TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
VENICE & MILAN
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Venice & Milan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is October 14, 2021, and I am flying home aboard the only Italian airliner crossing the Atlantic today. There should be nothing terribly notable about this, but there is. Because Alitalia is shutting down today for good. What?!?! Of course, we’ve been through this before: the collapse of a fabled name like Sabena, Swissair, not to mention TWA and Pan American. But with each demise of a classic airline, one wonders if it’s progress or just the normal course of business, akin to the disappearance of Korvettes, Gimbels, Woolworths, Studebaker, Packard, Jordache Jeans, and the once indispensable Blackberrys and Palm Pilots.
I am seated in Premium Class aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Neos Airlines, bound from Milan-Malpensa to JFK. I had flown Neos from New York to Milan three days ago…on an aircraft I’d flown before. Neos, until today -- Italy’s second largest airline (on October 14, fleetingly it’s #1, with flights to Havana, Cancun, the Maldives, Tel Aviv and lots more) -- purchased its fleet of Dreamliners from Norwegian, the budget airline whose long-haul service was crippled by the pandemic. But there was a difference. Instead of Norwegian’s amateurish-but-well-meaning service and horrible boxed food, here were real, grown-up flight attendants, smart in navy suits and red hats, who smiled and seemed to know what they were doing. And they were serving delicious food – fresh burrata with arugula, and pasta that was actually al dente, quite an achievement at 35,000 feet. And they poured wine. Copiously.
Neos screens the usual safety video that most yawningly ignore, but it’s followed by one of the most amusing airline videos I have ever seen. To the sound of rock music, unruly passengers, people who throw others’ hand luggage from overhead lockers to make room for their own, and secret smokers in airplane lavatories, are shown being humiliated, rounded up and ejected from a nightclub. It’s quite wonderful.
My destination was not Milan – but Venice. However, in the Time of Corona there are no nonstops from New York to Venice – so it’s Milan, and then the train. Except there’s a train strike – with service to Venice from Milan reduced to one train a day nine hours after landing in Malpensa. Thus, Hertz it is. Unusually, I’m not traveling alone, but with my office colleague, Blair, and her boyfriend, Ben. Ben is eager to share the driving, but he’s spent the entire overnight flight watching movies, and despite arrival-adrenalin, seems sleepy. And in exactly two hours and forty-five minutes our Volvo XC-60 is crossing the causeway to the most gorgeous city on earth.
There is the usual panic as we approach the great parking lot that is Piazzale Roma, and in fractured Italian I appeal to a policewoman to let me veer left to the car rental return, instead of right to the Siberia of parking lots way in the distance. Impatiently, she relents. The rental return is effortless – I am a firm believer in “there’s Hertz, and there’s everyone else,” and we are soon aboard a sleek, polished-wood water-taxi gliding along the canals. It’s just over a half-century since my first visit to Venice, and the thrill has never waned. Indeed, my most recent visits to the city (October 2020 and May 2021) at the height of the pandemic, were unquestionably -- horribly selfishly -- the loveliest, because Venice was empty of tourists. You could photograph San Marco without a thousand people in tee-shirts and sneakers.
The bemasked boatman glides us along the Grand Canal, past the Gritti and the Monaco where elegant people are having elegant lunches on their elegant terraces, past Peggy Guggenheim’s Museum, past San Marco, past the Danieli, the Savoia & Jolanda, the Londra Palace – and we slide beneath a bridge into a slip of a canal, and pull up at an entryway marked by two royal blue gondola poles. This is our destination, Venice’s newest five-star hotel, the Ca’ di Dio (“house of God”), whose formal grand opening is being celebrated this weekend. The building dates from the 13th-century and has a monastic history of hosting pilgrims and those in retreat. It’s taken some three years to transform it from a humble, tumble-down ecclesiastical compound into a luxury hotel.
In a city where everything from a hovel to a palazzo is a precious landmark, converting a 13th-century hostel into a luxury hotel requires months and years of inspections, favors, permissions, fawning, licenses, court judgements, more inspections and grudging approvals. Alpitour, Italy’s largest tour operator, which also happens to own Neos Airlines and dozens of mass-market resort hotels, is responsible for the creation of the Ca’ Di Dio. It’s one of its small but growing group of Italian luxury hotels known as VRetreats. I had visited the site five months earlier for a hard-hat tour led but the hotel’s general manager, Christophe Mercier. Mercier is French but speaks perfect Italian, and back in May he was in overalls and covered in dust, overseeing tile-layers, electricians, stonemasons, and assorted artisans as they transformed the medieval cloister into a sumptuous hotel.
