Spring Break in Venice

Ah…Venice. James and I visited during our college days, almost (ahem) twenty years ago, and not much has changed. There are still way too many pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. They still require you to dress modestly in the basilicas. The gondolas are still horribly overpriced. And the canals and bridges are just as magical and quaint as ever.

One big difference for us, though. These two little monkeys we decided to drag along with us. But we came prepared. For weeks before our trip (and years, really — I bought the book when Liam was 2), we read Olivia Goes to Venice. The week before we left it was Violet’s very favorite book. We rented a two-bedroom apartment close to St. Mark’s Square. We planned only one, maybe two outings per day, with lots of time built in to go back to the apartment to rest in the afternoons. And we packed as light as humanly possible for a family of four so we wouldn’t have too much luggage to drag from the train.

And I’d say, all things considered, we had a fabulous time. There were moments that weren’t so great (the line inside St. Mark’s Cathedral that Liam just about lost his shit about, our stupidly overpriced first dinner, our bathroom that reeked of cats), but the weather was fantastic and, what am I complaining about?! We spent a week in freakin’ Venice!!

Although, I do have to say, our first night was a little rough. After four hours on the train and another hour getting the Vaporetto (Venice’s mass transit system) to our apartment, we settled into our rather amusing digs — not a level floor in the place, or curtains in the bathroom…hello, neighbors! — and I set out to get groceries for my hungry family. We were on the first floor, up one set of stairs from a large entry way. I went to unlock the door to the street — it appeared I could just push a button — but the door wouldn’t budge. I monkeyed with that thing for five minutes before I ran up to get James. Then he monkeyed with it for another five minutes before I called the owner. She was a bit perplexed, but said she was sending her husband to come help us. Hungry, tired children don’t wait happily. Neither does hungry, tired mommy. He showed up after maybe 30 minutes, and of course he opened the door just fine! But after some explaining we discovered what had happened: another tenant in the building at locked the deadbolt from the outside when they left the building, apparently locking everyone else inside. Are you kidding me? What are we supposed to do if this happens again?! He just shrugged his shoulders and said to call him. Perhaps I should start saying because…Italy! At any rate, he said he’d alert the other stupid American tourists not to throw the deadbolt. (I might have added the stupid part.) Finally, I made it home with groceries, and my children ate like Gremlins after midnight.

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Our first full day in Venice we started at the Doge’s Palace, an easy walk from our apartment. We met a long line, but it moved fast. The kids enjoyed watching the boats, or as Violet called them, “The boatsies.” As per usual, Liam rushed us through the palace, complaining about how boring it was until we got to the Bridge of Sighs and the prison rooms. Then he had a fabulous time traipsing through the dungeons and looking at the shiny armor. Violet fell asleep in the Boba and slept through the whole thing.

Gelato o’clock! Liam ate his vanilla waffle cone while I surreptitiously shot some photos. Violet continued to sleep.

While people watching in the square, I spied an Asian tour group with a tour guide speaking softly into a tiny microphone while the group listened intently on their ear pieces. Very high tech!

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Then we were off to see the famed Rialto Bridge! Liam was fairly unimpressed, but he did notice it was just like it was pictured in our Olivia book.

After lunch and siesta at our apartment (I’m so glad we rented close to everything!), we let Liam lead us around the streets until we got hungry for dinner. We landed in a piazza and we chose a sleepy restaurant with tables outside. The kids chased pigeons while we waited for our overpriced meal. Seriously, 75 Euros to feed four people! The restaurant was called Al Burchiello, and looking back on Trip Advisor, the consensus was average food at inflated prices.

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Wednesday morning we stood in a very long line for the San Marco Basilica. Liam was actually pretty good standing in line…until we got inside and he realized the line continued pretty much through the entire church. And then, oh the complaining! There are signs all over the basilica requesting silence, but that had no effect on my increasingly impatient eight-year-old. (Violet was, of course, sleeping this whole time.) Faced with another line at the stairs to the roof, we almost skipped it. But I remembered that was really the best part of the basilica, so after some bribery and threats of abandonment, we made it to the rooftop. There we could wander freely, and it was as if a pressure valve had been released. Smiles on everyone’s faces. (Well, except Violet, who was…yes, still sleeping)

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Gelato o’clock! I know. This is turning into a thing. Our guidebook suggested a trip to the Naval History Museum would entertain young children, so we decided to walk along the shore and check it out. Violet woke up along the way. It turned out to be a rather small museum, but with a lot of huge boats. No lines and very spacious, so the kids had a great time.

