|Venezia Here We Come
© Copyright 2002 by Val Langelair
“Hey Val, what do you think?”
“What should I take, the red or green bikini?”
“Why not be daring. Take both.”
We laugh excitedly as we pack all the necessary items we’d need on our two months escape to Venice. What would it be like? Would we find our Romeo’s (even though it wasn’t Florence) in that famous romantic Venetian city? We count the days until our departure date and dream as young girls do. Finally the morning arrives of the start of our hols.
“Ready, steady, go, girls.”
Mum takes us to the train station and we board the early morning train quickly settling into our seats. We had booked couchettes as the journey would take a long 24 hours, giving us lots of time to prepare ourselves for the adventures ahead.
“How about something to eat Val?”
“You must be joking. Have to keep in shape for my bikini. Throw me a diet coke will you.”
Laughter as I stand up and pose in a way that could show my future bikini clad body.
“Anto what about that boy you told us about. What’s his name again?
“Marco. Oh no don’t remind me. He’s so gorgeous I could faint. I’ve planned to visit Lido and see if he’s there again. I couldn’t even talk to him the last time, I was too embarrassed about my braces. Now that they’re off I’m going to chance a kiss girls. Just watch me.” And she puckers her lips to ripples of giggles from us.
We have a wonderful journey talking about love, Lido, the Italian beach where we’d spend the majority of time and just anything and everything we expected from our two months of freedom. Welcomed sleep finally arrives as the ideas and hopes filling our minds continue in our dreams. We pass through France, Switzerland then finally into Italy.
“We’ll be arriving in five minutes.” The guard knocks on our door advising of our imminent arrival at the Grand Stazione di Venezia. The only railway station in old Venice which would actually put us out on the banks of the Grand Canal. We excitedly wash our faces and pull our things together.
As announced the train finally comes to a halt and we almost fall over each other in our hurry to see this beautiful city. “Wow. Look at that girls. The Grand Canal. My goodness that’s a lot of water,” says Helen rushing out of the station’s main exit or entrance depending on which way you are going. We follow close behind and can’t believe the spectacular vision before our eyes. Of course Anto has seen it all before, but still joins us in our excitement. The station leads down into what I would call the most beautiful street I’ve every seen with large and high brightly coloured houses stretching out before our eyes along the Grand Canal. (The Venetians also call this splendid street “Canalazzo,” a word made from canal and palazzo which means palace). Before long we are walking in this romantic city on our way to catch a Vaporetto (their water bus). We catch the slower number 1, as we want to do a bit of sightseeing on the way to our temporary accommodation. We board and wobble as we make our way to the seats right at the back of the Vaporetto. The sun is really hot and the slight refreshing breeze is wonderful from there, only it carries a slight smell of something that’s gone off. Apparently when it’s hot and the water is low this is normal. Guess we’ll just have to get used to it during out stay. Anyway at the beginning of this 23 mile (38km) long canal which winds through the city in the shape of a question mark, the first important palace we see is The Fondaco dei Turchi, a plain building dating back to the 15th century with it’s lion of St Marks. Click click and the photos begin. It is one of the oldest palaces in Venice and was originally the residence of the Dukes of Ferrara, then the official seat of the Imperial Envoy George Fugger. Around 1621 the Turkish merchants moved in closing up the doors and windows and changing it into a mosque and baths. Finally during the second half of the 19th century it was restored and turned into the now Natural History Museum containing a good collection of marine fauna, minerals, and zoological specimens. We continue and soon the camera is hot as there are so many beautiful buildings and sights to see. We pass another Vaporetto coming the other way and loads of Gondalas (long, black narrow boats) all carrying curious tourists. “Where’s the Cornetto,” pipes up Helen. I thought they all ate ice cream and sang “Just one Cornetto. Give it to me.” We all laugh as we remember the ice cream ad back in London showing just that. We continue to breathlessly take everything in and finally arrive at our destination. We introduce ourselves to Anto’s Zia (aunt) Livia and our host, Genina, a lovely little old lady friend of this aunt. She leads us over to her house which is across the courtyard and within easy control distance from the aunt. (After all we are only teenagers, and worst of all girls). We quickly decide who's sleeping where; Anto on her own in one room and Helen and I in the double bed in the other. We throw on our hot pants and t-shirts and begin the short walk to the Rialto Bridge armed with Lire, cameras and lipstick in case we meet Mr Right along the way.
