09/27/2014 - 09/29/2014
Naturally, we were as excited about Venice as any other part of the trip before we left. Few cities in the world have a reputation of being as beautiful or unique. I had been there before with my parents when I was eight, but naturally my memories were scant and fuzzy. I was looking forward to renewing my experience with the city, and of course to introducing Mei Ling to this extraordinary place in the world.
Venice isn't difficult to find. A long causeway extends across the Laguna Veneta from Mestre on the mainland, affording expansive views over the blue water dotted with islands. At the end of the causeway, well-marked signs direct traffic to the Tronchetto car park. Once parked, we made sure we had all necessities for two days in our two small rolling suitcases and backpack. Ironically, Venice was the first city where we left the gondola in the car. We strapped the kids into the carriers and made our way to the Vaporetto. We chose to buy unlimited 48 hour passes for the Vaporetto, figuring that we had to use it at least twice and the pass would pay for itself after four trips. The vaporetto was crowded and smelled of diesel, so it turned out not to be the most pleasant mode of travel although Cleo found herself a friend.
We had chosen an Airbnb in Dorsoduro, the belly of fish-shaped Venice, not far from the Academia Bridge. We had saved enormous amounts of money by using Airbnb instead of staying at a hotel. Even though the apartment was more expensive than any of our previous accommodations, it was far below the $400-500/night that seemed to be required at even the least expensive hotels. We lugged our bags and the kids through a couple of narrow alleys, over a small bridge, and into a quiet street where we found our apartment.
The apartment was on three one-room levels with the kitchen and toilet on the bottom and the shower at the top level. Mei Ling and Ian took the second floor bedroom and Cleo and I took the top floor. We unpacked and baby-proofed the bedroom areas, and then set off over the Academia Bridge to explore and find dinner. With respect to visuals and atmosphere, Venice was everything we had imagined it to be. I don't think my photographs can do justice to the otherworldly beauty of the Renaissance era palaces and residences lining the bluish-green canals, illuminated at night by the lamps of the ubiquitous waterside cafes.
When researching Venice before the trip, I noted there seemed to be a debate among families between carriers or strollers in Venice. Having a twin stroller, of course, carriers were the only option for us. I did see plenty of families pushing strollers and carrying them up and down the bridges. Ultimately I think it's an individual decision based on whether one finds walking with a baby on one's back or lifting a stroller more onerous. I much prefer the carrier since I can carry a baby for hours without much discomfort, although after the four hour mark I start to feel the wear on my neck and upper back. Also, we covered a lot of ground which meant a lot of bridges. Having to carry a stroller up and down so many stairs would have been a serious buzzkill. So I'm firmly in the carrier camp for Venice.
After the bridge, we made our way eastward through the irregular grid of canals and alleys to the Piazza San Marco, one of Venice's major tourist attractions. Aside from being home to the largest church in Venice, the Basilica di San Marco. as well as the Palazzo Ducale, the Piazza is ringed with overpriced tourist restaurants and the open spaces are filled with South Asian vendors selling sparkly crap for kids. In keeping with our philosophy, we refrained from entering any of the popular sights, stayed out of lines and crowds, and reveled in our anti-cultural ignorance.
We knew it was going to be tough finding decent food in Venice on a Saturday night without a reservation and we weren't wrong. We found a mostly empty restaurant, ordered some drinks, and borrowed their wifi for a while. I made a few calls to the top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor but no one was taking walk-ins. Mei Ling had the presence of mind to remind me to book a table for the following night, but things were not looking good for that evening. At one point we nearly decided to order at the place we were sitting in, but fortunately I remembered to check it as well and discovered it was fourth from last out of more than a thousand Venice restaurants. Even we're not that brave. We started moving away from Piazza San Marco as every restaurant we checked in the area seemed to be in the worst of the worst category. Finally we found a small place with a couple of open tables that was rated somewhere in the middle and squeezed everyone in there. As I expected, the food was edible but forgettable. At least we still had Sunday night. On the way back, I saw the waterside cafe just a few yards from our apartment had open tables and looked it up. Ranked 23. Damn it.
We dedicated the next day to an exploration of Venice. We took the vaporetto from Academia to Rialto, mainly because I wanted to use our passes. The crowds and the fumes made us wish we had walked instead. The Rialto Bridge area is probably the most crowded in Venice, probably because it's central and there isn't a lot of open space. The bridge itself was perpetually carpeted in tourists, even though it was nearly October. Of course, we stopped to take our own photos as we crossed the bridge.
