Hotel Santa Maria

Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck find the ideal place to stay in Rome

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Sometimes as travel writers, there are places we would like to keep to ourselves. We remember writing about a delightful little hotel in Venice only to find it fully booked when next we wanted to visit. Inevitably however pride at having found these special places outweighs our reluctance to share – and so it is with Hotel Santa Maria.

So what is so good about it?

Firstly its location: Trastevere. Rome can be overwhelming, with so many museums, ancient monuments and paintings to fit into a short stay that you need superhuman energy if you’re not to collapse with fatigue. Trastevere ( it means ‘across the Tiber’ ) however, is on a much more human scale. It is in fact almost a microcosm of the big city and has just the right number of museums, monuments and churches to satisfy one’s cultural appetite together with great little cafes, bars, osterie and trattorie ( plus a couple of grander restaurants) to feed one’s physical being. Further, should you want to explore Rome’s better known attractions they are to be found just a short stroll away across the Ponte Sisto.

Trastevere is alo a very attractive neighbourhood with painted houses and tiny winding lanes called vicoli and it is in one of these that Hotel Santa Maria, our little gem of a hotel is to be found. We had actually seen this hotel on a previous trip when Roman friends brought us to Trastevere to dine. We were so impressed that we took a photo of the exterior in order to remember the name for a future trip – and now we were there.

Entering via a big wrought iron gate, we followed the wide path edged with lemon trees on one side and a high foliage-covered wall on the other, to find ourselves in an attractive courtyard around which the rooms were disposed. In the middle of the courtyard chairs and tables were set out beneath glossy-leaved orange trees laden with fruit…a perfect place to relax with a drink – which we were soon to do.

Santa Maria is by no means a pretentious hotel ( nor is it too pricey) but we found our room had everything we needed for a relaxed stay: it was clean, with a comfortable bed, adequate storage space, a desk, a satellite TV, mini-bar, good air conditioning/heating and tea and coffee making equipment. The bathroom too was fine, with bath tub and shower, good towels, enough shelving and plentiful hot water.

Breakfast was served either in the open air in the courtyard or buffet-style in an adjacent room. There was good choice of hams, cheeses, scrambled or boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt, cereals, croissants and pastries and very good bread. The coffee was very good too, which is not always the case in hotels, even in Italy.

In the evenings this room also served as the (well-stocked) bar and on a couple of evenings we enjoyed the complimentary buffet of canapés which is available to accompany any drink purchased.

Also off the main courtyard was the Sala Ospiti, a guests’ sitting room equipped with comfortable chairs, a desk and computer, television and lots of books including lavish illustrated tomes on Rome and a good selection of novels left by past guests – always good for a swap. There was also a sun terrace high above the courtyard with tables and loungers for relaxation.

All these were good things about Hotel Santa Maria but by far the best was the warmth and kindness of the staff. Each and every one of which was unfailingly helpful and seemed genuinely concerned for our welfare and happiness. We learned the history of the hotel from the charming Valentina Gallo, who with her husband and son, owns and runs the establishment which was fully renovated in 2000. Her husband, Paolo, an architect, in fact designed the hotel.

He built the hotel on land the family had owned for a long while,” Valentina told us. “In the seventeenth century there was a convent of the Clarisse ( Poor Clares) order of nuns on this site but eventually the convent was abandoned and a chariot shed, handicraft shops and private houses filled the area until my husband had the idea of building the hotel – for which he decided to keep something of the original structure with the courtyard.”

Yes, with the rooms around the edge of the little orange grove it does have something of the atmosphere of a cloister – but with rooms far cosier than the bare cells the nuns had inhabited.

Another bonus was the fact the hotel offers free use of bicycles. We did not avail ourselves of this as we are wimps and too scared of Italian traffic – but a lot of Trastevere is pedestrianised and apart from the busy road along the Tiber and the main Viale Trastevere, the little streets would have been quiet enough even for us.

Even so we were able to enjoy almost all the area had to offer on foot. Our hotel was in fact just a few yards from the Basilica Santa Maria, the most important church of the neighbourhood which fronts the large piazza of the same name. Heading west from this we visited the neighbourhood’s two major palazzi, both of which were glorious. Villa Farnesina with frescos by Rapahel and amazing trompe l’oeil perspectives by Peruzzi – and Palazzo Corsini, formerly the palace Queen Christina of Sweden but which now houses part of the national art collection. Behind this, extending up the Gianicolo Hill, is Rome’s botanical garden the Orto Botanico, another little-known gem with wonderful plant collections including bamboos and magnificent palms which, when we were there, were home to flocks of colourful, squawking parakeets.

We can never resist an Italian market and a walk in the opposite direction took us to the Mercato San Cosimo where we enjoyed seeing the usual profusion of fruit, vegetables and fish which always makes us regret the lack of such markets at home. #

From here we made our way across the busy Viale Trastevere to visit Trastevere’s second important Basilica, that of Santa Cecilia. This was apparently built on top of the saint’s house which in turn was on top of a titulus or house where early Christians met. Trastevere is a very old area even by Roman standards. The Basilica is an impressive building with a spacious courtyard and an elegant façade. We noticed that this little area, at one time very working class, in common with much of Trastevere, is now on the way to becoming trendy – with lots of new galleries, antique shops and boutiques.

The Gianicolo Hill dominates Trastevere and we had been told we absolutely must see the view from the top – but the thought of the long steep climb daunted us – until that is, we learned that the little number 115 electric bus would carry us up there effortlessly. We got off at the Piazza Garibaldi and admired the statue of Garibaldi on his horse ( the hill was the scene of one of his battles in the unification of Italy) before being amazed and delighted by the superb panoramic view over the whole of Rome.

Then it was back on the bus and down to the comfort of the lovely little Hotel Santa Maria for rest – and the realisation that we couldn’t have found anywhere more ideal to stay in the Eternal City.

Toll free info number: 00 39 060608