Venice

Structurally Venice may be sinking. In other ways, we would surmise it’s on the up. Though its obvious charms may be historical – its campaniles, campos, cathedrals and canals, its frankly faded grandeur – there’s a contemporary side to the city too.

The growth in influence of its Film Festival – the oldest in the world – means that come September, it throngs with actors, directors and other influence-formers of the cinema industry. While the rising critical importance of its art and architecture Biennales (art in odd numbered years and architecture in even, so go this year for contemporary art) has cemented its reputation as a city with an eye – indeed an influence – on the future.

The rising critical importance of both its art and architecture has cemented its reputation as a city with an eye – indeed an influence – on the future.

It may seem paradoxical to cite a cemetery in this context, but look at the exquisitely atmospheric island of San Michele. Last resting place of Stravinsky and Diaghilev it may be, but its recent, arrestingly minimalist makeover is the work of the British arch-Modernist David Chipperfield.

The redevelopment of the island of Certosa – the largest hitherto all-but-abandoned island in the lagoon, is ongoing. The €30m makeover includes a marina, sailing school, hotel and restaurant, vineyard and ‘parco urbano’ by the architect Tobia Scarpa.

In the wake of all this, and while not exactly a fashion city to rival Milan or Florence, most of the major Italian design brands have stores in Venice. LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate, is behind the recently opened Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a multi-level brand concept store with roof terrace and restaurant (see our separate review). More intriguing are the wonderful sources of local artisanal crafts – glass, obviously, and fine stationery.

Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that although Venice is a working city of more than 270,000 people, it is sustained by tourism, some aspects of which can make it feel like a theme park. (yet somehow you DO want to ride in a gondola and stop by Florian for a ristretto).

Eating can be a pleasure when you know where to go, what with the seafood (the moeche, or soft shell crabs they catch here in the spring and autumn) and the salads (the tiny young artichokes they call castraure), washed down with a fresh Friuli wine (a Jermann, per piacere), or an Elena Walch from the Alto Aldige. Even something local from the surrounding Veneto. At which point we might as well mention that Venice is also an excellent gateway to this unfrequented part of Italy – Palladio’s hometown Vicenza is very much worth a day trip – not to mention Verona and thence the Italian Lakes (and the glorious Grand Hotel à Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda).

Eating can be a pleasure when you know where to go, what with the seafood and the salads, washed down with a fresh Friuli wine, or an Elena Walch from the Alto Aldige.

Away from San Marco, Cannaregio, to the north, but on the same side of the Grand Canal beyond the Rialto, is home to more of the resident population than any of the other five sestiere, and consequently edgier and properly authentic.

Then there are the less frequented parts of San Polo, where Antiche Carampane is located, on the far side of the Grand Canal from San Marco, within its sweeping curve. Castello, the hinterland beyond the Danieli, to the east of the centre towards the Arsenale, and the Giardini Pubblici where the bulk of the Biennale is held, is where our favourite Corte Sconta and the nearby Al Covo are to be found.

Above all, Venice is a city to wander in – water taxis and vaporetti aside, you’ve no alternative but to explore it on foot – and it’s not hard to lose the crowds if you venture away from the main hub that is San Marco. The labyrinth of alleys and the fact that Venetians don’t bother with street names when they give you an address (only the district and a number, though maps.venicexplorer.net is an invaluable resource for decoding this) means you’re bound to get lost at least once, but the centre is so small, you’ll find your way back eventually. Strangely this is one city where a compass can be more help than a map.

As to when to visit, we like it best in winter. Yes, the wind can be icy, and you run the risk of an acqua alta, when the waters rise over the paviors of San Marco, and you have to walk on duckboards, but for all its inconvenience, that is an unforgettably beautiful sight. At this time of year, the light is extraordinary, sharp and bright when the sun shines, pearlised and suffused pink as it sets; or misty and mysterious when the pressure is lower. Come during Carnival in February but remember to avoid August.

Otherwise La Serenissima is as serenely beautiful and evocative a city as we can think of at most times of the year. Nothing raises the spirits quite like the moment the skyline and its defining structures – Palladio’s Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore, the lion of St Mark on its pillar – come into focus, as you speed in a motoscafo across the lagoon, the swiftest, most glamorous airport transfer we know.

