Live like a Real Venetian

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 20th October 2000.

For the first time I  felt part of the place rather than an outsider, and from now on I will opt for an apartment every time. Some can even be taken nightly, rather than for the normal weekly minimum, although a week is ideal if you want to slip under the skin of the city and become, if only fleetingly, Venetian.

The pleasures of staying in an apartment are gentle, domestic ones. The freedom to choose whether to eat in or out. Going to the Rialto market and shopping for fresh fish and vegetables rather than merely observing along with all the tourists. Coming home on the vaporetto with the other Venetian housewives, parochial yet haughty and swathed in mink from October to April, often with the same dyed red hair of Carpaccio’s ladies. Turning down an unlikely looking calle and putting the key in your own front door. Sitting in the morning light on your balcony with a cup of coffee just how you like it.... 

There are practical advantages too. Tourist numbers are increasing, while the permanent population is in decline. Venice hotels are overpriced, overbooked and, with a captive audience, content to make the minimum effort to please their guests. On the other hand, the many Venetians and Venice-lovers who like to keep property in the city but do not live there have created a wealth of apartments available for rent. Then there is the saving in cost. While a decent mid-price, three-star hotel such as the Flora or the American currently costs L340,000 (about £120) per night for a (small) double room in high season, you can rent a smart two-person studio apartment for £550 per week. For a modest, comfortably furnished four-person apartment expect to pay around £850 per week. If you share the apartment with others and split the cost, you can pay half the price of a hotel. 

The only problem about renting apartments in Venice is finding out about them. There is no umbrella organisation; travel agents don’t know about them; its just a question of spotting an advertisement here and there. So here is a guide to the best on offer, the inside track. The range comprises specialist property rental agencies, a couple of tour operators, and a small group of individuals who let out apartments in their own homes. 

Amongst this last group, Palazzetto Pisani, on the Grand Canal close to the Accademia Bridge, is the most memorable. The ancestral home of Contessa Maria Pia Ferre, direct descendant of Alvise Pisani who became doge in 1735, this is a wonderful anachronism whose glorious faded grandeur transports one to another age. The vast main apartment, on the piano nobile, has just one bedroom - the doge’s, a beautiful drawing room overlooking the Grand Canal, and a reception room and a dining room where you can hold a large cocktail party and a dinner party for 60. A maid is on hand, and a cook, should you wish it. Downstairs is a small one-bedroom apartment with a remarkable original bathroom. If you are rich enough, invite your friends to join you in Venice, settle yourselves in the Palazzetto Pisani, and throw a party for them. 

For the less well-heeled, another aristocratic Venetian, Contessa Anna da Schio, can offer three charming and homely apartments (two with two bedrooms, one with one bedroom) on the upper floors of her red-painted Palazzetto da Schio on a tranquil backwater in Dorsoduro. They are largely furnished with family antiques, including pictures and mirrors, with modern bits and pieces in between. Maid service is available. A nondescript door in an alley just off the mighty Riva degli Schiavoni leads to four thoughtfully decorated one-bedroom apartments (with extra sofa bed in each). Three of them enjoy the famous views across St Mark’s Basin to San Giorgio Maggiore. These San Simeon apartments belong to a hotel, Ai Due Fanali, and include air-conditioning and a direct line to the hotel for information or service. Breakfast  is included in the price, and you can have other meals cooked, and shopping done too, if you want. 

Also worth mentioning are the 19 apartments in the privately owned Palazzo del Giglio, a handsome converted mansion next to the Gritti Palace. Ranging from studios to two-bedrooms, they can be rented for any length of time, and are smart, streamlined, and well-equipped (air-conditioning, jacuzzis, fax/modem points), mixing traditional with ultra modern. Cleverly designed kitchens are tucked into tiny spaces; bathrooms are of sparkling Carrara marble. Number 401 , sleeping five, is a penthouse apartment with a roof terrace. 

