Choosing to travel to Rome for our post-Christmas holiday trip was a practical and nostalgic choice for Jason and me. We wanted to go somewhere in Europe we could reach by train and where the sun would most likely be shining: five plane tickets are expensive and late-December in northern Germany is ever so dark. But Rome is also where Jason and I concluded our honeymoon, exactly 14 years ago. It was the fourth leg on a post-Christmas Italy tour that also included Venice, Florence and Siena. For the kids, the promise of constant pizza and pasta, ancient gods, expansive courtyards, and funky ruins seemed to be enough. Rome, with its endless sites and greatest chance for sun, won out over other possible destinations.
We took an overnight train from Munich to Rome, which seemed a good choice to maximize days in Rome and heck, to see what an overnight train is like. Unfortunately, the once train-obsessed Walter was terrified to sleep in a moving bunk bed with a stranger occupying the sixth spot in our couchette. He spent the first couple hours crying frantically and begging us to go home. I felt horrible for the Italian grandmother, who spoke no English or German, trying to sleep with our family! Finally after midnight, Walter drifted off to sleep, calmed by watching the glowing Christmas lights, churches and castles float by as we traveled through the snow-covered Austrian Alps. We arrived intact the next morning, unrested, but happy to be off the train and into the sun!
We filled our days to the brim seeing many of the sites with which most people are familiar. The kids showed incredible stamina, moving from one famous scene to the next, generally only fussing when their bellies were empty, their feet sore, or their heads full. For Jason and me, it was enlightening to see many of the same sites we took in 14 years ago, this time through the eyes of our children.
We’d read in a traveling-with-kids guide book that a strategy to keep young kids interested in art museums or churches is to give them a visual scavenger hunt. On our first day, we visited one of Rome’s four grand “patriarchal” cathedrals, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is bedecked with intricate mosaics, a stunning gold alter, and soaring paintings. Greta’s scavenger hunt for Anya and Walter included multiple angels, crosses, birds, four-legged animals and babies Jesus. The hunt had them craning their necks to see the grandly decorated ceilings, scanning the multi-colored floors, studying paintings and focusing on the tremendous beauty and religious glamour surrounding them.
A similar scavenger hunt in St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican kept them almost as interested (although waiting in line to get in had worn them down more). After that, we no longer had to give them things to find, they created their own scavenger hunts to keep themselves interested in each church. Walter liked to count doves, find the sweet spot under a dome so he could stare up at its exact center meters above, and locate organs and other sources of music. Anya preferred counting angels, especially the cute ones playing violins, locating the babies Jesus, and identifying the types and uses for four-legged animals in the artwork. Both kids loved the rich colors and endless shapes decorating these stunning houses of worship and power.
The timing of our trip also meant that we were treated to elaborate Nativity scenes in every church and many public places. German Lutherans may set the standard on Christmas markets, trees and treats, but Italian Catholics know how to set the scene for the birth of Christ. So, in addition to the scavenger hunts, finding and comparing nativity scenes became a fun activity. We found nativity scenes set in Panettone cakes with marzipan figures, many with real running water and twinkling lights, and one scene using a centuries-old wooden baby that Jesus alleged had healing powers – which just looked to us like a scary baby!. The lovely nativity scene in St. Peter’s kept Anya and Walter’s attention long enough so Greta and Jason could wait in line to see Michelangelo’s famous Pietà sculpture. A nativity scene also provided incentive for the girls to run up the Spanish Steps after a long day of site seeing.
While the churches in Rome are certainly stunning, it was things in motion outdoors that consistently captured all three kids’ attention: flying pigeons, climbing cats, and flowing water. Since arriving in Göttingen, and hence living in a city for the first time, Walter has been perfecting his pigeon chasing prowess. He’s experimented with technique and strategy so as to illicit the grandest aviary reaction. The main square in town literally becomes his stomping ground whenever we’re there. He’s so good at setting pigeons in motion that it often seems the birds and Walter have choreographed the steps and flight.
We told Walter the Roman squares would be filled with pigeons, although there weren’t as many as we’d remembered; clearly the city has invested in better street sweepers. Walter’s best pigeon locations were outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and in the piazza next to the Pantheon. The former location offered clear running space and a platform from which to jump. The girls eagerly joined Walter sprinting across the cobblestones, whirling in circles arms outstretched—three siblings together then separate then together again, the flight of birds intermingled. The latter location offered plenty of pigeons distracted by tourist food, so Walter could pull-off surprise attacks. The funniest occurred when he scared away a small flock of pigeons being hand fed by a well-dressed man, who barked like a dog at Walter in mock irritation, making Walter jump just as the birds did!
Di Gatti di Roma are legendary, but they actually do exist. Cats live amongst most of the ruins that dot the City. A couple sites have been turned into cat sanctuaries, as an attempt to both help the existing strays and to prevent further strays through spaying and neutering. We happened upon an informal site in the park Vittorio Emanuele we sought out for its playground. The kids named the site “Kitty City” and it helped spark their interest in spying cats in other ruins throughout our visit. Walter was so enamored with the cats that he insisted we buy a souvenir calendar for his Gramma who also would love the Roman cats.
