During the third season of Mad Men, Manhattan advertising executive Don Draper becomes a protégé of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. After designing several campaigns for Hilton properties, Don is invited to meet Conrad in Rome at the Cavalieri Hilton (now called the Rome Cavalieri), which opened in 1963.
Rather than use a soundstage and some computer-generated trickery, the episode was, in fact, shot on location at the hotel. You can tell it’s the real thing by the view that Don and his then-wife, Betty, enjoy out their window. There stretches the cityscape of Rome — a study in domes and steeples, the greenery of the Borghese Gardens, the stone rim of the Colosseum, the Apennine foothills. No wonder that Don and Betty, not exactly the happiest couple on television, enjoyed such a romantic holiday there.
On my reporting trip to Rome for American Way, my fiancée and I stayed for five days and nights in the Cavalieri, and it is every bit as classy and beguiling as it seems to have been in 1963. The uniqueness of the Cavalieri begins with its setting atop 456-foot Monte Mario, the highest point in Rome. Seen from the Cavalieri, the city changes color through the day — muted blue amid the morning mist, ivory under the midday sun, ochre in the waning light, a tapestry of lights beneath the moon.
For many more reasons than the view, the Cavalieri can be a hard place to leave. (Though, when you do, the hotel offers complimentary shuttle service to Piazza Barberini, near major tourist attractions.) While the architecture of the hotel is Razionalismo, a sleek style created by Milan designers influenced by European Modernism, the interior spaces pay homage to Italy’s artistic heritage. The hotel’s museum-quality collection includes oils, sculpture, tapestry, bronzes, clocks and artisanal glassware; guests can tour it with an audio-guide downloaded from the hotel’s website.
The Cavalieri’s Grand Spa Club — rated one of the five best in the world by Travel + Leisure — evokes the ancient Rome of the baths and the gymnasium (as well as the modern, fashionista city of facials, massages and other beauty treatments). Best of all, though, was the hotel’s outdoor pool — heated and ringed by olive and palm trees.
I often swam in the morning, working up an appetite for the buffet breakfast at L’Uliveto, the restaurant set in the garden beside the pool. One late evening, Chana and I enjoyed limoncello on the terrace of the lobby’s Tiepolo Loung & Terrace, which is named for one of the painters in the hotel collection. But the ultimate dining experience at the Cavalieri is its rooftop restaurant, La Pergola.
If one detail conveys the hotel’s commitment to elegant service and the personal touch, it would have to be the Pillow Menu in each guest room. You can request a pillow filled with anything from kapok cotton flakes to horse hair to buckwheat husk. I, however, was too content with the standard pillows to explore all the alternatives.