Lingering on the iconic Rialto Bridge at dusk, we gaze out over the Grand Canal as the sky turns rose-pink. Lights from the opulent Renaissance palaces dance on the water and a gondolier, silhouetted against the rising full moon, silently passes below us. Oblivious to the throngs of passing tour groups and jostling photographers, we kiss.
“Oh yuck!” “Gross!” “Do you have to?” interrupt our children.
I give my husband an I-told-you-so-look. It had been his idea to come to Venice. I was keen of course, but not now when our children are still young. And with us.
I had been to Venice once before, as a backpacker with limited funds. I stayed in the Youth Hostel miles out of town. It had bunk beds, day time lock-out and allocated chores. I imagined the next time would be a more glamorous experience. Like when my parents came here to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday and stayed in a luxury suite overlooking the Grand Canal. Instead I have returned, still with a backpack, still with limited funds and now with four children.
Our accommodation, however, does have proper beds and while it may not have water views, it is centrally located. “Your apartment is right here near the ‘Titty’ Bridge,” explains our land lady Lorenza who is leading us through the labyrinthine streets to the Ponte de la Tette or ‘Breast Bridge’. We learn that the bridge is so named from the prostitutes who resided here back in the 15th century and would stand at the windows, topless, to encourage business. Seven hundred years later the ladies are long gone and our apartment is homely and welcoming with two spacious bedrooms and a pretty garden courtyard.
Having followed Lorenza here blindly she now marks us out what she calls a “Map of Gold”, adding suggestions on where to eat and what to visit. We venture out for dinner but in no time are completely disoriented. As we crowd around the map under the light of a lamppost, vainly turning it in every direction, a debonair gentleman appears at my shoulder. Suavely dressed in black overcoat and fedora hat, he asks in a deep, rich voice: “Are you lost?” Sighing with relief we admit that we are, hopelessly. “Fantastic!” he responds and disappears into the mist, chortling heartily as he goes.
With tummies now growling, we wander aimlessly until a more sympathetic local comes to our rescue and wordlessly leads us in what seems like circles to the restaurant door. Lorenza’s suggestion turns out to be worth the search and our moods quickly brighten as we peruse the menu. We adults order the local specialty of spaghetti al nero de sepia or pasta in black squid ink but the kids are unadventurous. Twelve year old Julia gags at the sight of our black, slimy meal and sticks to lasagna; Claudia, 6, orders spaghetti bolognaise and the boys discover Calzone pizza and vow to never eat anything else, ever again.
We decide to make the rule that everyone has to try at least one new food each day. Claudia takes this to mean a different flavour of gelato daily but the others are more daring. We buy unidentifiable and still squirming creatures at the 700 year old Rialto fish market and cook up a feast in our apartment kitchen; we taste salamis, nougat and cheeses of all shapes and colours and eat metre long pizza with no ham or pineapple. Julia even tries some spaghetti al nero seppia and manages to keep it down and it is good to see all those drama classes have paid off when she has a sip of my espresso.
In between meals and gelato stops, we mix touring museums and galleries with ice skating, shopping, climbing clock towers, feeding pigeons and of course riding a gondola, complete with singing gondolier. We are lost so many times we learn to embrace it. It is during one of our stray meanderings that we happen upon a glass blower in a tiny shop front. He has the children mesmerized as coloured straws are transformed into miniature monkeys, dolphins, penguins and elephants. “How do you do that?” they ask amazed. “I have been practicing for 32 years,” he replies nonchalantly.
Leaving the kids entertained, my husband and I sneak off for a drink and pretend we are on honeymoon. It is not long before they sniff us out however and excitedly display their pocket money purchases. Their enthusiasm for this city is contagious and I have to admit coming here with them has been a surprisingly wonderful experience. And unlike my Dad, I haven’t had to wait until I’m 80. We give up on the romantic drink and go in search of today’s gelato flavour.