Travel: Venice is a city which grabs hold of you

The Grand Canal as the sun sets. Picture: Getty

The Grand Canal as the sun sets. Picture: Getty

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Modern technology has solved an age-old Venetian problem for one iconic hotel, finds Alice Wyllie

We have the driest ground floor in the whole city,” the receptionist tells me, when I check in to the Gritti Palace. It doesn’t sound like much of an accolade for a five-star hotel, but in Venice, dryness is next to godliness, and this grand old dame of the Grand Canal was clearly getting fed up getting her feet wet.

Venice is sinking and sea levels are rising, a combination that leaves Venetians at the mercy of the tides. Until recently, staff at the opulent Gritti Palace had to elevate the antique furniture on the ground floor when the tide was high, sometimes as frequently as twice a day. Under such circumstances, guests walked along specially-constructed platforms; a novel but impractical solution.

An extensive $55 million, 15-month refurbishment has put an end to all that however. Here comes the science; a reinforced concrete ‘tank’ encases the ground floor. It rises up 1.5 metres inside the walls but is hidden by marble. External doors have steel shutters which slide up when the city floods to keep the water out.

The Gritti Palace re-opened with great fanfare in February, and it’s by no means just her underpinnings that have had a makeover. The hotel is one of the grandest in the city and is as Venetian as they come; ostentatious antiques, marble, wood panelling, flock wallpaper and lashings of gilt-on-gilt.

A re-fit has taken it into the 21st century, offering guests a slicker, more glamorous take on all of the above. Referencing Venetian culture and utilising local artisans, rare archival fabrics sit alongside acres of Italian marble, antique chandeliers and Murano glass.

We arrive at low tide – the deceptively-simple Venetian gothic façade looming large over the water – so I’m disappointed not to get the full fish bowl experience. No matter; there’s plenty to ooh and aah at regardless of the waterline.

Dating back to 1525, the Gritti Palace was home to the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti and was later used as the residence of the Vatican ambassadors to Venice.

It enjoys one of the most enviable positions on the Grand Canal; facing the church of Santa Maria della Salute just as the canal begins to open out to embrace St Mark’s Square on one side and a distant, glorious San Giorgio Maggiore on the other. Views are as staggering as you’d expect, and arriving by boat is one of those you-have-to-do-it-once experiences. Check-in done, we grab a Bellini on the famous terrace before the sun disappears. The English novelist W Somerset Maugham wrote in 1960 that “there are a few things in life more pleasant than to sit on the terrace of the Gritti when the sun about to set bathes in lovely colour the Salute, which almost faces you.”

He was right. There can be few better spots from which to observe the extensive comings and goings on the world’s most famous canal. The hollering of gondoliers punctuates the evening while the water fades from a bright turquoise to an inky blue as the light dims.

To our right lies the narrowing canal with its promise of tangled streets and elegantly decaying palazzos. To our left, the widening mouth of the canal and the stark, open sea beyond.

Located a short, winding walk from St Mark’s Square, the Gritti is an ideal base for seeing the city. The famous Rialto fish market is a quick stroll away and is a must on a Saturday, while nearby All’ Arco is the best Bacari (Venetian wine bars serving tapas-style snacks) in the city. That locals were queuing patiently for it when we arrived speaks volumes.

Never one to leave without a souvenir, before I caught my boat back to the airport and the 21st century I headed to Ebru, a small paper shop five minutes from the Gritti Palace. The city is famed for its lovely marbled paper but much of the stuff on offer today is printed in China. At Ebru, paper is hand-made by gruff owner Alberto Valese, and it’s a popular spot with in-the-know visitors.

Venice is a city which grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go, and the Gritti Palace is the quintessentially-Venetian place to survey it from. I’m not the only one who approves. One of the world’s iconic hotels, it has played host to Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. The list goes on; Truman Capote, Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, Catherine Deneuve, Clark Gable…

Unlike some other grand hotels, this one is relatively immodest when it comes to its impressive guest book. Photographs of famous visitors line the walls, accompanied by notes of thanks; the Jolie-Pitts’ is signed by the entire brood. This is a hotel that wears its history, its accolades, its past glories like rows of shiny medals on a bright uniform.

It’s certainly not short on pomp, but then who wants minimalism when they come to Venice? Not me. I’ll take my Venetian break dipped in gold, thank you very much, and few do gilt-edged splendour better than the Gritti Palace.

Jet2.com (www.jet2.com) offers low fares, good flight times, and a 22kg baggage allowance to Venice Airport from Edinburgh. Flights start from £40 one way including taxes.

Accommodation in a deluxe room at the Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel (00800 325 45454 or www.luxurycollection.com/grittipalace) starts from e485 per night including VAT and breakfast.

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