TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip through Venice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The only train to get me from Trieste to Venice—a distance of a mere 100 miles—is going to take more than three hours. And that’s so not going to happen. Instead I sweep to La Serenissima in 85 minutes in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. The limousine drops me at the water taxi station at Venice Airport.
But this can’t be right, I think, it’s deserted. But it is right, because it is deserted. Several water taxis are moored at the docks, their captains dozing or surfing their phones. I cough. Nothing happens. I cough again, and a dozer opens an eye. He swiftly sees my luggage—and that it is not rubbish luggage, and he leaps on to the dock and helps me clamber aboard.
Within minutes, I’m on what is unquestionably my favorite boat ride on Earth. As always, a seagull sits atop each of the hundreds of wooden markers that lay out the route to Venice. We pass the baroque gates of the San Michele Cemetery. Occasionally our speed is interrupted as we bounce through the wash of another boat.
I sit at the back of the water taxi where the roof is open and stare longingly as the skyline of Venice gets larger and larger. There is very little boat traffic and as we swerve into a canal, the speed is dramatically reduced. I am back in Venice for maybe the 20th time since my first visit in the foggy December of 1972. And just as every time I arrive in this place, my eyes are moist and my heart is throbbing. To me there is literally no more gorgeous place on earth.
We chug through canals, and I stand to inspect the flaking buildings and the leaning churches and the boatmen delivering milk to faded palazzos. And for the hundredth time, I marvel at the crumbly magnificence of it all. Frankly, it is now more gorgeous than ever, because it is so sadly yet so beautifully empty.
Venetians carry grocery bags, cats wash, dogs sniff, gondoliers laze and examine their fingernails. There are no throngs, no crowds, no selfies. Inevitably, I think of Dirk Bogarde as Thomas Mann (aka Von Aschenbach) mincing through disinfectant soaked alleyways to visit the Cooks office in Visconti’s 1971 “Death in Venice” and being quietly warned to escape the city because of the 1911 epidemic of cholera.
The water taxi bursts out of a side canal into the lagoon, and there is the glorious church of Santa Maria Salute. Vaporetti and ferryboats toot as they churn along their assigned routes. We cruise past the Savoia & Jolanda, the Doges’ Palace and the tall lion-topped columns leading to San Marco. We swing in a circle and draw up at the dock of the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal.
I last stayed here in 1981. Actually, I didn’t stay. I had a high fever and a streaming cold. When my wife and I were ushered into a claustrophobic red-flock wallpapered room, I thought to myself “I absolutely refuse to expire here.” We summoned a water taxi and whooshed over to the Danieli, where I gave a hacking, sneezing private three-day performance of “Death in Venice” in a balconied suite gazing at Giudecca.
Forty years later, the Monaco and Grand Canal is very different. Redesigned and glamorized by its owners, the Benneton family, it is chic, laid-back, formal yet casual. And my suite facing the Punta della Dogana and the Grand Canal is like a gift from heaven. On the hotel’s top floor, the suite’s timbered ceiling, Murano chandelier and mid-century furniture are stunning. The bathroom is a symphony of back-lit alabaster. I unpack (I am a neurotic unpacker since I absolutely cannot live out of a suitcase) and return to the waterside terrace for prosciutto and melone so sweet you could weep, along with some sage-green ravioli.
This afternoon, I have a pressing appointment. As I am entraining the day after next for Austria and then driving into Germany, a variety of ominous governmental websites have informed me I must be in possession of a negative PCR test taken within the last 48 hours. I had emailed the concierge weeks earlier to set up the test only to be told I must go to the airport for this to be achieved. I remonstrate. After an exchange of emails, a test in the privacy of my hotel room is arranged for a not-so-trifling €250. Back in my suite, the telephone rings and the concierge informs me that the signori-of-the-testing are here. “May I send them up?” he asks.
I open the door and welcome two tall young men wearing tee-shirts, shorts and sneakers, each carrying an oddly-shaped bag and back-packs. I usher them in. The younger of the two says “I must change my suite.” “No,” I respond, “we can do it right here.” “But I must change my suite,” he insists.
