The Aman’s flagship hotel in Venice was brought to the attention of the Daily Mail’s sidebar-of-shame readers when it became the venue of George Clooney’s nuptials. I doubt any of their readers remember – or can even pronounce – his wife’s name, but the images of gorgeous George being whizzed down the Grand Canal towards the Aman’s arrivals pontoon in a shiny teak speedboat will stick with them. The Aman is also known for being the only seven-star hotel in Venice – according to which star-managing body, I do not know.
Sliding down the Grand Canal towards the hotel’s watery entrance on a clear-skied winter’s day is one of those moments that even the most cynical and travel-weary could and should cherish. We were gently pulled from the bobbing boat by a suited, unmarked gentleman and our luggage was stealthily whisked away. The welcome to the Aman is subtle – there’s no signage, no check-in area and no uniformed staff. Just small desks dotted around the impressive, cavernous lobby area, swimming in water-reflected light, occupied by modern Italian furniture and smartly-dressed staff. It’s a little game that the Aman plays with its loaded guests: rather than just entering one of the most stunning hotels in Venice, they’re made to feel as though they’re arriving at their very own private palazzo. Despite the discretion, we were greeted warmly, given a brief tour of the knee-buckingly beautiful building, were warned we’d probably get lost (we did, twice) and then were shown to our room.
As with landed gentry across the world, this family were hit with growing bills as this palazzo monumentali started to disintegrate, like much of the city, into the salty lagoon
The hotel is nothing short of astonishing. Looks-wise, there is nowhere to lay fault. I’ve stayed in Aman properties before, but this elevates the brand’s offering ten-fold, thanks to the crumbling palazzo that the group has restored meticulously and to great expense. Up on the top floor still resides the count and countess – descendants of the ludicrously wealthy trade magnates, the Papadopoli family, who bought the palazzo some 200 years ago. They live there with their kids and dog; you’ll spot them in the lobby most days and out in the gardens from time to time. As with landed gentry across the world, this family were hit with growing bills as this palazzo monumentali started to disintegrate, like much of the city, into the salty lagoon. They tried turning it into an office building and then into an events space, but no venture could raise the cash needed to save the historically important building and its once-lavish interiors.
The top floor aside, the rest of this vast building is given over to the Aman management team who cosset, cajole and pander to every whim and request thrown at them by their monied guests. Starting from about £1000 per night – Aman don’t really do deals – the Aman is one of the most expensive places to stay in the city. To its fans, the self-proclaimed “Aman Junkies” (ugh – find them using the hashtag #RichKidsofInstagram if you must find out more about this troupe), a stay in an Aman is the equivalent of hanging out at your über-rich friend’s house, complete with purring staff who put up with too much, surrounded by opulent furnishings.
several slum houses were bought and then razed to the ground to fulfil the Papadopolis’s need for lawn a couple of centuries ago
I’m torn by the place. We barely moved from its thick walls – these walls that suck up the lagoon water and rot the frescoes, which therefore must be regularly restored and managed – for nearly two days. It is over the top. It is beautiful. It is, in places, perfect. There are things I hate – yes, hate – though: that there aren’t prices on any of the menus anywhere in the hotel is utterly ridiculous. It’s done so as not to embarrass guests with such folly as putting in print that they’re charging 40 euros for a Champagne cocktail or to put guests through the humiliation of signing a bill whilst in residence. I find, however, the lack of prices obscene. It doesn’t matter how much money you have hidden in your off-shore account, if you don’t need to know the price of something, you’re just a little bit stupid.
The Aman’s location is magnificent: the position on the Grand Canal offers sunset flames bouncing off the water, as well as a row of palazzo opposite to study – go and have a coffee on the pontoon out front and watch the gondolas bob past. It’s also one of the few palazzos in the city to have its own garden (several slum houses were bought and then razed to the ground to fulfil the Papadopolis’s need for lawn a couple of centuries ago).
