It was Florence's Hotel Quisisana in particular that had prompted this serious pursuit of views. For once we had made our reservations there - and been assured of occupying Room 33, A Room With a View, from the Academy Award- winning film of the same name - then nothing but the same would do in Venice and Rome.
But let's take it from the top, as we did, flying to Venice, then hiring a water taxi ($75 for 18 minutes: had I taken leave of my senses?) for the exhilarating dash across the Lagoon from Marco Polo Airport to the city. We
went straight to the rickety and minuscule and ancient wooden boat landing - one heedless step and you're swimming - and our hotel for four nights, the Marconi (tel. 011-39-41-522-2068).
Why the Marconi? Because it is smack on the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge. But in this 300-year-old palazzetto, only two rooms - 101 and 102 - possess the view. The other 24 rooms are in the back.
Under new ownership, the Marconi had recently been redone from top to bottom in classical Venetian style. Room number 101, which we were fortunate enough to reserve, was not large, but had a high ceiling that gave the
illusion of spaciousness, and the light green paint added an attractively airy feeling.
The room boasted a Murano-glass chandelier and sconces, and exuberantly carved golden console tables with black faux marbre tops flanking the queen- size bed, its cushioned headboard covered in a pretty green and rose floral damask. On the wall was a Venetian mirror with smoked glass, a large gilt- framed reproduction of a lagoon scene by Canaletto, a simple and handsome mahogany armoire (no closet in the room), a couple of stylish period chairs and occasional tables, and a black metal mini-bar that looked like a safe.
Squatting solidly on the minibar was a small-screen color TV in a matching black metal cabinet. These "amenities" did nothing to enhance the ambience and a great deal toward increasing the tariff, which was some $210 a night, including continental breakfast, service and taxes. The bathroom, almost antiseptically spiffy, strove to help justify this excessive figure by means of a wall phone and a hair dryer.
Two pairs of French doors led to a wide balcony (no depth to it) that hung over the quai and commanded the world of the Rialto Bridge. It was why we had to rent this room, however painful the price.
We were at the topographical center of the city. Since earliest times, there has been a bridge here - first, a bridge of boats, then a wooden bridge, and, for the last 400 years, this elegant design in white limestone by Antonio da Ponte.
The bridge could be considered a mini-mini-mini-mall - three pedestrian lanes separated by two rows of tiny shops selling souvenirs, costume jewelry, leather goods, sunglasses, women's and children's wear, toys, dolls and knickknacks.
During the day this thoroughfare ranged from lively to thronged. Sometimes it even served as a setting for demonstrations. We woke up one morning to a chorus of whistling and jeering. More than a hundred people were assembled on the bridge, obviously unified in their opposition to something. I asked the concierge. "Ah," he shrugged, "who can say? They are protesting housing or taxes or schooling or transportation. It is better than a strike."
Except for breakfast, we rarely spent time during the day on the balcony. It was at twilight and during the cocktail hour that we relaxed here, relishing the extraordinary richness of the scene.
Three different vaporetto lines stopped here. These bus boats seemed to disgorge many more passengers than they took on, but always managed to ease back into the stream with few empty seats. Motor taxis and gondolas bobbed at their berths beneath us, their skippers seeking fares. My wife generalized about couples in gondolas: "The women are beaming and the men look embarrassed."
From time to time, to the strident accompaniment of sirens or horns or bells, or all three, police launches or firefighting craft or ambulance boats added a note of tension as they sped by, churning up wakes that threatened to engulf the small boats. And always there were the barges, those ungainly and roofless haulers of foodstuffs and wines, of furniture and appliances, of trash and garbage, indeed, of old bricks and mortar and piping (restoration must be, after tourism, Venice's biggest business).
I suppose it is the barges that dramatize the one ineluctable fact about this waterlogged fable that is Venice: There are no streets or roads, no cars or trucks. In Venice, the word shipping must be taken literally.
Directly under our balcony was a sidewalk cafe, open to the skies. Next to it was another, canopies and awnings and umbrellas protecting the tourists
from sun and shower, while lending color to the scene.
On the opposite side of the water, a row of historic palazzi stretched away down the Canal, the noble structures - bleached pink or white with blue trim or muted coral - growing indistinct at about the point where the Rio San Luca flows into the Canal Grande.
What a fascinating canvas it was, and not one whit the less so for including, in addition to its centuries-old grandeur, a cafeteria, a tobacconist, a linen and lingerie shop, and a pizzeria. It was all there, and never more irresistible than when the sun had set and the facades were bathed in a soft golden glow and a veritable flotilla of gondolas glided upstream toward the Rialto. Discreet little lights on the jet-black boats enabled us to make out their unique shape and even the number of passengers.
More often, however, even before we saw the gondolas, it was the music we heard, floating over the water as we peered into the gloom from the balcony. Seated in the bow of the gondola - call it the flagship - would be an accordionist, sometimes accompanying himself, sometimes a singer. And always it was the melodies the whole world knows: "O Solo Mio," or "Come Back to Sorrento," or the theme from Mondo Cane, or even "That's Amore."
