“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.”
While Morocco was crazy, exciting, and teeming with energy, Venice was relaxed, stately and confident in itself. You walked into Venice and you felt this collective shrug as if to say, “Love Venice or not, makes no difference to us. We’ve been here for centuries and we will be here for many more.” The problem is, you can’t help loving Venice. The picturesque canals, the alleys, the history around every corner and often hidden out of sight. That’s how we felt entering Venice once again. We’ve now been to Venice three times and each time we return, we love it more. Other people we talk to say that Venice was their least liked stop because of the smell and overpriced food. This can be true as the water can get a little stale in places and the food is overpriced. However, in both cases, it only happens once and a while and with a little planning, you can avoid the worst of Venice for the most part. We’ve always been really careful where we eat, using Rick Steve’s books and other resources to help us find the best places to eat. We also never eat along the canals, particularly the St. Mark’s region as the food gets ridiculously expensive. This time, we planned to cook our own food for the most part so was able to save a lot of money that way. The smell….well, we happened upon it very rarely and ignored it when we did encounter it. However, we, unfortunately, encountered quite a few mosquitos this time around, which didn’t help our sleep at all. The kids loved Venice. They loved exploring, they loved the towers, geocaching, scavenger hunts and all the other things we did in Venice. Finally, the other reason we love Venice so much is that, just a few steps out of the overcrowded touristy areas, you hit the real Venice with families talking, gossiping, kids coming and going from school, laundry hanging across the alleys and the neighbours doing their weekly shopping oblivious to the few tourists that come into these areas. This is what we love about traveling, integrating ourselves into a neighbourhood even just for a short time. And that’s what we got to do in Venice.
Our Neighbourhood and Apartment
When we got to Venice we headed by waterbus to our stop where we were met by the father of our host. He led us into the neighbourhood we were staying stopping at a door in this quiet alley street. Looking at old maps of Venice, you can see the street we were standing on since the beginning of the 1500’s. It was probably there even earlier but we were amazed to see this map later on in our trip and see on this map exactly where we were staying. We were led up the stairs into this wonderful apartment with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a main room and a living room. It was a surprising amount of space for us and we were delighted. They had also provided a number of kitchen items for us to use, like spices and other food. They had also left us some traditional cookies, water, and some wine to celebrate our visit. It was a wonderful way to begin our stay in Venice. The only thing we had to worry about were the neighbours downstairs who were older and didn’t like noise. So, for the entire time we were there we had to constantly remind ourselves not to be loud or thump around on the floor which was not easy for our children.
The neighbourhood itself was perfect as well. There were lots of food shops all the way up and down, there was a lovely park nearby and even a little toy store where Liam found a little Venice Lego set to add to the set he got in Delft. The neighbourhood was definitely not a touristy area. While you could tell that there were a few tourists here and there, most of the neighbourhood was filled with families and local people. They had a boat at the edge of the canal selling vegetables and fruits and a little shop where you could fill up your plastic bottles with wine. They had all these casks with different wines. You chose the one you wanted, handed over your plastic bottle and they would fill it for you. It was much cheaper than the wines you got in the shops and just as good (to us anyway). Deanne had a fun experience buying vegetables from the boat. As the sellers were on the boat, they would be rocking and swaying in the waves. Deanne said it was a little mindbending to be on flat, stable land while conducting business with someone who appeared to be at sea. Deanne and I both agreed that when we came back (notice the when, not if), we would stay in this area again.
Finding Venice’s Hidden Treasures
One of the activities we did a lot of was geocaching. If you don’t know what geocaching is, it is like a worldwide treasure hunt. Anyone can hide “treasure”, post the GPS coordinates on the main geocaching website and challenge others to find their hidden loot. “Treasure” would be overstating it a bit as most times, the “treasure” is simply a log book where you can write your name stating that you found it. The fun is in the finding of the hidden objects and they can be quite challenging to find. Venice actually has quite a few geocaches hidden around its alleys and they led us to some very interesting places, which is the other benefit to geocaching in places like Venice. You get to look around places that other tourists may not notice. In this case, the geocaches led us to two very interesting spots, in particular, the Alta Acqua Libera and the Scala Contarini del Bovolo.