Finally, I cotton on. I tell him he can change right here in the sitting room and I will wait in the bedroom. The suite-changer’s companion joins me in the bedroom, directs me to the desk and bids me to complete and sign a sheaf of forms. I give the paragraphs of Italian a brief glance and 95 percent confident that I have not willed him my fortune, I sign.
“I am ready,” comes the voice from the sitting room. I enter to find Signor Suite-Changer enshrouded head-to-toe in a disposable hazmat suit with a mask, face-shield, latex gloves and his shoes covered with plastic. He bids me sit on an upright velvet-upholstered chair. He gently pushes my head back, asks me to open my mouth wide and plunges the swab so deep it grazes my tonsils.
The swab is then inserted deep into each nostril, twirled, removed and placed in a test tube. I sneeze lavishly. The form-filling assistant places a label on the test tube. Still in his hazmat “suite,” he and his partner bid me farewell. I assume that in the elevator, the hazmat “suite” will be removed and then crammed in to the nearest trash can. As promised, at 6 p.m. the following day, the negative result pings into my iPhone. Downstairs, it is printed by the concierge and brought to my room in a large envelope closed with an impressive red wax seal.
I decide I am not in the mood to roam. There is something very comforting about staying in a wonderful hotel and not having to stroll the streets in search of dinner. So back to the waterfront terrace I return to have a quiet dinner. I even re-order the sage-green ravioli. And I then spend a tranquil night with the windows open so the waters of the Grand Canal splashing against the hotel’s foundations can lull me to sleep.
At breakfast back on the waterside terrace the following morning, I am calmly munching my granola when a giant seagull swoops onto my plate of prosciutto and flies off with a morning snack. Glasses crash, cups wobble, waiters rush to replace plates, cloths, saucers, butter, croissants and, thankfully, the prosciutto. It’s a sunny morning in Venice. Who could think of doing anything but laugh?
I board a vaporetto at the stop adjacent to the hotel. I would rarely think of taking a bus in Berlin or Baltimore or Buenos Aires, but in Venice it seems like the natural thing to do. I buy my ticket—50 cents for Venetians and a whopping six euros
Everyone is masked. Just like a busy Venetian, I stand amidships in the open section of the water bus. We chug to San Marco and onward towards the Lido. After a ride of no more than 10 minutes, I alight at Arsenale. This part of the waterside promenade is known as Ca’ di Dio, and even in the “old days,” it was usually bereft of tourists. It is adjacent to the exhibition grounds where the art Biennale is held every two years (except 2020, of course), and where this year’s Architecture Biennale is mounted.
But I am not biennale-bound. I’m on my way to the Hotel Ca’ di Dio, set to open in August 2021. Smack on the waterfront, this former 14th century monastery is in the final stages of being converted into the only five-star hotel to be opening this year in Venice. I am greeted by Christophe Mercier, the hotel’s general manager, whom I have known for several years.
In sweat-pants, a tee-shirt, his ovoid-shaped glasses showered with dust, he’s not looking very much like a general manager this morning. But then he’s also overseeing the Ca’ Di Dio’s painstaking renovation. He charges around, talking brilliant Italian without a trace of his native French, questioning carpenters, nodding to plumbers, commending polishers, observing stonemasons.
Christophe shows me the main courtyard where ancient wells will be surrounded by chairs, tables, couches and bars. He points out the vast, ultra-modern and equipped with everything kitchen where, he explains, not only will gourmet Venetian fare be produced, but the hotel will make all its own breads, cakes, pastries and ice creams.
He shows me cloistered enclosures that, he assures me ,will next week be massage rooms and the fitness center. He takes me to the canal-side entrance where water-taxis will deposit guests who will then walk up ancient stone steps to the courtyard. He takes me to Vero, which will be the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, whose tables will spill out in summer onto the waterside promenade. Vero is all wood paneling, terrazzo floors, with a ceiling of hand-painted fish and crustaceans.
