It doesn’t take long for this city to work its magic on me. One look at that long, low horizon shaped by the grey-green Venetian waters as the train pulls into its island station and I find myself breathing a sigh. It may sound cliche but it’s lagoon, the water-lapped maze of streets and canals, its crumbling buildings and piazze hidden away like pockets are truly the stuff of dreams.
But when I was there a couple months ago, a quick weekend trip up from Tuscany with friends, I saw Venice in a new light. I saw it from the point of view of a toddler. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Venice over the years. I spent several weeks on the island of San Lazzaro working on a restoration project at the monastery there, as well as uncountable visits for weekends or even day trips. But admittedly, I hadn’t been back there since having a baby. And although the magic was still there, it was, well, different. We wanted to still do what we love doing in Venice but make it bearable for all by adapting our usual Venetian weekend to having a toddler with us. It worked like a charm.
Venice is a city for walking around in — forget taking the vaporetto everywhere and pack a comfortable pair of shoes. I mean, yes, you can take it once along the Grand Canal just to check out the view if it’s your first time. It’s rather like a little cruise, except you’re squashed and pushed in like sardines.
But otherwise, you should walk in Venice. You will want to take it all in, even get a little lost, and this is the best way. My toddler, 17 months old at the time, had the same idea. She flat out refused in a screaming-out-her-lungs sort of way to sit in a pram and be pushed around Venice. No, she wanted to walk and stop and touch and muse and try to stick a hand in the water.
Luckily our visit was mainly to potter about, see some friends, eat some lovely Venetian food and drink a spritz or two, we had no grand plans for museums or sight-seeing or walking from one end of Venice to the other, as we had thankfully done those things over the baby-free years. We had also conveniently booked an apartment in a great little spot at one of my favourite places for a long passeggiata, Le Zattere, and not far from handy places such as a good piazza (Campo Santa Margherita), a supermarket or a good bacaro (Cantinone gia’ Schiavi) so that ducking out for some food or a run around was just an easy few minutes away. Incidentally, a good gelateria (Gelateria Nico) was nearby too, a life saver when it comes to staving off toddler (and incidentally, parent) meltdowns.
I’ve always loved the Venetian way of strolling from bacaro to bacaro, feasting on a collection of cicchetti from one place to the other. It turned out to be a great way of getting a meal in with the little one in tow too. We were never in one place long enough for her to get bored; we were always outdoors, perched on a bench or on the steps of a bridge and being that there was mostly finger food, it was ready straight away and easy to find something child friendly. Cantinone gia’ Schiavi was only a minute’s walk from our apartment and that turned out to be even more convenient than I imagined. But we also had a good round near Rialto market, ending at Do Spade. Despite the enticing number of deep fried food items, there are also plenty of gluten and wheat free options in Venice, such as polenta and grilled seafood.
When it came to play, there was nothing like heading straight to the nearest local piazza. Campo Santa Margherita has always been one of my favourites for the fact that you can go there to buy fresh fish or vegetables, you can people watch as you sip on a spritz, and everyone from old to young and in between has a place there. There are endless things for a toddler to do in that piazza — pigeon-chasing, dog-patting and watching the slightly older kids play with a soccer ball all worked a treat. Water fountains and gelato also get big points.
There are also beautiful hidden gardens around Venice that you don’t easily stumble across unless you’re on a playground mission. Parco Savorgnan in Cannaregio (very close to the train station and once the garden of the Baroque Palazzo Savorgnan) is one of the largest (10,000 square meters!) and most beautiful. You can get to it by slipping down the narrowest of alleyways off the mainstream tourist track of Lista di Spagna. It’s like stumbling into a magic garden complete with playgrounds, fountains and plenty of green shady trees. It’s so easy to spend hours here — for anyone looking for a bit of respite from Venetian heat or tourist crowds, this is a special spot.
And when it came to rest, there was nothing like coming back to our beautiful peaceful apartment near the Zattere for nap times and watching the seagulls circle the canals from the lounge. A beautiful thing about Venice that I thoroughly appreciated with having a little one around was the peace and quiet of its laneways and canals — you hear nothing except the calls of the seagulls. No traffic, except on foot and in the water. We all slept like babies.