After about half an hour walking along the Strada Nuovo (the new road) we finally see The Rialto Bridge with its elegantly curved arch made of marble spanning across a straight wide stretch of the Grand Canal. This bridge is a very important landmark and hosts the most famous market in Venice. It was originally the official name of Venice and remained a synonym for the power and wealth of the Republic. Originally trading was done by a mixture of races and a babble of tongues with merchants selling their goods in the today’s equivalent style of a bazaar in the orient. In those days there were many great trading houses in the surrounding warehouses storing spices, silk and jewels of immeasurable wealth. These treasures came from fabled kingdoms of the near and far east and passed hands with a lot of bartering and sweaty brows on the part of the foreign traders.
We begin to browse the stalls and shops walking up inside the middle of the bridge, stopping many times to ask a well practiced “Quanto costa?” in our shaky Italian (but perfect English accents) meaning “How much?” for the things we’re interested in. I buy a couple of earrings in mask shapes and we continue our walk. We do all the shops possible on the inside and outside of the bridge and stop to take more photos of palaces, gondolas and the odd seagull whilst looking over the Grand Canal from the middle of the Rialto Bridge. This time we take in the view from land and not from the Vaporetto. By then the light is beginning to fade and the view is even more beautiful with the sun setting in the background. Tired and hungry, we make our way back to the house and a wonderful home cooked meal of pasta, fish, salad and lots of red wine followed by Le Pastine (homemade cream cakes) and Grappa (their equivalent of Schnapps). We get into bed exhausted by happy about our first day’s adventure.
The sun is shining through the window and wakes us up. “What time is it? I ask sleepily. “7.30am,” says Helen. “That's too early? I need another five minutes.” She gets up and busily prepares her beach bag, so my five minutes are soon forgotten as I eagerly join her. Anto is already up so we make our way down to Zia Livia for a light breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice from blood red oranges, coffee and croissants. “No thanks,” I say when Genina offers a second croissant. “Don’t worry,” she says in her Venetian dialect which Anto translates, “The raggazzi (boys) love a little bit of meat on the body.” We all laugh and make our way to the Vaporetto going to Lido di Jesolo, the beach where we plan to spend the day. This Vaporetto is huge as it also accommodates the cars that load on near Pizzale Roma (the bus terminal) heading for the beach, where it’s possible to drive. We spend the forty minute journey outside on the very top of the Vaporetto, yes taking lots more photos.
We finally arrive and walk along the smaller streets towards the beach. We have to find the entrance to the free beach as all the hotels have claimed the best ones for their paying guests and employ hairy bronzed muscular men to guard them, making sure no non paying guests sneak in. We make our way onto the free beach and then cheekily walk along the shore until we find a good sun spot on one of those paying beaches. We lay out our towels and have a race into the warm if quite muddy looking water. A quick swim and back to the towels to sunbathe. A few hours pass and we decide to get a drink and maybe something cheap and light to eat. We have to remember there are still over seven weeks to go and not that much money to spend. We walk into a bar and the jukebox is blaring out Crocodile Rock by Elton John. Sitting in the corner we see a group of well tanned boys, probably a little older than us. As we walk in their eyes follow us. We teasingly wiggle our hips and pretend not to see them, but at the same time hope to keep their attention. Not long after as we sit down they come over and begin talking. “Ciao bambine. Come state?” “What are they saying Anto?” we ask together. “They said “Hello girls. How are you?” We spend the most wonderful few hours getting to know Bepi, Riccardo, Giovanni and Cesco who are all covered in tattoos but very funny and friendly to us. Poor Anto has a hard time keeping up with all the translating going on between us. They take our hands and lead us down to the shore to pick out these long shell fish from the water’s edge. They insist we try them raw with the lemon they’ve borrowed (as they put it) from the bar. After screwing up our noses and putting them into our mouths, we find that they are actually quite delicious, if slightly fishy tasting. We talk for a while longer then say our goodbyes without exchanging numbers. Giggling on our way out at the fun we’ve had Anto suddenly stops and says “Listen girls. The next time you see guys like that we have to steer wide of them.” “Why,” asks Helen before I could. Because their type are known as the “Male Vita.” “What’s that mean?” I ask. “That means the ‘Bad life.’ Guys who only cause trouble, take drugs and treat women badly.” We obviously changed their viewpoint at least for a few hours and don’t feel we were in any danger. They were too nice to us for that.