Workmen are installing the gilt ceiling panels of the Alchemia Bar. The giant lobby was once the waiting room where families came to meet the monks. It is chapel-like and two-stories tall, with ecclesiastical statues and altar pieces. It will not have counters, Christophe tells me. “I want the staff to be all around the hotel, not hiding in offices or behind desks,” he says. Instead, arriving guests will sit in comfortable chairs as their hosts will check them in, make their dinner reservations, reconfirm their flights—deftly performing all these chores on iPads.
The hotel’s interior has been designed by Spanish-Milanese decorator Patricia Urquiola. She favors 21st century versions of mid-20th century furniture. Christophe shows me suites and rooms (66 keys in all) with views of the lagoon, the side canals or one of the hotel’s three interior courtyards.
I like the look, I like the plain-wood floors, the headboards with leather straps, the bathrooms that aren’t vast but that are more than spacious and perfectly lit (there are walls you just cannot smash down in a 14th century landmark building). Two suites have staircases that lead up to wooden “altanas,” uniquely Venetian private roof-top patios. In just a few weeks, the stonemasons and ceiling installers will be gone and the Ca’ di Dio, a venture of Rome-based V-Retreats, will welcome its first guests.
Christophe walks me eastward into a wide street of restaurants. It’s a part of Venice that is no more than a 15-minute stroll from San Marco, yet to which tourists have rarely ventured. We eat pasta with locally caught tuna at an open-air restaurant and he tells me of his plan to make clients of the Ca’ di Dio feel they are guests in a Venetian home rather than in a hotel. I believe him.
Tonight, I do venture out. Harry’s Bar is just across the alley from the Monaco. I enter, and unlike eight months earlier when it was crammed with elegant, unmasked Venetians air-kissing, smoking and pretending Covid didn’t exist, it was reasonably serene. The maître d’ recoils from my withering look when he suggests my guest and I eat upstairs (“Siberia in Venice”) and he has no alternative but to offer us the restaurant’s most coveted corner table.
The crowd is elegant—sexy women in tight dresses, couples, families, a bit Hollywood, a bit London and a lot of Venice. The Bellinis, the vitello tonnato, the pasta are beyond delicious at prices so ridiculously bloated as to be laughable. But it’s Harry’s Bar, and since 1931 people have been putting up with it. Arrigo Cipriani, aged 90, totters through the room and greets each guest. Exhausted from the exertion, he sits alone at the table next to mine and is handed a manila folder. He reads through pages of what I assume are receipts and eats his bowl of bean and pasta soup. Each waiter is more handsome than the next, in white bow ties, white jackets and black masks with a tiny Cipriani logo.
My guest and I eschew Harry’s Bar’s desserts and make for Caffé Florian in St. Mark’s Square. Opened a mere 301 years ago, Florian is considered the oldest coffee house in the world. But tonight it is closed, the pandemic having struck what I understand is an almost lethal blow. But its wooden benches are still there wrapped around the empty colonnade’s square columns, and a sea of tables and chairs are set out ready for service. Hopefully it will be open tomorrow—but I will be in Germany.
There’s nothing else to do but marvel at the emptiness of the vast piazza and to gaze at the floodlit cathedral and the floodlit facades of the buildings Napoleon called “the drawing-room of Europe,” and at the floodlit Campanile tower, Venice’s tallest structure, rebuilt in 1912 after collapsing in a few moments a decade earlier into a pile of rubble. As I write these words back home two weeks after my visit, the collapsed apartment tower in Surfside, Fla., recalls not only the horror of 9/11, but the anguish of July 14, 1902, when St. Mark’s Square was evacuated in advance of the decaying Campanile’s imminent collapse. Tragically, there was no such advance evacuation in Florida.
After breakfast on the terrace—no swooping seagulls this morning—my not-rubbish luggage is stowed onto a water taxi and I glide along the Grand Canal. I gaze at the mosaic frieze of Ca’Rezzonico, and at the Aman tucked within the Arrivabenes’ Palazzo Popodopoli. I glide under the Rialto Bridge, and we tie up at one of the few modernist buildings in Venice, the Santa Lucia Station, opened when the Fascists were in power in 1934. And I know that however many times I make this trip, Venice will always move me to tears of joy.