Go Ahead–Take The Kids To Rome

I have a family tradition with my kids. In third grade (theirs, not mine), we go one-on-one to some place cool for a bonding vacation. The kid gets to choose the destination, with some guidance from me. My son chose China and my older daughter chose Barcelona. Elizabeth, my youngest and the next up, was torn between Serbia and Rome. That’s when the fatherly guidance came into play. After a brief discussion, we were making plans for a trip to the Eternal City, beginning with a trip to Borders Books & Music to get some guidebooks.

Uh-oh. All the guidebooks told the same story: Rome is not the place for kids. Well, I was never one to follow instructions too well (just ask any of my schoolteachers), so off we went to prove the naysayers wrong.

As soon as we landed in Rome, I knew my worries were for naught. We were in the very center of the ancient world, the mother church of Catholicism, the birthplace of pizza and gelato! Now, from my four years in college (OK, it was actually five years), I knew for a fact that man can indeed live on pizza and ice cream alone. So I set a challenge for my 9-year-old daughter: Find the best pizza and gelato in Rome. Of course, she would not realize that in the course of that quest, she’d get a lot of culture and history, too. Shhh, it’s still my secret!

Our hotel, the Hotel Arcangelo, is a small hotel within easy walking distance of the Vatican. The rates were right, the room was fabulous, the daily breakfast was more than adequate and the service was sublime. The hotel sent a car to pick us up at the airport and also handled our return. The hidden gem of the hotel is the rooftop “piano” (OK, I admit it, I did look around for a piano on the roof, but I never found one. Apparently “piano” is the Italian word for “top floor terrace” on an elevator button. Who would have thunk it?) Via Boezio 15 – 00192, Rome.

Elizabeth and I soon ventured out with an agreement not to spend a lot of time in “boring” museums and long lines, and rededicating ourselves to our mission (Pizza! Gelato!). Here are some highlights of the trip:

  • The Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. We thought we had gotten a jump on the line to see the Vatican Museum, which included a trip inside the Sistine Chapel, but our jump was not enough and the wait to the door was more than two hours. So off we went to explore on our own and wound up at the Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s), the spiritual center of the Catholic Church and a major destination for Catholic pilgrims. We weren’t pilgrims, but we were plenty awed by the art and architecture. We were especially drawn to the dome, which was designed by Michelangelo with an outer shell to protect the gold-encrusted interior dome. Between the shell and the dome is a spiraling (often dizzying) walkway that we climbed all the way to the cupola, which overlooks Rome and Vatican City. It was a tight and slanting climb, eerily reminiscent of a carnival fun house, but it was definitely worth the effort. The basilica itself is spectacular, and not only for another Michelangelo masterpiece, “Pieta,” which lies behind bulletproof glass. The tomb of Clement XIII by Canova was also very interesting, with just enough creepiness to make it especially kid-worthy.
  • Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. This basilica is famous for its Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), a former Roman sewer cover now embedded in the portico wall of the church. Tradition says the “mouth” will bite off a liar’s hand. (My daughter survived the test, and I have adapted to typing with one hand.) The church itself is often overlooked by the throngs of people lined up for their turn at the Mouth of Truth, but its Early Medieval architecture, frescoes, mosaic floors and Masonic imagery are also well worth a look.
  • Circo Massimo, or the Circus Maximus, was built around 600 B.C. Billed as one of the largest venues built purely for entertainment, it is said to have seated 385,000 people. The long, oval field was the scene of chariot races and contests between gladiators and wild beasts. Today, only a small section of ruins survives, on the south end. It is a large, lovely park frequented by joggers, lovers and my daughter and me with a picnic lunch.
  • The Flavian Amphitheater. Huh? Or, for you non-Romans, the Coliseum. This was the site of ancient gladiator battles and is one of the prime symbols of Rome. Throughout the years, various popes quarried its marble, so this once-majestic building is more run down than it should be. Still, its size and history are breathtaking. Admission was a bargain, but the lines were long. The experience is worth the wait, however, so long as you avoid the hokey faux gladiators that surround the site (believe me, they are only interested in modern currency!).
  • The Forum. This was once the political and religious center of the Western world. Today, the Forum consists of fragmented columns and ancient pockmarked streets. However, even in this condition, it is a testament to the ingenuity of Roman civilization. The must-sees in the Forum are the Sacred Way, the Via Trionfale (where generals paraded with their soldiers and prisoners) and the ancient Senate House. Scattered around are smaller basilicas, temples, monuments and arches. It was here that we made friends with many of the stray cats that seem to have taken up residence in a house dating from the first century B.C.
  • The Pantheon. We discovered the Pantheon on our first day by accident, while in search of the best gelato. This huge round temple was dedicated to all the Roman gods and is considered the best-preserved ancient structure in the city. It was rebuilt in the second century by Emperor Hadrian and has the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built; 142 feet wide and 142 feet high, it is a perfect sphere, and the walls are 20 feet thick. I stared in awe at this engineering feat for close to half an hour, wondering how they managed it without a crane or backhoe. Sunlight enters the building through a small window in the center of the dome, making the colors in the marble floor come alive. The first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, is buried here, as is the painter Raphael (my daughter was hoping for Ninja Turtles). Admission is free, but there is usually a moderate wait.
  • Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna. These steps and piazza lie at the heart of the shopping district, which includes stores like Fendi, Dolce & Gabanna, Louis Vuitton and my favorite: the Ferrari Store! The Spanish Steps are a great vantage point for watching the life of Rome pass by. Be prepared for crowds — any time of the day or night. Observe the street musicians, vendors, lovers and fellow tourists. The flowers on the steps were in full bloom for our visit and they were a sight to behold. At the base of the steps is a fountain credited to two Berninis (father and son), and John Keats’s house overlooks the steps.
  • Trevi Fountain. This is perhaps the most famous fountain in all of Rome, and it is always thronged with tourists (watch your wallet or purse) re-enacting the tradition introduced by the 1954 film “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Before leaving Rome, you must toss a coin over your left shoulder into the fountain; that way your return is assured. A local told me that a second coin assures you will return with the love of your life. Not sure about the authenticity of that advice — he may have been the coin collector! Even with the crowds, you should get a good view of the mighty god Neptune riding his winged chariot through rushing waters supplied by the ancient Acqua Vergine aqueduct. The fountain is an especially nice treat at night.
  • The Bioparco zoo. Located in Villa Borghese, this zoo is a fantastic place to spend a sunny day in Rome. On our family trips, a zoo visit is always a must. This one did not disappoint. We picnicked by the lake and fed the ducks, swung on the swings, chased down an albino peacock and went nose-to-trunk with an elephant. It was a perfect end to a fantastic trip, and seeing the smiles of kids and adults as they watched the animals was priceless.
  • Antico Caffe Grecco is the oldest coffee bar and restaurant in Rome (or so we were told). It is a renowned and historic coffee bar, gelateria and lunch caffe just off the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. This was a hangout for Byron, Keats, Goethe, Wagner, Liszt and Joyce, among others. The mazelike interior is decorated in Late Baroque style. Photos of past visitors and dignitaries line the walls (my photo is on order).

Well, there you have it: a quick snapshot of a successful Roman holiday with a 9-year-old in tow. Certainly not the fiasco that the guidebooks made it out to be. Elizabeth is still talking about it and showing off her photos to her friends. If you’d like to take a peek at our trip, check out the photo show.

Oh, and about that quest. After visiting at least three pizzerias and four or five gelaterias each day, Elizabeth and I came up with some clear-cut winners.

In the pizza category, the winner is:

  • Pizzeria La Montecarlo. The alley outside this pizzeria is usually filled with tables occupied by loud Romans — always a good sign when the locals have turned out en masse. The service is faster than it is polite, but the pizzas are great. Elizabeth’s favorite was a plain margareta pizza with fabulous mozzarella and tomatoes. Mine was the special one they make with fresh red peppers and a very unique sausage! Bring cash, because they don’t take any credit cards. Via dei Savelli 13 (near Piazza Navona), Rome.

In the gelato category, it was a very tough choice, but we went with a place that has a U.S. connection, a cousin-operated delicatessen by the same name in my hometown, Annapolis, Md.

  • Caffe Giolitti. The air-conditioned, pink- and green-marbled gelateria screams ice cream. More flavors than you can imagine, and a variety of cones. The chocolate-dipped cone was my favorite with stracciatella, while Elizabeth opted for the basic sugar cone with mocha. The gelateria is always crowded and seemingly always open. Via Uffici del Vicario 40, Rome.
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