Then the gondolas would glide under the great single-span arch of the bridge and disappear into the night as the music faded. Yes, it was all kitsch and camp, staged strictly and shamelessly for the tourists. And yes, of course, Mary McCarthy was right: " . . . there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities - Rome or Florence or Naples. The tourist Venice is Venice."
Rent Room 33 at the Hotel Pensione Quisisana e Ponte Vecchio (4 Lungarno Archibusier; tel. 011-39-55-216-692) and every other serious tourist in Florence will envy you. A few, standing in the center of the old bridge itself, the Ponte Vecchio, will gaze up at you, perhaps sense something familiar in what they see, then turn away, perplexed by this touch of deja vu. An even tinier minority, however, will certainly envision Helena Bonham Carter standing just where you are standing, for they know that you must be occupying ''a room with a view," from the splendid film version of E.M. Forster's novel.
Room 33 at the Quisisana was small and it was simple. In fact, it was a perfect cube: 10 by 10 by 10. (Again, be grateful for that high ceiling).
The flavor was distinctly traditional, but this was no perfect period room. The polished herringbone-pattern hardwood floor with a couple of old Persian
throw rugs seemed very right to us. So did the dark and heavy carved walnut armoire and the matching chest of drawers and the formidable walnut armchair upholstered in faded green damask.
The lace doilies on the small, round bedside tables confirmed our instinct to place all of it somewhere in the last century. But the twin beds were another matter entirely. They consisted of nothing more nor less than a couple of padded headboards covered in a worthless and worn nondescript green fabric and fastened (tacked? glued?) to the wall. Each of the mattresses rested upon a thin layer of steel springs (not a box spring) that gleamed nakedly for our attention. A single light bulb framed by metal flower petals dangled from the ceiling.
So what were we to make of all this? The answer was obvious: We were in a pensione, a classic Florentine pensione. We were not at the Excelsior or the Grand. And when we opened the French doors and walked out onto the great covered terrace - the loggia - with its lofty beamed ceiling, we knew in a flash why Forster's heroine so cherished this very spot.
Peer down into the muddy waters of the Arno, and the eye is immediately seized by the Ponte Vecchio, perhaps 100 paces from the Quisisana entrance. Open only to pedestrians, the ancient bridge is lined with picturesque medieval-looking houses that serve principally as jewelers' shops and are cantilevered over the river. The jewelers here, consistently of the first rank, carry on the tradition of the great Florentine goldsmiths, dating back to the 15th century.
Now, eager to drink it all in, our gaze moved away from the water, to a galaxy of picture postcards: the plethora of palazzi on the opposite bank of the Arno, a montage of burnt umber and ochre and cream and sienna and mustard; the dome of San Frediano and, several blocks from it, the bell tower of Santo Spirito; muscular 16th-century Fort Belvedere; a stately line of cedars climbing a slope of the Boboli Gardens; the Piazzale Michelangelo, with its mighty David actually visible on a pretty day; on a knob above, the striking geometric facade in dark green and white stone of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. Almost within reach, the Galleria Uffizi, Florence's greatest museum, and closer still, the red tile roof of the Vasari Corridor, an arcade that connects the Uffizi with the Ponte Vecchio.
It was all too insistent, too provocative, too rich. In truth, the feast was indigestible. We found ourselves honestly welcoming dusk, with fewer and fewer landmarks to transfix the eye, the sun slipping behind Bellosguardo Hill, which is studded with great houses (Henry James lived in one for a time, Nathaniel Hawthorne in another) and crowned by its beautiful and unfrequented piazza.
Then it is that "the little muddy," as I sometimes think of the river, justifies the hyperbole lavished on it by promotion writers: "the golden Arno." And if, in fact, there should be a sculler abroad on the placid stream (and there often is), then might a Philadelphian even be excused from thinking of home and of Thomas Eakins' haunting Schuylkill scene.
Now in case you wonder whether it is truly this idyllic, let me inject a note of late-20th-century reality. Always - well, maybe not in the wee hours of the morning - there is the hum (dare I say the din) of motor traffic from the Lungarno Archibusieri, some 50 feet beneath our lovely loggia. Cars, buses, trucks and, above all, the fast, fume-firing Vespas race along the river.
For them, Renaissance Florence is only a rumor.
Signora Giovanna Marasco is the 81-year-old proprietress of the Quisisana, which was first opened, she said, by her great-grandmother.
"From the beginning, my great-grandmother had a clear idea of the kind of pensione she wished to establish. The clientele would be foreigners - English, American, Russian, French, German. She sought to create a cosmopolitan atmosphere filled with people who would have a true interest in all of the beauty, all of the art and history that Florence has to offer. It is these people who would go back to their countries and tell their friends what a splendid place Florence is and encourage them to stay at the Quisisana."