The Alta Acqua Libera is a unique bookstore that has been around for about 30 years. According to someone we talked to, the Libera has gradually accumulated books over the years, mostly from people who were moving and were wanting to get rid of their books as moving is not very easy in Venice. The store is stuffed full of books and I would challenge you to find any order to their placement other than by general theme perhaps. The other unique thing about the store is that, during high tide season, the bookstore is often flooded. Throughout the store are a number of washtubs, boats, and even a gondola holding books to keep them from getting wet. Alas, it does not always work and some of the books get wet. Instead of throwing them out, the store has stacked them in the back garden area to create this mound of books you can climb on. We had great fun in this bookstore and the kids enjoyed scampering about looking at the different offerings. In the back, they even had a real, floating gondola you could sit in. We had decided not to shell out the 80 euros for a gondola boat tour as it was not within our budget. So, sitting in this gondola was the next best thing for us. The place is a perfect reflection of Venice – old, crumbling, haphazard, and somehow incredibly beautiful.
The Scala Contarini del Bovolo claims to be Venice’s hidden treasure. It certainly wasn’t hidden when we followed the geocache coordinates to the site. There were a number of tour groups here. However, none of the tour groups went inside. As the kids were free, I paid to go in and had a few enjoyable minutes climbing the winding staircase. The Scala Contarini del Bovolo is the palazzo belonging to the Contarini family, which features is a spiraling “snail” staircase that winds up the tower-like facade of a historic palazzo. “Del Bovolo” translates to “of the snail” in the Venetian dialect, referring to the spiral shape of the scala (staircase). The winding tower was so popular, the “bovolo” name became forever attached to not only the palace but also the Contarini family, one of the founding families of Venice, who had the spiraling facade built to showcase their great wealth. At the top of the winding staircase was a scenic view of the skyline around St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile. We found lots of other neat little places as we geocached in Venice. The kids enjoyed the challenge of finding the objects and it got us exploring lesser known areas of Venice.
On one of the days, we headed out to the islands out past Venice including Murano, Burano, and Torcell0. Murano, of course, is famous for its glass making but beyond that, it isn’t a whole lot different than Venice. Siena and Liam enjoyed looking at the little glass figures and watching one of the glassmakers actually making one of the figures, twisting the red-hot staffs of glass into the shape of a rose. We didn’t stay long on Murano and quickly headed off to Burano.
Burano is a beautiful little island which features brightly painted houses. It struck me this time how similar they are to the houses in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The legend says that the houses are brightly painted to help the fisherman find the island when the dense fogs roll in. I don’t know if it actually works but it is very distinctive and the vivid colours are charming. Everywhere we walked, there was a brightly coloured lane you were tempted to walk down. On our first trip here, in 2007, I took a photo that I was able to enlarge into a poster, which now hangs over our bed at home. So Burano holds lots of good memories for us. We had a nice pizza lunch in a little square surrounded by the brightly coloured houses and enjoyed the nice cool fall day.
Torcello was the last island we stopped at. This island used to be a bustling city with 50,000 people living on it. Today, only about 25 people live there. There is not much there besides a church and one of the original bridges with no railings, showcasing the types of bridges that used to frequent Venice. It was called the Devil’s Bridge for, as legends state, the Devil returns there every Christmas Eve waiting for a promise to be fulfilled. Of course, on all the islands, we had to do some geocaching and Torcello was no exception. In our search for the elusive geocache, we ran into some other geocachers. You can very easily spot geocachers as they will be the odd people looking under and into weird spots. They spotted us looking behind an air conditioner and quickly discerned that we were looking for the same cache as they were. As we talked, we also realized that they had texted us the other day in their search for a cache in Venice that we had found but that had eluded them. They were from Minnesota and we had a chat about the various caches we had found and geocaching in general. It was fun meeting some fellow geocachers and, together, we quickly found the cache we had been looking for.
