Photo by Peter Dench
Photos by Peter Dench
As she cruises a Venice canal with 13-year-old Niambh, writer Emma John wonders how to keep her young charge entertained.
On a trip with a young traveler in tow, a writer reflects on her first Venice adventure—and how it changed her life.
This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
The guidebook. That’s what I think of when I think of Venice. Sure, there were canals, palazzos, and pigeons in the Piazza San Marco. There were Titians and Tintorettos looming out of niches in cool, dark churches. There was even an extravagant trip on a gondola. But what I’ll never forget is the guidebook.
It was 1991, and I was 13. My family lived in a large, misshapen cottage in the English county of Hertfordshire. My grandma, who lived with us, was dying, and my parents were tending her through her difficult last months. Offering what help she could, my mum’s best friend, Annie, volunteered to take my sister, Katie, and me abroad for a week, a little respite for us all.
A single woman in her 30s of meticulous taste, Annie had (and still has) a particular love of Italy, an irresistible, almost religious feeling for the place, akin to Michelangelo’s passion for marble, or Garfield’s for lasagna. And so we were dispatched to Venice—along with Kate, another family friend of Annie’s who was my sister’s age—as the charges of an untested parent.
Thanks to her sophistication and style, Annie’s idea of a holiday was as close to ours as Camembert is to string cheese. She revered the Renaissance, basked in the baroque. We liked to eat ice cream. On the first day, she produced J.G. Links’s 1973 Venice for Pleasure and began to read aloud. The history of the doges, the origins of the Carnevale—the words of the guidebook became our soundtrack as we roved through churches and climbed campaniles.
At mealtimes, Annie quizzed us to discover whether we had absorbed the knowledge so generously bestowed upon us. Via these impromptu exams, the guidebook became the dispenser and withholder of pleasures—a scoop of ice cream, instead of fruit; french fries with dinner, instead of spinach. Could we describe the ceremony of La Sensa, in which the Venetians rowed out into the Adriatic in all their pomp and threw a ring into the waves, to honor their “marriage” to the sea? I can, to this day. My unlucky sister, however, ate a lot of spinach.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. For all of us, this was one of the most memorable trips of our lives, a heady cultural hit laced with an intoxicating freedom from normal parental controls, aided by some of the most eccentric chaperoning the city had seen. A twist of luck landed us in a 17th-century palazzo in the heart of Venice. The furniture, all antique, was defended against the arrival of a 13-year-old and two 11-year-olds with not-to-be-removed plastic sheeting, and the three of us slept together in an enormous four-poster bed. One night, as we slipped under the duvet, we heard a singing gondolier. With one mind, we leaped from the bed, threw on our shoes, and, led all the way by Annie, chased the sound down the alleyways of the San Marco district. Rushing onto a bridge, we watched the operatic operator glide beneath us. All four in our pajamas.
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A tall, bob-haired Italian named Paola, who has the key to our apartment in the Rialto district, meets us on the jetty and immediately darts ahead into the busy, narrow streets. I follow her through anonymous alleys and courtyards, trying to keep Niambh in sight at all times.
We spend barely a moment in our rooms, depositing our possessions. Then, keys in hand, return route hazily tracked, we head straight for Piazza San Marco, Venice’s largest square and buzzing tourist center. I remember how huge the place felt on my only previous visit, and how its famous sights loomed above my 13-year-old self: the bell tower, the giant astronomical clock, the quadriga of bronze horses that leap out from the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica, poised to trample the camera-clutching hordes beneath.
I want to relax, and to enjoy the sun on my back, the quiet swoosh of the surf. Instead, I’m worrying.
I have led with my ace: Ca’Macana is rookie-parent heaven. It offers classes in which you decorate your own mask. The teacher doesn’t speak English, so Niambh is forced to practice her Italian: “Oro, per favore,” she whispers, shyly pointing at the gold paint, and immediately blushing a deep vermiglio. When we are finished applying splotches of color to our papier-mâché creations, the owner, Mario, arrives to give us an impromptu talk on the history of Venice.
I had always assumed the masks were merely for costume parties, but Mario explains that, in the 1700s, they were worn six months of the year to allow nobles to live in permanent disguise, permitting them a level of political and social freedom known nowhere else in Italy. “Of course,” says Mario with a twinkle in his eye, the custom “also gave us casinos and Casanova.” As we leave, clutching our elegantly painted masks, I bask in my triumph. We have had an experience that is both fun and educational. The door closes behind us. Niambh turns to me and asks, “What are we doing next?”
Perhaps if I were a real parent, I would have a ready answer for this question. As it is, I take it as a rebuke, a tiny pair of spurs in my psyche, demanding more, and better, action. For the next two days, we visit churches and look at paintings. We eat spaghetti and pizza.
