On one of Ben’s days off we set out early and board a vaporetto for Murano Island across the lagoon. For some reason I distinctly remember Pacific Fair in Surfers Paradise when I was five, seeing a glass blower at work, creating little animals and lace baskets from canes of colour with the blue flame of his torch. Later, at art-college I studied the history of Murano, the world capital of glass for centuries. A dream come true we are finally here on the island of elaborate hand-blown chandeliers, vases and jewellery.
Side stepping the tourists being hauled into set-up furnace excursions we wander down a deserted alley alone and peer into the back of workshops where men sweat profusely in the scorching heat emitting from numerous furnaces. Paloma peers in mesmerised by the glowing molten glass dripping like honey from the end of sticks. A strange synchronicity occurs as we encounter the world famous Venini glass manufacturers we had only seen the night before featured in James Bond’s ‘Moonraker’, a film with a memorable motorized gondola chase through the canals of Venice. We recognise it as soon as we walk in to the gorgeous white showroom, it hasn’t changed since the 1960’s. We are greeted by the beautiful Katerina who takes us on a private tour to see the production of their most famous dual-coloured vase in front of our eyes. Today, as most days in Venice have been, it is sweltering which makes it unbearable inside the dark and cavernous workshop where the furnaces are set at their usual temperature of 1600 degrees. Two huge men work fast and in synch, assured of their next move in a process where the smallest mistake can mean a wasted half hour or, worse, a severe burn. Sweating profusely we can see now why they wear sweatbands on their heads and wrists, as there is no time to stop and wipe the brow. It’s a tango of thick arms, thin metal rods, glistening spinning coloured glass and perfect timing from years and years of practice. They gently dip the spinning orb into the burning furnace, occasionally bringing the other end to their mouths and giving a soft puffed of air and the globe grows a little and is measured with a flick of rusty calipers. Two pieces are being made simultaneously, side by side, the four men gather together at the precise moment and everything stops – the sweating, the spinning the blowing. The two pieces are joined, a thin edge to the other thin edge. Ben is fascinated by the delicate grace these strong giants perform with. The main artisan spins the almost completed vase severing it from its metal friend with a flourish. It drops into the waiting glove of a new artisan ready to take it to the ‘cold’ workstation where it will be polished and checked for any irregularities. Each piece is handled by at least ten people before it leaves the workshop. After many questions are answered and we are happy with the tour, Katerina procures a little bag of sparkling Venini Murano glass droplets for Paloma as a gift. We wish we could afford a memento ourselves, but its high-end glass and we leave with memories of this beautiful work alone.
Further across the lagoon lies Burano. This quaint island is as colourful as the glass droplets given by Venini. Striped awnings flutter over doorways, their colours contrasting or complimenting the painted houses. Candy pink, canary yellow, Sky Blue, Tangerine, Ultra Violet, Emerald Green, their colours are reflected rainbow-like in the canals. Window boxes of flowers sway gaily in the breeze. Nonnas with curlers in and their teeth out peer from their windows waiting for the midday heat to abate.
The story goes that the fishermen of Burano were illiterate and the houses and streets had no names or numbers, so they painted them different colours instead to denote who lived in what house. ‘Oh mate I live in the Fairy Floss pink one with the green shutters. Drop by to look at my geraniums!’ Molto cool!
As we sit in a little taverna out of the sun and lunch on delicious foccacia and limencello, peeping through the curtains at the colours mixing and swirl on the waters of the canal, we see several rough workmen come stomping in, dusty and sweaty in their singlets and shorts. Each one stands near the bar sipping red wine, the glasses miniature in their coarse hands. ‘Few blokes like that would be sipping red wine at the pub counter in Sydney,’ says Ben, impressed again. ‘This is my kinda place.’
Venice calls me into her streets daily and I have secretly given my self an assignment. On every door there are the painted Venetian house numbers in red and white, from one to six thousand and something.
After finding my sisters’ birthday years, I make it my mission to find number one! Yes, its not easy, there’s no rhyme or reason behind numbering here. I discover new areas, gorgeous locales with lots of tiny canals and bridges overlapping them selves into the distance. I watch a glassblower making perfect round beads for a necklace, and stop in a kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto for lunch. The ‘Ghetto’ in Venice is actually where the word originated. It means ‘foundry’ in Venetian and it was here in the Venetian foundry that they were given a place to live in the in 1516. The intention wasn’t to persecute Jews per se: The Venetian Republic segregated its Jews to placate the Roman Catholic Church, which had already forced the expulsion of Jews from much of Western Europe. Feeling like I have been walking in circles for hours I suddenly notice the numbers on the houses are diminishing, 12, 11, 10, 9… and I follow them until, astonishingly, I find myself standing outside number one! It is tucked away in a little corner near the bridge we cross all the time leading into our favourite campo St Margherita! Ben can’t believe my sleuth, not even the locals we have met know, or even care, where number one is.
As a rewarded for finding number one, Ben takes me out to a most delicious dinner at La Zucca, a favourite restaurant of our friends Michael and Alice. The modern Italian/Asian cuisine is amazing, as is the La Zucca Flan, pureed pumpkin cinnamon and nutmeg baked and served like a pie. Bravissima! I wish Marco and Jillian were here to sample the delights. On this magical night we are seated next to a little bridge canal side. Watching the gondolas slink under the bridge silently then to have the air punctuated by a loud ‘Ooooiii! Oi! Oi!’ I’m sure this is where the ‘Oi’ originated from, stolen by Aussies for their dumb neo-patriotism. It’s the signal used by Gondoliers use to alert others on the water that they are rounding a bend or coming up behind. We meet a lovely couple from New York who invite us to stay with them on Long Island, and then a gorgeous Parisian pair who are in the film industry and on their tenth wedding anniversary weekend. Paloma keeps herself entertained playing with one of the green serviettes. The next day I notice the contents of her nappy is dark green. She never leaves a napkin alone from then on and we realize she has quite taken to this new napkin diet of hers.
Six months old and I have been randomly feeding Paloma banana and apple, she is curious, but hardly into it. One evening, Ben comes home with a little seat that clips onto the table! Freeedom! She sits in it surrounded by her favourite toys – toilet rolls, metal bowls and paper bags. My hands are free and we now can have dinner with out it being thrown all over the floor. Feeding Paloma like this is hilarious and it seems to me this must be the first time a baby learns independence and the ability to turn her head, saying ‘NO mum, shove your banana OK!’ The naughty little look she gives me before sealing her lips and turning her head at the same time I am spooning something in could be frustrating if it weren’t so funny. I laugh hysterically, probably the opposite of what I really should do, and it encourages her more. But we are having fun, that’s most important.
Lodovico, boss of the Venetian ambulance service, takes us for gelato one morning. No breakfast today! Paloma causes a stir in her new sunglasses, wanting to be like the little lady she is. It’s the perfect way to survive the steamy summer in La Serenissima.