Afterward we found much better and affordable food in the Castello neighborhood at a restaurant called Al Canton. My pesto was outstanding, and even better was the chocolate torte.

That evening I took the kiddos on a little walkabout. They had a blast chasing pigeons in the square. It was probably their favorite thing about our trip to Venice. We made our way to the harbor, then wandered our way along the Grand Canal. Eventually Violet fell asleep on my back, and Liam and I wandered our way to a…you guessed it…gelato stand. Third of the day for my little ice cream addict! It was lovely wandering the city as the street lights flickered on…until we got to St. Mark’s Square. Then we were accosted by dudes hawking these flying, spinning glow sticks. I told Liam to tell them, “No Grazie.” He had to say it about five times as we crossed the square. I really thought it would be like magic to walk through the square at night. So annoying!

Thursday morning we sprung for the two-day Vaporetto passes (an astounding 30 Euros a piece!) so we could more easily get around Venice and outlying islands. Liam kept calling them “busoats,” combining “bus” and “boat.” This kid cracks me up.

We popped by the Guggenheim to see my very favorite painting in the whole wide world, a Rene Magritte masterpiece called The Empire of Light. I first laid eyes on this work back in ’99, the last time I was in Venice, and I was completely entranced. So much so that I came back home and painted it on canvas for myself. Family and friends may recognize it from the walls of my houses — regrettably my version is currently in storage.

James is not so into modern art (putting it lightly), so we headed to a nearby church that was featured in one of our favorite films, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We had fruitlessly searched for it twenty years ago, before Google made everything so easy to find. Lo and behold! Hubby looks so happy!

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Back on the “busoat” and to the Jewish Ghetto we went! Interesting piece of history here, dating back to the 1500s. You can read about it here. Interesting history for me, as well — I’m almost certain I stayed at a hostel in the main square when I was here in college. The kids, of course, could care less about the history. Time to chase pigeons!

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On our way back to the apartment we stopped for yet more gelato, and I discovered my favorite flavor: Kookie Tango, a mix of vanilla, chocolate, caramel and sugar cookies. Divine!

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Energized, we decided the line for the climb to the top of the Campanile didn’t look too long. Let’s do it! Violet kept pointing and asking if it was going to fall down, like in her Olivia book. Predictably, she fell asleep before we made it to the top. And — a welcome surprise — there was an elevator straight to the top! The views were amazing.

After dinner, I took the kids on another walkabout. We came upon some gondoliers tying up for the night. As we watched them, one of them playfully took his oar and tapped Liam’s foot. Everyone around us laughed, including us. Violet couldn’t stop shouting “Gondola!” every time she saw one.

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Friday morning as we headed back through St. Mark’s Square, we saw a huge cruise boat sailing past the square in the lagoon. As we looked through the clock tunnel, it looked otherworldly next to all of the Venetian architecture.

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Incidentally, we had this same vantage of the clock tunnel from our apartment.

 

We took the “busoat” out to Murano to watch a glass blowing demonstration. Liam totally dug it. Violet slept through it.

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Thankfully Violet slept through all of our glass souvenir shopping, too. Liam got reprimanded for picking up a very heavy piece of art…marked 350 Euros, yikes! Ok, time for lunch! We found a little Italian place along a canal — two orders of lobster gnocchi and fries for 50 Euros. A cover charge for the table, plus a charge for bread and bottled water…it all adds up. Sheesh.

For our last evening stroll, I took the kids back to St. Mark’s Square while James started packing our things. After chasing pigeons and each other, we wandered over to hear the bands play. Two bands across the square from each other would play classical music and more modern medleys, one after the other. Each had a piano, violin, bass, and clarinet player. Liam asked if I’d like to waltz, which he’d learned how to do in school this year. Eighteen years ago I sat in St. Mark’s Square at midnight with my college friends watching adults in fancy dress waltz to the music, and here I am now waltzing in the square with my eight-year-old son. “Mommy, now I have to spin you!”

Saturday we bid Venice farewell and, as the Italians would say, arrivederci. We took a “busoat” to the train station, and the kids and got to ride in the very front. Violet hollered, “Rialto!” as we passed the bridge. Liam peppered me with questions about the sinking city. What a great send off!

