It’s been a crazy summer, venturing out with my 8 year-old son Nicola on his first trip to Europe. Travel with children is a whole different game, a fantastic adventure. Some of you have been asking for an update on the trip.
After three magical weeks in Italy, my son Nico has gone back to the USA, to the harsh reality of the first day of fourth grade (cue the tears from the sentimental mommy). Our trip ended with the beginning of a Rick Steves Venice, Florence and Rome tour, so I’ve been a bit too busy to write. I’d like to catch you up on our adventures.
Our trip featured several parts, so I’ll be breaking it into episodes, you know, like Star Wars but with fewer light sabers but as much action!
Episode One: Son, Meet My Love
We arrive in Rome, my favorite city in this whole crazy world. I fell in love with Rome more than 20 years ago, which explains my current profession. Nico was great on the flight and slept well, mostly using me as a pillow. As for me, well, moms don’t get much sleep so I’m used to being fluffed and smooshed. Our transfer in “Hamsterdam” (the visuals in our imaginations on that word made us giggle) went pretty well, with the exception of a long delay at passport control. In Rome, we checked into our hotel, my home away from home, Hotel Aberdeen. I love this hotel so much. It’s not fancy, it’s not basic, it’s just right and run by the nicest people you will meet in Italy. Annamaria, the owner and a friend for many years, welcomed us with a box of candies for Nico.
We went out on a stroll, it was already 6pm and I had the goal of keeping him up until at least 9. I thought we’d hit some highlights to keep his interest and energy level up. The Pantheon was all we really saw that day and it was a hit. I had been a little worried about our trip. Nico, unlike my older son, has never shown much interest in history or art. Thankfully, one look at the Pantheon and he was hooked.
We strolled over to my favorite gelato shop in Italy, Giolitti, so he could start with the best. This is a sentimental favorite for me, I came here often as a starving student. I was literally starving, living off $20 per week, so Giolitti was a treat. Is it the best gelato in Italy? Probably not, but it’s the place that the Roman grandparents take their grandkids. I like the old Italy, the one I remember from my time living here as a student, so sharing that with Nico was a must.
I, being the adoring parent I am, bought him a giant gelato with a chocolate dipped cone. I wanted this to be the best thing he’d ever eaten. We narrowed down the choices and he got a heaping cone with whipped cream on top! The stuff travel dreams are made of! Except….the weather was warm. The gelato was too. It was melting at a rapid pace. Parents are supposed to teach their kids everything and I realized I’d failed in one spot. I’d never taught him to lick an ice cream cone, you know, in the round. The gelato slumped, it oozed in thick streams all over his hands. He started panicking. Some fell off the top and onto the cobblestones where it practically vaporized. And then the tears. Oh, the humanity! He hit the wall. In his distress, he said in his funny way “Mom, this has not been a good experience for me.” Yeah, he talks like an adult. I was sad for him but had to hold back a smile for the way he expressed himself.
Back to the hotel we went, straight to bed. We did our bedtime routine and he looked quizzically at the bidet. I explained how to use it and he shuddered. His brother liked using it on his trip three years ago to soak his feet, but here is not the first place where my kids would have a very different experience.
Nico was up and out of bed at a reasonable hour, praise the Lord. He slept with no stop and so did I. In fact, we had no jet lag at all. Nico enjoyed exploring the breakfast buffet, exclaiming about how lucky I was that I could have a breakfast like that every day at work. I have long ago given up on hotel breakfasts, they are so generic and unappealing to me, but his enthusiasm was refreshing. Over a cappuccino, we discussed our options for the day. I had appointments for us on the following two days, so this was our only true free day. We hemmed and hawed and then it occurred to me, if he liked the Pantheon, I had to take him to Herculaneum. I whipped out my phone and saw there was a train departing for Naples in 35 minutes. We looked each other in the eyes and said, andiamo! I bought the tickets on my phone and we ran for the train station.
Our crazy adventure took us to Herculaneum, Villa Oplontis and Pompeii. It was madness but a smashing day, and I was so glad we went. Nico really took to the ruins, I could see his imagination fired up. In his mind, I think he was Indiana Jones that day, climbing through ruins and discovering the lives of the past. It was also a great idea because we were too busy to feel tired. You can read all about our day in a previous post found here.
After our long day, we trudged our way back to the hotel and curled up together, I wrote a bit and Nico played on his tablet. I could get used to having a little travel partner every day, a little warm bundle to snuggle with at night.
We started our day with a trip to the Gladiator School, which I wrote about here. To get out there, I decided to try out Uber in Rome. I hadn’t heard great things but it seemed like a good time to experiment. The driver arrived promptly and had a gorgeous Mercedes. I was afraid that the driver wouldn’t know where we were going, it’s a bit out of the way, but he looked at the address and said “Gladiator School?”
After our lessons, we wandered back to the Appian Way for the bus. The lovely old stones were calling so we decided to stroll and I kicked into tour guide mode, telling him stories of the Via Appia and the Christians of Ancient Rome. The catacombs of San Callisto were ahead, and while I didn’t intend to take him there, he wanted to go. Underground we went, along with our guide, a priest from Ireland who had a quirky sense of humor that was engaging. As we wandered through the passageways and tombs, I was pretty sure my son was going to freak out. My older son had tried to see San Clemente on his trip, but the underground spookiness didn’t work for him. Nico, on the other hand, enjoyed it. The creepiness of the tombs didn’t even register and he found it interesting for the history. Who knew?