A Scavenger Hunt with Macacotours
In researching Venice, Deanne found a neat company in Venice that organizes scavenger hunts for kids. We signed up for one of the scavenger hunts thinking the that kids would enjoy doing one of these hunts, especially as they had enjoyed the geocaching so much. One morning, we headed out to meet Martina, who was our guide for the scavenger hunt. She quickly hit it off with the kids, giving both jobs to do and helping them with the clues. Martina was very engaging and cheerful. The clues the kids had to find featured various landmarks around a small part of Venice. The unique thing about the tour, though, was that each clue gave the kids a piece about the history of Venice using objects that would normally have been passed by had we not been looking for them. One of the objects, a door handle with the head of middle eastern trader, was one of the unique clues. Here, Martina explained that as traders came from all around to trade in Venice, they would need accommodation. Middle Eastern traders could look for the special door handles which signified that there was accommodation available to them there. Another clue took us to a ghoulish head atop the door of the church bell tower. The ghoulish head was there to frighten away the Devil, who apparently loved to ring the bell at all times of the night annoying the neighbourhood. A nearby bridge held hidden letters woven into the railings to show their faith in the Italian king at a time when Austria had an imposing presence in the city. The pieces of history were fascinating and told a story about Venice that we had not heard before. The kids had a great time finding the clues and following a map, especially as they discovered that the map led to an actual treasure, some uniquely designed notebooks for the kids to write in designed by a local graphic designer. It was a great tour and kept the kid’s interest as they learned about the history of Venice. We would certainly recommend Macacotours to any other family visiting with children.
Of course, Venice is well known for its masks. In fact, on our first journey to Venice, we came back with some of our own masks. This time, we thought it would be fun to have the kids make their own masks as part of their Art lessons. My mom and dad had been to Venice only a few weeks before we arrived and had found this mask shop that did classes on mask painting. As they were reasonably priced, we headed over one afternoon and did one of their workshops. We were very fortunate as it was just the three of us there to make masks. Deanne went off to do some exploring, while I stayed with the kids. We were able to ask lots of questions and get many insights into mask painting. The kids loved the painting and they especially loved getting to choose their own masks from the vast selection available. Liam chose an owl’s head, Siena chose a fox head and I chose a more traditional historical mask. The workshop leader was very patient and kind with the kids, helping them with paint colours and keeping them focused. The kids responded very well and worked hard to paint their masks very carefully. The masks came out very well and the workshop leader was very impressed. He told the kids that our masks were the best he had seen in quite a few weeks. As we worked, he was able to give us information on the making of masks, starting from the clay models to the special paper they use to form the paper mache masks. The masks are then painted white in preparation for the actual decorating. The masks can get quite fancy but as we had limited time, we could not get into the more finer detailing that is done. The kids were impressed with their work and were very enthusiastic. It had been a very successful art lesson. The only trick is to get them home in one piece!
Avoiding the Crowds in St. Mark’s Square
Braving the crowds, we headed out to see Venice’s main tourist attractions. As the crowds are overwhelming most of the time, we broke up the main sites into a couple of outings. St. Mark’s Basilica is the main feature in St. Mark’s Square, it’s imposing facade dominating the square. The nice thing about the Basilica is that it is free and if you get there at the right time, the crowds are not too bad. As it was, we were able to get right in and wander around the beautiful gloomy interior. It’s a massive church and rich in history. It is said that the Venetians raided Turkey to bring back the remains of St. Mark, which are entombed there still. It is very atmospheric and the kids were very impressed by the somber earnestness which the murky depths exuded.
The Campanile was one of Liam’s favorite stops. He is a lover of tall towers, the Eiffel Tower being his favorite. The campanile is his next favorite (though that often depends on the day and where he is).
