Photos by Peter Dench.
The guidebook. That’s what I think of when I think of Venice. Sure, there were canals, palazzos, and pigeons in the Piazza San Marco. There were Titians and Tintorettos looming out of niches in cool, dark churches. There was even an extravagant trip on a gondola. But what I’ll never forget is the guidebook.
It was 1991, and I was 13. My family lived in a large, misshapen cottage in the English county of Hertfordshire. My grandma, who lived with us, was dying, and my parents were tending her through her difficult last months. Offering what help she could, my mum’s best friend, Annie, volunteered to take my sister, Katie, and me abroad for a week, a little respite for us all.
A single woman in her 30s of meticulous taste, Annie had (and still has) a particular love of Italy, an irresistible, almost religious feeling for the place, akin to Michelangelo’s passion for marble, or Garfield’s for lasagna. And so we were dispatched to Venice—along with Kate, another family friend of Annie’s who was my sister’s age—as the charges of an untested parent.
Thanks to her sophistication and style, Annie’s idea of a holiday was as close to ours as Camembert is to string cheese. She revered the Renaissance, basked in the baroque. We liked to eat ice cream. On the first day, she produced J.G. Links’s 1973 Venice for Pleasure and began to read aloud. The history of the doges, the origins of the Carnevale—the words of the guidebook became our soundtrack as we roved through churches and climbed campaniles. At mealtimes, Annie quizzed us to discover whether we had absorbed the knowledge so generously bestowed upon us. Via these impromptu exams, the guidebook became the dispenser and withholder of pleasures—a scoop of ice cream, instead of fruit; french fries with dinner, instead of spinach. Could we describe the ceremony of La Sensa, in which the Venetians rowed out into the Adriatic in all their pomp and threw a ring into the waves, to honor their “marriage” to the sea? I can, to this day. My unlucky sister, however, ate a lot of spinach.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. For all of us, this was one of the most memorable trips of our lives, a heady cultural hit laced with an intoxicating freedom from normal parental controls, aided by some of the most eccentric chaperoning the city had seen. A twist of luck landed us in a 17th-century palazzo in the heart of Venice. The furniture, all antique, was defended against the arrival of a 13-year-old and two 11-year-olds with not-to-be-removed plastic sheeting, and the three of us slept together in an enormous four-poster bed. One night, as we slipped under the duvet, we heard a singing gondolier. With one mind, we leaped from the bed, threw on our shoes, and, led all the way by Annie, chased the sound down the alleyways of the San Marco district. Rushing onto a bridge, we watched the operatic operator glide beneath us. All four in our pajamas.
Twenty years later, and approaching my mid-30s, I have had even less exposure to children than Annie had when she gamely took us on. This isn’t from lack of opportunity, mind you, but by choice. My friends have patiently accepted that I grow bored easily around their offspring, and that I have the maternal instinct of a mollusk. The only regular kid contact I’ve had—and by regular, I mean a couple of encounters a year—is with Annie’s own daughter, Niambh (an old Irish spelling; you pronounce it “Neev”). Niambh was born while I was in college, and last year  she turned 13. Ready or not—and I really wasn’t—I sensed that a debt must be paid.
And so, one morning in May, I stand at London Gatwick, accepting a minor into my care and checking in for a flight to Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. It is 6:30 a.m., and Niambh is surprisingly chipper for a teenager forced so early from her bed. Annie, at an even greater pitch of excitement, has brought along that guidebook by J.G. Links as well as a large sketchbook. All we need is a wooden tennis racket, and we’ll be characters in A Room with a View. “You simply must make her speak Italian,” Annie trills as we join the line at Departures. “We told the school it was an educational trip.”
Niambh huffs and makes a face behind her mother’s back. “You really don’t need to do that,” she says as soon as we’ve bid Annie good-bye. “My Italian teacher will never know the difference. I’ll just say everything with more of an accent when I get back.” She seems far more assured than I did at 13. I am intimidated by her already.
We arrive on a hot, bright afternoon and take the waterbus along the Grand Canal. Venice’s magnificent, watery highway has to be one of the grandest entrances to any city on earth. It teleports you in an instant to the Renaissance, a time of elegance and prestige, a time when traffic was a future myth. The facades may be sinking, but they are no less stunning than they were in 1500. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin described his first impression of Venice: “It was no marvel that the mind should be so deeply entranced by the visionary charm of a scene so beautiful and so strange.” It is impossible to tell how deeply Niambh’s mind is entranced, due to her teenage poker face, but I am hypnotized.