We caught the bus back into Rome, the 118, which I highly recommend if you’re in Rome. It’s a simple circular bus line, but it happens to connect all of the big ancient sights- Appia Antica, Catacombs, Circus Maximus, Forum, Colosseum. Just watching the sights roll by is a fun ride. I had not made plans to visit the Colosseum or Forum, I do those with my groups and I was wary that the crowds could really bother Nico, who tends to be really sensitive to noise. Once Nico saw the Colosseum, though, it was all over. We ate a pizza at a restaurant with a great view of the ancient sights and he made his mind up. That was next.
Colosseum lines were absolutely ridiculous and it was hot, so I suggested that we see the Forum and save the Colosseum for the next day. I figured we’d be there a half hour or so, but three hours later we were still combing the Palatine ruins, seeing parts I’ve never been to. It was so strange to be a tourist, with the leisure to wander and check out things I’d never seen. Happiness.
We sat in the Forum and I slid back into tour guide mode, but with a kid friendly twist. I read aloud from the Horrible Histories book about Rome, Rotten Romans. I highly recommend these books, they are funny and accurate, and little boys love learning about history with all the nasty bits included. Even some youthful grown- ups would enjoy them, I’d bet.
Walking out of the Forum, I was stopped by a woman who had been listening to my history lesson with my son. She said she enjoyed my explanation so much, more than the tour she was on. She said that I should consider being a tour guide. Suggestion noted.
We were toast after that. We had one more stop before heading back, though. A must for every visit to Rome for a kid, a Tartufo at Tre Scalini cafe in Piazzza Navona. This is another old-school thing in Rome, chocolate gelato wrapped around a cherry, rolled in chocolate chunks and topped by whipped cream. How can you lose? Back to the hotel for some tablet time, board games on my iPad. We were far too tired to go anywhere for dinner, so we ate at the high-end grocery store Eataly. It was good enough.
Our last day in Rome, so much to do. Nico had the Colosseum on the top of the list but I had other surprises in store for him as well. We went back to the Colosseum as early as we could muster, about 9am. The line was already long but, seeing as we had already bought the ticket the day before, we got into the short line for pass holders. That saved an hour of wait time. While we did have to wait a bit, the time went by quickly because I broke out the iPad for a little Pokemon Go. Yes, don’t judge me, I play Pokemon Go with my kids. It is a fantastic game. It’s like a scavenger hunt everywhere you go, highlighting historical or artistic highlights of a city. Seriously! As it turns out, other people have the same idea and we found lots of new Pokemon to catch. It’s like playing gladiators, but with iPhones rather than swords.
Our next appointment was for Palazzo Valentini, a Roman house recreated with projectors under a Renaissance palace. It’s a compelling place, which I wrote about here, but the visit was a little long for him. After a quick gelato recharge, we ran off to make our appointment for the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House, which sits hidden under a park opposite the Colosseum, and which I also wrote about here. Google Maps failed us on this one. We wandered around the hot and dusty park for 15 minutes, trying to find the entrance. I asked for directions from some kind-looking people at the senior center in the park, and they gave me the typical Italian answer, you can go left or right, you know, just keep going and you’ll find it. Eventually we did, barely making our appointment. Hard hats on, down into the darkness we went, following an archaeologist back into history. We enjoyed that tour immensely and felt privileged to see it, as it’s been mostly closed to the public for many years. The park above has invasive trees that feed on mortar, causing collapses in the structure.
I knew that Nico was enjoying the ancient sights, but this one was special. At the end of our trip, after everything we saw, the Domus Aurea was his favorite by far. I may have a budding archaeologist on my hands!
We had some time left over in our day, so we went to the Villa Borghese park and rented one of the rickshaw bicycles. Let me tell you, that is a heap of slightly terrifying fun. The motor assisted bikes rip through the park at alarmingly high speed, past lovely fountains and views. We screamed and whooped and almost crashed but had a blast. In all my years in the city, I’d never done it before. I love how Rome always has more surprises to find.
After all of the craziness of our days in Rome, I decided to finish our time there with a classic dinner. We went for dinner at Trattoria Der Pallaro, a place I’ve been eating at since my student days in the 90’s. Paola Fazi runs the restaurant with the air of a grandmother with a huge extended family. Every diner is warmly greeted and fed whatever she happens to be cooking, with everything prepared in her anteroom in big plastic tubs. This place hasn’t changed since my student days and I suspect even since the 60’s. I wanted Nico to meet Paola, since she’s known me so long and only met Nico while he was in my tummy. She also happens to know the family of my kids’ closest friends, so bringing him here was like coming to a friend’s house. With every course, and there were many, Nico kept exclaiming “This is the best food EVER!”
A stroll through the piazzas and a bus back to the hotel, it was time to pack and be ready for the next leg of our adventure. Nico loved Rome best of anything he saw, and that made his mama’s heart almost burst!
Coming soon in the next episode: Trouble in Paradise