Monday, 8 May 2017

A Family Trip to Venice

"Venice is like eating and entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go." So said legendary writer Truman Capote and while I might swap the liqueur bit for, say, a packet of Rolos, the analogy is spot on. A trip to Venice makes you feel like you've gorged on previously unimaginable beauty - it's such a confection of pure loveliness you can't really believe it actually exists. I mean, it's a city built on water, a place filled with vistas that take your breath away around every corner. It's certainly the most exquisite, atmospheric place I've ever visited.

I first came to Venice when I was on an Italian exchange at the age of about 14, then a few years later on a family holiday and more recently on a day trip from the Venetian Riviera. But day trips and school exchanges don't really make for a meaningful experience and I'd been longing for a repeat visit, both to see the city with my own, adult eyes and to introduce my own children to a place that captured my heart all those years ago.

However, you don't need me to tell you that romantic ideals about travel don't always work out when you've got a teenager and a nearly 9-year-old in tow. Then there's the niggling suspicion that your rose-tinted memories might not equate with a city that's now moved into the 21st-century. You'll have forgotten just how busy it gets. But still - you got cheap flights and a convenient Airbnb so there's no need for over analysis. And when I say cheap, our 4 night break with flights came in at just shy of £750 for all four of us (I think that compares very well with a break at Center Parcs.)
We enjoyed a wonderful 5 day break in the city over Easter, admittedly perhaps one of the busiest times to go, but despite the hordes of tourists clogging up St Mark's Square, we managed to navigate our way around the busier areas, taking refuge in places off the beaten track when it all got too much. It's perhaps good to go with the mindset that some of the key sights - San Marco, the campanile and the Doge's Palace, for example - might prove too tricky to tick off the list, but you might strike lucky. We were able to pretty much walk straight into the basilica, though the next day the queue was round the block.
If you can make it inside, though, this is a must-see - a gorgeous confection of gold and glittering jewels that will make your eyes pop out. Piazza San Marco, the pretty Palazzo Ducale, the Bridge of Sighs and the glittering Rialto are also must sees, but you will have to navigate the crowds to experience them.
If you're feeling flush, I can't think of a nicer place to recharge than the legendary Caffe Florian, located underneath the porticos that run along the square. It's a jewel-box of a cafe, founded in the 1700s and filled with ornate features: gold cornices, marble floors and Murano glass chandeliers. But do expect to lose around 10 euros per person to enjoy a coffee amidst is splendour.
The real pleasure of Venice, though, isn't the expensive attractions and queues. It's about getting lost in its complex maze of streets only to stumble upon a light-filled square where you can sit in the sun with an Aperol Spritz. It's about swapping ordinary modes of transport for water buses and gondolas - a much nicer way to navigate a city. Water buses can be quite costly for family travel but you can buy 24-hour tickets that allow you unlimited travel on certain routes. Gondola rates have been standardised so there's no quibbling over prices - currently it costs 80 euros for a daytime half hour canal ride. Even if you're on a budget I'd recommend you just suck it up - it's a special experience you can't get anywhere else.
With five days at our disposal we were able to visit pretty much every sestiere (quarter) in Venice. Our Airbnb was based in a quiet canal-side street in Canareggio, an atmospheric and authentic district with access to some of the city's best cicchetti bars. It was also close to the useful Fondamente Nove water bus stop, offering easy access to the boat that takes in three lagoon islands: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
This trip is a must-do. You can watch glass-blowing on Murano and visit the ancient cathedral on Torcello. But my favourite was Burano - an Instagrammer's dream of tranquil canals lined with multi-coloured fisherman's houses. It's outrageously beautiful and thought it attracts a steady stream of visitors, it doesn't feel over-run with tourists.
Further (relative) tranquility lies across the water from San Marco at the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the most photographed landmarks in the city. Designed by Palladio, you won't find queues snaking out the door, plus its campanile offers just as amazing a view as that from the bell tower at St Mark's (again, without the queues and for a cheaper entrance charge.)
Don't miss the fish market at Rialto to see working Venice in action - it's a bustling, noisy place where tables are loaded with glistening fish and seafood fresh off the boats. At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed a lovely couple of hours at the Fenice Opera House, a much more sedate experience where you can take a pew in one of the boxes and feast your eyes on a gorgeous, glittering interior and frescoed ceiling.
Another interesting sight a little off the beaten track is the Bovolo Staircase, off a little side street near St Mark's. It's a real architectural delight that harks back to 15th century Venice and was used in the famous Orson Welles film adaptation of Othello. On reaching the top you're rewarded with gorgeous views across the rooftops of Venice.

