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Trip Report Where the stroller meets the cobblestones - Florence, Perugia & Rome

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My wife and I had spent our honeymoon in Italy in 2000 and we subsequently visited Italy several times, but this was our first trip to Italy with our four-year-old son. We wanted to return to some places we had visited previously and also take in a new location or two. We set a goal of packing for carry-on only and we were successful, although our fellow passengers might opine that we were pushing the limits of permissible carry-on luggage! We thought our son, who is a fairly good walker, was done with strollers, However, we realized that it would not be possible to do days of sightseeing with him in Florence and Rome without a stroller, so we bought one just before the trip. We were concerned that he might think he was too grown up for a stroller, but our fears were misplaced – in fact he enjoyed the stroller a little too much!

While planning the flights for our trip to Italy we decided to take advantage of a 20-hour layover in Paris. We got a room at the airport Sheraton and hopped on the RER to spend a few hours walking around the Latin Quarter, sampling sorbet, nibbling on crepes and taking the boat ride on the Seine. All went well until our four-year-old son, who is normally a champion sleeper, woke up at 12:30 am and wanted to have a nice long chat. We eventually got back to sleep, but soon enough it was 5:00 am and time to get up for our 7:00 am flight to Florence and we were all a little cranky.

Upon arrival to Florence, we checked into the elegant Westin Excelsior, where we had previously stayed in 2006. This is one of my favorite hotels in Europe and the staff is superb. As Starwood Platinums, we were given a very nice room with a large balcony (although not a suite) and free breakfast. The balcony has a panoramic view of the Arno river. Normally I do not take a nap upon arriving in Europe – I try to stay up as long as possible in order to avoid jet lag, but since I was working on about three or four hours sleep over the past couple of days, a nap was unavoidable.

When we woke up we headed out to the Piazza Republica for an unremarkable late lunch at Café Paszkowski. Then we headed across town for some shopping at the leather school (“Scuola del Cuoio”) where we had made some purchases in the past. The school is a bit hard to find as it is tucked behind the sprawling church of S. Croce. My son, who is normally moderately well behaved in stores, was not really in a mood to enjoy the subtle pleasures of Florentine leather so he and I played outside for awhile while my wife shopped.

After some more walking around, we headed to I Che Ce Ce for dinner. This is a favorite trattoria of ours, where we first dined on our honeymoon in 2000. It is located at 11 Via Magalotti, just a few blocks east of the Piazza Signoria. As usual, the friendly service and tasty Tuscan cuisine did not disappoint.

The next day we headed to the Accademia, where we had reserved tickets through the very helpful hotel concierge. This enabled us to skip the very long line and get inside to see the original David and other Michelangelo sculptures. It was Palm Sunday so we went to Mass at the Basilica of San Lorenzo and were given olive leaves in lieu of palms. After a morning in the museum, our son was not really in a church mood, so we had to cut our visit short. After walking around town and a good lunch at nearby Centopoveri (Via Palazzuolo 31), we went to Uffizi to pick up our reserved tickets, again skipping a long line. Dodging the large tour groups was not easy inside the museum, but it was great to see this fantastic collection again. Getting out of the museum with a stroller turned out to be a fiasco involving a series of elevators that would up in isolated galleries with no exit to the street. Ultimately, after several attempts, we carried the stroller down the stairs of the main exit. That night we had dinner at Il Profeta restaurant on Via Borgognissanti near the hotel. The food was fairly good but on the heavy side and we over-ordered. We ordered one of the “special” pasta dishes (far more expensive than any other pasta I had for the entire trip), and found it to be disappointing. Our son, who is generally a fairly mature dinner companion as far as four-year-olds go, lost interest at some point in the lengthy dining process so we reluctantly had to break out the iPad for his entertainment – the only time we had to do so while eating on the trip.

The following day, we decided to walk off some of our heavy dinner from the prior night by pushing the stroller across the Arno and up the hill to the Piazza Michaelangelo. This was quite a cardio workout. The PM did not disappoint in its panoramic views of the city and we had lunch at the terrace café, which had surprisingly good and reasonable food and service. Since we only brought carry-on luggage and since we were travelling with a little boy, we needed to do laundry and paying the hotel five Euros to wash each pair of socks was not in our budget. When we took our son to Amsterdam two years ago, we had great service from a wash-and-fold. However, in Florence we had some trouble with the “fold” part. They did the washing but we had to do the folding – either I did not understand the process or people do not mind getting wrinkled clothes from the laundry. This arrangement was certainly better than the time I had some laundry done in Paris and I returned to my room to find it in a wet, sudsy pile on the floor. In the evening, we headed across town and had a delightful dinner at an outdoor pizzeria Ghibellina.

