John Brunton, The Guardian, November 27, 2011
For the ultimate romantic holiday in Venice, it is tempting to play safe and reserve one of the classic five-star hotels – or newly fashionable urban resorts – run by well-known international names, and just let the city work its magic. But dotted around the Serenissima are several fabulous palazzi that have been in the hands of local hoteliers for generations. These are not the kind of place where designers such as Philippe Starck or Jacques Garcia have been called in to create a style that could just as easily be in Paris or Barcelona, but rather they exude a comfy, homely feel with personal hospitality that conjures up another era, when Venice was one of the exclusive stops on the Grand Tour.
These family affairs run at the same rhythm as Venetian daily life: slow and sometimes frustrating, easy-going but also exasperating – everything that makes the Serenissima unique and charming. Below are five of the most original addresses, with a style to delight anyone who loves David Lean's cult romantic Venice movie Summertime.
1. Palazzo Abadessa
Nothing prepares you for the shock as you walk through the inconspicuous entrance of the Palazzo Abadessa, hidden away in the sleepy backstreets of the Cannaregio district. First there is the lush ornamental garden, then the immense entrance hall decorated with frescoes and ornate stucco, lit by glittering Murano chandeliers. And if the exuberant owner Maria Luisa is around, she'll whisk you into an antique velvet armchair, order a bottle of chilled prosecco and launch into the history of her home, whose original owners provided Venice with two of its doges. She persuaded her husband to buy the 500-year-old palazzo 30 years ago and slowly transformed it from their family home into first a small B&B, then the 15-room hotel it is today.
Up on the breathtaking piano nobile (the floor that contains the principal reception rooms), there are framed photos of Maria Luisa and her family alongside precious Renaissance paintings, and when she is out of town it is her son Simone who provides the personal touch. For sure, nothing runs completely smoothly here, but where else could you book a room that has its own wellhead, dated 1540, or sleep in what was once the palace's kitchen – comfortably converted now, but still with an ancient fireplace and stone sink?
Price Doubles from €160
Book it Calle Priuli 4011 (0039 041 521 2236, abadessa.com)
2. Hotel Saturnia
Located on one of Venice's choice shopping streets, the Saturnia began life in 1908 as a tiny pensione occupying part of a 15th-century palazzo. Created by Hungarian émigré Signora Zoe Lustig and her Italian husband, a waiter at Caffè Florian, it has grown into a sumptuous 90-room hotel, decorated in diverse styles that span antiques and silk tapestries to art deco designs; the palace's piano nobile is furnished with a grand piano and imposing paintings, and the restaurant and cocktail bar ooze 1940s charm. Ugo Serandrei, born nearly 70 years ago in Room 20 of the hotel, is the family patriarch. Smartly dressed, looking slightly like Mr. Chips, he sits behind the reception desk and tells me that these days: "Some guests say to the concierge: 'Who is that old chap sitting behind you? Shouldn't he be pensioned off?' But the clients like to see me, or anyone from the family, present in the hotel." He explains how Signora Zoe used to live in the hotel and was still working 20 days before she passed away at the age of 96. Guests would see her late at night carrying an enormous ring of room keys, making the last tour of the hotel.
Price Doubles from €240
Book it Via XXII Marzo 2398 (0039 041 520 8377, hotelsaturnia.it)
3. Hotel Metropole
A couple of minutes' walk from the Bridge of Sighs and the Doge's Palace, the plush Metropole has been a hotel since 1895, housed in a stylish palazzo that dates back to 1500. Guests have included the likes of Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann when he was writing Death in Venice, while present-day clients would never guess that the exotic Moorish bar where they are sipping their Bellinis was once a chapel where Vivaldi taught music. This is one of the rare private hotels that is rated five-star, run by the flamboyant Gloria Beggiato, the third-generation owner. She has successfully transformed the once old-fashioned Metropole into a chic boutique hotel without losing any of the original charm. So while the top-end suites may feature mother-of-pearl mosaics and damask bedspreads, the staff parade around in designer black suits and the chef has won two Michelin stars for the restaurant, this is still a quirky, intriguing place to stay.
The Beggiato family are obsessive collectors and the hotel doubles as a museum for their treasures. Walking through the corridors you pass a surreal exhibition of antique fans, crucifixes, corkscrews, pearl handbags, bookends and nut crackers. I'm not surprised when Gloria tells me: "This is not really like a job for me, but more I feel I'm running our family home, where I keep an eye on the smallest detail, even the colour of the flowers in reception."
Price Doubles from €250
Book it Riva degli Schiavoni 4149 (0039 041 520 5044, hotelmetropole.com)
4. Hotel Flora
The Flora is one of those hotels that you have to know about, a discreet address tucked away at the end of one of Venice's typically narrow, murky alleyways. But push open the door and you enter a plush lobby that leads straight into a romantic garden with classical statues, mosaics and fountains, while the walls of this 17th-century mansion are covered with dense ivy. When I call to make an appointment, the owner himself actually answers – something that seems unimaginable these days. And Gioele Romanelli, whose grandmother founded the Flora 50 years ago, is a bohemian Venetian who looks more poet or painter than hotel manager. Even the staff call him by his first name – "How can I avoid it," he says, "when most of them have been here 20 to 30 years, so they all know me since I was a small boy doing my homework in the garden?"
The family are passionate antique collectors – the furniture in the rooms is a stylishly eclectic array, and the hotel resembles a lived-in stately home. Although celebrities check in here, there is no special treatment and Gioele admits that it is usually other guests who point out the stars, such as a recent incognito visitor, Natalie Portman.
Price Doubles from €200
Book it Calle dei Bergamaschi 2283/a (0039 041 520 5844, hotelflora.it)
5. Hotel Gabrielli
Perfectly located across from the island of San Giorgio, the Gabrielli resembles a fairy-tale pastel palace more than a hotel. But hidden behind the façade is a tiny corner of genteel Mitteleuropa that has barely changed in 150 years. Founded in 1856, it is run by the same family, today in their sixth generation. They still speak German among themselves and hidden away in the corridors is an authentic weinstube, or wine bar. The rooms are quite soberly furnished for a palazzo, apart from ornate Murano chandeliers, and nearly 30 have spectacular views over the basin of St Mark's. The extended family wanders round the premises, from the impeccably coiffed Signorina Lina, who at 84 has lived and worked in the hotel for 70 years, to the two youngest members of the dynasty, Johanna and Francesca. The latter are trying to drag the Gabrielli into the 21st century without compromising its old-fashioned charm, and refusing to sell off to a multinational hotel group that would pay tens of millions for a priceless property like this. Looking through their hefty ancient guestbooks I come across not just lengthy comments but drawings and paintings, and specially composed music, that really should be displayed in a museum.
Price Doubles from €180
Book it Riva degli Schiavoni 4110 (0039 041 523 1580, hotelgabrielli.it)