Eye Candy Canals

Beautiful women are everywhere, in every country in every city. Men are lucky – they can get their fix any day. Through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, I was on a diet, but now in Italy, I can feast my eyes on the tutti bella donna and bello ragazzo. Walking a few steps behind Ben, something I learnt from him, I happily get my fix of eye candy as it comes into my field of vision. Sometimes I get caught out, but then we get onto mutual territory and even collaborate. ‘Red head at three o’clock Ben! Bellissimo!’

Bridge crossing is such a pleasure after noon, despite the tourists, and this is where the gorgeous gondoliers sit, atop the marble columns, touting for business. Broad-chested, in striped t-shirts, black pants with cumberbuns and broad-brimmed straw boaters. These boys run the waterways of Venice. They own them and even vaporettos seem to let them pass. They monopolise the canals in their beautiful painted, silver-tipped gondolas resplendent in their damask cushionery. Wherever I walk, gondoliers with their naughty eyes peek out at you from under their boaters awaiting your patronage.

When I was pregnant with Paloma I came across the autobiography of Peggy Guggenheim at Rozelle markets. She was the niece of Mr. NYC Guggenheim and lived a notorious life with crazy tales of adventure and the crossing of countries during war, somehow keeping her modern art collection hidden and intact and finally installed in Venice in the 1950’s. A true bohemian, she pioneered late modern art here, bringing Jackson Pollock to the fore and showing the kaleidoscopic wonders of Kandinsky. Her gallery is now installed in the Palazzo Lione, which she lived in surrounded by all this art, right on the Grande Canale of Venice in the art district of Dorsoduro. This is one of my favourite areas as it is filled with galleries, bookshops, antiques shops and slim canals and tiny green campos in which to contemplate life. So it was a highlight to see the collection, her famous bed-head forged by my favourite artist Alexander Calder, along with the Picassos and Pollocks. The garden is a paradise full of flowers and enormous trees, a rare sight in Venice. We loved it so much, Paloma and I even took daddy back there for second helpings.

Counting down our days in Venice now, my heart is breaking at the thought of leaving. Having traipsed the calles for the last month I feel I am a part of her living and breathing life. I am even getting a hello from the local barista, the weasel-faced gondolier on the bridge and a ‘complimentare’ for Paloma from a lady in the street I keep passing! Its great to feel, even for a moment, like a local.

The night is warm, the dusk light is bathing Venice in velvet pinks and purples, and we are being rowed along the Grand Canal by our very own gondolier. ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ he pushes a vaporetto one hundred times his size out of the way. ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ we pass six gondolers in a row, their rapt audience being serenaded by their gondoliers who sing ‘Volare’ in a chorus. Magnifico! ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ we pass a couple kissing and canoodling, the girl holds out her wedding finger newly bedazzled with a diamond ring ‘Congratulations!’ ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ I yell, take us to the backstreets Mister Gondolier!

Amazed, we watch from below as our gondola glides silently through the waters of La Serenissima, under the bridges we have crossed countless times on foot, the campos in which we have sat and sipped our spritz in the sunshine, and around corners where we too have kissed.  We feel so grateful for this experience having been able to fully immerse ourselves in Venetian life and culture. How we love recognizing our favourite places from the waters edge! ‘Heya!!’ our reverie is broken by a thick American drawl from a bridge above, ‘She’s like, the most adorable baby in the whole world!’ Grazie Americano! Arrivederci!

It’s a beach day! Paloma and I are cooled down by the splashing water as we sit at the prow of the vaporetto, headed for Lido, what Venitians call a beach. Families chip in annually to own one of the cute wooden huts with striped roof and a deck chair or two on the black sand by the waters edge. It’s not Bronte but I can dig this summer vibe even so. The water is as warm as a bath, but the feeling of floating, releases all my tensions as I am enveloped by the loving arms of Neptune.

Ben is stationed at the Lido ambulance helicopter base this week and we are here to visit him. The man’s a genius and has organized us a trip over Venice! I am so excited as I have never been in a helicopter. The little yellow mosquito takes us high up over the paddock and whooshes into the sky, like a roller coaster ride, thrilling! I am loving it and ask Ben if we can have one of our own!

