, et al) and from its opening through the decades has catered to actors, artists, directors, producers, musicians and royalty (a mysterious, black-lace enveloped Austrian princess lived at Locarno in the 1970s.)
During this time, and throughout the decades, famous artists from all over the world stayed at Locarno so they could duplicate their work at the oldest lithography laboratory, opened in the 18th century which is right down the street. In 1969, the hotel was bought by Maria Teresa Celle and today she co-owns the property with her daughter Caterina Valente. In 1999 they purchased the building across the courtyard, built in 1900, as an annex containing those aforementioned rather grand suites, now under renovation (re-opening in the late spring).
During the war, Locarno was seized by the Nazis and used as a base. And then about a decade after the war ended, the era of La Dolce Vita popped its first champagne cork on Via Veneto. Via della Penna, Hôtel Locarno’s street, was the gritty bohemian alternative to Dolce Vita’s movie-star glam. During the ‘60s, artists met and drank at Locarno, back in the days when the bar was a tiny affair, located where the hotel’s front desk now sits.
It wasn’t a chic destination—but it was a very important meeting spot for contemporary artists who debated and volleyed ideas until the wee hours of the morning. “Many of those night owls found a ‘free port’ at the Hotel Locarno, thinking they were in neutral Switzerland,” says the poet and writer Valentino Zeichen. “The hotel bar rescued a lot of them from suicide; since then, many of those romantic daydreamers—including me—are still alive.”
The street featured a number of art galleries and two nightclubs, the bohemian heyday of this era being the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘70s. “For me the Hotel Locarno is and will always be my Steinway grand piano,” says Roman gallerist Pio Monti, who stayed with artists at the Locarno in the 1970s. “It will never get out of tune in spite of several ‘sonatas and fugues’ with many artists who stayed here, with whom I had great complicity.”
Among the hotel’s guests over recent years include Lola Schnabel, John Turturro, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovitch and Isabella Rossellini. “For me the Locarno is ‘my home away from home,’ as they say in America,” proclaims Rossellini. “I feel at home, the décor, the staff; all is as if I am living my house rather than a hotel.”
The photo of Isabella, snatched by my iPhone, is by Marco Flammini from the upcoming Silverlake Photography coffee-table book STILL ROMA Hotel Locarno with a View. (Caterina Valente kindly gave me an advanced copy and it is marvelous.)
Every morning during breakfast (and in the evening during cocktails with friends) this exquisite fireplace banished the winter chill. Breakfasts at Italian hotels are notoriously sub-par but not at Locarno—each morning I was greeted by a decadent spread of chocolate-crème-filled pastries, fruit pies, tarts and rich cakes, all prepared lovingly at the hotel’s in-house patisserie.
It’s perhaps a far cry from the BYOP (bring your own pastry) days of yore. “Certainly I remember De Chirico,” recalls artist Romolo Bulla, co-owner of the nearby lithography laboratory. “In the 1960s he used to come here to eat the Mont-Blanc pastries he bought at the D’Angelo patisserie on Via della Croce.”
Locarno's charming lobby.
The splendid antique cage elevator.
The sitting room of my marvelous suite. I was mad for the pattern of the fabric-covered walls and the antique divan from the '30s. The fabrics for the rooms are made in Tuscany and I believe this one is a Liberty print from 1929.
The bedroom of my suite. It faced the Tiber. The bed was sooooooo comfortable. It was very firm, which is what I prefer, and I slept like a rock. The iron headboard is a nice detail. I believe this is the suite that Douglas Fairbanks used to stay in while in Rome.
The view from my bedroom window. Because I'm a nosy neighbor, I had to photo-stalk this lovely lemon tree.
I was over the moon for the emerald green and powder-blue tiles in the bathroom.
It was too cold to really enjoy the rooftop patio but the foliage didn't seem to mind. Will be nice to have a cocktail up here when I return to Rome during warmer months.
Actress Lucia Bosè: “To stay at the Hotel Locarno is like living in the past; here I have my roots and my memories. Historic and beautiful Rome is all around, hugging you, protecting you as a mysterious angel. (Photo: Marco Flammini)
The front room of Locarno's legendary bar.
On one late afternoon, I met the hotel co-owner, Caterina Valente (right) and Alessandro Pagliero. Alessandro has been living in an apartment on the top-floor of the hotel since 1964! So, he's seen it all, spending decades hanging out with artists and actors (and engaging in a few love affairs) at the Locarno. He's the son of Roberto Rossellini's assistant director Marcello Pagliero who was also an actor--he's the lead character in Rossellin's film "Rome Open City" which came out right after the War ended.
