We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.
But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.
Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.
Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.
THE COLOSSEUM TOUR
We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.
Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.
After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.
The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.
In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.
The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!
We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.
Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.
We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.
The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.
I tend to hibernate in winter. The cold just makes me bitter about not being able to go outside in sandals and a t-shirt, and I bury myself in blankets. It’s not unusual for me to spend days in my pajamas in winter (a perk or a problematic result of being a writer), but even for me, this was an extreme case of introversion and antisocial behavior. Plus, I had bronchitis. It was ugly.
As a travel planner and writer, I should have had a plan to escape to warm and sunny places this winter, but after my last-minute junket to Martinique in December, I did not one bit of traveling outside of the Richmond-DC-New York corridor. And if you’re keeping count like I am, that means nearly 4 months in one place.
So naturally, now that the first signs of spring are here, I’m filling up my travel calendar for the months ahead. And for the most part, it will be solo travel.
Solo travel for a mom
I love being a mom. And I love to travel. I love to travel with my kids, which we did for a good long time, but now that they are in high school it’s nearly impossible to find a time that we are all free to travel together. Since my work as a travel planner and travel writer involves, um, travel, I have found myself traveling alone quite a lot in the past couple of years. And I have to say I kind of love it.
A cross-country rail adventure to a travel writing conference
I have taken a lot of overnight trains in my travels (with mixed results), and covered a lot of distance, but I’ve never taken the train across the United States. So when I heard that Amtrak was covering train transportation for attendees of the North American Travel Journalists Association conference in Oxnard, California this spring, wheels started turning in my head just like those big old steel wheels on the train. Could I really use that to go across the country? Yes, I could! In a private “Roomette,” even!
So later this week I’ll board the Crescent from my home town of Alexandria, Virginia and travel overnight to New Orleans, where I am not unhappy to spend a Friday night before boarding the Sunset Limited for a 48-hour, 1,995 mile trip to Los Angeles.
A mother-daughter weekend in Banff
Not solo, but without my husband and kids. My mom has been talking about wanting to go to Banff for as long as I can remember. Last Christmas, my sister and I decided to give her a trip there as a gift. Though she was appreciative, she said, “Well, mostly I just like to say the word, ‘Banff.'” But isn’t that as good a reason as any to go the jewel of the Canadian Rockies? We are planning for hikes in the mountains, soaks in the hot springs, a spa day at the historic Fairmont Hotel, and just some good, quality, family time. And next time we might invite our other siblings. 😉
Contemporary Art in Italy
I’m very excited to lead a tour to see Christo’s latest installation, the Floating Piers, which will be up in June for two weeks only in Lake Iseo in northern Italy. Of course, I’m looking for people to go on the tour, so I hope I won’t be solo for this one!
Travel blogging conference in Sweden
Though I’m moving away from travel blogging and doing more travel planning and writing for other outlets, I love going to the TBEX travel blogging conference each year. I really enjoy the camaraderie with other people who are passionate about travel, and love learning about new places while I’m there. When the organizers announced TBEX would be in Stockholm in 2016, I knew I had to work that into my plans for this year. So this is solo only in that I’m flying over there alone. Once I get there, I’ll be with old friends and new.
So what about my family?
Yes, I have a family, and no, they are not coming with me on any of these trips. This is my business, and traveling is how I keep up to date in my line of work. Of course I enjoy the travel, even (sometimes especially) the solo travel. But I do hope that between sports, summer jobs, camps, and swim team, we will find time to have some family travel this summer.
I know we’ll have some family travel adventures soon, because we will be heading out on a lot of college visits over the next 24 months, and you know what that means: FAMILY ROAD TRIPS!
Over the past ten days we’ve had rain, fog, dangerously cold temperatures, snow, freezing rain, and minor flooding, with about three hours of sunshine. It’s bleak. And we are dreaming of escapes. Vero laid out some pretty impressive ground rules the other day when she posted her fantasy travel destinations for the year, and I am ready to step up to the challenge.
To review: 1) pick three trips; 2) one trip has to be sans kids; 3) one trip must include time travel; and do I even need to say it? 4) money is no object. Here we go!
First fantasy: to take the family to JazzFest in New Orleans. Since we’ve now been to more countries than we have U.S. states, we’ve been thinking more about our inevitable family cross-country U.S.A. road trip. John and I had a great swing through the American South early in our relationship, and New Orleans was, of course, a highlight. The food, the weather (I’m a sucker for hot, sticky weather), the people, the culture – we felt like we were sinking into a very comfy old chair there. And every year, New Orleans puts on a huge celebration of its musical heritage all over town with JazzFest. Yes, I’m sure it was better when it was smaller and it’s too big and commercial and we should have gone way back when, but just to be enveloped in the sounds of Louisiana for four days (with a little Vampire Weekend thrown in for fun) and throwing cares to the warm Gulf winds sounds pretty heavenly right now.