And sumptuous it is, although it’s a sumptuousness of style rather than ostentation. A phalanx of smiling-over-the-masks greeters welcome us, and we are shepherded up stone steps. A terrazzo-floored cloister leads to the former chapel- which is the lobby. There are soaring ceilings and life-size statues of saints attached to the walls. Vast contemporary Murano glass chandeliers and curvy velvet couches are interspersed with tables of giant flower arrangements. The lobby has two vast revolving doors that lead on to the Riva Ca’ di Dio, the widest part of the whole Venetian promenade. It is smack on the lagoon, and in the distance, we see the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, with its dome and towering campanile designed in the 16th-century by the celebrated Andrea Palladio. We’re bidden to sit, and check-in is performed on a laptop. The staff are in creamy-beige custom-designed uniforms, and each of us is led to elevators to our suites. The Ca’ di Dio has 66 suites plus nine rooms. Two of the largest suites feature staircases up to a wooden rooftop Altana, a Venetian specialty, where guests can sunbathe or dine in privacy.
The hotel’s design was choreographed by the Spanish-Italian Patricia Urquiola, famous for her furniture and lamps and for the Hotel Il Sereno on Lake Como. She’s done a superb job to create something contemporary within these ancient walls, with fabrics that evoke historical Venice, her own take on mid-20th-century furniture, and acres of marble and terrazzo tiles that use as much of the original as possible. The hotel is built around a grass and limestone courtyard, with comfortable chairs and tables, abutting an ancient well. The Alchemia Bar is a riot of chic, with an opulent gilt ceiling. Its backlit bar and red and mauve velvet banquettes are the ideal haven for an Aperol Spritz. The reading room is adjacent to the lobby, a perfect retreat full of books, tschotchkes and calm. The Vero restaurant, whose tables spill out on to the promenade, has a ceiling of dark green covered with paintings of the fish and crustaceans whose home is the Venetian lagoon.
My two-room suite is not massive, but it’s wonderful – a cozy sitting room with couch and chairs and coffee-table and desk, an ancient mirror and drapes that suggest Venetian waves. The bedroom is just that – a bedroom, with perfectly placed night stands and an upholstered headboard with leather straps. The bathroom sink is an acre of rose marble. And best of all? The light switches are both elegant and understandable. Unlike so many new hotels, a degree in engineering is not required to make the room light, pitch-black or in-between-romantic.
I’ve flown (and slept) overnight, driven to Venice, water-taxied to the Ca’ di Dio, and I’m starving. But obsessive as I am, I have to unpack first, even though it’s a brief, two-night stay. Rather like a dog that has to pee against a tree to mark its territory, I have to transform the suite into my “home.” I descend to the Vero restaurant where I am the only luncher, and am greeted by an all-smiles-behind-the-mask server whose perfect Italian and lively giggles can’t actually conceal she’s from Sri Lanka. When given the commission to open and run the Ca’ di Dio, Christophe Mercier insisted that “Italian” cuisine was not enough: it had to be “Venetian,” and he scoured resources to concoct menus making use of the plentiful fish and seafood of the northern Adriatic, local farms and the hotel’s private (and off-limits) kitchen garden. The china is custom made for the hotel, as are the Murano water glasses. I order homemade noodles, with local lobster and porcini mushrooms in a sauce redolent of the sea – atop which there is a large wipe of crème fraîche foam. Washed down with a Veneto white, it’s exquisite and it does feel Venetian. I stagger to my suite for a nap.
One of the hotel’s series of plusses is location. At the Arsenale in Venice’s art district, it is the closest 5-star to hotel to the grounds where the Venice Biennale is mounted in pavilions that date from 1930 to 1960. Just a ten-minute stroll from St. Mark’s Square, it is surrounded by silent streets where Venetians live and shop, and which are only rarely visited by tourists. Moreover, the Arsenale neighborhood is under the “control” of the Italian military (not that there’s a soldier in sight), but it means that the vast promenade fronting the hotel must be free of tourist kiosks with their displays of striped tee-shirts, racks of postcards and the otherwise ubiquitous Venetian souvenir kitsch. It’s quiet. You can hear the lapping of the lagoon. And you can pretend you’re living in Venice, not just weaving through gaggles of tour groups.
Breakfast is served in the Essencia dining room – and it’s a buffet artfully arranged on portion size plates so there is no droplet sharing. After breakfast there is a press-conference to announce the hotel’s opening (it actually had a soft opening in late August). The invited press are seated on clear plastic Phillipe Starck armchairs and listen to short but useful addresses by officials of the City of Venice, of Veneto tourism, the chairman of Alpitour, the head of VRetreats and, of course, by Patricia Urquiola herself, and Christophe Mercier. The conference is in Italian, but there are headphones for simultaneous translations into English. There is polite applause, and a few questions – mostly having to do with the hotel’s remarkable dedication to sustainability which, for instance, uses lagoon water to power the air-conditioning system. Indeed (other than the Philipe Starck chairs which are, anyway, owned by the adjacent Venice Naval Club), there is nary a piece of plastic in the hotel.
After lunch, despite the fact that I am recovering from a broken bone in my left foot, my friend, Angelo, insists we walk halfway across the city to visit the Aman Venice, which he has never seen. It’s a long walk to the Rialto Bridge, and then a circuitous route to the Aman, a route I know because it was my company that handled the PR for the hotel opening. (By the way, I learned that the term “PR” has a highly negative connotation in Italy – “PR’s” is the name given to bouncers outside nightclubs deciding whether or not a visitor may enter).
