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Returning to Venice and the Re-imagined and Restored Gritti Palace Hotel

Venice on an April morning. The sky, a perfect shade of blue, seems close enough to touch. But that’s only because you’re standing on a rooftop, and around you the peaked, red-bricked rooftops of Venice are arranged like enormous, if irregular, stepping stones. Some are right across the way, to be more specific, across the narrow canal. But your perspective is so open, so uninterrupted, you can see far off in the distance. Look straight down, and -- with a rush of heart-stopping vertigo – there are the gondolas and vaporetti plying their way on the southern leg of the Grand Canal.

   

Look up, and over the rooftops and dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the other side of the Canal, your view extends all the way across the Guidecca Island to the Adriatic. Turn to the east, and you can see St. Marco’s tower. You gaze in wonder, in perfect silence, not knowing where to look next. Minutes pass. Then suddenly, your trance is broken. It is the noon hour, and in perfect union, the church bells of Venice have begun to chime.

To whom is such a view afforded?  The seagulls, of course, who alight here and there. And to those fortunate guests at the recently restored Gritti Palace who, whisked from the hotel lobby to the top floor by private elevator, climb the stairway in the duplex Redentore Terrazza Suite to a circular skylight that opens like a magic doorway to the 2,500 square-foot bi-level Rooftop Terrace paved with white Istrian stone (a marble-like limestone), and furnished with a sunken swimming pool and hot tub, sleek loungers, and smartly arranged settings for al fresco events.

“People step out onto the terrace, and it’s ‘Oh wow!’ says Paolo Lorenzoni, the Gritti’s elegant general manager who has given us the opportunity to indulge in what is clearly a view for the ages. “They drink Dom Perignon champagne and drink in the scene. We have a client who has booked the suite for the Biennale. There will be sixty guests every night.”

It is a significant moment for our old friend.  The 35 million Euro (about $50 million)-

hotel-wide overhaul that closed the property down for two years is complete; the mission, to bring the Gritti Palace into the 21st century and, at the same time, enhance the magnificence of the legendary 15th-century Venetian palazzo is accomplished.

When we last saw Paolo, it was the autumn of 2009. We can remember having lunch with him at a waterside table of the Club del Doge Restaurant Terrace as he posited the possibilities of change that lay before him. Now in the same, albeit smartly refreshed, setting, drinking once again the famous Bar Longhi Bloody Marys, we see a clearly self-assured hotel executive in a reflective state of mind. 


The Gritti Palace


General Manager Paolo Lorenzoni in a reflective state of mind

“Before the restoration things may have been a bit tired, but the level of employee and client was strong, and that has remained,” he tells us. “Our clients are connoisseurs of Venice, people of means and with taste; many of them are repeat customers. We have a client who married ten years ago on February 1 and spent his first honeymoon night at the Gritti. He booked a stay with his wife for this February 1 night. They were the first clients since the renovation, and they were very, very happy.”

He goes on: “The whole project began with our thinking about what we should do with the rooms and suites, what technological changes we should make. We’d start one project, then change our minds. We queried our guests, especially the Americans. (We have no better clients than the Americans because they love our country.) They all said they want us to keep the same atmosphere, the same Venetian style, the same cuisine. Their input influenced the design – which was a major element of the renovation.”

After lunch, walking out through the Bar Longhi, we note the seamless melding of the old with the new. The trio of Pietro Longhi paintings are still here. So are the chairs, but they have been stunningly re-done in a range of fabrics and patterns and in the blues and greens that reflect the waters of the Canal during the course of a day.  

Moving into the lobby, we note the entrance to the Acqua di Parma Blu Mediterraneo Spa is down the hallway. A decidedly new feature for a 15th century palazzo, it offers a range of massages, body and beauty treatments, sublime “Natural Radiance” facials, and a line of high-end products.  We turn towards the entrance hall where a small table bears an enormous bowl of roses. “Every morning, the florist comes and opens the petals,” Paolo tells us. “A big part of the success of this place is that we wanted to keep every one of our employees, and they all wanted to stay.”

Among them is head concierge Giuliano Vigilio whom we got to know pretty well last time around. We stop to say hello to him at his station, now an ornate marble front desk, and notice the wall of guest mailboxes is still there, a room key suspended from a bright blue tassel hanging over each one.  Rooms at the Gritti still open the old-fashioned way; they still are identified by name, not number.

