THE AUSTRALIAN: Tour guides deliver insider knowledge on London, Venice, Rome

Jane Nicholls ·         The Australian ·         12:00AM January 7,

2017We’re making like George and Amal Clooney in our own water taxi zooming around Venice. Please, no photos, tourists! The shiny prow of the wooden hull cuts smoothly through the canals and we stand leaning against the roof of the cabin, taking in the city’s magical sights.

The best part of this movie-star experience? We’ve not had to negotiate the price for the water taxi, struggle to find our vessel among the dozens jostling and bobbing at San Marco dock, or even tell the driver where to go. It’s all part of our three-hour insider’s walking, talking, cruising tour of Venice with our private guide, Davide.

As we travel through the canals, Davide shares information (the history of Venice’s cemetery island, Isola di San Michele) and fun observations (tiny terraces, known as altane, sprout from rooftops all over packed-to-the edges Venice).

A native Venetian, he tells us how in the 1950s his parents would swim in the canals, which is now probito. Also forbidden are my daughters’ bare legs at St Mark’s Basilica, but Davide magics up a wrap to cover them and, inside, gets us to hang back until there is no one else in front of Pala d’Oro, the bejewelled byzantine altarpiece which is accessible for a €2 fee. Former art-history lecturer Davide proudly details the gold cloisonné treasure’s fascinating past for us. Davide alerts us to tourist-trap restaurant strips, clues us in on the gondola da parada that ply short routes to cross the Grand Canal (“ride a gondola for €2, not 80 — the locals will stand for the whole time!”) and grosses out the kids at a horsemeat butcher.

As we cruise the canals, Davide’s delightful stream of facts and anecdotes is only interrupted by the occasional “duck!” or “watch your head!” as the water taxi approaches a low bridge. I flash back to a private guided motorcycle tour from Fang, in the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, in my backpacking 20s. Far from watching our heads, our guides seemed to be going full throttle trying to kill us.

The “cultural tour” was a direct route through the jungle to a bamboo-hut opium den, with the three of us riding pillion, helmetless, on motorbikes bouncing along a potholed track. As we prepared to ride back to Fang, our exuberantly hammered guides (their few remaining opium-stained teeth now shockingly apparent) offered us slugs of local whiskey, gratis. It wasn’t quite the local high we’d signed up for.

Perhaps that explains the gap of several decades before I returned to the private-guide track. When my question-a-minute children became my fellow travellers, I wanted to help them imprint the cities and historical marvels we were visiting together, weaving into our journeys fascinating yarns and surprising details. And I needed to go beyond my guidebook gleanings and half-baked fragments of high-school history. ....

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