A weekend in Rome…with children

The family and I spent a our spring break in Italy this year, flying directly to Rome from Athens, spending the weekend sight-seeing, then taking a four-hour train to Venice to stay for the week. We finished back in Rome for a day to catch our plane home.

Rome and Venice are such incredibly different cities, I’ve decided to devote two separate posts to our vacation. First up, Rome!

Let me start off by saying I was told by many that Rome and Athens had similar traffic and crowd issues, but this was not what I found. With far fewer motorcycles buzzing about, I found Rome to be refreshingly absent of the typical traffic nightmare that is Athens. Of course, we were there for the weekend, so it’s very likely that, like in Athens, traffic is much better on weekends. Still, the streets seemed wider and more accessible, at least where we were staying. Our two-bedroom apartment was near the Borghese Gardens, coincidentally just down the street from the US Embassy.

Staying in apartments in Rome and Venice, which I found on booking.com, was probably the best choice I could have made for this vacation. We had a lot more space than in a hotel room, and for just about the same price. Plus we could heat up our leftovers (in theory — microwaves don’t seem to be a “thing” in Italy), plus we could feed our picky kids from the grocery store rather than repeatedly eating in restaurants.

We started Saturday morning bright and early with pastries from a nearby bakery, then a walk over to the Borghese Gardens to see about getting a timed ticket. We’d be here the whole weekend, so we figured we’d get a time later in the evening or in the morning on Sunday.

For. To. Laugh.

We were greeted with a sign that said, “Tickets for the museum are sold out until April 19. That was a week and a half away! I guess that’s what you get at spring break in Italy.

We did have a lovely time wandering around the gardens, vaguely headed toward the nearest Metro stop at the Spanish Steps.

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Refreshingly (and relatively) free of tourists for a Saturday morning, we stopped to snap some photos.

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Liam was already in a mood.

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Next up, St. Peter’s Cathedral! Which was a complete circus. The line stretched all the way around the square, easily a three hours’ wait.

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The kids quickly tired of walking around the square and dodging tourists, so after a not-so-brief and embarrassing meltdown, we went on to Plan C…

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Castel San Angelo fortress! Which was so much better. The line was reasonable, and there was plenty of space for the kids to run around. Plus, the views of the surrounding area were spectacular. Violet especially thought so — she wanted to peer into every single port hole we passed.

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The view of St. Peter’s Cathedral. And proof that I was on this vacation.

Liam particularly enjoyed spying the secret entrance for the pope, though he was disappointed we couldn’t walk through it. The kids also enjoyed the playground in the moat — a welcome, kid-friendly respite from all the sightseeing.

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That evening we had a wonderful dinner at Pizzeria San Marco near our apartment. The fried artichoke appetizer…I’m seriously drooling just thinking about them again. My pasta was excellent, and while the pizza was a bit too greasy for my tastes, James thought it was really good.

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Of course we had to visit the Colosseum while we were here! The lines were unsurprisingly long, just a week before Easter Sunday, so we sprang for the “skip the line” tickets. Liam actually did pretty well on the guided tour, but once Violet woke from her snooze, she wanted nothing to do with the group. Our tickets also included Palentine Hill and the Roman Forum, but with kids ready to mutiny, we decided to skip it. It pained me to have had paid that much just to walk around the Colosseum, but we’ve discovered that unhappy kids=unhappy parents.

Time for gelato! For lunch! Yes, parents of the year!

Refreshed, we mosied around Trajan’s Market, and as we came upon the impressive Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Liam pointed up and asked, “Can we climb that?”

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Hell yeah, son! Let’s do it! And by god, he climbed every step without complaint. Apparently climbing is ok, standing in line incites fury. Noted. Violet enjoyed running around the broad marble veranda at the top. And it was free.

No embarrassing outbursts from Liam, mostly due to our promise to take him to Hard Rock Café for dinner if he was good. He was so good, we even bought him a shirt. Violet, on the other hand, was a handful. I can’t wait until she’s bribable.

The next morning we caught the train to Venice. Liam was so excited to ride the train! For, like, the first hour. Then he was like BOOOORING! Time for the iPad! We bought lunch on the train, an expensive and largely unsatisfying experience. We resolved to brown bag it on the way back.

Next stop, Venice! Stay tuned!