by Jacqueline Dowling
Travelling Europe on a less than meagre budget is not much fun. Or is it?
We hit Venice after a horrendous night under leaky canvas, during which most of Italy’s annual rainfall chose to descend on our mainland campsite, swooshing away some tents, leaving their occupants open to the elements and seriously discomfited. I spent the night shivering on an army issue camp stretcher from WW1, gingerly dipping my finger into the rapidly rising flood below, and wondering when it would be my turn to float off.
Our soggy mob don’t bother with breakfast because the gas bottles are under water, so we miff off on a vaporetto to St Mark’s square and distribute ourselves beneath various columns, in the sun, to dry off. Everyone is thoroughly grumpy, the breakfasts around the square require a double mortgage to pay for a pizza and espresso. I decide to go walkabout on my own and take pot luck
Away from the tourist areas, Venice has a quietness and ancient beauty of its own; the narrow streets, lined with crumbling renaissance buildings are peaceful, washing flaps overhead and sunny squares suddenly appear; a cat washes its paws outside a small but perfect church, a plane tree hovers above a stone bench; there’s a sundial, dry fountain and cobblestones; old men play a clacketty game on a wooden table; women carry baskets of fresh fish and greens from the market. Is this the spot where Visconti shot the mesmerising scene between von Aschenbach and Tadzio in Death In Venice? It looks strangely familiar…
On a back canal I find a workshop where father and son are handcarving the prow for a recently completed gondola which stands, glossy black, on a workhorse nearby. I watch them, fascinated, for some time, and move on. The street is still, very quiet.
My next discovery is a small family owned glass-blowing works, also on a canal, a pea-green one. They’re busy creating an amber coloured wine decanter, smallish with an ornate stopper, and six tiny glasses. The whole set is then gilded in the traditional Venetian manner, and hand painted with chunky little white flowers. It stands on our mantlepiece today, full of memories.
Walking equals appetite in my book. A workmen’s trattoria is at hand; a huge bowl of pasta, loaded with tomatoes and cheese and other goodies appears and I bend to it with fork and spoon, just as everyone else is doing and never mind good manners, it is superb! Strolling back to the group, I take the same route past the glass blowers to collect my purchase and they insist on taking me home for ‘lunch’ – 16.00hrs. A steep and musty stairway leads to their apartment overlooking… another canal. The space is full of sunlight and fragrant with the rich scents of traditional Italian cooking. We sit around an old, much scrubbed table – Signor opens a bottle of chianti and welcomes me, in voluble Italian, to his extended and noisy family. I manage a wobbly Grazie Signor, molto molto grazie , and drink deeply. A massive bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, with every imaginable ingredient bursting forth is passed round, followed by a green leaf and tomato salad, thoroughly drenched in olive oil and garlic. Followed by more chianti and chatter. What a wonderful family, what an experience. What a full tummy.
Back to St Mark’s and the grumpy group. They’ve mooched around the obvious tourist traps, unable to afford to pay the rip-off prices, and haven’t enjoyed the day at all.
‘And what about you?’ they ask. ‘Where have you been all day?’
With a perfect Mona Lisa smile I reply ‘Oh, nowhere much: I just went for a little wander.’