The Aman Venice is unchanged from its opening less than a decade ago within the Grand Canal’s Palazzo Papadopili, owned by the Arrivabene family who live in a gorgeous apartment atop the hotel. Like all Aman resorts, even when they are full, they seem empty, and the Aman Venice, despite several people lunching in the gorgeousness of the Piano Nobile, feels empty too. Angelo wants a tour, and we visit the bar, void of guests, whose barman is engrossed in conversation on his cell-phone. We are shown a gorgeous suite where modern furniture fits naturally with the baroque surroundings. We stroll through the garden, something to treasure on the banks of the Grand Canal and we make our farewells.
Angelo and I amble through the streets of Dorsaduro, the name of the “other,” less touristy side of the Grand Canal, and by the time we reach the Accademia, my hobbling is too obvious to be ignored. We buy tickets for the Vaporetto (water bus) (7.50 Euros one way – Venetians pay a fraction of that) and chug back to the Arsenale. I make my way to the spa for my COVID antigen test that will allow me back to America. It’s one of the tonsil tickling and up both nostrils swabs. The negative result is delivered fifteen minutes later to my suite.
The opening party is elegant, with guests dressed to the nines, sipping Prosecco from Champagne saucers, and munching passed canapés. The interior courtyard has giant graphics projected on its walls, and an opera singer sings arias and, unexpectedly, selections from the King and I, from the rooftop. Venetian actors in costumes that channel courtesan with Lady Gaga punk, play guitars in the church-cum-lobby. It’s all rather gorgeous, and it’s all very Venice. I meet William O’Connor, the charismatic travel editor of the Daily Beast, and at 11:15PM realize that I’ve been standing talking to him for more than two hours. I limp to my bed.
The train strike is over and I am water-taxied to the Santa Lucia station for the 10:48AM Red Arrow (Frecciarosso) to Milan. I take a cab to my favorite in Milan, the Dorchester Collection’s Principe di Savoia and am ushered into a vast room facing the Piazza della Repubblica. I take a stroll, have lunch in the hotel dining room (please show me your vaccination certificate, Signor), and my daily nap. I have a pre-dinner drink in the Principe bar. I order a Hendricks and tonic, which arrives along with a giant bowl of potato chips, olives, a mini-pizza, and a small sandwich. A forty-something Italian couple takes the banquette next to mine and I am dumbstruck by the square diamond on her finger that has to be 35 carats. Yes, it could be zirconite but her non-faux crocodile bag, and her 2,000 Euro turquoise shoes convince me it’s real.
The unordered snacks have dulled my appetite but there is my favorite of all favorites on the menu in the lobby lounge – Vitello tonnato (thinly sliced cold roast veal and tuna sauce) – and I can’t resist. I share the lobby lounge with masked waiters and an eclectic collection of people. At one table sit three paunchy middle-aged men who look like they might have just murdered someone, and who are accompanied by an exquisite 20-year-old who looks like “Death in Venice’s” Tadzio blended with Christian Bale. To my left, sits a slightly bald young woman in a pastel dress. She has a vast, shocking pink suitcase next to her, and she appears to have some tragic condition that has her talking to herself, squinting in pain, and removing bunioned feet from her shoes. I feel desperately sorry for her.
I am back at Malpensa Airport at 10:30 the following morning. The check-in for Neos’ flight to New York is at the very farthest end of the airport. My COVID test is examined and I learn there are 19 people booked on the Dreamliner to JFK. (This will presumably change on November 8, when Italians can finally come to America.) I wander through the endless duty-free shop to the security gates. Alarmingly – well, at least to me, large signs designate which side is for travelers to “USA and Israel” and which is for “all other destinations.” I know why, of course, but my ever-present Holocaust demons momentarily have me on the platform at Auschwitz. But once through security, the twinges are relieved by Americans (and Brits, and Canadian and Australians and Israelis) cleared to whizz through the automatic passport readers utilized by citizens of the EU – while “others” have to stand in snaking lines.
There are four of us in Neos’s Premium Class. And as we take off I gaze out of the 787’s windows, whose enormousness takes me back to the Viscounts and Britannias of my childhood. My friends tell me I am nuts whenever I rave about airline food; but lunch on this flight is remarkable, and, in the Time of Corona, one of the only Business Class meals I’ve been served course by course, rather than crammed together on a plastic tray. An appetizer of bresaola (beef prosciutto), with ricotta and arugula; a main course of braised beef with mouthwatering mashed potatoes, asparagus and carrots; an individual warm chocolate cake that, when you insert your spoon, out pours molten dark chocolate.
The 19 of us are the only people in the immigration hall at JFK’s Terminal One, Global Entry recognizes me, and my suitcase is the first to slide onto the carousel. I emerge into the afternoon warmth and my phone pings. It’s my limo-driver telling me the traffic is terrible and it’s going to take him 50 minutes to rescue me. So much for Global Entry and JFK’s uncharacteristically speedy baggage handling.