Taking on the Eternal City: Our trip to Italy Part 1
We left mid-week, late at night on Lufthansa. If you can ever fly Lufthansa I recommend it. The people were great. The food was great, the in-seat entertainment system was so good it kept our 7-year-old son engaged all night long when he should have been sleeping!
We arrived mid-day in Frankfurt, and because cheapest fare routing we had a 4+ hour layover before our final flight to Rome. Not ideal. It gave us plenty of time to go through border control and get to our next fight but it was still too much time. We finally landed in Rome at 5:30 p.m. and arrived at our hotel with enough time to find dinner (Roman Pizza sold by the inch–the kids ate it and loved it) and get to bed before our first big tourist experience–the Flavium Ampitheater or Roman Colosseum.
Rome Day 1
We started with a “Family Tour” of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum at 8:15 a.m. Because of the early hour and our hotel’s location about 30 minutes outside the city center we arranged for a cab. It was exciting to wind our way through the city and see the top of St. Peter’s and fashionable people on scooters on their way to work. We arrived on time and met our tour guide. One other family with a 5 year-old girl was on the tour with us. The tour guide helped us skip the already long line and got us into the Colosseum quickly. She showed us the history, helped us take pictures and told stories in an engaging way. She was also very mindful of the kids and knew when to take a break in the shade for gladiatorial combat with rock paper scissors.
After finishing at the Colosseum we walked over to the Roman Forum and Palatine hill. Our tour guide explained some of the history, showed pictures of what it looked like in its heyday and told our kids the story of Rome in the shade of an olive tree. She led the kids in a Roman version of Red light/Green light and gave each kid a gladiator helmet keychain. Most importantly she directed us to some quality gelato. The first of many (sometimes twice daily) gelato visits.
After a brief gelato respite we walked to find a bus stop to join our Big Bus Rome hop-on-hop-off tour. We had seen these types of tours in various places but hadn’t really used one other than to see monuments in Washington, D.C. I was glad we did. It got you in the general vicinity of major landmarks and offered an audio tour that our middle children ended up loving. They loved it so much that there was much upset when we were only riding for one stop and there wasn’t time for headphones. There were several bus services who ran the same route but Big Bus seemed to have the shortest lines overall. The staff was very helpful. We purchased a ticket for both their routes that also included a night time tour and walking tours (which we didn’t end up using). Our youngest was feeling the jet lag and napped hard.
We rode the bus for a while to get our bearings and just to sit. We eventually got off and found our way to the Jewish ghetto. My wife’s co-worker recommended we see it and eat the Jewish fried artichokes We explored the area, walking thorough several ruins–you can’t go anywhere without finding a ruin–and decided to stop for an early dinner. We went to Baghetto and enjoyed air conditioning and delicious kosher Italian food. We tried the fried artichokes, but we preferred the Roman braised ones a little better.
At some point we called it a day and headed back to the hotel. Our kids thought Italian Doc McStuffins was the best thing ever, and this random bit of “home,” although in Italian, helped wrap up the day as we washed off the dust of ancient Rome.
Rome Day 2
Day 2 in Rome was our day of unfortunate transit that ended well. We had planned to walk and see some city sights and then head to the Villa Borghese Gallery in the afternoon. Although my wife is a Dr. we don’t have the doctor money that allows for Uber all day every day, so we decided to walk about 15 minutes from our hotel to the Metro station. Unfortunately the line that would take us all the way to the first Big Bus stop was under repair so we had to transfer to a bus. Then we were on the Big Bus in morning traffic, and by the time we got to where we are going it was a 2-hour commute. We ended up taking a cab from a bus stop to the Pantheon to get back on track but didn’t have time to go in. There was also a festival or feast day or a meeting and I don’t think we could have gone in if we wanted to. We also saw the Piazza Navona and the famous fountain by Bernini. It was beautiful and we grabbed some quick pizza for the kids and gelato before sprinting to catch a bus to Villa Borghese.
Villa Borghese was a large park and a museum created by Cardnial Borghese. He was a patron of Bernini and turned his villa and vineyard into a museum and gardens in 1605. There were many amazing sculptures by Bernini as well as works by Raphael and Caravaggio–all artists I learned about in my humanities history of civilization classes in college. There was a modern art exhibit mixed in, but I thought it was just art that had been ripped from the frame for restoration. My bad. Our children were not impressed with the museum but the whole trip couldn’t be ONLY about them. Right!? The Villa Borghese Gallery is a small museum and required timed entry tickets–which was the source of our rushing about. We got there on time for our slot. The museum was lovely and cool, and afterward we found a small playground while we mapped out the rest of our day.
