Twenty-five some years ago my first husband William and I found ourselves in Venice for a long day of sightseeing. We’d come to Italy–traveling from our military duty station in Germany– to visit my mother who was living in Udine (about an hours’ train ride from Venice) at the time.
She had, uncharacteristically, agreed to watch our young son for the day while we spent a the day in Venice.
I hadn’t told my mother but one of the places that I just HAD to visit while in Venice was Harry’s Bar. This is the “watering hole” made famous by the frequent visits by Hemingway along with a cast of other famous American celebrities…as well as international stars, writers, musicians and artists from all over, and even businessmen (Aristotle Onassis, just to name one).
I did not know where it was located in Venice but I reasoned with my rudimentary Italian skills I would be able to find it. Husband was a willing participant so off on the adventure we were….
Now, here’s the thing. I had no information whatsoever about Harry’s Bar other than it was a place Hemingway use to hang out at. I pictured it as a hole-in-the-wall type establishment in some dark alleyway in Venice. William and I must have walked miles in circles looking for it and in fact, we walked right past it several times. After asking several passers-by, we finally were directed to the spot. It had no glaring signage (which is why we missed it) and its exterior was nothing that I had pictured it would be. I can remember vividly standing outside of the entrance to Harry’s Bar excited about the prospect of going in. I’m almost ashamed to say that we were dressed as typical American tourists (maybe even worse than the typical tourist!). With a brown day pack on my back, I had on an aqua blue-colored track suit (popular in the 80’s) and white sneakers. William wasn’t dressed any nattier; he had on jeans and a t-shirt. Again, in my defense, I expected that Harry’s Bar wouldn’t be an elegant kind of place (obviously, I could not have been more wrong!)
Curiously enough, we did not see a menu posted outside of the Bar/restaurant. This should have been our first clue….and when we stepped inside in less than a nano second we realized that we were definitely not dressed appropriately for the establishment. We did receive a cursory up-and-down-the-body scan from the maitre’d…I’m sure I detected a slight hint of disdain for the “ugly American tourist (or maybe that was just my ego). Or, I reasoned…maybe we can give the impression we are impossibly rich and eccentric and need not worry about silly attire particularly since we just stepped off the leer jet. Hmm….dream on….
Still, I was so psyched about being in Harry’s Bar that I just did not want to leave. “William…we can just have a little something for lunch and sit in a corner and no one will care.”
On a bar stool at the bar I immediately recognized an American soap opera actress that played on General Hospital. “Oh my God,” I whispered to William, “That’s Jacklyn Zeman! She plays Bobbie Spencer on General Hospital. She was dressed to the nines and clearly had been doing some major shopping with a stack of shopping bags around her.
We were seated at a lovely table with a crisply starched white tablecloth and beautiful silverware. An impossibly handsome Italian waiter handed William a menu, and one to me as well. I’ll never forget the look on William’s face when he opened that menu. He definitely turned a lighter shade of pale! What’s wrong I asked? Well it seems that the lunch menu prices were rather exorbitant….I had no idea how much because my menu did not reflect prices! I’d never been to a restaurant where the gentleman was given the price menu while the lady received one without prices. Oh my….
Our lunch of tuna salad, terrific bread, salami and wine was over $50….a piece! Remember, this is 1985. Suffice it to say that any hopes of shopping for Venetian masks or other nicknacks was out of the question. Bummer. I won’t deny that it was difficult to truly enjoy the lunch with silly abandon knowing that we were blowing money we really didn’t have on tuna salad and wine AND we’d be leaving Venice with nothing in hand to show for our day trip. And, when we arrived back in Udine later than day I told my mother we had dined at Harry’s Bar and I had had no idea it was such an expensive place. Having lived there during the war years, all she had to say was “You idiot…Only rich Americans go to Harry’s Bar!”
But hey, to this day I can say that I ate in Harry’s Bar! And now, in light of the current economic crisis in Italy and most everywhere else on the planet, it is a particularly cherished memory.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, It looks like the iconic bar which opened in 1931 will be closing its doors, unless of course someone comes up with money. Harry’s Bar is figuratively underwater in that beautiful venetian lagoon…up to its bar stools in debt. It hasn’t helped that patronage by Americans has plummeted; American travel to Venice has decreased significantly since 2006 because of the bad economy and those that do travel there (like I did in 2008) are spending much less.
I hope that Harry’s Bar can recover. Its the home of the famous Prosecco and peach cocktail,The Bellini, and delicious carpaccio (thin slices of raw beef or fish with a delectable sauce)! For now the bar’s future is uncertain. And yet, the owner Arrigo Cipriani, now 80 years old, seems to be at peace with the prospect and in typical Italian fashion he is taking the dismal situation in stride.
Hmm….wonder what my mother would say?