Thoughts on Italy

186After every trip we go on, I come back and talk all about how much I loved it.  And I worry, a bit, that I’m writing too much about something that’s now in the past, but, at the same time, I recognize that the only way I’m ever going to capture what I really felt about a place is while it’s still fresh in my mind.

In other words, bear with me, because I’m going to write some more about our recent trip to Italy, and try to summarize some of what we learned about travelling there (specifically with small kids).

202First of all, we loved Italy.  Although I don’t think it would get the award for “most favorite destination so far” (which would go to Northern Ireland), it would definitely be in a heated three-way battle for second place (with the Newlands Valley in England and Normandy).  We really, truly, loved Italy.

Why was it so great?  Lots of reasons.  The food was amazing.  (Our favorite restaurant in Rome was “Da Francesco” near Piazza Navona and we “discovered” a great gelato place in Venice.)  We got to experience some astounding and ancient monuments that pictures can’t capture and stories don’t describe in enough detail.  And the people were wonderful. More than anywhere else we’ve travelled, the Italian people really wanted to 206communicate and connect.  They weren’t bothered by our complete lack of Italian (outside of “per favore”, “grazie”, “prego” and “il conto”) and were enthusiastic about, rather than frustrated by, our attempts to communicate in a melange of Spanish, German, French and English.  They really do talk with their hands, and spoken Italian always sounds either seductive (most of the time) or very angry.  And then, we had a Roman cab driver come back to look for us when he discovered my sister’s phone in his cab, even though it was out of his way and it had been almost an hour since he’d dropped us off.  I don’t think we were unsuccessful at communicating a single time in Italy, even when we didn’t have a common language, and I don’t think there was a single person we talked to for more than a moment who didn’t end up feeling like a new friend.  It was fantastic to feel that kind of warmth from so many people, especially as a clueless tourist.

227But, aside from falling in love with Italy (which is a cliché I was happy to have come true), we did learn a lot on our trip.  From the perspective of travelling with little ones, Rome was more kid friendly and stroller friendly than I expected.  I anticipated issues with getting the stroller around the ancient sites, but it honestly wasn’t (too) much of a problem.  There were some stairs, and lots of hills, and trying to get the stroller through/across the massive paving stones at the Forum was frustrating at times.  But, in general, getting around in Rome was pretty easy with the stroller, and the kids were warmly welcomed everywhere.  (Because of our hotel location, we didn’t use public transportation — we got around by walking and in cabs — so I can’t speak to the ease of using a stroller on Rome’s Metro or bus system.)

282By contrast, Vatican City was NOT particularly stroller friendly.  Although I was glad that we had the stroller for the tour of the Vatican museum, because B slept through a lot of it, it was really difficult to manage the MANY stairs along the route.  There are elevators, but the security guards will stop some stroller-pushers from using them while allowing others through.  Early in the museum, we got access to all of the elevators, and later on, we were denied.  It really seemed to depend on who was standing there (they are all guarded) when we arrived.  If I had it to do over again, I’d skip the stroller and just hit the high notes of the museum (my favorite part was the Raphael rooms, just before the Sistine Chapel).

271Rome has a reputation (much like Paris) for being “crimey” — being infested with pickpockets and purse snatchers.  And maybe it is, but we didn’t see it.  We felt comfortable walking through the touristy areas of Rome during the day and at night, and never got into a situation that made us uncomfortable.  (We were much more aware of the criminal element in Paris than in Rome.)  However, there are some very persistent trinket vendors at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps who were annoying (and, as they worked in large groups, may have had ulterior motives).  We were very firm in our dismissal, and 20130313-141932.jpgthey kept their distance.  (They were actually much more of a nuisance at San Marco in Venice.)  The only place I saw anything that made me uncomfortable from a crime sense was at the Roma Termini station while we were waiting for our train to Venice.  There was a group of young women standing around watching the passers-by a little too intently.  They would meet up, talk amongst themselves and then split up to wander around among the passengers and reconvene elsewhere a few minutes later.  They had no luggage, and didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone.  There was a group of young men around who seemed to be operating in a similar fashion.  I didn’t see anything untoward happening, but the combination of the looks they were giving the crowd, plus their actions, ensured that I kept an eye on them the whole time.  But really, we didn’t have any trouble.  (Actually, on our entire trip, the place I got the worst vibe in terms of crime was San Marco square at night.  During the warmer months, I know this area is popular with dancers and diners, but in early March, the cafes close up early and the only people left seem to be a few wandering tourists and quite a few others watching them from the shadows of the columns.  We didn’t stay long.)

20130313-142019.jpgWe really loved Rome.  But I’m glad we went there first, because I truly fell in love with Venice.  Venice was just amazing.  I wasn’t able to truly appreciate the way it would feel to be in a city without cars whose streets are canals and winding alleyways.  Venice is beautiful and romantic.  While Rome feels like visiting the world’s largest open-air museum, Venice is like actually stepping back in time.  And . . . I know that’s what EVERYONE says about Venice and you still probably won’t really get it until you go.  It’s just something that has to be experienced.

