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Highs and Lows of a Family Trip to Italy


Mar 15th, 2011, 05:59 PM
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Highs and Lows of a Family Trip to Italy

In appreciation of all the great tips and advice I received while planning our family trip to Italy, I'm posting my first trip report. We spent a fabulous two weeks in Italy over the holidays. The family trip went far better than I expected (especially with two teens) but it wasn't without its challenges. I'll try to cover the sites and include helpful tips, and try not to veer too deeply into our family's idiosyncrasies. But no promises.

First, a little background. My husband and I met in Rome 32 years ago (yikes!). We were high school sweethearts who got married after college. We have three beautiful daughters. DD1 is 19, DD2 is 17 and DD3 is 8. After a long absence, DH and I finally made it back to Rome 5 years ago for a 2 day visit in between Christmas and New Year’s during a family holiday in England – our last big family trip. We were spending Christmas with relatives and were able to leave the girls for a couple of days. We had always dreamed of taking our girls to Italy and with DD1 now a sophomore in college and DD2 about to graduate, we felt like it might be now or never. So with much angst regarding the cost, we decided to go ahead and plan a trip to Italy for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. This was the only time of the year when I could be sure everyone would be able to make it. So after 6 months of wavering, we took the plunge and had about 2 and a half months to plan and dream. And worry. This trip would be different from our trip to England where we stayed with family and much of the point was simply to spend time together. We had a place to stay, a car, and a very relaxed agenda. The girls were older now, and were…how should I put it….less pliable. So it would be a challenge to plan a trip that balanced everyone’s needs and desires, including “together time” and “alone time,” and kept the costs in check, while packing in as many of the charms and gems of Italy that I could manage.

Here was our basic itinerary:
Dec. 21: arrive in Rome from Washington, DC for 5 nights (including Christmas Eve and Day)
Dec. 26: travel to Florence for 4 nights
Dec. 30: travel to Venice for 3 nights (including New Year’s Eve)
Jan 2: travel back to Rome for one night
Jan 3: fly from Rome back to Washington, DC

Now, before folks jump on the obvious weakness in this itinerary, I know it would have made more sense to fly into Rome and out of Venice. What factored into my calculation however was a DH that absolutely hates flying. To the point that he’d rather drive for two days than take a simple two-hour flight. So I had to minimize this stress on him (and more importantly, me) by opting for nonstop flights -- only possible in and out of Rome from DC. And originally, we were going to spend two nights in Venice and a final two nights in Rome, but then my English in-laws decided to join us in Venice. That was a lovely idea (and I figured we’d need new blood by that point in the trip), but it also meant that an apartment was really the only way to go – and that meant a 3-night stay in Venice.

We were also planning 3 possible day trips: one to Pompei from Rome – the kids were really for this, I was a bit ambivalent, and DH thought it was nuts; one to Pisa – can’t take kids to Italy without seeing the leaning tower!; and one to Siena – this was my line in the sand – I had to go to ONE place that I hadn’t been to before, and it was embarrassing to say that I had lived in Italy for two years and never been to Siena.

So that was the basic agenda – not too ambitious, but a reasonable attempt to see the most compelling sites in Italy given a two-week time frame, in the middle of winter, and the height of the holiday season.

Next: pre-trip preparation and our arrival in Rome!
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Mar 15th, 2011, 06:04 PM
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Looking forward to your report, especially on Siena, as we'll be there in May.
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Mar 15th, 2011, 06:14 PM
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That's the Prologue. Waiting for Episode 1.
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Mar 15th, 2011, 06:24 PM
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Great start--looking forward to more.
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Mar 15th, 2011, 06:27 PM
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Mar 15th, 2011, 07:35 PM
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Looking forward to your report. Will be doing a similar trip with 19 and 20 yr old sons in June.
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Mar 15th, 2011, 07:59 PM
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Ooh, sounds good so far. I'm looking forward to reading more.
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Mar 15th, 2011, 08:12 PM
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Mar 16th, 2011, 06:29 AM
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topping to hear this interesting story.
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Mar 16th, 2011, 06:49 AM
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Great start!
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Mar 16th, 2011, 11:15 AM
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Pre-trip preparation:

1. We decided to work with Verizon to enable two of our cell phones to operate in Italy. DH handled this (his main trip prep task). Despite being told that his Blackberry would work over there, a Verizon technician (the third or fourth one he spoke to) said “absolutely not.” But Verizon sent us two temporary phones that we could use for our trip. This meant deactivating our regular phones and activating the temporary ones – and reversing the process when we returned. This went pretty smoothly and wasn’t much of a hassle (since I didn’t have to deal with it). DH needed access to a phone and email for work, and we wanted DD1 and DD2 to have a phone since I figured they would do some independent exploring.

