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Family of Nine - Tales of a European Adventure (Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome)


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Family of Nine - Tales of a European Adventure (from 2005)​

By b&j and the gang from Massachusetts, USA, Summer 2005
Three weeks in August: Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome with family of nine.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.com.

Prelude to a Trip.....​

We are a family with five children. The kids are boys age 18, 16, 16, and 12 and my daughter is 10. We traveled with my parents who are in their 70’s. We have had many great vacations with the kids and have traveled in the U.S. and Canada but we have never taken the kids overseas. My oldest son went to France and England with his other grandparents when he was a lot younger and just this summer went for a week to Arezzo with a school friend and his parents. (Two times to Italy in one summer!) My twins went to Italy two years ago on a school trip. My parents have never been to Europe.

I knew this would be the year. It is my 50th birthday year, our 20th anniversary year and my oldest son’s graduation from high school. It has to be a big trip.

I loved the planning phase of this trip and really had fun with guidebooks, websites and reading other trip reports. I only made one mistake in planning and it is a big one. One night, after maybe too many glasses of wine, I found an opera for my opera-loving parents to attend. I thought the opera was in Rome. To make a long story short I bought two very good seats to the opera in Verona for my parents. Unfortunately we were never going to be in Verona. The closest we would get would be Venice. Somehow I had read Rome instead of Verona (okay, I can’t figure out how I could have done that).

After trying to figure out if a change in date and/or a change in itinerary could work we decided to see if we could get a refund. It was interesting using stupidity as an excuse for a refund. We did end up with a refund and I am really grateful to SelectItaly for their understanding. It was supposed to be a wonderful surprise for my parents but they were really reluctant to head up to Verona on their own to enjoy the opera, understandable since it is their first trip to Europe.

We are a busy family, and finding a good time to go was going to be difficult. It came down to August and I tried not to be dissuaded by other’s opinions on August travel to Paris and Italy. I have never been a great planner; I am a seat of the pants kind of person, but I knew that I had to plan this one! We had so little time.

We live outside Boston. My husband is a teacher and works in a canoeing camp in Minnesota for a month in the summer. My twins go to camp there for eight weeks and my youngest son goes with his dad for the second four weeks of camp.

Well, we flew to Paris the day after the boys and my husband came home from camp. My husband did mega loads of laundry in the last few days of camp (yes, he is wonderful!) and they arrived home ready to repack and head out the next day. It was a little hectic and crazy but what fun! The kids (and my husband) didn’t know what hit them!

Time to Travel

Our flight is uneventful, except for a small delay to repair toilet facilities. This leads to a lot of toilet humor as we wait for our flight to board. I am thinking this is a good omen for our trip. Laughing about broken toilets sets the mood. We leave Boston in the evening and arrive in Paris at about 8:00 in the morning.


All of us in Rome
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Day One in Paris​

We have a little mix-up with our shuttle service (Bee Shuttle). Their confirmation e-mail specifically states that you should not move from one terminal to another if your flight comes in at a different terminal. We don’t move and we wait a bit. When we call to say that yes, we have arrived, the van still doesn’t come. It takes a second call to tell them where we are. We should have mentioned where we are waiting in our first phone call but we think they will check that info.

We are waiting on the curb with all our luggage, a little bleary-eyed from the night flight and waiting and waiting ... and all of a sudden two sandals fall out of the sky. It seems someone is above us without his/her sandals! The boys want to take them, think they look nice! We wait and wait and no one comes to fetch the sandals, weird. Finally, the shuttle arrives and we are off to the hotel, leaving the sandals where they lay, waiting for their owner to claim them.

We are staying on the outskirts of the Marais at Hotel Castex. I booked this hotel because we could get the fourth night free and the breakfast (at 10 euros a head) free with the mention of Rick Steves book. We need four rooms here, as they don’t have that many triples and no quads. The three teenagers share a room that has one bed downstairs and two in a loft upstairs. I think it is a neat room. My husband and I take one room courtesy of my parents who split up and each take one of the younger kids. It is a small thank you for all the planning and very nice as my husband has been away at camp for a month!

We start to freshen up, take some showers and get ready for the day, trying to stay awake as long as possible. Everyone is feeling okay except my 12 year old. I ask him to take a shower and he does but flops right back on the bed and by the time the rest of the group is ready he is fast asleep. We pull and prod and splash a little more water in his face; he endures a forced march down the many flights of stairs and he is as ready as he is going to be. Off we go.

We walk for hours. Paris is working her magic and we are all under her spell. The kids love just staring at Notre Dame and walking along the Siene. We have lunch on Rue St. Severin and eat souvlaki sandwiches stuffed with fries.

Oh, it is the first day and we are on vacation! My mother watches her waistline better than the rest of us and she doesn’t have the fries in her sandwich! In fact, she has her heart set on a little French restaurant for lunch. My dad has his feet set on a rest. The kids rule the roost and we eat standing and sitting on the side of a fountain in the next square we come upon. The kids are in heaven with their enormous souvlakis. I knew it would come, the moments when everyone asks, “What do you want to eat?” or “What do you want to do?” I know I have to be decisive and swift. I think it sets a good tone for the rest of the trip.

