Planning our first wedding anniversary seemed easy. We had had a dreamy honeymoon in Tuscany, so Venice, city of romance and decadence, was an obvious choice. Italians are famously child-friendly, so the fact that we were going to take our eight-month-old baby Jimmy Joe with us was, we told each other, no real challenge.
We were going to spend four days in the city. I wanted to see some culture; my husband Joe craved a few balmy evenings drinking wine, possibly while pretending that our life had not really changed. Jimmy Joe is generally a very easy baby who loves spaghetti and is always in bed by 7pm, so I reasoned he would probably sleep through the evenings, giving us some baby-free time to enjoy the holiday.
We bought two return flights with Ryanair for the outrageously low price of £85. Jimmy Joe would sit on my lap for the flight, and I had a brief fantasy about us being a cosmopolitan family, criss-crossing the Channel regularly, flawlessly dressed in caramel-coloured cashmere, with impeccably behaved children.
The reality, however, was very different. The trouble started when, drifting through the departure lounge, I liberally sprayed myself with Chanel No 5 while Joe stuffed a pot of mango baby food into his son. When Jimmy Joe was sick all over both us and the man sitting beside us on the aeroplane, I blamed it on the unusual flavour of food that Joe had chosen, while he, meanwhile, blamed it on my cloying and literally sickly scent. Jimmy Joe behaved like rock star, screaming with excitement and trashing the seats around him. He then spilled beer all over Joe. I realised with horror we were that family you always avoid at check-in. It was also clear this was not going to be the romantic mini-break I had been envisaging.
I may have been very wrong about the ease of travelling with a baby, but my notions of the Italians as a nation of baby-lovers, like most clichés, proved absolutely right. At the Osteria Antico Dolo, a tiny restaurant near the Rialto, Jimmy Joe wasn't so much welcomed as fêted. "Ciao bambino! Entri prego! Molto bellissimo bambino!" breathed a dark-eyed waitress, scooping him up and covering his blond head with soft kisses. Jimmy Joe smiled and patted her face, burying his forehead in her long hair and gurgling with delight. Joe looked faintly jealous as the baby was carried off to the bar and adored by another three equally luscious-looking girls, and it was with some difficulty that I prised Jimmy Joe away from them at midnight.
In Antica Bessatta, the cook emerged when she heard a baby in the restaurant. She bore Jimmy Joe off to the kitchen, from which he later emerged in the arms of a boy, triumphantly clutching a wooden spoon in his chubby fist. His palms were stained with chocolate and he and the boy grinned at each other conspiratorially.
It was the same all over Venice. In the Frari bar a waiter took Jimmy Joe from me and propped him on the bar, pouring a drink expertly with one hand while offering Jimmy Joe a crostini with the other. By the end of the four days, waitresses would cluster around him, recognising him from the night before. "Ciao, Jimmy Joe! Ciao, ciao bambino mio!"
Sightseeing with a baby was more of a challenge. We took him to the church of the Gesuiti in Dorsoduro, and the kitsch green marble walls and flickering candles delighted him. He also discovered the perfect acoustics of this huge chilly church and took great pleasure in squeaking. At first this was rather amusing, but then hugely irritating for the group of Americans led by a sombre-looking Venetian guide. Unfortunately, Italian baby magic didn't seem to work on the guide, so Joe carried him to a café where he was kissed by more waitresses.
I wanted to go to the Scuola di San Rocco, but immediately regretted my decision when it came to carting the buggy up the staircase. Carrying a big baby while craning your neck to get a better view of the pictorial interpretation of the life of Christ is not much fun. Eventually I put Jimmy Joe down and left him to slide around on his own. One day I will tell him that he learnt to crawl beneath Tintoretto's version of the Sistine Chapel.
Venice is a grown-up city. You are more likely to see men romancing women half their age or honeymoon couples than young families struggling with prams. The numerous bridges over the canals are a challenge, but travelling by waterbus was a dream compared with the nightmare of the London Tube. More difficult was getting the buggy on a traghetto, the communal gondola that ferries passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. Despite the obvious proficiency of the gondolier, the gondola wobbled alarmingly, causing me to grab the baby and clasp him to my chest. Joe laughed and told me to stop being a hysterical mother.
With hindsight, hoping for a romantic weekend anywhere with a baby is ambitious, and Venice is no exception. But once I had come to terms with the radically altered idea of what a holiday should be, I enjoyed it. As a mother, it was also a joy to have my own little darling appreciated in a manner that is quite alien in England.
I hope that somewhere in Jimmy Joe's mind will be etched memories of beautiful Venetians adoring him. He did not seem to appreciate St Mark's Square or the Grand Canal, but maybe these images will play a subliminal part in shaping the person he is becoming. It was, however, with some relief that I tucked Jimmy Joe back into his cot at home. For the first time in four nights he slept right through.
Ryanair (tel: 0870 333 1231; www.ryanair.com) flies to Venice from £28.99 one way in August. Children under two travel free.
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