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Lapping up the water music

Published 30 October 1994
Style Magazine
70th article

Canal vision: Michael Winner enjoys a little caffe society in the most romantic place on earth

As it's my birthday today (no presents, please), I am thinking of orchestras. They used to be everywhere when I was younger. A pianist and single violinist played in the teashop in Letchworth, just to the left of the mural of a stone balcony wall with flower gardens beyond. At the Criterion in Piccadilly, I remember at least eight men in evening dress, with a conductor, playing at lunchtime. Now the only regular place I visit with musicians is Claridge's.

Somewhere I visit less regularly, which has musicians galore, is Venice. In the Piazzetta, the bit you walk through to get to St Mark's, there's the Gran Caffe Chioggia, which advertises hot dogs and boasts a rather jazzy trombonist with a pianist and double-bass player, all too modern for my liking. But pass through into St Mark's itself, always a place of magic, and you are met with triple-stereophonic orchestras from three caffes the Florian, the Quadri and the Lavena which vie to attract passers-by on to the display of chairs and tables that face them.

My favourite has always been the Florian, which boasts, for most of the day and night at least, six musicians playing their hearts out with a selection of light classical and show tunes. Vanessa thought her vegetarian club sandwich was very good, my regular one was delicate and not bad, the wine was disgusting. But the service is exemplary, and to sit with a coffee or a citron presse, listen to the music and look at the greatest architecture in the world is still a wonder. At night they floodlight the cathedral, the campanile (bell tower to you) and the two sides of the square, hung with lanterns, and called the Procuratie Vecchie and the Procuratie Nuove, dating back to the 15th century.

If it rains, the orchestra turns to face inside the cloistered archway and the restaurant beyond. You can sit in the glass-painted Caffe Florian and imagine you are in the 18th century when it was built, and even for a total realist like me it is the most romantic place ever. Guardi, Canova, Byron and Proust sat in the Florian while the Quadri opposite boasts the patronage of Alexandre Dumas and Wagner. There the band is dressed in rather bilious green and puts on more of a music-hall act. The clarinettist holds a note forever and other musicians stare and mime surprise. The violinist twirls his violin before striking it dramatically with the bow to start the session. They get the crowd clapping with them in jolly, seaside fashion. Inside, paintings by Ponga of 18th-century Venetian life are modelled on those done in the Florian. The Lavena seems to have a musician or so less than the others and the caffe itself is fronted with ice-cream cones and Venetian chandeliers. They speak of Franz Liszt and Rostropovich as their coffee-drinkers. At night, individually lit little stalls appear selling paintings and handbags and various twaddle, but quite like you see in Canaletto or Guardi paintings of centuries gone by.

It has been raining and a cold wind now runs through the square. The white tables are tipped up, most of the chairs are empty. It is 11 o'clock and the band turns, optimistically, from playing to inside to outside. A couple waltz through the puddles to Lehar's The Merry Widow. I have stayed in Venice at Christmas when nobody else did (sadly it's now fashionable); then, mist swirled along the canals and the lights spilled from church doors into the alleyways as the choir sang. It really is the best place.

From best to far from best: I really can't believe the letter from a lady in Hampstead defending the thick dust in the lobby of the Sheraton Park Tower hotel. Clean in London, she writes, and an hour or two later the surface will again be covered in dust. What absolute nonsense! My area of Kensington is one of the most polluted in the capital. I got up one morning and ran my hands over the bedside tables and the desk which had been dusted the previous morning. Clean as anything! I tried my living room. No dust at all. Mr Derek Picot, the general manager of what in my humble view is London's shoddiest hotel, should put everybody on cleaning-attack. After all, the spick-and-span nearby Halkin just won the Ronay Award for best hotel of the year. So cleanliness is somewhere near Godliness after all.