Our Italian Holiday
To travel as a family -- with kids! -- through the heart of Italy was my 40th birthday wish. Many asked, “Is that a good idea?” Others thought it would be fun; others just smirked like they knew something I didn’t. Well, guess what — it was the right decision! Ages 10, 8, and 6, our kids were able to walk on their own (sometimes over 30,000 steps a day, according to 10-year-old Jack and his Fit-Bit), use the restroom alone (no diapers allowed!), and sleep anywhere.
We mapped our route: fly into Rome and out of Milan. We booked reasonably priced seats out of our local midwest airport, and about 9 months before the trip we felt secure that we at least had a way to get to our dreamy destination! Soon after that, we booked hotels, Airbnbs, cars, tours, and (about 3 months prior) restaurants on our To Do List. Then, on July 13 (with 3 days left in my 30’s), we set out with 5 carry-on suitcases, 4 backpacks (the 6-year-old and I shared because I caved and realized she might not carry it everywhere), and five hearts tired from a long school year and a desire to adventure to new lands.
First Stop - Rome!
The first cup of coffee after flying all night is the best thing, isn’t it? Airport coffee is even delicious! I was all buzzy with caffeine as we took a cab to our first hotel, the K BOUTIQUE in the Monte neighborhood of Rome. We literally passed the Colosseum on the way to the hotel, and we all just stared in wonder.
We loved the location of our airy two room suite, which was walking distance to everything, and we adored our day on a private guided tour of the Colosseum for kids (we took more water breaks and walked slower than most tours.) At the end of each of our 3 afternoons in Rome, we took a dip in the smallest rooftop pool in the world, which somehow entertained 2 of the kids for a few hours each day!
Memorable meals were at Pizzicaroli, La Carbonara, and many small pizza counters and small pasta haunts where the only thing on the menu was always something AMAZING.
One day, we followed Rick Steve’s Walking Tour of Rome wherever it led us, including 4 gelaterias with our favorite flavor being from FLOR - AMAZING hazelnut gelato with Nutella on the top. We didn’t see everything in Rome, and many think we are NUTS that we didn’t make it to the Vatican, but FUN and HAPPY was our top priority, so we had to cut some things in order to to do that. One rainy night, Vivian was scared of the lightening storm coming upon us so we ducked into the hotel -- leaving the boys to explore the Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain alone. They had an AMAZING time in the rain, and Vivian and I traded one important venture for a great night of rest and movie-watching. It was a win-win.
Bognoregio di Civita
We drove out of Rome (rental car time!) a little way into the Tuscan countryside to the tiny town of Civita. Civita is connected to a larger town, Bognoregio, via a footbridge which is as steep and charming as you see here.
We stayed in an apartment (Airbnb for the win!) in Civita that was built by the Etruscans (800 BCE) and had crumbly walls and a huge old fireplace in the owner's residence upstairs. Having this comfortable space to return to each night was nice and exciting since the basement and tunnels under the house reminded us of the mystery and magic of the history of the place. WIth only 7 full-time residents, this town was one we felt safe letting our kids roam free, which they did visiting the new kittens behind the restaurant eight times a day, Vivian exploring the free underground museum next door daily, and all of us walking to the walls of the city to explore the mountains in different shades of sunlight.
There are so many details to share about our portion of the trip in Montalcino, where we stayed at a quiet winery, Canalicchio di Sopra Wine Relais. We truly made use of our pool at this stop and loved every bit of the location, which was flooded with human-size rosemary hedges, lavender bordering the pool, and olive trees all around. During this part of our holiday, we spent most of the day away on adventures, so at night we stayed in...at the pool, took long walks and just chilled. To be honest we ate frozen pizza one night in our room (sad, I know - but even frozen Italian pizza tastes great so don’t judge!) and one night walked to town for a dinner of gelato (and nothing else!)
On one of two day trips in Tuscany, we ventured to Podere Il Castile where we toured the most lovely sheep’s cheese farm in all the world which included an in-depth cheese making course, and a tour from the owner and a 4 course lunch that I dream about still.
The other day trip was to Sienna, complete with a private tour of the hilly town that was designed to keep our kids’ minds interested throughout the morning. My research paid off that day with the most magical lunch stop. As usual, I asked our tour guide to drop us off at the restaurant (locals love to show you their back alleys!), which saved us the trouble of finding our way through a city with twists and turns. This gem had no menu, only what was made that day, with the best bread and a carafe of local red or white wine. We ate our hearts out on fresh cold pasta and lots of charcuterie while we watched the rest of the tourists search for a table with maps in hand, looking sad and confused (as we surely did on others days but had to toast each other that today was not that day).
The road to Cremona - or what I like to call BEWARE OF CHANGING COURSE!
Our route for this trip was perfect until we diverged from it. We stopped at a small town once to have lunch (this was not on our itinerary and somehow became a kind of a disaster) and decided to drive to the coast before heading inland further to Cremona and then Venice. The Tuscan side-trip to the sea coast WAS a gorgeous mountainous drive and, based my post- college Cinque Terre trip, led my optimistic brain to decide the Italian sea-coast town we were driving toward was just like all the other rock-cliff-colorful-house wonderlands. BUT THINK AGAIN and then add 6 hours to an inland trip with a family of five in close quarters. Since there were no Italian children ANYWHERE on our holiday, we figured out that they were all at the seashore seemingly between Camaiore and La Spezia, where we drove on our tangent. The beaches were PACKED with umbrellas crammed tight and gorgeous families who fled the cities for July and August. Although my extroverted middle child and I loved this beach adventure, the rest of the family saw this as a crowded, hot, hard-to-find parking spot holiday mishap unfit for visiting. We spent 30 minutes at a beach town finding a gas station sandwich lunch and that middle child taking a dip fully clothed in the ocean and wearing those salty clothes the rest of the day. I could go on and on about the adventures of this memorable day, but have to quit somewhere: on we go to Cremona.