A tall, bob-haired Italian named Paola, who has the key to our apartment in the Rialto district, meets us on the jetty and immediately darts ahead into the busy, narrow streets. I follow her through anonymous alleys and courtyards, trying to keep Niambh in sight at all times.
We spend barely a moment in our rooms, depositing our possessions. Then, keys in hand, return route hazily tracked, we head straight for Piazza San Marco, Venice’s largest square and buzzing tourist center. I remember how huge the place felt on my only previous visit, and how its famous sights loomed above my 13-year-old self: the bell tower, the giant astronomical clock, the quadriga of bronze horses that leap out from the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica, poised to trample the camera-clutching hordes beneath.
The square was designed to impress. The 170-meter-long parade of marble and gilt reminded visitors just how well the Venetian merchants were doing.
I ask Niambh if she’s impressed.
“Sort of,” she says. “I’ve seen stuff like this before.”
Dear God, I pray, please show me how to entertain this child.
I remember that Annie had once explained to me and my sister that the terra-cotta-colored campanile that towers over the square was a replica. The 16th-century original collapsed, a victim of Venice’s shaky foundations, in 1902. In the J.G. Links guidebook there was a photograph of the moment it fell. I dig it out and show Niambh.
“How did the man manage to be in the exact right place at the exact right moment to get that picture?” she asks, acutely. I have no suggestions. Nor does the guidebook.
We consider visiting the Basilica. The mosaics are said to be breathtaking, but so is the queue to get in. The Doge’s Palace, on the other hand, has no line. I lead Niambh through the vast ducal apartments, with their grandiose carved ceilings and frescoed walls. I read out the descriptions of the antiquary surrounding us in a somber voice that is not mine. I wouldn’t say the experience seems to be thrilling her, but it does, at least, eat up a good chunk of the afternoon. When we reemerge into the blinding sunlight, she squints up at me. “What are we doing next?”
We eat early that evening, in a friendly, tiny bàcaro, a traditional Venetian bar with a food menu. It claims to have served the Rialto locals for centuries. I’d like to say we stumbled on it, but we followed a map, got lost, and walked past the place twice without realizing it.
Over dinner, Niambh is full of questions. Unfortunately, they’re not ones the guidebook can answer.
“If this is a place for locals,” she asks, “why is everyone else speaking English?”
“Are there fish in the canals?”
“What are we doing next?”
The early-morning Rialto market is perhaps the only business in Venice aimed solely at its residents, not its visitors. It’s also the one place where you can inhale an odor more powerful than the sweaty, cabbagey smell of canal. The salty stink from the fish market provides a bracing start to the day, one I’m not sure Niambh would have chosen for herself, but she’s an obedient child, and at 9 the next morning we are out inspecting the wares. There’s an octopus laid fatally on an ice block, suckers skyward; an entire shark; and the head of a swordfish, arranged like a trophy or, as Niambh puts it, a TV antenna. A fishmonger gathers live crabs into a plastic bag; Niambh looks both disgusted and secretly thrilled.
The guidebook tells us that the area known as Rialto, or Rivo Alto, as it was originally named, was the very first part of Venice established, a colony of refugees fleeing the mainland for some long-forgotten reason. There has been a market on this spot for nearly a millennium, and the neighborhood’s iconic bridge, built in 1591, is just the latest incarnation to span the Grand Canal. A number of earlier versions had fallen or burned down during the previous 500 years.
By 10 a.m., the workers at the market are rewarding themselves with glasses of prosecco. If I were alone, I’d be joining them. But you can’t keep a 13-year-old entertained with alcohol, unfortunately, so I take her to Ca’Macana, the workshop that produces many of Venice’s famous carnival masks.
I want to relax, and to enjoy the sun on my back, the quiet swoosh of the surf. Instead, I’m worrying.
I have led with my ace: Ca’Macana is rookie-parent heaven. It offers classes in which you decorate your own mask. The teacher doesn’t speak English, so Niambh is forced to practice her Italian: “Oro, per favore,” she whispers, shyly pointing at the gold paint, and immediately blushing a deep vermiglio. When we are finished applying splotches of color to our papier-mâché creations, the owner, Mario, arrives to give us an impromptu talk on the history of Venice.
I had always assumed the masks were merely for costume parties, but Mario explains that, in the 1700s, they were worn six months of the year to allow nobles to live in permanent disguise, permitting them a level of political and social freedom known nowhere else in Italy. “Of course,” says Mario with a twinkle in his eye, the custom “also gave us casinos and Casanova.” As we leave, clutching our elegantly painted masks, I bask in my triumph. We have had an experience that is both fun and educational. The door closes behind us. Niambh turns to me and asks, “What are we doing next?”
