Dining in catastrophe used to be more interesting: but we must be fair. It was a smaller (and wetter) catastrophe: the Acqua Alta in Venice. That is when the sea rises and you put bin bags on your legs; and people push you off the duckboards while other people waltz in the water, sweetly and poorly; and inexperienced tourists turn to hotel managers and say, with loss in their eyes: when can we go outside without bin bags on our legs? The experienced hotel manager will reply, with mirrored grief: ‘Madam, it is the sea [and what do you want me to do about it, you imbecile]?’
After paddling in a foot of water in St Mark’s Square — Venice Syndrome makes adults paddle in water as Jerusalem Syndrome makes them paddle in myth — I walked west, turned left, and there it was: the Gritti Palace Hotel, a vast and ruddy 14th–century brick house named for the doge Andrea Gritti, who owned it once.
It is open but you cannot legally get there. I might get there if I could convince the authorities at Marco Polo airport that I am an essential worker, though it did not work at school. It is also possible that a Newlyn fishing boat could take me there. I wonder what the skipper would charge to take me to the Gritti Palace Hotel if I accosted him on the pier, and how we would get there: through the Pillars of Hercules?
Once in Venice, meanwhile — this is a detailed fantasy, but I have little to do nowadays but daydream about Christopher Plummer and plan un-written articles about how The Sound of Music is really an erotic masterpiece — I would self-isolate at the Gritti Palace for 14 days at a cost of £6,654, not including breakfast.
It was late when we banged on the door like a pair of Oliver Twists, but middle–aged and wearing bin bags, and asked for sanctuary. Could we have supper? They said — why not? The Venetians think Englishwomen are crazy. It’s our clothes and our hair and our shoes and our faces. It’s our bin bags. (Natives wear waders over their cashmere and carry briefcases above their heads. It is more stylish but hardly less insane.) They think we are self-hating. They do not understand it is our testament to liberty and, also, laziness. They can recognise us from the back too. It’s a very specialist skill.
They sent us to the Club del Doge, a large, rectangular and almost entirely golden room on the ground floor, with a terrace on the Grand Canal and a dock for pleasure boats. All is golden here: walls; floors; chairs; lamps; vases; the other diners. Even so, for a Venetian restaurant patronised by rich tourists, it is relatively tasteful. That is, I have seen worse, but they reserve the most insane Murano glass for export because no Venetian would want it.
The Club del Doge specialises in seafood from the lagoon but, to be contrary, we had lamb from the mainland. (There are no fields in Venice.) We had perfect and precise €40 plates of tiny charred lamb chops with tiny tomatoes because expensive Italian restaurants do not really believe in potatoes; and equally perfect and precise €20 plates of tiramisu. (These days they do a ‘Hemingway-style’ risotto, which I am not sure I could eat. It would be like eating his smell.) The bill was €300 without wine.
More staggering, though, was the view through the door to the terrace. It was June, and warm, and the door was open. I stepped out. The terrace was flooded — ankle deep — and the flood was joined by an electrical thunder-storm that turned the sky silver. More interesting dining in catastrophe, as I said. Next time — a cheese box.
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The Gritti Palace, Campo Santa Maria Del Giglio 2467, Venice, Italy
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