This is the home of the Stradivarius violin! I won’t spend much time sharing stories from this location with you since very few people visit Cremona -- it was honestly only filled with violin enthusiasts and locals, both of whom we loved! We stayed a local hotel that might have been the best in town, but was not very clean and was strange in all the hot-tub-in-the-room kind of ways, although it gave us a place to rest our (very weary from the beach tangent) heads. We visited the Stradivarius Museum, a Luthier’s Workshop for a private tour, and dined with every local out for a pizza in an alleyway downtown. This little trattoria was staffed with a family of waiters just like you would imagine in a small Italian village, screaming at each other about missing orders, recommending the quattro formaggi, and letting us linger long while we ordered pizza after pizza.
After an early breakfast in Cremona at the hotel, we were off driving straight to Venice. As you can imagine, you can’t get a car taxi to a Venetian hotel, which we found out when the taxi arranged prior turned out to be a water taxi of course! Water taxis in Venice are GORGEOUS. Both the men driving them (Dan and I agreed they looked like a cross between a soccer player and a lifeguard) and the Chris-Craft wooden boats that pulled up at the docks for us were impressive. In what might be the best five minutes of Dan’s trip, we got the best introduction to the sinking city from the Grand Canal to smaller canals that led us to our hotel where the front door was on the canal, of course, much to our delight!
Our hotel wasn’t modern or swanky, just pure Venetian charm with fluffy pillows, turndown service, large Aperol Spritz cocktails available at the bar at all hours, and shuttered windows over the canals and streets below. It was a great home base -- a home base for all of our adventures which included wandering streets until we got happy and lost, eating every kind of gelato again, attending an opera and a symphony (these are easy to find and quite inexpensive), riding a gondola (of course), and making masks at a charming little workshop as a family. One meal that stands out as lovely was at Osteria Enoteca San Marco - a dimly lit modern place that was everything I wanted (great cheese, wine, and well crafted entrees) after a day bumping into travelers and locals in the crowded Venetian streets.
There are maybe three things that I don’t recommend in Venice: ONE: The five hour tour that travels with the rest of the tourists to three islands surrounding Venice. Are the islands nice, you ask? I really have no idea because there was a lot of walking involved to see the nice spots on these deserted islands, and the day of the tour (glass making in Murano) it was about 120 F and the glassmaker made the same bird out of blown glass he made when I took the tour in college.
TWO: Letting your kid find a souvenir at the last city you visit (Venice) and letting him go from junk cart to junk cart to find Italian soccer jerseys. (HERE IS A RANDOM PRO TIP: Have your child raise money by doing chores before you leave for the trip. On the trip take that child directly to a reputable sport store in the first city you visit, spend 50 euros on a jersey and call it a win.) THREE: Avoid the places suggested by your favorite celebrity chef with grilled cheese for 28 euro. Although I loved Harry’s Bar for many reasons, see photos below, I should have followed all advice and sat down for a Bellini in the side bar and called it GOOD.
We shed a few tears leaving Venice, the last leg of our trip, adored our three hour train from Venice to Milan, and slept in an uncomfortable hotel in Milan before jetting back to the United States the next morning. As I reflect on this much anticipated trip, I am most grateful for our family’s LIFE TOGETHER, lived in a different space and culture. It was a beautiful time for us that was made so especially beautiful because of the planning all five of us did. One HUGE help in making our itinerary work in the most amazing way for us was hiring Daniela Mencarelli from Italian travel agency Discover Your Italy. She helped us measure distances between towns, set up private tours, and book back-alley restaurants that only a local could find.
It was fun for me to write hints for traveling internationally with kids and also fun to recall our trip through written word - may it give you permission to try some LARK living in new and different ways!
On a lark,
Lodging: the hot list-
An apartment or adjoining rooms worked best for our family or 5 on this trip. See details below!
K Boutique, Rome. Spacious rooms in the Monti Neighborhood, connected for families, A/C, breakfast included, small pool and rooftop bar, rooms from $180 per night.
Gaia’s Place, Airbnb, Civita di Bagnoregio. Three bedrooms in an old Etruscan home, clean, amazing garden for use, breakfast at 5 euro per person per night, dinner with the owners will make you feel like family (for purchase), entire apartment from around $115 per night.
Borgo Canalicchio di Sopra Wine Relais, Montalcino, Tuscany. This new gem has three bedrooms in one of it's gorgeous apartments with a loft, large infinity pool, and breakfast included. The 1/2 hour uphill walk to town is worth the effort! Rooms from around $250 per night.
Cremona (read about the town here from the NYT). Top floor suites with locked connector, king beds and a sleeper couch, breakfast included (with American pancakes that my kids really did enjoy even though they also loved every bit of Italian food everywhere). Hotel information available upon request since I didn’t say the nicest things about this place.
Palace Bonvecchiati, Venice. Two bedroom suite with super comfortable everything. Great home base. Rooms from $270 per night.
Daniela Mencarelli from Italian travel agency Discover Your Italy.