Ah, Venice – la Serenissima … For me it’s still the most romantic city in the world (though sadly, as I know to the cost of my nice new shoes while wading through waterlogged St Mark’s Square, yes, it definitely is sinking, so get there pronto.)
I’ve been dozens of times, but my partner was a Venice virgin, so seeing it through his eyes was even more special. For me, it is the most precious place on Earth.
Venice is built on more than 100 small islands on the Adriatic Sea. It has no roads (so no traffic – yeah!), just canals. The High Street is the Grand Canal and the whole place is lined with Renaissance and Gothic palaces and amazing old churches, some dating back to the 12th century.
It’s almost superfluous for me to write about the plethora of world-class sights, but here’s a quick precis: Doge’s Palace and Bridge of Sighs, St Marco’s Square; San Marco Basilica; Rialto Bridge (always hellish crowds there – especially at weekends when the cruise ships belch out their thousands); the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the Guggenheim Collection Museum.
There are countless more. Of more interest might be some suggestions for lesser-known Venice sights.
Go and see the Santa Maria dei Miracoli Church, also known as the “marble church”, because of its amazing early Renaissance colored marble façade. Also worth discovering is the Jewish Ghetto – the very first one in Europe. It’s located right behind Strada Nuova, close to Fondamenta della Misericordia and here you can visit three of the five synagogues and find the Jewish Museum.
Lastly, don’t miss Acqua Alta Bookshop in Campiello del Tintor. Where else in Venice will you find all the books for sale housed in gondolas, boats – and even a bathtub. The reason? The shop is often flooded, so there’s method in this madness.
The purpose of reading a decent travel article these days, however, is to find out the inside track from someone knowledgeable you believe who will tell it straight, and often the most useful info is on where to stay, eat and hang out.
For those old enough, you may recall when I presented Scottish Passport – this was my original idea for the program when I pitched it to STV, because I thought Scotland needed its own version of Wish You Were Here (where I also worked), but it should be less fluffy and more factual.
Accordingly, the rest of this article will be devoted to hard facts on where to stay, eat and drink.
For a splurge and a complete spoiling, go to the legendary five-star Belmond Hotel Cipriani. It is the definition of luxury and perfection. With 270-degree panoramic views across the Venetian lagoon, and its own private launch to scoot you the five-minute sail over to St Mark’s Square, this 96-room gem has stellar service and a fabulous Michelin-starred diner, an Olympic-sized pool filtered with seawater and gorgeous gardens. It’s located at the eastern end of the Giudecca island and is a haven of calm after the crowds of the labyrinth that is central Venice.
Inside, expect Murano-glass artefacts, some stunning antiques and beautiful artwork featuring Venice’s picturesque lagoon. Anyone who’s anyone has stayed here. It’s more of a case of which A-lister, president, prime minister or royal hasn’t stayed here. Past guests include Julia Roberts, Paul McCartney and the Prince and Princess of Sweden: the list goes on and on. This is where George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin enjoyed wedding festivities.
There are three restaurants, but the jewel is the Michelin-starred restaurant, Oro – strictly high-end, elegant dining. Prices reflect that but you get what you pay for. Breakfasts are a grand affair with a vast menu as well as an impressive buffet.
Each room or suite comes with its own private balcony and the furnishings are as you’d expect: of the highest possible quality and with the addition of elegant marble bathrooms. Private butler service is offered to guests who stay in the hotel’s Palazzo Vendramin annexe.
The hotel has its own red-clay tennis courts, a spa and even a private marina. You can still easily see the £100 million that was spent on it 20 years ago in today’s amenities.
One brilliant suggestion on where to book and eat – and enjoy some legendary cocktails from the Venetian barman legend tat is Marino Lucchetti – is the restaurant of the Hotel Londra Palace on the Grand Canal. This Relais & Chateaux little belter has the Bistrot by Do Leoni, which focuses on creative dishes with well-crafted matching wine selections. They search for seasonal, fresh raw materials which include delicious fish and meat specialties, creative salads, and their homemade lasagne is heavenly. After dinner, watch Marino in the bar perfect his art of how to make the perfect Martini – his Londra Bar 2018 Martini shows why this place is included in “the best 100 cocktail bars in Italy” by the Blueblazer Guide. Who knew that very dry chilled lemon peel could be put to such an effect? See www.londrapalace.com.
Another excellent choice for a “different” place to eat – and indeed stay – is on the Lido, a 15-minute boat ride away from San Marco at the beautiful Hotel Excelsior Venice Lido Resort. The last word is the clue. This is not just a hotel, it’s a full-blown beach destination in its own right, and it is the only hotel in Venice to be actually “on the beach”.
This historical Venetian palazzo is topped off with the spectacular Stucchi Room, featured in Once Upon A Time In America starring Robert De Niro, but then, this is the venue for the annual famous Venice Film Festival and the resort attracts A-list celebrities year- round.
A piano-accompanied meal in The Blue Bar is a treat, but be sure to book ahead. See www.hotelexcelsiorvenezia.com
The second hotel we stayed in was totally different from “The Cip”, but it is also a great base.
Located slap bang on the Grand Canal, behind its historic exterior The St Regis is a modern avant-garde property with cutting-edge design and high-tech bedrooms. The St Regis butlers are a wonderful touch, as is the complementary champagne at 5pm, and dinner at Gio’s Restaurant and Terrace – directly on the water – is one of life’s great memories. The spa has marvelous therapists and you could, in fact, stay in one of their spa suites and look on this as a spa break with a difference.
My abiding memory of this hotel will be this – I have never, ever had such a magnificent welcome to the beautiful suite we were lucky enough to have.
On the table was a photograph of yours truly (from my Facebook page I guess) welcoming me in person with my mugshot in a frame, and some lovely Venetian treats. However, that was nothing as in the balloon and rose-petal-filled bedroom, a photograph of me holding my grandson had been placed by my bed. Talk about going the extra mile – just incredible! The vista from your private terrace is only bettered by the place where you’ll eat breakfast, overlooking the Grand Canal. It’s a brilliant contrast to The Cip – one slap bang in the hub of Venice and one slightly removed and calm. Both equally exciting. Both with completely different interiors.
Venice remains one of the most precious, beautiful and unique places in the world, so even if you’ve already visited go again, before, sadly, it may be too late
How did my Venice virgin enjoy it? Well, possibly this sums it up – he’s agreed to take me back every year. Result!
The Cipriani – double rooms from Euro 835 (around £700) to 10,000 (£8,365).
The St Regis Hotel – see www.marriott.com Rooms from Euro 539. (£450)