Often in the new, there is the evocation of the old: the richly embossed fabric in  Venetian red that covers the lobby walls, the carved beams of highly polished wood that stretch across the ceilings, the furniture and accessories –antiques and custom-made-to-look-like-antiques -- that transport one back to the Renaissance.  “Some of the reproductions cost more than the originals,” says Paolo.        

“When the hotel closed down, everything was taken out, put in storage,” he tells us. “We inventoried all the chandeliers, furniture, paintings, antiques, objects d’art. The chandeliers we sent to Murano to be repaired and restored. The furniture went to artisans’ workshops all across the city; the chairs were reupholstered. We spent a fortune on the fabrics, heavy silk, embossed, from the textile house Rubelli.

 

‘We’re using all the chandeliers and most of the furniture --  I know every piece. Our designer, Chuck Chewning, came up with the decorating ideas, the color schemes. But I argued with him about the floors, insisting they be terrazzo or marble. Not carpeting. There were no carpeted floors in the middle ages.”

He stops and smiles. “I learned a lot. Now I’m ready to go into restorations.”        

The portrait of Andrea Gritti, the eponymous doge, is still center stage in the lobby although we couldn’t recall whether it had been hanging in the center of  the pillared bookcase as it is now with rare books artfully arranged on shelves on either side, nor whether the table before it, laden with items associated with travel: skyglasses, astrolabs, and such, had always been there or was something new. But when we learned this section is now the Explorer’s Library, we thought -- in view of writers like Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham who had made the Gritti Palace their home for a while -- a library in the lobby seemed eminently appropriate.                                                      Both literary icons are recalled in suites named for them. Hemingway actually stayed in what is now the Hemingway Suite in 1949. It’s where he wrote “Across the River and into the Trees.”

“I read it twice; I never understood it,” Paolo said. We couldn’t understand why such an extravagant setting was created in the name of someone renowned for the terseness of his writing style.


The Explorer’s Library


The Hemingway Suite: an extravagant setting

Of all the suites, we loved the one named for Somerset Maugham best. It’s light and bright, a joyful rococo mood in violet-tinged gray, purple and pale green for the most part with a couple of accents the colors of pistachio and strawberry sherbet. Actually it remains our sentimental favorite as we were put up here in 2009 (although we can hardly complain about the equally splendid Punta della Dogana Patron Grand Canal Suite where we are quartered this time around), and seeing it now we are reminded of how we rushed to the balcony when we first arrived and waved hello to Paolo sitting below in the Club del Doge Terrace.

That was our first overview of Venice, and we returned to the same spot over and over again, day and night, to take in the scene in all the variations of the glorious Venetian light , never dreaming that in a few years, we’d be taking in a greatly expanded vista from the Rooftop Terrace.

Nor did we expect to find a greatly expanded dining scene in the Club del Doge where “Celebrity Chef” Daniel Turco teaches the art of Venetian cuisine to Gritti guests (a maximum of eight at a time) in the open, futuristic, stainless-steel kitchen that has been built adjacent to the dining room. Often he’ll follow up a lesson by joining his students at the kitchen’s long rustic table in a meal of the dishes they produced. “The style in the Club del Doge is very Venetian, very elegant, but back here we have  the atmosphere of countryside dining,” the young and handsome chef from Calabria tells us.

“It’s possible to walk from the hotel to the market,” he continues. “We socialize along the way, find out what ingredients are freshest. There are so many small harvests, productions of things native to the area, pastas, vegetables, fruits that are available for only a short time. Right now, we have  artichokes where you can eat all parts of the vegetable. You cut the points off and use the rest. I serve it raw with some small shrimps that belong to our lagoon.”

Both backstage and on-stage, Daniel is an advocate of the “Zero Kilometer” movement. “As much as we can, we try to buy directly from the farmer, to eliminate the middle man, to get things at their optimum: wild mushrooms when it’s the time for wild mushrooms, asparagus as soon as it’s harvested.  To do risotto in the right way is something I always loved to do. We change it from season to season. In the winter, we make it with truffles; in the spring, we make it with peas.

“There is a lot of interest in this kind of dining,” he adds. “And for this restaurant, in this exceptional place, to take part in this movement is very exciting for me. It’s a whole new world.”

“A whole new world” combined with the graces of the old world -- the phrase seems an apt description of the Gritti Palace perhaps nowhere is it more effectively realized than in the dining room. The Club del Doge Restaurant has the same traditional table arrangements, fine linens, exquisite china and glassware that so appealed to us during our first visit. But the walls coverings now are an engaging floral design in shades of yellow, apricot, peach and gold; period chairs are in a white and gold brocade, bouquets of roses fill huge golden glass goblets, and the one-time dark brown marble floor is white terrazzo with mosaic and circular designs that would be at home in a ballroom. Formality has given way before an ambience of lightness and a hint of romance.


