Winter in Venice. For me, these three words conjure up misty morning gondola trips across the Grand Canal, gazing at the chilly pigeons in Saint Mark’s Square over a deliciously rich hot chocolate. In these fantasies, Venice is blissfully quiet, living up to her historic title, La Serenissima. There are no cruise ships in sight, no selfie sticks on the Rialto Bridge and, crucially, no queues for the many churches and cathedrals on my cultural agenda.
Funnily enough, despite having placed so much romantic attention on Venice, I had never actually been until this year. Subconsciously, I was waiting for a time when I could see the city as I wanted to, without the crowds getting in the way of the illusion. Also, I suppose, recent tales of over-tourism destroying the city (rumours of turnstiles in St Mark’s Square and so on) made me question whether I should go at all. Speaking to friends, I was surprised by how many felt the same.
While the pandemic has ruined almost every aspect of international travel, there will probably never be a more magical time to see Venice. Determined to seize this little silver lining, I decided to pack my bags for a spontaneous night in Venice to check out SINA Centurion Palace before another lockdown.
With a prime bit of real estate spanning along Venice’s Grand Canal, the location of the hotel couldn’t be more spectacular. Venice’s southern Dorsoduro district is something akin to Paris’ left bank: remnants of a bohemian artist’s quarter remain beneath the polished tourist-ville, and ramshackled creative workshops can be spotted here and there.
Just meters away from the hotel, we’re directed to local gondola-maker Saverio Pastor, still based in his workshop Le Forcole. Also within spitting distance is the famous Ponte dei Pugni, a bridge where fistfights were historically allowed to be held. In the spring, wisteria and bougainvillaea bloom over these marble bridges and staircases, in what some argue is the prettiest part of the city.
On the other side of the hotel, the enormous Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute dominates and ferries over to St Mark’s Square are frequent, taking only a couple of minutes.
The neo-gothic SINA Centurion was built in the 1800s on the site of a medieval Gregorian monastery and was known as Palace Palazzo Genovese before being converted into a luxury hotel in 2009. With a waterside facade on one side and an internal courtyard leading onto Campo San Gregorio on the other, the grand glass entrance makes the most of the hotel’s position.
Art also plays a central role, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum is mere metres away from the hotel, holding some of the most important 20th Century artworks and instillations in Italy. Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and Picasso provide a welcome break for those feeling saturated by medieval frescoes. During the Art Biennale festival, SINA Centurion Palace is often used for exhibitions of contemporary artworks and installations.
Opulence is the name of the game in SINA Centurion Palace’s 50 bedrooms, and no one could accuse the regal decor of being minimalist. Deep red and gold art nouveau add warmth to the high ceilings, with each of the 12 waterfront suites having been individually decorated. Original 16th Century fireplaces have been installed in the junior suite, while the presidential suite sleeps up to six people and has a bathroom gilded with genuine gold leaf. Many rooms have stone balconies looking out onto the canal and down onto the private breakfast terrace below.
Food and drink
Dinner at Centurion Palace’s Antinoo’s Restaurant is at once typical and adventurous, the ideal destination if you only have one night in the city. The restaurant takes its name from a 7th century coin found in the ruins of the building during renovation. Venetian stalwarts such as polpo (octopus) and bacalao (cod) are woven into classical Italian dishes, and executive chef Giancarlo Bellino draws on Venice’s history as a trading port by utilising ingredients from across the Mediterranean.
Cured egg yolk with parmesan cream, rye crumble and black truffle is a highlight from the primi, while wagyu beef with porcini mushrooms, rice crackers and extra virgin olive oil mayonnaise is a celebration of Italian ingredients in a novel way. Handmade egg tagliolini with shellfish was unexpectedly memorable, a generous and flavoursome swirl of pasta, langoustine and clams from the Veneto.
In the wintertime, octopus ragù lasagne comes onto the menu, a Venetian play on the Italian classic. Fritti – lightly battered fried fish – are common on menus across the city, yet the magic of eating these salty snacks on a secluded balcony over the water makes them taste all the more exquisite.
Beyond the food and location, what set our dinner apart was head waiter Matteo Malinari’s inimitable knowledge of the city he calls home. Coming from a long line of gondoliers, Matteo decided to break tradition and leave Venice for a few years, giving him perspective on this unique melting pot of cultures. He explains to us the dialects of the Veneto, regaling us with stories of how the city has changed over the years. Everyone agreed tourism had come to breaking point, he says, but no one was prepared for such absence of it either.
In a nutshell
Sweeping stone balconies and unrivalled views over the Grand Canal make for a breath-taking first stay in the city. Set back from the main island and yet just a couple of minutes by ferry into the throng of things, the locations of SINA Centurion Palace is optimal. Make sure to have a drink on the terrace before dinner – an evening spritz looking out onto the twinkling canal is everything a Venetian holiday should be.
Address: Dorsoduro, 173 30123 Venice, Italy
Phone: +39 041 34281