Monday, December 04, 2006


In Italy, hospitality is more than a tradition, it is a fine art. So when a hotel brand effectively expresses that beautiful combination, miracles happen. Every Italian city has its own unique character, thus the challenge is a more daunting one, to be faithful to the place, while you deliver a consistent quality hospitality experience. Baglioni Group has created a sensitive strategy for its properties, where the true essence of each city is encouraged to come forth. It’s a philosophy which strikes an elegant balance between beauty, the joy of living, classicism, heritage, service and the all-important location. Through a mix of method, magic and mystery, the delight follows, as a recent look at three of their signature properties in Italy proved.

The Carlton Baglioni Milan, the group’s 104-room flagship luxury establishment, is located optimally in a heritage building on the via Senato. It is the only hotel in Milan with a private entrance leading directly onto the via della Spiga. That’s a geographical advantage alone whose value cannot be overstated. Milan, a city driven by the fashion business, is known primarily as a couture capital, an assertion which a walk through the surrounding neighborhood immediately validates. If you seek inspiration, an odyssey of window-shopping lies only steps away, delivering an overwhelming feast of style to nourish the heart and mind. Milano also has La Scala (Baglioni is the official hotel of the famed opera house) and Leonardo’s Last Supper (a tough ticket to obtain, but the concierge can score you last-minute admission into the newly-reopened and restored, climate-controlled sanctuary), but you must first pry yourself away from the Carlton, where comforts are legion and distractions are many.

Throughout the hotel fresh white roses are artfully placed, a signature element of décor, which subtly reinforces the brand promise from property to property. Another design signature capitalizes on the Italian flair for lighting: in this and every other property in Baglioni’s portfolio, illumination figures as a soothing and carefully considered part of the environment. Comfort and elegance are hallmarks of the brand. Anyone from the fashion industry will relish suite #310, whose quiet situation and canopied terrace overlooks the legendary shopping street, far from the traffic noise. The Carlton’s suites feature pleasing dusky green walls, gold and velvet details, luxurious marble baths, and a complete amenity package.

The Carlton’s bar (hint: quiet on Sundays and Mondays), a sumptuous room with soft couches and low tables, offers signature snacks worth a try (salami, goat cheese, spinach, tomato, smoked salmon) - the difficulty being one could easily make a meal of them. Franco the beverage manager compounds the problem. You will find him a superior and accommodating host, eager to keep you relaxing in his cozy domain. Far too many temptations abound in the bar, among them a crisp Chardonnay from Friuli, 9 grappas on display (several varieties from Jacopo Poli and the ever-reliable Nonino) or eponymously-named fresh fruit drinks available at €15 a glass: Mauritius- pineapple, papaya, coconut; Zanzibar- watermelon, peach, grapefruit; Ceylon- pineapple, ginger, lime; Sumatra- kiwi, mango, orange; Waikiki- melon, strawberries, blueberries; Giava (Java)- pineapple, melon, lime. Gabriel the barman discreetly turned his eyes away as I grabbed for a greedy handful from the great heap of milk and dark branded Caffarel chocolates spilling out onto the bar from an elegant glass globe.

It’s also advisable to devote some time and attention to the Baretto Ristorante, a Milan landmark itself, now residing in the corner of the Carlton’s building, with its entry just off the bar. Baretto was an established dining room elsewhere in the neighborhood, who Baglioni invited to reopen on premises as a joint venture. Politicians, models, international VIPs and local luminaries favor the restaurant, both for its menu and welcome. You might discover meaty cerignola-style olives from Venice on your table, or request the tuna tartare, which is superb. An artichoke and shrimp salad accompanied by a glass of crisp Pio Cesare chardonnay is another worthy choice to sample at lunch.

From the end of May until early October, on Wednesday nights from 1-5pm, the Carlton turns its outdoor public terrace into an exclusive aperitivo bar, welcoming only a select number of guests. This would be an ideal location and elegant setting for a chic business rendezvous, a romantic tryst, a high-power reception or glass of Franciacorta taken before your evening’s activity. As a footnote, Milan is deserted from 12-22 August, which might be an excellent week to drop in when the hustle-bustle is reduced.

For those in search of a luxury spa, look no further than the Carlton’s lobby, where Guerlain recently launched the first of its elegant new centers in Italy. Guerlain custom tailors each program, personalizing for its guests the ultimate well-being experience.

The Carlton is not flashy or trendy, it is calm, classic and comfortable and in the truest sense of the word cool. It will always be. The Carlton is not about advertising yourself, it is about enjoying yourself. Carpe diem, as they say.

