Italy: A day on the lake...a night at the opera

The art, the history, the fashion, the pizza. Could Italy seduce Sankha Guha's sons into broadening their cultural horizons?
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The Independent Travel

There comes a time in every dad's life when he wants his sons to set aside childish things; in this instance the collected works of The Simpsons on DVD. Even for diehard fans such as Tom (15) and Niko (11) there has to be a cultural horizon beyond Springfield. My Devious Plan is worthy of Mr Burns. Just drag them along to Italy and, sooner or later, the art, the history, the weather, the fashion and the pizza will seduce them. The Plan starts well. My accomplice is their granny, and as we leave Marco Polo airport we have agreed on phase one of our strategy. Before heading for our resort near Lake Garda, we will hit them with a pre-emptive strike – a lightning visit to Venice.

We take the Linea 97 vaporetto from Piazzale Roma. As it chugs up the Giudecca canal, the outlines of the city begin to assemble on the water like the pieces of a well-worn jigsaw. Tom is slightly dazed: "Everywhere you look, it feels familiar, like you have seen it before."

And, of course, Tom's déjà vu is not entirely imaginary: we have all seen Venice before at the movies. Each generation of the Guhas has its ready-to-roll celluloid memories. For my granny it is Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice. For me it is Nicolas Roeg's eerie Don't Look Now. For Tom and Niko it is the Bond carnage of Casino Royale.

The vaporetto pulls into a stop on Giudecca island. I have a sharper sense of déjà vu; I really have been here before. In front of me is the Ostello di Venezia (youth hostel) where I stayed for the first time as a callow backpacker when I was 16 or 17. Now I am here with my 15-year-old son on his first visit. Venice must have seen many such generational handovers.

We have only three hours. No time for leisurely discovery or nuance. Doge's Palace ticked off, Bridge of Sighs likewise, San Marco to the left, Rialto to the right. We storm through back alleys and past churches, heedless of history and oblivious to the treasures within. My mother winces, partly from exhaustion, but mostly from the missed opportunity as we race past the exterior of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco housing Tintoretto's greatest works.

It seems the first phase of The Plan is a success. Tom is enthusing, "Venice is amazing. I loved the tiny alleyways, empty and quiet one minute and the next minute you are in a busy street." We discuss whether we should come back to explore in more detail. Then Tom drops his bombshell: "I've seen all I want to of Venice." Granny is apoplectic. "Don't ever say that if you want to be taken seriously," she barks, "by anyone!" Instead of horizons, the only thing opening up here is a generation gap the size of the Grand Canal.

Our resort, just outside Peschiera, is a sprawling holiday township created just two years ago. Inevitably, it lacks the patina and charm of a Tuscan tenuta but it offers a wide range of facilities to families with easily bored teenagers. For the Monsters the principal facility is other children and a chance to be released from the family leash. They quickly establish friendships. Most of their cohort is pan European, a welcome change from Brits-only resorts on previous holidays.

The catering is also cosmopolitan. The vast eating hall may be an upmarket cousin of the Guildford Spectrum Leisure Centre, but the food is a lesson to buffets everywhere. The octopus and potato antipasto and the slow-cooked suckling pig with fennel seeds would be star turns in any restaurant. At meal times we lose Niko, a gourmand in the making, to long explorations of the groaning displays.

It proves difficult to drag the Monsters out of the resort. Tom opts to stay behind when we set off to explore Lake Garda. I realise abruptly that my baby boy is now 15 and for him a posse of Dutch girls sees off lake-watching with dad. At 11, Niko can still be bullied into joining dad and granny.

The south end of the lake, outside Peschiera, is a tacky string of amusement parks and grinding traffic. It is hard to reconcile these with the sublime accounts of the area in D H Lawrence's Twilight in Italy. Further up the eastern shore, the sun is pouring down, the traffic eases and holidaymakers are frolicking on jetties, rocks and slivers of beach.

On the road up to San Zeno di Montagna, we round a hairpin and spot a promising-looking terrace bar. The Casa degli Spiriti is an 18th-century inn, now transformed into an impossibly glamorous restaurant. From the terrace we have an 180-degree panorama sweeping the length and breadth of the huge lake. We are elevated above the vulgar traffic and busy holidaymakers. Campari and sodas are sipped, antipasti is nibbled. Granny and I are fabulously smug.

