|Robin Saikia with Richard E Grant at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, Venice Lido.|
On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism.
Venice, July 2013. Filming the Venice episode of Richard E Grant's Hotel Secrets, due to be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in summer 2014. The most recent episode in the series was devoted to the hotels of the French Riviera. Previous episodes explored the (often breathtakingly opulent) hotels of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Paris and Dublin. In this episode REG focuses on the grand old hotels of Venice, including the Excelsior, the Cipriani and the Gritti Palace. He asked me what had inspired me to write The Venice Lido (Blue Guides) - and I explained that the Grand Hotel Excelsior had played a great part.
REG and I discussed the enduring charm of the Grand Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido, completed in 1908 and still going strong. The first Venice Film Festival took place here in 1932 and the hotel is still a focal point of the Biennale, stars and their entourages descending in the first week of September during the festival. A vast Venetian-Moorish-neo-Byzantine extravaganza, the Excelsior gives guests a wonderful sense of space and luxury and was built directly next to the beach overlooking the Adriatic. Unlike many of the grand hotels it has an agreeably informal atmosphere - which is possibly why it was the favoured retreat of Winston Churchill who could often be seen here on the beach, huddled in a white robe, puffing a cigar and painting watercolours. I have always loved the Excelsior and have stayed here regularly since early childhood. In my view it is one of two hotels in Venice (the other is the Gritti) that one can safely recommend without any hesitation or qualification. One of the key defining features is, I think, that despite the hotel's proximity to central Venice it seems - in atmosphere and spirit - a million miles away. On the one hand you have the exquisite jewel-case of the Gothic city, but only fifteen minutes away you find this unbuttoned paradise of plutocratic hedonism. As Thomas Mann very aptly put it, 'the warm sea in the morning and the ambiguous city in the afternoon...'. Another major point is that they like, rather than tolerate, children here - and the place is so vast that children can happily mess around on the beach or by the pool without impacting on the romantic ambience.
The hotel has recently undergone a major refurbishment from which the rooms and suites in particular have benefited. Tented ceilings, moorish filigrees and fabrics that recall Fortuny are very much the order of the day. There are two major parties given here every year, one in July and another in August to mark the major Italian summer holiday, the Ferragosto. This year's summer party will be held on the terrace, overlooking the beach, on Friday 26 July. At other times the hotel is a splendid place for non-residents to hang out. The Blue Bar is expertly managed by Tony Micelotta, formerly capo of the cocktail bar of the Duke's Hotel in St James's, London. Tony was recently awarded the Italian equivalent of the OBE for his services to hospitality. Such is his unflappable skill as a mixologist that he is regularly drafted in by the Italian diplomatic corps. He also perfected my own cocktail, the Death in Venice, a seductive and potentially lethal vodka martini.