Day Two in the Floating City, then Onwards to Tuscany!

23 Apr

Me: “Did you know that Venice is sinking?”

Patrick (in a German accent) “What is it sinking about?”

We woke up in our little Jolly Camping trailer somewhat refreshed. I say somewhat because sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Lucy woke me up with bloodcurdling screams followed by terrified sobbing. She ran into my room to tell me…that there were four ants in the bathroom. FOUR ants. Oh, the humanity.

We drove onto the island today and parked at a garage near the train station. We’d just crossed our first bridge and were heading into the city when the kids, with their finely attuned radar, spotted a playground tucked away behind a brick wall. We walked around until we found the gate. The kids ran ahead and spent a little while playing. It was a quiet little park, with a rope that the kids had to climb up to get to the top. Our very coordinated children kept getting their feet caught in the rope though and I kept having to unstick them. We slowly started weaving our way through small alleys towards our next A-Mason Race destination, sticking to a less frequented part of the island today. It was lovely. Everything was just waking up and there weren’t many people around. It seemed like every time we turned a corner, we’d find ourselves on a charming piazza, or facing an ancient church, or a charming canal intersection. The kids were ravenous despite having breakfast, so we popped into a little bakery and got a handful of pastries and a baguette to stash in my purse for emergencies.

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We turned a corner to where an alley dead-ended in a side canal. We perched on the steps leading into the water and watched boats bob up and down while we quietly ate our treats. These small moments of food and rest together on steps in various places would become among my favorite collections of moments from this trip. We got up and immediately ran into a small Baroque church called Tolentini. It wasn’t fancy outside, just the usual roman columns and frieze work, but inside it was a baroque dreamscape. Everything was gilded and ornate, it had several organs and baroque music playing quietly in the background. The kids were interested of a fresco of a saint who had their head chopped off. It was a delightful find.

We finally reached our destination, Ca’ Rezzonico, a Venetian palace on the water. In the little courtyard outside there was a little fountain with a family coat of arms above it. I started to explain to the kids what a coat of arms was but then I looked down at the pond and interrupted myself by shouting “Ooh, turtles!” There were three little turtles and one bigger one in the tiny little fountain pond, along with two giant fish. The kids were way more interested in those turtles than anything else I could point out to them. We spent quite a while there with those turtles. Meanwhile, I ducked my head into the Palace and weighed the cost/benefit of going in. I decided it wasn’t necessary and we were having a great slow morning. So instead I changed the race clue on the spot. It was initially going to be a scavenger hunt inside the rooms, followed by a dance in the ballroom. They were getting into the mode that going into a nicely furnished house might not have been the best idea. So instead, we explored the courtyard beyond the fountain, where there was a nice little hedge maze and some Italian toddlers playing. The kids played on a teeter-totter with a little kids named Leonardo for a while. Afterwards, we went back to the turtles, which at this point had been named Ellie, Saint, Cutie, and Patrick. The fish were named Mario and Luigi. (Rhett spent the rest of the day wondering if Cutie missed him.)

Our next clue sent us off to find a mask place that we’d seen a video about online, Ca’ Macana. It wasn’t too hard to find. We went in and checked out all of the amazing masks they had. Some of them were real art pieces. They had a workshop down the street where you could make your own mask, but it was 37 E per kid. Too much. We’ll just go home to Hobby Lobby this summer and pick up some masks there and paint them. Boom, Venice on a budget.

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Our next clue led us across the river to the church whose facade was used at the library in Indiana Jones and the last crusade. Here, the kids received their final clue for Venice. They had to find out how to say “Gelato is the best food in the world!” in Italian and say it to us correctly to get the clue for their pit stop. When Finn read the phrase in the clue, he looked up and said “that’s pretty much true!” They were a little shy at first. I guess all that “don’t talk to strangers!” stuff has really worked. They finally went in to a gelato shop and asked the lady who was serving. She was busy though and barely glanced at them. They back out onto the piazza where Finn spotted a waitress setting up chairs. He went up and politely asked her. She looked a little confused but then told him how to say it. He came back to me and repeated it well enough. Their final instructions were to run to the top of the nearest bridge, put their hands together and yell “We love Italia!” then run to the steps of the church/Indiana Jones library to check in with me at the pit stop. It was so fun to watch them run with such excitement, yell and then run back to check in. They were awesome.

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That was it for the race in Venice. Now it was time to get some lunch, check out one more thing, try and see if we could ride a gondola, and then head out of town. We were looking for a cheap place to eat, slice of pizza or a sandwich, just a stand. But then we passed a little place that had a reasonable looking menu for pizza and pasta. We decided to go ahead and eat there. We walked to a table on the patio, not noticing the Chinese lanterns hanging outside the restaurant. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to eat Italian food in Italy, probably don’t do it at a Chinese Italian restaurant. It was about as good as you might imagine and turned out way more expensive than we’d thought. It really was awful food. I kept trying to put a nice spin on it “hey, this is charming, a Chinese Italian restaurant!” We were serenaded the whole time by an accordionist leaning against the wall of the nearby church who played the same cheesy Italian tune over and over for a while, before finally moving into Sinatra and showtunes.

