Venice

April 9, 2007

venice.jpg

I know that Paris touts its reputation as the “city for lovers”, but for my money, there is no more romantic city in the world than Venice.  When I first came here, I was about twelve, and I must confess that all I really remember from that trip is being stuck on a tour with a guide who lectured us for what seemed like hours on the historical importance of the “Bridge of Sighs“.  (This tour guide so overshadowed my memory of that first visit that I wrote a one-act comedic play about the tour in high school.)

But, even then, I could see that this was a breathtakingly romantic city.  Earlier on, my mother had seen fit to make me watch David Lean’s Summertime.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  It’s the story of a middle-aged school teacher from the Midwest (Katherine Hepburn) who travels abroad for the first time to Venice.  At first she feels awkward and alone, but then discovers the beauty of the city and rediscovers her own beauty through an affair with a local antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi).  It’s still one of my favorites, and it will make you want to book your tickets to Venice tomorrow.

The real-life Venice is one of the few great cities in the world that lives up to and exceeds everything you read about in the guide books and see in the postcards.  Words really can’t describe your first sight of all those gondolas and vaparettos cutting across the water, and the sound of their wake slapping against the buildings.  There are “touristy sights”, for sure.  There’s the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, the Guggenheim Collection and, yes, the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs.  But, all of these are mere diversions.  This is a city for romantic evening strolls along the water, and daytime urban exploring through a literal maze of twisting, turning little streets without a car in sight.

Derek and I lucked out tremendously on our room.  I had booked online at the Hotel Monaco’s website, and upon arrival we were lead out of the hotel, down a narrow street and to an unmarked door.  The bellman unlocked it and led us upstairs to what turned out to be a suite of rooms directly adjacent to St. Marks square.  Even better, the price included breakfast, and when we went down to the lobby to inquire where it was being served, we were led out to an amazing terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.  Normally, I’m not a “breakfast person”, but we ate breakfast every day we were there, soaking in that gorgeous view, being waited on hand and foot, and generally feeling like royalty.

For dinner, I splashed out and booked a table at Harry’s Bar.  This is yet another restaurant made famous by the patronage of Ernest Hemingway, and sustained by a steady flow of celebrities and crowned heads ever since.  The room itself is small and totally nondescript: straw-colored walls and a couple of brass sconces.  But, from the moment your seated, the white-jacketed wait staff swirl around your table like a ballet troupe, constantly switching out your silverware, glasses, plates, and linens in a manner that is both fawning and completely unobtrusive.  How they manage this in such a cramped space boggles the mind.  If you so much as look like your about to ask for something, they’ll already be bringing it to you before you even get a word out.

I knew I wanted to eat here for the experience and didn’t even see the menu before we sat down.  The food choices all sounded excellent, but shock of seeing the prices had me loosening my tie a little.  This was the sort of place where the soup is $40.   Harry’s Bar looks pretty innocuous from the outside, and since it’s located right next to one of the main water-bus stops, it gets a lot of foot traffic shuffling past its frosted-glass door.  Every so often, we’d see college-aged Americans in t-shirts and shorts come through the door.  The maitre’d didn’t have to shoo them away; he’d just smile and hand them the menu… at which point all the color drained from their faces and they couldn’t leave fast enough.

Our meal was incredible, from the ice-cold Martini served in a mini-highball glass to the beef carpaccio which literally melted in your mouth, and the Bellini (invented here), to the flaming dessert.  I couldn’t have asked for more.  As we were eating, a stream of diners and bar patrons stopped by the table next to ours and chatted with an elderly gentleman seated there.  After we got our jackets from the cloakroom, the old man came over and shook our hands.  Only later did I realize it was multi-millionaire owner Arrigo Cipriani.  I think I said “Thanks.”

We stumbled back to the room considerably poorer, but also happy, fully sated and sleepy, collapsing into bed and listening to the sound of tourists shuffling through the streets below us, music wafting from the orchestras in the square, and the calls of the gondoliers echoing in the distance.  It truly doesn’t get any better.

More info: Venice