Finally the fountains, of which there are so many! Every piazza from the grand to the mundane has at least one sculpted basin with spurting water. I quickly ran out of small change, as the kids wanted to make wishes in all of these delightful receptacles. Favorites included the tortoise fountain in Villa Borghese, the boat-shaped fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps, and the grandiose fountains in Piazza Navona. But the most revered was the famous Trevi Fountain. We saw the Trevi, then got pizza and circled back to eat our lunch by its glittering water and charging horses. We would have gone a third time but a cold rain stopped our attempt to see the fountain lit at night. Anya loved it so much that she used her own money to buy a small model to keep by her bed.
The Trevi Fountain is the only location at which we have a photo of both Jason and me on our honeymoon. The last day of our trip, we finally asked another tourist to snap our picture to prove that we’d been in Italy together. We recreated the picture, this time taken by our daughter, both of us looking older and more fatigued. I enjoyed the Trevi Fountain more this time with Greta explaining the significance of Neptune, Walter chasing pigeons, and Anya gazing at the sparkling water in awe. We munched pizza, made wishes and forgot that just a bit ago we’d all been arguing about where to get lunch.
Of course Rome is full of ruins, and ruined things capture the imagination of children. From that first tower of blocks they build and then knock down as babies, kids like to imagine how things got built and then destroyed. On our first full day in Rome, Jason and I tried to plan an elaborate schedule that fell apart, like so many Roman ruins, before we could even get out of the apartment. So, we decided to wing it, and head to the center of the City to see what we could see.
First, we got a glimpse of the Colosseum, then Greta spied the two winged chariots on the roof of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, then we walked past part of the Roman Forum, and then we rounded a corner and saw a huge scene filled with ruins, columns, white marble, grand sculptures, church domes and so much historic eye candy it was breath-taking. Fortunately my eyes were on Greta who saw the view and absolutely swelled with wonder, excitement and awe. To see my daughter experience such glee at the very instant her world had been enriched and expanded was a perfect moment. I was thrilled to be her mother.
A few minutes later, Walter sat pondering Trajan’s Column and the ruins strewn around it. Jason had read a bit to him about Rome’s early history, and then Walter explained how it was ruined, with pieces about historic eras, looters, erosion and the passage of time, including: “Some people add things they want there, and then some people take pieces and use them to make other things. And things get old and fall apart.” He was fascinated to try to figure out what partial structures might have once been and how the layout fit together on a map.
Although the Colosseum was only a few blocks from our apartment, we didn’t trek down there until our fourth day in Rome. We stopped in a few churches in the vicinity, ate lunch, and by the time we got to the Colosseum the lines were insane. We decided to head to Palatine Hill to get tickets where the lines are shorter. A good idea, but the extra time caused Walter and Anya to finally hit their church-and-ruins-gazing wall! I took them back to the apartment for a well-earned rest. Jason and Greta stayed to explore Rome’s oldest neighborhood, the alleged birthplace of the City, and later a fashionable venue for the homes of emperors and celebrities. The site included cool puzzle pieces of art, palaces, gardens, an ancient stadium, and sanctuaries, as well as wonderful views of other Roman ruins and sites.
The next day we did finally see the Colosseum, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s truly an incredible structure, even after nearly 2000 years. Imagining it filled with 70,000 people cheering for blood, with actual griffins perched on its rim, waiting for the remains of the day, is incredible. And there are still discoveries to be found: a partial equestrian sculpture was on display that had just been uncovered this past decade. Walter wants to figure out how to build it out of Legos, using photos and the souvenir model we bought from one of the multitude of stands outside. Given the amount of time he spends clicking those plastic blocks together, I’m sure we’ll have a Lego Colosseum in our basement when we get home.
My favorite new-to-me site was the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally constructed as the tomb of Emperor Hadrian, and then later converted to a Papal Fortress. It looks like a boat-shaped birthday cake that’s been lit and docked along the Tiber River. The ship’s sail is a glorious statue of the Archangel Michael, who allegedly appeared atop the castle to mark the end of the plague in 590 AD.
Jason took Anya and Walter to the hands-on Explora children’s museum, which offered the kids a welcome break from ancient things that cannot be touched, while Greta and I spent an afternoon together exploring the passageways, rooms and porticos of the castle. We had a blast climbing the steep stairs, peering in dark corners, imagining Popes hiding inside while Rome was being sacked (again). Greta explained to me various methods for defending fortresses she’d learned while studying the Middle Ages, including pouring vats of boiling water on attackers scaling the outside walls! While imagining battles and hiding Popes was fun, we spent the most time gazing upon the incredible panoramic view of Rome from the upper terrace. It was a clear day and we could see well past the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in one direction, the Vatican in the other, and a beautiful view of the Tiber and the setting sun on the hills above.