In Venice, the public transportation was excellent.  We used the water bus, but didn’t use any taxi service in Venice.  The water bus is quite expensive per trip, but very functional, and you get a lovely (unguided) tour, too.  It was a little confusing, in terms of where to put the stroller, but we figured it out and had a couple of very nice trips.

20130313-142100.jpgOther than the water buses, though, Venice is NOT very stroller friendly.  At all.  The streets are really very narrow, and all deliveries done to shops and restaurants are done by guys pushing big hand trucks.  They know where they’re going and how to get there and you have to get out of their way — and the stroller causes a traffic jam which makes everything harder for everyone.  On top of that, each canal crossing is a bridge, and nearly all of the bridges have stone steps up one side and down the other.  Not impossible with the stroller, but it makes it more like a litter than a stroller, much of the time.  I was a little disappointed about not 20130313-142133.jpgbeing able to use the stroller more, because I’d been having nightmares about the kids falling into the canals, and I was hoping to strap them into the stroller for security.  I didn’t really need to be overly worried.  Although it certainly would have been possible for the kids to jump in a canal if they’d wanted to, unbarriered openings to the water were less common than I’d expected, and enforcing a “you have to hold hands” rule worked just fine.  Although we barely used the stroller, we really didn’t miss it much.

20130313-142240.jpgIn Venice, we stayed right in the heart of the city (about 3 minutes walk, at Liam speed, from St. Mark’s square).  Venice is so much just about BEING there, rather than about doing anything in particular, that if I had it to do over again, I would stay in the same place.  Venice changes throughout the day — bustling in the morning, relaxed in the afternoon, and seemingly deserted at night — that it’s nice to be able to experience it all.  Besides, all of our favorite Venetian food stops (including Gelato Fantasy and the tasty chain pasta place we found) were centrally located, too.  One of the things that made the trip work really well was letting the boys run for a while, each morning, at San Marco.  It 20130313-142311.jpgwas a great, big, open area, with puddles to jump in and pigeons to chase, and having some time to run and be free put them in a much better state to put up with our wanderings for the rest of the day.  Being at San Marco and walking to the top of the Rialto Bridge to enjoy the amazing view were my favorite activities in Venice, and I’m also really glad we did the gondola ride.  It was classic and romantic, and was also a beautiful way to see the city.

20130313-142336.jpgIn fact, just about the only thing I didn’t like about our trip was the overnight train ride home from Venice to Vienna.  It was just too much for Liam, at the end of a long day and the end of a busy week, and we all suffered for it.

It was an amazing trip, and another great chapter in our adventure.  We fell in love with Italy.  And, as with all of our favorite destinations, I’m already fantasizing about our next visit.





Winter to spring to winter

038When we left Vienna for our trip to Italy last week, it was definitely winter.  We’d gotten a little snow earlier in the week, and then we were surprised with some more the morning of our departure.  There was even more, fairly significant, snow forecast here in Vienna for our first few days in Italy.  We were really cold the night we got on the train and headed for Rome.  Our train was delayed by about 20 minutes, but they didn’t announce that until we were already arranged on the platform, in sub-freezing temperatures with snow and wind.  We weren’t quite dressed warmly enough, because we didn’t want to over pack for Italy, so we stood, waiting for the train and shivering.

258We woke up on the train to a northern Italian landscape covered in snow (it was so snowy we shared a moment of worry that we were in the wrong place).  And then we arrived in Rome, and although it wasn’t as warm as we’d expected, it didn’t feel like winter.  The plants were green, the rain was rain, not snow, and none of the puddles were icy in the mornings.  I think I probably enjoy winter more than the average person, but even I was won over by our visit to spring.

And then, completely contrary to our expectations, Venice was warm (and even dry).  It was so lovely.  We were sometimes a little chilly in the shade, but a few moments in the sun warmed us right up.  The boys ventured out a few times in fleeces instead of parkas, and I didn’t put my hat or gloves on once (not even on our evening gondola ride).  Liam did get a little cold once when we stopped for gelato, but otherwise, Venice was truly a taste of spring.

And then we arrived home in Vienna to 38 degrees and a strong breeze.  Brr.  But, even here, spring snuck in while we were away.  The days are suddenly and noticeably longer.  There are flowers peeking out from window boxes and beneath bushes in the park.  We still need to bundle up, but the thaw has definitely begun.  It’s a good thing, because as much as I love winter, Italy spoiled me with spring, and I’m ready for it now.

Gondola ride

We were on the fence about taking a gondola ride in Venice.  It sounds lovely, and romantic, but it also sounded pretty expensive (€80 for 40 minutes) and my paranoid mommy mind kept imagining the boys (who don’t swim) trying to jump overboard.

But, I thought, did I really want to come home from Venice without having taken such an iconic ride?  Would it haunt me the way that Dan was bothered (for decades) about not visiting the Eiffel Tower the first time he visited Paris?