After the gallery we ended spending a good portion of the day in Villa Borghese Gardens. It’s a huge park that includes a man-made lake, a temple, museums, playgrounds, athletic fields and even a zoo. We nearly went to the zoo but decided the price and long walk in the wrong direction weren’t worth it. We walked along a high promenade and had excellent views of the city, enjoyed gelato and popcorn and ended up at the top of the famous Spanish Steps. We walked down and the kids enjoying refreshing themselves with the water in the fountain. Got to hand it to those Romans. Their aqueducts are still in use today and bring lots of fresh water into the city. We rarely bought bottled water as we walked around the city and just refilled at various public fountains.
We continued wandering around the city, spent a moment at the super crowded Trevi Fountain and eventually found a place to eat. We selected the week in August that we did because flights were less and it was the time my wife could get off work. But it’s also when many Italian businesses also take time off. More than once we made our way to a restaurant only to find them on holiday. Also most “non-tourist” restaurants close after lunch (if open at all) and don’t re-open until 6:30 or even 7. But kids need to eat when they need to eat so we found somewhere and had a lovely meal. I should have eaten even more prosciutto and melon on the trip than I did. It was so good everywhere I had it.
This day was a long day because we also planned on taking the night tour. We made our way back to Rome Termini Station, got gelato and waited to board a Big Bus that would take us around Rome to see illuminated ruins and monuments narrated by a live tour guide. The tour guide used some stuff we had heard in the audio tour but there was enough new content to make it interesting. It was a beautiful and relaxing way to end the day.
Rome Day 3
On this, our last full day Rome, we took the other Big Bus route that took us out of Rome along the famous Appian Way. We took a cab to the stop so we could hit the first bus of the day as it only operated on the hour. We wanted to visit the San Sebastian catacombs and get back into the city for lunch and our tour of the Vatican that afternoon. The catacombs were so interesting. We learned about the burial of Saint Sebastian and also the burial traditions of ancient Roman pagans and christians. Sorry no pictures allowed. We sold it to our youngest as an “adventure in a cave,” and that worked for most of it. Most of it. We skipped out on the tour of the church above so we could catch the bus back into the city.
We found a restaurant near the Vatican, but it was small without space for us. The owner walked us to a book shop/bar owned by his brother. They walked the food from the restaurant to our table. At first I was thinking “where are we?” but the food ended up being the best we ate in Rome.
After lunch we power-walked to the entrance of the Vatican Museum to meet our tour guide. Walking anywhere as a family of 6 takes a while. Add in summer heat. Add in big crowds and what Apple Maps says is 20 minutes could easily become 45. I had to carry Caleb on my shoulders–a lot–but nevertheless we persisted. And it definitely was faster negotiating the various pavement options without the stroller.
Again, we opted for a family tour. Based on the description I was expecting more of a formal “scavenger hunt” experience, but really it was just the tour guide helping kids find things that interested them and telling information in a kid-friendly way. Our worst melt down of the trip for our autistic son happened here. We had made him a little book with pictures of the major sites and unfortunately the picture of the Sistine Chapel was adjacent to the picture of the high speed train we would be taking the next day. Cue disappointment. I was able to deal with him while the tour guide taught the other kids about the Vatican and what we were going to see. We were able to help him calm down and eventually he enjoyed most of it. He liked all the eagles that represented Jupiter. All of the kids laughed at the statues that had ancient glass “creepy eyes.” They also liked the many statues connected to Greek and Roman myths. The tour guide was very experienced and we couldn’t stump her. She was well-prepared for every question and knew when to spend more time and when to move along.
It was exciting to see the Sistine Chapel. As a kid I remember leafing through the issue of National Geographic that highlighted the restoration and cleaning of the chapel. The colors were much brighter than I expected. I also appreciated the evolution of style from the walls that featured standard medieval quasi-emaciated forms (painted by Michelangelo’s teacher) to Michelangelo’s ceiling of muscular, perfected figures glorifying the image of God. Our tween was unimpressed.
After wandering for miles through the Vatican we took a water break and then enjoyed the more spacious aisles of St. Peter’s. We saw the famous Pieta by Michelangelo as well as the many intricate mosaics (not a single painting in St. Peter’s.) adorning the walls. We took some family pictures, got some souvenirs for a job well done by the kids and then got gelato. The only minor snag was the dress code. To enter parts of the Vatican they require shoulders and knees to be covered. We had to evaluate our clothing choices but were able to make it work and were appropriately attired.
Many people asked if we took the time to visit our faith’s new temple on the outskirts of Rome. We didn’t. We could have. But I will admit I was tired by the time we finally took the bus back to our hotel. We needed to eat somewhere and also needed to pack for our train trip the next day. I did not have it in me. So is it ironic that I spent a good amount of money to see a landmark for another faith but then did not pay for the round trip cab fare to visit one of my own? Yes. It is.