After every trip we go on, I come back and talk all about how much I loved it. And I worry, a bit, that I’m writing too much about something that’s now in the past, but, at the same time, I recognize that the only way I’m ever going to capture what I really felt about a place is while it’s still fresh in my mind.
In other words, bear with me, because I’m going to write some more about our recent trip to Italy, and try to summarize some of what we learned about travelling there (specifically with small kids).
First of all, we loved Italy. Although I don’t think it would get the award for “most favorite destination so far” (which would go to Northern Ireland), it would definitely be in a heated three-way battle for second place (with the Newlands Valley in England and Normandy). We really, truly, loved Italy.
Why was it so great? Lots of reasons. The food was amazing. (Our favorite restaurant in Rome was “Da Francesco” near Piazza Navona and we “discovered” a great gelato place in Venice.) We got to experience some astounding and ancient monuments that pictures can’t capture and stories don’t describe in enough detail. And the people were wonderful. More than anywhere else we’ve travelled, the Italian people really wanted to communicate and connect. They weren’t bothered by our complete lack of Italian (outside of “per favore”, “grazie”, “prego” and “il conto”) and were enthusiastic about, rather than frustrated by, our attempts to communicate in a melange of Spanish, German, French and English. They really do talk with their hands, and spoken Italian always sounds either seductive (most of the time) or very angry. And then, we had a Roman cab driver come back to look for us when he discovered my sister’s phone in his cab, even though it was out of his way and it had been almost an hour since he’d dropped us off. I don’t think we were unsuccessful at communicating a single time in Italy, even when we didn’t have a common language, and I don’t think there was a single person we talked to for more than a moment who didn’t end up feeling like a new friend. It was fantastic to feel that kind of warmth from so many people, especially as a clueless tourist.
But, aside from falling in love with Italy (which is a cliché I was happy to have come true), we did learn a lot on our trip. From the perspective of travelling with little ones, Rome was more kid friendly and stroller friendly than I expected. I anticipated issues with getting the stroller around the ancient sites, but it honestly wasn’t (too) much of a problem. There were some stairs, and lots of hills, and trying to get the stroller through/across the massive paving stones at the Forum was frustrating at times. But, in general, getting around in Rome was pretty easy with the stroller, and the kids were warmly welcomed everywhere. (Because of our hotel location, we didn’t use public transportation — we got around by walking and in cabs — so I can’t speak to the ease of using a stroller on Rome’s Metro or bus system.)
By contrast, Vatican City was NOT particularly stroller friendly. Although I was glad that we had the stroller for the tour of the Vatican museum, because B slept through a lot of it, it was really difficult to manage the MANY stairs along the route. There are elevators, but the security guards will stop some stroller-pushers from using them while allowing others through. Early in the museum, we got access to all of the elevators, and later on, we were denied. It really seemed to depend on who was standing there (they are all guarded) when we arrived. If I had it to do over again, I’d skip the stroller and just hit the high notes of the museum (my favorite part was the Raphael rooms, just before the Sistine Chapel).
Rome has a reputation (much like Paris) for being “crimey” — being infested with pickpockets and purse snatchers. And maybe it is, but we didn’t see it. We felt comfortable walking through the touristy areas of Rome during the day and at night, and never got into a situation that made us uncomfortable. (We were much more aware of the criminal element in Paris than in Rome.) However, there are some very persistent trinket vendors at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps who were annoying (and, as they worked in large groups, may have had ulterior motives). We were very firm in our dismissal, and they kept their distance. (They were actually much more of a nuisance at San Marco in Venice.) The only place I saw anything that made me uncomfortable from a crime sense was at the Roma Termini station while we were waiting for our train to Venice. There was a group of young women standing around watching the passers-by a little too intently. They would meet up, talk amongst themselves and then split up to wander around among the passengers and reconvene elsewhere a few minutes later. They had no luggage, and didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone. There was a group of young men around who seemed to be operating in a similar fashion. I didn’t see anything untoward happening, but the combination of the looks they were giving the crowd, plus their actions, ensured that I kept an eye on them the whole time. But really, we didn’t have any trouble. (Actually, on our entire trip, the place I got the worst vibe in terms of crime was San Marco square at night. During the warmer months, I know this area is popular with dancers and diners, but in early March, the cafes close up early and the only people left seem to be a few wandering tourists and quite a few others watching them from the shadows of the columns. We didn’t stay long.)
We really loved Rome. But I’m glad we went there first, because I truly fell in love with Venice. Venice was just amazing. I wasn’t able to truly appreciate the way it would feel to be in a city without cars whose streets are canals and winding alleyways. Venice is beautiful and romantic. While Rome feels like visiting the world’s largest open-air museum, Venice is like actually stepping back in time. And . . . I know that’s what EVERYONE says about Venice and you still probably won’t really get it until you go. It’s just something that has to be experienced.
In Venice, the public transportation was excellent. We used the water bus, but didn’t use any taxi service in Venice. The water bus is quite expensive per trip, but very functional, and you get a lovely (unguided) tour, too. It was a little confusing, in terms of where to put the stroller, but we figured it out and had a couple of very nice trips.
Other than the water buses, though, Venice is NOT very stroller friendly. At all. The streets are really very narrow, and all deliveries done to shops and restaurants are done by guys pushing big hand trucks. They know where they’re going and how to get there and you have to get out of their way — and the stroller causes a traffic jam which makes everything harder for everyone. On top of that, each canal crossing is a bridge, and nearly all of the bridges have stone steps up one side and down the other. Not impossible with the stroller, but it makes it more like a litter than a stroller, much of the time. I was a little disappointed about not being able to use the stroller more, because I’d been having nightmares about the kids falling into the canals, and I was hoping to strap them into the stroller for security. I didn’t really need to be overly worried. Although it certainly would have been possible for the kids to jump in a canal if they’d wanted to, unbarriered openings to the water were less common than I’d expected, and enforcing a “you have to hold hands” rule worked just fine. Although we barely used the stroller, we really didn’t miss it much.
In Venice, we stayed right in the heart of the city (about 3 minutes walk, at Liam speed, from St. Mark’s square). Venice is so much just about BEING there, rather than about doing anything in particular, that if I had it to do over again, I would stay in the same place. Venice changes throughout the day — bustling in the morning, relaxed in the afternoon, and seemingly deserted at night — that it’s nice to be able to experience it all. Besides, all of our favorite Venetian food stops (including Gelato Fantasy and the tasty chain pasta place we found) were centrally located, too. One of the things that made the trip work really well was letting the boys run for a while, each morning, at San Marco. It was a great, big, open area, with puddles to jump in and pigeons to chase, and having some time to run and be free put them in a much better state to put up with our wanderings for the rest of the day. Being at San Marco and walking to the top of the Rialto Bridge to enjoy the amazing view were my favorite activities in Venice, and I’m also really glad we did the gondola ride. It was classic and romantic, and was also a beautiful way to see the city.
In fact, just about the only thing I didn’t like about our trip was the overnight train ride home from Venice to Vienna. It was just too much for Liam, at the end of a long day and the end of a busy week, and we all suffered for it.
It was an amazing trip, and another great chapter in our adventure. We fell in love with Italy. And, as with all of our favorite destinations, I’m already fantasizing about our next visit.