Boats of Venice

Gondolas, of course, are a big part of what makes Venice special. Popular and numerous as they may be, they're far from the one only boats on the canals. One of the games we enjoyed playing with our sons was trying to spot new types of watercraft. Ambulance boats, garbage boats, package delivery boats, bus boats (the famous vaporetti), and more all ply their trades up and down the canals. The world is so different when there are no roads!

Venice at Dawn and Piazza San Marco

The downside of taking the night train from Rome to Venice is that you arrive very early, around 05:30. That's also an upside: you can admire Venice at dawn (the other advantage is not losing a day of vacation).

We rented a lovely apartment in Venice, right across from where Marco Polo lived long ago (which made for good educational opportunities with our sons :-). Fortunately the landlord was able to meet us early on a Sunday morning so we could drop off our bags, then it was off to Piazza San Marco, the principle square of Venice, to show the boys some of the beauty of the city.

One of the great things about Venice is that just going somewhere is an adventure given the novel boat-based public transportation system. Our sons enjoyed the trip down the Grand Canal, esp. lovely (and quiet!) in the early morning. We had fun trying to spot as many winged lions as possible, the symbols of Venice.

At the Piazza we admired the architecture, walked around, climbed the campanile (tall bell tower) to get a panoramic view of the city, and visited San Marco Cathedral's museum. All hits with young and not-quite-so-young :-)

Travel tips:
  • A travel pass is expensive but if if you're going to take a vaporetto (a "bus boat") more than twice a day, it's worth it. We paid 33 Euro for 3 days, the cost of a single ticket is 6.5 Euro
  • Pay attention to tides (and this site) if you want to see Piazza San Marco partially flooded, the most you're likely to see, but be ready to stand on crowded walk ways
  • The museum in San Marco's cathedral is well worth seeing for its view of the Piazza and its beautiful mosaics
  • Time your visit to the campanile with the top of the hour and you'll be treated to nice bell ringing (loud too!)
  • FYI, Sunday mornings the cathedral itself is close to tourists until 14:00 due to mass being held, though the museum is open
  • It's easy to get a little disoriented in Venice's streets. A GPS or GPS enabled phone (or in our case, iPad) is easiest, a compass can be quite useful, but just paying attention to signs saying "Per Rialto" or "Per San Marco" can often be good enough when navigating the city. Besides, it can be fun to get lost!

More of Rome: Castles, Temples, Fountains, and Baths

We packed a lot into our last day in Rome. First off: a visit to the Castel Sant' Angelo, located near the Vatican. Originally Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, it was turned into a castle and intended primarily to defend the Holy See. The castle is many leveled and a fun visit with kids. The boys particularly liked the balista, the old weapons on display, and the view from the top.

A walk across the Ponte Sant' Angelo brings you to the center of Rome. Be on the lookout for clumps of "wishful" padlocks people have attached to the railings, their version of throwing pennies in a fountain.

The Pantheon was next on our list. A temple to all the gods rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in AD126, it's another example of astounding Roman architecture. Its dome is huge, perfectly circular, and is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Its oculus (the open hole at the top) provides a surprising amount of light. Once you're at the Pantheon, it's a quick walk to famous Trevi Fountain (better than I expected) and Trajan's Column.

Our last stop took us south on public transportation to the Baths of Caracalla. These are a little off the beaten path but very interesting nonetheless. Completed around 216AD (thanks to 9,000 people working for 5 years!) the baths are huge. A center of Roman life, these were used to business and pleasure. What impressed me most is that Romans built these baths at all. They must have cost a pretty packet at a time when funds were needed across the empire to repel invaders, shore up defenses, build critical infrastructure, etc. Clearly Roman culture was a lot more than blood and gladiators.

Travel tips:
  • Though fairly packed, you can easily see these in a day (as always, bring water!)
  • You'll find many opportunities to grab a bite to eat around the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, etc. just avoid picking a place right next to the monuments or you'll certainly be paying for it
  • The Baths of Caracalla are south of the Colosseum, but not much. Check bus routes before setting out and you'll be fine getting there and back

St Peter's and the Vatican

It's not everyday you can visit a country within a city. The Vatican is one of the world's smallest states with its own post office, gas station, supermarket... And, of course, church!