Down below the terracotta roofs reveal the snaking turquoise backwards ‘S’ of the Canal Grande, the calles are a child’s drawing of a maze. Because the city is so fragile we aren’t allowed to fly over it but our pilot takes us close enough to see the Doges Palace, the spires of St. Marco and the bell tower. The Rialto Bridge looks like a toy and Venice is a sandy dot on the water. What a sight! Bravissimo!

Salute to Venezia! We sit at the pizzeria on the Fondamente and watch the tall ships and cruise liners pass remembering our own journey here just over a month ago. The last supper is delicious and one we shall never forget. On our final day Venice we decided to turn up the heat. I am racing round the apartment in undies and singlet with Paloma who is going through a bit of separation anxiety and is stuck to me in the ergo, cleaning from top to bottom and packing the bags with the other hand. Ben is out in the sunshine rushing to film his last shots of our beloved city for his documentary.

‘Kass! We have to go!’ Per usual we are running late for the train. Somehow we can never time out departures well and dream about those who saunter up to their cabins rather than race like we do, red faced with seconds to spare, as we do again today. The vaporetto seems to be taking forever, our luggage is taking up half the deck and we are squished in the corner by a group of American Catholics on a tour of Italy’s number one Pope stops. Thank goodness we have our tickets already as we bolt for the train, pile our bags into our cabin just as we hear the conductor blow his whistle. I’m dripping with sweat and I can’t believe I showered half an hour ago. Glued to the window we watch our beloved city of Venice shrink into the distance, our memories filled with happiness as our train heads to Paris.

 

La Dolce Vita

First impressions of a place really do last and they are a wonderful thing in retrospect. Having lived in this marvelous city for ten days already I have to remind myself not to take for granted the majesty and delights Venice has to offer. It’s probably the same for Sydney-siders who cross the harbour bridge each day and see the sparkling waters and opera house without being conscious of it’s beauty. The same could be said for those who live amongst breathtaking nature. Perhaps being in awe of other places that are so normal to those who live there can remind us to stop more often and appreciate the uniqueness of where we ourselves live, to see it with fresh eyes and get lost in the wonder of it again.

Crossing the little bridges, some made of stone, others iron or marble, we cross the many canals of tourmaline waters, gasping at the architecture confronting us at each turn, this city where the streets are water. Different campos, or squares, are fringed with apartments painted in tumeric, ox-blood and caramel hues and adorned with shuttered French doors, window-boxes filled with purple, pink and red flowers spilling over wrought-iron balconies and our favourite Moorish peaked windows. The green Venetian blinds mirror the colour of the waters and you can now understand why they are so typical to Venice as sometimes the distance between your window and that of your neighbour is a mere thirty centimeters, so narrow are the calles.

Our breakfast usually consists of buttery brioche and and Illy coffee at the table in our sunny apartment. As Ben has started working we leave with him early in the morning and see the secret Venice in the hours before those tourists are unleashed. We feel like locals now as we navigate the calles, sometimes without the aide of a map, winding our way around and to the L’Ospidale where we wave daddy off in his fluro orange get-up as he awaits the drama of Venice to unfold each day. Occasionally we stop at the old Rosa Salva for a coffee and a naughty pastry as we sit on the huge campo marveling at our surroundings.

Paloma, not content to hang around the apartment demands we leave whenever she is awake. And each day the adventure through those calles, the alleyways of Venice, are like getting lost in a giant maze of beautiful walls. Some calles are so narrow we have to press ourselves up against the wall to let others pass. Even these walls fascinate me, bulging as they do from years of living and rising tides. Ancient rendering is peeled back revealing the old brick structure and layers of time. Once you have been in Venice for a while you are struck by how very different the lifestyle here really is, for so many reasons. The local population is only about 60,000 so it’s no surprise to see people stop and greet each other in the street, as if this grand city, once the gateway to Europe, is really just a country town. Italians are well known the world over for their style but I have to say the Venetians are the most stylish and best dressed I have ever seen, the cherry on top of the fashion cake, and locals can be easily distinguished from the American tourists. Ben and I stop in the street, scrutinizing them as they pass. ‘Did you see those two blokes in matching pastel orange and lemon gelato-coloured shirts with white chinos? They must be in their ‘50’s? You’d never see men that age in Sydney wearing that with such panache!’ Ben is shocked and impressed with the freedom of expression men have in Venice, how well groomed and stylish they are. Men doing the same in most parts of Sydney still risk being labeled gay or weird, such a shame and so backward. I too keep a look out the corner of my eye. Just yesterday an 80 year old lady in front of me in the super-mercato had on a bright violet 1930’s drop-waist dress with bright ruby-red glasses frames and matching red shoes, sparkly glitter belt and massive glass bead necklace. Amazing! I love this kind of OTT, especially in a grandma. It’s like they all shop at Marni and I wish I could stop them and take photos.

