Michael and Geraldine with Maurizio Saccani at the Cipriani in Venice (Giampaolo Ottazzi)
The finest group of hotels in Europe is the Orient-Express's Italian properties. There's the Villa San Michele in an old monastery just outside Florence, the Splendido in Portofino overlooking the stunning little bay, the Caruso on a hilltop in Ravello and the recently added hotels in Sicily, the Villa Sant'Andrea and the Grand Hotel Timeo. These are run by Maurizio Saccani, the elegant vice-president of Orient-Express Italy.
The jewel in the crown of this collection is the Cipriani in Venice, a hotel surrounded by luxurious gardens and with an enormous swimming pool. I've been going there for more than 40 years.
On my recent visit, while it remains great, things were a bit odd. Geraldine noticed that the salad bar by the lagoon seemed lifeless. Whereas normally it offers home-made mayonnaise and salsa rosa, these were missing. I asked Giampaolo Ottazzi, the general manager, why. His response was: "They must have forgotten."
"I've been here six days. They can't forget for six days," I reasoned.
Thereafter the sauces sometimes appeared, sometimes did not. I phoned Carlo Lazzeri, the superb food and beverage manager of the Cipriani's sister hotel, the Splendido. "We have them out every day," he confirmed.
"How many jams do you provide on the breakfast tray?" I asked.
"Six," said Carlo. The Cipriani offered three.
When I told Mr Ottazzi, he again looked confused. If I pointed out anything, he said: "I'll look into it." He's the general manager. It's his job to know what's going on and why. Giampaolo is very charming and solicitous, even though his two-tone shoes are a bit much.
Room service at the Orient-Express hotels has always been near perfect. This time, when I ordered breakfast, I was asked to hold. Another Italian staff member came on. "He didn't understand your order," he said, referring to the man who'd just taken it. I went through it all again slowly and carefully.
Half an hour later a lady rang. "The people you spoke to didn't understand your order," she said. So I went through it all again. Of the 12 breakfast orders in a two-week stay, at most two came in correctly. I told Mr Ottazzi; got the usual answer: "I'll look into it."
In general the food was very good, nothing better than the amazing cocktails they offer. I had them without alcohol for reasons I won't go into.
The liver veneziana was perfect, the green tagliolini with ham and cheese memorable.
Most memorable was when I ordered, at the poolside, roast chicken. The Cipriani has a special chef for its pool restaurants. Roberto Gatto ("have microwave, will travel") produced the worst main course I've ever been served. Dried-up, over-microwaved slabs of chicken, totally inedible. How dare a grand hotel come up with a fiasco like that?
Most of the staff were excellent. Roberto Senigaglia, who greets people from the boats, is exemplary - management material if ever I saw it. The concierge who meets me at the airport, Maurizio Caracciolo, is also extraordinarily good. The hotel has six restaurants. It's still superb, but at the moment the staff are deciding what and when to perform. The place appears to be run by a headless chicken. Maurizio Saccani should sort this out.
In my quest to find sweets as they used to be, a reader suggested I try Percy Pig from Marks & Spencer. Made in Germany, horrible.
Another reader asked what I thought of Skittles. They turned up at Blackbushe airport in a dispenser. Put in £1 and you release a packet of Skittles. They did taste of fruit, looked like Smarties but were chewy. Quite good.
On the private jet was a jar of Dormen jelly beans. "Uniquely prepared with care and attention to create a scrumptiously delicious taste." Best so far, but nowhere near as good as what used to be on display in big glass jars in old-fashioned shops.
From Joanna Kanska of London:
Hymie lies on a beach surrounded by people on sun loungers. He picks up a mobile phone.
A voice says: "Darling, I've been your mistress for 20 years. I've always loved you. I’ve just seen a Mercedes I really need: it's only £35,000."
Hymie says: "You get it, my dear."
The girl continues: "And there’s a mink coat for sale, reduced. It's only £25,000. I've wanted a mink coat all my life."
Hymie says: "You will have one. Buy it as a present from me."
The girl goes on: "And you always said you'd find me somewhere to live. There's a divine house in Hampstead, £7m."
Hymie says: "You want a house, darling, you buy the house. It's fine with me."
The girl says: "You're so wonderful, kiss, kiss, kiss," and hangs up.
Hymie holds up the mobile phone and shouts out: "Whose mobile is this?"
I thought the hunchback of Notre Dame resided in Paris, but he was apparently at the Goring in Belgravia last week with his lady, Dame Geraldine. Of course the person you depicted may have been his elder brother - the lunchpack of Notre Dame.
Roland Masset, Surrey
What a lovely photo last week and what a superb experience. One of the two top hotels in London, wonderful food, two elegant members of the Goring's management and the lovely Geraldine. But who was the escapee wearing a jacket over his nightshirt muscling in on the action? Any more of this and the hotel will have to call security.
Dennis Pallis, Kent
You admiringly described the twice-baked goat's cheese souffle at the Goring. What a contrast with the half-baked old goat in the photograph.
Ian Lineker, Worcestershire
My goodness, Michael, in last week's photo you look as though the only thing you would be capable of eating would be a bowl of Complan. Try Haribo Kiddies' Super Mix - more flavour, softer for chewing.
Liz Maguire, Leeds
I thought you appeared quite gaunt in your photo with Geraldine at the Goring. Fifty Shades of Grey spring to mind.
Peter Greeson, Berkshire