Rotary ended our 2-week journey through Europe with a grand adventure. Our bus pulled up to a seaside hotel on the Italian coast outside of Venice. We unpacked, only one last full night of EuroTour ahead of us, and then went down for dinner. As we ate, the Rotarians made the announcement that we would have two hours free to enjoy the sea before curfew!
The last light of the sun had just disappeared behind the horizon, leaving the ocean dark and invitingly calm. I couldn’t bring myself to join the mass of students that flocked to the beach straight behind the hotel for a dance party. Instead, I walked barefoot in the soft sand just beyond the surf, looking for quieter spaces up the coast. After a while, I found a pier that extended far into the sea. Rhythmic waves broke around its barnacle-encrusted wooden supports, the scene cast in the soft back-light from the hotels lining the sea and the stars above. I reclined back onto the wooden planks, the sounds of the ocean beneath me so near it seemed I lay on the ocean surface itself.
On my back, gazing up at the sky, my field of vision seemed to grow infinitely wide. At the very bottom and sides of my peripheral I could see the bubbly white flashes of small breaking surf, as well as my prone arms, legs and softly rising chest. In the center, a field of twinkling stars grew more and more populous as my eyes adjusted to the deep darkness of the night sky. I connected the dots of little and big dipper and found the North Star—the limits of my astronomic knowledge. At the very top of my vision, a wall of storm clouds inched closer, flashing and thundering, adding drama to the night sky and gentle dark sea.
I think, in the calm thoughts inspired by such surroundings, I first began to really dwell on my return to the USA. EuroTour would end the next day and I’d say goodbye to many good friends. An all too similar reality to the one which I would face in a couple months. Nothing but “bittersweet” can describe these thoughts. I only let them linger for a few minutes, though, the biggest day of EuroTour still lay ahead after all.
The ferry which carried us on the hour voyage to Venice was run-down and a bit dirty, but in that charmingly sturdy way that only a boat can be. Staring over the railing as we cruised along, I realized how many other cities and villages line the coast leading up to Venice. All of them were gorgeous and I wondered how many were tourist destinations themselves.
Coming within sight of the city was a moment I shall remember forever. The Venetian buildings are packed closely and haphazardly together, lining canals which open right into the sea. Gondolas, motor boats and other ferries crowded the coastline (or city-line for a location built on the water, I guess?), as stereotypically dressed sailors and gondoliers hurried about their duties… or just lounged around to chat and smoke.
We toured briefly the main square before huddling up, rushing to get to the day’s main event: The Venetian Scavenger Hunt. Envelopes were passed out, one to every group of five students. Inside, we found instructions and a list. Using as little technology as we could, we were to locate the places within Venice and answer questions about them.
The challenges ranged from;
“How do you say ‘hugs and kisses’ in Italian?”
“A famous individual frequented Henry’s Pub. Who was it? Take a selfie at their special table.”
“Where is the Ponte delle Tette and what does its name mean? What is its history?”
That last one caused quite a stir in our group. At first it was impossible to get an answer! No matter who we asked, they would always just give us a weird look and shrug or tell us to ask someone else. Even when one of my friends brought the paper to a group of City police officers who proceeded to commandeer the assignment and answer most of the other questions in their broken English, they too merely laughed at that question and gesticulated vaguely in one direction.
It took one of my friend Meg facing embarrassment to get our first real lead.
(Caution: some mild vulgarity ahead.)
As the rest of us squabbled over which route through the city would be most effective (in retrospect, no amount of planning can make the labyrinth of Venice remotely navigable), Meg stepped away and approached a gondolier.
(My best imagining of the encounter based on her telling of it.)
She asked, “Excuse me, where is the Ponte delle Tette?”
The Gondolier cocked his head and raised his hands to his chest, making a suggestive motion, “Tits?”
Confused and embarrassed, my friend said meekly, “Pardon…?”
“Bridge of Tits?” he elaborated, straight faced.
Relieved she wasn’t being harassed, she affirmed and listened as he gave instruction on its… vague… whereabouts. At least, we knew which section of the city to find it in.
