Venetian find

Louise Richardson eschews tourist haunts and rubs shoulders with the locals.

They look like enormous new multi-storey buildings, clustered around the edges of one of the world’s most beautiful, mysterious and romantic places, but we’ve realised that the monoliths we saw from the sky as our plane descended into Venice’s Marco Polo Airport are, in fact, cruise ships.

Enormous floating cities filled with camera-clutching tourists, who disembark in enormous numbers, swamping Piazza San Marco, filling every corner of every church, taking photos of themselves with every single statue, and chatting loudly and excitedly in places that should be enjoyed in silence, or at least, something akin to it.

We can understand their enthusiasm – such a magical spectacle – but it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m with my parents enjoying a rare escape from home; just the three of us.

We’re recovering from the very grand and fabulous family wedding we travelled here for – which took place on Saturday.

“Was it this busy when we were here in the early 1960s?” Mum asks Dad, but he says he really can’t remember.

“Well I’m positive there were no cruise ships 20 years ago,” I add. I’d recently read that the permanent population of Venice has dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 since the early 1990s, and Piazza San Marco aside, it really does feel quieter.

The cruise ship crowds come in and out quickly, spending most of their time in the same central area. They eat and stay on-board so this means less work for Venetians, many of whom have now relocated to mainland Italy.

We decide to give the hot spots a miss and wander back to the neighbourhood near our apartment, home of the real Venetian people with their age-old routines.

But the calm is suddenly shattered as the water police come haring up the canal, sirens at full volume, leaving canoeists buffeted in the violent wake.

“I think we should go and see Fabio again,” suggests my father, referring to the delightful waiter at the café where we’d enjoyed pre-wedding drinks the previous day. And Fabio, with his bright green spectacles and excellent English, is thrilled to see us back so soon.

We sip cold beers, nibble on a colourful salad, and try to persuade him to visit us in New Zealand one day. “I’d really like to,” he confesses. “I hear you have great yachting there.”

In a large town square around the corner, the smaller citizens of Venice seem utterly unperturbed by a lack of grass as they kick footballs beneath lines of flapping washing. The fathers are all rather handsome and pleasantly built. Mum agrees.

A little old lady in a black headscarf shuffles by with her shopping basket, and one of the young dads insists on taking it, escorting her to her home at the end of the square, before rejoining the game.

“They know how to look after their elders,” Mum notes approvingly. She’s enchanted by the flax grasshoppers a lady is selling on the street and wants to buy some for my nephews.

“Customs will take a dim view of that, Helen,” Dad warns.

He thinks it’s high time for a gelato, but first she and I have a little shopping expedition in mind. Siesta time is over and the narrow streets with their charming little shops are filled with beautiful Murano glass.

Last time I was here, as a newly wed, my husband and I had very little money, and the dish I bought was about the size of a bottle top.

This time I splash out on one that’s significantly bigger. Mum finds a pretty glass clock and I wind up with a stunning glass necklace, too. “It’s a statement piece,” I declare, as I boldly present my credit card.

Finally Dad gets his wish, and at last we are in front of a sumptuous display with mounds of colourful, frozen heavenliness piled up high.

I count an overwhelming 30 flavours. How on earth will we choose? As a creature of habit, I can’t go past pistachio, served in a soft sweet waffle cone. Mum decides on strawberry, and Dad has lemon. They’re all delicious and with the amount of walking we’ve been doing they’re certainly not going to sit permanently on our waistlines.

In the midst of globe-trotting expeditions, the easiest and most peaceful days are often the best, and this warm afternoon has been one of them. En route back to the apartment we pop into a couple of churches, but we quietly take our photos and slip out again. Sometimes the back streets (or in this case, canals) in a town are its best-kept secrets, and travelling isn’t all about going at a breakneck pace.

Fact file:

Cathay Pacific flies to Rome daily. Connecting flights can be made to Venice or you can take the train for a more scenic experience.

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