Across the lagoon and into the Danieli we go as our Italian adventure beckons this month and takes us on a tour of fabled Venice, where beauty reigns at every corner and canal.
By Pamela Lillquist
Photography by Ariella Levitan
There’s nothing quite like seeing the silhouette of a gondola against a backdrop of fiery red.
Having always been a huge fan of Ernest Hemmingway, when I first read his novel on Venice, “Across the River and Into the Trees”, I couldn’t wait to experience the city for myself. Like everyone else, I had romantic visions of gondolas, Saint Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal. Unlike many destinations, Venice exceeded my expectations on every level. I reveled in its varied and unique museums, cafes and architecture and generally fell in love. Then one day while strolling along the Grand Canal just past the Doge’s Palace, I wandered into the lobby of Venice’s 15th century Grand Dame, The Hotel Danieli. Stepping into the coolness of the foyer after being on the hot, crowded street, I felt that I had stepped back into the world of steamer trunks and grand tours. This, I vowed, is where I would stay upon my next visit to Venice.
Harry’s Bar was, and is, a unique bar full of the essence of those who have sipped a Bellini there, from Chaplin to Capote to my own dear literary Papa.
Ten years later I returned, eagerly anticipating my stay at my dream hotel. From the recently renovated Marco Polo airport, I was transported in grand style by a 1940’s era teak deck boat and whisked across the lagoon. I couldn’t resist standing up in the aft to feel the wind in my face and take it all in. We passed St. Michele and Lido islands, then glimpsed St. Marks’ famous campanile clock tower before we pulled up to the private dock. Wearing a blue coat with brass buttons, the doorman tipped his hat as he took my hand. “Welcome to The Danieli”, he said, and I felt like I’d come home.
The lobby of the hotel is a marvel with gothic arches going up four stories to the ceiling, Murano glass chandeliers and paintings worthy of the Doge. Everything about this hotel felt decadent; even the room keys with the large, red tassels. There are three wings: the original 15th century, the 17th century addition and the “new” building dating from 1947. Having recently undergone a thirty million dollar facelift with more renovations to come, the hotel feels updated for even the most discerning guest, yet hasn’t lost any of its old world charm. I was staying in the new wing that was as perfect as it gets, being the only one with large balconies overlooking the mouth of the Grand Canal. My trip happened to coincide with one of Venice’s grandest parties, “The Festival of the Redeemer”, which takes place the third weekend in July and from my balcony I had a front row view of all of the action. Starting at midday, boatloads full of revelers dropped anchor in the lagoon and by 10 P.M. we could barely see the water for all the boats floating side by side.
The sidewalks outside the front door of the hotel down to St. Mark’s Square became a carpet of people as everyone jockeyed for a spot to see the spectacular fireworks display which began at midnight. From pontoons on the canal where the fuses were lit, and as a myriad of explosive colors lit up the sky, the water below became an ethereal rainbow. There’s nothing quite like seeing the silhouette of a gondola against a backdrop of fiery red. With everyone having such a good time, it was easy to forget that this centuries old festival began to celebrate the end of a devastating 16th century plague. Reserving one of these ten balcony suites should be done far in advance, however, as this prime piece of Venetian real estate is much coveted. Even if you can’t score a suite though, you can enjoy the same view from the rooftop Terrace restaurant that offers an epicurean delight against this pyrotechnic paradise.
Mornings for me here would be spent lingering over a delightful European breakfast outside on the balcony of the Terrace eatery. Watching the city come to life, astounded at the sheer number of boat and cruise line traffic (Venice’s version of rush hour), I would plan my day. There would always be time for a second or third cup of excellent, strong Italian coffee as the view I had was unrivaled and the service refreshingly attentive.
I believe that you either love Venice or hate it. Those who don’t appreciate it say it’s too crowded, touristy and hot, like a Disneyland for adults. Perhaps to some, yet I am still in the former category for I have a deep love for the city. Touristy places become just that because they are extraordinary. Yes, you may wait for two hours in line next to a rather loud family to see the Basilica, but it’s the personal experience you have once inside which makes it magical and worthwhile: the thousands of gold mosaics which create the Virgin Mary, the intricate wood carved alter piece and the unique byzantine architecture. These are just a few of the things to be absorbed as your fellow tourist pushes you along.
Once you’ve visited the Basilica, keep your admission ticket because it also provides free entry to other don’t miss sites such as The Doge’s Palace. This was the home of the Doge, or Duke and the center of the Venetian Republic. From the delicate lacework gothic arches on the exterior to the masterpieces inside by Veronese and Tintoretto, it’s understandable why Venice was a powerhouse in the world for centuries. The ticket is also good for other museums you may not otherwise visit, but in hindsight will realize you should have.
Museo Correr is an immense Palazzo overlooking what Napoleon called the “grandest drawing room in Europe”, Saint Marks’ Square. This baroque style building now houses a lovely collection of 18th century art, furniture, coins and ship artifacts from Venice’s glory years as unrivaled King of the Seas. It’s a strange feeling wandering from room to room looking down upon the very familiar square instead of being in the square looking upward. A chill ran through me as I realized that this is the same view that the poet, Robert Browning had when he spent his last days here.
