Tea steps to heaven
Chiara Bedini, the current owner and great-granddaughter of Babington's Tea Rooms founder.

For any visitor to Rome, a trip to the Spanish Steps is high on the "must do" list. The widest staircase in Europe, the landmark links the Bourbon Spanish Embassy with the Trinita dei Monti church at the top.

Most visitors are probably unaware of the link that binds two buildings at the base of the steps in the Piazza di Spagna, but they comprise a little bit of England at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Italy's capital.

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One is the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, a quaint museum named after English poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats moved to Italy in November 1820, seeking the warmer weather doctors advised was necessary for his health. He moved into the lodgings at the Spanish Steps but was already dying from tuberculosis. He died in the rooms in February 1821 aged just 25.

The house continued as a pension, or lodging rooms, for 80 years but was falling into disrepair when an American poet came upon it early in the 20th century and decided to restore it. It reopened in 1909 and contains works by Keats and Shelley.

Less well-known is the building on the other side of the steps, Babington's Tea Rooms, yet its history is more charming.

The story centres on Miss Isabel Cargill and Miss Anna Maria Babington, two young English ladies who arrived in Rome at the end of the 19th century.

The days of the Grand Tour, when wealthy English people toured Europe to broaden their mind and then return home to Mother England, had come to an end; these two ladies came with £100 to settle and make a respectable living.

The area around the Spanish Steps was known then as the English Ghetto. But the only place they could get their favourite beverage, tea, was from a pharmacy, so Ms Cargill and Ms Babington opened tearooms where expatriates could partake of tea and read their papers. And so Babington's was born.

The enterprise was so successful that three years later they moved from their first premises to renovated stables at the foot of the Spanish Steps, a building designed by the same architect responsible for what has become known as the Keats-Shelley Memorial House.

I'm told this over a cup of tea with Chiara Bedini, the great granddaughter of Ms Cargill and the fourth generation involved in the tearooms.

Babington's Tea Rooms at the foot of the Spanish Steps, Rome. Picture: Mark Irving, The West Australian
"It is a piece of England and we like to keep it that way," she says. "Tea is our core business - it's part of our soul. But it's very difficult to communicate the quirkiness of the English."

Ms Bedini speaks fluent English despite having lived in Italy all her life. The business, which she runs with a cousin, now serves food.

"We serve anything at any time of the day," she says proudly. Burgers? "Ours are the best in town."

It's also probably the only tearooms on the planet where you can order Bollinger champagne. Babington's doesn't sell much but it needs to be on the list, she explains.

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Out of deference to the budget, I skipped the Bolly. I also passed on a Yin Zhen tea - a white tea produced by the "imperial plucking method" which consists of picking at dawn on only two days of the year. It's "delicate and refreshing" but also 23 euros ($31) a pot, so I plump for Babington's Royal Blend - a Chinese, Darjeeling and Formosa mix that was presented to Queen Elizabeth on a visit to Rome.

Ms Bedini describes the Babington's atmosphere as "traditional but fun". In the summer her trade is dominated by the tourists; in the winter Babington's is patronised by the locals who, she says, love the cakes.

Many Italian celebrities and politicians are customers, as are VIPs from all over the world. "They love us because we don't allow photographers (paparazzi)," she says.

The West Australian

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