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Venice and the Delights of the Cipriani

by Keith Allan & Lynne Gray

Mention the name of Dr Natale Rusconi to anyone who is anyone in the hotel business and you will get an instant response. “One of the great hoteliers,” some would say. “He’s from the old school – a master,” others would suggest. While one or two would go even further and hail him as, “today’s Cesar Ritz!”

Look at his pedigree and you begin to see why. For a start he was born in a hotel, close to the Central Station in Milan, where both his parents were passionate hoteliers. His grandfather too was steeped in hotel life – he had made his fortune developing small hotels. And yet as Natale grew up and began to wonder what he might do for a living his mother was not keen for him to go into the hotel business. “I think she wanted me to be an ambassador or something similar,” Natale tells us with a smile.

Not much chance of that. The hotel business was racing through his blood and despite his mother’s wishes he was determined to enter the world of hotels and make his mark. And that, of course, is precisely what he did. The fact that he is still at the head of one of the finest hotels in the world, perched on the tip of Giudecca just across the basin of the Venice lagoon, some thirty years after he was appointed by Jim Sherwood of Orient Express Hotels, speaks volumes for their loyalty and dedication to one another. For our part, having been lucky enough to visit Natale over the years, we see him as a sort of commodore standing on the bridge of the Cipriani, sailing it through the ups and downs of the hotel world.

Just like a gleaming, private yacht that has permanently dropped anchor in the lagoon, the Cipriani waits for you to arrive by boat, usually the hotel’s own private launch which is on constant call to take you to and fro from St Mark’s Square, or perhaps by water taxi from the airport or railway station at the top of the Grand Canal, or, as we did on our first visit much to the surprise of the concierge, by vaporetto which stops at Zitelle on Giudecca just yards from the rear of the hotel and Cips Club.

The hotel’s history, in a city that oozes centuries-old architecture and art, is a short one. In fact fifty years is all it can lay claim to. It was in 1956 that Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar fame hooked up with the Guinness sisters and decided to build a hotel on the island of Giudecca. Many thought it was a mad scheme – too far away from the centre of Venice and, anyway, who would want to be in a brand new hotel stuck on Giudecca when they could be languishing in an ancient palazzo along the Grand Canal?

Cipriani, on the other hand, saw it very differently. He must have seen the crowds turning bigger by the minute, swamping the ancient piazzas and churches, watched the canals clogging up with gondolas and thought how marvellous it would be to stay in a hotel that was only minutes away from the centre of Venice where you could hear a blackbird sing and relax in a heated, saltwater swimming pool, which of course was unheard of in a city built on millions of timber piles driven deep into the mud and where space was at a premium. The old gardens of Giudecca, where Casanova once wooed his women, would be the perfect site to make that hunch come true. Even in the fifties Venice was a busy place and for those who could afford it the Cipriani offered the best of both worlds – the chance to take in Venice and all its glory while at the same time escaping to a peaceful hotel for a swim! Film stars dropped in and flying boats flew wealthy, English gadabouts to the Italian Riviera where they would pick up a car and drive overland to Venice.

As Natale knows only too well to keep a hotel in tip top shape you have to keep evolving. Over the last thirty years more than $120 million has been spent on the Cipriani, upgrading the rooms, offering butler service at the Palazzo Vendramin, turning an ancient granary into a banqueting hall, creating more restaurant facilities, and, most recently, creating a beautiful spa. Head Chef Renato Piccolotto has also enjoyed a remarkable thirty year stint at the Cipriani; many of his dishes are based around Venetian ingredients. Pasta is all home made in the kitchen and dishes like osso bucco and the famous chocolate ice cream are just as popular as they ever were as is the carpaccio that was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani himself.

More than anywhere else in the world Venice can be a nightmare to stay in. And the reason is simple. Too many people! Queues form at hotel reception desks and large parties of guests clog up the system. Staff cannot cope and have little or no time for you. Not good enough if you are paying $1000 a night for a room! It happened to us when we stayed one night at a five star hotel close to St Mark’s Square. Lack- lustre performances by waiters, barmen and even restaurant managers drove us to complain. The food was disappointing, the service in the dining room bad and at breakfast it was so busy that we ended up eating in a bar round the corner.

