Navigating Car-Free Venice With My 93-Year-Old-Grandmother

Posted by Jess Simpson on April 12, 2017 at 10:30:00 AM EDT | Post a Comment

Venice

When I told friends about a dream to take my grandmother to Venice, her first trip ever outside the U.S., even Italians labeled the idea as crazy. With nearly 200 canals, 400-foot bridges, and endless dead end paths, the island city is tricky to navigate at any age. Add in a constant crush of fellow-tourists and, admittedly, the idea may seem shy of sane.

Still, I was determined to share one of my favorite spots on the planet with the woman who has inspired me to chase dreams, wherever they may lead. At a spry 93 years, my grandmother walks unassisted, slowly with care. My husband and I knew our usual travel pace and free-flow style would not work for this trip. Nor could this be a “checklist” sort of itinerary. A balance of strategic planning and flexibility would be necessary to navigate the beautiful maze of multi-generational travel in Venice with the smallest number of hassles as well as footsteps.

Optimizing the Approach

Venice

Our strategy centered around one of the car-free city’s most challenging aspects: transportation. We needed a base convenient for arrival and departure and well-connected by vaporetto water taxi for exploring the Grand Canal and smaller arteries. Choosing a neighborhood with too many footbridges or too crowded streets would be an instant anxiety-producer.

A taxi or ACTV city bus #5 would deliver us from Marco Polo Airport to Venice’s doorstep at Piazzale Roma in less than 30 minutes, a good option if staying near the bustling plaza. Since our goal was to experience Venetian charm on the calm, we knew this wasn’t the answer and kept researching.

The discovery that Alilaguna water buses launch just a 10-minute walk from the airport and arrive at Ponte delle Guglie in 45 minutes allowed us to pinpoint an optimal base. We chose the tranquil and traditional neighborhood (sestieri) of Canneregio, which offers easier canal crossings via the Guglie bridge’s special half-height stairs--a novelty in Venice.  

With practicalities in check, we were free to focus on the journey’s more ethereal aspects. Gliding along the water as Venice’s sunlit domes slowly materialized provided a dramatic introduction, like entering a fantasy. As we approached, I watched my grandmother as she studied the horizon, her eyes wide. As the island came into view, she turned to me and said, “This doesn’t look like Florida.” A journey of discovery had begun.

Savoring Small Bites

Venice

While a healthy number of mid-range to high-end hotels offer accessibility (some even with elevators), we craved more of a family gathering place to stay. Leisurely mornings of coffee-sipping around a kitchen table while plotting the day’s itinerary was our aim. Through Grifone Apartments and Cool Apartments Venice, we discovered a surprising range of accessible options and chose a spacious ground floor flat with a garden, complete with typical Venetian quirks (light on air conditioning, heavy on musty odor). 

When it came to sightseeing, navigating dense crowds and intense sun in St. Mark’s Square was out of the question. Instead, we joined a centuries-old tradition of appreciating grand palaces and church façades while on parade. Armed with unlimited-ride day passes for the island’s impressive water taxi system, we explored hidden nooks and grand boulevards from seats in the shade.
We appreciated the Renaissance arches while passing underneath Rialto Bridge, hopped off at the Lido for pistachio gelato, and listened to the lively banter and occasional song as gondoliers floated past.

Steps from our apartment, the history immersion continued in manageable Braico Museum, where we learned about 500-year-old origins of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto and gained a deeper understanding of the culture. After the museum, my grandmother made friends with two Italian grannies (nonne,) while sitting on a bench in Campo del Ghetto Novo--the lack of shared language was no barrier. When saying goodbye, her contemporaries introduced the double-check kiss, a cultural seal of connection and approval.

We wiled away afternoons window-shopping, her joy uncontained when we stumbled upon an embroidery shop. Evenings we took a cue from the locals and packed into osteria eatery and jazz club Paradiso Perduto for two specialties in one stop: delicious Venetian cuisine and fantastic live music.

Hours were spent in the study of cicchetti, small tapas-like dishes served in tiny canal-side cafes. We took long naps. We bird-watched from our garden while sampling prosecco. Together, we savored the essence of Venice, one delicious small bite and slow step at a time.

During the trip, my grandmother reveled in many firsts: first taste of gelato, first kiss from a gondolier; first sip of a Venetian spritz. And by slowing down to enjoy the city’s simplest grand pleasures, in different ways, we each experienced Venice for the first time.

6 Tips for Multi-Generational Travel Bliss

Venice

Consider timing.

Wherever you go, the height of tourist season is often expensive and crowded. Opt for shoulder season when the weather is optimal and attractions are less busy. In Venice, April–June and September–October are sweet spots.

Consult experts.
With low flight costs and a strong dollar, more Americans are opting for extended family vacations and tourism experts are responding with more well-rounded services. When arriving in Venice, visit the airport’s tourism kiosk for free maps detailing the city’s accessibility. Europe for Visitors also offers good insight for accessibility in Venice and beyond.

Don’t overload.

Include plenty of downtime in the itinerary to rest and enjoy simple pleasures like watching a city’s true colors unfurl from a park bench.

Find common ground.
Be sensitive to different comfort zones, discuss common interests, and concentrate on activities everyone will enjoy.

Be realistic. 
Even with ace planning, something will always go wrong. Focus less on having the “perfect” trip and more on enjoying each other’s company in a new setting, the essence of la dolce vita.

Take the leap.
Travel offers an opportunity to step outside the normal roles of parent, grandparent, daughter, and son and connect in a new way. Don’t be surprised if by discovering a new destination together you also discover new layers of those you love.

Plan Your Trip: Fodor’s Venice Guide

Photo Credits (top to bottom): Studio 37 / Shutterstock, Justin Black/Shutterstock, © Zach Nelson / Fodors Travel, © Ross Brinkerhoff / Fodors Travel

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