Thoughts on Italy

186After 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).

202First 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 206communicate 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.

227But, 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.)

282By 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).

271Rome 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 20130313-141932.jpgthey 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.)

20130313-142019.jpgWe 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.

20130313-142100.jpgOther 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 20130313-142133.jpgbeing 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.

20130313-142240.jpgIn 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 20130313-142311.jpgwas 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.

20130313-142336.jpgIn 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.





Winter to spring to winter

038When we left Vienna for our trip to Italy last week, it was definitely winter.  We’d gotten a little snow earlier in the week, and then we were surprised with some more the morning of our departure.  There was even more, fairly significant, snow forecast here in Vienna for our first few days in Italy.  We were really cold the night we got on the train and headed for Rome.  Our train was delayed by about 20 minutes, but they didn’t announce that until we were already arranged on the platform, in sub-freezing temperatures with snow and wind.  We weren’t quite dressed warmly enough, because we didn’t want to over pack for Italy, so we stood, waiting for the train and shivering.

258We woke up on the train to a northern Italian landscape covered in snow (it was so snowy we shared a moment of worry that we were in the wrong place).  And then we arrived in Rome, and although it wasn’t as warm as we’d expected, it didn’t feel like winter.  The plants were green, the rain was rain, not snow, and none of the puddles were icy in the mornings.  I think I probably enjoy winter more than the average person, but even I was won over by our visit to spring.

And then, completely contrary to our expectations, Venice was warm (and even dry).  It was so lovely.  We were sometimes a little chilly in the shade, but a few moments in the sun warmed us right up.  The boys ventured out a few times in fleeces instead of parkas, and I didn’t put my hat or gloves on once (not even on our evening gondola ride).  Liam did get a little cold once when we stopped for gelato, but otherwise, Venice was truly a taste of spring.

And then we arrived home in Vienna to 38 degrees and a strong breeze.  Brr.  But, even here, spring snuck in while we were away.  The days are suddenly and noticeably longer.  There are flowers peeking out from window boxes and beneath bushes in the park.  We still need to bundle up, but the thaw has definitely begun.  It’s a good thing, because as much as I love winter, Italy spoiled me with spring, and I’m ready for it now.

The best art in Italy

Yesterday, we went to visit the Vatican City. I was surprised at how excited I was to be there and about how it affected me. I was raised Catholic, but I haven’t been even a remotely practicing member of any religion for about 20 years.

But from even before we arrived, I felt a connection to that part of my life, and even more strongly to the people in my life for whom Catholicism has been important. I couldn’t help but think a lot about how excited my grandmother, who passed away over 10 years ago, would be about us visiting Vatican City.

My feeling of connection and nostalgia was so strong that I actually bought myself a Rosary at the museum gift shop. (I’m as surprised as anyone about that, but it seemed like the thing to do.) In some ways, that connection to my personal history was one of my favorite things about my visit to Vatican City.

20130301-152500.jpgAnother of my favorite things was my kids’ reactions. They loved it. Within the first few minutes of exploring the museum, both of the boys were running around on an outdoor patio shouting, “I love Varican City!” I’m not sure exactly what they loved so much, but they were really enthusiastic about it.

20130301-152529.jpgAnd then, we started in on the museum, and got to see so much amazing art. I loved the detail of the map room, from the ornate ceiling to the beautiful, incredibly detailed maps of Italy from the 16th century. I was captivated by Rapheal’s “School of Athens” and the signifance of its placement in the Vatican. And then we got to the Sistine Chapel, which was the part I was most looking forward to. The scope and the detail were awesome, and it was incredibly special to be in such a magnificent space. (As a note, although we loved the Vatican Museum, we wish we hadn’t brought the stroller, because there were so many stairs, and the elevators were only for wheelchairs.)

20130301-152657.jpgBut of all the art we saw, my favorite was yet to come. At dinner, Benjamin and Liam decorated their placemats with drawings of fire trucks and happy stick figures. Benjamin is at the point where his drawings are starting to really look like what he imagines — I’m not sure when he got so good, maybe he was inspired by Michelangelo and Raphael — and it is wonderful to see his placemat collection of smiling family members and friends. Of all the art we’ve seen, it’s definitely my favorite.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Vatican

One of the places I was most excited to go in Rome actually isn’t in Rome at all. I was really looking forward to visiting Vatican City, seeing the Sistine Chapel and walking in St. Peter’s square. I think part of my fascination has to do with the historical significance, part has to do with my own family history of Catholicism, and it’s all heightened by being there during the final days of Pope Benedict’s papacy — something we couldn’t have planned for or anticipated when we were organizing our trip.