Natale believes that one of the secrets to the success of the Cipriani is his staff and he personally vets (interviews) every one before giving them a job. “We pay them twenty per cent more than anywhere else and they become a family, in some cases even getting married together!”

The other important approach, which is followed throughout the Orient Express group, is to allow individual managers to make decisions. As a result the hotels are more like private clubs. “Large hotels with more than 200 rooms cannot do what we do,” Natale tells us. “They are obliged to take groups, conventions and marriages. We do so at the Cipriani but they enter the hotel separately and are not mixed with our regular clients. Our guests don’t want to be disturbed and they certainly don’t want to see a lot of people in the lobby.”

Step inside the hotel and you soon see how all this attention to detail comes together. Everything glows, from the way you are looked after by the staff to the original cherry wood panelling and doors. Climb the staircase and glance down the corridor where soft lights on tables guide you to your room. Come down to breakfast, take lunch by the pool or dine on the terrace and you won’t be in a hurry to go sightseeing, even though the most beautiful city in the world is calling. And whatever you do don’t leave before feasting on the many stunning pasta dishes and our all time favourite - scampi fritti with artichokes and tartare sauce.

The fact is you can stay at the Cipriani for no more than you would spend at any other five star Venetian hotel. From the moment you steal on to the Cipriani’s private jetty at San Marco, step on to the launch and motor out across the basin of the lagoon the hurly burly world of busy Venice is left behind. Instead a bewitching, Canaletto canvas slips into view – the puffed up dome of Santa Maria della Salute, the Campanile of San Marco poking up through the higgledy-piggledy, skyline of palazzos, and a tantalising glimpse of the five domes of the nearby basilica and the lace-like arcades of the Doge’s Palace.

It is then that a touch of Cipriani magic takes hold and stays with you for the duration of your stay until that final moment when you step back on the launch and swing away from the hotel heading for home. Over the rumbling of the engine and the turquoise water dancing in the sunlight you can’t help but glance back at the peach coloured building of the Cipriani glowing in the early morning light. One or two guests are already swimming in the pool, others are settling down to breakfast on the terrace. With a lump in the throat you have already made a promise to return.

Hotel Cipriani & Palazzo Vendramin, Giudecca, Venice.
Owner: Orient Express Hotels
Managing Director: Dr. Natale Rusconi
54 suites
44 rooms
Telephone (39-041) 520 3930
Website www.hotelcipriani.com

Getting there:
Fly directly to Venice or go via London to pick up connecting flights to Venice.
Arriving in Venice by train is spectacular. The causeway built in 1846 to link Venice by train with the mainland was a momentous event. It meant Venice was no longer an island. The train travels alongside the roadway, which came much later in 1931. From the railway station you go down a series of wide steps straight on to the Grand Canal. With baggage to wheel it’s easier to go out the side entrance to the left! If you fly to Milan the very pleasant train journey from Milan to Venice takes about three hours. Or you could travel to Venice by train with Eurostar from London through the Channel Tunnel to Paris and then on to Venice. Book with Rail Europe. www.raileurope.co.uk

What to take:
Dress up as much as you like! Dining in the main restaurant of the Cipriani is a smart affair. In the Cips restaurant, overlooking the basin of the lagoon to St Mark’s Square, dining is more casual. The views are to die for. In summer casual cotton or linen clothes for daytime but take a warm sweater in case of chilly nights. Don’t forget your swimming costume! Remember to take comfortable shoes for walking and a light waterproof jacket. If you go in the winter it can be cold, foggy and damp but somehow it doesn’t matter in Venice if you’re well wrapped up.
A good pair of binoculars is a boon in Venice. There are lots of sights to see on and over the water. We always carry Zeiss pocket binoculars 8x30 Victory Compact. Waterproof and so light you won’t know you’ve got them round your neck. They’ll work as opera glasses too if you go to the famous La Fenice, the city’s oldest theatre.

Recommended reading:

Eyewitness Travel Guide to Venice and the Veneto
by Christopher Catling & Susie Boulton
published by Dorling Kindersley

Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland onSunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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