Life Lessons Venice Taught Me At 21

Venetian house and private garden with gothic windows by Carla Coulson I will never forget the life lessons I learned in Venice. The memory of the first day I alighted  will go with me to the grave, it has been burned into my cellular memory as one of the stand out memories of my life.

Travel is the greatest teacher. Every twenty year old Australian wanted to backpack around Europe and I joined the crowd. I was just 21 and was backpacking around. It was my first time overseas, I was way out of my comfort zone and all the creature comforts I was used to were faraway.

Thirty years ago it was a normal thing to catch the train from London to Venice with a little ferry ride from Dover to Calais!  I didn’t stop in Paris; I headed straight for Italy.

When the train rolled into Santa Lucia station and I walked out with just my backpack, my heart felt like it was outside of my body. I laughed out aloud like someone was playing a big joke on me!

white baroque church venice italy by carla coulson

water taxi on the grand canal venice

scenes of venice by carla coulson white altar and venetian houseMy brain couldn’t catch up with what was happening, the abundance of ornate beauty coming out of the water in the form of churches and shops, palaces and houses. The faded colours of ochre, dirty yellow and pink were the backdrop to boats delivering wine and fridges, chairs and art.

I walked to the edge of the canal and stood trying to figure it out.

The beauty hit me like a stun gun. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It took an hour before I could move on, start in the direction of finding my pensione with a map that meant absolutely nothing to me.

I didn’t care, it took forever that day to find the pensione run by a small Venetian called Maria. It was a spartan establishment with terrazzo floors, perfectly made single beds with bright white sheets and photos of the Madonna on the wall. Kind of like a Dolce & Gabbana ad.

In those days, it wasn’t weird to share the room with numerous people and I had another Australian girl in the bed next to me and on the opposite side of the room a Spanish man doing a tour of churches.

I remember thinking that was the oddest thing, who would tour the world to look at churches? I laugh now, cause that’s exactly what I do with Francesco, stick our head into every church we pass.

venice door and the dorsoduro by carla coulsonvenice gondola workshop by carla coulson dorsoduro

I had a copy of Italian Hours by Henry James as a companion and I walked the streets and over the bridges of the canals of Venice delighting in every detail. Henry James was my guide, I too fell in love with the Tintorettos in the Doge’s Palace, the faded colours, the way the doors opened into the sea, the way Venetians called to each other in what felt like a secret language. I loved it all, the wine bars where the locals would stand at the bar smoking and have a glass of prosecco or caffé coretto, coffee with a hit of grappa.

In the evenings, the other Australian girl and I would grab some wine, cheese and fruit and find a place on the canal and marvel at all the funny things that happened.

Venice was romantic like me She was unashamedly nostalgic and it felt like I had found the perfect match. Every outdated way of doing absolutely anything was still in in Venice and I reveled in.

boat transporting art Venice by Carla coulsonWashing in campo santa margherita bridge over canal venice by carla coulson

At the end of the work day, the train would bring an influx of Venetians back to Venice and I still remember the elegance of the women and men. They seemed like the most sophisticated people on the planet. The way they dressed, they moved, the care in the details of the way they put themselves together right down to their exquisite shoes.

When I left Venice, I would never be the same girl. I would carry her with me in the coming years, our love affair has spanned 34 years. There is hardly a year that goes by without me knocking on her watery door and starting where we last left off. Photographing her has been one of my greatest joys, for myself and magazines (you can grab some tips here).

detail white curtains piazza san marco venice by carla coulson

All images copyright Carla Coulson

Venice taught me so many life lessons. That the world is a big magical place, bigger and more beautiful than we could ever dream up. That there are places when you are far away from home that feel like home. That in a fast paced modern world, it is OK to be old fashioned and romantic and to be yourself. She taught me that the magic lies out of our comfort zone.

Maybe she planted a seed in my twenty-one-year-old mind that wasn’t ready to germinate at the time, that would slowly grow in my thirties, that life could be lived in so many different ways and that maybe one day that Italy would be part of my story.

She showed me that the impossible is possible. Never stop dreaming.

We love Venice we will be back real soon.

What is your favourite travel memory? Leave me a note below

Carla x

If you love Venice and want to have daily updates on this glorious place, you can follow on Instagram @venicebybridge

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Melissa Florence
Melissa Florence
3 years ago

Ah Carla I loved reading this, you’ve brought tears to my eyes and gave captured so perfectly the feeling of first arriving at my favorite place on earth! I am still working towards going there to live and hope it will be soon!! I can’t wait to join @venicebybridge and am so grateful for the amazing images and insights she is lovingly sharing with us all in this time of physical separation. Sending love to you and my beloved Venezia !!!