The next day we checked out of the hotel and rented a car about a block away. One would think it would be simple to rent a car from an agency so close to the hotel but it was complicated by the fact that the car was actually at a garage a few blocks away. Then when we had to pack up the car we had to drive back to the hotel to get our bags, which is one block inside the restricted zone. This meant I had to pay a Euro to avoid (hopefully) a fine. Then we found some scratches on the car so it was back to the rental office and one more trip through the restricted zone (and one more Euro to the hotel) After a bit of confusion in the Florence traffic, we were headed south, stopping for lunch in the lovely hill town of Contona.

After Cortona, we headed east into the hills of Umbria. Winding up the hairpin turns to Perugia, we checked in at the Brufani Palace hotel at the top of the hill. For us, this was a rare non-Starwood hotel stay but it did not disappoint. The Brufani is an old world grande dame hotel and the room was quite elegant. My wife wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest in the room for the evening. Meanwhile, my son wanted to visit a playground, which we had not been able to find in Florence. The concierge at the Brufani told me about a playground in the lower town which we had to access by means of a series of escalators which ran in part inside the ancient city walls. The playground consisted of exactly three pieces of equipment, which one would typically find in any suburban American back yard. No other kids took advantage of these limited facilities but my little guy seemed to enjoy, as he put it, the “itsy bitsy playground.” My son and I wandered around the charming medieval streets of Perugia and sampled some pizza and gelato.

We started the next day with a dip in the hotel pool, which has a partial glass bottom over top of some medieval walls. The pool, while not big, was delightfully warm. My wife was feeling a little better and we hopped in the car and drove to nearby Assisi. As usual we were running late for lunch, so that was our first priority. We ducked into the very charming La Lanterna at Via S. Rufino 39, and had one of the best meals of our trip. There was a brief sun shower while we had lunch, but fortunately the table’s umbrella kept us dry. We then visited the Basilica of St. Francis. When we last visited Assisi in 2006, many of the Giotto frescos were covered by scaffolding set up for the post-earthquake restoration. The restorers did a wonderful job and there was no visible indication of earthquake damage remaining. We headed back to Perugia and had dinner near the main square at the very good Il Cantinone on Via Ritorta.

We had to pack up and leave early the following day to return the car in Rome by noon. Unfortunately our little guy had some motion sickness in the crazy Roman traffic, but we were able to drop the bags at the hotel and drop off the car near the train station – with about ten minutes to spare! After confirming with the car rental office at the train station that the bill was paid in full, we encountered a media circus of cameras and reporters when some mysterious important person was arriving by train. Then we had to walk about a mile from the Termini train station to our hotel, the Westin Excelsior on the Via Veneto. As New Yorkers, we are quite used to walking, but we do not normally deal with many hills. However, this was the first of many treks to the top of the Via Veneto, which must be one of the highest points in Rome. My son, who regularly walks for a dozen blocks or more at a time in Manhattan, decided it was more pleasurable to recline in the stroller and have mom and dad push his 45-pound body uphill over cobblestones. Much gelato-based bribery ensued over the coming days to encourage walking.

Although we were optimistic that our Starwood platinum status would enable us to upgrade to a suite, the hotel did not have any suites available for the first two nights, but after a little negotiating we got a nice large room with a balcony overlooking the Via Veneto. Two blocks north of the hotel are the ancient Aurelian city walls and beyond that is the Borghese Gardens, which contain playgrounds, bumper cars and other fun things for kids. Our little cowboy loved the pony rides, which were only 3.50 Euros. We headed back to the hotel for a dip in the pool, which was small and chilly, but which our son nonetheless enjoyed quite a bit.

The next day we headed to downtown Rome to explore the ruins. We followed the concierge’s suggestion to buy our admission tickets at the Palatine entrance as the lines are shorter there than at the Colosseum or Forum entrances. Nonetheless, we had to wait for the better part of an hour, but had an enjoyable chat with some fellow visitors while we shuffled along. We had to visit the three areas relatively quickly because we wanted to get into the Colosseum before it was closed in order to prepare for the Pope’s Good Friday visit that night. My son could sort of (I think) understand the purpose of the Imperial Palace and the Forum but the Colosseum is a bit tricky to explain without getting into gory details.

