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Roman holiday


ROYAL ABODE: La Vosta Pecchia is housed in a 17th century villa. The basement musuem is stocked with ancient artefacts

Battle-weary Roman emperors came to this seaside resort to de-stress. But it can calm modern nerves too.

Till a few centuries ago, you would have been turned away at the door of this magnificent mansion if you didn't have noble Roman blood coursing through your veins or unimaginable riches to boast of. But now that we live in more egalitarian times, ordinary travelers can not only enter the precincts of La Posta Vechhia (the Old Post House) but also holiday in it.

Romans used to call the area Alsium. Marcus Aurelius and Caesar took time off from the demands of the state to saunter along the tranquil coast of the turquoise blue Tyrrhenian Sea. What you see today is a magnificent coastal villa surrounded by herbal gardens and sunflower fields, just 40-minutes from Rome. But history lies hidden, just a few feet below the ground.

La Posta Vecchia, a luxury seaside resort, has a unique USP: it is built over Ceasar's summer palace. A few steps into its basement will take you a few hundred years back in time, possibly into Caesar's dressing room. A large broken marble slab has the the Roman emperor's visage engraved on it. The mosaics and artefacts unearthed on site are now housed in a private underground museum, which is open to guests and visitors, without charges or entry fee.

A stay at the La Posta Vecchia could set you back a few thousand euros but history lovers can just drive over from Rome to get a sense of how Caesar lived. That's what I did. The half-hour drive from Rome to La Posta is ethereal. Acres of sunflower fields will give you company through most of the drive.

The owner of the resort, Mary Louise, is a die-hard Indophile who visits Kerala every December. Mary is clear that the treasures they discovered by chance are for all to savour irrespective of whether they stay in La Posta Vecchia or not. For an Indian, she would be more than glad to arrange a free guided tour.

In the central part of the building is an atrium, characterised by a basin with a marble lining and an impluvium (a sunken part of an atrium) rising up in what most probably was a two-storey mansion. A portico around the basin, passageways and rooms with polychrome mosaic floors and rich geometric and floral decorations dating back to ancient times is truly charming.

Some parts of the passageway are still covered with African and Greek marble. There are also a great number of historical artefacts such as tableware and crockery, oil lamps, needles for nets, make-up implements, among which of special charm are several glass balm containers.

The original villa was built by Prince Orsini in 1640 on top of the remains of the alsium. The Orsini family, who owned a castle next door, needed a place for visiting friends to stay. In 1693, the family sold their property to another Italian aristocrat Livio Odescalchi. A major fire almost destroyed it in 1918. In 1960, it was bought by American oil billionaire J Paul Getty, who restored it to its original splendour, adding furniture, objects and artwork acquired from royal homes from around the world.

Getty once described this place as a "serene and heavenly home. " Gettty wanted to construct an underground swimming pool. During the restoration, the ruins of a large Roman villa were uncovered. The present owner Marie Louise Scio bought the 17th century jewel from the American industrialist and re-converted it in 1992. The entrance to the mansion brings you face to face with Getty's exceptional collection of decorative arts and baroque furniture, no two pieces being the same. Some say a train used to bring these treasures to Getty who chose what he wanted.

La Posta Vecchia sits right on the edge of the sea. A long verandah lines the imaginary beach where one can enjoy the most sumptuous Italian fare with fabulous views of the sea. Regulars at this intimate Renaissance-built country house wish the place remained a secret. But then again, some secrets should be shared.

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