Executive Chef Daniel Turco (left), Maitre d’Enrico Ribon


Backstage setup where the chef teaches the Art of Venetian Cuisine

But it also reflects the constancy of the staff which Paolo alluded to, especially in the person of headwaiter Enrico Rubino whom we remember with fondness from our earlier trip. Soft-spoken, possessed of a gentle manner, and looking much younger than the 40 years he admits to (we keep thinking we’ve seen his face somewhere in a 16th-century painting), Enrico greets us warmly and suggests we act like Venetians and whet our appetites with a “cicchittee,” the typical Italian antipasto akin to tapas.  Following this excellent suggestion, we peruse the long and tempting menu and finding every entry appealing, turn helplessly to Enrico. He had organized some memorable dinners for us in the past. Could we prevail upon him for a repeat performance?   

“We now specialize in risottos; they have become more popular than spaghetti. We have have about five or six different kinds” he tells us. ” And so we begin: first aged risotto with lemon and basil followed by fish entrees: sea bass with codfish potatoes and chives for one; a mixed grill of Adriatic fish with grilled vegetables for the other. For dessert, he presents a dessert for two: tiramisu with  chocolate pearls and strawberry sauce. Sinful, yes. But, as expected, worth every calorie.

“The menu has become more modern but in a classic way” Enrico says. “In this manner, we are able to maintain the soul of the place.”


Frontstage at the Club Del Doge Restaurant

It occurs to us that “to maintain the soul of the place” is what the Gritti Palace and Venice itself are all about. The renovations and additions are splendid, but the contexts in which they take place: a 15th century palazzo and a city that has no equal are essential elements of that ambition. This much becomes clear the night before we leave when, once again, we are sitting at a table in the Club del Doge Terrace having a farewell glass of wine with the impeccable general manager of the Gritti Palace who has, since we saw him nearly four years ago, gone from being a Roman transplant to a full-fledged citizen of Venice.

In less than a month when the 50th Biennale will open, Paolo Lorenzoni will be part of the scene, hosting many of the principals at the Gritti Palace, taking in the various showings. “I discovered contemporary art in Venice; it is a source of fascination to me,” he tells us. “It is today what the Renaissance was to  Da Vinci, to Raphael. Their question was ‘What’s happening?’ Each generation asks the same thing. Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg who  used raw materials to make art.  I find meaning behind their work. It’s like what the philosopher Bernard Lévi had said ‘Art is not about beauty; it gives you something to think about.’”

We remind Paolo that when were here in 2009, he told us that he was beginning to look at things in a different way. He remembers.

“I learned in Venice how to see things,” he says. “Here you have to walk. This morning, I passed a church with the sun and a triangle carved into the edifice. The symbol of the Masons on a church in Venice? For three years, I passed it. In Rome or Milan, I would  never see it. Today I discovered it. Venice is a city that is unique in all the world.”

But it is threatened, we say. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, Venice was charged with coming up with a management plan that when finally approved by the City Council last November (2012), contained 136 proposals. But not one came from the movement known as “No Big Ships,”  in all likelihood because no one from this very popular group was consulted. This is an interesting omission since the Port of Venice is the most important port in the Mediterranean for the cruising industry.

In an article “The Coming Death of Venice?” (The New York Review of Books, June 20, 2013) Anna Somers Cocks writes: “On any given day now. . . you will see these vast white floating hotels, thirteen or fifteen decks high, towering over the ancient steeples, being pulled by tugs toward the Doge’s Palace, then turning starboard down the Giudecca Canal. Most are over three times the length of an American football field.”

“There’s a lot of controversy over the cruises,” Paolo says. “I believe they should avoid having the boats stop here. The important thing is to keep Venice from becoming a Disneyworld.”

We fall silent at the thought, burdened somehow. Then, one of us notices the full moon that has risen over the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The same exact thing happened the last night of our  2009 visit. Somewhere in the heavens, the stars had to have aligned on our behalf to make for this astronomical coincidence. Down on earth, this lovely image seems to embody a prophecy that this enchanted city, where streams and lagoons replace streets and avenues, light bounces off ripples in the canals, and church bells ring in unison on the hour, will continue, as it has for centuries, to prevail.

The Gritti Palace
Campo S.M. Del Giglio 2467
30124 Venezia, Italia

Phone: +39 041 794611
Web: 
http://www.thegrittipalace.com/

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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