Sunday, 1 November 2015

Family-friendly Venice on a budget

Venice.  The hopelessly romantic city where the mist caresses the Grand Canal in winter and where the sun reflects ferociously from the Basilica in the searing mid-summer heat of August.  At any time of year, Venice is one of those once-in-a-lifetime destinations.  It is a multi-faceted city of many disguises.  Having been lucky enough to visit Venice a few times,  I know from experience that this city offers up different jewels depending on who you're holidaying with and which time of year you choose to travel.  It is, though,  the perfect destination for a family. Its picture postcard views will stay in the mind of your child forever and the splendour of the architecture will captivate all ages.

Venice may not seem like a particularly family-friendly destination but I'm here to persuade you to take a Venetian visit.  Obviously, the first barrier in place is the cost.  Yes, Venice is an expensive city but there are easy ways around the prohibitive costs of the 5-star palazzo stays.  With a canny mind and a sense of adventure, a family of four can easily holiday in this spectacular city for the price of a UK-based city break.

So, how to do it...

Firstly, its is important to note that there are two airports which serve Venice.  Treviso is furher away from the action but, for the budget-minded family, flights to this provincial airport should not be ignored.  An important fact to know is that Treviso is utterly beautiful; a holiday destination in its own right.  It is filled with the grandest of buildings and countless piazze, serving early morning cappuccino and afternoon gelato.  Indeed, when we travelled to Venice with the children, it was in Treviso we stayed.  We rented an apartment in Palazzo Rossi, a building built in 1480, for only £40 a night.  The fully-equipped two-bedroomed accommodation was a perfect base from which to explore the local area.  A balcony from the kitchen looked down onto one of the many town squares and the bedrooms were deliciously ornate with original features galore.  Our host, Graziella, also lived in the building and, despite the language barrier, we all got on famously.  She spoilt my children with little gifts and always had an affectionate pinch of the cheek ready for their cute little English neighbours. 

Another benefit of staying in Treviso is that day trips to other cities are easier. We spent a wonderful day in splendid Padua. Only 35 miles away from Treviso, we caught the local bus to this amazing city and enjoyed the fun of watching the Italian way of life unfold as we turned each suburban corner.  Once there, we had an exhilirating day of exploration in this Renaissance masterpiece of a town.  It was great to sit as a couple and watch, from a nearby cafe, our children as they ran amok through the open square, unknowingly soaking up the culture of yesteryear.

Treviso really does have everything you'd need for a family break.  Wonderful restaurants (which charge a lot less than the tourist traps of central Venice), a laidback feel and a direct train to Venice S.Lucia station (costing only £5 return for an adult).  Within half an hour, you and the family are transported from the simple beauty of Treviso to the majesty of Venice.  Along the way, the children (and the adults) will be mesmerised as they watch the splendour of the Venetian buildings appear, like an oasis, upon the horizon.  A note of warning though: do get your tickets validated before embarking the train.  On our first train journey into Venice, it took everything I  had to get us off a fine when the train guard found that we hadn't quite followed protocol.  Seemingly, my eyelash fluttering is quite good, and thankfully, we were let off the hefty fine.

Once in Venice, you step out of the station to a vision of utter beauty aand grandeur.  The Grand Canal stretches out before your eyes and the crowds seem to part as you feel yourself drawn to the water.  This is a city of action; the water is alive with everyday living.  Commuters bundling onto the water buses, tourists canoodling on bridges  and stripy t-shirted gondoliers touting their (overpriced) trips.  A city that is very much alive.

Once you've worked out your bearings, you have a choice of how to reach the most-visited part of the city.  The magnet of St Mark's Square is about a two-mile walk from the train station and it is a mind-blowing stroll through twisting and turning cobbled alleyways and marbled paths of historical significance.   Along the route, you also pass local stores with plenty of provisions for an impromptu picnic at one of the squares passed on the way to the tourist hub.  Everyday life is on display here and, away from the tourists, you can taste a real flavour of residential Venice.  Streets lined with traders, smart-suited businessmen and beautiful women with unfeasibly glossy hair, managing to look sleek and chic in the midday sun. 

As an alternative to a walk, there are water taxis directly near the steps of the train station which will take you down canal.  There is also a (cheaper) option of a vaporetto (water bus)  which transports expectant tourists down the canal towards the main part of the city.  We barely spoke as we traversed towards the beauty of the Campanile, as every bend in the canal presented another view worthy of Canaletto. When we turned one corner and had the Rialto Bridge in front of us, my daughter's face was a picture of awe.  The number 1 vaporetto transports tourists up and down the Grand Canal for the price of a bus ticket and is well worth it.  It's a self-guided tour of perfect views.  Armed with a good guidebook, parents can bore young ears sensless with the history of the water-bound enigma that is Venice.

Obviously, you cannot come to Venice and not ride on a gondola.  With a family, however, there is no way you'll be able to justify the cost.  A little-known (cheat's way) of bagging this experience for very little is to take the traghetto instead.  The traghetto is a local's secret.  It is the means of getting across the Grand Canal when there is no nearby bridge. These short hops across the canal cost about one euro each and, more often than not, you have the traghetto to yourself.  These rides come complete with a gondolier-type so there's plenty of authenticity about it.  It's hilarious watching the children (and your husband) trying to find their centre of gravity as the waves from the ferries slap up against the wood of the tiny boat, catapulting bodies from side to side.

Once you've found your bearings in this labyrinth of a city, an absolute must of a visit is to the Campanile.  Rebuilt in 1902, following its sudden collapse, this bell tower rises up
from Piazza San Marco some 99 metres and looks down upon the beauty of the Basilica di San Marco.  A lift taks you to the top of the tower where the entry fee is justified by views across the lagoon.  A top tip is to conicide your visit  to the Campanile on the hour, when the bells are chiming.  The resounding clang of metal is deafening but so cool for a child to feel the vibration down their spine as the midday bells signals that it's lunch-time and time for pizza!

A wonderful aspect of Venice is the fact that there is a sight around every corner.  Yes, you could stand in the snaking queue for Basilica di San Marco but you'd be much better off finding a church off the beaten track.  Yes, you could pay for a family visit into Palazzo Ducale but to stand and view the architectural splendour of The Bridge of Sighs as its limestone frame crosses the Rio di Palazzo is free.   The Ponte dei Sospiri is so-named because, as legend has it, the resigned sighs of the 17th century prisoners could be heard as they crossed the bridge from the interrogation rooms of the palace to the prison. 

Across the Grand Canal from St Mark's Square is the Guggenheim Museum, housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace.  Works by Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky all juxtapose artistically with the centuries-old vistas and panoramas of Venice.  Tickets to the Peggy Guggenheim are reasonably-priced and children are free.  The sculpture garden, in particular, makes for a kid-friendly interactive experience with modern art. 

Return flights next Easter are only £60 to Treviso.  We travelled to Venice over Easter and the weather was glorious.  In actual fact, we had a wardrobe crisis, as we'd packed for Adriatic spring and arrived in weather that the UK couldn't match, even in the height of midsummer.

Venice. There really is so much to do and see. An adventure awaits you and your family around every cobbled corner.

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