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Trip Report A Great Reason to Skip School - A 10 Year Old's Visit to Italy

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So many good, entertaining trip reports of Italy, particularly Venice, Florence and Rome, have been posted on Fodor’s that I’ll focus this report on our experiences of taking our 10-year-old daughter on her first trip to Europe. (She reviewed this report for me, and added what she thought I missed.)

The conclusion: DD loved her trip, wasn’t homesick, and when people ask her what she liked, she says everything. Turns out, she loves art and architecture more than I anticipated – we ended up visiting 11 museums; 25 churches (more or less); 4 palaces, 11 castles (including ruins) and, most importantly, had 26 cups of gelato each, though DD and I shared most of the time.

One thing that DD does talk about is that she visited THREE countries: Italy, the Republic of San Marino, and Vatican City.

On the trip were me, my husband (we’ve been to Italy a number of times, to many, but not all, of the same locations as this trip). We went in mid-September for 2+ weeks, and yes, we took her out of school. The teachers were supportive, but weighing in our decision to take her out was that she is rarely sick, and her grades are great. (We also have a 14yo son; he stayed home with his grandparents and DIDN’T miss his first few weeks of high school – we’ve taken him to Europe on previous trips. We do take the entire family on other trips.)

As part of the missing-school thing, I “volunteered” her for a presentation that she’s giving to her class next week. She created a fantastic powerpoint presentation, 95% on her own. I’ve been begging her to share it with Fodorites…

We had what would be a busy schedule to some, but it worked for us. We flew into Venice for three nights; took the train to Florence and spent three nights there. Then we took the train to Bologna for one night, because I love Bologna. (I told my family that I think I was Bolognese in a past life!) We picked up a rental car, and spent the day in Ravenna, heading for the night to the Republic of San Marino (a place we adults had not been to). On to Le Marche (another new area), where we spent three nights in Urbino exploring that area, then three nights in Macerata to explore there. We ended the trip with three nights in Rome.

Planning

DH and I love Italy and wanted to return, so we adults chose the country. DD’s only specific request was to see Venice. Other than that, when we asked her where she’d want to go, she pragmatically answered, “I’ve never been there, so how should I know?

DD would occasionally help me with planning and decision-making, but not the cooperative effort that I dreamed of! She was interested in helping choose the hotels. DH and I decided the other locations on the trip based on knowing her interests (art and history), along with ours. I showed her websites, some videos and artwork, so there were places that she specifically asked to visit – Galleria Borghese was one. She hasn’t always liked big cities (a noise sensitivity), so we made sure to include time in the countryside. Knowing our son’s interest in castles, I chose Le Marche in part because it has a lot of castles, which I hoped DD would like, too – I was right on that one. As it turns out, DD LOVED both her time in the cities and the countryside, and said the time allocation was good (about half and half, city and country.

Preparing our Daughter for the Trip

This was another area where I was too idealistic (I’m a history buff, so I tend to get carried away). DD resisted anything school-like. She watched some of Rick Steves’ videos, and enjoyed another video that was about how Venice was constructed in the lagoon. She would listen to me tell her the broad historical outlines (i.e., Venice the Republic, what are city states, why medieval castles are defensive, who the Caesars were), and that was about it.

I came up with a number of excellent-sounding historic fiction books, most of which DD did NOT read: “Daughter of Venice” and “The Smile,” by Donna Jo Napoli, and “Primavera,” by Mary Jane Beaufrand. She did read, and liked, a semi-accurate series about kids in ancient Rome called the “Roman Mysteries,” by Caroline Lawrence. For during the trip, I purchased Kids Go Europe, Treasure Hunt Florence. There’s the same kind of book for Venice. DD had fun with that book, and it’s set up so that kids look for the treasure hunt items at whatever site they’re at.

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    Precious, Lexma! Your daughter sounds like an interesting and adorable young lady. Did she enjoy the Borghese Gallarie and the Borghese Park as much as she thought she would? I would imagine so. And visiting Venice at age ten, perfect!

