To the pantheon of celebrities who have touched down at Rome's Fiumicino airport – Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Sophia Loren – we must now add the Bannisters from Dudley in the West Midlands. The foursome flew in on a regular Monarch service from Birmingham. But once they arrived at the airport, the VIP treatment began.
A policeman in ceremonial attire, together with a legion of airport officials, welcomed the quartet – comprising Roger Bannister, who runs an engineering firm, his wife Wendy, brother Stephen and sister-in-law, Joyce. The phalanx bypassed passport control, while one of their escorts collected their luggage. That meant they could walk straight past the baggage carousels, too and straight into the airport's exclusive Sala Blu – decorated with press photographs of the film stars and politicians who had preceded the Bannisters from Dudley. Along with sandwiches and espresso, another welcoming committee awaited: a trio of representatives of Roma Capitale, the city's government. The delegation was headed by a 45-year-old chap with a smile almost as broad as he is. His name: Antonio Gazzellone, Special Delegate of the Mayor for Tourism.
Signor Gazzellone had arranged the Bannisters' visit to Rome – just five weeks after their previous trip. The reason for the swift return was summed up concisely in an aside from Wendy Bannister: "All this because of one ice cream."
Technically, all this was actually because of four ice creams. The Bannisters are the unsuspecting Brits who became front-page news during their first visit to the Italian capital. They ordered a quartet of cornets from the Caffetteria Antica Roma, close to the Spanish Steps. But instead of the normal single-cone mountains of gelato, costing €3 each at most, they were handed four large, elaborate creations together with a bill for €64.
While the snack bar had done nothing illegal, the Bannisters' innocent request for four ice creams had cost them dear. The proprietor's imaginative response to Italy's profound economic problems looked more like an on-the-spot fine.
City officials investigating accusations of overcharging by cafés close to tourist hot spots quizzed them about their purchase. They explained the circumstances and produced the receipt. Shortly afterwards, they found themselves being interviewed by the national daily, Corriere della Sera, about tourist rip-offs. Within a few days of returning to Britain, the "Gelato Four" appeared on BBC Breakfast. During the broadcast, Roger Bannister revealed that the Mayor had invited them back. So I asked if I might join them on the journey and buy them a (cheaper) ice cream. They kindly agreed – and even during the trip gave the odd helpful "he's with us" nod in my direction. They were invited to step into a specially chartered minibus for the drive into town, and I squeezed into a spare seat at the back.
One aspect of the case had puzzled me from the start. Why would the city authorities want to draw attention to overpriced ice cream and watch the meltdown as headlines worldwide revealed the rip-off? Presumably the city had decided that a reputation for overcharging must be tackled to keep the tourists coming. But why now?
As the minibus turned off the autostrada, I was about to find out in an unusual fashion. The back of the tourist coach that we found ourselves behind in a queue of traffic carried a political advertisement showing a candidate at the forthcoming city elections. He was a large gentleman, running on the Silvio Berlusconi ticket. His name: Antonio Gazzellone, Special Delegate of the Mayor for Tourism.
With tourism so crucial to Rome's economy, it is plainly not unhelpful in the run-up to an election if the Mayor's man is seen to be leading the charge against overcharging.
My musings on the possible political intrigue behind the most elaborate municipal apology in modern Italian history were interrupted by our arrival at the Bannisters' hotel.
The Jumeirah Grand Hotel Via Veneto is one of the very finest properties in the city and the tappeto rosso had been rolled out for the gruppo turisti Inglesi, as they were known on the planning documents for the trip. They were greeted by Giuseppe Roscioli, president of the Rome Hotel Federation, which was paying for the stay – and by James Hill, the leading British guide to Rome, who was my contribution to the party. He had agreed to provide them with an insight or two to the city, and then to provide me with a guided tour of gelaterias where visitors to Rome can order delicious (See "gelato guide" below)
By now, the Bannisters were getting used to rock-star treatment. They sat in the exquisitely proportioned lobby while a succession of waiters brought coffee and nibbles and someone else dealt with the paperwork. Joyce didn't forget the hangers-on, sneaking me a spare cup of coffee. Could the first signs of a certain gelato fatigue be creeping in? As I sipped the covert cappuccino, she sighed: "I wish people would stop coming up to me and singing 'Just one Cornetto'."
Time, though, for just one more ice cream. We set the controls for the touristic heart of Rome, the Trevi Fountain. At the Melograno Gelateria, within easy coin-throwing distance of the fontana, the Bannisters ordered two cones of cherry ice cream, one of chestnut and one of coconut, each slathered extravagantly on in the manner of a Baroque sculpture.
I paid the €10 bill, took them outside for some photographs – when, in a possible sign of divine retribution, the heavens opened with a storm to match the drama of the Trevi Fountain itself. James Hill, our guide, theatrically trumped the thunder with a compelling explanation of the Baroque masterpiece (the Trevi, not the ice cream): "This captures the instant when the gods chose to tame the waters that were engulfing the earth."
The Bannisters were, by now, feeling a touch engulfed, so James and I set off on our own – with a mission to test the business model of the Antica Roma, the café where "GelatoGate" began.
The Latin expression caveat emptor predates TripAdvisor, but anyone reading the comments about the Antica Roma on the online travel forum (bit.ly/GelatoGate) soon works out that the buyer needs to beware. A common thread among ice cream purchasers is that, in the absence of any more specific instructions, they may be served a Cono Berchilos Medio, priced on the menu at €16. Other travellers have complained that a reasonably priced coffee and croissant becomes a very expensive elevenses if you make the mistake of carrying it from the counter to the table, whereupon the price trebles.
James and I stood firm and enjoyed a cappuccino at the bar for €1.50 each – a price that undercuts every café I know within a five-minute range of a leading London tourist attraction.
The Bannisters' vita nella corsia di sorpasso (life in the fast lane) continued for three days. After a special visit to the Capitoline Museums, they went to meet the Mayor, Gianni Alemanno, together with the ever-present Antonio. They presented some Black Country glassware to the Roman version of Boris Johnston and were in return awarded commemorative coins.
For their homeward journey, a luxury transfer was laid on back to Fiumicino. This was a marked contrast to their first visit, when the taxi driver charged €68 to reach the airport. Roger, generous to a fault, even added a €7 tip on top. When I pointed out that legal fixed rate for an airport run is just €48, Roger shrugged: "He helped us make the flight and deserved it."
A man, evidently, who appreciates value.
James Hill's gelato guide
Order an ice-cream with no financial meltdown at Giolitti at Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40 (00 39 06 699 1243; giolitti.it), an elegant institution that has endured better than the politicians it has served over the years.
The Gelateria del Teatro at Via di San Simone 70 (tucked into a corner of Piazza di San Salvatore in Lauro) has a theatrical shop window, where you watch the chefs compile exotic flavours such as lavender and honey.
For something new, the Gelateria dell' Angelo on Via di Panico has just started serving €2 organic cones with orgasmic flavours.
Rome Fiumicino is served by Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) from Luton, Leeds/Bradford and Birmingham; BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (0871 424 1424; alitalia.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester.
Ciampino is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, Edinburgh, East Midlands, Manchester and Prestwick.