560So, we went for it.  We wanted the experience of an evening ride (with well rested boys) without the added expense of going out too late (after 7:00 adds another €20 to the price), so we sought out a gondolier just after nap time.  (We also got an unintentional and unexpected moment on the Bridge of Sighs when we got turned around on the way.)  We were lucky in our timing — I guess gondola rides aren’t popular on winter evenings, so we barely caught one of the last opportunities of the night.

Once we were settled in our gondola (without incident) our journey began.  It was as beautiful, romantic and captivating as I could have hoped.  The sky was a gorgeous dark blue that deepened as our cruise went on (which Liam commented on several times).  The stars twinkled in the sky and we were so fortunate to have perfectly pleasant and relatively warm weather for an early March ride on the canals.

564We cruised past the places where Casanova, Marco Polo and Mozart once lived, and we had an excellent historical tour from our charming gondolier.

The streets and canals of Venice are so narrow and winding that within moments of passing another boat, or gliding past pedestrians waving down from a bridge overhead, you’re alone once again.  It creates a feeling of romance and solitude, even in such a busy and well-populated place.  At each junction between paths in the water, our gondolier called ahead, alerting oncoming boats (which were very few) to our presence.

569Although I knew it was coming, I gasped, out loud and involuntarily, at the sight of the Rialto Bridge when we turned onto the Grand Canal.  It was stunning to glide up to and then past it, and then to float down the Grand Canal, past the docks full of moored gondolas and the water buses and taxis making their way, more quickly, to their destinations.

570The boys spent the ride snuggled up with Dan & I, and Mina and Jo sat toward the front and took plenty of great pictures.  It was money and time well spent.  (Even better since no one jumped in.)  We thoroughly loved the experience, and we’re all so glad we went.  I just don’t think it would have been a complete trip to Venice without it.


Ignis the sharing dragon

We went back to participate in Benjamin and Liam’s favorite Venetian activity today — splashing in puddles and chasing pigeons at St. Mark’s square.  (This even outranks gelato consumption, so that’s pretty significant.)  We’ve often found, in our travels, that the key to the kids enjoying a city correlates with the amount of time they get to spend running freely, so it’s a priority (especially because we didn’t get enough of that time in Rome.)

After a bit of running wild and tormenting pigeons, Liam requested a drink of water, which, of course, I’d forgotten at the hotel.  He was insistent on his very own sippy cup, so he and I ventured back to pick it up.

532We had a nice walk (a stroll hand in hand with a two year old can be pretty great) and upon our return, we found Benjamin, Dan, Jo and Mina, still playing in the square.  With a dragon.

While we were away, Benjamin had apparently charmed some folks out of a darling stuffed dragon named Ignis.  (He’s the mascot for their company.)  He is super cute, and they assured Dan that, if we’d like to give Ignis a good home and take him on our international travels, that it was fine for us to adopt him.  B was in love.  So he got Ignis.

537Liam fell instantly in love with Ignis, too, and there was just one Ignis.  So we quickly started calling him “Ignis the sharing dragon.”  He was shared by his owners with us, and now the boys had to continue to share him.

Ignis the sharing dragon has been a major hit.  The boys traded him back and forth all day, a few minutes at a time.  He joined us for gelato, pizza for dinner and even our gondola ride (he’s now sporting his very own gondolier hat).

He’ll return to Vienna with us and join us on our future adventures.  (Does a dragon need a passport?)  What a lovely and special souvenir from our trip to Venice, and what a kind thing for Ignis’ people to have done, to share him with us.





In the city known as Venice

We left Rome yesterday for Venice.  We were very sad to say goodbye to Rome, but we’re very happy to be visiting Venice.

399Venice is so cool.  It’s romantic and beautiful and I love it.  When we first arrived in Venice, we stepped out of Santa Lucia train station, looking to catch the bus.  We *knew* we were looking for a water bus, but it was still a bit of a shock to realize the bus stop was a dock and the bus is a boat.

403We are just loving Venice.  The Grand Canal is bustling with boat traffic.  The locals seem genuinely interested in communicating and connecting — there aren’t the rolled eyes or exasperated sighs at our terrible attempts at the local language that we’ve had some places (although that was true in Rome, too, so maybe that’s Italy in general).411

The sound of spoken Italian seems to have two settings — seductive or angry (we saw more angry in Rome and see more seductive in Venice) although I don’t think the sound has a correlation to the actual demeanor of the speaker.  Everyone speaks with their hands, even when driving or on the phone.

438We’ve been to San Marco to chase pigeons and splash in puddles.  We’ve strolled to the Rialto bridge, gazed down at the boats on the water and done some great shopping.  We’ve discovered delicious pasta and amazing sandwiches (found by popping into the lunch bar that was most crammed with Italian speakers).  We’ve discovered the best gelato we’ve had since we’ve been in Italy (Gelato Fantasy near San Marco).  We’ve enjoyed walking along the winding alleys and climbing the bridges over the canals.  Venice is busy during the day and stunningly romantic at night.  (Benjamin declared, “It’s spooky!”, but in a completely complimentary way.)  It is so lovely.452

We loved Rome, but we are in love with Venice.