Thursday, January 11, 2007

La Dolce Vita - Family Style

On the surface, Rome does not cater to young visitors. Green space hardly exists*, museums make no concessions for children, restaurants start serving dinner long after most children have gone to bed, and cars and motorbikes play a game of “chicken” with pedestrians that is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of visiting parents. But this is the surface. Underneath what appears to be an “adults only” city, is a huge and thriving playground for the young and young at heart. We were there last week with two of our four children, aged 9 and 19, and they immediately “got” it. They had a blast and so did we.

In thinking about what made our Roman holiday so appealing to our younger members, I have come to the conclusion that Rome is, for them, one big HBO episode. It’s Western Civilisation for the MTV Generation complete with edgy editing: here Etruscans, there Baroque, look quick, now its Byzantine. Where we see antiquities, they see film sets. When our son, Mac, spent an inordinate amount of time digesting the information in an exhibition on Homer in the Coliseum, I asked him about his interest in the great poet. His reply, “Mom, I saw the movie with Brad Pit”. Ditto for the Coliseum and Russell Crowe.

Regardless of the source, Mac was connecting with audio/visual icons and enjoying it. The same can be said for Eloise who found it hilarious that a wolf would raise a pair of human babies. She also found the human relics in the churches to be quite fascinating as were the cats at Torre Argentina. In between walking around and looking at all the stuff, we had plenty of breaks for pasta-fuelled lunches and gelato (ice cream but taken to a higher level). To summarise, Rome magnificently met the needs of everyone in our party, and we would all go back in a heart beat.

In the hopes that you will bring your family to Rome and have as splendid a time as we did, here are our 10 Key Learnings for Family Fun in the Eternal City.

Stay in the Ancient Centre and Walk Everywhere

If you arrive in Rome via Fiumicino Airport and there are at least 4 of you, take a taxi (€40 fixed if it is a Roman based taxi/€60 fixed if Fiumicino based – it pays to ask for the Roman). Otherwise, the train is a good option.

After that, choose a hotel in the Ancient Centre so that you can walk to almost everything you would want to see. Public transportation is often crowded and sometimes chaotic. (The claim has been made that “neither Freud nor Jung could ever muster the courage to board a Roman bus.” In any event, avoid the #64 which is basically a Pick Pocket Convention.) By contrast, there is no better way to soak up the atmosphere of this remarkable city than by hitting the streets. With frequent stops for coffee, juice and gelato, we heard no complaints from our younger set.

As for hotels, I always freeload off my sister in her “palazzo” near the Pantheon. This neighbourhood is hard to beat as it is an easy walk to the Coliseum, Forum, Capitoline, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain. If you don’t have a benevolent Sorellina (baby sister) to bum off of, the Albergo Santa Chiara, around the corner comes highly recommended, is well reviewed by Frommers, Trip Advisor et alia and I am told that rates are “discussable” in the off-season.

Take and buy these books

City Secrets Rome – Tiny but full of delightful, idiosyncratic and useful information such as Danny Meyer’s (of Union Square Café fame) review of the trattoria, La Taverna da Giovanni, where he “learned the simple wonders of the Italian table.”

The Families who Made Rome is both a history and a guide with terrific stories and itineraries. It’s a big book but worth the space in your day pack.

Rome, Past and Present – You can purchase this guide book at any tourist or gift shop for roughly €11. The children will enjoy the fact that for each monument, there are overlays showing how it would have looked in antiquity versus what one is seeing today. Some editions come with a CD which cuts back and forth between now and then and helps the whole family make sense of the ruins.

Avoid the line at the Coliseum by buying your ticket at the entrance to the Palatine

Perhaps the smartest thing we did the whole week was to buy a joint ticket for the Coliseum and Palatine at the Palatine Entrance just outside the Forum and to the left of the Arch of Titus. We then sashayed into the Coliseum and past the monstrous line which snaked around the building. My movie mad children thought the Coliseum was awesome.

The Palatine was less of a hit as both the Farnese Gardens and House of Augustus were closed for renovations but we enjoyed the view and didn’t stay long.

