Sunday, July 31, 2011

Venice. Not the beach.

Venice is confusing to navigate, over-crowded with tourists and miserably hot. Smelly too.

Boy was I surprised when we had a perfect day there with The Pinks and the Singer and the Donell families. The Singers spent a week there previously and Sara was brilliant with the map. This particular visit showed me, at least, a charming view of the city especially through the observations of our children.

One of the smartest things I did was to pre-arrange a Context Travel tour. Monica Chojnacka was ours alone and she customized our three-hour walk to our family's interests: the Jewish Ghetto and family life in Venice.

Monica, a Stanford-educated, American art historian married to a Venetian man, has daughters the same age as our own. She writes books and has taught at universities in both the US and overseas. During our walk we visited the five synagogues in Venice, only two of which remain in use today. From 1516 to 1866 Venice's Jewish population was confined to an islet of the Cannaregio district, locked in at night and guarded. The world's first ghetto was here and the word ghetto comes from the Italian get or foundry, which previously occupied the location.

The tallest buildings in Venice were once in the ghetto; as the
Jewish population grew there was no place expand but vertically. While the neighborhood is no longer solely Jewish, there are reminders of those days: a few street signs in Hebrew, indentations in the stone house facades where a mezuzah would fit, two Kosher restaurants, some Judaica shops (Eldest Daughter bought a piece of art on her parashah). There are fewer than 400 Jews living in Venice today; in the mid 1700s there were about 5,000.

Monica's daughters study both Greek and Latin in school, and their school days and year are about the same as ours. One of the upsides to having a personal tour guide is that she answered our very pressing questions: the proper direction to stand when using a seatless commode and housing prices (comparable to NYC and SF, in case you were wondering). As a bonus, she knew where all the bathrooms were and even took our kids. Let's not underestimate the importance of this during a summer walking tour. She even showed us one of the places that the gondolas cross the Grand Canal, and that you can take them for less than a Euro instead of walking to the nearest bridge, which is often not so near. Eldest Daughter was thrilled when our tour ended at Lush, the UK-based hand-made soap and cosmetics store. Clearly Monica knows her stuff! I highly recommend Context Travel.

From there we made our way to Piazza San Marco and met up with our friends for a drink at Caffe Florian. Everyone who is anyone has had a drink here; it's been open since 1720! We had Bellinis while the kids had $14 Cokes. Oy! In addition to the couvert, there was a $8 fee for dining while the orchestra played outside.

And then the kids chased the pigeons. Do you think they'll remember the overpriced Cokes or the pigeons?!

Our next stop was the Bridge of Signs, which passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connected the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace. The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. A local legend says that lovers will be granted everlasting love and bliss if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge. The bridge and the walls of the palazzo facing towards the bridge are under construction and it was a disappointment.

We had a late dinner in Venice, magical in the dark of course, and got back to the villa well after midnight. I especially liked seeing Venice after dark: you can peek into the houses.

The pictures here are of Thom and Sara, and Thing 1 at Caffe Florian, our whole entourage in Piazza San Marco, the extremely photogenic Donell children, and the view of the Grand Canal as seen when we got off the vaporetto. Photo credits: Thom Singer

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