As part of his 80th birthday celebrations, I offered to take my father away for a weekend anywhere in Europe. He chose the extraordinarily beautiful, iconic and unique city of Venice, the Queen of the Sea, which we had last visited together when I was a child. I had thought it gloomy and damp back then, so I was delighted to find, as an adult, such a dazzling display of architecture and engineering ingenuity.
It was a wonderful weekend: walking together through twisting alleyways, every turn yielding another view of gondolas, bridges and palazzos. My father is a history buff, so I was the lucky recipient of his detailed knowledge about the Renaissance and the medieval period of Venice’s heyday. And although winter, it was pretty busy with visitors; we were pleased we went off-season!
We stayed at old-school Palazzo Abadessa, a restored Baroque palace in the bohemian Cannaregio quarter, which is only a 10-minute stroll from the Blue line boat straight from the airport. The delightful staff welcomed us with the words: ‘This is your home in Venice’. We had a twin room upholstered in gold damask which, although small, had very comfortable beds. Breakfast was large and varied, and taken in the large downstairs salon, which houses antiques, a patch of ancient fresco, ornate ceilings, oriental rugs, scented lilies, and a horseshoe-staircase to the heritage salon piano mobile above. The Palazzo also has a tranquil location, with a private garden to the front and its own canal entranceway to the rear.
The Palazzo only serves breakfast, so went to a lovely restaurant each night. On our first evening, after supper, we joined other tourists at a period-costume recital of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the 18th-century Scuola Grande Di San Teodoro.
On the Saturday we were blessed with stunning weather: clear blue skies all day. The whole city shone. Amazing colours were reflected in the water, which was alternately petrol blue, turquoise, cloudy cerulean and grey. And there was always something amazing to look at in a city on water.
First, we explored the Grand Canal, truly a wonder of the world, first stopping off at the Rialto Saturday market before heading to the Ponte dell’Accademia for a breathtaking view down the canal to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Next we walked to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of stellar 20th-century art (well worth a visit) and explored Dorsoduro, before taking a boat across the water to the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore. We were delighted with ourselves for ascending to the top of the campanile here for amazing views across the whole lagoon, with no queue whatsoever.
Piazza San Marco has no equal. Although thronged with tourists, the scale and beauty of its buildings – the Campanile, the Basilica, the Palazzo Ducale, the Torre dell’Orologio, the Library – are peerless. Here we sat at a cafe, admiring all before us over an intensely strong coffee. We got delightfully lost on our way back, especially enchanted by a gondola workshop in a side street.
Saturday night saw the best cultural outing of the weekend: an intimate candlelit performance of La Traviata in a private palazzo, where each act took place in a different room in front of an audience of 120. It was followed by a wonderful seafood meal. Very special indeed!
Sunday turned out to be less bonny so we visited the Accademia art museum, marvelling at its wealth of medieval and Renaissance art, including Canova sculptures and paintings by Bosch, Bellini, Canaletto and Titian. We then found our way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which is Venice’s Sistine Chapel, with incredible Tintoretto masterpieces on the ceiling.
We spent our last night at the wonderful Venice Boutique Apartments. This trio of holiday boltholes sits within a Grand Canal-fronted palazzo, right next to Harry’s Bar and opposite the Santa Maria della Salute – a terrific position! Although two do not have waterfront views, all have a pleasing mixture of heritage (the marques owner’s own furniture and artworks throughout) and contemporary style, and are decorated in teal and orange. All can be set up for families, a pair of couples or a father and daughter as required, and there’s a lift to all floors. They also share a small outside terrace in the middle of the palazzo, and the largest has a balcony with lagoon views. You get welcome provisions (jams, coffee, tea, milk, water, butter), and every morning a bag of warm croissants is hung on the door.
We are now planning our next city break together. I hope I have the same energy, expert knowledge and enthusiasm for travel when I’m 80!