Days pass by and we photograph lots of interesting places in between visits to the beach and numerous bars for cappuccino’s and the famous afternoon spritz (a mixture of white sparkling wine with either bitter or sweet liqueur) to give you an appetite before dinner. There is the famous Santa Maria Della Salute church with its white Dome in grand baroque style, rising into the skyline and dominating it above all the other buildings in close proximity. This church is important as it was built as the result of the plague which seized Venice in 1630. When the plague abated, the citizens believed this to be a miracle due to the intervention of the Virgin Mary to whom they had prayed in their hour of need. In thanksgiving they built the church in her honour. We visit the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, a beautiful unusual spiral staircase which was once inhabited by humans, but now housed dozens of cats in the equivalent of a miniature lion’s cage. Then the famous Teatro La Fenice, the opera house where many famous opera singers including Pavarotti, have sung their hearts out to tear filled audiences. Next on the list, Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) a wonderfully large square with shops and restaurants under the arches of the buildings lining it, where the more affluent or in love people sit during the day to watch the world go by, or at night to eat and drink whilst listening to the various live orchestras. Under those arches is one of the most famous Café’s called Caffé Florian which served coffee to the likes of Mark Twain, Hemingway, Goethe and Proust spreading its fame throughout the world. At the top end of the Piazza you can see the spectacular ornate Basilica (Church) with its four horses looking onto the square. This is where the stolen bones of St Mark are kept. It’s impossible to enter this beautiful church as the queues are never ending from morning to night and even in the hot summer you cannot go in unless you cover your shoulders, body and legs. Looking towards the Basilica on the right, there is a huge Campanile (tower) where for 5 Mila lire you can go to the top, see the whole of Venice and be deafened hourly by its bells. In 1902 this thousand year old tower fell crashing down and wasn’t rebuilt in it’s originally form until 10 years later. To the left of the Basilica there is a smaller clock tower looking sideways onto the square, with its lion of St Mark against a background of stars and shining blue mosaic which was later added in the 18th century. Crowds also wait on its roof terrace, under the robes of the two moors who strike the great bell every hour. On the nearest side to the Grand Canal we also visit the Doge’s (Duke’s) palace which was the home of the Doge as well as doubling as a meeting place for the senate and council. We finally take a look at the Bridge of Sighs which led to the old prison beyond the Rio de Palazzo. This is the bridge where prisoners took their last view of Venice and then sighed on their way to their executions. We take a small Vaporetto and visit the Islands of Murano where we are lucky to see glass blowing in progress, (be it in unbearable heat levels) and Burano where they make beautiful lace.
Weeks are spent meeting Anto’s numerous friends and family who take us on speedboats and gondola rides on the Grand Canal. We learn about Carnival in February where everyone dresses up in period costumes and masks, joining in the numerous parties held in the square; Il Redentore (the Reedemer) held every year on the third Sunday of July where fireworks are let off to crowds of mesmerised spectators all in their boats or along the streets, eating, drinking or just enjoying the atmosphere and finally the famous Regatta Storica when Gondola races take place.