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After leaving that terrible decision of a restaurant, we went into Frari Church. It was pretty interesting inside- over the top tombs for the artists Canova and Titian and works by Titian, Bellini, and Donatello. I walked around with the kids pointing out interesting things while Patrick listened to the Rick Steves Audio Tour on my phone. If you’re traveling, see if there’s a Rick Steves tour for it. They’re free and really add a ton of context and information to what you’re seeing. Finn was particularly interested in the frescos. We’d studied about the introduction of perspective in Renaissance art and Finn was excited to see it in front of him. It was quite well done in a lot of the altar pieces and we started playing “flat or real” to figure out of a scene was actually recessed or protruding or whether it was just painted to look that way. Finn was delighted every time he was fooled.

After leaving Frari, we passed another tucked away church in an alley but the kids protested. Rhett said “You ALWAYS go into churches.” So I stayed outside with the kids while Patrick popped in to see if it was worth a visit. While we was in there, I looked at one of those artists’ stands where a guy was doing small watercolors of Venice scenes. They were all a little too Venice for me, to much gondola or imposing Rialto bridge. Then I saw one that looked like it was looking around a corner at a small canal with a few small anchored boats. It made me think of sitting on the steps that morning on those quiet steps and eating our pastries together. I went ahead and got it, because it would have that memory attached to it. I learned a long time ago that the only souvenirs worth getting for us are artwork or dishes. Everything else is junk that disappears.

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At this point we only had one thing left to do in Venice- ride on a gondola. The kids were itching to do it, so there was no skipping. The problem is that gondola rides last 40 min and start at 80 Euro. No way were we going to pay that for the kids to get bored after 10 minutes and us try to keep Rhett from falling off the boat. You’d have to pay US 80 Euro to do that. I’d come up with a clever little alternative though. At several points on the grand canal, gondolas called troghettos are used to ferry people like taxis from one side to the other. The ride is only a couple of minutes long, but it only costs 2 Euro per adult and kids are free, because it’s public transportation. The problem was finding a troghetto that was actually in service. We wove our way through the city checking stops but most of them were closed. I didn’t want to disappoint the kids so even though we were wiped and had walked a ton that day, I forced us to try one more stop. We went through teeny alleyways until we got there. When I saw the gondola loading up passengers on the other side of the canal getting ready to come our way, I squealed. I was so thrilled. When it docked, we hopped on, paid our 4 Euro and enjoyed our two minute gondola ride across the Grand Canal. The kids LOVED it. We convinced them that it was way cooler to take a short ride like real Venetians do. They’ve all ranked that gondola ride near the top of their favorite Italy moments. Parenting success.

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It was mid-afternoon and we still had to get to our Tuscan farmhouse, so we hopped on a water taxi and headed out of town. In the first of many driving errors, we ended up totally confused about where we were. We’d wanted to stop in Padua on the way, check out some churches and eat at a gelato place that’s owned by three Michelin-starred chefs. We got all kinds of turned around though and wasted hours driving in a huge circle around Padua. When I finally got us back on track, I noticed that we’d accidentally ended up only a mile or so from the gelato shop. We decided to skip the churches and get gelato. Finding parking in that labyrinth of a city center took us a while longer. It was getting later so we stopped at an outdoor cafe for dinner. I had pappardelle with wild mushrooms, which Lucy stole from me when she decided she liked it better than her dish. So I ate hers, which was mezzelune with spinach and meat. Patrick had a panini, Rhett had grilled cheese, and I think Finn just ate breadsticks. Down the street a mariachi band was playing.

Afterwards, we went next door to Pretto, the most wonderful gelato place. It was so so so worth the hours spent trying to get to it. I don’t know how to describe their gelato except to say that when I watch Top Chef, I can’t really understand when the judges are talking about mouthfeel, the way flavors play, and how ingredients are thoughtfully used. Okay, I could totally understand it when I was eating my Sicilian pistachio gelato. Patrick had dark chocolate and strawberry. The one downside was that we got them in cones and the cones were pretty lame. Not homemade, kind of styrofoamy. For the kids, we walked down to a fro-yo shop where they picked out all kinds of foreign toppings for their scoops. While they were eating, Patrick started to look sheepish and finally admitted that he was thinking of going back to Pretto for another serving. Um, no judgement here! This time we had lemon and anise, and strawberry and cream. Amazing.

I wish we’d had more time to spend in Padua. It seemed like a really cool little city, a university town with a very walkable center. Maybe for our next living abroad adventure…

We headed down to Rignano Sul’ Arno. At this point it was dark and the roads became extremely winding and hilly, with zillions of tunnels going through mountains. I started to feel a bit carsick after a while. We made it to the farmhouse around 10 and parked. I couldn’t tell where the front door was, but there was a huge iron bell outside that had a sign that said “Ring the Bell.” So I rang it. A few minutes later, Giselda and Emilio came out and welcomed us like we were long-lost family. Wow. They were so warm and huggy. The kids had passed out in the car, so they kind of sleep-walked into the farmhouse while Giselda clucked over them and patted their hair. The place looked great. Two bedrooms, a bath, couch area, kitchen and dining room. We got comfortable immediately and went to bed. It was an exhausting day. We were looking forward to taking the next day easier and seeing what the farm and countryside looked like in the daytime. We had no idea at that point how breathtaking it would all be.

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Overall, we were really amazed and thrilled by how well the kids did, especially with all the churches that we dragged them into. Despite all the walking, there were no tantrums, no major fits. We were having a really nice family vacation together. It was especially fun to see the kids work together and grow closer as friends. That’s been one of our reasons for doing this whole Romania thing- we wanted our kids to be better friends with each other. Even though there are frequent arguments and fights, we both feel like we’re seeing those relationships really grow and it’s wonderful to see.

Next up, Tuscany.

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