Mariella Frostrup: Bonding in Venice

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Despite their near-constant proximity, sometimes your own children can feel like strangers, even when you’re under the same roof. They drift in and out of rooms, mumble their day was ‘fine’, grumble when they’re sent to tidy their rooms and otherwise whole weeks can go by without any meaningful conversation.

So I felt like a nervous lover on a blind date when I set off with my 13-year-old daughter Molly on a minibreak to Venice to encourage her artistic skills with a look at this year’s Biennale. What would we talk about, left alone for two days without interruptions from her brother and father?

Would we sit in sullen pubescent silence (her), glumly watching gondolas glide by (me) on the Grand Canal? There was a sticky moment on our first night but, like the boats on the canal, it passed swiftly, and we drifted back into safe waters.

Dinner was a treat, watching her negotiate some pretty peculiar local seafood as she chatted away.

Without her brother in tow, she seemed suddenly older and worldlier, capable of talking about Trump and Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Damien Hirst without pausing for breath. Hirst’s show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was the highlight of our two-day agenda.

Both scuba-diving devotees, we wandered his coral-encrusted mythological bronzes, marvelling at the imaginative detail. Molly proved herself quite the critic, declaring the giant underwater photographs of sculptures abandoned on the ocean floor the best in show, and suggesting the whole collection should eventually be set up as an innovative underwater sculpture park. Damien are you listening?

Normally a thrill-seeking devotee of rollercoasters and waterslides, Molly took to this ancient city as enthusiastically as she might Disney World. Then again, I defy even the sulkiest teen not to be captivated by this waterside wonder. We arrived on the weekend of the annual Redentore festival and the city was bursting at the seams.

Ten years ago, we had stayed at the San Clemente Palace, neighbour to the glitzy Cipriani, and for far less money a superior choice. Back then, we were blown away by the staff’s kindness to our then toddlers. A decade later, and having undergone a change of ownership to Kempinski, the hotel remains a blissful, peaceful oasis, the legacy perhaps of the monks who once inhabited this former monastery, set on its own island 20 minutes’ boat ride from the tourist mayhem of San Marco. Acres of green garden dotted with sculptures and a vast swimming pool and tennis courts, it really is the perfect place to return at the end of a stimulating but exhausting day.

On our last afternoon, drinking virgin Pina Coladas on our sunloungers, Molly surprised me by asking what I was wearing for the evening fireworks spectacular we would be watching from a boat in the bay, generously provided for San Clemente guests. My daughter normally manages only a grimace at my fashion choices, and this was a seminal moment of bonding, and a glimpse of a future friend that made the not inconsiderable cost of our weekend away worth every penny and more.

The lowdown

Mariella presents Open Book on Radio 4. Read more of Mariella’s columns here.

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