The Cipriani dream turns 60 – and it’s better than ever
Quite some time ago, I was sent, like a piece of baggage, to the Cipriani in Venice. Lana Dopper, then with Leading Hotels of the World, had a hand in it. So did Leo Schofield, the bon vivant, food critic, arts tsar, and tv star.
So off I went, with my photographer brother, to the hotel which many said – 40 years ago! – was certainly the best in Venice. Getting there was a trip, which involved a flight from London and small drama over currency at Marco Polo airport. But I carried the dosh, he carried the bags, and we ended up at the Cipriani boat late on a February evening. It was brisk, but clear, and the lights of Venice sparkled across the lagoon.
The boat driver took us the scenic way to the Cipriani, through the tiny back rios (don’t get me started on the difference between a canal and a rio. See the story here instead.)
Arrival into a dream
The sky was inky black, the water of the rios shot through with rainbow ribbons of petrol slick, and light from dozens of television sets filtered from high-set windows and bounced across the surface of the water.
The smart wooden Cipriani boat broke out of the narrow rios and into the Giudecca canal, swiftly running up to the back dock of the hotel. We disembarked, and crossed the garden. The heated pool glowed azure under a blanket of mist as warm water met chilly air.
That was the start of my love affair with the Cipriani. My memories are first, as I threw open the long shuttered windows early the next morning, of lean cypresses on San Giorgio, then the chocolate ice cream from the main restaurant (still a point of pride at the Cipriani today), and always the gracious welcome from the hotel’s fabled director, Dr Natale Rusconi.
He was the courtly, generous centre of the hotel until he retired 11 years ago to the Zattere. Now instead of looking towards the Piazza San Marco, he looks at Giudecca, where the Belmond Cipriani sits unseen, the site where he spent so much of his working life.
Natale Rusconi was a hotel industry legend who ran some of the greatest hotels in Italy, most notably the Cipriani where he was managing director from 1977. He left the hotel in 2007, at the age of 81. “Reality cannot be ignored,” he said with a smile. “I have to accept my age.”
Happy diamond Jubilee, Belmond Cipriani
It’s hard to believe that the Cipriani is only 60 years old this year. It seems as though it has been here for decades longer, well-established like its wonderful gardens and glittery guest list. In the gentle care for nearly 10 years of Director Giampaolo Ottazzi, the hotel speaks to a deep, silent luxury, a place confident in its own values, extravagantly caring of all its guests.
The care begins on the boat over to the hotel. There is a dedicated boat dock at Piazza San Marco, where the Cipriani launch comes every 20 minutes or so, 24 hours a day. (You wouldn’t want your guests stranded on the wrong side of the canal, would you?)
On the other side, past the chandlery of the Guardia di Finanza (the militarised branch of the Italian police responsible for dealing with financial crime and smuggling which has also evolved into Italy’s primary agency for suppressing the illegal drug trade), lies the hotel itself. An oasis away from the mad crowds of Venice, it is a refuge from the noise and the heat and the tourists which are almost intolerable in the city during spring and summer and has seen the city council introduce harsh crowd control measures. You wouldn’t know a thing about that, of course, over on Giudecca, where there is still a village-y vibe, thanks to the small artisanal factories and gardens and family restaurants.
“A haven, secure and snug against the crashing waves of tourists”
That was the plan by the creator of the Cipriani, Giuseppe Cipriani. It was his dream to open a refuge for the jet set minutes from St Mark’s Square, but far enough away to ensure peace and privacy. The three daughters of the head of the Guinness family – Viscountess Boyd of Merton, Lady Honor Svejdar and Lady Brigid Guinness – were already avid fans of Harry Cipriani and his bar so enthusiastically supported his plans in words, but more importantly with capital. A tract of land, five minutes by launch from Piazza San Marco was acquired, and the hotel started to go up.
From the beginning, it was a huge success. And probably for the reasons it remains one to this day – it is a haven, secure and snug against the crashing waves of tourists who invade La Serenissima daily during the warmer months.
Get off the Cipriani launch, and fall into the arms of Roberto, the concierge (photographed top with the Clooneys). A native of Venice, he was a boat driver for some years, before Dr Rusconi recognised his rare ability to make people feel relaxed and at home. And Roberto has been in the Hall and on the dock of the Cipriani ever since.
The man who gets things done around here
Roberto is the sort of man who makes things happen. Since George and Amal Clooney stayed here for their wedding, I had wondered which suite they had stayed in. My money was on the first floor above Oro restaurant. Early one morning, just after the launch had left for the square, I found Roberto in the Hall, and asked where it was.
Quick as a flash, Roberto took me up to the first floor and out along the passageway to the quietly announced room 100. This was the door to the Palladio Suite, the bolt hole of the rich and famous. With its corridor ending in a view of the lagoon and San Giorgio, the Palladio Suite is a preview of heaven. There is an an exclusive boat dock, naturally, and a terrace with a plunge spa bath (below) and a dreamy bedroom. (The suite can be expanded to include another two bedrooms, as well.) They think of everything here!
For the hotel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, the Clooneys sent a video message (selfie stick, anyone?) and particularly mentioned Walter, the Cipriani barman (photographed). He is extremely gifted, is Walter, and a cheerful soul. The only things which irritate him seem to be the swooping birds, which cannot resist the snacks at the tables. He keeps an enormous water pistol at the ready to beat them back, and sometimes allows the guests a turn. It can make an afternoon in a bar into a game for big kids.
Images: Natale Rusconi (Gastroenophile)
Clooney wedding (Reuters)
Christine Hogan stayed as a guest of the Belmond Hotel Cipriani.