We explored central Venice for a while. My targeted restaurant for lunch turned out to be a tiny sandwich counter so I reluctantly agreed to eat at a Chinese restaurant. At least the food was familiar which meant Cleo ate more than her usual hummingbird lunch.
We moved away from the crowds in the center and eventually came to a bridge where some of Venice's famed gondoliers were waiting for business. I hesitated to take the bait because it just seemed like such a touristy thing to do, but I've been married long enough to sense when Mei Ling wants to do something and doesn't want to say it. Fortunately, the prices of rides are set by the city so I didn't have to do any bargaining, which I hate. The gondolier helped Mei Ling into the boat and I handed down the two kids. I didn't want to ask for a hand so I jumped three feet down from the walkway onto the deck with an enormous bang. I was probably lucky I didn't go right through the bottom of the boat. Touristy or not, the gondola ride was well worth the 80 Euros (it's 100 in the evening/night). Being in the middle of the canal provides a completely different perspective than one gets from the shore, and the experience is overall very enjoyable. The kids seemed to love it as well.
After the gondola ride, we walked back through the central San Polo area to Cannaregio, the back of the Venice fish. Eventually we reached the northern shoreline from which vaporettos leave to the island of Murano and the Marco Polo airport.
We decided to take the vaporetto back to the San Marco area, thereby justifying our purchase of the unlimited ticket. Keeping an eye on the clock, we passed an hour in another attractive piazza while Cleo joined some little kids who were kicking around soccer balls. I know every dad thinks his daughter is the most wonderful little girl on Earth, but Cleo is the most wonderful little girl on Earth. She has an energy and zest for life that are boundless. Ever since she's been a few months old, she's been wanting to do everything that she's seen other kids doing, even if they're years older than her. Everywhere that she goes, she brings along a special radiance and people love her. One of the most fun things on our trips is to see her make new friends from other countries and join in their games, so I uploaded a video of her playing in that Venetian square whose name I cannot remember.
According to Google maps, we were just a few minutes away from Ristorante Alle Corone, the top-rated restaurant I had made a reservation at the night before. We eventually dragged Cleo away from her soccer game and found the street Campo Fava, but were completely unable to locate the address or the restaurant. The street seemed to change names before arriving at the number we needed, and none of the locals had heard of the restaurant. Suddenly my heart sank. The restaurant was on Campo delle Fava. We were at Campo Fava. I must have somehow navigated to the wrong street and blown up our only chance to get a decent meal in Venice. But as the minutes to our reservation ticked down and all hope seemed lost we found someone who recognized the restaurant as belonging to the Ai Reali hotel and directed us around a tight corner to our destination.
When I realized I had booked a meal in a luxurious hotel restaurant with the two babies I immediately had a mental image of the kids screaming and throwing spoons while other diners begged for their checks. Fortunately, I had made the reservation as early as possible so we were the only diners when they led us into a semi-secluded room with two high chairs already set up. They were obviously prepared. The staff was extremely pleasant and friendly as well, rather unusual for Italy. I wish I could say that the food lived up to the setting and the professionalism of the staff, but it was once again unmemorable. Cleo did enjoy conducting an imaginary orchestra with the breadsticks. We escaped just as other diners were beginning to filter into the restaurant, casting wary looks in our direction. After this undistinguished meal at a top TripAdvisor choice in an exclusive hotel, we concluded that it was virtually impossible to find excellent food in Venice.
The next morning we found a decent panini breakfast at a cafe close by the apartment. With full stomachs, there was nothing left to do but make our way back to the vaporetto station and wave arrivederci to Venice.
On the way from Venice to Slovenia, the obvious stop was Trieste. I was curious to see the intermingling of Latin and Slavic cultures that the city was famous for. While scenic, the city seemed strangely empty on a Monday around lunchtime. This did allow for some uninterrupted views of the central Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia.
From the Piazza we moved to the water's edge, where rolling hills dotted with picturesque houses provided a backdrop to the deep blue Adriatic.
We wandered back through the center and with growling bellies found ourselves in front of the famous Buffet da Pepi, where we partook of various porcine delicacies such as tongue and brisket.
At Trieste we were on the threshold of Slovenia, and so it was only moments after our departure that we found ourselves in the third country of our journey.