Unmissables

As is the case with all cities rich in cultural and historical capital, Venice is, if you’ll excuse the pun, awash with tourist traps. By this, we mean the kind of congested attractions and supposedly essential ‘sights’ listed in all the blasé guidebooks that no visitor in search of an authentic experience would actually want to see.

Yet, some of the city’s blockbuster attractions will no doubt be definite must sees for certain Nota Bene clients, such as the increasingly popular film festival (movie stars aside, does Cannes really have any edge over Venice?); and, perhaps most notably, its world-renowned art and architecture Biennales. (showing art in odd numbered years and architecture in even.)

An important part of experiencing the city is to lose yourself, both figuratively and literally, in its maze of streets and alleys.

Peggy Guggenheim brought contemporary art to Venice when she first exhibited her collection here in 1948, and her marvellous eponymous museum on the Dorsoduro has drawn visitors since 1980.

But this along with the Biennale, is no longer the only place in the city to marvel at modernity. Since June 2009 there’s been the François Pinault Foundation at the Palazzo Grassi, its 18th-century baroque setting remodelled by Tadao Ando; and its companion space, Punta della Dogana. And let’s not forget the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, which has been showcasing work by the likes of Marlene Dumas, Alex Katz and Roni Horn, as well as emerging Italian talent, since the start of this century.

Yet Venice is not the kind of place where you can stay confined indoors and an important part of experiencing the city is to lose yourself, both figuratively and literally, in its maze of streets and alleys.

Should you tire of endlessly trawling the streets only to end up back at the Piazza San Marco among the throngs of sightseers, we suggest you make time to visit the islands: Torcello, for its sublime Byzantine basilica, as well as the delightful Locanda Cipriani restaurant; Murano for glass and a great lunchtime-only restaurant Busa Alle Torre da Lele; Burano for its pretty brightly coloured houses; Pellestrina for a particular type of lace-making; even the Lido.

Hotel Scene

For all the abundance of hotels in Venice, there are only a few we would countenance staying at and our shortlist currently runs to three clear winners, namely Belmond Hotel Cipriani & Palazzo Vendramin Gritti Palace and Aman Canal Grande.

Belmond Hotel Cipriani & Palazzo Vendramin

Hotel Cipriani & Palazzo Vendramin is a long-time favourite. And after a long day’s pounding the streets, there’s nothing nicer than to relax in the Cipriani’s elegant gardens or take a dip in its pool – for this was one of the first true ‘urban resorts’ – or just to gaze across the Giudecca canal at San Marco, a mere eight minutes away in the hotel’s swish launch. A sleek gleaming motor-boat in Cipriani livery, which runs a 24-hour service and waits at Piazza San Marco to take guests and diners across the lagoon to the hotel on Giudecca island.

Formerly part of the Orient-Express group, now rebranded Belmond, this is a property with which we have a fond relationship dating back to the days when it was expertly run by former managing director, the charming Natale Rusconi.

His successor, Giampaolo Ottazzi, also charming and very professional, runs ‘the Cipriani’, as most refer to it, which to this day has a special place among iconic world hotels.

The main hotel, built in 1957 with later additions, is of undistinguished architectural style. What is unparalleled is the setting, in peaceful gardens, with the famous centrepiece Olympic-sized pool, virtually surrounded by the lagoon on the island of Giudecca across from mainland Venice. And there are some beautiful suites.

There is a variety of accommodations, many refurbished within the past five years, some rather ordinary while others, certain signature suites, are impressive. Like all top accommodations in Europe they come at a price.

One part of the original 15th-century Palazzo Vendramin, previously owned by the Duchess of Manchester, was sold to the Cipriani approximately twenty-five years ago. It provides ten accommodations and offers the utmost in privacy, which has made it popular with such luminaries as the late Princess Diana, Sharon Stone and Barbra Streisand. Here you have that real feeling of being in Venice, particularly if you are in a suite facing across the water to the magnificence of the city, with those wonderful sunsets over the rear of the Salute, and views of St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.

Butler service, a discreet separate gated entrance on the Giudecca waterfront side and a walkway through gardens to the main Cipriani building and pool are all features of the fabled, slightly faded, yet rather splendid Palazzo Vendramin.