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    oooh, this is great! we're taking our (now) 5yo, 7yo, and 9yo to Paris and London next spring. Yep, we're skipping school... can't wait to take them!

    Look forward to more details ...

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    Thanks for the comments. We've always kind of pegged our son as the "artsy" one, as his strengths are reading, writing, public speaking, and our daughter as the math/science kid, because those are her fortes (especially math). So it was wonderful to see how interested she is in art.

    I tried to get DD to write part of this, in her own words, but she wouldn't. But the powerpoint is all her own.

    Yes, she loved Galleria Borghese - she wanted to see Daphne and Apollo in person. We got an extra treat because there was a Caravaggio show there, as well, so we got to see lots and lots of Caravaggios (one of my favorite artists).

    Here's more...

    Lodging

    We stayed in small inns and one B&B, except for our one night in Bologna, where we were switched to a larger hotel due to overbooking at our original choice. Some rooms were triples, others were billed as triples, but were more like large doubles, and our daughter’s bed was a foldout chair or cot. As she's quite small, it worked out very well.

    Food / Restaurants

    All of us are foodies, in a laid-back way. In Italy, we prefer mid- (and some upper-) range restaurants. We ate at some well-known places, but I tried hard (and succeeded) to find great places that aren’t so much on the tourist radar screen. I’ve done enough reading on regional cuisine to know what I want to eat or try in each region; the rest of the family just looks for good Italian food!

    DD is fine with grownup restaurant atmosphere and behavior, and likes good food, so we didn’t tailor our restaurant choices to kid-friendly places. We generally eat lighter at lunch, so ate pizza a lot then. She’s pretty adventurous about food, in an atypical way. She’ll eat any cheese, regardless of how strong, and most seafood. She doesn’t like meat much, refuses hamburgers, but loves prosciutto. Between the antipasto and pasta courses, she always had plenty of choices.

    Restaurant owners and waiters were very kind – often, they would repeat her choice, to make sure (I assume) that we knew that her pasta included cernia (grouper), or seppie (cuttlefish), or that a cheese was strong. She liked most of what she tried (but not all).

    Sometimes DD has trouble deciding what dish to order. Before we left, we came up with a backup – if she couldn’t decide on what to eat, I would order spaghetti aglio olio, which is spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and EVERY Italian restaurant would have the ingredients for it. We only needed to use that fallback once.

    DD doesn’t have a big appetite, and never ordered more than one course. Often, she and I would order two pastas, then trade midway through the meal, so we could try different items. This was a good way for her to try something she wasn’t sure about.

    By the end of the trip, DD was tired of the long meals, which were mostly at dinner, but sometimes at lunch. We did bring little toys for her to mess with while waiting for her food; she didn’t use those much. We did let her read at the table or play her Nintendo DS, but only during café and people-watching times - we KNEW from prior travels that kids don’t really get into this activity.

    We were curious on how restaurants would handle wine and my daughter; she’s almost 11, but small for her age. Several restaurants did offer her some wine. We’re ok with that, so they would give her about 1/8 (1/16th?) of a glass of wine. She would have a couple of sips, and one of us adults would finish it off. We are definite believers that appropriate, mature exposure to wine leads to responsible alcohol use.

    Other drinks my daughter liked: She’s not a big soda drinker, and due to the cost, we told her she could have one soda each day; usually, she didn’t even have that. Schweppes tonic, Chinotto (similar to root beer), aranciata, lemonata or lemonsoda were sodas she liked. We also let her have some caffeine, so her favorite caffeinated café drink ended up being café shakerato, which is cold espresso, sweetened and usually with cream or milk.