Venetian Apartments is a London-based specialist agency with a range of  over 70 properties, from cosy studios to a vast four bedroom, four bathroom Grand Canal palazzo. Most memorable is the enigmatic, crumbly, green-shuttered Palazzetto San Lio, tucked away at the end of an alley betweeen Rialto and Campo Santa Maria Formosa and skirted on three sides by water. Here you can live out a Venetian fantasy amongst frescoed ceilings, silk covered walls, Murano glass chandeliers, rococo beds and antique painted Venetian furniture. The gaps are filled with unlovely 20th-century sofas and lighting and the eight apartments all have a genteel, slightly shabby air, which only adds to their highly romantic appeal.

Perhaps the most charming is ‘Affresco’ on the piano nobile. In the main reception room is the bed, screened off behind curtains. As depicted in paintings by Longhi, this was the custom in Venice, so that the lady of the house could receive guests in her boudoir, yet retire in privacy behind her curtains when she wished. The room is old fashioned and very Venetian, with an original frescoed ceiling and floor length windows, crowned by shaped and gilded pelmets. The rest of the apartment consists of a tiny room with bunk beds, a simple kitchenette and an even simpler bathroom.  

Palazzetto San Lio’s weathered front door leads to a fine long entrance hall with its original watergate. Here the family’s gondola was kept; the gondoliers’ quarters on either side are now two studio apartments. There is a marble staircase, antique mosaic on the landings, and, on the first floor, a tiny stuccoed chapel. 

If modern sophistication rather than local colour is preferred, Ca’Vidal could be the answer. On the first floor, right by the Accademia Bridge, light streams through floor-length windows on two sides of its elegant sitting room. The principal bedroom, with king-size bed, is all white, trimmed with red toile de jouey. A slip of a room has a bateau lit and another, bathed in golden yellow, has two single beds. Bathrooms are ‘international’ in style, all black marble, with fearsome looking jacuzzis. There is air- conditioning.  

Across the Accademia Bridge, in the shadow of Salute, is another Venetian Apartments property comprising two apartments and two studios. With beamed ceilings, white walls, country furniture and not a Murano glass chandelier in sight, they feel more Tuscan than Venetian. The two spacious one-bedroom apartments each have a sofa bed and an open fireplace in the living room; one has a small terrace. One of the studios, Giallo, is smartly done out in black and yellow. The street door opens directly into this welcoming little home, with a kitchenette on one side, and a sofa bed under a row of black and white classical prints on the other. Beyond the sleeping area, with double bed draped in black an yellow stripes, is a compact, modern bathroom and a tiny courtyard. 

Veronica Tomasso Cotgrove is the agent for properties all over Italy, including La Foce, the beautiful estate in the Val d’Orcia bought by writer Iris Origo in the 1920s. Amongst her 15 Venice apartments  three stand out.

Venier, on the piano nobile of a 16th-century house just off Campo Santa Maria Formosa, is owned by the costume designer for Vienna State Opera and is suitably theatrical, indeed over-the-top, Venetian style. You can rent the whole place (with three double bedrooms) for a minimum of a week, or you can take bed-and-breakfast for a minimum of two days.  Set back from the Grand Canal opposite the Guggenheim Museum “so you don’t get the noise, but you do get the view”, San Maurizio is a penthouse, sleeping up to five, furnished with antiques and polished wood floors and with a private canal-facing terrace.

New on her books is a pied-à-terre on the first floor of an elegant palazzo centrally placed between Fenice and San Marco. It positively gleams with brass fittings, including bannisters, mirrored walls and polished floors. The kitchenette is basic, but you could eat out and play the grand piano instead of cooking.  For those who prefer to book both flights and accommodation through a tour operator, there are only a handful who can offer apartments as well as hotels in Venice.