Venice is built over a lagoon and the shallow canals provide the roads leading in and out and around the city. There are no road taxis, cars, trucks, vespas or even bicycles. In the early morning before the calles get packed with tour groups meandering annoyingly everywhere, it is possible to see the locals out, chatting away, men pulling carts laden with goods up and down the stairs over the bridges, delivering necessaties to the shops and local businesses, garbage boats mooring on the main canals with their huge crane pincers lifting Venice’s rubbish into their hulls and whisking it away. After the morning rush of deliveries is over the Gondolas come out and from our apartment up high we can hear the sloshing of the oars as they glide past our window with their cargo of tourists. We hear the loud drawl of American voices echoing perpetually with profound surprise at everything they see, as if shocked that anywhere would be more beautiful than home. In the narrow canals, only few people can own a boat in Venice, as ‘parking’ is a problem and occasionally you can hear one put-put past. You can actually hire a taxi, for 50 euro that is, a trip that is always short and as with so many other things, a total rip off. But they are gorgeous boats to admire, their lacquered blonde-wood and white leather interior reminiscent of the glamorous French Riviera boats than Venice taxis.

No matter what you need or where you need to go, you do it on foot. After consulting our map before we set off, thinking it will take ages to get from one place to another, we are often surprised at how small Venice really is. Probably no bigger than Surry Hills I suppose, from Cleveland St to William St, College St to South Dowling.

Packing Paloma in the ever faithful ergo, as the stroller gathers dust under the bed, I pick a Museum, Church or Gallery and we set off for the day, getting lost in the backstreets, stopping for a Macchiato at the bar or the Venetian lunch standard, tramezzino sandwich along the way.

Venice is a city of churches, and as we walk around I have one finger in Paloma’s ear most of the time when she is asleep on account of all the clanging going on, those big beautiful bells resounding at random, regardless of it being the hour or half past it, they seem to ring at any time they like. One hot and balmy night as we steal through the streets we are drawn into a church by the angelic voices of a rehearsing choir. Boys and girls are singing in this cavernous and ancient place and the sound fills our body with holy euphoria. The domes are so high that, although we can hear the organ it is concealed somewhere behind tones of marble. Blood red Murano glass orbs hang from the ceiling ornately shrouded in filigree gold cages. Huge marble sculptures depicting Christ and Mary are lit spookily from below with cobwebs the size of a small sitting rooms veiling their faces. Above the doorway ebony-faced Moorish slaves in tattered garments hold up the marble plinth entrance way as they have done forever. An ugly mottled white skeleton leers down too, flanked by two dragon-dog like creatures, weirdly demonic figures for a church. I feel like a beetle in the jungle surrounded by such awesome and dramatic proportions.

In the middle of the day the sun pokes right into the calles and sears the shadows away. The heat becomes unbearable, even for an Australian. Paloma and I are constantly stuck together with sweat. There is no breeze here and it’s hard to find a plaza or a seat that is not an expensive tourist café. Luckily after an age of wandering I find my favourite place in Venice, Saint Toma and it’s surrounding area. As everywhere in Venice, it is touristy, but there are friendly locals too and it’s very arty, with cute and unusual stores. I chance upon a retro 50’s style café called Dersut, serving twenty different styles of coffee combinations. My favourites til now are the Caffe Coco with fresh grated coconut and the Caffe Menthe with green mint foam on top, delicious! The window filled with homemade cakes are to die for. In fact, it’s rather the perfect place for a girl like me to spend the afternoons, in air-conditioning, reading a book, playing with Paloma and occasionally treating daddy to an ice coffee too when he gets off work.

