I’d always wanted to arrive in Venice the way they do in the movies. You know – one minute you’re in a chic restaurant in New York talking to Audrey Hepburn about meeting so-and-so in Venice – the next, you somehow magically appear on the Grand Canal gently bobbing along in a gondola. Or if you’re James Bond, a speed-boat accompanied by a John Barry soundtrack, an adoring supermodel at your side.
Which just goes to show that Oprah was right all along about the power of manifestation. Because our arrival at the Palazzo Barbarigo might as well have been a scene straight out of Hollywood: a celluloid moment captured the instant I stepped off the water taxi onto the small marble-clad landing of the hotel. As the boat pulled away, I cast a look behind me, squinting through the dazzle of the shimmering sparkles on the Grand Canal. Bathed in liquid light that spilled off the terracotta rooftops like a benediction, Venice was looking its best. Lined up along both sides of the canal was the breathtaking procession of wonderfully aged palazzos built in every major architectural style since the 12th century: Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. And over this picture-perfect tableau was a dome of blue sky the colour of crushed sapphires.
Stepping into the intimately lit reception lined with glossy black floors, an entire wall of art and photography books, and oversized oval mirrors, I could swear I heard Shirley Bassey in the wings crooning the opening bars of the love theme to this movie in which I was, unexpectedly, the leading man. According to the very genial bartender who poured us killer martinis that evening (‘It’s like mainlining alcohol,’ my partner murmured), the 18-room, two-storey Palazzo Barbarigo was renovated about two years ago by its Contessa owner. ‘This is only a minor annexe of the main palazzo that’s behind us,’ he said, as he brought the drinks out onto the tiny balcony just in time for the twilight to gather up the fading light over the Grand Canal.
Really? Because it doesn’t feel like a minor annexe. From the wide black marbled corridors and deep seated, very comfy chairs in the bar, to the bathroom lined with dark grey stone and enormous four-poster bed in the rooms, everything feels so generously proportioned. Grand and luxurious, but without being stuffy or stiff in any way. There is not an inch of chintz in sight. Instead, the vibe is a seductive mix of art deco meets Baroque meets Moulin Rouge – but in a good way in case you’re envisaging Versace’s palace on acid. Like an old-moneyed Venetian woman in her prime, the Palazzo Barbarigo fairly shimmers with its very own brand of classy yet modern sexiness. It’s voluptuous. You can imagine Monica Belluci staying here.
The walls – edged with gold braids and swathed in a textured, velvety, burgundy hued wallpaper with a delicate floral pattern that I saw again the next day on the walls of the Doge’s Palace – absorb any echo. Massive smoky ceiling mirrors draw light in from the canal so that, despite the darker colour palette, the whole space feels incredibly sensual. Kind of like the feeling you get when you stretch out on a bed that’s sheathed in silky white linen. Only, this time you get that feeling even when you’re in the vertical position.
Clearly, nothing has been left to chance and I half suspect that a Type A control freak was in charge of the renovations and fit-out. How else do you explain the acres of mocha-hued drapes that so completely envelop the windows that not a single ray of sunshine creeps into the room to disturb your sleep? Forgot to pack bedroom slippers? There are two pairs of fluffy red numbers with the same floral pattern as the walls. Does your partner have a habit of hogging the duvets? Fret not. The bed is made up with two single duvets. Need to watch TV in the bathroom? Press a button and a small TV screen that’s literally embedded into the vanity mirror comes on. And, this is where the Type A personality comment comes in, because the screen never fogs over, even from the steam from the rainshower. In a decade of hotel reviewing, I’ve never been in a hotel where a little bottle quietly labelled ‘Intimate cleanser’ is placed discreetly next to the bidet. It’s a little touch, but it speaks volumes. (About the hotel you understand, not me.)
The next morning, the musical sound of gently lapping water floating in through the open window woke me. The Contessa obviously doesn’t believe in rushing about because there is no clock in the entire hotel; but the fact that breakfast hours are from 8am to noon means that it doesn’t really matter much what time you decide to stumble into the bijou dining room. Which is just as well, as I was delayed for some time at my bedroom window watching an immaculately dressed elderly man slowly climb out of the water taxi in the canal below me. Once he’d found his footing, he turned to extend a shaking hand to the grand old dame, dressed to the nines, swaying about in the boat. Then, arm in arm, they slowly tottered across the cobbled courtyard and disappeared into the palazzo. Visconti could not have framed the moment more delicately.
‘Only in Venice,’ I thought, as I headed to breakfast hoping I’d bump into either the Contessa or, at the very least, Monica Belluci. There’s no menu – but eggs done any way are a matter of course for the kitchen. Freshly squeezed grapefruit juice appeared followed by a platter of cut fruit, warm pastries and hot brewed coffee. ‘Just like home, really,’ I Tweeted grandly while marvelling at the quality of the light bouncing in from the Grand Canal off the ceiling mirror.
But like home, you have to leave it eventually. And like everything in Venice, the memories of the Barbarigo – that stolen moment watching the elderly couple in the canal below the bedroom window, the crisp tang of the apricot jam at breakfast, the deep cocoon-like sleep on the huge double bed – all are immediately tinted with a wonderful nostalgia. And even as you step out into the extravagant sunshine and hear, in the distance, pealing church bells, you try to hold on to the moment. You can’t, of course. But it’s why you keep coming back.