Tuscany Now offers Porta Sola, a private house for up to six people on peaceful Guidecca (next to Palladio’s best church, Il Redentore). There are superb views across to San Marco and plenty of restaurants nearby, including Harry’s Dolci. In addition, they have a pretty two-person apartment, La Terrazza, in colourful Cannaregio, which has an unusually spacious south-facing roof terrace. 

Cottages to Castles handle the San Simeon apartments mentioned earlier, but it is considerably cheaper to book them direct through the hotel. They have a few other fairly standard properties, plus three-bedroom, ground floor Rialto right on the Grand Canal. With a private landing stage, your gondola or water taxi can pick you up and deposit you on your doorstep. 

International Chapters specialise in top-of-the-range rental properties. To their small selection in Venice has recently been added a spectacular apartment on the Grand Canal with a secret garden behind and a long, luxurious terrace in front. There are hanging tapestries, a library and four sumptuous bedrooms and bathrooms. But if I were to splash out, it would be on San Giovanni (which sleeps 12), on the lagoon island of Torcello, cradle of the Venetian civilisation. When the tourists drift home each day, the island’s magic begins to work and you are left with an elegant villa, a lush garden, a swimming pool, a couple of dozen local residents and the serenely beautiful cathedral and the church of Santa Fosca.

FACTUAL INFORMATION

Palazzetto Pisani Tel/fax (0039) 041 523 2550. E-mail: palpisani@tin.it Main apartment: four million lire (about £1,428) per week. Minimum one week. Small apartment: two million lire (about £714) per week or L400,000 (about £142) per night. Minimum three nights.

Palazzetto da Schio Tel/fax (0039) 041 523 7937. Two bedroom apartments around £517 per week. One bedroom apartment around £392 per week. Minimum two nights.

San Simeon apartments. Contact Hotel Ai Due Fanali, Santa Croce 946, 30135 Venice; tel (0039) 041 718490; fax (0039) 041 718344. Apartments  L600,000 (around £214) per night or L4200,000 (around £1,500) per week in high season, less at other periods. Minimum three nights.

Palazzo del Giglio Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, San Marco, 30124 Venice. Tel (0039) 041 271 9111; fax (0039) 041 520 5158. Apartments from L390,000 (around £139) per night. Minimum one night.

Venetian Apartments 413 Parkway House, Sheen Lane, London SW14. Tel 0181 878 1130; fax 0181 878 0982. E-mail: enquiries@venice-rentals.com. Website: www.venice-rentals.comMinimum rental period: one week

Palazzetto San Lio, Affresco apartment £650 per week. Ca’Vidal apartment £1750 per week.

Salute Giallo apartment £550 per week. Veronica Tomasso Cotgrove 10 St Mark’s Crescent, London NW1. Tel 0171 267 2423; fax 0171 267 4759. Minimum rental period: one week.

Venier apartment £1,650 per week. Bed and breakfast rates also available.San Maurizio £1,250 per week.

Pied-à-terre £1,100 per week. Tuscany Now 276 Seven Sisters Rd, London N4. Tel 0171 272 5469; fax 0171 272 6184. E-mail: sales@tuscanynow.com or info@tuscanynow.comwebsite: www.tuscanynow.comMinimum rental period: one week.

Porta Sola apartment £860 per week for two people; £1,240 for four; £1,555 for six.

La Terrazza apartment £570 per week.

Cottages to Castles. Tuscany House, 351 Tonbridge Rd, Maidstone, Kent ME16 8NH. Tel 01622 726883; fax 01622 729835.E-mail: tuscany@tcp.co.ukWebsite: www.cottagestocastles.comMinium rental period: one week.Rialto apartment £1,550 per week in high season, less at other periods.

International Chapters 47-51 St John’s Wood High St, London NW8. Tel 020 7722 0722; fax 020 7722 9140.E-mail: info@villa-rentals.comWebsite: www.villa-rentals.comMinimum rental period: one week.

Grand Canal apartment around £6,000 per week.San Giovanni villa between £3,975 and £5,925 per week, depending on the season.

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