In the main Cipriani building you will find classic, well-appointed common areas, boutiques, the main bar with its poolside terrace and suites facing the lagoon as well as some attractive junior suites. We love lunch at the pool restaurant, at a table overlooking the water, the launches arriving and departing alongside. And the launch across to Venice for shopping or dining. We also love walking across the gardens, through the walkway by the side of Palazzo Vendramin and out the gate for a stroll along the Giudecca waterfront.

It’s not perfect. Order an à la carte breakfast on the terrace alongside the canopied entrance and don’t be pushed into taking from the buffet. Don’t take any restaurant recommendations from the concierges (better to go with ours). Be very careful in room selection (better still, let us choose for you) and, with all these tips noted, you might rather love the Cipriani. It is, after all, unique among world classic hotels.

A downside, however, is that it’s open only from late March till early November, while the season at Palazzo Vendramin – the palatial Annexe we’d choose to stay in – is shorter still, from April till mid-October. And we prefer Venice in winter.

After a long day’s pounding the streets, there’s nothing nicer than to relax in Hotel Cipriani’s elegant gardens or take a dip in its pool.

Palazzina Grassi – An Aside

Raising the standards of boutique accommodation by a mile is Palazzina Grassi, the 26–room boutique on the Grand Canal, in what’s really our favourite part of Venice, just far away enough from the epicentre for it to feel calm, and perhaps the only hotel in Venice with a palpable sense of cool. Designed by Philippe Starck, its rooms, though tending to be compact, are clever essays in contemporary but still essentially Venetian, styling, acres of Venetian mirror, with decorative bevelled frames, mask motifs and lots of white. More than the rooms, though, we love the stylish lounge-bar-cum-restaurant, and its open kitchen. It is a Design Hotel, and occasional glitches notwithstanding, it is one to consider for the younger market or for those not prepared to pay the – relatively-speaking – stratospheric rates charged at those in our top three.

Which leaves us with the palace hotels. In our earlier days we commented that the choice was a toss up between the venerable Danieli and the Gritti, (both members of Starwood’s dreaded Luxury Collection), and advised readers to dodge the Bauer Il Palazzo. While we still find the latter handsome but a little lifeless, we must credit the Bauer’s latest offering, Villa F (in case you’re wondering, the ‘F’ stands for Francesca, the hotel’s owner) not far from the Cipriani on Giudecca island.

Gritti Palace

This aside, it is the Gritti that secures our vote for best grande-dame and has a place in our top three. Fairly recently the subject of a lavish refurbishment as it was old-fashioned to point of faded, it reopened approximately three years ago.

This former doge’s palace occupies what is arguably the finest Grand Canal location, directly opposite the magnificent church of Santa Maria della Salute and just far enough away from the madding crowd around the St Mark’s area. It is not perfect.

You need to be very careful in selecting the right suite in the right location and you need to engage with the right concierge. And while we love the elegance of Club del Doge for dinner it becomes overly congested in the morning when it doubles up as a breakfast room, and the buffet affair is a bit of a mess. Yet, in overall terms, for history, building, location and comfort, it has a place in our top three Venice hotels.

Always aim for a Grand Canal view, or if none is available, which is invariably the case, a suite on the side of the boat jetty facing the street with partial canal view. Only go for floors 1, 2 and 3 as opposed to mezzanines 1A and 2A where ceilings are lower. Take an aperitivo on that heavenly terrace as the sun starts to set, or lunch alfresco on Club del Doge’s adjoining one for a full-on view over the Grand Canal and soak up the magic that is Venice.

Gritti Palace is not perfect and at times it can feel corporate and touristy. Bathrooms can be small, most of them internal; room service is fine if not outstanding; the concierge desk is at its best when Ivan Schultz is there, yet is not always ‘up to scratch’. Yet with this in mind and some of the Starwood ways of doing things you have to adjust to, there remains a place in our hearts as well as on our shortlist for this icon among world hotels.

Aman Canal Grande

The Aman Canal Grande, located in the Palazzo Papadopoli, is a newcomer in the luxury stakes, and one made famous by the much-publicised illustrious guests Amal and George Clooney, who took the hotel over for their wedding in 2014.

