wishlist: spitbank

Spitbank Fort

The English city of Portsmouth has been fortified since Henry VIII built Southsea Castle in 1544 to protect the entrance to the harbor. The Tudor monarch was well aware that the strategic naval port on the south coast of Hampshire was exposed to attack from the French, a consideration that also concerned Prime Minister Palmerston a few years later in the mid-nineteenth century. Across the Channel, a newly crowned Emperor Napoleon III had revenge for his uncle’s defeat at Waterloo on his mind, which caused the British Government to reassess their coastal defenses. The result: a ring of detached sea forts - Spitbank, Horse Sand and No Man’s Land – built on the Spithead shoals in case of French invasion. The irony is that the forts never saw any action in the defense of he city, landing them the nickname “Palmerston’s  Follies.” De-activated by the end of WW II, the forts have been privately owned since 1982, going through many guises until one of them – Spitbank – finally found its true calling as a luxurious hideaway hotel. Arrive in style from your own private yacht or let them pick you up from nearby Gosport in a water taxi. The first thing you’ll notice is how things have changed since 1867: the previous gun emplacements have been transformed into eight stunning bedroom suites with sea views. The rooftop’s been converted to highlight a hot pool, expansive sun decks, and a steam sauna – all of which look out to Portsmouth Harbor and the iconic glass Spinnaker Tower. Your biggest decisions are likely going to involve where to eat and what to drink, so start with some bubbly in the Victory Bar before moving on to local crab and ribeye in the historic arched, brickwork of the Officer’s Mess. How about digestifs round the fire pit, looking out over the Isle of Wight? If the breeze proves too strong, settle in for brandy and roulette (or poker) in the Crow’s Nest. Win or lose, there’s nothing like waking up to the sound of the waves. Take a room for a short break or – more to my liking – hire the fort out as your own private island, with your own private crew. There’ll be no need to worry about neighbors telling you to keep the noise down – until the other two forts go condo that is.

spitbank suite

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when in rome

Working with the city of Rome, the Vatican Secret Archives – how’s that for an unprepossessing name? – is celebrating its 400th anniversary with an exhibit designed to shed light not only on its vast holdings but on some of the myth and mystery surrounding the collection, which was the subject of Dan Brown’s post-Da Vinci Code blockbuster Angels and Demons. “Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself” is at the Capitoline Museum until Sept. 9.

The secret – or, more accurately, “private” – archives were founded by Pope Paul V in 1612. Since 1881, they have been open only to scholars conducting research. Officials at the Archives point out that many of the original manuscripts, codices, and ancient parchments on display are outside the walls of the Vatican for the first time in history. Highlights include documents that describe the inquisition of Galileo Galilei, the case against the Knights Templar, and the order for Martin Luther’s excommunication. Also featured is a parchment in Latin with the seal of 83 English Lords seeking to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (His failure to obtain Papal approval ultimately led to the Reformation in Britain.)

As always when in Rome, do as the Romans do and avoid the crowds. A private tour of the exhibit can be tailor-made in conjunction with a stay at Rocco Forte’s fashionable Hotel de Russie, just off the Spanish Steps. Or get preferential access with the hotel’s Lux in Arcana package, which includes exhibition tickets, an overnight stay and the power to jump the line – Papal dispensation not required .

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