Perhaps if I were a real parent, I would have a ready answer for this question. As it is, I take it as a rebuke, a tiny pair of spurs in my psyche, demanding more, and better, action. For the next two days, we visit churches and look at paintings. We eat spaghetti and pizza.
We take so many waterbuses that we start to recognize the commuters, and they us.
On our third morning, we take the vaporetto to Murano, the small, outlying island famed for its glass-blowing industry. As we disembark from the waterbus, we are funneled inside en masse to watch a demonstration at a furnace, where a craftsman manipulates the molten glass on the end of a pole. He nips at the glowing bud with a pair of tongs, and within seconds it cools to reveal a prancing horse.
Annie had brought us to Murano on my original trip. Katie, Kate, and I had desperately wanted to blow all our pocket money on glass figurines, and only Annie’s prudence had stopped us. Sure enough, Niambh is soon gasping and pointing and doing little sums out loud as she calculates how much swag she can take back with her. It transpires that she already has an entire glass menagerie at home, and she picks over the shelves with the slow-moving eye of a collector.
“I have a sheep and a cow and a dog and a cat and an elephant,” she says, with consternation on her face. “So should I get a horse? Or a mouse? What about this giraffe?” I try to remember what it was like to feel so enthusiastic about brightly colored, highly breakable knickknacks. Instead, I recall Annie’s bafflement and exasperation. Sighing, I turn to the guidebook, which tells me that in the 14th century, glassworkers were confined to the island so that their trade secrets would not be discovered. As I gaze along the tightly packed rows of shop windows, all touting the same wares, Murano feels just as claustrophobic to me today.
My solution is to head to Il Lido. Beaches were never on the agenda when we traveled with Annie. She considered them far too dull. So I feel a little rebellious as her daughter and I lie parallel on the sand, me reading in silence, Niambh slowly burning her shoulders, which will have to be concealed upon her arrival home to avoid her mother’s wrath. I want to relax, and to enjoy the sun on my back, the quiet swoosh of the surf. Instead, I’m worrying.
Even in the silence, Niambh’s question torments me. What are we doing next?
We head back to the main island for dinner. I’ve run out of ideas, so after our meal we simply tramp around lively squares and deserted sotopòrteghi—the secretive covered walkways so characteristic of the city—until Niambh says her feet will fall off. I realize, as we collapse into bed, that I am exhausted, and no closer to understanding children. My great fear of losing Niambh down a dark alley, probably into the clutches of a red-hooded serial-killing dwarf (note to other chaperones: Do not watch Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now before you travel to Venice), has been replaced by the constant worry that she is bored.
We still have three days left together, and no Wi-Fi in the apartment. Niambh falls asleep. I am racked with sleeplessness. I reread the guidebook, which can offer me plenty of advice on which Canalettos to seek out and where to find the best examples of Byzantine architecture, but nothing on how to engage with teenagers. A section in the back, titled “Venice for Children,” merely suggests a game of “spot the bell tower.” In desperation, I text Annie. “What did you do with us?” I type under the duvet. “Took siestas!” Annie replies. “Sat in the square and made you draw things.”
The morning arrives cloudy and warm. At the top of my suitcase I locate the hardcover, spiral-bound Windsor & Newton sketchbook and a tin of pencils. “What are we going to do next?” asks Niambh. I point at the book. “We are going to draw things,” I say.
I haven’t sketched since I was a teenager myself. Niambh picks a spot on the steps outside the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which, as it happens, houses the greatest collection of Tintorettos in the world. This does not intimidate us. With the book unfolded across our laps, we trace the outline of a casement window, its ancient plaster the perfect subject for our wobbly line drawings.
I’d forgotten that I enjoyed drawing, forgotten even that I could draw. A wisp of a memory enters my mind—a view of a bridge, and Kate, Katie, and me, sitting in a line, chewing on pencils, sharing an eraser. I hunch over my side of the book, absorbed in the lead work, the shadows, the columns with their leafy capitals. Niambh, already finished, sits patiently and doodles. A new sensation seems to descend on us, something like peace.
There are plenty more subjects for our sharpened pencils: wells, palazzos, and the bell tower of the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. “Yours is really good,” Niambh tells me encouragingly, as I start to detail the Frari’s brickwork. “I like the way you’ve made it lean to the left.” We wander through town, aglow with our achievement. Suddenly, anything feels possible. “Let’s play a game,” says Niambh. “I’ll flip a coin: Heads we go left, tails we go right.”
