There are no new hotels in Venice. The nature of this ancient city, stretched over 118 islands, means that there’s no room – geographically and aesthetically – for swish new buildings. And, even if there was, there is a ban on any new tourist developments in the city, put in place in 2017.
Instead, visitors can check into restored beauties and reimagined hotels of old. The latest of these is perhaps the most significant of all. Ca’ di Dio – or ‘House of God’ – is technically Venice’s oldest hotel. It dates back to the 13th century when it started life as a hostel for pilgrims – technically, the world’s first tourists – on their way to the Holy Land. Since then, it has had a varied history, with parts of the building once belonging to the military and for many years repurposed as an old people’s home.
After 18 years left empty, it has now come full circle and has been reborn again as a place for visitors to rest their heads. Following a two-year renovation by superstar architect and designer Patricia Urquiola, interiors are a world away from its medieval days, although there are nods throughout to the heritage of the building. Original travertine is found in some of the corridors and a stone well, dating back when the building was first built and no doubt used by the pilgrims themselves, is found in one of the three internal courtyards.
The design of the hotel – with its 57 suites and nine deluxe rooms – is to replicate that of a typical Venetian house. Found on the Riva degli Schiavoni, the main waterfront overlooking the lagoon and beyond to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, it has a magnificent position – just a few minutes’ stroll from Piazza san Marco.
Unlike many Venetian palazzos-turned-hotels, which have elaborate architectural details signifying the grandeur inside, Ca’ di Dio has instead a plain and austere frontage. It’s somewhat misleading – for the interiors are a different matter. Urquiola’s design is deeply welcoming, with a rich colour palette used throughout – think moss green, navy blue, plum and rose pink – and atmospheric motifs of water a recurring theme. Much of the design concept complements the architectural features of old and reflects the age-old traditions of Venice itself.
The lobby, for instance, is now found in what was once the chapel. Two stone statues watch imperiously over the space – which feels welcoming with curvy velvet sofas and a magnificent Murano glass chandelier. Created with over 14,000 pieces of shimmering glass, this is a show-stopper, with its three half-moon pieces designed to look like sails to reflect the city’s maritime history.
The adjacent reading room has a blue ceiling and a wall mural of dramatic swirls – again giving a nod to the lagoon outside – while the teak shelves around the room make you feel like you are on a luxury yacht.
The best suites overlook the lagoon – the movement of the water outside casts shadows on the walls, while the gentle splishing and sploshing sounds will send you off to sleep, better than any insomnia app. Delicate and nuanced wallpapers and beautifully-made fabrics are by the Venetian brand Rubelli, while custom-made Murano-glass lights, in shades of pale pink, burnt orange and forest green, give glorious splashes of colour.
While the original pilgrims would have slept on straw, these days you can expect the deepest beds with the softest linens and fabric headboards which curve around you to give a cosseting feel. Bathrooms are also luxurious with pink Carerra marble vanities, varnished plaster-pink walls and fabulous jewel-coloured amenities by L’Etér.
Throughout, Urquiola has sourced furniture, textiles and lighting from local craftsmen. Doors in iron glass are the work of Gambaro Vetri in collaboration with Vetroarredamento; Alessandro Morelli’s Europavimenti has brought the typical Venetian terrazzo flooring back to life, while in the tiny Pura spa, Merchant of Venice treatments are on offer. As an ode to Venice’s rich artisan traditions, hand-made glass, wood, wrought iron, stone and marble have been used throughout. The idea, says Urquiola, was to contrast the “rigour of the building and the severity of the original structure with the sophisticated and traditional elegance found in Venetian palaces.”
This sense of place is also reflected in the dining on offer at the hotel. In the Alchemia Bar, you can have traditional cicchetti – Venice’s version of tapas – and an Aperol Spritz. Or, indeed, ask for a cocktail made from the hotel’s own gin – created especially by master distiller Florian Rabanser, who lives at the foot of the Dolomites. In the summer months, you can bask in the sunshine by eating al fresco in the largest of the courtyards.
In the main restaurant Vero, which overlooks the lagoon, head chef champions local produce and seasonality with vegetables picked from the kitchen garden. The concept is based around a one-fit-for-all tasting menu, which frequently changes according to what ingredients are available, so you might have Fried Eel, served with creamy gialet beans and grapefruit; Saffron Risotto with black ink cuttlefish and lemon; and an artisan Tiramisu.
Found at the entrance to the Arsenale area, known as the Contemporary Art District of Venice, this is the perfect place to stay for those wanting to explore Venice’s Biennale. But the hotel also champions little-known sides of Venice and can arrange tours of Burano – the island renowned for its colourful houses and lace-making traditions – and of the LP Glass factory in Murano (where Urquiola commissioned many of the pieces found in the hotel).
Most interestingly, perhaps, is a new Botanical Experience created with local botanist Gabriele Bisetto. You set off from the Basin of San Marco, joining Bisetto on his traditional flat-bottomed boat, to gently cruise to the untouched northern lagoon. Here, the noise of Venice is left behind and you discover a silent, evocative place, where sandbank plants waver in the breeze and sea birds swoop overhead. Taking you close to island banks, Bisetto points out endemic flora and fauna, perhaps picking herbs and plants to taste, as you go. Each journey is different, with pitstops to watch local fishermen or a detour if he spots an interesting bird or flower in the distance.
A stay at Ca’ di Dio offers an immersive and hyper-local – yet often alternative – take on what is possibly one of the most visited cities in the world. Yes, it’s Venice, but not as you know it.
Ca’ di Dio offers rooms from €460 per night based on two people sharing on a B&B basis. vretreats.com/en/ca-di-dio/