There’s plenty to keep Linda Thompson fed, watered and amused on the road to Rome.
There are rose bushes planted at the end of each row of grapes at Alba Rosa family winery in the Italian countryside. They’re the canaries in the coalmine. If insects attack, they’ll go for the roses first, and this winery doesn’t use chemicals to produce its world-renowned prosecco.
Our Insight Vacations Road to Rome guided tour has stopped at the vineyard for lunch, and to learn more about the making of this most Italian of wines. The Glera grape variety is grown on just 6ha of land and the family produce 100,000 bottles a year.
Locals arrive in September to manually harvest the grapes, and all other work in the area stops. The grapes are stored inside, filtered manually, and bottled using a mobile machine brought in on a truck. There’s a brut and extra dry variety, and oddly the extra dry is sweeter.
We enjoy our lunch of local produce and cheeses and we’re on our way to Venice, a set of about 120 islands separated by canals and linked by bridges, About 60,000 people live permanently in this city on the water, but last year 22 million visitors came to see its famous canals and gondolas. Most seem to still be there as we arrive by boat.
Our 600-year-old Hotel Gabrielli is right on the waterfront, steps away from St Mark’s Square on dry land behind us, the famous and spectacular Doge’s palace, basilica and campanile.
My room includes a magnificent view out on to the water – and a man in a singlet bringing in his laundry below, a nice reminder that this is normal life here.
Elderly Anna takes us on a stroll around the hidden back streets of the town she has known all her life. She has history at her fingertips, and any slackers are summoned with a quick “woohoo”. She points to a high window in a narrow alley. “That’s going to be made into a monument soon,” she declares. Why? It’s the room she was born in.
She explains the jutting-out curves in the corners of the small local squares — they were added to stop men peeing into the corners.
We take a gondola ride down the canals and learn a bit more about the life of a gondolier. Other residents have their own boats tied up alongside the canals.
The city is facing some challenges — erosion, pollution, subsidence, too many tourists, too many cruise ships sailing too close to the banks.
Piazza San Marco is not far above sea level and during storm surges from the Adriatic or heavy rain, it floods regularly. Water pours into the drains in the piazza and directly into the Grand Canal, but if the sea is high, water from the lagoon surges up into the square.
It’s one of the many hazards of living in a city built on water.
But it is beautiful, a world heritage site, unique in its watery history. The famous Bridge of Sighs is the last place prisoners saw daylight before they were locked up. Such a small bridge to contain such sadness.
We go to an arts centre to watch a traditional glassblower create a Venetian glass masterpiece before our very eyes. But it’s not perfect. He tosses the immaculate horse — faultless in our eyes — into the bin, to our horror.
We leave the roar of St Mark’s Square to sail around the Venetian lagoon to the relatively peaceful island of Burano. This is an optional experience on the Road to Rome, but a must-do, if only to escape the crowds in Venice and see real life.
Its brightly colourful houses and shops are packed with artisan lacemakers and Murano glass, and we have a chance for some shopping before we take a very late lunch at a local restaurant.
Actually lunch and dinner. The meal starts with baby shrimp risotto, then there’s pasta, then a salad, then a fritatta, followed up with almond brittle and amaretto biscotti, which are soaked in wine before being eaten. Rather like a gingernut in tea — sort of.
The Italians love their food, and half a dozen courses is par for the course.
We waddle out to find our way back to the ferry using the leaning bell tower as a landmark. Our tour director Gary always makes sure we know our way home before he lets us off the leash.
On the way back to Venice someone broaches the subject we’ve all been wondering about. Now we’re in Italy, there’s a bidet in every bathroom, however ancient and however small.
How do you use them? Do you face the taps or face away? Someone decides we need to google the answers. This is one question we don’t want to ask Gary, our font of all knowledge.
It’s back to dry land the next day and a quick stop in Pisa for the obligatory look at that leaning tower, to queue again for a loo and find something to eat.
People are still taking photos to make it appear as though they are holding the thing up. They’ve been doing that for decades. My iPhone attempts to straighten photos as I open them.
We are guided around by Bello Roberto (he’s called that on his offical guide card), or Beautiful Robert. He’s a hilarious, balding man who swears he’s only 29 and a well-documented hate for Florence and all who live or have ever lived there.
He shows us around his patch and describes with great humour the history of the tower, the baptistry and the town.
But the relentless crowds are exhausting, and while the mosaic covered and marble buildings are gorgeous in the 11th Century baptistry, it’s something of a relief to leave behind the summer crowds and set off on the last legs on our journey.
‘ 11-day Treasures of Italy tour is available from $5895 per person, twin share.
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