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Hotel-Tripping Through Italy's Festival Towns

Any time of year, la belle Italia beckons the footloose culture buff with a thing for luxury lodging. I heeded its call in late autumn 2011, stopping at one festival town after another and sampling the most innovative, exquisite and otherwise distinguished hotels in each. Enjoy a vicarious adventure as you share in the splendor:

Venice: A Hotel That Could be a Visconti Movie Set

Dreaming about next summer’s Venice Film Festival? Ready to make plans? Are the famed Gritti Palace and Hotel Danieli too showy for you? Too commercial? Too near the bustling Piazza San Marco and Caffe Florian, the only Venetian restaurant and coffeehouse that, in golden days, served female patrons, and where such literary and social lions as Goldoni, Goethe, Lord Byron and Casanova watched the world go by over a steaming latte or un bicchiere da vino

Just like the hotels on the Lido, where the festival is actually held, these deluxe sanctuaries often sell out well in advance. So be smart and head to the splendid Ca’Sagredo, a five-star pink palazzo dating back to the 15th century.

Though only open since 2007, this former property of the prominent if controversial Sagredo family has redefined the notion of class in hotel service, earning it a special award for excellence from Condé Nast Traveler.

I spent two glorious days at the Sagredo during the last sweet days of September. Situated right on the Grand Canal, the palazzo is around the corner from the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop -- about 100 feet from the impressive 15th-century Gothic palace of the same name that once belonged to the Baron Franchetti, and which displays paintings from the Tuscan and Flemish schools as well as the work known as its crown jewel, a painting of San Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna.

The Sagredo also looks directly across the water at the Rialto Market, which sells fresh fish and veggies daily. A gondolier in a broad-brimmed hat and tight black and white T-shirt, looking like a leftover from the movie Summertime, will shuttle you there in a sleek black and gold gondola for a mere Euro.

The Ca Sagreda offers unparalleled Old World luxury, whether you are ensconced in the enormous Presidential Suite, with its up-close-and-personal views of the canal, magnificent Murano glass chandelier and impressive drawings collection, or are enjoying a more modest suite facing the street, as mine did.

Even so, it was gorgeous: I had a sitting area in the foyer (where I rarely sat), a living area and a king-size bedroom and bath, all in gold and ivory gilt decor – very Italianate, with lovely original moldings. 

The hotel is chock-full of exquisite and surprising art around every corner. Its magnificent double-storied Music Room boasts architectural wall frescoes depicting Venus and Minerva, work attributed to the 15th-century muralist Gaspare Diziani. Even in the palazzo’s grand ballroom and breakfast rooms, intricate high-ceilinged frescoes serve as a rich canopy.

Ca Sagreda is well located, too – within walking distance of Piazza San Marco and the Accademia on the one hand, and of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto on the other.

But the most spectacular thing about the hotel, other than its grand marble floors and rich appointments that suggest the art decor of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, is its Bar L’Incontro, on the small landscaped terrace. Here, at one of six tables overlooking the canal, you can have a lovely meal or simply a cocktail as you listen to the boats put-put-putting across the water.

And at the wonderful Alcova restaurant, try the house special – ravioli with sage. It is perfectly simple—and flavorful.

The Sagredo too conveniently situated. It's a 10-minute walk from the Jewish Ghetto, with its Jewish Museum, Holocaust Memorial and beautiful old synagogues; five minutes from the excellent local restaurant, La Vecia Cavana (where for 21.50 Euros I ate the best spaghetti Bolognese I’d ever tasted, accompanied by a fine Chianti); and 15 minutes from the bustling, yet majestic Piazza San Marco.

While here, I recalled over olives and wine, the sweepingly romantic reconciliation scene between Susan Anspach and George Segal, played against a background of pigeons, the majestic architecture of that square and a swelling sound track provided by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Paul Mazursky’s extraordinary 1973 Blume in Love.

But perhaps the Venice Film Festival is too celebrity-rich for your blood.

Try the equally important Biennale – with venues near two vaporetto stops, Giardini and Arsenale. This vast series of art exhibitions and happenings come together as a world’s fair of art in which numerous countries (89 this year) display the work of their home-grown artists.

Much of the art in the 54th International Art Exhibition, held between June and November 2011 and titled "Illuminations," was conceptual and architectural. My favorite pieces were a pair of American works by the witty artist and musician Lynn Foulkes: Mr. President features a cartoonish painting of George Washington, with a Mickey Mouse snout superimposed on his face; and Where Did I Go Wrong? depicts Superman sitting on a cold stone in a dreary Beckettesque landscape, reading a newspaper called The Outlook, which sports the headline: “WAR!”

Okay, so you’ve missed both the Film Festival and the Biennale. Venice will still deliver history, luxury, art and pasta to stir both your heart and palate.

