As I have posted before, my family and I are now living in London and that presents some great opportunities to travel throughout Europe on the (relative) cheap. Occasionally, I hope to post reflections on our travels which may or may not be interesting to general readers of this blog. I hope they will be playful stops for you and playful writing for me. Mark will alert me, I’m sure, if he thinks this type of content is inapproriate and hence, you may not see it again. Here goes…
It takes a special kind of crazy to find yourself on a Saturday morning at 4 am driving from west London on the M1 with a six year old and three year old boy to Luton Airport to board a “UK bank holiday” flight to Bergamo Airport, about an hour outside of Milan. Nonetheless, there my wife and I were, the Celts wide awake in the back of the car and ready to invade Italy. We were headed to stay for two nights in Verona, with a planned side trip to Venice. But first we had to get there. Our flight was at 6:35 am and I thought we had left in plenty of time. Of course, I neglected to take into account the peculiarly British way of proceeding with road construction, rip down all the signs, nuke the road surface, put up orange pylons and do nothing else for at least 20 years. Needless to say, I missed the exit, or as they say here, the Junction, off the M1 for Luton Airport and was madly careening through the no man’s land that is a UK motorway between “junctions.” The Brits positively delight in putting turn offs (remember, these are road enginners that will erect roundabouts literally inches apart in central London) on their motorways so far apart that when you screw up, you really screw up.
We arrived at Luton at 5:20 am, still bright eyed and bushy-tailed, but now in a mad dash to check in. After snaking through the longest security line I have ever seen (I am convinced that terrorist hell will be an eternity with two small boys going through airport security and no virgins anywhere in sight), including an exciting new game called “passed out old man hurdling” (he turned out to be OK), we managed to board our plane with ten minutes to spare.
We began testing a new childhood nutritional theory while on our Ryanair flight which we scientifically coinfirmed through the remainder of the weekend. A three year old boy can successfully survive for three days (perhaps longer) on nothing but potato chips, Coke and gelato. Thus sated, we arrived in (mercifully) sunny Italy with the boys. A few hours later and after an unplanned, but exciting, prolonged tour of the city center, “Look kids, the Roman Arena….I know honey, but I can’t GET LEFT”, we arrived safely at our hotel in Verona.
Verona is a beautiful (the city center sidewalks are, I believe, paved with marble), and more importantly, living, city. There are tourists of course, you have to do the obligatory rub of Juliet’s breast, but the city is also alive with family friendly locals. Children join their parents in the evening stroll and friends and families gather at the central gelaterias and cafes. It is a place where cena e vino can be bought at a local salumeria and one can quickly become enamored of a lifestyle that clings around a historic city that can be easily walked. If you are planning on introducing children to Italy and Italian culture, this is a fine place to do it. Of course, they may want to know if you are familiar with a six year old American red head who they recall used the oversized straw that came with his gelato as a javelin as he ran through the Piazza Bra shouting “CHARGE!” Trust me, tell them no and anyway, you think that kid was Scottish.
On Sunday, we took the train into Venice. Let me say this, when we abandoned train travel for the efficiencies of the Jet Age, we gave up a lot for the sake of efficiency. There is nothing quite like riding a train in an old style enclosed compartment, picking up your city map and provisions at the stazione buffet and heading out of the station onto a piazza that overlooks the Grand Canal. That is how one “arrives” someplace…although lugging a pram and a Jansport bursting with baby wipes (how precisely does one get a gelato cioccolata in the ear) and Orange Fanta does take just a bit of the romance out of it.
That being said, Venice is a strange place. If Rome was the DC of Renaissance Italy and Florence the New York, Venice must have been a mixture of LA, New Orleans and Vegas. The entire place reeks of the opulence that once was. I must say that Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frerai is one of the most spectacular spaces I have ever been in. Its center piece is Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin located over the main altar. We considered going to Mass there (it was Sunday morning) but because my younger son, affectionately known as “Damien”, has been known to start shouting “I hate Church!!!!” even at the most child friendly Masses in English, we thought better of it.
Instead we got lunch, more crisps please, and waited for Mass to end before touring the church. When we arrived back in the piazza after Mass the strangeness began. The descendants of those Renaissance Venetians that built the magnificent structure before me began to emerge from the church, splendid in their silk suits, ties and dresses and their children in silk choir robes. All quite striking and beautiful in that quintessentially Italian way. It was then that I realized we were in a dying city and these souls (I won’t call them poor, they are the heirs to a tremendous civic culture and architecture) live in Disneyland or Colonial Williamsburg. That was truly what it was like, a small coterie of died in the wool Venetians, dressed in silk, trying to hang on to the way of life of their ancestors, surrounded by people in belly bags, t-shirts and, lord help me, spandex. The city was magnificent…but somehow, eerily unreal.
After Santa Marie we trudged through the outdoor mall the city has become between Santa Maria and San Marco (this was truly depressing), catering only to the tourist buck, on our way to Piazza San Marco. At Piazza San Marco, I was thunderstruck by how a space so huge and magnificent could be simply sucked up by a mob of tourists. There was a queue at least 300 ft long to get into the church of San Marco. Mind you, this was a structure built to accomodate the entire population of Renaissance Venice at the absolute apex of its wealth and power, and now it couldn’t accomodate all the tourists who wanted to see it.
We got some great pictures, headed on a municipal ferry over to Lido and had a drink and some lemon ices. We then did a smart thing. We got back on the muinicipal ferry and headed back accross the Lagoon and through the entire Grand Canal back to Stazione Santa Lucia. That ride takes about an hour, is six euro and gives you a great view of every palazzo on the Canal, save the cost and cheese of the gondola ride.
I’m glad I saw Venice and that my boys saw it. It is a magnificent heritage and someday, I hope to get back with my wife to see the art and the churches, which we missed in an effort to spare the boys that particular long march. However, I would never stay in Venice, it would be like sleeping in a tomb.
Our final day in Italy was spent driving to Lago di Garda and Lago di Como looking for places to have more gelato and where the kids could stretch their legs, before heading back late at night to London.
All in all, a great weekend and a blessing.