For my romantic getaway with my sweet husband: camping by the beach. We’ve had some of our most memorable moments, good and bad, camped out in the sand, from Ocracoke, North Carolina to Opotiki in New Zealand, there is something magical in those sea breezes. But I may have to redefine “camping” for this next fantasy adventure, and instead revisit the site of our honeymoon in Jamaica’s southern shores. Back then we stayed at Jake’s, but I think this time I’d like to try a rental house owned by a friend of a friend. Whenever I’m cursing the grey winters here, I turn to this website to fantasize about waking up to fresh fruit juice on the patio in Treasure Beach.
For my time travel adventure: I would love to follow my 1961 edition of Pan American’s New Horizons World Guide to see the swinging 60s in Rome, London, and Rio. Maybe I would be a flight attendant, or stewardess, as they were properly called back then. In a blue fitted suit with matching pillbox hat and white gogo boots, I would flirt with the businessmen bringing the future to our suburban homes, and then hop on a Vespa and explore the city on my own.
I should note that there are no sponsored links in this post. Just places we would love to go!
Eating with kids in Italy was a bit more complicated than we had anticipated. We sold our girls on promises of spaghetti and pizza like they’d never had before… and that was exactly the problem. Even the plainest pizza on the menu is “not like pizza at home.” And though our girls are not picky eaters generally, they do have preconceived notions of what spaghetti with meat sauce is, and in their minds this should never, ever, involve donkey meat. But that is exactly what we came across in our first dinner out in Italy. In our efforts to eat like locals, we followed the advice of the proprietors at our B&B and ended up at a charming place by the water in Verona, where there was absolutely nothing my children thought they could eat. It all ended up just fine, but it did make us pay a little more attention to our restaurant choices for the remaining leg of our trip in Venice.
There is a lot of walking in Venice. A lot. And, if you’re like us, a lot of getting lost and retracing the many steps you’ve just taken. For us grownups, that was the part we had looked forward to the most: just walking and walking and getting lost and finding interesting nooks and alleys and, ideally, a perfect little locals-only spot for wine and cichetti – Venetian bar snacks. However, for the kids, a walk with no end destination was simply torture. We quickly learned that every walk must be measured in terms of how many bridges we would cross and how many scoops of gelato would be the reward.
With the help of a truly wonderful iPad app with the awkward name of Tap Venice Eating, we were able to pinpoint destinations based on location, days open, type of meal (lunch, snack, take away, etc.) and whether children are tolerated (!). However, even the very good detailed information in the app could not keep up with the fact that many places, including the famed Alaska gelateria that we had described to our girls in dolcissimo detail, and that we crossed the Grand Canal three times (twice due to navigation errors) to find, were closed for vacation when we were there in late January. Though the adults could be satisfied with a few cichetti, the girls were not always fond of the unidentified food objects before them. We were getting desperate.
“Avoid the restaurants with tourist menus.” Good advice, generally. Almost goes without saying in experiential travel. But… in Italy, where even a truck stop meal can satisfy on many levels, would it be so bad to go in search of spaghetti bolognese off a tourist menu if that’s what the kids want? After some heated debate, a flurry of emails (did you know Venice has citywide wi-fi?), and numerous moans of impending starvation from the girls, we ended up in the very same restaurant in Dorsoduro where my sister and I had a divine awakening of sorts with our first taste of profiteroles – those cream-filled, chocolate-sauced pastries we all love – many years ago. Yes, there was an English-language menu. Yes, there was spaghetti bolognese on that menu. No, it was not the best meal I’ve ever had. And, most regrettably, no, there were no profiteroles on the menu. However. We ate. We ate it all. And we were happy.
This post was first published on June 5, 2011 as a guest blog on The Great Family Escape.
How we managed to get an eleven-year-old all-American girl to knowingly eat donkey meat was a story in itself. We did not trick her, exactly.* I think it was just that we’d been walking all day, she was famished, we’d talked so much before the trip about how delicious the food in Italy would be and after four days she had not been disappointed, and there really were no other items on the menu that looked even vaguely familiar. A spaghetti with meat sauce sounded ok, even if the meat came from an animal she’d never eaten before.
We’ve written about picky eaters on All Over the Map before, and we’ve been lucky in our household that our kids are pretty open to trying new things. We’ve always had a rule in our house that the kids had to try three bites of whatever is on their plates at mealtime. If after three bites they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat the rest, but they won’t be leaving the table until they’ve given it a real try. Yes, we had some long nights at the dinner table waiting for someone to try their (now cold and truly yucky) seafood stew or okra, but overall, it was a strategy that worked. They didn’t love everything we put in front of them, but they found new things they liked on occasion, and they realized they didn’t have to be afraid to try, because even if they hated it, the three bites would be over soon enough. Which is all a long way of explaining why Calla was ok with trying the donkey.