2. I got each of the girls a VISA travel card from AAA. Even DD3, although I simply reloaded a card I already had. These gave them each some independence and a way to be in control of their spending money. DD3 got a kick out of using her own card at the ATM machine. Although she refused to break the 50 Euro bill she got, and I somehow ended up buying most of her trinkets anyways.

3. My goal was to pack as lightly as possible. I didn’t achieve as much success here as I had hoped. We did keep it to one suitcase each--one large, one med-large, two medium, and one large carry-on (for DD3). That made one bag for each of us plus a daypack for the airplane, day trips, etc. Still, we had more stuff IN the suitcases to start with than I would have liked. This caused a challenge by the time we got to Venice and our suitcases were bursting. We almost bought another suitcase (which would have been easy in Florence as they were selling them everywhere on the street, but were not to be found in Venice when we decided we needed one) – so we did some nifty and careful repacking and managed to squeeze it all in for the trip home.

4. I spent a lot of time thinking about the type of daypack and coat that I wanted to travel with (WAY too much time), but ultimately both choices were superb. I wanted a coat with a lot of pockets so I wouldn’t have to carry a purse, or a daypack, if I didn’t want to. It also had to be suitable for a range a temperatures since we were likely to experience mild weather as well as quite damp and chilly. I toyed for weeks with getting a Scottevest, but in the end, couldn’t bring myself to spend the money and finally settled on a jacket from LLBean that had two deep inside pockets and two zippered outside pockets. It was perfect. And the Healthy Back bag ended up being an impulse buy at the AAA store two days before the trip because I hadn’t found anything else I liked. It worked out great.

5. I asked DH’s doctor to give him a prescription for Xanax. Luckily DH’s doctor is old school and had no problem prescribing medication to his patient on the advice of his wife.

6. We were set to go.
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Mar 16th, 2011, 11:29 AM
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We took a United flight nonstop to Rome (booked through Continental to use all those Amex reward points – one free ticket!!). Normally I wouldn’t go into the flight itself, but as this was the single worst aspect of our entire vacation, I thought I’d mention it. The flight was miserable. Really, really, miserable. Now I know not to expect much in the cattle car, but I felt trapped, claustrophobic, and just plain uncomfortable (and I'm only 5'2"). It’s been a long time since we’ve taken an American carrier across the Atlantic, and it will be a lot longer before we do so again I think. Those few extra inches between seats on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic make a lot of difference!

The timing of the flight also made a difference. It left at 5:00 pm which is rough time slot for crossing the Atlantic if you want to get any sleep. DD3 finally fell asleep an hour before we landed. DD1 managed to sprawl over her tray table and snooze a little. The rest of us were out of luck. In terms of service, though, the United flight attendants were wonderful I have to say. So enough kvetching. We didn’t know it at the time, but we got the very worst part of the trip over with straight away, so that was a good thing. It wasn’t, however, without consequences…..

Next up: First Day in Rome!
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Mar 16th, 2011, 11:57 AM
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Can't wait to read the rest of your report, wayfinder!
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Mar 16th, 2011, 04:35 PM
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We arrived, shattered, but happy. We had arranged with our hotel to be picked up at the airport. There was indeed someone waiting for us, but he wasn’t the driver, rather someone who coordinates these pickups, probably for multiple hotels. We had to wait about 15 minutes or so for the driver with the minivan to arrive. That gave me enough time to grab a cappuccino from the airport bar. Yay! There had been an ATM machine right by our baggage carousel, so we were all set for euros.

Our hotel was excellent – and a terrific value. Villa San Pio on the Aventine Hill caters mostly to Italians and other Europeans, and indeed, I think we were the only Americans there. My husband and I had stayed there on our previous brief trip to Rome and were comfortable with the location since it is in our “old neighborhood.” We had gone to high school on the Aventine many years before – and not a whole lot has changed since then. Many travelers might not like to be off the beaten track, but the hotel (and its sister hotel San Anselmo) as well as the location actually have a lot to offer. Two metro stations are within a ten-minute walk and convenient bus and tram routes go right along Viale Aventino and Via Marmorata. It’s a short walk to the Colosseum (say 15 minutes at a decent pace).