Never before have I seen, or perhaps noticed, so many sculptures and paintings depicting mothers in breastfeeding positions. Perhaps it’s because so much of my day is spent doing this in weird and wonderful locations, I’m surprised. In L’Accedemia the galleries are filled with Venetian art history, a painting ‘The Tempest’ features a mother half-clothed, bent over in a strange position feeding her child. In The Modern Art Gallery is a bronze sculpture capturing beautifully this same tender and unspoken bond shared by mother and child. Even in the two dollar shop is a reproduction of some renaissance sculpture of a mother feeding her baby. My life mirrored in art through the ages, some things can’t ever change.

It does feel like all I do is feed Paloma. By the end of each day I’m exhausted from carrying her, walking for hours, singing the made-up songs about all the things we do, with a few Guns n Roses solos thrown in. For days on end I may not have a ‘proper’ conversation with anyone. I feel like madness is just around the corner. It is half way through our adventure, and its not that I am ungrateful, but I sometimes wish my sisters or friends we here to share the day with. The sound of relief comes when Ben arrives home and I can once again converse with an adult.

You will be surprised to know that I am quite shy, which makes it hard to meet people here, on top of that the ‘tourists’ are transient and mostly annoying. The locals keep to themselves and the average age is mid 60’s, not that I am ageist, my very good friend Beverley is 86, but its hard to break in with the locals anyway. The few young people here come out at night when Paloma has to be in bed. I think about my mum and sisters, Lisa and Ainsley, who can ‘talk the leg off a chair’, as my dad would say. They would have corralled a whole community fete together if they were here. I guess it’s just you and me Palomi! Of-course having a baby in Italy is like a people magnet, to her. Venetians have an aloof exterior on first glance but if you make an attempt to speak Italian, which I do after having studied it at school centuries ago, they appreciate it. In Italian Paloma is Colombina and they coo when they hear her name, ruffling the few strands of blonde hair she has, which has finally started to grow, which I’m so proud. ‘Bello! Bambino!’ and ‘A! A! Bambina!’ I would retort. I never in my life thought I would have a blonde haired blue-eyed girl.

Since Istanbul, Paloma has been ‘Rolling! Rolling! Rolling everywhere’ progressing from this to attempts at crawling. Yet we were taken by surprise one morning when she got off her tummy to rock like a little horse and then to crawl. It cracks us up to see her squirming round like a pink piggy, searching for ways to get up and move. A super vigilant eye and lots of pillows are required now. I don’t know if it is this age or just her but she cries every time I put her down now. Ben says I look like an old fashioned add for motherhood when he gets home, with a baby on one hip and my hand in the sink or washing machine trying to be a domestic goddess and have dinner ready on time too. Like every other woman with or without children round the globe I guess. Luckily Ben takes us all out for pasta in our local Osteria on regular occasions.

Dinners at home have been the most fun. Every Saturday over the crowded Rialto Bridge at the fish market we buy fresh sea bass, bunches of herbs, lemons, flowers and veggies. Laden with these delicacies, up the stairs, armed with a recipe I memorized from a bookshop a few days ago, I cook my first whole fish. We pop a bottle of prosecco to celebrate, then finish the meal off with fresh and naughty panna cotta. The supermarkets here are like enormous delicatessens. Twenty types of meats and melt-in-the-mouth proscuitto, which you would go broke buying in Sydney, are cheap as chips here. Ben has gone mad for it and constantly cries out for proscuitto. A plethora of different cheeses, olives, breads, wines, pesto, deserts are laid out and makes it possible to have a 5-star feast every night. Fresh rock melon slices wrapped in cured meats, funghi risotto and pancetta. Buffalo mozarella and tomato with basil and fresh crisp bread. They all compliment the summer nights and Italian wines we indulge in. Years ago when we lived in Paris, our fetish for Martinis was born. Joy oh Joy to find tall bottles of it in Venetian supermarkets, not to mention my favourite little mini ready-mixed Martini-and-soda bottles, four in a pack. Molto Cute!

Finally, in the home of gelato, we treat ourselves occasionally at the best icecream parlours of the city. And for Paloma’s birthday, she gets her first taste – and just a taste – of Italian chocolate gelato.

