When we got to Venice, "afloat on the placid sea," as Twain put it, we discovered that current guidebooks, despite magnificent graphics and pictures, often could not match Twain's prose. As he fell under the city's spell, his sarcasm subsided: His complaint about the "caterwauling" of the gondolier on a "rusty old canoe" became an ode to the sight of marble reflected on glittering waves, "soft and dreamy and beautiful," as he took his readers from palace to gondola and back.
During our visit to the Ducal Palace and its Bridge of Sighs by St. Mark's Square, it was as if Twain took us by the hand and led us through, much better than any modern audio tour could. Even his political analysis chillingly conjured the Doges' cruel rule and the hopeless fate of prisoners from centuries ago: "The doomed man was marched down a hall and out at a door-way into the covered Bridge of Sighs, through it and into the dungeon and unto his death."
Later, at St. Mark's Cathedral, Twain re-emerged as a cynic, siding with my family against me in giving the building the thumbs down. I thought it awe-inspiring but Twain only found "unlovely Byzantine architecture" filled with "coarse mosaics."
There was one thing left before our trip was over: Not to find another of Twain's places, but instead to experience the ambience that permeates the book, that of voluptuous luxury travel in a foreign land where riches may be enjoyed away from the masses. For all the author's notes about the squalor, filth and ruins he encountered on his tours, there were just as many descriptions of parties where champagne flowed.
Being many rungs below the caste of the super-rich, sampling that lifestyle proved somewhat of a challenge in the 21st century. Yet we found it in between Florence and Venice when we landed for a day in the provincial town of Ferrara. It was off the beaten track, and had all the advantages that go with that. Our hotel, Annunziata, was as affordable as it was sumptuous, with by far the best breakfast bounty of local produce we ever found in Italy, and beyond. As it was, rock stars from the British band Kasabian were lounging on its terrace beneath the medieval Castello Estense, and were even up for a chat. A stone's throw away was the marble-clad duomo and several museums, with nary a tourist in sight.
Off went the kids, Clara and Corneel, into the evening for Kasabian's open-air concert. My wife Reine and I lazed through the streets and a park before settling among the locals with prosecco to watch the sun turn a deeper shade of gold. Over an excellent yet simple pasta dinner served al fresco in an alley alongside the cathedral, we felt we had become Twain's "innocents abroad."
Would he have mocked us, or joined us? We didn't care.