What the hotel has going for it are LARGE, clean, nicely decorated rooms and excellent value. There is a lovely breakfast room with a plentiful assortment of breads, rolls, meats, cheeses, cereals, and fruit. For some reason, the coffee was disappointing – my only complaint about the hotel. We booked and paid in advance and received a 20% discount. We had a triple for the girls (their huge room came with an amazing bathroom) and DH and I had a double with a balcony and pleasant view (and a fine, but Jacuzzi-free bathroom). Fabulous deal for only 200E/night.

The property has a number of orange and lemon trees which add to the atmosphere. And in warmer weather, it must be a real joy to sit out under the trees with a glass of wine. Best of all, just up the hill are two treasures. One is Santa Sabina, one of the oldest Christian basilicas in Rome, built in the early 5th century. The other, I’m reluctant to share…..okay, I will.…. but don’t tell anyone. “Orange Park” is a hidden gem next to Santa Sabina. A symmetrical grove of orange trees, potted plants, and benches, the walled park offers a stunning view of the Tiber and St. Peter’s. And at night, the view through the main gate towards St. Peters is....….worth staying on the Aventine for.
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Mar 16th, 2011, 04:44 PM
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So, it’s no surprise that shortly after checking in, I walked straight up Via San Anselmo to Orange Park, dragging DD3 along with me and leaving everyone else passed out in bed. Now, I’m typically of the opinion that one should simply plow through the jet lag. But after a short time at Orange Park, I began to feel the weight of the aftermath of that dreadful flight and longed to lie down. So back to the hotel for an hour’s nap.

After rousing DH and DD3 (DD1 and DD2 showed no signs of life), we set off to Termini to buy train tickets for the rest of our trip. This was one of the best tips I received from fellow Fodorites. We walked down to the Circo Massimo metro stop on the B line, stopping for DD3’s first gelato. Mmm Mmm. That was a love affair at first bite.

The self-service machines at Termini were a breeze. It certainly helped researching schedules and fares in advance on the Trenitalia website. We bought 2nd class tickets on ES trains for Rome-Florence, Florence-Venice, and Venice-Rome legs of the trip. Like I said, a very wise move as a number of trains sold out.

Back to the hotel to haul DD1 and DD2 out of bed for a walk and meal around Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. As we were making our way down Viale Aventino, we run into DD1’s housemate from college. Yes, her housemate from college. Now, we’d known that this housemate would be in Italy, because DD1 was planning to visit him in Arezzo while we were in Florence, but here, now, on the same sidewalk in Rome?? So DD1 (who’s energy level has suddenly surged) and said housemate go off together (immediately the phone pays off), and we’re down one.

We plan to take the bus to Piazza Venezia in front of the Victor Emmanuel monument and walk to the Trevi Fountain, but we either get on the wrong bus or miss the stop and wind up closer to the Spanish Steps, so we meander there first. Sensing that DD2 feels abandoned by DD1, we let her pick a place to eat. She chooses a cute little trattoria somewhere along the way to the Trevi Fountain. It’s just warm enough to eat out in the street. Yes, the tables take up half the little side street, but the restaurant’s host keeps an eye on the mopeds and occasional car and entertains the girls with over-the-top Italian fawning (in between chatting up and chasing down women as they walk along the other side of the street). The food is fairly decent, the wine less so.

But the meal is fun and we leave in good spirits to find the Trevi Fountain and throw in a coin to make sure we all return (we’ll have to see about DD1 ). As we walk along Via del Corso we’re overcome with exhaustion and decide to catch a cab back to the hotel. Riding down the Corso, DD3 spots the Disney store -- which she obsesses about for the next four days. The lit up “Wedding Cake” and Christmas tree on Piazza Venezia are the perfect images to cap off our first day.

Next up: Pompei?? Really?!?
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Mar 16th, 2011, 05:20 PM
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So good so far!!! We have a 6 and 8 year old we're taking to Rome soon, so looking forward to DD3's reactions!
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Mar 16th, 2011, 06:04 PM
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looking forward to the next part wayfinder!
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Mar 17th, 2011, 12:53 PM
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That's some of the best advice I've seen. I can't imagine DH on a transatlantic flight without Xanax

Great report so far, looking forward to the rest!
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Mar 17th, 2011, 08:20 PM
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We woke up to a cold and rainy day. We had reservations for the Vatican Museum, but the kids were campaigning to go to Pompeii. There had been a lively thread here on the pros/cons of taking a day trip to Pompeii from Rome. There had been compelling arguments made in favor of visiting Ostia Antica instead. But I knew it wasn’t about the quality of the ruins, or even convenience – Pompeii was the destination that evoked the kids’ curiosity and interest. So I was open to taking the day trip, but it never occurred to me to go on our first full day in Italy.

