And finally six weeks after returning I have put together (sorry a rather long!) trip report of the Rome bit - I hope that it helps some of you who are thinking of travelling to Italy as a large family and with teenagers!
When it comes to family holidays, I tend to border on the very optimistic (some might say crazy) to the challenge of travelling with our large family of seven. But I really, really wanted to go to Italy and as I really felt I couldn’t wait until they all grew up, I decided it was the time to go! Flights were booked well in advanced (when it still was affordable for us to fly) - which meant with an arrival in Rome and a departure from Milan, all I needed to figure out was what to do in between. So I started with the guide books...Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Dorling Kingsley and then started my online research and eventually ended up at Fodors. Here I found the depth of information that I needed and where I must thank all those who have in the past recorded their own trip reports which I poured over and those who made the time and effort to answer my own questions - for they made our trip just that little bit more perfect. And now it is my time to share.
This is a trip report for those who are planning on experiencing with their family the joys and wonders of Italy - predominantly its cities, for this was a city based vacation with a strong history, culture and art slant. This is a report for those who wonder how they can travel with a whole lot of kids, when they range in age from 7 - 16 and you don’t have an unlimited budget to throw at it - and yet of course you also want to enjoy it and remain sane. A trip report for those who want to see the big sights of Italy because it is your first trip and also want deviate a little from the main tourist paths and experience a real feel for the place you are visiting. Unfortunately it is not a trip report for foodies - we ate out frequently but we didn’t seek out and enjoy the true culinary pleasures of Italy (unless you count pizza and ice cream where we did our best!) - our family dynamics didn’t lend ourselves to that sort of trip yet...but we did eat well. Finally it is a trip report for those who want to take a holiday of a lifetime in a country of exquisite beauty and culture and share it with those you love.
Background to us...a family with a 16 year old, a 14 year old, two 13 year olds and a rather feisty 7 year old. We can only holiday in the summer holidays and for us that is around the last 3 weeks of August. We knew that it would be hot and busy and in some cases just shut up for summer but it is what it is. We live in northern England and have spent many summers in France renting gites and last year road tripped through 8 northern European countries, camping - this year though it was a 19 day trip making use of AirBnB apartments and public transport and travelling very, very light with just small daypacks that we decided would be our summer holiday.
Day One - Arrival in Rome:
Finally as it does, the day we were all anticipating with excitement dawned and we were off to Italy! Joys of joy, flying this year meant that we were not facing our usual two day road trip to our destination. Still in true travelling style it involved cars/planes/buses /trains and walking but then there we were in the eternal city - by 2pm - eight hours after we left our house - absolutely brilliant. Normally we would still be battling with the endless traffic in our attempt to get south to where the sun does shine!
Rome - a place that I have wanted to visit, well forever and there we were. We found the airport bus transfers easy to use and the metro system relatively straight forward - certainly not difficult enough to warrant a taxi. Yes we lost the youngest for a moment or two and nearly went the wrong way but that is all part of travelling isn’t it?! We settled easily into our generously sized apartment on the peaceful and beautiful street of Via Margutta in the Spanish Steps area - dotted with art shops and boutique hotels - truly picture perfect. So after a quick refresh out we went; buoyant with enthusiasm for discovery. We drank with gusto from the water fountain outside our apartment, indulged in the most delicious ice cream (coconut for me that tasted exactly like iced creamy coconut!), bounced down the Spanish Steps, expressed our dismay at the Trevi fountain (scaffolded and dry - does that mean we won’t come back as no coins were thrown or that we need to come back to see it?) and arrived at our afternoon destination - the Cemetery of the Capuchins. It contains the skeletal remains of over 3,000 Capuchin friars in a display that is not meant to be macabre, but a reminder of the quick passage of life on Earth and our own mortality. With the famous quote “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be...” which we spent some time discussing the meaning of with the kids although mostly we were all amazed and surprised how artistic one could be with bones?! We were also all intrigued by the well laid out museum above and the wealth of paintings on display, well worth a visit.
By this time were all fading and so it was a slow walk back to the apartment, with a quick stop for some pizza by the slice and a very welcomed cold beer (doesn’t a beer taste so good in hot places - maybe why we seldom drink it back home!). We were finding the heat taxing and we had had an early start that day..and the next morning was an early start to explore Ancient Rome - so to bed we all went.