If Milan is a city of fashion and business, Venice is a city of history. Here Luna Hotel Baglioni delivers the essence of the place, 65-rooms in the oldest hotel in Venice, a palazzo dating back to the 12th century. The entryway, just across the passage from the door to the legendary Harry’s Bar, is gondola accessible, so your water taxi can bring you swiftly up a little-traveled canal to Luna’s private front door. A second entrance on the opposite side of the lobby leads to a narrow shopping street and vaporetto stop, where you have the opportunity to ogle the latest from Missoni, or ponder the endless possibilities of elegant made-to-order Italian shirtings in a fine tailor’s window. A half minute away are the western portals leading to Piazza San Marco. You are no more than a five-minute walk over small, picturesque bridges to La Fenice, the legendary opera house. You can cross the Rialto Bridge on foot in about 15 minutes.

A recent refurbishment means the Luna boasts the ultimate in posh lodgings, with attention to the finest details- one lovely touch are discreet reading lamps nearly invisible on the classical headboards. Luna’s dual-level Presidential Suite is another major plus, a favored location for private meetings (Nelson Mandela slept here), with a private terrace overlooking the lagoon. This hotel is not young and hip, rather it is classic and timeless. The repeating black motif adds a hint of Venice’s mystery, and the suggestion of Carnivale masques: black Murano chandeliers, black uniforms, black-wrapped amenities, offset by the ubiquitous white rose signature which I came to recognize and appreciate in all the properties visited. Luna is certainly about taste, texture, color and ambience. But Luna is also about service.

I am by nature a demanding customer, testing the limits of my hosts wherever I go. I am relentless, probing, and do not take particularly well to the word No as an answer. But all requests were possible with Luna’s master concierge Antonio Massari, whose elegance, grace, charm and prodigious knowledge were able to meet my every inquiry. The man is uncanny, a mind-reader, an encyclopedia of Venice, and a tireless friend at the ready to go the extra distance to make a guest feel informed, prepared and at home. Case in point: five years earlier I had purchased some Italian handkerchiefs (fazzolette) at an obscure store somewhere in the Venetian back streets I could not remember. Antonio knew. Knew the name (Stylmann), knew the owners, knew the tiny neighborhood where they could be found. I asked for the name of a top-grade Murano glass artisan: Antonio had printouts the next time I passed his desk. I challenge any other concierge in Venice to demonstrate such laser vision or specialist knowledge, delivered with such aplomb, gentility and humanity. He could be the finest concierge I have ever met in all my travels. Hats off to him.

The Luna is home to the 65-seat Canova Restaurant, domain of the celebrated chef Giampaolo Cosimo, whose expert variations on traditional regional fare prove to be another high point of the Luna experience. The menu changes three times a year. To the accompaniment of harp music, under the soft light of an ornate glass chandelier, white rose on the table top, I perused the expanse of fine wines, a list assembled in partnership with Frescobaldi. It was too daunting. The sommelier guided me to an aperitivo of local Prosecco, followed by a bottle of 2003 Russolo Chardonnay, a wine that rivaled its white Burgundian cousins, but with a chalkiness, buttery palate and character of its own. And then began the meal.

Chef Cosimo first sent out an amuse bouche of shrimp and melon, dribbled in balsamic vinegar, adorned with dill sprig. Next he produced an assorted fish appetizer consisting of lobster, schie and polenta (tiny local shrimp from the lagoon, a Venetian standard), a scallop done to the perfect temperature, a dollop of tuna tartar with cream, shrimp in pastry, accompanied by long stem capers and a medley of greens: watercress, parsley, rugola and dill. That would have been enough, but Venice is opulent by nature, and Cosimo is an artist. For the pasta course he soon delivered a risotto with scampi, prepared in a fish broth, a dish of perfect consistency, superior, so good it could have been a dessert. Cosimo could not restrain himself, next proffering sea bass done to perfection, falling off the skin, accompanied by artichoke, zucchini, carrots, and potato. The dessert course became a test of bravery, for only the heroic could choose from three chocolate mousse flavors, Tiramissou, Ricotta cheese cake, pear tart or zabaglione. Should you take a sweet, do not ignore the vin santo

Another piece of good news: the same kitchen supplies Luna’s room service, with some smaller items available, but still an astounding possibility. Mention also needs to be made of breakfast in the Marco Polo room, a theatrical experience in a vaulted space decorated with monumental murals attributed to the school of Tiepolo. It’s impossible to feel anything but privileged when you start your day in such an opulent setting.

The Luna is a top grade luxury property, with every comfort and outstanding service, set in a brilliant location. But it is largely about the ability to time-travel, for Luna’s personality allows you to feel the history and culture of Venice in an immediate, genuine way. I think the word here is authenticity, the actual, traditional, real Venetian experience, which this unique destination exclusively provides. There is no better way to meet La Serenissima than from this wonderful property as your base of operations.

