Marco Polo was just 17 years old when he first set off for a lifetime of adventure and exploration with his father and uncle. Polo departed his home town of Venice, Italy by ship and did not return for another 24 years.
I thought about this young explorer as I visited Venice with my own children, who were at the time 12 and 13 years old. I did a little mental age progression as we went, trying to fit these babies, my children, into a form that could possibly be prepared for such a journey of a lifetime. Could the next five years turn one of my headphone-wearing, video game-playing, American “tweens” into a world-class explorer like Polo? It was hard to imagine.
Marco Polo was essentially what – or rather, who – brought us to Venice. My children studied the Italian explorer in school. Because I’m originally from Italy, they began to ask questions. What did I know about him, and was he as famous in Italy as he was here in the United States? Where is Venice, exactly, and why is it so well known? Their questions both amused and intrigued me, hitting as they did on a place and a piece of history of such great significance in my home country.
I began to see that a vacation to Venice was in order. It wouldn’t be their first time in Italy, though; I’d taken them almost annually since they were babies.
But our usual travels involved extended stays in my home town of Modena, enjoying some splendid home cooking and visiting local landmarks such as the Modena cathedral, or the Ferrari factory, as Modena is the home of Italy’s auto industry. But a trip to Venice would expose them to an entirely different side of the country.
We began our Venetian holiday with an afternoon in Piazza San Marco, or Saint Mark’s Square. Dating back to the 9th century, the Square served as the point of entry to the original Saint Mark’s Basilica. It’s the lowest point in Venice, which means it’s nearly always the first to flood during a storm. But otherwise, the square is usually bustling with tourists snapping photos of the 15th century clock tower at one end or the campanile that looms over the entire square. We were graced with fine weather, so I bought a couple bags of corn to feed the birds. With the grand St. Mark’s Basilica as a backdrop, my children raised fists full of kernels as though making an offering to the sky itself. The pigeons wasted no time, and seemed to know no boundaries. They jumped on heads and shoulders, provoking a string of giggles from my daughter while my son squirmed and tried to resist batting them away.
Venice is also known for its exquisite glass, though the center of the city’s glassmaking industry has been located on the nearby island of Murano since 1291. That’s when the government moved the glass makers out of Venice to keep their furnaces from burning down the entire city. With one short vaporetto ride, we found ourselves on the island, touring a factory some 400 years old. My kids found great wonders there – such extremes of creativity and fragility. They had never seen glass blown by hand before and helping them to understand the significance of a thing of beauty created by hand gave me a thrill.
No visit to Venice is complete without a ride on one of the city’s famous gondolas – though the gondoliers know it and their prices show it. There was a time – a long time, centuries in fact – when gondolas were the main form of transportation in Venice, though today they mostly carry tourists. As I paid our gondolier, I wondered if flying to Las Vegas for a tour by gondola at the Venetian Hotel would cost as much as this one ride. But the price receded from my mind as we got underway, and the water-level scenery enveloped us. Our gondolier stood aft on our vessel, serenading us with his songs of romance. I had the advantage of speaking the language, and I asked in Italian if he could point to the site that had lured us to Venice to begin with.
As we drifted down one of the many narrow canals, passing buildings showing all the signs of advanced age, walls distressed by water, old bricks and stonework exposed where plaster had worn away, through our gondolier’s thick accent emerged the name “Marco Polo,” and he pointed to an unremarkable building with a stone edifice held up by two columns.
Perhaps seeing the site of Polo’s home wasn’t as exciting to my kids as some of the other wondrous sights we’d set our eyes on in Venice, but for me it was an essential experience. Helping my kids draw a connection between the history they read about in books and the actual physical place where it happened was well worth the cost of a gondola ride. Helping them bridge the gap between their American culture and my Italian one was priceless.
Maybe my kids will be ready for adventures on their own in the next few years – maybe not. But until then, they’ve had at least one important travel.