Travelers come to Venice for a glimpse at how the doges lived. Now offering a closer look: A 16th-century palazzo turned extravagant hotel.
It all started with a small child in red, flitting through Venice's dank alleys and damp catacombs in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg's 1973 cult thriller. Except that the child turned out to be a psychotic dwarf. And likewise Venice, for so many the quintessence of Italian romance, seemed to me gloomy and sinister, a place of ill-kept secrets and murky intrigue. While other people went on about Venetian Gothic and rococo splendor, I saw rot, rip-offs and rampant overcrowding. In the winter Venice unsettled me, with its chill green water and narrow, frozen passageways to nowhere. In the summer it was worse still, stinking and fetid, an ever-sinking tourist trap.
But what irked me most of all was the food. Overpriced, overcooked pasta with all the charm of a Grand Canal sewage pipe. I've visited the city half a dozen times over the years. My sister used to live there, and I'd go with my mother, Camilla. Sure, there was Harry's Bar. There was always Harry's Bar, with its tiny tables and gargantuan bills. We drank minute Bellinis (very good) and ate in the room where it was invented. That aside, all I remember was dyspepsia and disappointment.
This time, I've come to check out the new hotel from Amanresorts, a group I adore. As I glide over the lagoon by train, on a winter's day so crisp and clean and perfect that even the rubbish bins seemed gilded, I couldn't help but wish I was deep in the gaudy, intoxicating chaos of Naples instead. Or settling down to a typically robust Roman lunch. But stepping out of the Grand Canal and onto the private jetty of Aman Canal Grande, something seems different. Better.
Perhaps it is because I am traveling alone to the city for the first time, and without the chatter of companions I'm able to glimpse the city's famous charm. Or perhaps my outlook is different simply because of the hotel. Service is polished and smiling. My room is a different planet from the usual Venetian faded grandeur. This is a place where historic meets current, where busts and intricately checkered marble floors sit beside resolutely Modernist furniture. It works—the contemporary simplicity offering contrast to the gloriously over-the-top Baroque brilliance. Although the 24-room hotel is full, I have the feeling that I am the only guest in the place and that the whole staff is there for me, and me alone. Within these thick walls, you're miles removed from the bustle of Venice, yet very much part of it too.
The Aman has a warmth and character that's impossible for a new hotel to manufacture, and that's because this hotel is also a home: The magnificent Palazzo Papadopoli has been in Count Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga's family for generations, and he still lives on the top floor with his wife and three of their children. I climb upstairs, to the very top, for a drink with the Contessa Arrivabene. I'm expecting some aristocratic Miss Havisham, entombed in a once-gilded cage, wreathed in cobwebs and regret. Instead, Bianca is young and beautiful and charming, just like her husband, Giberto, or Gibi. Their apartment displays old fabric and serious good taste, along with the endless elegant ephemera—medals, pictures, photographs, frescoes, tapestries and busts—of this great old Venetian family. Their children wander in and out, while iPads and computers sit among the crimson silk.
We drink Prosecco—made at the family's winery Castelletto—and talk about Aman founder Adrian Zecha, the man who persuaded the couple to turn most of the palazzo into a hotel. Of course, Zecha hasn't bought the property, merely leased it. "Adrian understood the place, and had a very precise vision of what he wanted, and I trusted him completely," Gibi says. "We both love him and what he's done downstairs." It took years to convert the building into an Aman, and there were moments where Gibi was convinced the project was doomed. "We were in the midst of a recession, but Adrian was always true to his word."
We wander downstairs to the ground floor to look at the line of Murano glass that Gibi designed (giberto.it). The drinking glasses are exquisite—brightly colored, incredibly delicate. If I owned a set, I wouldn't know whether to use them or put them on a pedestal. As I gaze in awe, we start to talk about the tourists. "Venice now only has 57,000 inhabitants," says Bianca. "In the 18th century, at the city's peak, there were over 100,000. And last year, the number of tourist beds overtook the number of residents." Gibi shakes his head. They realize that tourists keep Venice afloat. "We still love this place, though," Gibi says. I love them. We arrange to meet for lunch the next day.
I float to dinner at an osteria called Alle Testiere, a recommendation from my friend Russell Norman, the brilliant London restaurateur who based his Polpo restaurants on Venetian cuisine. I say float, but I actually travel by water taxi. It would have been cheaper to charter a chopper. Still, the moment I see the golden light flooding onto the dark pavement, the small, packed room and smell the garlic, I know I'm in the right place.
I leave the ordering to one of the owners, Luca, who is lean and shaven-headed, with the most gracious of manners. I eat minute razor clams, smaller than my little finger and tender, their flesh just burnished by the grill. There's warm, delicate squid salad; tiny octopus; alabaster latti di seppia, cuttlefish eggs; and great mounds of spider crab. Turbot comes scattered with capers and olives, and I drink a sparkly Verdicchio wine. The cooking is simple but never basic; assured and utterly thrilling. They take the best local fish and do very little to it. Just as a great restaurant should.
The surprises continue the next day, when I meet my new friends for lunch at Antiche Carampane. "It's our second home," says Gibi. "We eat here more than once a week." I can see why. Brown paper cones, filled with tiny fried gray schie, or shrimp, are thrust into our hands as we arrive. Oozing, buttery polenta with white truffles and more schie is a great, luxurious, fur-coated beauty of a dish; I've never eaten better. Then clams with Parmesan cheese. ("Heresy, no?" says Gibi. But just sublime.) And spider crab linguine, as well as local soft-shell crab in a gossamer batter. I thought nothing could top Alle Testiere. This just pips it. Two world-class restaurants in 12 hours. I've had this city very wrong indeed.
Soon enough I'm off, back toward the real world. But this time, instead of looking forward, willing myself home, I look back, over the domes and towers and hidden alleys of Byron's "fairy city of the heart." Now, distaste has turned to delectation. And distrust, slipped quietly into love
Aman Canal Grande: Doubles from $1,300; Calle Tiepolo 1364; amanresorts.com; 011-39-041-270-7333.
Tom Parker Bowles, food critic at London's Mail on Sunday, has written four books. His fifth, Let's Eat Meat, will be out later this year.