England at last! We were all grabbing for our carry-on bags and jostling to be close to the front of the line to be first to be down the stairs onto the tarmac. It was a beautiful spring day – cool and breezy but with a bright blue sky and little clouds drifting across. It looked perfect. And it was perfect, our time there – the brilliant moving lights of Piccadilly Circus at night,
the quiet solemnity of Westminster Abbey,
the peace of Salisbury Cathedral, the silent power of Stonehenge,
the bustling shops of Greenwich market, and the grandeur of the changing of the guards outside Buckingham Palace.
It was everything that I had read about – all the amazing pictures I had found in our local library matched with what was before me as I walked the streets of London, and the country lanes of Salisbury. I was perfectly satisfied and felt that nothing that was yet to come could match anything I had already seen.
We were ushered onto a plane – this time Alitalia – and we settled in to comfortable seats as, much to our amazement, the stewardesses offered us wine! The adults supervising us quickly put a stop to this, much to the amusement of the flight crew. This was the first crack in the doorway that would soon swing open and lead us to the magic that we discovered in Italy.
A short two hours later we were landing in Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. It was a short bus ride to Venice itself and onto a boat to take us along the Grand Canal to the Piazza di San Marco.
As we climbed into the canal-taxi, we giggled and poked each other, pretending to fall overboard, holding our noses at the unpleasant odour rising up from the canal. The sun was warm on our shoulders but not so hot that we could feel it burning our skin. As soon as we were settled, the taxi pulled away from the dock.
As we rocked slowly along the canal, the guide spoke to us about the houses rising out of the water – they appeared ancient to our New World eyes. Arab decor, lacy and exotic, rimmed the edges of the balconies. The windows were ornately decorated too, hiding homes of the rich and of the famous behind the curtains. We passed the home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – three elegant stories none of which suggested that the inhabitants were Hollywood royalty.
Between the houses there were intermittent smaller canals lying in shadow. Peeking out from the edges of these canals were small powerboats and gondolas.
Planters filled with flowers hung from upper windows and small arched bridges framed the lower levels. In the Grand Canal, we passed under the Rialto Bridge and we could hear vendors calling out their wares from the shops above us.
I had never seen, nor imagined, a place as magical as this.
Eventually we pulled out of the Grand Canal and into open water. The taxi docked shortly and we found ourselves disembarking in front of stunning hotels – I felt sure that if I looked hard enough I would see Roger Moore dressed as James Bond come walking through the ornate doors. Beautiful Italian women dressed in clothes I had only seen in magazines walked on the arms of handsome Italian men – dark haired and romantic, towards the Piazza di San Marco where they, like so many Italians do all over the country, would walk about to see and be seen. We all stood, mouths open, awed by the splendour of medieval meeting modern. We followed the pedestrian flow into the piazza. Almost immediately we were surrounded by pigeons, hoping for a scattering of crumbs from the new tourists entering the square. Once more, we were awed by the size and grandeur of the piazza. At one end was the duomo, the cathedral, towering above the square, quietly but inexorably dominating the participants in the life of the piazza. On the other sides, the piazza was surrounded by tables with umbrellas hiding lovers whispering nothings, shading giggling school girls, and protecting the pale skinned tourists from the sun as they drank their espresso or ate their gelato. As with the rest Venice, this place was bewitching. People swirled around us, dance-like, to enter the Basilica in order to admire the art or to pray to Saint Mark. They search for an empty table at a cafe, or they left the piazza to enter the dark, mysterious alleys that took them into the heart of Venice.
Our guide motioned us around the piazza, pointing out architectural features and giving us brief history lessons on Venice and its importance to the beginnings of the trade routes to Asia. We listened distractedly, our attention taken by the hustle of the square. Finally, our guide gave us the freedom that we had hoped for. “If you get lost, just ask someone for the Piazza di San Marco. Most Venetians are kind, they will point you in the right direction.”
In small groups we wandered off into the narrow alleys, wanting to explore this city, so foreign to anything we had yet experienced. Shop windows displaying long-nosed, colourful masks and beautiful glasswork were everywhere we looked. The smell of freshly baked pizza wafted into the streets, covering the unpleasant odours from the canals. We wandered, crossing bridges, turning down narrower and narrower alleys. Finally, we realized we were lost and it was nearly the time we were to meet back in the piazza. Giggling, we approached a group of darkly handsome young men – Italian gods to this little group of teenage Canadian girls. Clutching each other, we prodded one another forward until one of our group stepped out and boldly said “Piazza di San Marco?” The men, together, gave us directions in fast and, to us, unintelligible Italian. Realizing that their directions were useless to us, they laughed and gestured for us to follow them and they led us back to the piazza, filled with Italian life.