it’s going to take a very long-term relationship to claw back the £36 million they pumped into place
Inside there are original Old Master frescoes, carefully and respectfully restored, which are bathed in honey light in the afternoon. There are unique Murano glass pieces made in the Count’s own glass factory. There are original glass chandeliers installed by the first Papadopolis tenants – they were the first family in the city to boast a gas-lit chandelier and that chandelier and its original fittings still hangs. There are hand-crafted leather wallcoverings, complete with the doodlings by the craftsman who installed them centuries ago. The infinite detail, in contrast to its enormity, plus the warmth of the staff, make this a very special place to stay indeed. That its beauty kept us inside on a sunny day in this breathtaking city says it all. We were the only guests for most of the duration of our stay; in the (not so) common areas we were the only ones sipping Aperol spritzes in the afternoon, and this made it feel as though we were in our very own palazzo – only to be rudely reminded of the true owner’s presence as the effortlessly elegant Bianca Arrivabene Valenti Gonzago swept through the bar, pouring herself a pot of herbal tea and saying hello as I sipped my spritz and read, with my cashmere sock-clad feet up on her furniture.
The feat and the commitment of Aman has to be applauded – especially as they don’t actually own the building. And with only 24 rooms (predictably spacious, with outrageously enormous bathrooms), and with the hotel shut for nearly a month of the year in January, it’s going to take a very long-term relationship to claw back the £36 million they pumped into place.
The food, though, is punching so far below its weight that we were almost – almost – too embarrassed to say anything*. The restaurant, worryingly, seems to be regularly changing concept and chefs as they desperately try to find food that will work for their guests. But being just minutes from the Rialto’s famous food market, surely seasonal produce, cooked with respect by a good Italian chef, would do the trick? The concierge recommended a great little restaurant close to us in the quieter, more interesting sestieri of San Polo, just a few minutes’ walk away, called Antiche Carampane. This is exactly the kind of cooking that the Aman should be serving up: confident, seasonal, simple, local. Instead it’s mixed messages, poorly-executed Asian twists and, in some dishes, zero seasoning.
Breakfast was a sad “Vietnamese” omelette that tasted microwaved and which came scattered with spring onions and chillis as a nod to its Asian credentials. For lunch, a vongole was pretty decent, as was the gnocchi, but we had food just as good in small, cheap neighbourhood restaurants. For dinner, however, as we sat alone in a vast double-height dining room with a ceiling painted by the hand of Giovanni Battista Tipeolo for Christ’s sake, despite the setting, we returned to our room desperately disappointed. I was almost tempted to ask the waiter to chew the meat for me at one point, but was told the next day by the food and beverage manager that the duck was meant to be hard and rubbery. It’s a damn expensive shame. During our stay they were shipping in Michelin-starred chef Davide Oldani for a few days of every month, from the respected Milanese restaurant Cucina POP, to oversee the menu and add contemporary touches and standalone dishes. He’d left the day before we arrived. His super-modern techniques clashed horribly with the more traditional dishes on the menu. It’s the only downer, but when you’re paying a hell of a lot of money for food in a setting such as this, it’s a costly mistake.
So what do you get for your £1000 room charge?
So what do you get for your £1000 room charge? Breakfast is thrown in (unlike other Amans I’ve stayed in) and all of the drinks in the minibar are included. But apart from that, and the incredible surroundings of course, not very much. There’s an amazing selection of excursions and itineraries available – experiential stuff that money can’t buy. Except it can and it has to. A private tour of the Doges Palace, after visiting hours, will set you back 1300 euros. A trip to the Rialto Market with Italian food expert Maria Grazia, including the cooking of the ingredients you buy, is a cool 600 euros for two cooks, plus another 120 euros for an interpreter.
I feel conflicted. This is, quite possibly, the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in – in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The service is flawless, but also warm and attentive. And yet, for me, one of the most important aspects of a beautiful hotel is missing: good food. C
Aman Venice, Calle Tiepolo Baiamonte, 1364, Palazzo Papadopoli, 30125 Sestiere San Polo, Venezia VE, Italy
+39 041 270 7333; aman.com
*EDITOR’S NOTE – LISA RICHARDS’ REVIEW WAS BASED ON A VISIT FROM JUNE 2016, AND AMAN VENICE HAS SUBSEQUENTLY CHANGED BOTH ITS EXECUTIVE CHEF AND THE MENU DESIGN – ITEMS ARE ALL PRICED ACCORDINGLY, AND A WHOLE NEW MENU IS IN PLACE