Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Italy for kids – an amateur’s assessment

It is of course ridiculous to summarize a country after a few weeks of travel, but here are some thoughts after spending six weeks traveling through Sicily and Tuscany, going up through Rome, Amalfi, Florence and Venice, then heading north to Switzerland.

Overall, Italy is wonderful for kids. The Italians are naturally friendly, but particularly friendly to families and children. Not that many people spoke English, but we did alright with a few phrases from the back of our guide book, with lots of expressive gestures thrown in.

Our biggest single travel problem in Italy was dinners – our boys are 8 and 5 and usually go to bed by 8pm, but few Italian restaurants are open by then. We got around this by cooking many of our dinners at home (with incredibly fresh ingredients so it wasn’t like this was a hardship) and just having a number of days where the kids were crabby because they hadn’t gotten to bed early enough.

We found quickly that there was only so much big city sightseeing the kids could take. Over time, we developed the “two marvel rule”:

Two marvel rule: kids can handle about two marvels a day before they melted down due to a combination of crowds, optic overstimulation and heat. After that, they get hot, tired and cranky, and you start to wish you knew the name of a really good baby sitter in whatever city you are stuck in.

The countryside, on the other hand, is wonderful for kids. They are content anyplace they can run around, swim and stay put in. They considered gelato for breakfast maybe the best meal they had ever had (before you moralize, consider that there is not much else to eat for breakfast and they are already hyper enough without espresso).

Quick Impressions

  • Sicily – fruit and vegetables, ruined ruins, friendly people, narrow roads
  • Rome – shock and awe, ransacked ruins, impossible driving, swarms of vespas
  • Venice – joy and wonder, beautiful shops, best church interior in Italy (St Mark)
  • Florence – wealth and art, bad cafes, most Americans
  • Tuscany – gold and sunny, best church exterior in Italy (Orvieto)

Italian Countryside
Villas are great for people who don’t like other people, hotels are good for people who don’t like surprises, agro turismos (farm hotels) are in-between. It is hard to find a villa based on personal recommendations, so you are almost sure to get some surprises, things like mosquitos, no air conditioning and a major road right behind the house. Hotels at least have someone you can yell at when you discover a surprise.

  • Villas: both villas we rented were wonderful, expensive, and contained both good and not so good surprises. Renting a villa is a high risk, high reward venture. We had the best luck renting directly through owners at vacation rental by owner (VRBO)
  • Agroturismos: in Tuscany, we found a wonderful agroturismo near Orvieto is called Locanda Rosati. The owner is very friendly, it has a nice pool, a beautiful garden and spacious rooms. The cost was about 270 euros a night, which included a fabulous dinner.

Sites Kids Like To See

  • Sites for kids in Sicily: we were staying near Catania, loved the ruined fortifications and ampitheatre near Syracuse and walking around the old town of Syracuse with its windy streets. Taormina was nice but more touristy and the beaches rocky.
  • Sites for kids on the Amalfi coast: the city of Amalfi was good for 2-3 days of feverish inactivity. We stayed at the Hotel Bussoni near the marina and the kids swam off the hotel dock all day long and played with local kids at night.
  • Sites for kids in Tuscany: the best part of Tuscany is not the towns but the country between the towns. We liked Orvieto and Radda-in-Chianti but had the most fun in non-touristy towns like San Casciano. All the small towns seem to have constant festivals that are very kid-friendly.

Travelling With Kids In Rome and Venice
Big cities like Rome, Florence and Venice were hot, crowded and hard to get around in with kids. However, the sights are incredible and even if only a little bit of the experience stays with them, it at least gives them something to talk about in the cafeteria line after summer break.

In these places it was well worth it to pay for a nice, centrally located hotel with reliable air conditioning (life with kids who have gotten no sleep for two nights running in a hot noisy hotel is not really worth living).

  • Rome: Hotel Dei Borgognoni, near the Spanish steps, had a suite with small sitting room where children slept and great service, for something like 250 euros a night. Do not try to drive to this hotel – if you have a car, park it somewhere like the airport and take a cab into town. The boys loved the coliseum and St. Peter’s basilica – the rest was just a blur.
  • Venice: Hotel Ca Formenta, an easy walk to the Piazza San Marco, but far enough away to be out of the swarming tourist zone, for around 250 euros a night for two connecting rooms. We parked in the main parking garage and took the slow but beautiful vaporetto water bus to the hotel. The boys loved seeing all the weapons in the Doge’s palace and the golden ceiling of the St. Paul basilica. They were surprisingly tolerant of all the weird art at the biennale but would also have been perfectly content riding the vaporetto up and down the grand canal all day.