Because we just can’t let a sleeping dog (or a dead donkey) lie, after dinner my husband and I pushed the girls to think about why it seemed weird to us that Italians would eat donkey or baby octopus (yum!) as if it’s no big deal. Might there be things that we eat that they would think strange? Perhaps they would be shocked at the vast collection of cereal boxes in our cabinet, since we hadn’t seen shredded wheat or Cheerios in the Italian breakfast spread in our B&Bs. Maybe they would be horrified at the frozen pizza or the fishsticks we sometimes eat in sports-practice-shuffle desperation. Could they handle the spice of our ubiquitous chips and salsa?
Amazingly (because often our attempts at family discussions are met with eye rolling and groans – they are tweens, after all) the girls took this idea and ran with it. They began to notice everything that was different – the light switches and power outlets, the slightly different fashions, the stores closing after lunch, the fact that they really don’t like for you to touch the shoes in the shoe stores – oops! But mostly they noticed differences at mealtimes. The large tray of cured meats at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Piemonte, the serious lack of fast food at the stops along the highway, the separate courses of pasta and vegetables and meat, and of course, the gelato. It’s not so much that the food was different. It’s that life was different. And the kids could see that.
So when I asked them about their most educational experience, they both responded with answers ostensibly about food, but really about culture. “I guess it was when I ate donkey meat and I realized it wasn’t so bad,” said one. “Yeah, you know, how they eat different stuff but for them it’s normal,” added the other.
Easy answers, tossed over their shoulders, but precisely what I hoped for when we started traveling with them: recognizing that there are other cultures in the world with different ideas of what is “normal” and that no “normal” is better than another.
*I did years ago trick my brother, a notoriously picky eater, into eating tongue in Italy. He really never forgave me for that. by Paige Conner Totaro
Venice is magic. Venice with kids is perhaps not the same kind of magical as it might be with your one true love, but it is magic nonetheless. Here are 5 things you can do with your kids to make it unforgettable for them.
1 – Feed the birds
Yes, it’s cliche, but kids dig this. Buy a handful of birdseed in Piazza San Marco and see how long it takes for pigeons to roost on your shoulders. I have no idea how the locals feel about this, but I do hear pigeon is a popular menu item in Europe.
2 – Find parallels to their interests from home
Some people might go to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) to see the masterful works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, but if you’ve got kids with you, they may not be so impressed. But persevere on up to the top floors with them (follow the signs for the prison rooms and Bridge of Sighs) to find an astounding exhibit of weapons and armor. Even our girly-girls were fascinated with the, well, reality of the items in the cases.
In the Basilica of San Marco, it would be hard for anyone, even a kid, to NOT be impressed with the golden mosaics, but it can be a little overwhelming. Make sure you get up to the galleria where you can find some kid-sized models (a must for junior architects), and the four oversized and stunning gilded bronze horses, which date from the second or third century A.D. and were brought to Venice from Constantinople as war booty in the thirteenth century.
The littlest fashionistas in the crowd will no doubt enjoy window shopping in Venice, and perhaps a visit to the Palazzo Mocenigo, the 18th century home of the prominent Mocenigo family. The home is now a small museum with displays of period clothing, where your little ones can imagine themselves traipsing around Venice in yards of handmade lace.
3 – Show them some magic
Watch the transformation of hard glass rods to molten magic in the hands of glass artisans in Venice and the nearby island of Murano. Kids will be wowed by this process, so be sure you get to see some artisans in action. If you don’t have time to visit Murano, try glassmaker Mauro Vianello, who will demonstrate the craft for you in his Rialto-area studio, without the hard-sell that you will find at some other glass workshops.
4 – Navigate the human-sized maze that is Venice
Venice is the perfect place to practice following a map. It’s very compact, and even if you do get lost, you will soon find a signs on the walls pointing to the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, or Ferrovia (train station), and you can start fresh from there. Have the kids help you map a route, and see how well you can follow it. Try to cross all five bridges one day, or take all seven traghetti across the Grand Canal, or just try to find one particular place without consulting the map.
5 – One word: gelato
The Italian ice cream is welcomed by kids at any time of day, and can be used to bribe even the crankiest little tourist over that great big bridge looming between you and your destination. Favorite spots include Alaska in Santa Croce, with some unexpected flavors like avocado and fig, Da Nico in the Zattere area and Grom (a chain now found throughout Italy and even in New York) in Dorsoduro. But you won’t get far without spotting a gelateria (kids have an especially keen sense of direction about these things), and you probably won’t find a bad one in the bunch. Try Italian favorites like gianduja or gianduiotto – a chocolate/hazelnut, and stracciatella – chocolate chip.
Of course you’re going to Venice. But where will you stay? Check out the top hotels in Venice on TripAdvisor.