Day Two - Ancient Rome:
Well the aim was for an early start but after a day of travelling, not much sleep the night before we travelled, the heat, the fact we are on holiday and the not so small reality that we have four teenagers...we didn’t leave until 9am - yes I know hardly a sleep-in but we were in Rome, Rome I kept saying to the slumbering kids and there is a lot to see!
To the Colosseum is was and to say it didn’t disappoint would be an understatement - it was a ‘take your breath away’ moment as we emerged from the Metro. First though it was breakfast where the children had their first taste of a chocolate filled croissant (bordering on too sweet was the general conclusion) while we were energised by good coffee.
We had pre-booked tickets online so exchanged our printout for tickets at the Forum entrance which meant we avoided the lines and were straight in. Our first foray into ancient Rome! Although I had read not to expect too much with the ruins being pretty indistinguishable from their original state - we nevertheless found them easy to marvel at and wonder at what had been. We did have a written guide so I was able to share some insight with the children about what we were looking at but I also knew that I didn’t want us to peak too soon as we had the Colosseum ahead and there was a limit to what I knew the children could absorb with any meaning. So we wandered and explored what caught our eye. Latching on to segments of guided talks when they stood near us certainly added to our knowledge so we pretty much got the gist of the magnificence of the time, hard not to. The children are pretty avid consumers of Roman history so they further embellished us with details that they found interesting from earlier research. We were prepared for it to be busy and yes there were certainly many visitors but nothing that detracted from the experience nor prevented us from being able to enjoy what was there - maybe our tolerance levels of crowds is high, maybe we got lucky?
We then made our way over to the Colosseum, where having tickets and a pre-booked guided tour was the only sensible thing to do - even more so in the heat and crowds of August. Joining the ‘Underground and Third Tier tour’ immediately took us to an area of where we had space and quiet to learn so much about the place and the events that took place - it was fascinating. From the dispelling of myths to learning about the construction, we were entranced by what we saw and heard. Our youngest, with her vivid imagination seemed to hear the animals roar and the gladiators epic battles all around her and was convinced she could see blood in the sand! The guide (given in excellent English) was well informed and enthusiastic in her delivery and endlessly patient with the children’s questions. There was more to the Colosseum we could have explored after the tour but our energy was waning and I know it is always best to leave when everyone was still enthused by the place!
Discovering a small cafe nearby that sold us enormous and delicious sandwiches and finding a place in the shade to relax we were ready for the afternoon. Once again through research I had pre-booked a tour and so we made our way to Palazzo Valentini with its multi-media museum that brings to life so effectively the excavation that has been taking place to expose the Roman house/villa that once stood there. Delivered by a very knowledgeable although strongly accented English guide (who took quite the shine to my 16 year old daughter I might add!) and through projection and recordings, history was made real and the marvel of life thousands of years ago was ours for a moment. For over 80 minutes we were all entranced as we shared in the discovery that has been made and speculated at what was once...I so recommend.
Fortified by more cold drinks - including beers for the adults (which as we had already discovered by day two that a lunchtime drink made travelling with five children just that little shall we say...easier!) we stared in amazement at the Il Vitoriano (seriously over the top was the family’s conclusion) and wandered around the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum. We had wanted to visit this museum especially to see the statue of the She Wolf but they have recently changed the admission rules and we would now have had to pay for the five children, so at €81 for what would have been about 30 minutes of viewing attention left in our children we didn’t go in Another reason why we will need to come back! Still it was lovely views from the top over the Forum and a great place to feel a bit of cool breeze.
Then it was time to wander ‘home’ along the shopping street of Via Del Corso where we luxuriated in the evening warmth - good for the body and accompanied by the sights we had seen that day - good for the soul. Home via the relatively well stocked Carrefour for supplies, we settled in for the evening over brimming with what we had discovered and seen that day.
Day Three - Heart of Rome:
A day to wander and discover what is considered the heart of Rome - its historic centre. A wonderful mixture of ancient monuments, churches, palaces, plazas and tiny streets, perfect to explore at a slow pace - which was pretty much the only pace my teenagers seem to operate at! Ideally (according to my research on Fodors) it was to be explored with a famous La Tazza d’Oro coffee under our belt but it was closed - as were many places as it was Ferragosto - a public holiday. Still we found a reasonable place to drink coffee and then followed that up with an ice cream - all by 10.30am - when in Rome and all that! After the refuelling break the kids were agreeable to see anything I took them to!
