Historic Venice

Londra Palace Venezia Deluxe Room
Londra Palace Venezia Deluxe Room with lagoon view - Photo credit: Londra Palace Venezia

I challenge anyone who arrives not to be astonished by their dramatic entry into this historic city. No cars, just boats and water and arrestingly beautiful buildings. Venice has been a constant for me having visited over 30 times. Never is a revisit a repeat as there’s always something new to see. All worldly concerns vanish as I take part on this stunning stage.

Gondolas bowing and swaying. Pigeons prowling and seagulls scavenging. Water flapping and lapping from gentle to furious. Sinew-straining gondoliers bobbing and balancing. Everyone must come to Venice at least once. It’s really that insistent a request, that special a place, that must for any bucket list.

I stayed first at the 5-star Londra Palace Venezia just behind St. Mark’s. Independent and family owned, its’s part of the Relais & Châteaux association. Built in 1853, it’s a hotel with a wonderful timeless elegance. The foyer welcomed me with its stunning marble flooring and its signature Murano glass chandelier. I knew at once I was in luxury. The décor has just been transformed with a new divine Art Deco style giving it a wonderful luxuriant feel. Within the lighting is both natural and artificial. A very impressive library full of books all on Venice lies on one side and a pianist tickled the ivories in the uber-chic LPV bar on the other where an Americano cocktail is served comprising 4 x Vermouth, 4 x bitters and 1 angostura and soda on top. It’s so special along this stretch to sit outside for top al fresco dining.

A groovy metallic lift took me to my room, one of 52 with their 100 windows in all overlooking the lagoon and each with differently coloured drapes. Mine, in aquamarine blue, cleverly blended with the water beyond. How romantic to wake up and open the shutters to the central hub of boats overlooking San Giorgio Maggiore. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Such a thoroughfare with such beauty. Even more special from the rooftop terrace. Relais & Châteaux aim “to create delicious journeys” and so it proved. I simply loved this hotel.

To travel and site-see at leisure I recommend a Venezia Unica City Pass. I often take a vaporetto in the evening up and down the Grand Canal. Only then can one peer into the true splendour of the gilded ceilings and expansive rooms of the opulent palazzos. If you spot a green church door open pop in as they are often shut. Take the lift at San Giorgio Maggiore for a panoramic view of the lagoon as it’s quicker and cheaper than St. Mark’s campanile. From here you can look down upon the churches that are crowned with statues that seem to converse with one another on an altogether higher plane.

AMO Venice
AMO interior – Photo by Frederico Nero courtesy of AMO

Right by the Rialto bridge the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the former 12th century German warehouse-cum-market, resembles a de Chirico painting or an inside out version of Rome’s Palazzo della Civilta. It’s now a luxury shopping emporium with both high end brands like Bulgari and Gucci and a fantastic view of the city from its 4th floor rooftop. Relatively new and central on the ground floor is AMO, a restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. You could water taxi straight in like the famous waterskiing girl in the James Bond film. Here shoppers busily come to eat by day, couples more leisurely by night when it’s dimly lit in keeping with the restaurant’s name. In my romantic booth on my chic, striped banquette I enjoyed my white and green asparagus with seaweed sauce and mullet bottarga, as well as later my pineapple and mezcal sorbet with mango puree and passion fruit. The vegetarian options are excellent, and the Sicilian olive oil comes with quite a kick!

Four nights is a good length of stay. Don’t try and take in everything, as you won’t manage it as it’s too visually arresting. I like to temper the crowded central sites with the outer parishes. Indeed, Henry James said, “nothing requires more care, as a long knowledge of Venice works in, than not to lose the useful faculty of getting lost”. So, I avoid the hordes who sheepishly follow the yellow arrow from the station via the Rialto to St Mark’s Square. I walk the wide expanse of the quaysides and their exposure to the sea.

For a special treat I recommend the chef Luigi Lionetti’s Vero at Ca’ di Dio. An abbreviation of ‘Venetian Roots’, it pays culinary respect to its courtyard garden and the local markets. It’s minimal and modern, discreet and low lit. A chunky Murano glass door led me to a ceiling printed with goldfish, fruit and vegetables and replicated on the menus and aprons. Seats outside in the warmer months overlook the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s a gourmet delight comprising a range of taster menus be it 4 courses (Vero, the vegetarian), 5 (Arsenale the fish) or 7 (Incontro, the fish and meat option). All are paired with wines. I loved the delicious rhubarb and apple. The cuisine is so refined and precise that my plate had four varieties of tomato.

It’s the light and the colours that are unique to Venice. Monet and Turner were drawn to the restless light, enhanced by the blues of the water and sky. There’s something disarming about the soft pink exterior of the Doges Palace given it was the epicentre of Venetian potency. Both Palladio’s St Giorgio Maggiore and Redentore have an icy majesty with their pure, lucid Istrian stone, their interiors so calming, serene and satisfying. It’s misty and mysterious in winter with a sense of foreboding exemplified by the ghostly spectre of the Salute lit at night and the haunting films “Don’t Look Now” and “Death in Venice”.

I stayed next at the Radisson Collection Hotel, Palazzo Nani Venice. Near the station and beside the Ghetto in the Cannaregio district, it recently opened in 2021 as part of the Radisson Collection. It’s the former residence of the ancient Nani family. Two fabulously long rooms adorned with impressive stuccos, frescoes and exposed beams on the 2nd ‘salone nobile’ and 3rd floors preserve the original features of the facade and interiors. These are attributed to Alessandro Vittoria, one of Venice’s two top sculptors, who remodelled the palazzo in the 1680s. The foyer is contemporary and chic with teal walls, divine sculpture, a marble bench and soft velvet chairs.