This was one of my favorite visits in Rome: the Vatican museum is stuffed with jaw-dropping artwork, primarily from Renaissance and Baroque periods. We took a guided tour and our guide was talented enough to (mostly!) keep our boys' attention on the art and its many backstories. St. Peter's was also impressive: not only is it the biggest cathedral in the world, it's also home to much art. One letdown: the Sistine Chapel. It may be an amazing work of art but it was way too dark in there to properly appreciate it.

Next time we're in Rome, I'd definitely put the Vatican museum on our list of activities, there's a ton to see.

Travel tips:
  • As with the Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum, plan on spending a whole day (and bring water)
  • Make sure you send a few postcards from the Vatican's two post offices, one on each side of St. Peter's
  • The post office on the right of St. Peter's as you exit has tables you sit at to write your postcards. While you're there, check out the Vatican bookshop next door
  • Postcards are much cheaper in the Vatican and there are pictures of sites all over Rome
  • Visit the Vatican museum first: this will avoid standing in line to see St. Peter's as you end up inside the cathedral at the end of your museum tour after the Sistine Chapel
  • Get a guide for the museum: you'll avoid the lines and it's money well spent. There are precious few signs & explanations in this huge museum, a good guide will increase your enjoyment tremendously
  • I liked climbing up to the top of St. Peter's: it only costs 5 euro and the view is great. You also get a view of the inside of the copula and afterwards you exit inside the church, so you may avoid 

The Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum

At these three sites, all very close together, I finally got a good feel for the might of Rome. The sheer scale of the constructions, the engineering needed to build them, the beautiful art work, and the fact that so much is still standing after 2,000 years, is just amazing. 

Having just watched Gladiator with the boys, we were most excited by the Colosseum but the Palatine, and esp. the Forum with all its temples, also captured our interest. If you have kids, I strongly recommend you watch programs about Rome before you visit. Firing up their imaginations is one of the best things you can do. We also watched one of Rick Steves' videos, and the decent Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. Hunting for Roman numerals turned out to be a surprise hit: the boys really enjoyed learning these concepts and still make up their own Roman math problems.

This was the first area we visited in Rome and made for a great start.

Travel tips:
  • To take pictures of the whole Colosseum, visit at midday so one side isn't in the shade
  • A guided visit may be nice but you can learn a lot just through the extensive explanations and exhibits (though this will likely be long for children)
  • If you buy a Roma pass, which gives you 3 days' unlimited travel on public transportation + 2 free museums, the Colosseum / Palantine / Forum counts as one visit and you can bypass the lines at the Colosseum
  • Bring food & drinks: you can easily spend the whole day here and the nearest food stalls are very expensive (in the summer bring lots of water!)
  • The Colosseum's bookstore has a great selection of books on Roman history, mythology, games, customs, etc. including an excellent children's section
  • Contrary to the Colosseum, there aren't many explanations / signs to read at the Palatine and Forum, so get guide or buy a book to help you better appreciate what you're seeing
  • You rent audio guides at many sites in Rome though we did see people listening to guides on their iPods (something to investigate...)

High in the Swiss Alps

We took a cable cabin high in the Swiss Alps, at the Pas de Maimbre above the resort of Anzere. After a few days of inclement weather, the sky was crystal clear, the air crisp, the view spectacular. The flag is that of the Valais, the "canton" (state) we're in. Thomas and I hiked down and came across a mountain pool with thousands of tadpoles all crowded at one end. When we touched them they swam away in waves, only to return a few minutes later. We have no idea why but it certainly was fun to play with them (and examine them closely!).

Le Puy du Fou: A French Amusement Park

We toyed with visiting Eurodisney but in the end spent a whole day at Le Puy du Fou, a different kind of amusement park. Located in the Vendee region, about 200 miles south west of Paris, Le Puy du Fou park was founded over 30 years ago by locals who wanted to put on a show commemorating their history. Today, it's a large theme park that draws over a million visitors each year. Not only that, it's also a well-known school of the performing arts for the thousands of actors (many of them local teens and young adults) that participate in the shows.