However they were as enthralled as I was with the Pantheon, which really was as magnificent as I had been led to believe. It was wonderful walking out after our time within and watching the people about to enter and see their amazement in their expressions as they saw the interior for the first time. The light that was flooding through the oculus was so special - I am sure you could spend a day watching as it rotated through the dome lighting up the art adorning the walls.
Then we wandered the streets...past the elephant sculpture on Bernini’s obelisk, into Sant’Lgnazio church - where the children took some convincing that the dome did not exist but was just a huge trompe-l’oeil effect and then rested at Piazza Navona. Here we witnessed the most sweetest of proposals in front of the fountain and decided that a long Italian style lunch was needed - with wine or course. I can’t remember the name but it was off the Piazza, we had a shaded table outside, the menu said ‘nothing from frozen’ and we all enjoyed very much! With everyone now feeling ‘energised’ (although as I am learning with teenagers, their energy levels are decidedly lower than mine!) we continued walking, sticking to the shade in the 30+ degree heat.
Down we went along the beautiful and relatively quiet Via Coronari and on to Via Giulia where we went looking out for the old jail (I find the children’s enthusiasm for wandering is definitely piqued up when we are ‘searching’ for something that I know will be of interest - prisons being one of those things apparently!) and through to Campo de’Fiori - where the kids were mesmerised by the street cleaning vehicle ‘sweeping’ up a pigeon - nice, hmmmm. Finally to within throwing distance of where Julius Caesar was murdered (the kids knowing enough now of Roman history and how the buildings/places have been covered up by time to know that nothing is as it was!) and finally on to Largo di Torre Argentine - Cat Sanctuary. Where the kids got an extra-ordinary amount of pleasure at seeing the cared for cats in the ruins and commiserating with each other about missing their own cats at home! It was a lot of walking but nothing that frequent rests with a cool drink, or a stop in the shade with a drink from a fountain didn’t make manageable even in the heat of August. As a family we seem to like it when we are relatively aimlessly wandering within a city, taking time out to enjoy what each others discovers. Sometimes having no fixed agenda is the most relaxing of ways to spend one’s time.
We did however consent to bussing back to the apartment - I wasn’t getting too may more steps out of the family. Having an app that told us ‘live’ which Rome bus was going where certainly helped, especially when we could actually track our journey whilst on the bus and see where we could get off. However Sienna with the endless energy of a seven year old was still bouncing - so we left the others to relax and off together her and I went exploring just for a bit more - down the road to Piazza del Popolo, which was stunning in the evening light, with people out everywhere and finally back to the supermarket for supplies for dinner.
Another full day...and a relatively early night in order to I muster everyone’s energy levels up to take on the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s tomorrow!
Day Four - Vatican City:
After a quick counter style stop for coffee and sweet pastries at Canova on Piazza del Popolo (a place recommended and thankfully open as I don’t think I could have taken on the Vatican without a coffee kick!), we jumped on the Metro and made our way to the Vatican City. I guess one of the words to describe the Vatican and the St Peter’s would have to be excessive - it was over-the-top, mind blowing, enormous and with the crowds to match! After two Holy days where the Vatican has been shut, we knew well in advance that Saturday would be shall we say, extremely popular and it was. So much that the guy giving out the audio guides in the Vatican Museum offered Sienna the chance to sit behind his desk with him instead of coping with the crowds!
Thanks once again to advice on Fodor’s we had planned well and had reservations for the first entry which made it all that much more acceptable. The queue outside honestly stretched for well over a one km - right around the wall and nearly all the way back to St Peter’s - I have no idea how long they would all be standing there but it was in full sun and it was not moving at any pace. I was tempted to ask why they hadn’t considered making a reservation - as any research into visiting the Vatican makes you aware that is the sensible thing to do! Anyway...it was not our reality, thank goodness!
