Coming home to the Gritti Palace

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By Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 

Coming home to the Gritti Palace. A restful and efficient flight on Swiss Airlines in Boston brings us to an early afternoon arrival at the Venice airport where a man awaits us holding aloft a sign: “WELCOME FROMMERS!” We follow him and our luggage down to the water taxi and off we go for a highly anticipated stay at the grand and gorgeous Gritti Palace.

What a welcome! The people behind the desk remember us from our last visit. They greet us warmly when, in the midst of registration formalities, Paolo Lorenzoni, General Manager of the Gritti Palace arrives.

Our connection to Paolo goes back to the times he was G.M. at the Excelsior in Rome, the city he swore he’d never leave. But once he moved to Venice, he told us, this was the city he’d never leave. And how easily we understood. This is our third visit to the Gritti Palace, and knowing we had been professors of literature, he arranged something truly special for our stay.

The “special” turned out to be the “Hemingway Presidential Suite” named for the famed author. Paolo announced this amazing apartment was to be our home away from home for the next couple of nights. We learned that during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hemingway considered the Gritti Palace to be his home in Venice. It was the place where he composed many passages of his novel “Across the River and into the Trees.”

“Of course I’m biased that everyone should stay here!” Ernest Hemingway said of the iconic 82-room hotel on the Piazza San Marco that overlooks the Grand Canal with the fabulous Santa Maria della Salute church on the opposite side. Many famous people have partaken of the Gritti Palace’s charms and pleasures — Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Taylor, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, and Robert DeNiro to name but a few. And, of course, Ernest Hemingway, the guest of honor in the grand suite named for him.

Hemingway was known to luxuriate in his special chair as he admired the views of the Grand Canal from the ceiling-high balconies and to take in the ambience of an 18th century Venetian palace with the suite’s stucco walls and ceiling cornices, its Venetian Rococò motif, beautiful terrazzo floors, artworks and antiques.

 

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Myrna luxuriates in the “special” Hemingway suite chair

 

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Home to Club del Doge Restaurant and Bar Longhi, as well as The Gritti Epicurean School, the hotel’s restaurant offers a menu sufficient for 60 diners. One dinner from the “Starters” menu included an assortment of Venetian cicchetti: small prawns from the lagoon, baby scallops, and salt cod with white polenta. An “Authentic Truffle Menu” featured Risotto in “Parmingiana” style and white truffles For the clams-lover among us, there was “First Course” Spelt Linguine Pasta with clams (his favorite )and lime, while his partner could not resist the “Hemingway”-style risotto with scampi. And for Main Courses, we dined on wild-caught fish of the day, lamb chops covered in pistachios, and desserts of Souffle with Grand Manier, ending this grand repast with a selection of home-made sorbets and ice-cream .

The Gritti dining is an over-the-top experience be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner with Maitre d’ Mauro Ditadi at the helm. Informed, attentive and enthusiastic about his job, he epitomizes the hotel staff.

 

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Mauro Ditadi, Maitre d’ of the Gritti Palace

 

The Gritti Palace dates back to 1475 when it was commissioned by the Doge of Venice and became the official residence of the Gritti family. Later on the palace served as the residence of Vatican ambassadors to Venice and at the start of the nineteenth century it was transformed into a hotel. Today, after a meticulous renovation, the Gritti Palace offers guests a virtual reality insight into its intriguing and illustrious past.

The highly informed Paolo explained that one of the first tasks of the restoration was to make an inventory of the palace’s hundreds of paintings, mirrors, chandeliers, objects d’art and priceless pieces of furniture. The next job was to have them all restored by Venetian artisans, many of whom are the last exponents of all but vanished skills. Chandeliers were broken down into thousands of pieces and sent to the specialist on the island of Murano. Tables, lamps, chairs, bedheads and boiserie were scattered among workshops across the city. Lorenzo Rubelli, whose roots go back to 1835, provided fabrics for new upholstery, curtains and sumptuous silk wall coverings. They line virtually every completely refurbished room in the hotel.

 

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Italy has strict laws about historic buildings: none of the palace’s original superstructure could be altered. Nonetheless, doors were moved, partitions demolished and rooms reconfigured. The result was that the Gritti has 82 rooms today, including 21 suites. One memorable aspect of its past occurred the morning of July 14, 1902 when the Campanile (bell-tower) in St Mark’s Square collapsed in a mountain of wood, brick, and marble. It had survived, for a thousand years, on the flimsiest of foundations buffeted by wind and rain, corroded by salt water and – thanks to its inviting bronze tip – struck many times by lightning. It was a miracle it hadn’t fallen sooner.

That evening after the collapse at Venice’s City Council, there were protests about the cost of improving the square. It was felt that Venice would be better off without the tower.

But a phrase that entered Venetian folklore: “Dov’era e com’era” (“Where it was and how it was and what you see today is the new tower)” swiftly took root. It became the official response. When it was inaugurated, in 1912, the square was 600 tons lighter than it had been before with an additional 1,000 wooden piles reinforcing its foundations. Otherwise, it was identical to its predecessor.

We learned that today this is a typical Venetian response. When the issue of renewal arises, Venetians ask “How do you go about improving the world’s most beautiful city?” The response would adhere to the principle of 1902 that being restoring rather than altering: “Dov’era e com’era.”

Such was the response in the restoration of the Gritti Palace, which reopened in November 2013 after a renovation that took 15 months, cost £36.5 million. It was beautiful before. It is beautiful again. It seems as if nothing has changed.

In the greater scheme of things, of course, the fate of a single hotel doesn’t seem to matter much. But the Gritti is not just any hotel. It is one of the world’s greatest hotels; one of the most historic.

 

 

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