Travel: When in Rome, stroll like Romans

Walking through Venice in the late vening is like being in a private museum.

  • Nov. 1, 2013 6:00 p.m.

Gary A. Warner


The hazy, damp air of the hottest April in 40 years finally cooled around our rental apartment near the Pantheon in Rome, enough that it was comfortable for me to put on a long-sleeve collared shirt and my sport-coat above my slacks and black shoes for the first time in five days. I announced to my wife and two children that it was time to take a family stroll.

“Where are we going?” asked my son, then 18.

“I don’t know—that’s the whole point,” I said. “It’s called la passeggiata. Families dress up a bit and take a long evening stroll. It’s a tradition.”

“But where are we going?” he asked again.

My daughter, 11, didn’t look up from her book.

To get this Italy tradition going, I was going to have to overcome Warner family tradition from back home—evenings are a time to chill out, often in our separate corners, with books, games or computer screens of our choosing.

But we weren’t home, as I repeatedly reminded my flock during a nine-day passage from Rome to Florence to Venice. We were in Rome, and we were going to do as Romans do. And Florentines. And Venetians.

I understood why family didn’t want to add yet another foray at the end of long, stifling days. Traveling stresses even the best-tempered of families, a description few friends and relatives would apply to our unit. To save money, we had packed into a series of “family rooms” that felt more like a can for that famous Italian fish—the sardine.

The march of daytime sightseeing—the walk from the Pantheon to the Colosseum in Rome, through the churches of Florence, and from Piazza San Marco to Piazza Santa Margherita in Venice—exhausted the clan by the time I was agitating for an evening stroll.

Every time I would insist on my paternal right of la passeggiata, my three Garibaldi-esque family revolutionaries denounced the tyranny of a walk with no direction, meaning or end.

So there would be only one classic family stroll, a lovely evening walk through the quiet Oltrarno district in Florence after a long day on the train. Another night, my daughter and I meandered over to the Trevi Fountain for the hoary but sweet tradition of throwing a coin in the fountain to ensure a return trip to Rome.

By our last stop, Venice—just when the 24-hour togetherness was wearing its thinnest—we had the closest sleeping quarters of the trip: a bedroom with a double bed and two singles, our bags stacked high in the corners to allow a narrow passage to the bathroom door.

In Venice, la passeggiata turned into my solitary strolls that would usually end up at the Caffe Florian on the Piazza San Marco. I’d sit in the arcade and sip on a $12 double espresso. The caffe’s orchestra dueled sweetly with the musicians at Caffe Quadri on the opposite side of the square as tourists trooped through what Napoleon is said to have called “the drawing room of Europe.”

By the final night of our Italian trip, I had given up on la passeggiata. We spent the evening packing for our flight home.

It was 10 p.m. My daughter said in a quiet voice, “Dad, I’m really hungry.”

We had snacked at a canal-side dessert shop in midafternoon, but never really had a full dinner. I wasn’t hungry. Neither was my wife.

“I’m kind of hungry, too,” my son offered.

In other trips to other cities, I would phone for pizza delivery or drive off to get takeout. But this was Venice. The kitchen at our small hotel was long closed. I wasn’t driving anywhere.

“We’ll have to walk and see what we find,” I said.

Venice is a ghostly place at night. There are just 35,000 residents in the city. The population triples during the day on the high tide of tourists. By late night, most visitors are gone or in their hotel rooms, giving those remaining the feeling of being shut into a museum after hours.

We started zigzagging through the streets and small piazzas, all empty and dimly lit. Finally, after about 20 minutes, we saw a golden light and a few people sitting at tables across from the Palazzo Zorzi. We sat. Bread and olive oil appeared. The kids ordered spaghetti carbonara—a creamy Roman pasta dish they had fallen in love with earlier on the trip.

We ate and drank and told stories. My son and daughter took turns trying to replicate the sound made by an inept garbage truck driver in Florence who scraped a trash dumpster repeatedly against the cobblestones under our hotel window at 5 a.m.

When it was time to leave, I had only the vaguest idea where we were. We had left the hotel so quickly I had forgotten to take a map.

Being in the land of papal infallibility, I invoked my right as a father to be our compass and set off. After 10 minutes of twists and turns, we rounded a corner to find ourselves at the restaurant we had just left.

I tried again, this time attempting to hew a path toward the moon, that I recalled was in the direction of the Lagoon (and our hotel).

After a half hour, we popped out on the esplanade near the San Zaccaria water taxi stop, about 200 yards from our hotel. A low, three-quarter moon reflected a rippled ray of light across the Lagoon to our eyes. Empty gondolas made a low wooden “clunk” noise as they bobbed against their pilings. Along the broad walkway, we linked arms as we walked from patch of lamplight to lamplight. Lightning flashed far out in the Adriatic—so distant we heard no thunder

“I wish we weren’t going home,” my daughter said.

La passeggiata had worked its magic.

Gary A. Warner is a reporter with The Orange County Register.

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