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Venice is a Magical Water World for Kids

Venice, city of more than 177 canals and 354 bridges, does not seem like your typical family-friendly vacation spot. There are no amusement parks, no special childrens’ activities, no escalators to help you get around with a stroller. Because cars must be left in a parking lot outside the city, everything—pillows and teddy bears, comic books and Walkmans—must be lugged by hand or by boat to hotels. And what would kids find to do in a city steeped in historic buildings and pieces of art?

We needn’t have worried. To the kids, Venice was one giant theme park. It was “Waterworld” Italian-style from cruising the canals in vaporetti (boats acting as city buses) to riding in a gondola, from watching dogs (and owners) whizz along on speed boats to buying fruit from vessels bursting with produce and flowers. “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to bring a Jet-ski here and zoom down the canals?” said our 14-year-old. “Yea, we could bring two and race each other,” answered his younger brother.

From their point of view, Venice was outdoor cafés serving the best food imaginable — pizza, pasta, and dozens of flavors of ice cream. It was stories about people and animals carved onto buildings or painted onto church walls. And it was living theatre from the restaurant owner who kicked a pigeon that was eating his pizza to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco competing loudly for customers to the bouncer at the Basilica who wouldn’t let my husband into the church because his knees were showing. “I’m going to live here one day,” announced my eldest. For those contemplating a similar visit, here’s a list of things kids should enjoy:

PIAZZA SAN MARCO: The city revolves around this giant square that’s usually teeming with pigeons. The Basilica di San Marco at one end will enchant some kids who may want to know the stories told by more than 10,000 square feet of mosaics; others may want to climb 325 feet up the Campinile (bell-tower) for the view or wait for the top of the hour at the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) when the two bronze “Moors” strike a bell with hammers. Most kids will be horrified but impressed by the rumour that the clock’s inventors were richly rewarded but had their eyes poked out to prevent them from producing a similar masterpiece elsewhere.

THE DOGE’S PALACE: This fairy-tale structure on the edge of the water was the chief residence for the Doge, a wise senior citizen who was chosen to govern Venice until he died. Kids may want to skip the portraits of former Doge’s and head right to the hidden passages, the dungeons and prisons from which Casanova made his daring escape. Ask for the “Secret Itineraries Tour.” Tell them that the covered Bridge of Sighs leading to the prisons is named thus because prisoners would see their last view of glorious Venice and supposedly sigh with sadness. The Palace also has a large collection of arms and armor, most captured from enemies.

VENIER DAI LEONI PALACE: The American, Peggy Guggenheim lived in this modern house on the water; today it’s a gallery of 20th-century art. It’s small enough that kids can do it all in one go and they will probably love the small garden where her beloved dogs’ graves are marked with headstones bearing their names.

THE RIALTO DISTRICT: The famous tiered Rialto bridge lined with shops is a must-see but beware the prices, the pickpockets, and the crowds. Better to come early when the market is on to watch vendors selling fresh coconut and all manner of produce.Your kid may want to buy a glass lollipop here in one of the tourist shops. Veer instead towards the Piazza San Marco where dozens of shops sell marbled paper pencils, Murano glass jewellry or families of glass animals, priced at about $5. Would it be the family of pink hippos, the blue whales, or a collection of black and yellow spiders with long legs? Our three spent hours pricing and debating.

A GONDOLA RIDE: You can’t leave Venice without riding in a gondola. At between $70 and $80 for an hour ride, it’s expensive. But kids ride free, and if you settle the price and terms ahead of time, it’s an unforgettable experience. We toured the canals at night in the dark with an informed young gondolier, who told the kids stories about the lit palazzos, the bats flying overhead, and how the gondolier’s trade must be passed from father to son. Kids may also be interested in going to watch gondolas being made at the Squero (gondola boatyard) San Trovaso in the Dorsoduro section of Venice.

THE LIDO: When the crowds and the heat get too much, hop onto a vaporetto for the ten-minute ride to this strip of land offshore that offers trees, a beach, and a resort atmosphere. Locals warn that the water is polluted but kids can build castles in the sand or picnic under the pine trees. You can also rent bicycles just across from the boat dock to peddle your way down the strip towards Chioggia, a fishing village on a further island. And the views of the city from the Lido can’t be beat.

Other activities include visiting the island of Murano (where we toured a glass factory and watched a glass-maker fashion a blue horse for my daughter), seeing the models of gondolas and ceremonial boats at the Museo Navale, or touring the Museum of 18th-Century Decorative Arts with its apothecary shop and puppet theatre.

ACCOMMODATION: It’s almost impossible to find a bargain, but comfortable family accommodations can be found for under $200 per night. It’s cheaper to stay in a small hotel on the Lido. Our simple establishment across from the boat dock, The Belvedere (Tel 526 00 72), gave us a two-storey three-bedroom apartment. In Venice proper, we stayed at the Hotel Ala (Tel 520 83 33). It was air-conditioned, close to San Marco and a one-minute walk from a vaporetto stop. The price included a buffet breakfast; there tables outside for picnic lunches;the staff pleasantly arranged for a doctor to visit the hotel one Sunday. Another good bet is the Locanda Montin (Tel 522 71 51). This pensione has a garden, a good restaurant, and simple rooms.





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