(The following is a guest column by noted journalist and travel writer Si Liberman)
By SI LIBERMAN
VENICE, Italy -- The view from our large third floor windows was fantastic -- kaleidoscopic images of a never-ending parade of strolling visitors, gondolas competing with power boats on the Grand Canal, historic structures everywhere you turn, the mass of humanity on the Bridge of Sighs, passengers entering/exiting water buses, passing cruise ships, haggling kiosk merchants.
You could spend hours watching and we did. It was all here -- a visual feast for artists and camera-toting visitors, a feast we thoroughly enjoyed from our room in the five-story landmark Hotel Danieli and its rooftop terrace restaurant.
The Danieli is one of the world‘s most famous hotels, formerly a palace built in the 14th century 200 yards or so from the Piazza San Marco, the magnetic epicenter of this island UNESCO World Heritage Site. A three day stay in the fabled hotel was the icing on the cake for my wife and me after coming off a Mediterranean cruise.
Since Giuseppe Del Niel, a Venetian Donald Trump of his day, acquired the property in the early 1800s and turned it into a luxury hotel, its 19th century guest list has included Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Richard Wagner and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, among others. More recent guests have been Shimon Peres, Leonard di Caprio and Steven Spielberg.
This is where the married Greek shipping magnet Aristotle Onassis met opera diva Maria Callas, also married at the time, and began a tempestuous, headline-making relationship in the 1950s. And room 10, according to hotel lore, is where Georges (CQ) Sand, the Bohemian-spirited female French novelist, and dramatist/poet Alfred De Musset had a steamy affair 115 years earlier
Enter the famous red building through its revolving door, and you find yourself in a palatial atrium lobby with towering marble pillars and floors, frescoed ceilings, Murano chandeliers, upholstered club chairs and couches, old paintings, stained glass windows and a maroon carpeted staircase. The atmosphere seems Venice circa 18th century except for the Wi-Fi nod to the 21st century.
You’d never know the 223-room hotel really comprises three buildings, two of which were added since 1906. Peak season room rates (May to September) go from nearly $500 to $8,000 per night. Off season prices can be up to a third less. Our room had two huge windows facing the Grand Canal and was furnished Victorian style with a king-sized bed and upholstered bluish green brocade headboard, side lamps, a pair of maroon velvet chairs, matching floor-to-ceiling drapes, desk and chair, large flat wall TV, closet with upholstered bluish green brocade panel doors, and a throw rug on a herring bone-patterned wood floor. The bathroom had a tub shower, toilet, bidet and marble vanity. The floor and walls were also marble. .
Rather pricey as is almost everything in this touristy city, al fresco dining on the hotel’s wraparound rooftop terrace restaurant was memorable with extraordinary panoramic views of the Grand Canal, the San Marco Basilica, San Georgio and Lido islands and the Adriatic Sea off in the distance.. Buffet breakfasts ($42 each) included about 35 items -- among them, omelettes and other egg choices, juices, fresh fruit (blueberries were as big as marbles), cereals, croissants and other breads, pastry assortment, etc.,etc. etc.
For dinner, our a la carte choices were a Mediterranean fresh vegetable minestrone soup, lightly breaded swordfish with olives and tomatoes and a French lamb loin with potato, mozzarella cheese timbale and escalope foie gras. It all went down nicely with a half bottle of Taittinger Champagne and assorted ice ream desserts, adding up to $250. For lunch another day we dined al fresco on pizza and beer at a very busy canal restaurant in the shadow of the Rialto bridge.
In between, we explored passageways of this amazing city, mounting bridge after bridge and dodging crowds, then spent a couple hours just people watching seated alongside others on a table-like bench near San Marco square. On that warm, sunny October day, the crowd around San Marco square was enormous. It seemed everyone had a camera and was using it.
You couldn’t help thinking what it must be like during peak season when crowds are even larger. Also, whether the island was sinking as reported by the media. Could it be because of the weight of the human wave (7.5 million visitors a year) that annually floods this city of 275,000 residents who occupy 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by 400-plus bridges?
This northeastern Italian city is like no other. It’s a place where architecture, art and mother nature combined to make it one of the world’s wonders -- a place that keeps the Hotel Danieli and hundreds of other city hotels humming.