Quirks like a charm
Few luxury hotels are left in family hands nowadays, but the Metropole in Venice, Italy, is one of them. In a city marred by opportunists and mediocre, overpriced tourist menus, the hotel, located near the magnificent Piazza San Marco, is a beacon of style and substance.
Greeted by friendly Venetian staff upon arriving, we had tea in the opulent lounge, a heady mix of luxurious fabrics (many of them by historic Venetian firms Fortuny and Rubelli), mirrors, fragrances, flowers, spices and weird and wonderful antiques.
The hotel's decor is rich and eclectic. Beautiful nutcrackers, bottle openers, bookends, crucifixes and evening purses are displayed in glass cases or along walls, collected by the Beggiato family, who have owned the hotel since 1968. The walls of the corridor outside our room are covered in antique headboards, while other corridors are filled with vintage fans and suitcases, and a striking 15th-century helicoidal staircase at one end of the building is lined with medieval and renaissance keys and locks.
Gloria Beggiato, now at the helm, is constantly updating or revamping the hotel's 67 rooms.
Our deluxe room looked onto a large and pretty garden, which in summer offers a unique (for Venice) and welcome respite from the relentless humidity, heat and reverberations outside. Although very comfortable and remarkably soundproof, it was not devoid of quirks. The wall and bedside lights were a tad dim, and the curtains did not close all the way. These were not deal breakers, however, and the staff were obliging with any requests.
The new chef at the Met Restaurant is Mariasole Capodanno, who used to run a successful restaurant in Milan, Osteria di Porta Cicca, and arrived only last month. She has a tough act to follow: for years, the previous chef, Corrado Fasolato, and his wife, Paola, had accrued a name - and two Michelin stars - for their inventive cuisine. But with her traditional and contemporary takes on Venetian cuisine that makes the most of local produce, Capodanno is off to a good start.
Not to be missed is the Venetian classic, sarde in saor (sweet and sour sardines) prepared in the traditional way, with pine nuts, onions and raisins, and in a contemporary version where the sardines are dressed in raspberry vinegar, raisins marinated in sweet wine, chives and pine nuts.
Another signature is the Ligurian seafood dish cappon magro, prepared 'old-style' with a green sauce or 'new-style' with ginger, pesto and candied lemon. Even the venerable tiramisu gets a redesign and is prepared both traditionally and with mascarpone ice cream and cardamom.
As we ate, we were offered an apposite selection of glasses of wine from an all-Italian list of more than 400 labels - a rarity for Venice given the obvious lack of basement cellars.
The hotel has five types of room, from standard to exclusive suite. At the lower end of the price spectrum, I recommend room 109, for its turquoise-and-gold theme and beautiful carved wooden bedstead made out of an antique room divider; at the other end are the scene-stealing Damascus Suite (No325), for its mother-of-pearl mosaic fountain pool in the lounge and its perfectly framed views of the lagoon, and room 303 (also an exclusive suite), for its seductive columns, antique mirrors and raised bed with a mirror overhead.
In between these two extremes are rooms 403 and 409, both located on the top floor. The former has its own private altana (Venetian rooftop terrace), where you can enjoy a glass of Prosecco while looking out on to the mesmerising Isola San Giorgio, and the latter has a refreshingly un-Venetian 1960s decor with original geometric wood-and-mirror panelling, a futuristic carpet, cool white armchairs and a wondrous view.
The charm of the Metropole is its rich history (Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud have all stayed, and Vivaldi taught music on the site), charisma and individuality. With its refined interiors, exciting and accomplished in-house restaurant and personable staff, it's the sort of place the corporate luxury chain hotels should try to emulate.
Metropole Hotel Riva degli Schiavoni 4149 Venice, Italy Tel: +39 (041) 520 5044 www.hotelmetropole.com
Rates: doubles in high season from Euro320 (HK$3,256) for a standard room to Euro900 (for an exclusive suite)