It takes very little time in Florence to understand that the real city lives in the streets. Within the teeming center, navigable by foot, you find exceptional art –known and undiscovered- of the Renaissance. Alternately, you can shop to exhaustion, seek out leatherwork or artisan ceramics from Deruta, peruse the couture stores, or browse the boutique windows for silver and gold jewelry, punctuating it all with unforgettable meals at legendary trattorias. Or simply find an outdoor table and bear witness to the pulsing energy of the city that spills out onto the sidewalks. Hotel Bernini Palace, a supremely comfortable luxury property sits at the epicenter, Piazza della Signoria, housed in a 15th century building lovingly restored to modern grandeur. It’s an amazing neighborhood, a stone’s throw from everything. The property provides an elegant bedroom for the discriminating traveler, in a structure which was once the parliamentary seat of the kingdom. Today, Bernini’s typical Tuscan floors of terracotta tile, its coffered ceilings, rich fabrics and four-poster beds evoke memories of elegant days past. Ceramic heads from the Teatro Verdi have been added to the lobby décor, an interesting and unusual detail at the ceiling line above the reception desk. You quickly realize that the hotel is a welcoming and comfortable refuge after the day’s activities on the cobblestone streets, which can be strenuous.

The Bernini lobby is home to the Brunello lounge bar, a cosmopolitan meeting point, which suits a number of needs: quick snack, aperitif, chill out zone or dining solution. Tucked in among the gold-leafed urns, you’ll find it easy to relax in the graceful ambience where traditional Tuscan furniture blends in with contemporary design. There’s endless people-watching available through the windows. Granted there are many fine restaurants in Florence, but Chef Walter Ferrario has created an international menu, which changes on a monthly basis, bringing together both national and international cuisine concepts. You might sample anything from tapas to local appetizers. Another plus is afternoon tea accompanied by home-baked cakes.

The Bernini’s bedrooms are up to the usual Baglioni standards, with elegant appointments, wi-fi, spacious marble baths, superior amenities. In the area of the hotel where I stayed a light-filled lounge has been created, with comfortable seating, drinks and snacks set out on an ornate tabletop, another oasis from the demanding life outside.

Breakfast in the Sala Parlamento proves to be a unique experience as well. Between 1865 and 1870, The Bernini in fact served as the seat of the parliament of the young Kingdom of Italy, when Florence was capital. Today the elegant chamber’s parquet floors, 30’ ceilings with fresco portraits, wicker furniture rendered in yellow, cream and gold reveals the original style of this room. Your breakfast is arrayed on linen and white china, offset with classic silver, and the white rose centerpiece. It’s a breakfast experience unlike any other, and sets the tone for your day’s activity.

The Corsini Room is available for functions of up to 35 seats. There’s also an exclusive private parking garage, which is a real plus for those touring Tuscany by car.

Florence is mostly about art and shopping, two arduous interests requiring stamina and a calming place to rest. The Bernini is the perfect lodging solution, with its central location, comfort and discretion, operated under the highest standards of service. It’s a superior place for either business or leisure travelers to call home while sampling the delights of this exhausting world capital of Renaissance Art.

What’s in the future for Baglioni? I recently had the opportunity to query Luca Magni, the group’s Senior VP, during a long conversation over a typically extended lunch in Milan. I wondered how the chain had achieved such a high standard, with such a broad reach. After all, these are smaller properties in highly competitive markets. To achieve success incredible sensitivities must be in place company-wide. Magni replied that the group works hard on cross-border understanding, one of the critical keys. To the rest of the world, Italy represents beauty, the joy of life, and the mindset “not to be too worried.” This is not to say every experience needs to be light-hearted, but Baglioni’s corporate culture recognizes that life is there to be savored, and Italians have refined every aspect of living. Baglioni epitomizes this imprint. In order to be sure its ‘cross culture’ program worked, management studied major behavior of each target demographic who come to the properties. Staff were trained to recognize the particular needs of many groups, and how to respond appropriately, an enormously successful outreach that has contributed to the increase in repeat traffic. It was not only a recognition of nationalities which created the unique ambience. Baglioni also instituted a Women Traveler Alone program, tailored to the unique needs of this growing demographic. Special attention is paid to amenities, in-room check in, affordable room service, best seating for those dining alone, preferential room placement near elevators and the all-important staff sensitivity training. To aid the process, Baglioni has two psychologists in the Human Resources area, dedicated to monitoring high level hiring to locate the best-suited people.

I asked Mr. Magni where Baglioni wanted to go with new locations and he revealed that two properties already in the pipeline are Budapest, opening in 2007, a 62-room property with two restaurants, plus a renovated Ottoman-era spa with hammam; and a new construction of only 100 rooms in Dubai’s financial district, slated to open in 2008. The company is now actively looking for New York and Paris locations. It’s a courageous plan, jumping into markets with so many able players already established. But Baglioni brings a singular Italian stile di vita to everything it does, and that should put the fear into any of their worthy competitors.

Carlton Hotel Baglioni

Via Senato, 5

20121 Milano

Phone: 0039 02 77077

Luna Hotel Baglioni

San Marco, 1243

30124 Venezia - Italia
Tel. + 39 041 5289840

Hotel Bernini Palace

Piazza San Firenze, 9

50122 Firenze - Italia
Tel. + 39 055 288621