Judith Woods, The Daily Telegraph, September 24, 2013
Two Italian men were nodding in respectful approval at my husband as we stepped off the Venice vaporetto.
“Forza,” they muttered, “strong.” A gaggle of women meanwhile were clapping their palms together and crying “Complimenti! Complementi!”
The reason we were being feted à la Brad and Angelina? Like them, we were travelling around with an enormous brood of children.
As we shepherded five children around – three strapping boys, two winsome girls – we were congratulated at every turn. The passers-by weren’t to know that the boys belonged to our friends, who had sloped off to The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Italy is suffering a major decline in the birth rate – just 1.23 babies per woman, compared with 1.98 in the UK and 2.03 in France – so it was really rather lovely to be treated as a novelty rather than a nuisance. But of course, some of you will still be choking over the fact we took a gaggle of children to Venice. Utter madness!
To be fair, we weren’t staying in Venice, but on the mainland, 20 minutes away in the handsome little market town of Mirano (not to be confused with the island of Murano, famous for its glass making).
On our numerous visits to La Serenissima, however, I can report that although by day it was busy in St Mark’s Square and insanely crowded on the Rialto Bridge, by late afternoon, when the tours had departed, it was as deserted and breathtakingly atmospheric as a sequence from Don’t Look Now.
I’d visited Venice more than a decade ago, and was eager to return. But with two daughters aged 10 and three, I felt that leisurely day trips, interspersed with beach outings, would make for a more relaxing holiday than an exhausting full-body cultural immersion in the city for several days at once.
Our friends, who had lent us their three boys, were also keen to join us, and by a stroke of good fortune (i.e. a 72-hour marathon spent trawling the internet), we found a villa online which comprised two identical but separate apartments, with a garden.
Having holidayed with friends a few times, my conclusion is that the key to harmony is ensuring each family has its own space (however small) and can close the door without causing offence when there is a need for sulking or napping.
Best of all there was a kidney-shaped swimming pool, big enough to keep the children happy but not so large that they would refuse to leave it.
While the decidedly suburban Casa Lila wasn’t the sort of remote Italian retreat surrounded by Lombardy poplars most of us dream of, it was not only great value for money, but with a total of five children to feed, it was darned handy for the supermarket as well as a short walk to restaurants and bars, not forgetting the mandatory stop-off at the gelateria.
The Veneto itself isn’t regarded by the British as a must-see region of Italy; not as pretty as Umbria, not as unexplored as Calabria, it reaches from the Dolomites to the Adriatic. But its highlights – apart from the glittering jewel that is Venice – include Padua, Verona, Vicenza and (for a day trip) Lake Garda.
We flew to Treviso airport from where a half-hour’s drive took us to Mirano. At the top of our road was the best butcher’s in the area, so we stocked up on fabulous meat for the barbecue, popped open a bottle of prosecco – and toasted la dolce vita.
Our mornings were typically frittered away lounging by the pool and as the children entertained each other, we were actually able to read the books we’d brought. Some afternoons we would drive north to Lido di Jesolo, or perhaps south to the beach at Chioggia, a little fishing port with canals and narrow streets, billed, overoptimistically as “Little Venice”.
One day we made a trip to Padua to see the breathtaking Giotto fresco at Cappella degli Scrovegni and visit the excellent museum. On another we ventured to Vicenza to admire the Teatro Olimpico and other buildings by Palladio. We also headed off early (but as it transpired not early enough) one morning to Lake Garda, an outing that almost ended in disaster when we drove around for an hour looking for a parking space (to a backdrop of wailing children, which stoked up the emotional temperature nicely).
But then, just as we were about to give up we found two spaces in the little lakeside town of Desenzano del Garda, and rewarded the local economy in kind, by having lunch there. The children got to go swimming and we hired a pedalo, from which they jumped and dived, declaring it the highlight of the holiday (mi scusi Signor Giotto).
The highlight for the adults was Venice, which we visited four times, providing ample opportunity to gaze and wonder. We all went en masse to St Mark’s but subsequently each couple took the five children for a day, allowing the grown-ups to steal away and have a slightly more contemplative experience.
My husband and I managed the Doge’s Palace, sepe al nero (cuttlefish served in a dark lagoon of its ink), the Accademia art gallery and, to finish, overpriced cappuccini with a view, where we people-watched in the glorious sunshine.
One evening, although we felt it was slightly cheesy, we overcame our cynicism and hired a gondola, which was well worth the £60 (not an amount I part with lightly). Moreover, to our delight, we happened to be following in the wake of a couple who had a tenor worthy of La Scala serenading them on board, so we listened for free.
We settled down to a magical al fresco dinner of fresh seafood in a little side street by a grand church, where the children could run about. So leisurely was our feast, we ended up having to make a midnight dash to catch the waterbus back to the car park on the mainland. But even scurrying through the back streets, giggling small children hoisted on shoulders, big children being herded and chivvied, was an adventure.
Because Venice can be fun as well as impressive and spectacular. But you need to take the time to wander and get stuck in. We found it to be a fascinating city of intriguing back alleys and laugh-aloud surprises – the greatest being that we did actually make the last boat.
Make the most of Venice with children
Take a ride each way along the Grand Canal on the famous vaporetto No 1 route. Board at the Piazzale Roma and politely (but assertively) manoeuvre yourself into the outdoor seats at the prow of the boat. Then choose which palazzo you’d like to own.
St Mark’s Basilica: arrive early to avoid tedious queuing and keep it short so the wow factor of the magnificent Pala d’Oro altarpiece isn’t los
Combine a day trip swimming at the Lido with an evening spent shopping in the back streets and on the Rialto Bridge. You’ll find lots of dinky treasures for children at pocket-money prices; buy as many pretty painted masks as you can cram into your suitcase. You won’t regret it.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco: dramatic paintings by Tintoretto on the ceiling of the Upper Hall are, thrillingly, viewed by looking into a hand-held mirror.
An evening gondola ride: pricey, but priceless: the children will remember it all their lives.
Read Anne Hanley's expert guide to Venice