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A Week of Wonder in Venice

If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would someday marry a man from Italy and that we would spend much of our time traveling with two kids between New York and Padua, I'd have thought that person was crazy (although I would have been very intrigued). I grew up in the Southwest in a classic American household big on camping trips, touch football, and backyard barbecues. My husband, Stefano, an illustrator, is from an old northern Italian family based in Padua, a city 20 minutes west of Venice. Our children, Gianmarco, eight, and Anna, four, feel at home in both countries, and after so many Italian excursions, I've adopted the Veneto as my second home.

During most visits we stay with family and take day trips to Venice, but in April we decided to spend spring break there and have family come to us. Renting an apartment seemed the best option. We set our limit at $1,500 for the week, and I contacted rental companies to see what that would get us. Flipping through the brochures and catalogues that arrived by express mail, I quickly learned how difficult my task was—difficult because of all the options. Did we want the third-floor loft, a little beyond our price range but with an amazing view of San Giorgio Maggiore? Or the terraced apartment, triple our budget, right on the Grand Canal? Or the antiques-filled five-bedroom in the old Jewish ghetto? Or the ground floor of a 17th-century palazzo near the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church (the one with Titian's Assumption of the Virgin)? While I was trying to make up my mind, others acted and our choices dwindled. We snapped up the spot near the Frari.

Of all the places we've been, Venice is one of the most magical, especially for children. Where else can you cross 20 bridges in a day? Ride a water-bus? Catch a taxi that's a speedboat? It's a city filled with so much history and culture, yet it's so peaceful—there are no cars! When you travel on foot you notice things you'd miss otherwise. Look through windows and you see people working with their hands: painting masks, blowing glass, refinishing antiques, mending fishing nets, building boats, crocheting lace, molding porcelain dolls, binding books. It's as if you've stepped back in time.

Our apartment, as it turned out, was perfect for us. Not far from the train station, it had a 10-foot-tall window overlooking the church square, a great place for the kids to play. Two dozen Piranesi prints surrounded the window, and 60 (yes, we counted) 18th-century natural history animal prints lined the hall leading to the main bedroom. Anna's favorite (and the one Gianmarco hated) showed a tiger with blood on his paws, gnawing on a bone. Next to the living room sofa was a five-by-seven-foot 1729 map of Venice, which Stefano couldn't take his eyes off. The bathroom walls were entirely découpaged: Canaletto-like views of Venice ran along the bottom, and from them huge nests exploded into a skyscape of birds. Sounds gaudy, I know, and at first I didn't know what to think, but the more I looked at it, the more I wondered how I could do the same thing back home.

We reached our bedroom by climbing a flight of small wooden stairs. Stefano wasn't pleased when he got up there and his head touched the ceiling. The kids slept in a loft off the living room, which to them was the ultimate. Gianmarco mentioned at least 10 times how happy he was. (This was the same kid who, two days earlier, had said he wanted to stay home with his friends and that there was no way we could make him go to Italy.) The kitchen, I was glad to see, was too small for serious cooking but ideal for making breakfast, sandwiches, afternoon snacks.

It rained most of the week, but we didn't let the weather stop us. Our program each day was decided at breakfast: if it was wet out, we'd head to a museum or church; if it was dry, we'd opt for a boat ride or a walk through the winding streets. Getting lost is an inevitable, but delightful, part of the Venice experience. Many times we'd drift, only to find ourselves in a lovely square—the kids chasing each other, Stefano checking out the latest soccer scores at a newsstand, and me window-shopping.

Would I have taken my kids to Venice if I weren't married to Stefano?Honestly, I don't think so—but knowing what I do now, I can say it would have been a pity not to.

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