We stopped for lunch at Angelina di Fori, which had great views of the Forum but was very crowded and the food was so-so. After all of the historical stuff it was back to the hotel and then on to the park for another pony ride and some playground time. In the evening we had dinner at Nana (Via della Panetteria 37), a nice outdoor trattoria near the Trevi Fountain. Then it was back to the Colosseum to try to catch a view of the Pope. Unfortunately, the huge crowds kept us from getting close enough to see anything, but the full moon was directly above the Colosseum and made for quite a dramatic nighttime scene.

The next day we headed to the Spanish Steps and explored that area. My son was not very impressed with the steps themselves but he loved all of the carriage horses gathered at the base of the steps. We walked north through the Piazza del Popolo and, in another epic uphill trek, made our way through the Borghese Gardens back to our hotel.After putting up with our nagging for a few days, the hotel staff finally relented and gave us a suite. This was a tremendous room with a private terrace overlooking the huge American embassy compound. It was very nice to sit out here in the evening, sipping some vino rosso and watching the sun set. But not everything can be glamorous – we needed to do more laundry. Ok, maybe taking an 11-night trip with a child and bringing only carry-on luggage was a tad unrealistic, but we enjoy a challenge. Since it was Easter weekend the laundry places near the hotel were closed. I had to wonder how many other guests staying in suites at this nice hotel schlep bags of laundry around the city. We eventually found a self-service laundry a few blocks down the hill near the Piazza Barberini. After several trips up and down the hill during the day, I wanted to stay near the hotel for dinner, and we took the concierge’s excellent suggestion to try the nearby trattoria San Marco, which had delicious food, friendly service and reasonable prices.

Our touring options were limited for Easter Sunday, but the main Roman sites were still open, so we headed back to the Forum and took the official guided English tour, which was very good, if somewhat basic. Next we headed to the Mouth of Truth, which inspired an unusual amount of fear in our son – what exactly is he lying about? Fortunately my hand was not bitten off. Next we walked across the river to Trestavere for lunch. Every eatery was packed with people, I guess Romans like to go out to lunch on Easter Sunday. Eventually we found a nice place a bit off the beaten path that served good salads . We continued on to the Vatican, but thanks to our GPS, we wound up meandering around the big park on the Janiculum hill. I had never been to this park before and it had incredible views of the city. Eventually we found our way to St. Peter’s. The Papal blessing had taken place hours earlier but there were still large crowds waiting to get in.

Monday was our last full day in Italy and we were told that, although we could not get a reservation to visit the Villa Borghese, we might be able to slip in if we joined a tour. However, it turned out that the museum (which unlike many museums in Rome was theoretically open on Monday) was closed for some construction work. Since we were already in the park, we rented a boat and rowed around the lake and my son did a couple of turns on the bumper cars. We looped by the Spanish Steps and then headed downtown for lunch at Spaghetteria (on Via dell'Archetto) where we sampled a few of the dozens of delicious pasta sauces. Afterwards we ambled over to Piazza Novona and bought a painting at the outdoor art market. Later on it was back to the hotel for a dip in the small, cold pool.

Since so many museums had been closed on Easter week, we really made an effort to get to the Pamphilj Gallery on the morning of our last day. I had recently read “Mistress of the Vatican” and it was fascinating to visit this art-filled palace which the family of Pope Innocent X still inhabits almost 400 years after his papacy. I am not usually a fan of audio tours but the narration by the current master of the house (who I believe is a Prince) was entertaining and fascinating. Then it was back to the room for our final packing and taxi to the airport.

We had some issues with the seats on the flight (Delta, please communicate better with your “partners” as we had issues with both Air France and Alitalia on this trip which both foreign carriers blamed on Delta) which caused us to spend a good deal of time at the Alitalia check-in counter, but we thought we still had plenty of time to make the flight. This assumption turned out to be mistaken since there was exactly one security checkpoint for many, many hundreds of passengers bound for the U.S., U.K., Israel and Russia. No one was available to help late passengers and after seeing many others cut the line, we had to ask to skip ahead too, which our fellow passengers graciously allowed us to do – now with only a half hour left to go. It was an “Amazing Race” scene of running through the rest of the airport, which I have never done before in my 20+ prior trips to Europe and countless other flights, but we somehow made it onto the plane just before they closed the door – whew! Aside from this last-minute snafu, it was a great trip!