Possibly the biggest challenge (and the one I was most excited and dreading in equal parts) was our journey to Venice. I wanted the kids to go to sleep in one country and wake up in another. The romantic side of me was thinking Harry Potter meets Orient Express (without the Dementors or murder hopefully) but my pragmatic side knew it was going to be hard work, especially when I couldn’t find ANYONE who had reviewed the trip by Thello positively.
We arrived at the station far too early but this was one train we absolutely couldn’t miss. So after a horrible dinner of half cooked pizza at what must be Paris’ answer to Greggs (but nowhere near as good), we settled down for the hour or so wait in the departure hall at Gare de Lyon. We talked to the kids about the importance of looking out of each other in the station and they enjoyed being guardians of the baggage.
Finally, we got on-board only to find we had been allocated a 6-berth couchette. This led to panic attacks and wobbles about if we’d be sharing with strangers (by me) and interest and mild concern for me (by the kids – they really are chilled out kids). Steven was more level-headed thankfully and the conductor confirmed we had the couchette to ourselves. The kids jumped like monkeys from the ladder and the beds but eventually settled down and had a great night sleep – unlike Steven and I but we were prepared for that having read the reviews about the squealing of the brakes and the chatter of fellow passengers. Facilities on-board were basic and, let’s face it, toilets on trains are always disgusting but overall I’d rate it 3 out of 5. It did what we needed it too and was totally worth it when Mischa turned round the next day and said it had been the best night of her life 🙂
The plan from there was to put our backpacks in left luggage (which involved more than an hour wait in the queue…) and spend a few hours exploring Venice. I knew this would be a hard day as the kids were buzzing with excitement while Steven and I were knackered. So I had asked Nicla Williams of The Runaway Italian for some tips on how to introduce the kids to Venice (see bullets below). Happy to say we managed most in the 4 or 5 hours we were in Venice:
- Go on ice cream walks, you’ll find good ice cream places everywhere and watch out especially for the places where it says ‘artigianale’ which means that it’s extra special! TICK! And it was divine.
- Ride a water bus – I suggest avoiding the gondola rides, they are very expensive and you and your kids can have as much fun much cheaper by catching a ‘vaporetto’ (water bus). You can catch them at many different stops and they run frequently. Also take a boat trip to the Lido, Venice’s beach and to the island of Murano, famous for its glass blowing. TICK, TICK! We were camping on the Lido and this was the most cost-effective way of getting there.
- you can buy unpainted carnival masks at many street stalls quite cheaply and take your own felt pens for the kids to decorate them over lunch – TICK and a great tip. Cost us 1E each and was a desperately needed distraction after walking about in the heat.
There were a few we didn’t manage (mostly due to time) but I’ve included in case you’re planning a trip to Venice with kids:
- Go to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum that is also suitable for kids. Go to the Accademia Bridge, a 20 minute walk from St Marks Square or take a boat. Outside there is a sculpture garden, where kids can run around.
- if you head to the Lido you can hire bikes.
- if you get off [the train] at either Giardini or S. Elana, there are children’s playgrounds there which are good for kids up to 5 and 10.
As there wasn’t anything in particular we really wanted to see, we let the kids lead the way and get us completely lost. We found a co-op and bought some food for a picnic in one of the piazzas. One thing we were really struck by, as everyone says, was how much Italians love kids. And it’s not a over the top, intrusive attention. It was shop workers ruffling their hair as they went past or residents waving to them from windows. Italians just get that kids are part of society rather than small people who should stick to their own designated areas of the world.
The kids loved being the leaders in our exploration, however when it was time to go back for our bags, we wished we had invested in a good old-fashioned map at the train station as the GPS on Steven’s phone wouldn’t work in the narrow streets. However, we didn’t stay lost for long thanks to all the signage (even though it felt we were taking the long way round sometimes) and soon were on our way to St Marc’s square to catch the vaporetto to Punta Sabbioni on the Lido where we were camping.
From Punta Sabbioni, we caught the bus, missed our stop and had to walk back to the turning for the campsite. Eurocamp had already warned us that it was a mile walk from the main road and in that heat, with the minor detour, it felt like we had walked for hours and I was beginning to get seriously worried about sunstroke. So we covered the kids up and made them drink all the water we were carrying. I have never been so happy to see a tent in my whole life. Later that evening, Steven worked out we had been walking for about half an hour but in my mind, we had spent the afternoon looking for an oasis in the Sahara desert.
We then spent 4 lovely and surprisingly comfortable nights in one of Eurocamp’s tents. The campsite, Ca’Savio, was small but had enough to keep the kids entertained. All they had wanted from their holiday was a swimming pool and kids club (meaning four glorious child-free hours a day for us – I’ll be honest, by that time we all needed some time apart). The kids met kids from across Europe which was great but if I had only one complaint about the site, it was that it could have been anywhere in Europe. You didn’t especially feel like you were in Italy. I’m not sure the kids heard any Italian and it wasn’t until we got home that we realised that we hadn’t had any authentic Italian food (so we had spaghetti bolognese the night we got home 🙂 ) Well except we had our first taste of cannoli:
In spite of being within 5 mins of the beach and buying buckets and spades, we didn’t make it there until the last night. Thunderclouds were rolling in which made for a really atmospheric, if short, trip. Half an hour in, the life guard scooted us all off as we watched the lightening get closer. Steven and Jude went back to the tent to bring in the table and chairs and Mischa and I went for a takeaway. We just reached the tent when the rain started and what a show it was. Thunder right overhead, lightening every few minutes and rain so hard, we couldn’t hear each other talk as it battered off the tent roof. It was amazing.
Finally, it was time to leave. Randomly, Jude had met a little girl he went to nursery with and that chance encounter led to us making the one concession in our backpacking trip. They had got taxi transfers from the airport which seemed like an idea sent from heaven after our experience in getting to the campsite (don’t get me wrong, I’d do it again on another trip as it’s part of the experience but the lovely relaxing few days in the campsite had made us lazy). At 90E it was a stretch in our budget and meant that we had to tighten our belts even more so but it was so worth it. We had had a great holiday and the only slight downer was the Eurocamp rep who, when we picked up our bags they had been storing for us, offered to take us to our tent as he thought we’d just arrived. Yes, we are the stereotypical peely-wally Scots but I had thought we’d got a bit of colour from the trip. Obviously not.
The plane was delayed due to another thunderstorm. I was not a happy bunny but we found an empty gate and the kids played silent disco with their headphones in. We also got chatting to a couple of older kids from Canada who had done a lot of traveling and were all the wiser for it. They asked us our thoughts on the upcoming Scottish independence referendum for instance… Back in Gatwick, we staying in one of the hotels in the terminal and got an early flight back to Edinburgh. If I were to do this again, I would either pay extra to get a direct flight home, or get a later flight up so we could enjoy the clean bedding and lovely hotel breakfast.
The more I think and talk and write about this trip, the more proud I am of us as a family. It took a lot of hard work and organisation but it was an amazing experience and one I hope the kids will remember for the rest of their lives. I know I will. The last part of this series will be my reflections on the whole experience and a check back to whether we actually achieved our original brief.