    These were our favorite meals: The pizza slices from La Florida, in Rome, were the best pizza. Gelato, honors go to Vivoli (Florence), Giolitti (Rome) and a little place in Macerata called (the only name I could find) “Caffetteria Wine Bar Romcaffe Gelateria Yogurteria.” For meals, food and ambiance, Alle Testiere and Anice Stellato in Venice; del Fagioli and Osteria delle Tre Panche in Florence; Drogheria della Rosa in Bologna, Osteria del Teatro in Senigallia, Osteria dei Fiori in Macerata, Il Drappo in Rome. Hmmm. That totals a pretty big percentage of all of our meals; guess we did have some great meals.

    Girls’ Purses (Really)

    The one thing about Italians that truly bugged my daughter was something most of us adults wouldn’t even notice. But DD noticed every time! Almost every girl in my daughter’s age group, and younger, carried a small shoulder purse, often in the shape of an animal or a cartoon character. My daughter felt kids that age had nothing to put in a purse, so why were they carrying one! And she was right, most of the time the purses looked empty. But it tickled me that she noticed, and that it irked her so much.

    Bathrooms

    Something about bathrooms in Italy, also that an adult might not notice. Each door has its own different locking mechanism, and it might be difficult for a kid to know how to lock it. Also, sometimes kids are short enough that motion-detector bathroom lights don’t trigger; that could be a problem. My daughter was always concerned about all of these possibly happening.

    We did have one encounter with a squat toilet – that was predictable – she refused to use it!

    More specifics on each location later...

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    I am envious that your daughter is at that very precious age, Lexma. Our daughter was a true joy to travel with and I am so glad that we took her on all our trips except for the times she was at summer camp or taking a trip with her older siblings. We than took a trip also. Enjoy every precious moment, which obviously you are! Your trip report has me feeling very sentimental.

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    Sorry, had a busy week. Here are further notes on our specific destinations:

    We started in Venice, because it’s such a magical place to start. It was also good because, while it’s crowded with people, there’s no car traffic, so the city bustle is a little less.

    We took, as a surprise for DD, a water taxi to our hotel – we all loved that! And a gondola ride was another special experience. We specified that we wanted to stay on side canals, rather than go on the rougher, busier lagoon. One afternoon, we spent a long while at a cafe on the Grand Canal (one of the many that are on the fish market side of the Rialto bridge) watching all the different kinds of boats - vaporettos, taxis, gondolas (I can't remember the greatest number of people stuffed into one, but some of them looked like they were about to tip over), private boats (lots of families out for the day), ambulance boat, delivery boats of all kinds.

    Our hotel was Casa Santa Maria Formosa, right off Campo Santa Maria Formosa. It was close to everything, but out of the tourist fray.

    I won’t list every place we went to, but here were DD’s favorites:

    San Marco, including the museum: DD loved the mosaics as much as I do. She also loved the floor mosaics, which I hadn’t noticed so much until she pointed them out, so we spent a lot of time picking out the different patterns – there must have been hundreds! (I'm also a sometime quilter, and many of the patterns that I saw are also used in quilting.)

    DD liked the Doge’s Palace more than I did; DD feels most kids would like the Doge’s Palace. When I asked her why, she told me that it’s just the kind of place that kids would like. (And she’s not a princessy kind of girl, AT ALL.)

    We like visiting churches and other smaller sites we can enjoy and appreciate them, and leave before anyone gets tired of it. So in that category, we visited Santa Maria dei Miracoli; San Zaccharia (DD loved the crypt); San Georgio (enjoyed the tower and the views of Venice); Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (I love this place, and DD liked the detailed pictures of the lives of Sts. George and Jerome); and Scuola Grande di San Rocco (DD outlasted us adults here).

    Even though it’s terribly overpriced, we did spring for drinks at a café in Piazza San Marco. DD was entertained by the dueling bands (she critiqued each performer’s style), and by the crowds of people who stood in front of whatever band/orchestra was playing right then.