I have to admit my most thrilling museum discovery was the Ca’ Pesaro, another baroque Palazzo dating from 1710. Located on the Grand Canal nearby the Rialto Bridge, its façade is unassuming and easily overlooked. What drew me to it was the exotic promise of the museum within, Museo d’ Arte Orientale. As with many Venetian museums in the grand Palazzos, the old seems to live quite happily alongside the new, as this is also home to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. Here a wondrous collection of modern art resides from Chagall, Klimt and Matisse to Moore and Ernst. For me however, the real treat came as I neared the top of the six story Palazzo.
A staircase made with hundreds of pikes, lances and swords on either side led me to discover one of the most impressive Oriental art collections I have ever seen. There I learned about one of the grandest of all tours around the world ever undertaken and the booty that resulted from it. In 1887, Prince Henry of Bourbon, France and his traveling party toured the imperial capitals of the world for two years. Being a great collector and lover of Oriental art, he amassed what became one of the most important collections in Europe. The over 30,000 items he shipped back to his home in Venice eventually became this awe-inspiring museum of which few people seem to have heard. From armor, to weapons, porcelain and every day objects – each room took my breath away with the sheer scope and beauty of these pristine artifacts. Being an avid collector of all things exotic myself, I savored every sweet pang of jealousy I felt as I would in a remarkable Tut’s Tomb of Treasures.
After being wowed at this very special museum, I thought a libation was in order. Taking the vaporetto, or water taxi back to San Marco, I alighted for a quick jaunt to the infamous Harry’s Bar. In the film Casablanca it may have been “everyone comes to Rick’s”, but in Venice it is “everyone comes to Harry’s.” Harry’s is like that popular boy in high school who tries so hard to look like he’s not trying, for despite its nonchalant and plain exterior, it continues to revel in the attention it has received since Ernest Hemmingway really put it on the map in the 1940’s. As I entered, the maitre’d looked me up and down, gave his head a quick nod as if to say “she’s okay”, then motioned I be taken to a table. I ordered a Bellini, which is of course what Harry’s is known for, having been created there in the 30’s. I thought they must use thimbles for the shots of champagne and peach nectar as the glass was so tiny and at fifteen Euros, not at all cheap. I found myself elated at the offering of a complimentary dish of olives and wondered at the bounty on my table.
Thoughtfully I sipped my cocktail as I took in every detail of the surprisingly small bar: there was the barman whom I read had worked there for fifty years, the group of regulars who had just received the first smile I had seen on the face of the maitre’d, and of course the photo of Papa Hemmingway with his old friend Harry Cipriani, who opened the bar in 1931. These are the reasons you should come to Harry’s Bar and not just to check it off your bucket list. Harry’s was, and is, a unique bar full of the essence of those who have sipped a Bellini there, from Chaplin to Capote to my own dear literary Papa.
Those who complain about the crowds in Venice must not have ventured much beyond St. Marks or the Rialto Bridge, for one of the great joys of this city is its lack of automobiles. All you have to do is walk a block or two in any direction and you’ll suddenly find yourself alone. Many times your footsteps are the only sounds to be heard as you walk between the crumbling buildings perched upon the canal city. Venice, with its glorious past and uncertain future, rests literally on shaky ground and there is a sinister quality in its decay. Even in daylight, it feels haunted by the romantic ghosts of bygone years. To appreciate this fully is to take a late night gondola ride through the small canals where you can read the plaques on the buildings of her famous sons: Casanova, Marco Polo, Canaletto, Vivaldi. Hearing only the lapping of the oar moving through the water, the romantic’s mind is free to wander and remember and dream. For ultimately that is what Venice really is to me, a soft focus dream where you see only the good and none of the bad, rather like a cinematographer lovingly filming a movie star when their best years are behind them. With this in mind, I wandered slowly back to my own dream hotel, The Danieli, to sleep and to dream about the next day’s adventure I would embark upon in this world class city.
Arriving by plane: International Airport Marco Polo. This international airport is situated in Tessera, 12 KM by car and 10 Km by motorboat from Venice. It’s connected to Venice and to the Mestre Railway Station.
The Hotel Danieli, Riva degle Schiavoni 4196, 30122 Venice, Italy
Tel: +39 041 5226480 Tel: +39 331 6110691
Rates in July from $310.00 – $2,440 per night.
The best time for nice weather is between April and September, although the summer months can be hot and humid. The most crowded time for tourists is July and August. The “Festival of the Redeemer” takes place the third weekend in July.
As there are no automobiles in Venice, the best way to get around via The Grand Canal is by vaporetto or water taxi. Buy 1-7 day passes at various vaporetto stops along the Canal. Of course, the most fun and interesting way to get to know this city is on foot.
Basilica Di San Marco, www.bascilicasanmarco.it, Tel: +39 041 522 5205
Doge’s Palace, museiciviciveneziani.it, Tel: +30 041 271 5911
Museo Correr, museiciviciveneziani.it, Tel: +30 041 240 5211
Ca’Pesaro, museiciviciveneziani.it, Tel: +39 041 524 0695
Museo d”Arte Orientale, museiciviciveneziani.it
Galleria d’Arte Moderna, museiciviciveneziani.it
Harry’s Bar, Tel: +39 041 528 5777