We followed his words exactly and… promptly got lost in the tangled mess that is Venice. As soon as we realized we had no idea where we were at or where we were going, we stepped into the nearest store, a whimsical sort of jeweler’s shop. There, we proffered the our question to the men behind the counter and got much the same response—including the same gestures.
Despite the absurdity of the query, despite a bunch of teenagers entering their establishment with not intention to buy, these Venetians still helped us with a smile. That was the magic of this game. The promised mystery prizes were nothing beside the experience of laughing with a couple of Italian men, communicating in broken English and gestures to find your way around an fantastical city or to looking on Venice with more inquisitive eyes than you could have before.
The jewelers drew us a map directly to the bridge and we started off again. Before we got much farther, however, I checked the time. We only had one more hour before we would have to meet up with Rotary again. I turned and presented our options to the group; find the Ponte delle Tette now or eat lunch. Inevitably, it was decided that lunch in Venice simply could not be passed up and we all decided our wild goose chase would have to be cancelled.
We found a lovely cafe and pizzeria and chatted over the meal. We all agreed that perhaps it was better that the bridge remain the mystery. It would make the whole story seem more legendary. But, if we weren’t going to see it, then there wasn’t any harm in looking up the history of it online. It isn’t cheating just to satisfy our curiosity.
In the 1400s, the city of Venice recorded—what they felt was—a disconcerting rise in the numbers of homosexual men. To combat this uptick, the city invested in putting a bunch of brothels along some commonly trafficked areas of the city. The woman of these establishments would advertise their services by standing in the windows topless or in compromising positions. The idea was that an over-exposure of female beauty would result in the reversal of these gay men’s sexuality. The bridge through the heart of this area therefore earned the name the “Bridge of Tits”.
As silly as this story already is, it was all that much funnier to us given that the majority of our group members happened to identify as LGBT+ in some way. This revitalized our resolve to see the bridge and we vowed to get there if we had enough time later in the day.
We would get enough time after the day’s next event. All the exchange students gathered to turn in the results of their scavenger hunt and head off to take a gondola ride. The experience was truly as beautiful as it sounds… though perhaps less romantic. We drifted through the old canals of the city, gazing up at wonderful buildings… yet, our boat was just one in an endless line of gondolas on the same route. Our gondolier, while a very capable pilot, spent the first half of the ride texting. I’m thrilled to have had the experience, but next time I visit Venice—if I even bother to ride the gondolas—I think I will cough up the extra dime for the highest quality ride.
Our group met to once more pursue the Ponte delle Tette. With military efficiency, we marched down the tight Venetian streets towards our goal, until we reached a fork in the road. One of my companions insisted that the right road would take us there based on what Google Maps was telling her, while I was certain the directions the jewelers had given us said farther to the left.
Instead of wasting time arguing, we figured we would all find our way there in the end and split up. Most of the group put their faith in Google Maps, except for one friend who trusted my sense of direction.
The Venetian maze became increasingly difficult to navigate as he and I approached the Ponte delle Tette. At one point, we found ourselves in a school yard full of playing Italian children and their parents. It was one of the only glimpses I got of actual Venetian life. Not far from this scene, we found it. Ponte delle Tette was a rather unassuming bridge on an equally simple canal. The sign painted on the face of an adjoining building clearly marked our destination and the sweet taste of victory filled me. Not only had we finally made it to our elusive destination, but the bridge was empty. We’d beaten the others there. At some point after the fork, our shared goal had become a race.
Satisfied that our quest was a success, my companion and I sat down to wait for the other’s arrival so we could all share in the victory. They didn’t show up, however, and after several minutes of growing concern, we called them.
“Hey, we are on the bridge,” we said, “where are you guys at?”
“No… you aren’t.”
“Yeah… We are standing right under the sign which says so.”
“You can’t possibly be! We are on the bridge right now!”
Yes, as it turns out there are two “Ponte delle Tette”s in Venice. This twist in the story still hasn’t been reconciled. There was no time for us to see each other’s bridges, so it is still up for debate who visited the true, historic Ponte delle Tette. (It was me.) Though I don’t particularly care, if I am being honest. Regardless of where I actually ended up, exploring Venice in search of the “Bridge of Tits” was one of the best adventures of my life.