For a few moments I catch glimpses of Lawrence's lake:

"Far away, the Verona side, beyond the Island, lay fused in dim gold. The mountain opposite was so still, that my heart seemed to fade in its beating as if it too would be still. All was perfectly still, pure substance."

On the autostrada Verona is no longer as "far away" as in Lawrence's day and we have tickets for the opera. But as three hours of grand opera threatens a catastrophic generational rift, the Monsters are excused this cultural hurdle.

It is a hot summer night and I have dressed casually in shorts and trainers, appropriately for our humble seats in the gods. But we get an unexpected upgrade and find ourselves six rows from the stage surrounded by men in killer suits and women dripping in gold. I am not sure who is more uncomfortable.

Aida gets under way. The singers clearly enjoy their pasta. The male lead, who bears an uncanny likeness to Po from Teletubbies, is cast against type as a military hero and lover.

The staging is spectacular. Sticky with greasepaint and tinsel, a high-camp version of ancient Thebes is confected within the very real bricks and mortar of the Roman amphitheatre. There is a cast of hundreds, including a ballet corps and children whose job is to shower each other in glitter. There are pyrotechnics, giant elephant mobiles on winches and a very excitable conductor who pulls faces and leaps up like a rock star.

From what I can work out, Aida (by far the best voice of the evening) is an Ethiopian slave girl in love with Po; the whole thing is a terrible mismatch destined to end badly. Grand opera and grand farce are separated by a hair's breadth. The hair is crossed several times tonight.

But the full moon is rising over the curve of the amphitheatre. Four powerful searchlights point upwards and intersect at a point high above the arena, creating a soaring pyramid of light. The singers are cranked to maximum volume; the arias are pumping with passion. Nothing is held back. It is quite thrilling.

I am re-energised and determined to reinstate The Plan. In the morning we will spring a surprise trip on the Monsters. Mantua, the seat of the Gonzaga family, is 22 miles away and, unlike Florence or Rome where even the most committed culture-seeker can experience sensory overload, it offers Renaissance heritage in a manageable chunk.

The Palazzo Ducale presents a relatively modest front to Piazza Sordello offering little hint of the sprawling agglomeration of buildings within. It is a maze of state rooms, galleries, apartments and corridors that have been meddled with through the centuries. We are looking for the Camera degli Sposi, containing Mantegna's most celebrated work. After tramping through any number of grand halls we take a wrong turn and charge past the corridor that leads to the Camera degli Sposi and almost get siphoned out to the exit.

Eventually, we find the room. It was a bedchamber; the hooks for the four-poster canopy are still visible on the walls that have not been frescoed. Some bedroom. The frescos feature portraits of Ludovico Gonzaga and his retinue. Ludovico and his gang exude power and arrogance, giving an insight into the hierarchies of the time.

The colours are still vibrant despite the passage of centuries. There are many striking details: the giant horse and the dogs, a slightly sinister-looking dwarf woman, the playful putti on the ceiling. Amazingly, we are left alone to enjoy the most famous room in Mantua. There are no coach parties, guides and little in the way of overt security. It is a throwback to my early experience of Italy: a personal audience with the Renaissance.

Tom is examining the frescos carefully. He says some of the figures look two-dimensional while others feel more three-dimensional. I sense the glimmer of a victory – Tom is discussing art history.

Once we are safely outside, the triumph is quickly put into perspective. Niko declares this "the most boring day ever". Doh!!

HOW TO GET THERE

Sankha Guha travelled to Peschiera in Italy with Inghams (020-8780 4433; inghams.co.uk), staying at the self-catering Residence Eden in a three-room apartment. Prices start at £381 per person, including return flights, accommodation and resort transfers. Alamo Rent a Car (alamo.co.uk) provided car hire and offers seven-day rental from £192.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Comunita del Garda (lago digarda.it).

Further viewing 'Francesco's Venice', presented by architect and film-maker Francesco da Mosta, BBC DVD, £19.99

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