I asked her whether the movie, which had been released more than six years ago, continued to help her business.
"Yes, yes. But you understand that guests do not ask for Room 33. How could they know the number? They ask for 'a room with a view.' You must also understand that no scene was ever filmed in Room 33, but rather outside it, in the loggia, looking onto the river and to the other side, the view scene. James Ivory (director of A Room With a View) was always worried about having TV antennas show up in the picture. They are on so many roofs here - it was a problem."
A word about the tariff and the loggia. Room 33 and its spartan bath (plastic prefab shower - no tub) and its own private section of what is actually a very large loggia costs about $115 a night for two, continental breakfast, service and taxes included.
Room 36, opening onto the opposite end of the loggia, is essentially the same accommodation at the same price, again with its own private section of the great covered terrace. Between 33 and 36 lie rooms 34 and 35 (no direct access to the loggia), plus a sitting room for the use of all hotel guests and the central section of the loggia, also designated for the use of all hotel guests. What it comes down to, then, is that, regardless of room location, every guest has full access to the Quisisana's most treasured asset: its view. Signora Marasco was a bona fide miracle worker.
Well, when your accommodations in Venice and Florence have embraced the very worlds of the Rialto and the Ponte Vecchio, Room 54 in Rome's Hotel Margutta (34 Via Laurina; tel. 011-39-6-679-8440) is pretty tame stuff indeed. No Tiber, no dome of St. Peter's, no Colosseum.
We had to applaud the brevity - and the implicit candor - of the hotel's brochure: "The Hotel Margutta is in the very heart of the historical and tourist area of Rome, between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna. All rooms are equipped with bath and telephone. There is a hall for meetings." That was the copy in its entirety. Fair enough. This would not be fancy digs. But there was one room with its private rooftop garden terrace.
The elevator didn't quite get there, creaking to a halt one flight shy of the top. We climbed the rest of the way, then proceeded along a short, narrow passageway that suddenly opened onto the terrace, itself open to the sky. But since we were schlepping our luggage - there are no bellhops at the Margutta, and I am instinctively uneasy at the notion of aging chambermaids hefting heavy suitcases - we headed straight through the abundant greenery toward the door on the far side and into our room.
It was not large (I don't think we would know how to behave in a large room), and it was not regularly shaped. For instance, at the entrance the ceiling was less than seven feet high, but over at the fireplace - bricked up, alas - it sloped to nearly 10 feet.
The furnishings looked very old, but I suspect that none of them actually was. These pieces would be far too valuable if they were 17th and 18th century, especially the armoire, the chest of drawers, and the low corner cupboard, all sheathed in a light, figured walnut veneer that one encounters more often in Italy than anywhere else. As for the dark green wrought-iron headboard in a flamboyant scroll pattern, and the spindle-back rocking chair straight out of a Maine seacoast cottage, and the sleek black, white and blue overstuffed contemporary loveseat tucked into a niche beside the low-ceilinged
entrance, and the elaborate rococo gold mirror and the Louis XV open armchair with its gold damask seat - well, it all gave new resonance to the word eclectic.
Forget about coherence. Character was what Room 54 at the Margutta had.
The terrace, somewhat larger than the room, was a model for attractive clutter, what with some 15 to 20 green plants of assorted sizes and shapes, white molded plastic chairs and table, a floor of red and gray octagonal stones, even a green plastic garden hose snaking through the plants, a red fire extinguisher (never could figure that one out!), a classical stone female statue, and, overhead, a green trellis casting lacy shadow patterns on the smooth beige stucco.
But it was quiet here on our rooftop. Day or night, few of the sounds of the city seemed to drift up to the aerie.
The view was more often gritty than grand. In the foreground were the tile roofs and the cracking, paint-peeling, disclored gray-beige plaster walls of what looked suspiciously like tenements. An occasional corrugated tin-roof addition, plus a motley assortment of window shutters (mostly in ill repair) reinforced that suspicion. Chimneys - some metal, some masonry - and TV antennas jaggedly punctuated the canvas (James Ivory would have retreated in dismay). What color there was came courtesy of the wash on the clotheslines strung from house to house. A creeping green vine threatened to pull down a rainspout.
In the middle ground was the stone spire of that true rara avis in Rome, a non-Catholic church - All Saints Anglican. And backdropping it all was the Pinio Hill, where umbrella pines marched single file toward the imposing twin- towered Palazzo Valadier, in strong silhouette against the sky.
The eye had no difficulty assimilating the entire scene. Gritty or not, it was a single moment replete with the realism and the romanticism that is Rome.
We paid $140 a night for Room 54, which included a spacious bathroom (towels with all the absorbent nap of a sheet, but an electric hair dryer); continental breakfast (no charge for enjoying it on our terrace), service and taxes. There was no television or radio.
And if it was not a bargain - are there any bargains in Rome today? - it was a decent value.
What's more, it had that one attribute so difficult to put a price on: A rewarding view.