Another little known and free way to experience hidden Venice is at the exquisite Casino Venier, currently the headquarters of the French Alliance but once the home of a decadent 18th-century casino, a meeting place for Venetian high society and a den of drinking and debauchery. A fairly non-descript exterior belies the splendour inside where you can explore two lavish rooms almost untouched since the 1700s. Feast your eyes on the most incredible tiles, stucco walls and ornate ceilings. Look out for a loose tile in the main room's floor and watch passing pedestrians as the Casino's former clientele would have done to check out visitors before allowing them entry.
Other free must dos include a visit to the Dorsoduro area and a wander around the church of Santa Maria Della Salute, a baroque masterpiece built to celebrate Venice's deliverance from the plague. Do not miss the chance to capture the stunning view of the church and canal from the Accademia Bridge - I guarantee your photo will look like a Canaletto painting. If we didn't have two tired kids in tow we'd have stopped by the Peggy Guggenheim gallery too - I'm reliably informed this is a must-see for aficionados of modern art.

Do also take a wander through Venice's old ghetto, the first ghetto in the world and a tranquil, fascinating quarter which offers an alternative side to the city. And for something totally different, we followed a friend's recommendation to visit one of Venice's most curious locations - the Acqua Alta bookshop in Castello. Overflowing with books on every subject you could possibly be interested in, this weird and wonderful place leaves no surface untouched by stacks of books - there are even full-size, book-filled gondolas shored up in the middle of the store...your local branch of Waterstones it ain't.
When it comes to eating out, sampling a plate of cicchetti washed down with a glass or two of Aperol Spitz is a non-negotiable. It would be all too easy to find yourself lured into the many restaurants peddling boring Italian standards but to do that would mean missing out on Venice's authentic eating experience - essentially enjoying an Italian-style bar hop, with delicious fresh food thrown in for good measure. The Italian answer to tapas, cicchetti are small plates of local specialties with a strong leaning towards fish and vegetables.
The Canareggio district is a good place to sample this typically Venetian institution, with a good variety of bacari (the name given to cicchetti-serving bars) to choose from. We really liked Ca D'Oro Alla Vedova,  on a little side street off the busy Strada Nuove, where we tucked into crispy fried courgette flower, salt cod croquettes and perfect arancini. A stand-at-the-bar kind of place, it does get busy but has a very authentic vibe and traditional interior - you can see where Russell Norman of Polpo got his inspiration from here. The great thing about this kind of eating is it's relatively budget-friendly and you can move from place to place for a bit of variety.
We also had a really good and - considering the location - inexpensive lunch at Ristorante Cherubino, a stone's throw from St Mark's. A great place to fill up on good quality pasta and pizza, I had a delicious Penne All'Arrabiata here, while the boys tucked into very good pizzas. There were two gondoliers eating alongside us which I took as a reassuring sign.
There are numerous places for drinks with our without the accompanying cicchetti all around Venice - you won't need to stumble far to find a glass or Prosecco or Aperol. The lively square of Campo Santa Margherita is a good place to watch the Venetian night unfold, or if you're feeling super glam (and a bit spendy) then you could treat yourself to a cocktail at the legendary Harry's Bar, much loved by Ernest Hemingway and birthplace of the Bellini.

Venice isn't really a place to take very young children - the crowds and the canals aren't conducive to a relaxing city break - but it's a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives, with older children (ours are 13 and 9) as likely to fall under its spell as the grown ups. 
You'll do lots of walking, and the crowded streets around the main tourist areas will certainly get on your nerves from time to time. But it's testament to Venice's inimitable atmosphere and breathtaking splendour that these irritations fail to cloud your view of this truly unique place. I'm already dreaming of my next visit...

We flew from Bristol to Venice with Ryanair and stayed at the ARTE 2 apartment via Airbnb.

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1 comment

  1. Gorgeous photos! I want to go! Really inspired me to think about a family city break...

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