We've just come back from our first European city-break with the children - to the gorgeous city of Venice.
Venice is breathtaking. I'll tell you a little bit about the holiday, and throw in the things that we've discovered about travelling with a 5 and 6 year-old as I go along.
While C had been on an aeroplane before, aged about a year old, from Exeter to Edinburgh, this was the first plane trip that either would know about. The airport and the aeroplane was every bit as exciting for them as the rest of the holiday. We talked them through - several times - how the airport works and which bags would stay with us and which go in the hold. C got quite worried about having anything metal on his person or in his bag, so Hubby showed him the list of permitted and not-permitted items on the internet. They packed their bags of things for the journey well in advance. Despite my warnings about lugging a heavy bag around, C insisted on filling his with large hard-backed books about space. Later, when he was beginning to tire of carrying the bag up and down steps and bridges in Venice, I made sure he kept hold of it!
We drove down to Gatwick on the Sunday afternoon and stayed in a nearby hotel, enjoying a meal at a local Harvester restaurant. The hotel wasn't strictly necessary, but saved an unreasonably early morning drive, and meant that we were in plenty of time for the flight. We used Purple Parking, who offer a hotel/parking deal and lay on a bus to the terminal. This was, of course, all part of the adventure for the children.
Once through security, we made straight for the indoor children's play area. One of us stayed and loosely supervised the children (did my puzzles), while the other went and browsed in the shops.
On the plane Hubby had booked two pairs of seats by the window, so we took a child each. They had the window seat and we showed them all the exciting runway goings-on. As we took off I handed out the sucking sweets - turns out not to be a good idea for Bug. She was so busy looking about and chatting that she nearly choked on her sweet several times and had me worrying that we'd be turning the plane around and getting a paramedic!
On arrival at Marco Polo airport we got cash and bought our boat tickets across to Venice. The Alilaguna boat-bus was quite low in the water and the windows covered in spray, but we still got a great view as we motored up the Grand Canal and disembarked just near the famous Rialto Bridge. From there it was a short step to the hotel. We actually weren't staying in the hotel (Ai Riali), but in a separate apartment. Great tip for families by the way: It didn't cost more than a room in the hotel, but our apartment (just behind St Mark's Square) had it's own kitchen, 2 bathrooms, sitting room and 2 bedrooms. It meant that we could eat when we were hungry, the children had space to play, and we weren't stuck in the same room as them being quiet and dark while they went to bed early. A porter from the hotel carried our bag and led the way to the apartment. I nipped out to find a supermarket (marked on the map for me by the hotel receptionist) to pick up essential supplies. I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn as I trip-trapped along through back alleys and over little bridges. I didn't even need the map on the way back! I'm not sure Audrey Hepburn has ever been to Venice, but it felt like the kind of place that Holly Golightly would be very much at home.
Most days we breakfasted in the apartment, then headed out for the day. We'd have a full hot meal at lunchtime, and then a lighter tea back at the apartment. That's another tip for parents with children - Continental Europeans tend to eat later, and many restaurants don't start serving their evening meal until 6.30 or 7pm. If your children need to eat earlier than this, then consider having your main meal at lunchtime, usually served between 12 and 2.
We bought a 48 hour tourist pass for the Vaporetto (boat bus) which takes you just about everywhere, and used that to space out the walking and give little legs a rest. We also did one trip in a taxi boat, which felt very decadent (but was considerably cheaper than a gondola trip!).
It's worth heading to the toilet whenever you are in a cafe/restaurant or museum, because public toilets cost 1-1.5 Euros per person. Most of the ones we visited were decent toilets, though I did experience one very dodgy one!
We visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It's full of contemporary art which allowed the children to interpret it in whatever way worked for them. Bug was delighted to find two Picasso paintings, as she's learned about him at school. We also visited a couple of beautiful churches to see the Tintorettos and other beautiful Renaissance Art. The children looked at the pictures and statues and tried to identify Bible stories that they had heard. We climbed two bell towers, with views across to one another, as well as across the whole of Venice: San Marco is the tallest campanile in Venice, in St Marc's square and waking us at 6 each morning; San Georgio Maggiore is on another island just opposite St Marc's. We also paid a visit to two museums: the Natural History Museum of Venice and the Murano Glass museum. The displays on evolution and adaptation at the Natural History Museum are superbly curated, but we were less keen on the "collections" of dead animals, including a beautiful gorilla killed as recently as the 1920s. The Glass Museum had a video at the beginning showing some of the techniques still in use today to make the different types of glassware, and that brought the collection of glass over the last two and a half millennia to life a bit, but the children definitely needed a run around in the garden afterwards.
In between these visits we just explored the city on foot and vaporetto, stopping for ice-cream, lunches, coffees and shopping whenever we needed, heading back to the airport on Friday afternoon.
They say that Venice is a city of romance. It's certainly romantic, and we saw plenty of evidence of honeymooning couples and weddings. The setting is stunning; the architecture and history fascinating; the buildings all showing signs of faded glory in various stages of restoration; the canals and the life people live around them and the multitude of tourists are intriguing. It's also a great place to go as a family - small enough that you can get around the whole place very easily, big enough that there's plenty to see and do, enough interest with transport alone to keep small children happy, the pace of everything slowed down by the absence of cars. We had a wonderful time and I would definitely recommend it.
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