Summer is here (well, just) and with it a national sprouting of good intentions, as people dust off the dreary remnants of winter and a long, damp spring and start shaping up for the hot weather. People are heading for the gym and the spa, but I have recently returned from Venice where I enjoyed a very different but equally effective kind of boost.
I went on John Hall’s ‘Insider’s Venice’ course, a semi-private tour for people who want to enjoy Venice but who can’t face trudging round the Doge’s Palace or squeeze through the Bridge of Sighs with heaving hordes of package tourists.
The 15 of us on the course comprised nine Brits, including a lone Duchess, a pair of Russian women, a couple from Sweden and an American widow. Hall has been operating in Venice since the Sixties and knows just how to extract the best from the city, like the day a private boat took us to the smaller islands. We began on Murano at Santi Maria e Donato, the Byzantine church so admired by Ruskin, continued to Torcello and its cathedral and finished at Burano, where we lunched in an old lace factory. Thanks to the boat, there was no stress from checking the times of vaporettos or worrying about being stranded.
Our guide throughout was Dr Bruna Caruso, a tiny but robust grandmother of indefatigable energy and charm. Bruna’s knowledge of Venice is breathtaking, her infectious enthusiasm for her beloved city more so. Even after the third chilly, dank church of the morning, none of us dared confess to culture fatigue in the presence of such persuasive passion. One morning, Bruna took us to Venice’s opera house, La Fenice (The Phoenix). In 1996 it burnt down, but it has, fittingly for its name, risen from the ashes and been restored to its original magnificence, right down to every gilt cherub and the exact dusty rose plush of its chairs. I watched another group of Brits being dragged around by a guide who looked bored and irritable and was indicating, not very politely, that her charges should hurry up. How lucky we were to have Bruna, at that moment cajoling us into the Royal Box to regale us with yet another compelling anecdote.
Lady Frances Clarke, president of the charity Venice in Peril and widow of Venice’s late ambassador, Sir Ashley, was also our occasional guide. She arranged access to places most tourists never see such as the exquisite Sala della Musica with its frescoes by Guarano in the Ospedaletto, a little hospital originally founded for orphaned and abandoned girls.
One evening we were entertained in a little flat in the Palazzo Gradenigo by Rosemary Forbes-Butler, a renowned British soprano. We were treated to prosecco and canapés in a tiny room, swirling with so much original creamy stucco that it felt like being walled in by wedding-cake icing. After drinks, we sat down in another tiny room containing a piano and a spinetta. Rosemary, in floor-length pale blue silk, brown lace and scarlet slippers, was accompanied by Roberta, wearing a chain-mail sheath over a black catsuit, and we were regaled with music ranging from raunchy sailors’ love songs to Handel and Rossini. Some of our group found the performance embarrassing. ‘No one smiles that much and means it,’ one woman muttered to me disparagingly. Certainly, Rosemary’s overt charm and dramatic style were not subtle, but I was moved that a young, attractive woman was singing her heart out to a private audience in a corner of an ancient, grand palazzo, and I did feel we were genuinely seeing something of ‘Insider’s’ Venice.
Perhaps the highlight of the tour was the night our group took sole possession of the Church of San Marco. We were let in a side door and told to sit down in the dark. Then, slowly, the lights came on, illuminating every gold mosaic with as much blazing drama as possible. It was simply glorious.
The course is not cheap at £1,700 for six days, but it includes accommodation in the comfortable Hotel Monaco, right on Piazza San Marco, and several delicious meals awash with wine. Besides, the course was a far more potent tonic than any luxury spa or Caribbean island for a hungry soul shrivelled by a British winter. I felt soothed by the presence of so much beauty, mentally stimulated, and I even felt physically better after a lot of walking in invigorating salty lagoon air away from cars. I feel more than ready for all that summer has to hurl at me.