The fifth week arrives and we are burnt like overcooked roast beef, almost broke as the pennies have dwindled to almost nothing, and very happy about the time we have spent as Venetians more than tourists. That particular evening we decide to have a toast and spritz which doesn’t cost much, followed by a nourishing ice cream to keep up our strength. We suddenly see some commotion going on in the middle of the San Stefano Square where we are sitting. Lighting and cameras are set up and it looks as though they’re going to film something. Great we think as we have a ringside view. Before we can find out what they’re going to do I’m approached by a young woman who addresses me in even worse Italian than mine. I ask her if she speaks English and she does, so we communicate like this:
“We’re doing a fill in B film for the Cannes Festival and are looking for someone like you. Would you like to be in our film?”
I look at her and laugh. “You’re joking right?”
“No actually I’m not. Are you interested?”
I cringe in my seat at the thought of what I’ll be asked to do, but finally get up and join the crew to the whistles of everyone sitting in the café. Another friend of ours is chosen for the male role and we’re asked to do a scene where two lovers are sitting on a statue in the square. We are supposed to look lovingly into each others eyes (without dialogue) then he has to caress my hair, whisper in my ear and finally kiss me passionately on my cheek. Simple you might say, only I laugh a few times before I get it right because our friend has this strange moustache, half white and half brown, which makes me giggle every time I look into his eyes just before the kiss. We eventually manage to get it right and are taken for a spritz (that pre dinner drink) as payment for our efforts. At that age we don’t even think about other types of financial reward, and are just thrilled to appear in a film. I never did find out if they used it but still have the photos of the scene and the crew to this day.
We are into our sixth week and Anto’s birthday comes up. We decide to have a party in one of the small rooms (carbona) they keep just for occasions like that. We excitedly buy lots of drinks and little pastries ready for the evening. As I walk in I notice this handsome young man smiling at me. “Who’s that?” I ask Anto. “Oh Stefano, my cousin. Come on I’ll introduce you.” We walk over and I feel really shy and embarrassed. I don’t know why but he really makes my heart flutter. At my tender age it seems like cupids arrow has hit its mark. We spend the most wonderful twelve days left together, going everywhere and learning about each other. We can’t speak each other’s language very well but manage to communicate the same. Our friend Helen also finds a friend, Sandro, a few days later and is in love as I am. Anto unfortunately, never did find her Marco at the Lido.
The last day before our departure unfortunately arrives and we couldn’t have been happier but sad at the same time. We were going back to London but would be leaving our new loves and our wonderful experiences behind. We spend the whole day of our final day holding hands, walking under the sun and just saying goodbye to everyone we’d met. We go home late that night after promising eternal love to our recently acquired Latin Romeo’s. It doesn’t take long to chuck everything into our suitcases and hit our pillows exhaustedly.
Stefano and Sandro come to say farewell to lots of tears all round and the promise of daily letters. They watch us board the train and stand on, then run along the platform waving to us as we wave back, hair blowing in the wind, taste of salty tears in our mouths. The perfect scene to beat all scenes from the best love story film ever.
We are back in London in no time and develop all our precious photos with all their memories. Helen and I write as promised for a few months as we endlessly play the love songs on 45rpm's, but long distance relationships at that age always seem to fizzle out at some point. My Stefano went into the army to do his civil duty then married his childhood sweetheart on his return. Helen’s young Sandro, became a photographer then she lost track of him.
I now live in new Venice near to my friend Anto. We often laugh about our adventures during that holiday and now enjoy all the breathtaking beautiful scenery of this unique city on water (unfortunately still rapidly sinking) on a full time basis with our new partners. Funnily enough I saw Stefano two years back whilst in old Venice with friends visiting for Carnival. He’s now rotund, bald and the father of two teenage sons. I wonder how it would have been for us?
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