3 years ago

Melissa, I can’t wait either! It makes me feel so much better, knowing in my heart you’ll be back here when this is all over. Venice is waiting for you. Sending love to you. xx

3 years ago

I have so many but will share one about Venice. My husband and I were on a cruise through Europe with a stop in Venice that started early morning around 6:30. Typically life on a cruise ship does not lend itself too well to early mornings, however that morning was magical as the tube “Ava Maria” was blasted over the ship intercom as we sailed into the city. I can close my eyes and still see the city shrouded in mist with pockets of sunshine breaking through the clouds. It seems every ship balcony head out couples and families out soaking up the grandeur of the elegance of this fabled city. It was beyond surreal.

3 years ago

My god, what a beautiful read, and such stunning photos!! I still have not been to Venice, but on my top list of places I want to go on the planet I have:
1. Venice
1. Naples
Reading your story reminds me of the first time I arrived in Florence. And the first time I arrived in Puglia too.
Thank you for the inspiration and the beauty!!
Linda x

3 years ago

I remember the first time I arrived in Italy, Sienna leaving a lasting memory. I’ve been back a few times taking my children to Venice and other beautiful regions, I fell in love with Italy, and now dream of getting back, maybe to do an artist residency or just find me again …

Debby Bain
Debby Bain
3 years ago

Oh Carla what a beautiful read and you’ve taken me back to the beginnings of my love of travel which started as a 20 year old moving to London for an 8-year love affair (with the city and the man!).

They say you leave a piece of your heart in Africa, and there is definitely a piece of mine there. I can barely say those words out loud without my eyes welling up. I adore that continent and have been blessed to spend a year there many years ago…with my London love who later became my husband.

Travel gives us so much and I never want to stop x

3 years ago

PERHAPS seeing my buddies from FLORENCE in THAT CAFE on the big PIAZZA INSIDE!THEY SURPRISED ME by taking the train up from FIRENZE knowing I was not stopping there this last trip!
ABOUT seven years go now I think!

3 years ago

Beautiful post.. with everything Italy is going through at the moment it’s a wonderful reminder of the beauty and timelessness of this country.. sending positive vibes.. ❤️

3 years ago

Oh Carla, what a gorgeous post. I’ve felt the same about Venice as long as I can remember. When I first walked out of the Santa Lucia train station and down her steps. I could hardly believe what I saw or that I finally was seeing it for myself. My love affair started years before I ever was here. But like you, I wandered her streets and felt immediately at home. Her beauty is hard to take in all at once! I always think, that this city, this magical unbelievable gem of a place, well, if someone was able to dream it up all those centuries ago, it makes me feel like anything is possible. Your stunning photos brought tears to my eyes as I sit here in Venice, at home, waiting for her to return to us. Thank you for the shout out. I can’t wait to have all you Venice, Italy lovers back here for a huge celebration and a glass of prosecco! xx

3 years ago

Venice is a beautiful place. I love it very much. Now that I’ve done all the things that tourists due during my past two visits, I want to go again just to get lost and discover the secret Vencie, the one that hides away from the crowds. It would make me so happy.

Deborah Fox
Deborah Fox
3 years ago

Hi Carla, stepping off the plane in Frankfort Germany for my first European trip was just the best. All my reading paid off to maneuver my partner Pat and I through the airport, to the train and we spent the next couple of hours with our faces pressed to the window of the train.
The countryside was gorgeous, the architecture was incredibly and we were immediately taken in by this country.
We travel to Oldenburg for the wedding of my German daughter who was my exchange student for a year. Her family, the food, the wine, the traditions were all incredible.
We want so badly to go back for an extended amount of time just to see more. I hope when the pandemic is past, we will have that opportunity.

3 years ago

hello there – I also went to Venice travelling as a twenty one something and this is where my love for photography started with a point and shoot. The photo (canal and gondolier) I was proud off still sat on my folks’ sideboard unit until recently. Thanks so much for the workshop yesterday – it was such an inspiration – and you have a amazing energy!

3 years ago
Reply to  jackie

there is a restaurant in Soho, London – Polpo – one of my favourite places – and on the menu – the founder tells his story boarding the Orient Express – standing room only with a bottle of water and a baguette in his hand – he was the happiest he has ever been …