It seems Venice, Italy is on everybody’s list of places they’d like to see. We’d never been, but had heard stories recently about how over-crowded and expensive it had become. We had also wondered what there was to do there when you have two young kids with you. But, an opportunity to meet up with my cousin and her family as they were touring through town was the extra nudge we needed to book a last-minute weekend trip. The flight down from Basel was only about an hour long, and we were able to find cheap fares on EasyJet and a nice AirBnB within walking distance of all the major sites.
We arrived just after dark (about 9:30 p.m.) taking a bus boat from the airport to a pier near the place we were staying. After checking in and getting situated, we realized it was after ten o’clock and had a sinking feeling nothing would be open to get some dinner/dessert. Not to fear–this is Venice where people eat late and stay out even later. The kids grabbed their flashlights and we walked along the side-canals and alleys in search of food. We were immediately enchanted by the atmosphere at night. It felt like we were walking in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland. We found many restaurants still open even at eleven o’clock with people sitting out on the patios, enjoying the warm evening. The girls recalled their only other reference to Venice–the Scooby Doo episode “Menace in Venice” where Scooby and the gang tangled with the “ghostly gondolier”. After gelato (excellent and abundant at prices comparable or even cheaper than ice cream in the U.S.), we headed back.
The next morning we decided to walk through town, past the Rialto bridge, to piazza San Marco and its basilica and bell tower. It was near noon and it was crowded, but not as bad as I thought it might be on a Saturday (we came through again on Sunday afternoon around 3, and it was much worse).
We had reserved a set time to go up in the bell tower online a few days earlier and skipped the long queue (think FastPass at Disneyland). It was worth it. The kids loved the views from the top of the bell tower–it was an instant hit.
A tower has stood in this spot for over a thousand years, with the most recent version completed in 1912 after it just collapsed one morning in 1902 (nobody was killed except for the caretaker’s cat). There is a plaque commemorating where Galileo demonstrated his telescope for the Doge in 1609 from the tower. We were not up there when the bells rang, but could imagine it would be quite loud (and cool).
We had also reserved a time for a quick tour of St. Mark’s Basilica online. This one can be a bit tricky with small children as you have to (try to) be silent the whole time. Luckily, the main tour is a quick loop inside where you can check out the gold mosaics and statues and you are nearly done before the youngsters start whining too loudly. It really was an impressive sight for the adults. For an extra five euro per adult, you can go up to the terrace and also check out the four horses and Jana and the four year-old were up for it since she thought (rightly) that there might be more pictures of Jesus up there. There are no pictures allowed inside and you have to be wearing clothing that covers your shoulders and no short skirts/shorts.
We met up with my cousin, her husband and their daughter for a fantastic dinner outside along the grand canal. The food and wine were great and we watched boats, taxis and gondolas go by as we ate. There are plenty of places you can eat outside right on a canal, and they aren’t necessarily more expensive than restaurants that don’t have a view.
On Sunday, we decided to walk some of the back-canals that we missed on Saturday and get away from the more popular routes on a path that would eventually take us to the Lido where the kids could play at the beach. We ended up near the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo and wandered through a museum next to it. A cat appeared in one of the outdoor halls and the girls immediately followed it out into a courtyard where they found another cat asleep under a tree.
Then, one by one, more cats appeared around us in the courtyard, coming out from behind bushes, laying on a rock-pile, watching us from the shadows. It was clear we were in some sort of feral cat colony. Somebody was helping take care of them, putting out water bowls and even building little cat condos for them to live in (unless the cats built them, perhaps they are less lazy than our cat).
This was probably the highlight of the whole trip for the girls, walking around talking to and counting (at least 30 or 40) these curious cats. A few even let you pet them.
I read later that Venice used to be crawling with stray cats. Over the past 20 years they have been sterilized and put out in a sanctuary on the island of San Clemente [Jana secretly hopes this is the same San Clemente Island from Island of the Blue Dolphins, but knows, alas, it is not]. We were the only ones in the courtyard on this afternoon and were glad that we had set out to “get lost” that morning.
Before we left, we took a gondola ride. I know, a bit “touristy”, but so is much of Italy. We figured you have to do it once. Our gondolier was very friendly and even sang Italian songs to us. It lasted 30 minutes, which was just the right amount of time for squirming kids. When we asked C (6) what the best part of the gondola ride was she thought for a moment and said, “sitting down”. Guess we made those kiddos walk pretty far through the Venetian maze!
Overall, Venice was a big hit. There was so much to see just walking around and enjoying the bridges, houses, gelato and canals that the kids stayed relatively entertained. Jana loved the boats and the water, except the very last one back to the airport that we waited for for half and hour and then just in front of us they closed the rope and said it was full and we’d have to wait another thirty minutes for the next boat! C, H and J almost went into a full ‘there’s no water in the pool’-type meltdown over that one–but we persevered. The Lido was also fun for a couple-hour beach escape, but it was very crowded and didn’t have many facilities unless you paid extra. The restaurants were pretty kid-friendly as most of them had pizza on the menu. There was more to see and do than can be accomplished in one weekend, which is why I’d like to go back again someday.