I’m a planner, and since I’d heard that the lines for entry into the Vatican Museum (which culminates in the Sistine Chapel) can be long and frustrating, I decided to splurge for the extra €4/adult to reserve an entry time. Our appointment was at 9:00. I knew it might be tough to make that, with 6 people to get up, fed and ready, but I wanted to get through the museum (and all the way to the Sistine Chapel) before the kids couldn’t take any more.

This morning, we were on our way, but we were running a bit late. I had planned a bit of extra time in to our schedule, but we had pretty much eaten all of that up with breakfast and getting out the door. I was a little stressed. We had to catch a cab, get to the museum, and find where we needed to be, with just over 20 minutes to go. I didn’t know if the ticket times were strict, so I wanted to be on time, or even a little early. Luckily, we hailed a cab quickly, and got to the gate of the Vatican museum in 10 minutes. We pulled up, got out, and got the stroller set up while Amanda was paying the cab driver, and I glanced at the time — about 10 minutes to go. Perfect! Whew!

And then Amanda realized that she didn’t have her phone, and the cab had already pulled away.

Minor panic ensued. She wasn’t entirely sure that she’d had it when we left the hotel. We started by flagging down the next cab from the same company that came by. We were hoping that maybe they had some way to call each other between cabs. No luck.

We called our hotel. We asked them to call the cab company. Then we called back and asked them to check our room. (It wasn’t there.) Then we called back and tried to get their help finding the U.S. customer service number for AT&T Wireless. We were having a really hard time making any progress. Amanda was pretty despondent and getting progressively more worried. (She didn’t want someone to find the phone and make expensive calls.)

She was pretty sure she wouldn’t get her phone back. I was thinking that if we had found it, we would have worked hard to return it, so I didn’t want to give up hope.

We waited right at the same spot where the cab dropped us off, just in case. Our hotel hadn’t had any luck — since we’d hailed our cab, instead of calling, the company didn’t have a record of the trip. And, the hotel couldn’t find the right number for the phone company. So, we went to try and find some Wi-Fi so we could try to shut the phone off ourselves.

We found some, looked up the number of the phone company, and started through the automatic phone universe of AT&T. As we stood there, pressing 1, or 2, or 7, as appropriate, we thought we saw the cab drive by — the one that dropped us off.

We hopped out the cafe door and started running (up hill, of course). We didn’t know if he was stopping, if he was picking someone up or dropping them off, or if he just happened to be driving up the street.

Yay!!! He was there! He had come back, just to bring the phone. The hotel had called the cab company back, and they had tracked down the right cab. The driver, of his own accord, on the chance that we’d still be there, even though 40 minutes had passed, drove back to the Vatican. And there we were. And we had the phone back.

We were so excited and so happy. Amanda was crying. I gave the cab driver €20 (he tried to say no, but I insisted). A newspaper seller on the corner saw the whole exchange happen, and said, “This is Italia! You don’t need to cry — everything is good here!”

And even though we were almost 45 minutes late for our appointment, we had no problem getting in to the museum. All was well.

Viva Italia! Viva Rome! We love it here.


Friends, Romans, countrymen

20130226-001948.jpgThe Roman Forum is awesome. I’ve heard so much more enthusiasm and excitement about the Colosseum, and although that was impressive and absolutely important, the Forum made a much bigger impression on me.

20130226-002005.jpgWe went to the Forum today. We had to wander around a bit to find the main entrance (which was surprisingly not well marked) and then followed Rick Steves’ self-guided tour (from the Rick Steves’ Italy book). It was chilly and sprinkled on and off, but we were treated to some amazing history. We marveled at the astounding scope of Roman architecture and walked the ground where Caesar stood . . . and where he was killed. We saw the way that space once set aside for Roman gods was taken over by Christianity. We learned how grateful we all are to not be Vestal Virgins (yikes).

20130226-002029.jpgBut of the whole experience, I had two favorite moments. The first was when I learned that nearly the entirety of the ground we were walking on had been excavated in only the 19th century. I had been shocked to find that many of the massive stones that made up the roads were from ancient times (they don’t make for an easy stroller journey), but when I realized they had all been underground — covered and protected by centuries of sediment — it made a lot more sense. It also drove home to me to feeling of being small and finite and very young in the face of these pieces of stone that have been preserved for so long.

20130226-002110.jpgAnd then, when I saw the massive cuts made in the marble columns of a temple, by would-be thieves who gave up because the stone was too tough to destroy, I felt so much admiration for the pride, effort and craftsmanship of all of the work that went in to building these massive and persistent structures.