Watching her delight in these adult establishments, a memory surfaces of how sophisticated the city had felt to me as a 13-year-old.
Our random adventure takes us through pretty squares lined with olive trees, along an elegant parade of shops selling silk scarves and grown-up perfumes, and past a traghetto operator preparing to ferry customers across the canal in his stripped-down gondola. While I point out sights, Niambh bubbles with information of her own. “Look at that cute dog! I love small dogs. But not big ones. When did you have your ears pierced? I’d love to have my ears pierced but Mum says not till I’m 16. Have you read the Pittacus Lore books? Oh, they’re amazing. Let me tell you what they’re about...”
By evening, I have learned a lot about Niambh, and Pittacus Lore, and she in turn has absorbed a great deal about Venice. She knows which Renaissance painter is buried in the Frari (“Titian!”) and which Doge was executed for treason (“Hold on, I know this one...that guy with the Smurf hat. Faliero?”). She has also learned that Venetians are quite relaxed about having a 13-year-old in their bars, that the word for bar snacks is cicchetti, and that she likes them a great deal. Watching her delight in these adult establishments, a memory surfaces from my previous trip, of how exotic and sophisticated the city had felt to me as a 13-year-old, and how desperate I had felt to be worthy of its grown-up pleasures.
It gives me an idea. After four nights in our little Rialto apartment, I book us into a luxurious palazzo on the Riva degli Schiavoni. This stately waterfront in San Marco, with its unsurpassed view of the lagoon, is the very epicenter of Venetian high society. It is home to the grandest old hotels in the city, including the Danieli, where the historian John Ruskin himself resided. Just a few doors down is the Hotel Metropole. As we arrive in the lobby, the effect is like falling face first into a lush pile of carmine velvet. When the liveried staff brings tea and biscuits, Niambh is smitten. “It’s like being royalty!” she gasps.
She tries to walk up the grand staircase the way a princess might, chin high, before tripping and cascading into giggles. The place is part museum, each floor displaying one of the eccentric private collections of the family that owns the hotel—corkscrews on the ground floor, fans on the next one up. The top floor holds the coup de grâce: Europe’s most significant private collection of church crucifixes. Happily, our room is on the first floor.
“Let’s go see Piazza San Marco again!” Niambh insists, and this time, full of optimism, we join the line for the famous Basilica. It takes us half an hour to reach the front. We are within spitting distance of the vast cathedral door when a marshal shakes his head. Niambh’s skirt is too short. “I can fix it!” she whispers to me, subtly wiggling her hem down to her knees. And so it comes to pass that my funny, charming companion shuffles around the aisles of Venice’s most famous and holy edifice, her hands clamped to her hips to prevent her skirt from falling down.
Our final evening comes round too soon. We dine in high style at the hotel, Niambh dressed for the occasion in an elegant silk jumpsuit. Then we join the evening crowd milling around the bandstands in the square. A violin, piano, double bass, and accordion are playing the theme to A Fistful of Dollars. Someone standing near us points to the bell tower and tells her friend, “That place fell down in 1901, you know.” “Nineteen-oh-two,” Niambh whispers in my ear. A couple emerges from a side street, fists clutched around enormous waffle cones, a rainbow spectrum of ice cream piled dangerously high on top. It looks delicious. “We have to have that ice cream,” I tell Niambh. She nods and darts toward the alley. “Wherever you are, no matter how far, we will find you!” she growls, in the style of a movie trailer. In the twilight, her jumpsuit looks like a pair of pajamas. She reminds me of a little girl who once chased a gondolier.
The following morning, I have a final surprise to spring. Since the hotel has a jetty, it feels almost rude not to use it, so I order a ruinously expensive water taxi and we depart from Venice in the most dramatically glamorous way possible—by speedboat. As we bump along the lagoon, our hair tangling, I ask Niambh what her favorite part of the trip has been.
“I loved the walking around,” she said cheerfully. “Wandering the streets without a plan, discovering things. That was a lot of fun.” I spluttered. “What do you mean? You were always asking me for the plan!”
“Oh yeah,” she replied nonchalantly. “I do that. I don’t know why.” She giggled. “It really annoys my mum.”
The buildings recede, their baroque lines blurring in the distance. Venice is becoming once more a mirage, a myth, Ruskin’s jewel of the Adriatic.
“So,” asks Niambh. “Where are we going next?”