We take so many waterbuses that we start to recognize the commuters, and they us.
On our third morning, we take the vaporetto to Murano, the small, outlying island famed for its glass-blowing industry. As we disembark from the waterbus, we are funneled inside en masse to watch a demonstration at a furnace, where a craftsman manipulates the molten glass on the end of a pole. He nips at the glowing bud with a pair of tongs, and within seconds it cools to reveal a prancing horse.
Watching her delight in these adult establishments, a memory surfaces of how sophisticated the city had felt to me as a 13-year-old.
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Our random adventure takes us through pretty squares lined with olive trees, along an elegant parade of shops selling silk scarves and grown-up perfumes, and past a traghetto operator preparing to ferry customers across the canal in his stripped-down gondola. While I point out sights, Niambh bubbles with information of her own. “Look at that cute dog! I love small dogs. But not big ones. When did you have your ears pierced? I’d love to have my ears pierced but Mum says not till I’m 16. Have you read the Pittacus Lore books? Oh, they’re amazing. Let me tell you what they’re about...”
By evening, I have learned a lot about Niambh, and Pittacus Lore, and she in turn has absorbed a great deal about Venice. She knows which Renaissance painter is buried in the Frari (“Titian!”) and which Doge was executed for treason (“Hold on, I know this one...that guy with the Smurf hat. Faliero?”). She has also learned that Venetians are quite relaxed about having a 13-year-old in their bars, that the word for bar snacks is cicchetti, and that she likes them a great deal. Watching her delight in these adult establishments, a memory surfaces from my previous trip, of how exotic and sophisticated the city had felt to me as a 13-year-old, and how desperate I had felt to be worthy of its grown-up pleasures.
It gives me an idea. After four nights in our little Rialto apartment, I book us into a luxurious palazzo on the Riva degli Schiavoni. This stately waterfront in San Marco, with its unsurpassed view of the lagoon, is the very epicenter of Venetian high society. It is home to the grandest old hotels in the city, including the Danieli, where the historian John Ruskin himself resided. Just a few doors down is the Hotel Metropole. As we arrive in the lobby, the effect is like falling face first into a lush pile of carmine velvet. When the liveried staff brings tea and biscuits, Niambh is smitten. “It’s like being royalty!” she gasps.
She tries to walk up the grand staircase the way a princess might, chin high, before tripping and cascading into giggles. The place is part museum, each floor displaying one of the eccentric private collections of the family that owns the hotel—corkscrews on the ground floor, fans on the next one up. The top floor holds the coup de grâce: Europe’s most significant private collection of church crucifixes. Happily, our room is on the first floor.
“Let’s go see Piazza San Marco again!” Niambh insists, and this time, full of optimism, we join the line for the famous Basilica. It takes us half an hour to reach the front. We are within spitting distance of the vast cathedral door when a marshal shakes his head. Niambh’s skirt is too short. “I can fix it!” she whispers to me, subtly wiggling her hem down to her knees. And so it comes to pass that my funny, charming companion shuffles around the aisles of Venice’s most famous and holy edifice, her hands clamped to her hips to prevent her skirt from falling down.
Our final evening comes round too soon. We dine in high style at the hotel, Niambh dressed for the occasion in an elegant silk jumpsuit. Then we join the evening crowd milling around the bandstands in the square. A violin, piano, double bass, and accordion are playing the theme to A Fistful of Dollars. Someone standing near us points to the bell tower and tells her friend, “That place fell down in 1901, you know.” “Nineteen-oh-two,” Niambh whispers in my ear. A couple emerges from a side street, fists clutched around enormous waffle cones, a rainbow spectrum of ice cream piled dangerously high on top. It looks delicious. “We have to have that ice cream,” I tell Niambh. She nods and darts toward the alley. “Wherever you are, no matter how far, we will find you!” she growls, in the style of a movie trailer. In the twilight, her jumpsuit looks like a pair of pajamas. She reminds me of a little girl who once chased a gondolier.
The following morning, I have a final surprise to spring. Since the hotel has a jetty, it feels almost rude not to use it, so I order a ruinously expensive water taxi and we depart from Venice in the most dramatically glamorous way possible—by speedboat. As we bump along the lagoon, our hair tangling, I ask Niambh what her favorite part of the trip has been.
“I loved the walking around,” she said cheerfully. “Wandering the streets without a plan, discovering things. That was a lot of fun.” I spluttered. “What do you mean? You were always asking me for the plan!”
“Oh yeah,” she replied nonchalantly. “I do that. I don’t know why.” She giggled. “It really annoys my mum.”
The buildings recede, their baroque lines blurring in the distance. Venice is becoming once more a mirage, a myth, Ruskin’s jewel of the Adriatic.
“So,” asks Niambh. “Where are we going next?”
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