This handsome palazzo now offers 24 mainly suite-type accommodations with a terrace and garden overlooking the Grand Canal, and a roof-terrace for guests’ use, which looks over the rooftops of San Polo. This is one of our favourite areas of the city, close to the Rialto Bridge yet quiet and mainly residential with several beautiful churches and palazzos.

Some may argue that its location is rather out on a limb as it is a good 20–25 minute walk to San Marco. So, unless you like walking (which we do) the option is either to take one of the astronomically priced water taxis or jump on the vaporetto. Both ‘Aman junkies’ and those seeking an interesting mix of contemporary with the classic will love Aman Canal Grande, a refreshing addition to the luxury hotel scene in Venice. Public rooms are large and lofty and can, at times, feel a little austere so the experience is better when the hotel is busy. The original experiment with Thai and Japanese dining options has now changed to Italian only and it is excellent.

The dining room, located on the first floor (piano nobile) comprises two spaces, one overlooking the Grand Canal and the other the side garden. Both feature frescoes, elaborate gilding and chandeliers and everything else you might expect in an original 16th-century palazzo. But this has been offset with contemporary furnishings and flower arrangements, a juxtaposition that brings classic Venetian in line with cool, contemporary style, and which has also been well executed in the guest accommodations, of which we love certain of the named signature suites. The Aman is a contrast to both Cipriani and Gritti properties but a clear contender in our top three.

Restaurant Scene

Of course there are Michelin starred restaurants in Venice (Da Fiore, Quadri, Met… i tutti gli altri), but to come here in the hope of high-falutin’ gourmet experiences would be to court disappointment.

Our main advice would be to keep things Venetian: a plate of exquisite bianchetti fritti, a kind of local whitebait, at the seafood specialist L’Osteria di Santa Marina, for instance. Or sea bass in a salt crust at Lineadombra, where the terrace floats on a pontoon in the shadow of the church of Il Redentore, facing the Giudecca.

Or, for carnivores, the superb fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions, though not as you’ve tasted it elsewhere) at Antiche Carampane. Even just a huge but perfect pizza at Acqua Pazza. We can think of at least a dozen restaurants we would be glad to patronise but our shortlist covers just seven on the mainland and two on the islands of the lagoon. Stay with these and you will not be disappointed.

A lazy lunch – bresaola, cuttlefish in ink with polenta, a carafe of wine – on a winter weekend is always a treat.

We couldn’t not mention Harry’s Bar, though ‘caveat emptor’ if you’re here in the season: there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s touristy, overpriced and the staff are almost amusingly arrogant – which is why it doesn’t get a place on our shortlist. But a lazy lunch – bresaola, cuttlefish in ink with polenta, a carafe of wine – on a winter weekend is always a treat, as long as you’re seated in a corner on the ground floor. It is an institution, after all, and nowhere serves better grissini.

It’s also worth venturing away from the sestiere occasionally, taking a private launch across the lagoon to Torcello, for example, where Locanda Cipriani is a wonderfully polished place for lunch or dinner. Or to the glass makers’ island, Murano, for a meal at Busa alla Torre da Lele. Both of these deservedly have a place in Nota Bene’s best of the best. Also worth noting is Trattoria da Romano on Burano, for its seafood.

All that said, one shouldn’t discount the formal hotel restaurants. Club del Doge and its terrace at the recently renovated Gritti Palace, for example, in sight of the Salute, is a heavenly setting on a warm evening. Inevitably, the restaurant at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani has its fans (we prefer the poolside terrace for lunch, or Cip’s on the floating pontoon for dinner).

The latest option for hotel dining is at Aman Canal Grande, where Italian cuisine is available in a beautiful, serene setting either in the garden in summer or in the grand piano nobile overlooking the Grand Canal.

Alle Testiere, Michelin-starred but with a simple trattoria style, has barely half a dozen tables (just 20 covers) and is so popular there are two sittings (7.00 and 9.30); it’s a fine place for excellent seafood and local wines. Or there is the resolutely old-school and pricey Da Ivo, in winter (there’s no outside space), for its marvellous beef, and sophisticated wine list. Otherwise Do Forni, another institution among restaurants, where you want to sit where Venetians sit, close to the fireplace in the room immediately beyond the displays of fresh fish at the entrance. Never choose the Orient Express room or ‘The Garden’.