Venice is one of Italy’s most fascinating historic cities. There’s a story behind every building, street and even hotel – as our Direct Marketing Executive, Nikki, discovered on a recent trip…
Not long after arriving into Italy, one of the hoteliers told me that “Venice is to be lived like a city of the past”. It’s not surprising given that almost all traffic in and around Venice is still on water.
However, this isn’t just what the hotelier meant. Dating back to somewhere around 400 A.D, the city is rich in history; it’s plastered all over the buildings, which proudly wear the work of great Venetian artists inside and out. And although one of the city’s biggest changes has been the rise in tourism, many Venetian hotels strive to preserve their history. I couldn’t wait to uncover their stories…
This was one of the first hotels I visited on my trip, and my first chance to dive into some hotel history. The very friendly Fabio – who has been running the hotel with his partner for years – told us how Hotel Bonvecchiati is one of the oldest 4* hotels in Venice, welcoming guests since 1790.
In the 19th century, it was used primarily as a restaurant serving typically Venetian food to patrons; mainly seafood caught daily from the surrounding lagoons and nearby lakes. The “La Terrazza” restaurant harks back to the hotel’s heritage by continuing to serve up the freshest traditional Venetian cuisine, using ingredients sourced daily from the Rialto market.
Even if you haven’t booked to stay at Hotel Bonvecchiati, you can still head here to have lunch or dinner by the canal and try these time-honoured dishes. In my opinion, there’s nothing better to do in Italy than tuck into the tried-and-tested regional specialties.
I’d only heard of this antique hotel because of its modern history, such as being the location for filming The Tourist starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and because of its extensive list of celebrity and political guests. However, after stepping into the lobby it’s clear that this hotel was once a palace.
I’ve never felt so much like I was entering the den of royalty. The main building, the Palazzo Dandolo’ dates back to the 14th century and was built by one of Venice’s Doges to accommodate his family members – the distinguished Dandolo famiglia.
According to my guide, in 1822 a hotelier called Giuseppe Dal Niel (known to his friends as ‘Danieli’) rented the second floor, and turned it into a hotel. Now divided into three, each section is just as magnificent as the others – think 19th-century royal portraiture, Baroque armchairs, Venetian Terrazzo floors and frescoes, as well as an abundance of antiques.
It was like taking a trip down the historic rabbit hole of Venetian artisans. This craftsmanship even extends to all of the guest rooms and suites, each with Rubelli fabric on the walls and their own unique pieces of Murano glass. It’s easy to imagine this richly-decorated building as the social stage and meeting place for aristocracy that it once was.
I loved that this hotel was only a few minutes’ walk from the bustling St. Mark’s Square, but is tucked away down quiet side streets. However, what’s really important about its location is the magnificent baroque church of Santa Maria del Giglio that sits opposite (if you’ve never seen it, I fully recommend Googling some images of its beautifully carved exterior).
Hotel Bel Sito has been welcoming visitors since 1920, but once upon a time it was part of the church. Translated as “St. Mary of the Lily”, the Santa Maria del Giglio church was founded right back in the 9th century, making it as old as Charlemagne.
The hotel staff were eager to show me the original frescos that were discovered in some of the rooms after recent renovation work, uncovered from when the building was part of the religious institution. Choosing to simply clean them up and keep them on display was an excellent idea, as it’s become a perfect tribute to the hotel’s history.
Ernest Hemingway stayed in Venice for some months, and the Santa Maria del Giglio church is even referenced in one of his novels. But which hotel did he frequent? The Gritti Palace, commissioned by (and named for) Andrea Gritti, the Doge of Venice from 1523 to 1538. Hemingway is just one of a long list of notable guests since the hotel opened its doors 69 years ago – along with John Ruskin and Somerset Maugham.
A palazzo like the Hotel Danieli, The Gritti Palace has more of a boutique chic feel thanks to its beginnings as a private residence of the noble Pisani family, who had a large collection of artworks and treasures always on display. Sitting in part of the foyer felt like lounging in a grand library.
Interestingly, I learnt that it was just four years ago that The Gritti Palace reopened after extensive refurbishment. Venetian masters were brought in specially, and a long-serving member of staff was happy to tell me that it was as though nothing had changed. The hotel was just as beautiful as it was before, and that’s how they liked it.
There were so many stories behind other hotels that I was lucky enough to visit, such as the Hotel Londra Palace, where Tchaikovsky was inspired to begin his Symphony No. 4 (psst… he stayed in room number 106). Or the Hotel Westin Europa Regina, which is made up of five 18th and 19th-century palaces and has seen the likes of Claude Monet walk through the doors. Then there’s the Ca’Sagredo Hotel, which has been declared a National Monument to preserve its beauty as an ancient noble residence.
There’s no denying that tourism has become a mainstay in Venice, and balancing the arrival of new visitors while preserving the history of a city can be a real struggle. However, nowhere I’ve travelled to before has done this as successfully as Venice – com’era, dov’era.