Up the Adriatic and into a Lagoon

We’ve always seen the ocean cruise as a rather ‘tacky’ get away but Anek Lines is different, a kind of poor man’s cruise ship. Our little cabin with the window has cost the same as plane flight, but is far more comfortable and keeps our romantic savourings of travel alive. Other travelers on the ship act like stowaways, a dream Ben says he has always held which he hopes to one day fulfill. Former hippy types set up camp beds on the deck and swags under stairs. In fact they have the ship covered inside and out after opting for the cheap walk-on ticket. As it is low season the ship is practically deserted and weirdly seems there is more staff than customers, milling around polishing and repolishing the brass.

There is a motley crew in the dining room lining up for breakfast. An elderly couple with their beautiful three year old grand-daughter. A Russian mafia looking man clutching a bum bag. A couple covered in fake bling and leopard print. Its an odd ball ship indeed.

On further exploration of the cruise liner we find another of Ben’s often spoken-of dreams – a plunge pool. For as long as I can remember Ben speaks about the wonders of the plunge pool, how he loves the plunge pool, how no home is complete without a plunge pool and how oneday we too will have a plunge pool. Surrounding the ship’s plunge pool, stuck to the plastic deck chairs sunburning in the midday heat, sit the strangest bunch of cruise goers, the ones who bring their own food and drink and sleep the night on inflatable matresses up on deck. For the twelve hours it takes to get to Venice these white-skinned red-faced travelers are making the most of the cut-price journey by ship, acting like they have boarded a 5-star cruise.

I must say I never cease to be amazed at how boats remain afloat and planes in the air. Of course I know the science of such things, but they still defy the eyes, especialy knowing how many  tankers, buses, cars and the rest of it are in the hold below.

Finding a comfy little lounge we perpetually gaze out the window all day for something spectacular, a whale, a dolphin, a flying fish. How spectacular this vast ocean scattered by sun-glitter, spanning a seamless infinity. The simple beauty of nature is so uplifting. Its mid June and summer is well upon us and its is quite late when we go up on deck and say sayonara to the day, watching the pinks and lavenders of dusk laid out to the uninterrupted horizon.

Everyone is up and awake on deck at seven a.m. with their cameras at the ready as we gracefully enter the mouth of the ‘Lagoon’ that will take us to the islands that are Venice.

Entering by boat is the most spectacular way to arrive in a city of ‘epic’ proportions, as my friend Crista called it. All I knew about Venice before we planned this adventure was carnevale, gondolas, ‘The Passion’ by Janette Winterson and that the city is said to be sinking.

As the enormous ship enters the Canal de la Giudecca we are flanked either side by more than a millenia of history. Quietly from on high we slip by monolithic churches carved from the finest marble are topped with golden spires, marble bridges arching across tiny calles of the Fondamente giving us a glimpse of moored boats, colourful buildings and the glinting tourmaline-green canal waters under Palattzos with curtains billowing. This is simply the most stunning way to entre Venice, with the city almost an arms reach away and waiting to be discovered afresh. Of course many people know this, because Venice happens to be one of the most popular departure points for luxury cruises in Europe.

We glide past St. Marco’s Square, The Bell Tower and the Doges Palace. Everyone on board is running across the deck to and fro, snapping pictures of the quaint houses lined-up along the canal front with domes and leaning bell towers, spires and wonky apartments rising behind. It is magical and surprisingly its Ben’s first visit to Italy and I can tell he is already well impressed.

Disembarking from the ship with far less drama than we had boarding it, we find ourselves on a ‘vaporetto’ boat ferry up the Grande Canal to The Rialto Bridge where hours later we will meet a girl called Marta who takes us to her apartment where we will be living for the next month. After St. Marco Square, Rialto is the busiest part of Venice in terms of tourist numbers, but once we are up the four flights of 60 stairs we fall in love with our new home. Its a quaint, sun-filled loft high above a narrow canal through which gondolas slip silently past. Going by boat gives one the advantage of arriving clean, well rested and ready for the next adventure. So we are out the door and sipping a delicious Spritz, drinking to the next chapter, getting immersed in Venetian culture PRONTO!