When I tell a friend that my wife, Gail, and I will soon spend a week in Venice, he sighs appreciatively.
Then I mention we’ll be bringing our school-age son. My pal groans knowingly.
I add that my mother-in-law will also be coming. To which he says: “Are you insane?”
To be fair, my son, Ewan, is game for most any trip. And I’m famously lucky to have a mother-in-law as charming and adventurous as Jane.
Still, no matter how lovely your travel companions are, family trips — especially those of the multi-generational variety — are fraught with potential problems. Throw in a foreign country, even one as tourist-friendly as Italy, and you up the ante for aggravations.
Which is why we settle on an itinerary that promises something for us all.
Museums, churches, a ghost tour, a visit to a cat sanctuary, a highfalutin scavenger hunt using GPS, and, of course, fantastic food and wine. We decide to go during our son’s spring break, in March — which itself is a compromise, in that it’s a little chillier in Venice this time of year than Gail and I would like it to be for Jane. But it’s the only time we could all go. Instead of a Grand Tour, ours is to be a Grand Compromise.
Foremost, Gail and I vow to slow down. This means, among other things, starting our days later, so our preteen son isn’t grouchy from lack of sleep and Jane will have time for morning ablutions that include rolling up her hair. What’s more, we — especially fleet-footed Ewan — pledge to literally slow our walking pace for Jane, recovering from an inflamed heel. When not gallantly helping his grandmother over the city’s umpteen bridges, Ewan’s free to race ahead. With no car traffic, Venice is about as safe as a city can be for kids.
We also make accommodations over, well, accommodations. Occupying most of the top floor of the palazzo Ca’ Mocenigo is the three-bedroom penthouse overlooking the Grand Canal that we’ve rented. From the altana — rooftop deck — we have a panorama of the city. An old-fashioned elevator makes trips to and from our fifth-floor perch a cinch for Jane. And it’s added fun for Ewan: After helping his grandmother safely into the elevator, he delights in racing up or down the stairs to see if he can beat the lift before giving her a hand back out.
What’s more, the palazzo’s past guests include Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century philosopher-turned-martyred heretic with whom my mother-in-law is benignly obsessed (she has a picture of him on her kitchen wall). That the palazzo is rumored to be haunted by Bruno’s ghost is enough to make Ewan a fan, too. He gleefully tells us one morning that he’d heard Bruno’s ghost talking to him (in Italian, natch).
Gail and I would be happy with humbler digs. But here we each have our own room. And at half the cost of a couple rooms in an upscale hotel.
Stirring later every day also means other concessions. We forgo a favorite ritual of morning cappuccinos and people-watching at a local cafe in favor of so-so espressos brewed in our apartment kitchen’s stovetop pot. But Gail and I admit that not having to get dressed first is a plus, and the view has its own charms. We all marvel at the workaday traffic on the Grand Canal. Boats for firefighting, police, mail delivery, garbage, even an armored one for hauling money. We decide it’s like an aquatic version of a Richard Scarry children’s book.
Restaurants, with something for each of our tastes, are blessedly compromise-free, save for distance to and from. Fortunately, the several near our apartment are all excellent. And each serves my beloved saor, a Venetian specialty of sweet onions, vinegar and fish (in this case, sardines) that I make something of a mission to try every chance I get. Ewan’s usually irksome habit of toting electronics everywhere is now welcomed when he volunteers to be our official food photographer, snapping photos of everything we eat with his iPod. Soon Ewan is documenting most aspects of our trip, freeing the rest of us from photographic duties.
Even one of Ewan and Gail’s shared hobbies turns out to offer something for Jane and me. Strolling through the cool maze of Venice’s canalside walkways, Ewan finds more than a dozen “geocaches” — small containers hidden by fellow players of this worldwide treasure-hunting game. Using her iPhone’s GPS, Gail shares clues about where these small boxes are hidden. From each, we extract and sign a tiny notebook or scroll, sometimes even swap a prize. Though game for geocaching, Jane especially likes the little history lessons about the city woven into the clues. I’m happy to have an excuse to wander the city and, with the pretext of wanting my companions to rest their legs, stop at cafes for another fizzy Venetian Spritz cocktail.
Unlike many tourists, I’m content never to set foot in a museum. Gail is only slightly less of a philistine than I am. High culture to Ewan is like kryptonite to Superman. For Jane, it’s catnip.
Which is why a visit to the art galleries of Ca’ Pesaro is leavened with gelato. And why, one drizzly night, we take a ghost tour that offers a survey of some of the city’s more ghoulish history. A visit to the iconic Doge’s Palace wins us all over when we spring for a behind-the-scenes tour of the palace’s secret passages, hidden torture chambers and prison cells.
There’s no debate about visiting Gattile di Malamocco, a sanctuary for more than a hundred abandoned and abused cats on the nearby island of Lido. We all are unabashed cat lovers. Getting to Malamocco on our morning of choice, though, has its challenges. A vaporetto – or water bus — brings us to Lido, where we grab a bus that takes us to one end of the island, followed by a half-mile walk to the fishing village of Malamocco. Ewan again does his parents proud by helping his grandmother navigate muddy potholes. The sanctuary is a series of small buildings where cats of all ages and degrees of health live. A volunteer named Ricardo gives us a tour, introducing us to each cat by name, and explaining when and why it’s been taken in. Gail and I share a smile as Ewan pets every cat that will let him and whispers soothing words. When he happens upon a particularly friendly cat, he insists we all offer a pet or chin-scratch. Only hunger for lunch tears us away.
A visit late that same afternoon to Caffè Florian on Piazza San Marco is a perfect compromise, in that it allows Jane to revel in the famed cafe’s live music, Gail and me to enjoy the stage-play of Venice street life, and Ewan to run semi-wild in the city’s only true piazza, leaping to chase a glowing spinner toy bought from a street vendor.
Gail and I had all but sworn off having any chance of going out alone, much less indulging in the city’s night life. But when Jane and Ewan volunteer to stay home one evening, we’re almost out the door before they’re done talking.
We stroll — more briskly now that we’re on our own — and linger over dinner at a restaurant a little farther afield. Late as it is when we leave the restaurant, we realize we don’t have to cut short our date. So we pop into a cozy bar for ombrette, traditional Venetian glasses of wine. By the time we return home, it’s late, though neither of us knows — or cares — what time it is. Who knew a multi-generational trip could be so easy — and romantic?
Paul Abercrombie is a writer in Tampa.
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Web sites offer a wide variety short-term apartment rentals, including cozy studios (about $150 a day), one-bedroom lofts ($210), multi-room apartments that sleep 10 ($685) and luxury penthouses (topping $1,000).
The Red House
Views on Venice
Piazza San Marco
Regarded as Italy’s oldest cafe, Caffè Florian offers light Italian snacks, desserts and a dizzyingly extensive (and expensive) list of coffees, wines and cocktails. Splurge on the $7.50-per-person charge to sit outside to hear the orchestra — and sip a pricey espresso ($8) or Venetian Spritz ($24) — and you’ve bought yourself a front-row seat for some of the city’s best people-watching.
Gattile di Malamocco
Via Teodato Ipato
Malamocco, Lido di Venezia
In the town of Malamocco, on the nearby island of Lido, this cat sanctuary is home to more than 100 abused and abandoned felines. Free, but by appointment only.
Venice Ghost Walking Tour
Tours start atop the Rialto Bridge.
Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour
By reservation only; about $79 per person.
Tours start at the main entrance to the Doge’s Palace.