Hotel Ca Sagredo
Campo Santa Sofia, 4198/99 Ca' D'Oro Venice, 30121
39 041 2413111
Rates: An unbelievable bargain of $229 during Christmas holidays; twice and three times more during summer high season.

Florence: Traditional Art, Hip Digs

When we think of film festivals, we think of Venice, Cannes and New York. As it turns out, Florence boasts its wealth of movie celebrations. Known as “the cradle of the Rennaissance," this beautiful city on the Arno is not just home to the sublime Ufizzi Palace, with such major works as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, but also to the Pitti Palace, which was once owned by the Medicis and now features five museums as well as the serenely lovely Boboli Gardens.

Florence has willed itself into becoming a major film festival town. So if you want to combine the traditional arts with film art, plenty of opportunity awaits you. The 50 Giorni di Cinema, or 50 Days of Cinema, is an international festival that runs every year from October to December. Its sections span women’s films, lesbian and gay films, docs and features, international films and contemporary art films.

And the River to River Indian Film Festival at the Cinema Odeon in the Piazza Strozzi (from December 2 - 8 this year) is that rare cinema event that focuses solely on movies from India. (Bollywood, as you may recall, is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of films.) The festival not only imports the latest in Indian films, but also Indian directors, actors and producers.

For the perfect hotel for festival-goers in Florence, I recommend the sleekly modern and completely cool Gallery Hotel Art, which celebrates the artistic spirit not just via its choice of a name, but also via its architecture and the revolving art and photography exhibits featured throughout its lobby, library/breakfast room and other public spaces.

In the past, works by photographers of the quality of David LaChapelle, Steven Klein and Elliott Erwitt have been shown. When I stayed here in late September, artist and art director Su Blackwell’s enchanting trees, made from the paper in books, stood guard in the library. (Blackwell insists that she reads every book before she deconstructs it.)

The Gallery Hotel Art, part of the Lungarno family of hotels, is conveniently located right off the Ponte Vecchio, about two blocks south of the Ufizzi and a stone’s throw from the Palazzo Strozzi and half dozen or so gelato shops as well.

The vibe here is young, hip, and prosperous. I stayed in an offbeat, gleamingly modern duplex room featuring, on the upper level, a bedroom and bath and, on the main level, a compact living room and smaller bath. Although this particular suite did not have a view (many, in fact, face the Arno), it managed to be simultaneously cozy and elegant.

The hotel also boasts the Fusion Restaurant and Bar, which is a jumping joint from cocktail hour into the wee hours. The restaurant serves the latest combinations of seafood, and they're as yummy as the decor.

I ordered an imaginative sushi/seafood combo called “From the Sea,” for 29 Euros, a trio of dishes including fresh sushi and braised sea bass that was out of this world.

For dessert I chose a superb apple tart with apple crème brulée and green apple sorbet. The reasonable price was an extra bonus in a country where the Euro continues to lord it over the dollar, especially considering the hipness of the restaurant and the creativity of the menu.

Gallery Hotel Art
Vicolo dell’ Oro 5
50123 Firenze
Tel:  055 27263

Positano: Elegance on a Cliff Overlooking the Sea

If you’re longing for the more offbeat Positano International Film Festival, usually held in June, book now for Il San Pietro Hotel. Located on an imposing cliff two kilometers above the tumult of shops and tourists, this small but spectacular venue runs a free van service transporting guests into and out of town around the clock. Of course, when you’re at the Il San Pietro, it’s hard to tear yourself away.

Here the views of the sapphire waters of the Amalfi Coast are magnificent, both from the main terraces, tiled in jolly Italian mosaics with blooming scarlet and fuschia bougainvillea climbing up and punctuating the festivities, and from the rooms and suites. Mostly done in spacious, summer-white and beautifully appointed, each room and suite sports a bay view and terrace.

By day the attentive staff cheerily serves a whatever-you’d-like breakfast on crisp pink tablecloths dotted with pretty floral arrangements. Evenings, guests sip cocktails or indulge in romantic candle-lit dinners under a canopy of stars  (I savored a lovely pasta Bolognese and a Montepulciano one evening).

For beach lovers, the San Pietro offers a panoply of spa and wellness treatments, among other special facilities. Even nicer, in about 45 seconds an elevator scoots you down the cliff to the hotel’s private beach – the only one on the coast.

It was here that The Carlino, a wonderful open-air beach restaurant reserved only for guests, served me and my friends deliciously fragrant, crunchy grilled anchovies along with a mozzarella and tomato salad.

Two extra perks: a tennis court about 100 yards from the water and a free daily boat ride at 11:30 a.m., where hotel guests can experience the beauty of the sea and this privileged view of Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and, in the distance, Capri.