20130226-002221.jpgIt was an amazing experience. We stood in the Senate building, we walked the streets of ancient Rome, we chased Benjamin around the ruins. We had a day steeped in history, made tangible by being near the massive monuments left behind. It was fantastic.


Family style

20130225-002123.jpgWe had a fantastic day today in Rome. After a much needed rest, we got out into the city to visit the Colosseum, which was amazing and massive and ancient and wonderful. It is the oldest thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s a little hard to impart the significance of that to a 4 year old and a 2 year old. It’s also hard, we discovered, to explain the purpose of the Colosseum to young kids without traumatizing them with gory details. (B understands that there were lions somehow involved.) They appreciated the steps and the cobblestones and enjoyed wandering around a bit, though.

20130225-002400.jpgAfter exhausting ourselves and the boys’ patience, we had a relatively uninteresting lunch and then discovered what is (most likely) the best pastry shop in Rome. We were looking for gelato for the boys (because they will eat ice cream in any weather — including chilly and drizzly, like today) and stumbled across this perfect little confection shop (called Cristalli di Zucchero, located behind the Forum).

20130225-002418.jpgIt was so lovely. Between us, we had a selection of bite-sized cakes, a few macaroons, a cannoli, a profiterole and a cappuccino. They were all heavenly. It was quite a lucky find.

And then, this evening, we went out and “discovered” (similarly to how Columbus discovered America) our new favorite Roman restaurant (Da Francesco near Piazza Navona). We ate a wonderful assortment of pizza and pasta, all beautifully made, and Benjamin charmed our waiter by ordering a second pistachio tiramisu for dessert.

156We shared everything. When my family goes out to eat, we always do. We contemplate the menu, vote for our favorites, choose a selection, and enjoy them together. We have the best time, and we all debate our favorites. We can basically turn any restaurant meal into a family style affair. I love it. I’d rather eat with my family than with anyone else.

20130225-002550.jpgSo, today, we had a wonderful day. We saw some of ancient Rome, we ate some fantastic food, and we had a great time. So far, Italy is absolutely excellent.


Sleeper train to Rome

So we’re here, on the first part of our Italian adventure. To get here, we took the overnight “sleeper” train yesterday from Vienna to Rome. It was quite an adventure in itself.

20130223-174619.jpgWe had a terrible time getting ourselves and all of our stuff onto the train. (The train was a bit late, it was very cold and windy, and we created a major roadblock getting the stroller on board.) Once we got ourselves all loaded into the compartment, it wasn’t much better. At first, we couldn’t figure out where to put any of our things or how anything was supposed to be set up. But eventually, Jo climbed up to the top of the highest bunk bed and we got most of our things stowed away up top. It was a bit crowded, slightly uncomfortable and a little claustrophobic, but cozy and fun — kind of like camping.

After a few hours of socializing in our tightly packed quarters (through most of which Jo hung out in the top bunk and the boys mostly watched videos and played iPad games), we decided to set up for bed.

20130223-174736.jpgIt took forever. Getting everything arranged, figuring out how to set up all of the beds (and then realizing that there were no options at that point other than laying down or standing up) and getting the boys and ourselves ready for bed all were more complicated and took longer than we expected. By the time we all got in to bed (around 11) we were completely exhausted.

The kids were AMAZING. Through the initial stress of getting situated, plus the hours of confinement, and on through the endless-seeming evening of “getting ready for bed”, they were pleasant, happy and enthusiastic. Then they snuggled down in theirs bunks like experts.

Sleeping was tough. The beds were kind of cozy (if not very big) but the fear of falling out of bed, exacerbated by the sometimes abrupt braking of the train, kept the adults up for a while. B slept soundly, but Liam (who shared a bed with Dan) was restless. We all eventually got some rest though, and I ended up being more comfortable than I expected to be.

20130223-174750.jpgWe truly had no idea what it was going to be like before we set off. It was kind of weird, but it worked out pretty well, really. Of course, it was made a bit more challenging by the fact that we ended up nearly 2 hours behind schedule (and then ended up getting to Rome earlier than we’d been told we would, which created an intense scramble at the end).

Our 16 hour train saga seems to have been well worth it though. We’re here now, in Rome, listening to the rain and the birds and the bells ringing at the Vatican. We had an amazing lunch (the food really is as good as we’d heard) and we’re looking forward to the rest of our visit to Rome. The train journey was just the beginning of this piece of our adventure.