    None of us are shoppers, but we did have one specific purchase – each trip, I pick up a scarf (not an expensive one). So DD wanted to do the same. We had fun picking out a shop in the more residential area. The shopkeeper made a fuss over DD, and DD got the whole Italian experience of the woman arranging the scarf, admiring it in the mirror, then carefully wrapping and packaging it. DD did wear the scraf on cool evenings while on vacation. I haven’t seen her wear it since we returned from the trip, though – she’ll treasure it when she’s older (I hope).

    We have two new favorite gelaterias in Venice: Michelangelo, which is right next to the Rialto bridge, on the San Marco side. And Grom, off Campo San Barnaba. We're fanatic about finding the best artisanal gelato. And by the end of the trip, DD and I had developed a routine (DH always got his own gelato). We shared a medium cup, which is 3 flavors: one fruit, one chocolatey rich flavor, and one of something else. I would choose, and DD would try to guess the flavors.

    Florence Specifics

    In Florence, we stayed at a lovely B&B, Casa dei Tintori. It was a great location for us, near Piazza Santa Croce and our favorite Florentine gelaterie, Vivoli and Gelateria dei Neri. The owners were helpful and gracious, and provided lovely breakfasts. And spoiled our daughter, too, of course (chocolate cornetti and cake every morning). The room, their Green Room, was spacious and clean.

    DD loved the people-watching here, too, and was quite entertained (as we had told her there would be) by the American street performers playing American hits from the 60s and 70s.

    We visited the expected sites, Uffizi, Accademia, Bargello, etc., and DD liked them all. DD was disappointed that the Museo del Duomo was closed when we were here, as she wanted to see the REAL Ghiberti doors. We were all entertained by all the people taking pictures of the doors on the Baptistry – did they not know those weren’t the “real” doors?

    On the museums. Sorry, anti-Rick Steves folks, but we used Rick Steves’ guides a lot in the museums, occasionally with other materials. It was the right amount of depth and breadth, and provided a good way for me to point out the relationships between the different time periods and places we were seeing.

    We had prepared DD a bit for the museums, and she knew what Michelangelo’s “David” looked like, and that the Uffizi contained Botticellis, among many other pieces. I think that familiarization helped. DD already knew some of the Greek and Roman myths, and I reminded her of the stories attached to the paintings we were seeing. We're not christian, so DD got a LOT of christian/catholic education on this trip. Sometimes I surprise myself, seeing as I wasn't raised Catholic, I've picked up a lot of knowledge myself about saints and church history.

    Because DD and I love Raphael, and I love Artemsia Gentileschi’s work, visiting the Pitti Palace was high on my list. It has got to be the most disorganized museum ever! (My daughter pointed out that the Isabella Stewart Gardiner museum in Boston is worse, because those pictures aren’t even labeled.) But with patience, and pages from the Blue Guide to Florence, we were able to locate the pieces that we especially wanted to see there. The grotto in the interior courtyard is great, too.

    Of the cities we were visiting, I felt that the Mercato Centrale would provide the best European market experience, so we visited that. DD enjoyed it, and we bought a selection of fresh pecorino so we could do some comparative tasting (we never could decide which pecorinos we liked best).

    I'll try to get to Bologna, Ravenna, San Marino (and panic attacks), Le Marche and Rome, or at least some of it, over the weekend.

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    As a family of three, taking our son to Europe for the first time in a couple of years, I am enjoying reading your report. I have already bookmarked your lovely B&B in Florence, and hopefully we can stay there, too!

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    LOVE it...thx for sharing! Our kids could be twins!

    We just returned from Italy with our 8 year old son who never once said, "I'm bored". HWe took him out of school for a week also and never once looked back. The education he learned on our trip was priceless. He, too, is a very adventurous eater although he had his share of pizza...his fave were the mussels in Cinque Terre.

    Before we left, I taught my son to say, "Vorrei un gelato" (I want Gelato) and boy did he get some gelato!

    My son also did a presentation at school which was more "old school" (no powerpoint) using photos and mementos he collected from the trip.

    It was so fun for DH and I see to Italy through his eyes.

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