While 10 of us sat on the deck, snacking on olives and rosé wine under a sparkling Amalfi sun, the Capitane, who looked like he'd been hired from central casting, Italian-style, noted local points of interest, namely a whitewashed villa owned by director Franco Zeffirelli and another by the late ballet star, Rudolph Nureyev.

I could have stayed on the water all day – which is, indeed, possible, since the hotel will aid you in hiring a private boat to take you touring wherever you like.

Il San Pietro Hotel
Via Laurito 2/84017 Positano
39 089 875 455
Rates: From 420 Euros in low season.

Because the hotel sits on the side of a dramatic cliff, only children over 10 are welcome.

Ravello: A Stylish Hilltop Town

And if you’d like to combine a tony spa holiday with a smaller festival, such as those held in Ravello, Capri and Giffoni, don’t hesitate to book the Palazzo Sasso, around the corner from Ravello’s main piazza.

For one, the Sasso is the pride of this tiny, mountainous town, whose itsy-bitsy square is dotted with Italian pottery shops, cashmere and leather stores, a charming Duomo built in 1087 (yes)! with its accompanying museum, and, a few steps down a side street, a super-popular, ridiculously reasonable restaurant called Compa Cosima, where the pasta is fresh and authentic. 

The rooms at the Sasso, a converted 12th-century palace, are small but impeccably designed, with pretty princess balconies, 18th- and 19th-century antiques and soft Frette sheets. The public spaces – gardens, terraces and a lovely lobby bar and salon featuring a baby grand piano – manage to be both grandly pretty while also warm and inviting.

And for what it’s worth, this hotel had the best breakfast pastries of any hotel I stayed at during my travels.  It has also won a truckload of awards from tough-to-please magazines such as Travel & Leisure.

The Sasso, which has been open since 1997, is so centrally located that it's only a 10-minute (slightly steep) walk up the hill to the beautiful 15 acres of gardens, crypt and cloisters of the Villa Cimbrone.

The Cimbrone is also the site of a charming small hotel that once hosted Greta Garbo and her then-lover, the conductor Arturo Toscanini. What’s more, the view of the Amalfi Coast from gardens that Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, is said to have tended, and the little tea-room tucked under one terrace, are more than  worth the hike.

Palazzo Sasso
Via San Giovanni Del Toro 28/ 84010 Ravello
Tel: 39 089 818181
Rates: From 224 Euros in low season.
Open from mid-April until late October

Naples: Earthy yet sleekly modern

The rich, gritty history of Naples is reflected in its atmospheric port, which docks both big ships arriving from foreign lands and limber little ferries transporting day passengers to and from Capri and the Amalfi Coast for a super-reasonable fee of between seven and 15 Euros (but only between Easter and the end of October).

So rather than drive from town to town on the Amalfi Coast for absurdly high car-service and taxi fees (between $75 and $100 per jaunt), staying in Naples and taking the daily ferry service to various festivals can be a smart and pleasant choice.

Indeed, Naples has its own film festival, which, in 2011, took place from October 13 - 18 at the 14th-century Castel Sant ‘Elmo, a venue that happens to have the best views of Naples and its port. One of the festival’s highlights was the retrospective honoring the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky with a retrospective of all his features.   

In Naples I booked a room at the super-hot, super-modern and spanking new Hotel Romeo, which overlooks the port and ferries to Capri, but has become the chic home-away-from-home of the local fashionistas, film folk and design mavens who come to town. The rooms, streamlined and beautiful, include a Japanese suite with a soothing Japanese rock garden designed for meditation – and celebrities.

Other attractions: An outdoor swimming pool overlooking the city and a cigar bar.

My room there was paneled in rich dark wood, as is the rooftop seafood restaurant, Il Comandante, chosen Naples’ best restaurant of 2010 by the Espresso Guide, the hotel’s Beluga Skybar, where you can order a common sandwich or an uncommon sampling of fine caviar; or the (self-explanatory) mostl-marble Zero Sushi Bar, located in the hotel lobby. The restaurant and Skybar both have spectacular views of the port and, at night, of the city’s twinkling lights.   

Competing for distinction with the Romeo’s state-of-the-art restaurants is its large spa, featuring a small pool, a gorgeous sauna and a unique salt room, as well as various salt-based treatments.

The evening I arrived, a conference of health specialists and salt-loving physicians was taking place, with participants extolling the health benefits of all things saline. Apparently these must have extended to the heaps of excellent sushi and Champagne being served in the lobby at a party marking the spa’s debut; indeed, the local fashion press was scarfing these items down as though they too held the key to immortality.

And who knows, maybe they do?

Hotel Romeo
Via Cristoforo Colombo 45
Naples 80133   
39 081 0175999
Check out the Romeo’s special off-season offers.

Note:  All these hotels offer pricey excellence. Rates, however, vary according to season and to special offers. Buona fortuna!              

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