Saturday, 17 October 2009


Rome was important in my life – standing in the Forum at the age of 8 with my mother telling me the story of how Julius Caesar was killed by his best friend was the exact moment when I ‘got’ history and decided to become an archaeologist. The fact that I was told this week that he was actually killed at another temple nearby and that I later discovered – halfway through an archaeology degree – that I would be a really bad archaeologist and became a travel writer instead are incidental. Rome has quite literally changed my life. At the age of 8, I literally cried when I had to leave.
So I was happy to be back there this week, staying at the gorgeous Regina Hotel Baglioni on via Veneto. It’s just had a make-over and is sumptuous – all black and gold and art deco, with Moroccan lanterns in the bar, an ostrich leather bedhead in my room and a pumpkin risotto at dinner that converted a lifelong loather of pumpkin to drools of delight.
Rome itself, after a ferociously stormy introduction, turned on a smiling face with cobalt blue skies, perfect for gelato at Giolitti’s, via Uffici del Vicario, a local institution that has stood near the Pantheon since 1900 and is considered by Romans to serve the finest icecream in the city. It was an ideal way to rest the aching knees after the steep climb up to the roof of the Castel Sant Angelo, Hadrian’s tomb converted into papal fortress. Another great thing about the city – the way it is so multi-layered and recycled – history heaped on history – Raphael and King Vittorio Emmanuel buried in the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, the colonnade of St Peter made out of columns recycled from the forum and the Colisseum. Sensible and frustrating at the same time.
In the afternoon, we were invited to visit Gattinoni couture house where we had an amazingly entertaining interview with superstar designer, Guillermo Mariotto, and got a chance to see up close some of the stunning creations, from frocks made for Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s, to this year’s collection. Sometimes I do love being a journalist, even if I did feel like an elephant at an elf convention. From there to the Etruscan museum (which I hadn’t ever seen before – amazing exhibits, badly labelled) before a quick trip to the Campo di Fiori in search of parmesan and porcini to bring home.
Fat lady rating for Rome as a destination – food 9/10 (it loses a point for being too tempting); getting around (7/10 – relatively easy public transport, but it does involve a lot of walking, stairs, uneven streets etc and it gets tiring. Overall rating – 10/10.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Simon

Simon Cowell is reputedly throwing a $1 million party for his 50th birthday. It seems to be the time when everybody throws caution to the wind and spends their way into the next decade. I got there with my last birthday. The zeros had never worried me before. Everyone has their crunch point and for me it was the 6s – you could no longer say you were in your early 30s, 40s… so 36 and 46 were bad years. But 50 came as a bit of a shock to the system – and I had a long run in.
My birthday came at the tail end of a long and expensive year of 50th birthday parties – the weekend in Germany with an old schoolfriend, the weekend in the Isle of Wight with the university crowd, the summer party on the river in Essex and I am afraid I skipped the weekend in Paris due to poverty.
Meantime all around me were the reminders of closing decrepitude. Facebook suddenly loaded up with adverts for HRT, menopause vitamins and 50+ dating websites (sidebar - do men get this depressing array or do they get Thai massage and Ferraris on the basis that they are going to have a mid-life crisis and blow all their dosh on inappropriate toys?).
I live almost next to the Westminster One-Stop Shop (council offices) and suddenly realized that I am now eligible for their toenail clipping service (for those who can no longer bend enough to do their own), 50+ coffee mornings, and a host of other elderly goodies. The final straw came when a friend, who is over 70 and is beginning to look for retirement villages, showed me some brochures and I saw that some of them take people from the age of 55.
I am sorry – I don’t feel ready to be a semi-old person yet. I might be creakier in the joints than I used to be, but age is in the mind and telling someone that they are getting old is just bad for them. Far better to send them off down the Amazon in a dugout canoe!
So, I could either sit in a corner and mourn or have the best party possible. Result? A gaggle of close friends and family went to Marrakech – one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, a perfect combination of east and west, with warmth and sunshine, friendly people and good food. I celebrated surrounded by many (though sadly not quite all) of the people I love best in the world, in stunning surroundings. And now I am going across Africa by train. The next big family celebration is my father’s 80th birthday. Never one to be outdone, he’s planning a trip to Luxor. I hope that when I get there I will be as young as he is.
And meantime, happy birthday, Simon – remember that Westminster Council are ready and willing to give you a great deal on coffee mornings and pedicures.