Monday 17 June 2019

David Robbins: The hotels of Venice are grand -- but I'm not quite in their league

The terrace of the Cipriani Hotel looks over the lagoon towards Venice. The slight distance is important: the hotel is of the city, yet not in it.

If the guests wish to join the throngs around the Doge's Palace and St Mark's Basilica, they stroll to the hotel jetty.

There, a handsome young Italian man in a white uniform and peaked cap will proffer a steadying arm as they step aboard the hotel's launch. He doesn't do anything so forward as take the guest's hand; he merely extends his forearm so they may rest their hand upon it.

His boat is a sleek vessel, with polished wood and well-upholstered seats, the sort of motorboat favoured by James Bond for pursuing villains, or escaping them.

When the Cipriani's guests have had enough of the heat and the crowds on the main island of Venice, they return to the hotel's private landing stage at St Mark's Square.

They push open the stainless steel gate and turn the handle of a small box affixed to the structure. They dial 9, and the handsome young Italian man returns to bring them back to their sanctuary across the lagoon.

When they disembark at the hotel side, there are any number of porters and front-desk staff to welcome them by name and enquire about their meal, or the concert they attended or, perhaps, the yacht on which they dined.

I have always been fascinated by the workings of the grand hotels, and the way both guests and staff float along on a sea of elegance and refinement, with no acknowledgement that there is anything so grubby as a financial transaction taking place.

Hotels like the Cipriani grew up when the English aristocracy began to travel away from their stately homes. The landed gentry were soon followed by the upper middle classes, who undertook the Grand Tour of the sites of classical antiquity and the Renaissance in huge numbers.

The hotels modelled themselves on what they supposed the life and customs of an English country house to be. Class divisions were replicated, and the ideal of the discreet, almost invisible servant was also imported.

If the staff of the grand hotels generally know their place, I'm often not so sure about the guests. Many try to pretend that they stay in €1,500-a-night suites every day of their lives and that their present hotel, while good in its way, is by no means the best they've ever stayed in.

Others are too reverential. They whisper as if they were in a cathedral, and give a start every time they are approached by a waiter. They do complicated mental arithmetic with the menu prices.

The guests at the Cipriani -- which is owned by the Orient Express group and has welcomed many of the crowned heads of Europe, as the saying goes -- are as fascinating as the hotel.

There is the American couple who come every year and who have built a replica of the hotel pool in their home in New York. They work their way around the pool terrace, swapping tales of dinner the night before with the other regulars.

There is an extended French family who look like a Ralph Lauren ad at the breakfast table. There are Russians, of course, and an American basketball star is expected that night.

There are several older men with younger women, and a large American gent on the lounger beside me is talking to his pilot on his mobile phone.

I am there under false pretences. My wife is in Venice on business, and I am merely an appendage. The American couple chat to me, but thanks to some in-built radar the rich have, decide I am not in their league.

Still, to be here in any capacity is a kind of blessing. The best hotels, I think, make you feel at home no matter who you are or how big your bank balance is. The Cipriani is one of those.

Just then, the pool attendant comes along with a water atomiser to keep one's face cool in the sun.

drobbins@independent.ie

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