As the sun faded, we walked along the river to meet the rest of the family in Piazza del Popolo, glowing with lights and bubbling with people. We peaked into Chiesa Santa Maria del Popolo to see the two Caravaggio paintings inside, my favorite being the Crucifixion of St. Peter, which is a brutally honest, yet somehow beautiful, depiction of a horrific scene. As a family we walked through the city down the middle of Via del Corso beneath a full sheet of red, green and white holiday lights. We stopped for a break at the Spanish Steps to marvel at the bustle of a gorgeous city on a holiday night. We finished our night with the best gelato we’ve ever tasted, at San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain.
Food was actually one of the few disappointments I had in Rome. Many people recommended eateries to us, and I think we were only able to follow-up on one of them (thank you, Sean – the fried ricotta was amazing!). When you travel with kids, you have to eat when they have to eat, or the whole day could be ruined. With no food, the whining could turn into a full-blown meltdown, and before we know it we could be carrying a kicking and screaming boy across miles of small cobblestones streets. I have some experience with this exact situation, and it ain’t pretty.
So, while we noted many restaurant suggestions, marking many of them on our trusty map (which I found on the ground outside the Pantheon, much to Jason’s delight), we didn’t really get to any of them. The timing and locations never coalesced when we needed them to. The result was a lot of restaurants that were there when we needed them, which meant they were not necessarily the best Rome has to offer, with the exception of the perfect gelato and one really excellent meal at a place we found by luck. The gelato was so perfect because it was so subtle. The trademark flavor was honey, not the typical show-stopper. The flavors did not boast, they simply were…divine. As the New York Times review displayed outside said, “Try the pear, and you’ll wonder if you’ve ever really tasted a pear before.” I hadn’t.
We were able to follow-up on a general recommendation to try a dish specific to Rome: cacio e pepe (thank you, Paul!). Again, perfect for its simplicity – just Pecorino Romano cheese, olive oil and ground black pepper over spaghetti. I tried it in every restaurant we went to, but the best was in a restaurant just up the street from our apartment, La Taverna Del Monti, that we tried on our first night in Rome because it was the only place nearby that had pesto pasta (Walter’s favorite) on its menu. Of all of our random picks, this was the best; we had a perfect meal with perfect service and terrific family harmony.
Unfortunately, we went back for our New Year’s Eve dinner and could not recreate the experience. The reasonably priced menu had been replaced by one that was shorter and about 50% more expensive, the food and service were rushed, and our family was tired, ready for our Roman holiday to end. After a disappointing meal (which was still good, just not great), we went back to our apartment to watch Shrek 2, the kids pick from the hundreds of DVDs in the apartment owner’s collection that he generously offered to us. (We’d watched Shrek on our first night in Rome.) Luckily we were able to get the kids to sleep in the relatively secluded bedroom before the massive fireworks and street rockets began. The Romans go nuts on New Year’s Eve, with grand-scale displays at major venues as well as individual revelry on every street.
The kids slept and Jason and I watched out the window a bit, craning to see the explosions nearby, and remembering our other New Year’s Eve in Italy. On our honeymoon we rang in 1998 in Florence with a perfect 8-course meal in a small restaurant filled with native Florentines, too much to drink (for me at least), and a late-night stroll/stumble home through the celebratory streets. While Jason remembers it a bit less favorably, for me it was the perfect New Year’s Eve. This year, we drank no champagne and worried the noise would wake our tired children…
Our last day, we maneuvered through the streets littered with the remains of the celebration, and went to the Bioparco Zoo and through the City’s large park, Villa Borghese. The zoo was pleasantly better than we’d expected, even comparing favorably with the Vienna Zoo, which is world-renowned. We especially enjoyed the wide selection of primates, which were endlessly amusing.
That night we hopped an over-night train back to Germany. Our return home was much smoother. Walter knew what to expect, and we lucked out and the sixth person in our couchette was a no-show. So, we had more space and no strangers; we even got a bit of sleep. And the next day we were happy to be back home, and it really did feel like home. People spoke German, and we knew what was going on.
A few days later we watched the 1953 movie Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in her first leading role. It tells the story of a princess who visits Rome as part of her European tour, but “escapes” to spend a delightful day with the company of an undercover American reporter. Princess Ann goes by the pseudonym Anya while on her holiday! We delighted in scenes at many of the places we’d just been to, including a fantastic party on a barge on the River Tiber in front of Castel Sant’Angelo.
The movie is refreshingly unsentimental, emphasizing the actual everyday work and obligations a princess might have. There’s no running off with her true love and living happily ever after (unlike in Shrek, for example!). At the end of the movie, the princess returns to her duties, leaving the man she’s fallen in love with. The man does the right thing and doesn’t expose the princess’ day on the town, giving up the chance to publish a lucrative story. In the final scene at a formal press conference, the reporter and his photographer friend let the princess know her secret is safe with them, and they slip her an envelope of photos by which to remember Anya’s grand day in Rome. And with that, it ends.