See lots of churches – They’re quick, free and each one tells a story

We saw tons of churches during our Roman holiday without a single grumble. Why? Because Roman churches are the perfect pastime for folks with a video game attention spans. We could get in without a wait, did not have to justify an entrance fee by spending lots of time, and saw some pretty spectacular things, such as Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle in the French Church, San Luigi dei Francesi, the frescos and faux dome of San’Ignacio (almost as good as the Sistine Chapel, with an American Indian in full headdress) and the 300 year old, perfectly preserved body of Saint Giuseppe Maria Tomasi ( the same noble Sicilian family as the author of The Leopard) in the Basilica of Andrea della Valle, the setting for the first scene in Tosca.

If you only do one museum with children, make it the Capitoline, the first museum of the modern world.

Back in 1471, in the hope of reviving the antique splendour of the city, Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of bronze statues, including the famous statue of the She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, which became the basis of what, is today, a superb collection of antiquities. The new galleries which opened last year are a wonderful addition and best of all, relative to the strength of the collection, this museum is way under-utilised.

Go to the Vatican and go as far into the Piazza as your crowd tolerance allows – even seeing St Peters from just the exterior is enough to grasp the scale and monumentality

The day we were there it was Epiphany and hence a total madhouse and we got no further than the life size crèche in front of St Peters, but we did get to see a great parade with emperors, gladiators, boy scouts and some characters straight out of the Life of Brian, and that was enough.

Eat in traditional Roman trattorias

There’s no real reason to blow the budget on formal dining. Roman trattorias are fun, informal and inexpensive. Here are some of our favourites:

Da Armando al Pantheon – try the stracetti con ruchetta

Matricianella – very popular so book ahead

Da Giggetto – traditional Roman/Jewish food

Osteria ar Galletto – also known as Da Giovanni’s – in a lovely corner of the Piazza Farnese (vicolo del Gallo, 1: Tel - 06.686.1714)

Renato & Luisa – our favourite, robust flavours and a warm atmosphere (Via dei Barbieri, 25: Tel –

Due Colonne –relaxed, a bit touristy, but very moderately priced and friendly service (via del Seminario, 122: Tel –


No matter what the weather or time of year, there is no grander social space in Rome than the Pantheon. As recommended by City Secrets, “Come here first, before you go anywhere else … so the visitor can experience the ancient city as its builders did. After this you can imagine the Roman Forum and Imperial Fora not as a series of ruins but brimming with life.” It is at this point that your children will begin to see that is really a cyberspace iteration of the social spaces first conceived and built in Ancient Rome.

See the Trevi Fountain at night, the later the better

The Trevi Fountain during the day is a sad state of affairs – wall to wall bodies punctuated by aggressive buskers and souvenir sellers. The crush of tourists in the small piazza completely spoils the experience but if you wait until after dinner when the tour groups have long departed, the difference is astounding. The later it gets, the better the experience and the illumination is pretty terrific as well.

On the way back, it's fun to have a gelato from Giolitti (via degli Uffici del Vicario), one of the best known gelateria’s in town. As they advise in City Secrets, “Just follow the ice cream cones”.

“This is Rome, You Can Do What You Want”

The best piece of advice we received during our visit came from our friend and native Roman, Stefano, who, when we admonished Eloise for something she was doing at the dinner table, responded with considerable charm, “Ah, but this is Rome where you really should let her do what she wants.”

In the end of the day, that is what makes Rome so magical for anyone, young or old. It’s the “attitude” and way of looking at life, and even if you are only visiting, you have bought yourself a wonderful, temporary ticket to La Dolce Vita, so go ahead and enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

* A friend, who considers himself Roman although he informs me that he is not officially considered one, as his family has not been Roman for at least seven generations, has taken issue with my statement about the lack of green space pointing out that:

"Rome does have some green space. Actually quite extensive: Villa Pamphilj, Pincio - Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Torlonia, The Janiculum Hill. They are all "central". Of course, if we talk about something like the London gardens things are different. However, there are smaller open spaces: Villa Aldobrandini (next to the Trajan Markets, on Via Nazionale) has a hanging charming garden with great views; the Giardini del Quirinale (how central can you get?), the "Circus Maximus" with the Caracalla Baths boulevard and the Villa Celimontana, the Aventine Hill with the lovely Giardino degli Aranci (aka Parco Savello) overlooking the city from South-East."

So there you have it - the real scoop (not the tourist take) on green spaces in Rome from an almost official Roman.

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