We all remember the Campanile from the Oliva books, where the energetic hyper pig accidentally knocks the tower over trying to bring one of the bricks home as a souvenir. As he often reminded us, the tower did actually collapse in 1902, falling into the balcony of the Basilica. We went up the tower during a less busy moment and enjoyed the panoramas of the city. The Doge’s Palace was another of Liam’s “must do’s”. He was quite taken with the legend regarding the Bridge of Sighs. It states that as prisoners were led across the bridge to the jails, they would look out the windows of the bridge and sigh, as it would be their last sight of Venice for a long time. The ironic thing is that the jails were built to be more comfortable and airier for the prisoners. We all agreed that they missed the mark on both points. As we walked back across the bridge, Deanne and the kids thought it would be hilarious to stick their hands out the window and wave at all the tourists trying to take pictures of the bridge. The thought of hundreds of tourists getting home and looking at their pictures of the Bridge of Sighs only to see a bunch of hands sticking out the window induced lots of giggles from the kids. The Palace itself is quite remarkable but not as interesting to the kids as it featured yet more ornate rooms filled with overly ornamental baroque decorating. Still, it was fun to wander through the rooms, including the Doge’s reception room which apparently is one of the largest room in Europe still.
Pizza and Gelato
No visit to Venice would be complete with stops for Gelato and Pizza. We didn’t get to have much of the pizza as we were on a tight budget but we managed to a lot some of our funds for a daily gelato. The kids were passionate about finding the best gelateria with the right flavours. A lot of work went into testing the different places to find the best gelato. At the end of our time there, we were still undecided but consoled ourselves with the fact that we would have to return to really make a well-reasoned decision.
Visiting the Museums
There are a number of Museums to visit in Venice but we decided to focus on just two of them for this visit. The Peggy Guggenheim Museum focuses on the world of Modern Art. It is housed in Peggy Guggenheim’s old house situated along the Grand Canal. In fact, when she died she was buried there along with all her dogs, which the kids found quite fascinating. One of the things we love about world-famous art galleries is being able to see art and artists that you would usually only see in a book. This museum is no different. With a great selection of Picasso’s, Poll0cks and others, it was fun to walk around, stand in front of one of these great works and nod knowledgeably as if you were a well-respected art critic. With kids in tow, of course, that is not easy to do and the great fun was actually looking at the artwork, then at the kids and think to yourself that they could have done the same thing. In fact, in the gift shop, there was a book I was tempted to purchased called, “Why Your Kids Could Not Have Created That Art Work!” However, we did enjoy going through and shaking our heads in confusion as to why some of the works could have been considered great works of art. We had to keep telling the kids to keep their voices down as they spouted their incredulous-ness at the different doodles and scribbles that were considered Modern Art. However, it was a very nice museum with the right amount of art that kept the kid’s interest without being overwhelming. Places like the Louvre are amazing but you quickly become overwhelmed with the amount of art and it starts to all blur together after awhile.
The Correr Museum is an appealing museum that, despite its location on the edge of St. Mark’s square, is rarely busy. As their website states, “Originally designed as a residence for the new sovereign (Napolean), the Napoleonic Wing would only be finished in the 19th century, when Venice was under Austrian rule, serving as the official residence of the Hapsburg Court on their frequent visits to the city, and would after become the Venetian residence of the King of Italy.” Many of the rooms have been redecorated to show what it would have looked like from that era and the opulence is breathtaking. Room after room filled with stunning artwork and decorative elements. As usual, the kids hopped from room to room. They particularly liked the room we called the “Mourning Lost Ice Cream” room. All the statues looked like they had lost their gelato and were in various states of distress. One of our favorite things to do with statues is to make up what they are saying. The kids always find these to be funny and this room was no exception. One of the nice things about this museum, which we learned the first time we were here, was that they have this little cafe with wonderful views of St. Mark’s square, the Basilica, and the Campanile. It is never busy so you can have a coffee, enjoy the views and get away from the crowds. The coffee there was amazing. In a land of cappuccinos and expressos, it is hard to get a large cup of really good coffee which is quite funny as Venice was one of the first places to have coffee shops, having been brought over by the Middle Eastern traders.
Venice has so much to see. We could come back again and again and always see something new. However, the real rewards come as you begin to integrate yourself into the natural ebbs and flows of the neighbourhoods. Shopping locally, getting our bottles filled at the wine shop and exploring the hidden corners of Venice gave us a renewed appreciation for Venice and it’s people. We didn’t want to leave and even the kids were very sad to leave the city. However, another exciting adventure awaits us in Tuscany!