Approaching Venice still has a 19th century feel, skimming over the ocean with nothing but a few mooring poles and seabirds to announce your arrival. Train passengers emerge excitedly from the railway station directly onto the Grand Canal, thick with water craft like a painting at the Metropolitan Museum come to life. The charm frays a little when the blown-glass vendors swoop in, or you try to find a bathroom and there are forty people waiting for a single stall. But a shady café overlooks the hubbub, so in our case, we regrouped over cappuccino and bottled orange juice. In the heat of optimism, I decided that our irascible Bangladeshi waiter only proved that Venice is still gateway to the East.
"Bellissimo, no? " I raved, waving my arms out over the water traffic. "Sogniamo colle occhi aperti! "
"What the heck?" my oldest kid, Henry said, looking at me as if I'd finally lost it. Ten years old, he'd just gotten used to ordering soda in French.
"We're dreaming with our eyes open!"
Fearing the worst, my wife Lesley had patiently held off asking where we might be staying in Venice. I pulled out a scrap of paper that had the address of a certain Signor Luca. Before I could conjure visions of randy nuns, I had some business to transact.
"You guys stay put for a few minutes."
It had been quite a stretch to find a luxury casino worthy of Casanova on a mortal budget. For weeks, the only places I found were dark shoeboxes in remote ghettos for astronomical sums. Finally, I'd come across una offerta dell'ultimo minuto, "a last minute special," that looked suspiciously attractive. All I had to do was bring a wad of Euros in hard cash to this fellow Signor Luca and the keys to a pleasure dome worthy of Kublai Khan would be handed over. So what if I'd be paying off this trip until I was 95? There's something about Venice that makes you throw logic to the winds.
"You're serious?" Les asked, as I slipped into the crowds. "They've probably been running this scam since 1750!"
Signor Luca's office, I had to admit, looked like a drug-dealer's front in Uzbekistan. There were three souvenir T-shirts hanging in the window and a pair of flip-flops. The Signor himself was a corpulent, goateed fellow in dark glasses, sipping macchiato from a tea cup. He took my cash, slowly counted out the crisp bills, then dangled three keys on a ring before me.
I had to ask why the apartment was so discounted.
"August is low season in Venice," he wheezed. "Very low season." He gestured weakly at the window. "The heat. The humidity. The people. But you will enjoy it."
I shuffled out, hoping Signor Luca wasn't about to pack up his "office" and disappear the moment I turned the corner.
Venetian street addresses haven't been updated since the 18th century. Signor Luca had made me a helpful drawing of what our new home looked like, but it still involved impromptu explorations of the canals behind the Piazza San Marco.
"Is this it?" Henry asked, dubiously. I held up the drawing.
"I think so…"
"It looks like a prison."
A defensive iron grate opened onto a tiny courtyard, where garbage bags were piled up like sand bags at a bomb shelter. The dark vestibule smelled powerfully of bilge-water. It seemed as if a canal was flowing just beneath our feet. We crept up cracked marble stairs in darkness, with the prospect of a Coleridgean pleasure dome more remote with every step. But once I'd wrestled open the door, I was flooded with relief. The place was not bad, not bad at all. In fact, it was vast. The master bedroom had 20-feet ceilings and a four-poster bed. Corridors went off at strange angles to reveal endless extra bedrooms, all with antique furniture decorated with hunting scenes.
It was like something out of a Visconti movie, where a fallen aristocratic family might drift along in frayed splendor. Casanova might have demanded a few more chaises longues, but Tom Ripley would surely have approved.
Les was never happier. Henry and Sam had their own room for the first time in months, and the kitchen overlooked a Renaissance courtyard.
"I'm like a bird," she said. "If you want to get me in the mood, I need everyone to be fed and the laundry to be done."
It was a promising start for channeling Venice's most famous son.
The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe by Tony Perrottet is published by Broadway Books; www.sinnersgrandtour.com. An interactive map of Europe's sordid sites from Paris to Capri can be seen on: www.tonyperrottet.com/thesinnersgrandtour/tour.php
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The Flying Saint by Graham Reid
Other Europe travel stories from the archives
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