Funny enough, Alessandro also lived in the hotel with his mother before the War--but had to leave when the Nazis took it over and used it as a base. Obviously it wasn't safe to stay here since it was a target for American bombs.
Caterina and Alessandro filled me in on all the changes that went on the art scene in and around the hotel. In the 1980s, some of the artists became rich and successful and the area started catering to bankers and real estate agents instead of bohemians. Sound familiar?
Caterina and I also chatted about cocktails (of course) and the various recipes and spirits used in the Locarno Bar. The bartenders did research on what people were drinking in Italy in the 1920s.
You never know who you're going to meet in the Locarno Bar. On one evening I was introduced to the charming (and very funny) actress Anita Kravos by Alessio de Navasques of AltaRoma. Anita plays the performance artist (some think the character is a spoof of Marina Abramovic) in The Great Beauty. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this month. Anita kindly gave me a DVD copy of the film (but I hope you were all able to see it on a big screen) and after cocktails, we drove to the mammoth fountain in Trastevere featured at the opening of the film. Then it was onwards to an art opening at the American Academy.
Everyone knows how much I love aperitif/digestive cocktails, so of course Locarno’s Roma Bracciano was my favorite. Composed of Campari, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, rhubarb juice (!) and bitters, this medicinal miracle is gloriously bitter/bittersweet and relatively low-alcohol.
It is the Locarno’s bestselling cocktail over the past four years, which tells you how discerning the drinkers are who frequent the bar (pedestrian imbibers usually turn their noses up at bitter potions.) The Locarno Bar attracts a crowd of well-dressed, sophisticated Romans each evening who emanate intelligence and warmth. (As opposed to the vapid narcissism in trendy New York bars that slaps you in the face like the dead fish that washes up on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita as soon as you walk in the door.) The Bar was re-opened in 2009, selectively promoted to a certain segment of the Roman public.
The top-notch cocktails in the Locarno Bar—which range from signature to vintage to Tiki to surprise Daiquiris) are a bit pricey which is fine by me: it keeps out the budget-conscious, pub-crawling American students and déclassé tourists.
The aperitivi service at Hôtel Locarno is quite famous and the complimentary hors d’oeuvres are rather toothsome. I was mad for the finger sandwiches. It’s a perfect start to an evening that may continue on, as mine did, to a posh dinner at the American Academy or an adrenaline-fueled live swing session at Gregory’s Jazz Club.
And I adore the music in the Locarno Bar—lots of ‘20s and ‘30s jazz, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, lounge classics, surprises—but nothing that ever grated on my nerves (which would be basically what most other bars in the world play.) Rome—how could you not love it?
My friend Alessio de Navasques dropped by the Bar on a few evenings for cocktails and jet-set gossip. Alessio co-curated the amazing "From Costume to Couture" exhibit at the Farani atelier with Clara Tosi Pamphili.
My friend Consuelo Aranyi, one of the chief organizers of AltaRoma, also visited me in the Bar on a few evenings so we could talk about everything and anything. Consuelo loves Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and since apparently it's forbidden to sell them in Italy, I smuggled in a large parcel behind the Bucatini Curtain.
On this evening, I tried Locarno's "Less is More Martini": Citadelle Reserve Gin matured six months in oak casks, chilled, stirred and served. I adore Citadelle and wouldn't dare try this minimalist martini with any other kind of gin.
Vintage cocktail paraphernalia in the bar.
My friend from Lima, an award-winning choreographer and premier danseur, loved the cage elevator. I invited him back to my suite one rainy afternoon for a few hands of gin rummy.
I loved lazing about the laid-back Piazza del Popolo, taking in the sites and people-watching. It's mere steps from Locarno.
Piazza del Popolo
Visitors flock to the Santa Maria del Popolo to take in two Caravaggio masterpieces (one depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter, the other the conversion of St. Paul, you have to pay 1 euro to have them illuminated for a brief moment), but you would be remiss if you passed over this memorial to Giovanni Battisti Gisleni. A 17th-century Italian-Baroque architect, Gisleni was also a stage designer, theater director, singer and musician at the Polish royal court.
Fontana dell' Obelisco
The original poster created by Anselmo Ballester in Locarno's lobby.
Thanks for reading.