What was reality for us, was the incredible interior although we knew the compromise travelling as a family was that viewing had to be taken at seven year old’s pace and so we took that into consideration and narrowed down what we could see to: making discoveries in the map room, marvelling at Raphael’s use of colour and animated story telling and then making our way to the Sistine Chapel - which once again provided that amazing ‘wow’ moment as you entered and your eyes adjust to such a spectacle. With a fair bit of prior research I knew what would be of interest for the children and they enjoyed searching and finding the figures, stories and artistic techniques that I had told them to look out for. For many reasons a dream come true for me and hopefully lasting memories for the family. Before the Chapel though we all enjoyed the unexpected delights of the contemporary section which was magnificent with paintings/sculptures from Matese, Bacon, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Chagall, Klee, Dalí etc etc - all ignored by other visitors and tour groups in their rush to the Sistine Chapel, so we had the space completely to ourselves - getting delightfully up close to the wonders.
We knew about the tour groups using the ‘escape’ door to enter St Peter’s but also knew that we were in no rush and were happy to wander the rest of the museum and pretty much to ourselves. A lovely chance to soak up the atmosphere and reflect on what we had just seen. Then just when you think it is all over you leave via the Bramante Staircase - the most wonderful spiral staircase I had ever seen, where I went completely overboard on taking photos...once again it was mostly deserted and only occupied by my children. Apparently it is a double helix which escaped me somehow but meant Sienna spent a long time trying to run up and down to get to the other one - to no avail! It really was a highlight and I would have had regrets to have missed it.
Then it was on to St Peter’s where we did have to face a long queue but in a fast moving style and where we were once again left speechless as we entered through the doors! The idea to build something so simply enormous is such a testament to the control of the Catholic church of the time - it speaks of absolute power and strength and dominance that we can’t imagine today. We were defeated by the long lines to climb the dome and the waning energy of the children and called it a day at the Vatican!
Avoiding all the restaurants close by we found some stalls selling fantastic street food by the Tiber with good coffee and indulged in a spot of people watching under the trees! Just what we all needed.
Walking back to the apartment we stopped off at the Ara Pacis, which is housed in a wonderfully modern building which although looked enticing, the worn out children only wanted a foot soak in the cool fountains of the surrounds. Which in fairness on such a hot day was bliss before we headed back for a late afternoon of rest...and a meal cooked in the apartment.
With energy recharged we spent the evening and sunset up at Villa Borghese Park where we listened to the youngest child and rented a large pedal bike thing for six of us and raced around the gardens for an hour. It was completely not on my ‘schedule’ of things to do which in many ways made it even more fun as it was such an unexpected laugh. Although having a token steering wheel in front of you and not being able to actually turn nor brake was a bit of a mind bend! The park was also beautiful to explore at dusk - with the setting sun and peacefulness within it as night took hold.
We finished with an evening stroll down the Spanish Steps purchasing a laser pointer on the way for one of the boys - as you do, from the many street vendors, undertook a bit of window shopping of the very upmarket shops that surround the area and looked in awe at some very beautiful young people parading the streets dressed up to the max, out for a night on the town - all very Italian stylish.
With our wonderful time in Rome up we prepared to head south to Naples. One last stop though was to Fabriano - the paper shop established in 1256 that Leonardo Di Vinci used to frequent - how very cool is that! We ‘ached’ and ‘oohed’ over the very beautiful notebooks and pens and all sorts of delights but travelling light as we were, we had to resist. Part of the essence of this trip with the children was to aim to carry with us very little - in order to enjoy the simplicity of a life with less possessions. We were severely tested to forget that idea in this shop!
Back to Rome Termini - where the old ‘don’t believe everything you read’ rang very true. Because if I were to believe what I had read - we would have been robbed ten times over! In fact we had a very relaxing time with coffee and food and free wifi until our train was ready to depart. It was certainly no more chaotic that Euston Station (London) and certainly not at all threatening!
And that for us...was Rome. The excessive, magnificent, historical, grand, fascinating, intriguing place that it was. Next it’s down South to Naples...and hopefully a trip report about our experiences there to follow...
Photos if you want to see of some of the places mentioned: http://jaxandco.smugmug.com/Rome
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Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice with 4 teenagers, 1 kid, 19 days perfect!
And finally six weeks after returning I have put together (sorry a rather long!) trip report of the Rome bit - I hope that it helps some of you who are thinking of travelling to Italy as a large family and with teenagers!