Off Duty: Rome
From ancient temples to space-age hotels, Rachel Spence finds Rome has no trouble keeping up with the times
A sensuous, sultry mosaic of past and present, Rome is Europe's most seductive city. Threaded by the willow-fringed Tiber, it is a cat's cradle of streets and squares, scattered with ancient ruins, jewel-like churches and soaring Baroque fountains. Make sure you don't miss sunset: the ochre-hued buildings take on a powdery, gilded glow and even the fume-snorting Vespas exert Mediterranean charm.
Despite Italy's fragile economy, the country's capital is riding the crest of a wave. Injections of 21st-century energy include a concert hall by Renzo Piano and a contemporary art museum - as yet unfinished - by Zaha Hadid. Whether you want to linger over a gelato in a sun-soaked piazza, travel back in time with a pile of millennium-old stones, or pick over the latest looks at Prada, Rome's dolce vita never disappoints.
The capital's buoyant mood manifests itself in a clutch of business-but-beautiful hotels. The Cavalieri Hilton (via Alberto Cadiolo 101, 00 39 0635091; www.cavalieri-hilton.it) is set in a hilltop park overlooking the Vatican. Expect period-style rooms kitted out with high-tech mod cons, a spa, outdoor pool and gardens. Close to the station, the Radisson ES (via Filippo Turati, 00 39 06444841; www.rome.radissonsas.com) wows with its space-age rooms, spa and rooftop pool.
Rome wasn't built in a day so it's wise not to try and see it all in one - or even two. Instead, epoch-hop from past to present to get a flavour of what's on offer. Start at the very beginning with a visit to the Roman Forum (via dei Fori Imperiali; 00 39 06 39967700) where an enthralling blend of pagan temples and early Christian churches reminds one that ours is not the only civilisation to have experienced tumultuous change.
Then seek out the newly restored Galleria Borghese (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 3; 00 39 06 32810; www.galleriaborghese.it) and ponder the talents of masters such as Canova, Raphael and Bernini. Afterwards, take a turn in the Borghese Gardens on the Pincio hill. Dotted with orange trees and fountains, it's the perfect spot to watch the sun set as the bells of the Angelus chime out across the rooftops.
If you're envious of the insouciantly chic Roman signoras, let yourself loose in the glamorous shopping labyrinth that spins off Piazza di Spagna. If you're short of time, drop into Tad on via del Babuino (00 39 0632695131; www.taditaly.com) offering fashion, furniture, books and a café all under one roof.
For sparky, full-blooded atmosphere, it's hard to beat Rome's restaurant and bar scene. For a flavour of what it's all about - from Jewish artichokes to Neapolitan pizza - try Gusto (piazza Augusto Imperatore 9; 00 39 06 322 6273; www.gusto.it which rolls a restaurant, pizzeria, osteria, wine cellar and cheese shop into one mega-foodie complex.
Afterwards, stroll eastwards to the Hotel de Russie (00 39 06 32 8881; www.roccofortehotels.com) on via Babuino for a late-night drink on the terrace; it's where Rome's beautiful people come out to play. More down-to-earth is the atmosphere in L'Orso 80 (Via dell'Orso 33; 00 39 06 6864904), where the million-dollar question is: how do Romans manage to pile their plates with a gargantuan array of antipasti - including mouthwatering fried zucchini and spinach frittata - and still find room for three more courses?
Catch a concert in Renzo Piano's new auditorium (viale Pietro de Coubertin 15; 00 39 06 8024 1281; www.auditorium.com) - the three pod-shaped halls deliver superb acoustics while the amphitheatre is the ideal place to while away an Indian summer evening.
Rome's clubbers currently haunt the converted industrial buildings of the Ostiense quarter - to strut your stuff, try the heaving, raucous heaven that is Goa (via Giuseppe Libetta 13; 00 39 06 574 8277).
The look-no-hands architecture of the Pantheon (piazza della Rotonda; 00 39 06 68300230) has inspired generations of architects. Started in the reign of Augustus and rebuilt under emperor Hadrian in 128AD, the building seems to defy gravity with its mammoth dome balanced on spindly Corinthian columns. There was a method to the ancient architect's madness; apparently much of the weight is concentrated around the apex. But forget the science bit and concentrate on the glorious sight of the sunlight falling through the roof onto the veined marble porticoes.