I checked the weather online. It showed rain all day in Rome and partly sunny and 60 degrees in Pompeii. That decided it. I quickly changed our reservations for the Vatican Museum to the next day – you can make one change on-line up to one hour before the reservation time – and off we flew to Termini. DH still thought it was crazy to go all the way to Pompeii, and I had trepidations that this might be a disaster in the making.

Luckily, I had researched the logistics beforehand and had even previewed A_Brit_In_Ischia’s photos showing how to get to the Circumvesuviana platform from the main train station:

We bought tickets for the next express train to Naples leaving within the hour. Second class was sold out, gulp, so we got first class. We grabbed coffee and water and the girls checked out Termini’s bookstore. DD2 was already fretting that she’d run out of Harry Potter to read before the trip was over. She was already a good way through Book 7 and had only brought along Book 6 as well (she had decided to read them backwards....don’t ask).

First class was nice, but the rest of our trips were in 2nd class and I can’t say there is THAT much difference. There’s a little more room, the bathrooms are a bit cleaner, and you get a square of chocolate and free coffee. Nice, but second class is just fine. The one thing I could never figure out was how the seats were assigned. With the self-service machines, you can pick one seat, then the rest of the seats are assigned based on the first selection (at least I couldn’t figure out any other way to do it). We were always split 3 and 2, or 2, 2, 1; we were never assigned all four seats in a section. And the way the seats are numbered is a real brain teaser. At one point I diagrammed the seat layout and seat numbers on a piece of paper, trying to understand the logic. So it’s easy to end up in the wrong seat and we got involved in several lengthy debates involving half a dozen people in the aisle, all pointing and gesticulating. I think the Italians were just as likely to get it wrong as the tourists. My advice: board early, and stake out and hold your rightful territory.
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Mar 17th, 2011, 08:57 PM
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The train ride to Naples was about an hour and a half with some pretty scenery – all of it encased in dense fog. Where were my partly sunny skies?? Miraculously, just as we pulled into Naples the skies cleared and the sun peaked through. Whew! [I had been ignoring DH’s silent glares as we traveled through the gloomy weather].

Despite Peter’s helpful directions, there was still some bumbling about trying to find the Circumvesuviana line and once we were on the platform, it wasn’t clear when to expect the next train to Sorrento. I was a little worried we would either get on the wrong train or completely miss the right one. After about a 20 minute wait, our train arrived. Duh, it was the one that clearly said “Sorrento.”

I looked at the map on the train and counted at least 10 stops to Pompeii Scavi. I also honed in on an elderly English couple, the only other tourists in sight. Since they were obviously going to Pompeii as well I made a mental note to keep an eye on them as a backup and settled back to relax. But only a few stops later, DD1 says, “Hey, isn’t this what we want?” I look up to see “Pompeii Scavi” on the platform. I glance over to my English tourists – they haven’t moved a muscle. Damn! They must be going to Sorrento. We jump up and off the train. Luckily, we didn't have to chase down stray markers or playing cards, otherwise we would have missed our stop. DD1 saved the day! Lesson noted: following other tourists is not a smart strategy (especially, it turns out, in Venice).

I had read several positive reviews about the tour guides at Pompeii and was open to hiring one. Sure enough, on our approach, we were greeted by an enthusiastic tour guide who earnestly begins negotiations with DH. He's got a receptive audience but doesn't reckon on DD1 and DD2 who are adamently opposed to engaging his services. Not for any particular reason that I can fathom, but I'm still too muddle-headed trying to figure out how I read the train map incorrectly.

This day, at least, their instincts are right. Pompeii is peaceful and it's a true joy to stroll up and down the streets in quiet. It's practically deserted. There can't be more than 30 people in the whole place. Well, maybe 50 -- we ran into about 20 Asian tourists in the Lupanar (mostly men, I'm afraid). There are a few specific spots we want to find, but mostly we just wander and enjoy.

What's most amazing is the freedom you get to explore. The kids had a great time exploring the nooks and crannies -- discovering little gardens and courtyards. They played out tragic scenes and comic scenes and we took a million pictures.

Not long after arriving, DD1 and DD2 run into someone they know from summer camp. How small is this world anyway?! But it was that awkward teen acquaintance thing, so the families chatted a few minutes and then we went our separate ways.

As dusk was settling, we felt so full and happy, but DD3 was still on a mission to find the "dead bodies." And in a fluke we did. They were all locked up, put away for the winter season, I suppose.

There was a festive mood among the small group of people waiting on the platform to head back to Naples -- I think we each felt like we had had Pompeii to ourselves. And that was a very special feeling.
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