Normally accustomed to a constant flow of tourists, the Covid pandemic has allowed Venetians to reclaim Venice for themselves. Alain Bullo, Maître de Maison of the Londra Palace Hotel and a Venetian by birth, reveals some lesser-known gems of this remarkable island city.
Alain Bullo, Maître de Maison of the Londra Palace Hotel in Venice for the last 20 years, and a Venetian by birthThe Londra Palace will celebrate its 170th anniversary next year, making it a historic hospitality landmark in the city many call La Serenissima. So many illustrious names have stayed there: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Jules Verne and Jose Luis Borges. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is even said to have penned part of his Symphony No. 4 there.Though originally christened the Hotel d’Angleterre & Pension, the property expanded to the configuration we know today back in 1865, when it joined with the neighboring Beau-Rivage. The latter’s neo-Lombard style added an unusual aesthetic to the hotel’s pristine-white façade, perforated by a hundred windows, each looking out onto the Grand Canal of the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront. It was not until the 1970s that the property was renamed the Londra Palace.
Alain Bullo’s father had already been working at the hotel for several years when he met a young Frenchwoman who was on vacation with her family. A few years later, she would return to marry the young doorman, who would climb up the hospitality ladder to become concierge.Alain, the child of this Franco-Italian couple, is Venetian through and through, and his own relationship with the Londra Palace began at a very early age. “I hadn’t really imagined going to work at the same hotel as my father, but destiny decided otherwise,” he says. “The fact that my mother gave birth to me just a stone’s throw away, in the maternity ward of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, might have been a sign of things to come.”As a child, when visiting his father at the hotel, he regularly strolled around the Castello district and came to know it like the back of his hand. “Though we’re so close to the Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, this part of Venice has managed to preserve its authentic, unspoiled charm.”
What a delight to be guided by a genuine Venetian, giving a glimpse of another side of this incredible city. “Next door to the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, there’s a church of the same name where Antonio Vivaldi and Francesco Gasparini managed the musical education of the maternity ward orphans,” he mentions casually as we leave the quay, heading to Campo Bandiera e Moro, a place he especially loves. And for good reason: he married there several years ago, at the San Giovanni in Bragora church. Along the way, we go by a small passage called Sotoportego dei Preti, said to be the site of another love story, one between a fisherman and a mermaid. “Venice is full of these secret places and legends that tourists pass by without even looking.” A little further on, a wooden footbridge straddles the alley, providing access to a hanging garden with dense, lush vegetation. Then another square, another church – which is to be expected, as Venice boasts no fewer than a hundred religious edifices.
Another striking aspect of our tour is the peace and quiet that seem to have enveloped Venice as a result of the Covid pandemic – a return to its authentic state, perhaps, a calm that very much suits the city of the Doges – not least having been freed from the presence of giant cruise liners. “Older residents say that the effects of the pandemic on visitor numbers has brought back the Venice of their youth, the one in which you could stroll along the alleys or cross the Rialto without having to elbow your way through a crowd,” says Alain. “The pandemic means Venetians have been enjoying a better quality of life in recent months.”
Our walk takes us to the walls of the Arsenal. “My father told me that he used to come here and play marbles on the stone plinths of the two Piraeus Lions in the Campo dell’Arsenale.” We stop for an espresso at Al Leon Bianco and then step aboard a water taxi. Alain wants to show us that there are sights to see beyond the main island, scattered across the entire Venetian Lagoon.
We head for Burano, home to brightly colored fishermen’s houses and the Al Gatto Nero trattoria. “I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember, because Lucia and Ruggero Bovo are second to none when it comes to cooking fish,” he says. The menu features such rarities as squid eggs, moeche – fried soft crabs from the lagoon – and a very tasty risotto ai gò, “a typical lagoon fish that’s very bony, but very flavorful.”
As a post-meal “constitutional,” Alain takes us to a relatively unknown island not far from Burano: Isola del Deserto, occupied only by a convent. “When Saint Francis returned from Egypt in 1220, he stopped here to meditate,” explains one of the last Franciscan friars living here. “A few years later, the island was bequeathed to the Franciscan order of the Frari di Venezia.” The place is utterly peaceful, simple, almost timeless, and it is easy to understand why the monk took refuge here.
On our way back to the Londra Palace, Alain is keen to show us one last Lagoon curiosity: the Domain of Orto di Venezia on the island of San Erasmo. “San Erasmo is known for its artichokes, Castras Ure, but a Frenchman named Michel Thoulouze, who’s lived here for fifteen years, decided to make wine from ancient grape varieties, including Istrian Malvasia, with truly outstanding results.” While other initiatives have since flourished on other islands, the former television executive was the true trailblazer of the wine renaissance in the lagoon, sparing no effort in analysis, soil work, and growing experiments to ultimately produce an earthy and very aromatic white wine. Alas, as dusk approaches, we do not have time for a wine tasting. “No matter,” Alain reassures us, “the Londra Palace has Orto di Venezia Blanco on its wine menu – it’s perfect as an aperitif.” Aboard our water taxi, pleasant anticipation builds as the silhouette of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, the celebrated statue in front of the hotel, looms ahead in the fading light.