WINTER IN VENICE. Most visitors to la Serenissima, as the city has been known since its heyday as a major port on the spice route, treasure their first memory of its domes, campaniles and rooftops bathed in the morning sunlight of a warm spring day or in the rosy glow of a summer sunset. Not many set foot on its tiny alleyways and navigate its quaint canals in the throes of winter, when Venice has more in common with a forbidding and austere northern capital than its sisters to the south such as Florence and Rome.
I still remember the eerie mist on a cold January day a few years ago after my arrival by train as I waited for the vaporetto to take me to a small pensione not far from Piazza San Marco. Except for a few stray Japanese tourists and the odd European traveller, Venice was bereft of the crowds that descend upon it every summer.
Truth be told, my first visit to the city dates back to my days as a schoolboy. A trip to Venice, along with Florence and Pompeii, is a rite of passage for young Italians, who flock to these so-called città d'arte in the warmer months at the end of the school year (something to keep in mind if you're planning to travel to Italy in late spring). However, hopping from Murano to San Giorgio and dashing from museum to church behind a flag-bearing guide is far from leisurely, which is why I suppressed that first memory and instead reminisce about those January days. In the cold season the city has the allure of a fading ghost town, where you can actually hear the water lapping at the buildings along the Grand Canal as it gently but relentlessly corrodes their foundations.
Sadly, the way most travellers experience Venice is more akin to my own first visit: a bucket list of sights with countless photoops and the requisite purchase of a piece of Murano glass amid hordes of backpacktoting day trippers.
Anyway, it's been more than five years since my last visit when I travel from busy Milan in June to see how the Adriatic city is faring, knowing deep down that Venice is even more eternal than Rome, its lost-in-time beauty and perennial state of decay likely to be as charming as ever.
The purpose of my trip is a stay at the most eagerly anticipated hotel to open in Venice in at least a decade. Aman Resorts – no introduction needed for readers of Prestige who, like several members of this magazine's editorial team, are likely to be self-declared Amanjunkies – has opened the doors of Aman Canal Grande, its first hotel in Italy, just three weeks ahead of my arrival. Adrian Zecha, the company's legendary founder, spent almost a decade looking for the right spot in the city. Establishing a hotel in a town that's an open-air museum is no easy task – and one made even more difficult by the incredible amount of red tape involved.
Most Aman resorts, whether in the Rajasthan desert or the backyard of the Summer Palace in Beijing, are in out-of-thisworld locations. Palazzo Papadopoli, the five-storey building that became Aman Canal Grande after a painstaking restoration (said to have cost €30 million) is no exception. The 16th-century structure sits on the upper end of the Grand Canal and is just a short walk from the Rialto Bridge, in one of the few genuinely Venetian neighbourhoods left in the city, San Polo. Although guests arrive via a private boat and are introduced to the property through its beautifully restored facade and a jetty that takes them directly to the lobby, it's through the back gate that they get to uncover a side of Venice that few have the chance to explore.
After a speedy check-in and a quick refreshment in my beautiful room – the hotel's 24 accommodations range from sprawling suites featuring original Tiepolo frescoes to loft-like rooms with bathrooms as large as the bedrooms themselves – I walk down to the peaceful back garden for a few moments of quiet before leaving through the gate and setting out to explore the area. Making my way among elderly ladies returning from the nearby fruit and vegetable market, young couples on an afternoon passeggiata and families with strollers and dogs in tow, I realise that Venice is still a thriving city, not just a glorified monument devoted to tourists and the jet-setters who fly into town for the art biennale and film festival.
One morning, before heading downstairs for breakfast, I open the windows of my bedroom to let some light in – glad to be able to do so with my bare hands, without resorting to the unnecessary high-tech gadgets that have become de rigueur at most five-star hotels – and I see a black-clad signora hanging her clothes on her balcony while talking loudly to her neighbour.
Aman makes a point of embracing the neighbours and being part of the social fabric of San Polo. Before opening its doors to its well-heeled clientele, the hotel invited the locals to visit the palazzo and admire the incredible restoration work. They were the first to discover what Aman had done to the building, which before its newfound life had been the seat of a local research association. Although the surrounds are those of an opulent Venetian palazzo – ornate ceilings, sweeping staircase, velvet curtains and marble busts – the decor is anything but. The pairing of modern furniture from B&B Casa and custom-made pieces from local carpenters with the gilded interiors makes for a jarring but clever juxtaposition of old and new: you can relax in the leather-panelled library and feel like you're in your own private study, then move to one of the two vaulted dining rooms overlooking the buzzing Grand Canal that evoke airy and spacious lofts.
It's also one of the few palazzos in Venice featuring two gardens. One, which faces directly onto the Grand Canal, houses Naoki, an outpost of the Japanese restaurant that's a signature of Amanpuri in Phuket. There's also authentic Thai cuisine – a rarity in Italy – alongside Venetian dishes in the aforementioned dining rooms on the piano nobile (main floor).
In spite of its prestigious pedigree, Aman Canal Grande exudes little of the pomp of a traditional grand hotel. As I try to get my bearings through the maze-like interior, it seems as if I have the place entirely to myself. During my three-day stay, I barely run into fellow guests. It feels like renting a room in a Venetian nobleman's house (the aristocrats who inherited the palazzo, the Count Arrivabene and his family, actually reside in the penthouse), but with all the top-notch perks of an Aman. For a little indulgence, I book the signature foot treatment at the spa on the fourth floor, a godsend after a long day of sightseeing.
Expectations for Aman's first venture in Italy are obviously high. When I revealed to some fellow Italians in Milan that I would be heading to Aman Canal Grande, they promptly referred to it as “that new Asian hotel that opened in Venice” and “the sevenstar hotel on the Grand Canal”.
With a lower staff-to-guest ratio than in its Asian sister properties and a location in the heart of one of the most visited cities in the world, Aman Canal Grande is a slight departure from the chain's other resorts. But the sophisticated elegance, the warm vibe and the charming staff (most of them hailing from the Veneto region) are still there, albeit with a laid-back Italian twist.
Venice, in its long history, has hosted some memorable guests who have called it home from time to time. One of them, Peggy Guggenheim, who gave Venice one of its most beautiful art museums, wrote a love letter to the city in her memoir, Out of This Century. “It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal place for a honeymoon,” she wrote. “This is a grave error. To live in Venice, or even to visit it, means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.”
It's a feeling that perhaps not all visitors to modern-day Venice share, but one that Aman Canal Grande is certain to awaken in its guests, who will undoubtedly make it their home away from home in la Serenissima.