Reaching your 80th birthday is something to celebrate. So when the Leading Hotels of the World reached that magic number, they celebrated by offering (a limited number) of hotel rooms for $19.28 (having been founded in 1928).
But how to distribute the rooms? Well, to show how far the company has come, why not use that new-fangled Internet-thingie to run a sweepstake? But actually you need to plan such a Web event and after a first, completely abortive attempt where the Website crashed horribly, a second attempt two weeks later had me again sitting at my PC, hitting the refresh key as the sweep of second hand moved to the top of the hour. This time the site actually came live and I hit the “send” button within the first minute, hoping for a result.
To my astonishment, three days later, an e-mail arrived confirming that I had been allocated two nights in my choice hotel, the sumptuous 5-star Bauer Hotel in Venice. So I wasted no time getting on-line booked “free” flights which weren’t exactly free (they didn’t include the tax, suitcase, fuel surcharge, check in charge and credit card fee), to “Venice Treviso” airport that isn’t exactly near Venice. Still we were set for a luxurious and relatively inexpensive weekend.
I have sort of visited Venice vicariously via James Bond films and the over-the-top Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. There we went on a fake gondola ride, while it rained from a fake ceiling and subsequently strolled along a fake St. Marks square – now I wanted to do all this for real (except for the rain). I wanted to walk over the real Rialto Bridge and some of the other 408 bridges that connect the 117 islands and 150 canals that make up this unique city.
Venice’s uniqueness became more apparent a few days before we left, amongst the various e-mails from Ryanair reiterating the ludicrous restrictions on their flights, there was a BBC news alert that had the title “Boats strike as Venice hit by serious flooding” with a lovely video of people wading thigh high through St. Marks Square and huge queues as people waited for water taxis. I rushed out to get buy a pair of wellington boots, but being a cheap-skate-Kimbell I was unwilling to pay the ridiculous prices for a pair of waders – so thinking back to the BBC video I bought a roll of 10 bin bags and set of orange canning jar gaskets to hold them in place to act as temporary overshoes. But I was going come hell or (more appropriately) high water.
After the flight and a bus ride, the city emerged out of the darkness and we took the now non-striking bus-boat the 12 stops to St. Marks square and the simply gorgeous Hotel Bauer, which just oozed elegance from every crevice. We entered, passing occasional tables swathed in ostrich leather and decorated with Murano glass objet d’art to a reception dripping with Carrara marble and smiling staff. The room too lived up to expectations; my only qualm was that the grape-sized crystals on the toilet paper dispenser didn’t quite match the one on the end of the toilet brush.
We had a quick tour of the area (there was no flooding as the water had subsided, but the after effects such as a raised walkways were still to be seen). The hotels location was ideal, facing the Grand Canal, a stone’s throw from St. Marks Square and surrounded by shops such as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo and Valentino. The city is fascinating and the differences between Venice and a normal city became apparent with every step. There seemed to be an incident somewhere the emergency services were on their way. A blue police boat sped past, followed by a red fire engine boat (basically 4 men and a water canon) – everything in the city has to be done by boat, deliveries, post, rubbish collection etc, but everything seem to run smoothly.
The next morning we were up early to enjoy a hearty breakfast buffet (surprisingly, included in the $19.28 room charge) with a striking view over to the seemingly familiar, bulky form of the Chiesa di Santa Maria. The breakfast too was superb with the most perfect and fluffiest scrambled eggs I have ever eaten. From there it was off the St. Mark’s square for a visit to Gothic fantasy of the Plazzo Ducale, the Doge’s Palace. Dating back to the 9th century it was the political and administrative heart of Venice until 1797 when the French stuck their oar in, in the form of a Napoleonic invasion and stole the best works of art (typical).
From there we went up the Campanila tower (there is a lift) and round the amazing golden frescos of the Basilica di San Marco. The rest of the time was just spent meandering the alley and over the bridges that connect the various parts of the city, such as the slightly grubby Rialto bridge surrounded by a myriad of markets and stalls making for excellent shopping opportunities. Although tempted by some beautiful glass sculptures, the high price (€3,000 and up) turned out to be an inhibitive hurdle.
We visited several acclaimed galleries, the modern art gallery (Ca’ Pasero) was supposed to be a highlight, but paled in to insignificance compared to the smaller, but exquisite, Peggy Guggenheim collection. OK, I may be biased as we stumbled on two of my absolute favourite Magritte paintings were in the collection, namely the Empire of Light (a house at midday and midnight simultaneously) and the Voice of Space (three silver orbs hovering above a landscape). These, along with a couple of spectacular Dalis and an interesting boy on a horse sculpture, meant I literally had to be dragged out. Interestingly Peggy’s garden held a few trees, the first real greenery we had seen anywhere in the city. I imagine roots would just hit sea water or destroy a building’s supporting structure making a garden a huge engineering project and thus only an option for the ultra rich.
It was hard checking out, giving up the brass key to our lovely room, but tempered a bit by the cheapness of it. We took the bus-boat in glorious sunshine back to the Piazzale Roma. It had been a great trip, and an ideal time of the year to visit – according to the receptionist there were only “few” tourists – it must be unbearable in summer with the heat, stench and thousands more tourists. I will take back great memories and stronger calves thanks to the steps on those lovely bridges of Venice.