Palazzo Nani Premium Room
Palazzo Nani Venice Collection Premium Room with canal view – Photo credit: Palazzo Nani Venice

Zoja, meaning happiness or joy, is the hotel restaurant which is right by the Jewish ghetto known for where to enjoy the traditional Cicchetti Veneziani, the local tapas. Many of the 52 rooms and suites have direct canal views. My room had a typical Venetian original coffered ceiling and exposed beams. The fabrics were soft, the colours serene and neutral. There was lots of space and super plush linen bedding. Downstairs a shiny real black gondola is the signature feature on the terrace in the garden on the north side of the hotel. Here was the setting for my breakfast in utter tranquillity away from the crowds. What a way to start the day.

Discretely tucked away yards behind San Mark’s Basilica is Il Ridotto. The name of this restaurant means a club or withdrawing room as it’s a tiny, delightful gourmet restaurant. With only 9 tables it needs booking and is the family concern of Chef Gianni Bonaccorsi and his son, who both wear high white hats resembling Pulcinelle. Under exposed wooden beams and besides brick walls I sat in my chic leather chair with mirrors enhancing the room’s depth. It’s popular with locals which is always a good sign. I loved my raw tiger prawn marinated with soya sauce and green apple vinegar paired with the local Manzoni Bianco. A place of serenity and poise with all the world busying outside.

All my senses were engaged as the lack of combustion, save for the bustling water traffic, allows for the city’s unique absence of noise. Church bells admittedly chime but charmingly at slightly different times out from their sloping wonky bell towers. No one writes about Venice more insightfully than Jan Morris in her book ‘The Stones of Venice’ and no guidebook can better that of Mitchell Beazley.

For a special experience and superbly positioned in the middle of Piazza San Marco I indulged in a bellini (prosecco and peach juice) outside at Grancaffè Quadri. You can alternatively have Puccini (with tangerine) or Rossini (with strawberry). Here I watched the world go by before entering Quadrino bistro. Glorifying in its 1665 origins, it has two elegant rooms with banquettes with framed ancient paintings above teal mosaic floors. Its vegetables coming from the nearby island of San Erasmo and stunningly presented were my cicchetti (Venetian tapas), the freshest and lightest of salads and the minutely chopped fruit salad. It’s full of romance and quality and where to savour top modern Italian fayre.

Many new concepts began in Venice. The word for a public open-air swimming pool comes from the Italian Lido, the famous Venetian bathing beach. The original arsenal developed in the 11th century and was the heart of the naval industry. The original ghetto was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The word quarantine itself originates from the Venetian dialect ‘quaranta giorni’ (forty days).

Sweet Molly in Venice
Sweet Molly – Photo credit: Classic Boats Venice

I took a half day private tour of the islands with Classic Boats Venice. On board ‘Sweet Molly’, an historic mahogany motorboat, my well-informed guide knew exactly when to proffer lunch and his knowledge. The Venetians made such efficient use of the isolation of their islands with glass (from the fiery factories of Murano), lace (from the joyous colourful houses of Burano), a cemetery (San Michele) and an asylum (San Servolo). The smaller islands have exquisite walks, the freshest of air, the sweetest of aromas from the cypresses of San Francisco del Deserto and the rich vegetation of Sant’ Erasmo. There are ibises and cormorants, egrets and terns by Sant’ Erasmo. Flamingos hover in the salt flats near Murano, and swans enjoy the shallows by Torcello. And all so enhanced by the utter silence. A perfect dream boat experience for wedding couples.

To celebrate my last night I ate at Bacaromi at Hilton Molino Stucky, a former flour mill at one end of the Giudecca. On the 8th floor the Skyline Bar has fabulous views of the sunset along the Zattere and down the Giudecca Canal. Outside at ground level, under white canopies from Chef Ivan Fargnoli’s new menu, I enjoyed king scallops in tomato sauce, shallot, herbs and chilli followed by croaker fillet, escarole sauce, broad bean and red radish and then forest fruit salad with homemade strawberry ice cream. All helped along by a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso. Such a romantic spot at the very edge of the city.

The Venetians are similar to the Cornish: rugged, seafaring, separatist and mercantile, putting up with tourists if only for their spending. There’s an unholy alliance between the tourists scrambling for the best vantage point out in front of the vaporetto while the locals sit indifferently inside. All types and sizes of boats deliver goods and people up the Grand Canal. It’s what adds to the spectacle.

To get to Venice from the airport needn’t be complicated. Venezia Porta Est offered me an excellent transfer service, with a luxury fleet of one car, four minibuses and two minivans, alongside other standard cars, and dropping me off in Piazzale Roma, the main terminal where cars finish, and boats start. They could have arranged a private water taxi. However, I arrive, be it by car, train, vaporetto or water taxi, the skyline of bell towers always summons me. When I leave it’s on the back seat of a vaporetto looking back forlornly and wistfully. I must return soon!

Fact Box

Adam had support from Heathrow Express www.heathrowexpress.com and from Holiday Extras www.holidayextras.co.uk (0800 316 5678) who offer airport lounges at all major UK airports and many international destinations). He was covered by online travel insurance specialist, CoverForYou, (0207 183 0885).

Author Bio:

Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of QI the BBC programme for Stephen Fry and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World published by Penguin Books.

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