Venice: the land of elaborate masks, crimson coats, gilded gondolas, and most importantly, love. Mask? Check. Red mac? Sure. Gondola? Yessir. Love? Pass. I’ve got a 6’2”, baseball-capped, bearded, tattooed friend called Gabriel along for the ride.
Adventure is clearly on its way: we catch the auspicious sight of Fabio Capello swaggering onto our plane, flaunting the kind of grace and nonchalance Italian men have finely tuned over the past two millennia. We, meanwhile, display the kind of hungover, sleepless, dirty-trousered allure the British have so faultlessly perfected.
From Venice airport, our senses are bombarded: the heat (despite predictions of rain from the BBC’s weather website), the smell (that of sea that’s graduated from finishing school) and the boats (which hook themselves into your memory banks, labelled ‘Lucky little blighters’).We approach the gondoliers as they smoke and chat, each plying their trade in signature style, and we pick one. We follow our man as he walks past a succession of marvellously crafted wooden boats until stopping at his vessel: what a beaut. Sitting on the seats in the back instantly gives us – or indeed anyone in possession of a pair of sunglasses – the look of a Fellini star.
Such an introduction to this northern city is awesome. Venice is magnificent. The ages-old architecture inspires a feeling of being suspended in a lost time, as though you are travelling through thousands of photographs of somewhere incomprehensible. A city built in the sea! There is no ‘popping across the road’ here, or ‘Let’s quickly jump on the back of the bike’, or even ‘Just wait for the green man’ – this is a watery city for the wanderer and the drifter. Which suits these flâneurs just fine.
As we float up to the steps of the Palazzina Grassi, towards a black-glass entrance crowned with a bull and a golden mask, it clicks that our adventure has only just begun. The doors pull back and we are met by an incredibly courteous and well-dressed man who magics away our bags and gently gestures us into the glossy reception of this Philippe Starck stay. The mask lives up to its symbolism, conjuring an atmosphere of secrecy yet warmth, like the burrow of a kleptomaniac rabbit. We shuffle through to Krug lounge for a glass of champagne and find a low-lit, alluring room full of objets d’art all laced with mysticism and charm. We sit back and soak it in.
Bubbles sipped, we follow the concierge to a mirrored lift, to be escorted to our room. He opens the door to 623, where another surprise awaits. The clandestine mood of the reception area has been swapped for a white brilliance that rivals a set from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. Our boudoir is seemingly a heavenly mirage: bed, carpets and walls are all white, the table, cupboards and television mirrored and the windows tinted a warm, light pink. There is a powerful sense of calm.
We turn to each other and laugh. We open cabinets, switch on the TV and marvel at its disappearance when we turn it back off; we listen to music through invisible speakers hidden throughout. Finally, we pull up the blinds to find our own balcony, with tables, deckchairs and huge chess pawns, as well as a fantastic view of Venice’s windows and rooftops. After an hour of circling our room and picture-taking, we decide, reluctantly, it is time to roam.
The hotel is positioned on a distinctly Venetian passageway that leads onto a cobbled main street. From here you can easily trail signs to all the main sights. We are never further than a 10-minute walk from the tick-off-the-list landmarks. Our first ramble through the city quickly deposits us at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where our breath is stolen by works by Duchamp, Picasso and Mondrian. Then we amble to St Mark’s Square, which is just how I had visualised it. Correttos sipped at Caffè Florian, live renditions of Italian folk songs listened to, and spaghetti slurped on the Grand Canal, we settle back to watch boats of the glitterati and Cincinnati persuasion pass by.
Over the weekend, our hotel becomes our home, and a wonderful place to pitstop for a shot or two of absinthe before heading back out again into what we’ve dubbed ‘the land of the Minotaur’. At night, we head to PG’s, the hotel’s restaurant, for dinner and find it transformed from its daytime serenity into an exciting, bustling, sceney spot.
Surveying the Venetians and tourists happily drinking and eating within PG’s sultry nightclubby clutches, it is easy to see why Johnny Depp took such a liking to this special place. After incredible Mediterranean cooking delivered with Asian precision, care of Luigi Frascella, we while away our evenings drinking in the bar.
Waking up on the morning of our departure, there is a feeling of disbelief that this Venetian weekend has even happened at all. As we close the door on our white wonderland and tiptoe into the ornate splendour of Palazzina Grassi’s lobby for the last time, I know we are saying farewell to an extraordinary hotel in a unique city. Gabriel and I agreed we’ll be back – next time with our Mrs Smiths.