“Show us your boobs!”
These catcalls–from drunken revelers dangling beads off balconies at equally inebriated women cruising along Bourbon Street–are what I remember most about my first Mardi Gras experience at the tender age of 16. Just as memorable, however, was how mortified I felt witnessing all this in front of my mom and dad.
And it’s in the streets of Rio de Janeiro where I find the earliest memories of my childhood. That colorful Carnival parade filled with elaborate floats and glitzy samba school ensembles etched itself deeply into my four-year-old subconscious. (At that age, the scantily clad women and provocative dancing failed to make an impression.)
So when it came time to decide where in the world I wanted to celebrate my 50th birthday with my family in late February, the idea of exposing our two sons to the concept of Carnival seemed appealing.
But was there a way to do it without subjecting them to the lewd drunkenness and nudity that often accompany such celebrations? And with so many world-class cities hosting bucket-list worthy festivities, where would we go?
Fortuitously, the decision was made for me thanks to some very inexpensive flights to Milan during the week the kids had off for winter break. Venice, home to the mother of all Mardi Gras celebrations, was a mere three-hour drive away.
It is believed that Carnival celebrations officially started in Venice in the 13th century to celebrate a victory of the “Serenissima Repubblica.” When the elaborate masks and costumes were introduced to the equation is a little less certain. Some scholars suggest that covering the face in public was the Venetian response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history. Whatever the reason, the tradition is on full display in St. Mark’s Square and all around the city during the two weeks leading up to the Christian observance of Lent.
Even without the lure of Carnival, Venice is still a great place to travel with kids.
The fact that the city is comprised of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges means there are no cars to be found. But that doesn’t mean the city won’t be crowded. On an average day, historic Venice actually has as many tourists as it does residents–about 60,000. During peak tourism seasons–during Carnival and in the summer–hotels and restaurants come at a high premium. That’s why renting a vacation home can be a wise decision–especially for families.
We found a place to stay in Cannaregio–a peaceful residential neighborhood where many Venetians reside, dine, and shop–on the Wyndham Vacation Rentals website. Located right next to the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, our two-bedroom “Estaurio” apartment–with a fully stocked kitchen and spacious living room–was near the famous Ghetto district and a 15-minute walk from the Rialto Bridge. Renting allowed us to take in a little of the “real” Venice, while providing us with much needed refuge after long days of sightseeing.
The fun began immediately once we arrived in Venice. After parking our rental car at the airport, we were escorted into the city by way of an Alilaguna water taxi. Since the boys had never been to Venice, our “driver” took us down the Grand Canal, which winds its way through the city center, to help orient us. The mere sight of the gondolas and 13th-century buildings that lined the lagoon was enough to get the boys excited to explore all this grand city had to explore.
Motivating kids to go on long walks is usually not something most parents have a great deal of luck with. But we wandered the streets of Venice without any complaints. The boys really enjoyed seeing everyone dressed up in elaborate costumes for the festivals and masquerade balls. We also spent hours checking out the variety of masks on display in shop windows and deciding which were our favorites. Occasional breaks for gelato and pizza helped keep everyone energized.
As much fun as it was strolling aimlessly through the streets, a guided walking tour proved quite helpful in gaining some perspective into the city’s historical significance. We opted for a three-hour excursion with Walks of Italy that took us through the most famous sights of Venice, including the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square, as well as on a gondola ride.
But ultimately, it was Carnival that we came to experience. The highlight for many was the “Volo dell’ Angelo,” or the Flight of the Angel, which officially kicked off the festivities in a packed St. Mark’s Square. From there on, Carnival becomes a series of private and public masquerade balls, parades (on both land and water), puppet shows, theatrical and musical performances, and competitions for the best costumes and masks.
What I noticed immediately was that, unlike other Carnival celebrations I’ve attended, drinking was not the principal source of people’s enthusiasm–at least not visibly. Instead, the only real mischief we saw was the tradition of people throwing confetti at each other. And those are the memories I feel good about having my kids remember.
Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow him on Twitter @JenssTravels.