ROME–The lush textured walls of the Antico Caffe Greco at the foot of the Spanish Steps in central Rome have been a backdrop to history for centuries. The cafe, which opened its gilded doors on the posh Via Condotti in 1760, has been painted and primped over the years, but it’s spirit has largely remained the same. For centuries, the long narrow mirrored hall leading to smaller enclaves was the place in Rome for great minds to meet over coffee and spirits.
Much of its glory is memorialized in the 300 paintings and vintage photographs on the walls. And the list of past patrons sounds more like an all-time best seller listing, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lord Byron, Henry James, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, who lived and eventually died around the corner from here. Hans Christian Andersen lived in a room upstairs and, when he moved out, he left his velvet sofa which is still in use today. Casanova played court here, as did stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Audrey Hepburn. Buffalo Bill even showed up in 1890 with a group of cowboys for caffè Americano, and Orson Welles had his own corner table. Legend has it there was even a time when any cardinal who sat at a certain table would eventually become pope, which prompted long waiting lists for those with such aspirations.
Today, walking into the cafe from the posh designer lined street is like stepping back in time. Artists and academics have long since stopped coming here, but that doesn’t stop locals who live in this part of Rome from standing at the bar for their affordable espresso and cappuccino and reminiscing about how great things used to be. The tourists and glitterati who want to experience a slice of the history head down the narrow hallway that gives way to a salotto that could be a movie set. They settle into the worn velvet sofas and chairs while tuxedoed waiters glide around the room. Table service is five times more than what the locals pay, but to have a such an elegant waiter bring freshly squeezed orange juice or handcrafted cappuccino is somehow worth it. Most weekday late mornings, Stellario Baccellieri, the artist in situ, is perched on his bench seat sketching or painting patrons or random depictions of Rome’s most important tourist sites. There has always been a local artist at the cafe and Baccellieri recently told the Guardian that he’s seen “everything and everyone.” He is as much a fixture as the opulent chandeliers and hand maids who hand out towels in the restroom. “ The most important people have been here,” he said. “This place is not only a [cafe], it’s a museum.”
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