Le Puy du Fou is different from other parks in the sense that it's composed of shows, not rides. When you arrive you're given a timetable of the day's events and can plan your visit around each of the spectacles you'd like to see: Musketeers, Knights, Vikings, Romans, and more. The main shows are elaborate and extravagant, rivaling any you might have seen elsewhere. Our favorite was the Roman one consisting of chariot races, gladiatorial battles, wild animals, and a few dead Christians. Another was a show where over a hundred birds of prey flew over our heads, including falcons swooping in at breakneck speeds from high in the sky.

In the evening we took in the "Cinescenie", the historical show I mentioned at the start of this post. Great fireworks, battles, and props were offset by longwinded dialog and slow parts. Worth seeing once IMO but no more.

All in all a fun, and very different, day.

Travel tips:
  • Probably obvious but plan on spending a whole day here, there's a lot to see
  • Book a week or more ahead and you'll get pretty sizable discounts
  • You're allowed bring food into the park if you want to save money
  • Pay close attention to the schedule, attend the shows in chronological order to make the most of your time
  • The Cinescenie starts between 22:00 and 22:30 and lasts over 1.5 hrs: make sure you're ready to stay up this late (or book into one of the adjoining, themed, hotels)
  • There's a strong Christian bent to many shows: Jeanne d'Arc figures in the medieval show, the Vikings are converted to Christianity by St. Cuthbert (who pops out of a big box), and the Christians eventually prevail in the Roman arena. Personally I could have done without this: Odin, Thor, Jupiter and Mars are all fine with me

The Creepy Catacombs of Paris

After taking the boys to Notre Dame, the Eiffel tower, la Cite des Sciences, and even a strike, we thought we'd show them another side of Paris: the catacombs (cue scary music). There are miles, uhm, I mean kilometers of tunnels excavated under Paris. Why? Building materials. Many of the houses and monuments above ground are built with stones from below. This practice goes back two millennia, having started in Roman times.

In the late 18th century a different problem afflicted Paris: it was seriously running out of space in its cemeteries. The stench was unbearable, the well water contaminated, and Parisians demanded a solution. Putting two and two together, the mine officials excavated millions of old bones, stacked them in the tunnels... And opened the resulting catacombs to the public in the 19th century. All told over 6 millions Parisians are interred down there.

It's a fascinating experience but not for the claustrophobic or "people of a nervous disposition". In addition to bones, bones, and more bones, you'll see artwork left by the excavators, as well as many depressing sayings about death, dying, and the afterlife. The one below reads "Where is death? Always in the future or past. Barely present, it's already gone" (thanks to Thomas for the scary shadows :-)

If that isn't enough for you, visit the nearby (above ground) Montmartre Cemetery. Many famous people are buried there, including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (notice the lipstick on the tomb).

Travel tips:
  • Bring a jacket or sweater
  • Make that a waterproof jacket since some sections of the catacombs have water dripping from the ceiling
  • Careful if you visit with small kids, our twins (9) found the visit a little too creepy
  • No restrooms down there, plan accordingly!
  • Bring a flashlight to peer down the many off-limit side passages
  • You resurface in a different place than you went down, so bring a map

La Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie

The City of Science and Industry is a huge museum complex full of interactive exhibits, it's the largest science museum in Europe. We learned about astronomy, space travel, and light, we fired a water powered rocket varying its fuel to find the optimal weight, we discussed statistics and gaussian curve, and much much more. Outside the museum is a large sphere, the Geode, which serves as an IMAX theater, it's a beautiful structure. A little further is a decommissioned submarine that you can self-guided walk through, very cool. All in all a fun day of learning.

Travel tips:
  • Plan on spending a whole day here, there's lots to see and do (we only managed two thirds of the exhibits)
  • Though the main language is French, many of the exhibits have English and German explanations
  • You can eat inside the museum, prices are reasonable
  • The submarine and Geode are both worth seeing (we enjoyed a 3D film on marine dinosaurs, you can get headsets for other languages)
  • September is the quietest month to visit as its back to school month and classroom field trips haven't started yet
  • That said, the first two weeks in September La Cite des Enfants (City of/for Children) is closed. It's apparently very fun for the younger kids