When I am in Rome, I do as the Romans — I engage in rampant materialism. The eternal city may be — via the Church which has its headquarters there — the way to heaven; its population, however, is more interested in this world than the next. The city is full of superb shops, as the Italians’ gift for manufacture, and their seemingly effortless creation of beauty, remain undimmed by the advance of modernity. Rome is therefore a perfect destination for Christmas shopping because by visiting it, you can combine limitless consumerism with a warm glow of spiritual self-satisfaction. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Taxis and buses are plentiful in Rome but most tourists walk. Let us start, therefore — after you have perhaps heard Mass in the crypt of St Peter’s at 7a.m., and after you have breakfasted in the café on the Piazza Farnese opposite the French embassy — at the charming Piazza Mattei in the old Jewish ghetto where we can admire the delightful Tortoise Fountain and the stunning Palazzo Mattei, whose courtyard is full of Roman sculptures, before getting down to business. Italian men being the best dressed in the world, why not begin at Bracci (Via de’ Funari, 18), a tiny family-run shop which sells very beautiful Italian shirts at reasonable prices — made-to-measure ones are €48, off the peg €38. They also sell boxers, socks and ties — all perfect for the discerning husband, father or boyfriend. An alternative address for socks is the milliner at the bottom of Piazza Navona, Antica Cappelleria Troncarelli in Via della Cuccagna: in winter, they also stock magnificent black Venetian capes so you can stalk around like Don Giovanni. Another source of socks is the world-famous ecclesiastical outfitter Gammarelli at Via di Santa Chiara, 34, where the Pope goes and where you can pick up purple ones (for bishops) or red ones (for cardinals) as well as gloves, belts and scarves — not to mention a velvet and ermine camauro or an embroidered Roman chasuble should you need one.
Italians make very beautiful paper and stationery products and there are many such shops around Rome. The one we use is about ten minutes’ walk from Bracci, just over the Ponte Sisto in Trastevere at Via Benedetta, 26b. There, the charming Gaetana Gilardi makes and sells exquisite boxes, photo albums, guest books, notebooks and much else besides. It is difficult to leave her shop without being weighed down by numerous presents. She also sells (as do all stationery shops) beautiful wrapping paper for a few euros a sheet: your Christmas tree will instantly look many times smarter if your presents are wrapped in it. (There is a similar shop just behind the Pantheon at Via della Rotonda, 13, but I find it a little touristy.)
Having taken a coffee or a glass of water (served in all Italian bars for 50 or 60 cents, and far more civilised than walking around with a plastic bottle) at Checco Er Carrettiere diagonally opposite Signora Gilardi’s, you can re-cross the Ponte Sisto and continue walking north along the breathtaking Via Giulia — which is, with Via dei Coronari, one of the best addresses for antiques, but only if you have a generous budget — to visit, just off Piazza Farnese, at Via di Monserrato, 50, Maurizio Bellacci’s wonderful little shop selling lampshades and lamps. Lampshades may not be an obvious Christmas present, and they are obviously difficult to transport, especially if large. But lighting is one of the most important elements of interior decoration, and other European capitals are ill served in this regard. Bellacci has a superb stock and his style is carefully modern. As everywhere in Rome, his prices are reasonable: the smallest parchment lampshades for wall lights are €7 each, whereas they would be five times that in Paris.
If you now leave the Palazzo Farnese behind you and walk into Campo de’ Fiori, there is a very popular bakery on the left which sells wonderful biscuits in beautiful old-fashioned tins with a design from the early 1900s. The tins make excellent bread bins. This bakery also sells some of the finest pizzas in Rome, to take away, while the tozzetti with hazelnuts are heaven. Also on Campo de’ Fiori there is Ruggieri, the well-known delicatessen, from where dried porcini mushrooms and their various pastas make excellent stocking fillers.
Now cross the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and make your way into Piazza Navona and across the square into Corso Rinascimento. There, at No. 63, diagonally opposite the Senate, is Antiquarius, a superb dealer in antique prints. There is an enormous stock, ranging from affordable maps and views of Rome to Piranesi etchings which start at €200 up to seriously fine Old Master prints for many thousands. The smaller prints are easy to transport and they all come with their own mount.
Back down the same street, at Corso Rinascimento, 47, is the Rome outlet of the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella. This producer of luxury toiletries is based in Florence near the church of the same name, and the frescoed maison mère is a tourist destination in itself. There is also an outlet in South Kensington but I prefer to stock up from the Rome shop. Their pot pourri is especially famous but all their products are fabulous, for ladies and gentlemen alike.
If your thoughts are now turning to lunch, visit Casa Bleve at Via del Teatro Valle, 48. It is theoretically just a wine bar, but the dining room is palatial and the food unique: Signora Bleve’s own inventions. There are plenty of presents to be had there, not least the superb collection of top-range Italian wines which never seem to get exported. Afterwards, if you now walk towards the Pantheon — taking in the three Caravaggios in Santa Luigi dei Francesi on your way — and cross the Piazza della Rotonda to enter Via del Seminario, there is a very nice tie shop, Pellicano, at No. 93, just by the square. The ties are not cheap but I find them extremely versatile and understated, and wear them all the time to the exclusion of the flashier designer ones in my wardrobe.
Double back on yourself now, go back into Piazza Navona and leave the square at the north end, passing the Altemps Museum (NB fabulous) on your left. Ahead of you is Via dell’Orso where, at No. 57, there is one of the most talented jewellers in the world. Massimo Melis makes stunning rings, bracelets, necklaces and brooches in the Roman and Etruscan style, often using Roman coins or other ancient artefacts. His wife serves while he and his craftsmen work their blowtorches right in front of you. Their clients include the King and Queen of Belgium, so this is top-quality stuff and, what with the price of gold now, very expensive. But I guarantee that anything you buy there will give you pleasure for life.
After a hard day’s shopping, you will of course want to have a fine dinner. Luckily, Rome is home to many superb places. Our favourite restaurant really is one of the best in the world but, after so much confidences shared, that address, dear reader, shall remain a secret.