We decide to do the Marais Walk in Paris Walks and end back at our hotel for a short afternoon nap. It is a great walk and a good chance to see our neighborhood, although our hotel is really on the outer edges of the Marais area.

Dinner is at the Place de Marche St Catherine. This is a lovely little open area with four or five restaurants. When we arrive there is a bit of live entertainment going on outside one of the restaurants. It is a cross between martial arts and dance and they do it to music with swinging legs and ducking heads! It is a Brazilian dance called Capoeira and it is great fun to watch. We decide to eat in front of the show.

We have a lovely first meal in Paris outside at La Bistro de la Place. Lots of lamb chop dinners and steak and delicious wine and interesting appetizers. Everyone loves their meals and we pass the plates around (family tradition of tasting everything) with gusto. The wine is great and everyone is happy and tired and ready for bed! Well, everyone except my husband and me. We just have to sneak out for one last nightcap on the streets of Paris.


Sitting by the Siene

Day Two in Paris​

Day two dawns with our tour guide meeting us at our Hotel at 10:30. It is already arranged that it would be smart to let the kids sleep in a little bit, they will be much happier travelers. As we are going down to breakfast my husband suggests I make sure my parents and the littler kids are awake. I am sure that I don’t need to wake them, as my mom never sleeps late.

We wake up the teenagers and go down to breakfast. When we finish breakfast and go downstairs to meet our tour guide my dad comes downstairs a bit disheveled. He tells us that they have all overslept and are trying to hurry. They missed breakfast! I guess the overnight changed a few sleeping patterns. It is not the first time that my husband is right! The hotel is very nice to let them go down to the breakfast area and grab a few croissants.

I found our tour guide on the Fodors message board and he is great. His name is Michael Osman and he is an American who has been living in Paris for seven years.

We begin by walking towards Notre-Dame. We buy our museum passes and our tickets for the metro and buses. We buy our museum passes (three-day) at the Paris Archaeological Crypt where the line is short. We do a quick tour there and move on to Notre-Dame.

After Notre-Dame we walk to Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is one of my favorite places. I want everyone to see it. Once again it doesn’t disappoint. The sun’s rays stream through the stained glass windows and the hush in the room is audible, except of course for my son, Sam, who begins to tease me.

Before we entered the church I made the mistake of telling my kids that the last time I was in Sainte-Chapelle I almost cried because it is so beautiful. Sam is now whispering rather loudly. “Hey look, mom’s crying!” This becomes one of his refrains anytime we are in a beautiful building or nice church. “Let’s check and see if this one makes mom cry!”. Oh well.

We wander into a wonderful sandwich shop and buy a nice picnic. We rest and relax and talk over our lovely picnic and a nice bottle of wine. The kids toss a ball around and we enjoy the view. We are off to the Pompidou Center.

Walking with nine people is interesting. There are always those who walk fast and those who walk slowly. There are also those who really window shop and those who don’t even look in the windows. My husband always walks fast and believes that if he goes ahead, people will follow. The older boys keep pace with him. My mom and my daughter love to loiter and look in the shop windows, sometimes ducking in to see the goods inside. My dad does not have knees for fast walking anymore and my warnings to practice his walking are largely unheeded. We can easily take up a whole block while we stroll the streets of Paris.

Every now and again I notice that we are a little too spread out and whistle for the front few to slow up. Occasionally one of the boys comes back and walks for a while with his grandfather. There is not one time on our whole trip where my dad is in the lead. It is an intriguing sight, our whole group meandering through the streets. (This is foreshadowing.)

The escalators at the Pompidou Center seem to be endless. The views are amazing and the area outside the center seems like the place to be. Inside everyone is quietly looking around when a large bang breaks the silence. I jump, and look around for the cause of the noise. We all discover the bronze man with a large bell hanging next to him. Every five minutes the man’s head goes forward and crashes into the bell. There is a lovely indent on the man’s forehead where he suffers the damage from the bell. My kids are totally absorbed in waiting for the head to strike again.

Another performance piece grabs some attention. It is a video of people imitating horses. Interesting. Stimulates a lively discussion about the nature of art. We all try to sound like horses for a time after that and Emma does it best!

We pause outside of the Pompidou Center to listen to some music. Next stop is the Louvre. We take a bus over and begin our pretty quick tour of the Louvre. We know it is a basic drive-by of the museum. It is getting late in the day and everyone is tired. After seeing the Mona Lisa and wandering in a few galleries we decide to call it quits.

My son Charlie, who is almost 13, is particularly concerned that we haven’t seen enough in the museum. He says we should spend more time here. It is decided that he definitely needs to take another trip and spend more time in the museums. My husband and I smile at each other in one of those parent moments that you have to love. We are doing something right!

We say good-bye to Michael for the day. It is actually almost 8:30 and he is a trooper to hang in with us so long. We get directions to take the metro back to our area. Everyone is hungry and I suggest the L’as du Falafel, which is back in the Marais area. It has been recommended by fellow Slow Travelers as a fun, inexpensive place to take the family.

In my pitch for the restaurant I mention that it comes highly recommended. Sam asks quite casually “who recommended the restaurant?” I answered that I got the restaurant from my “friends” online. Sam immediately comes back to me with all my prior warnings about meeting people online. “They could be drug dealers, or child molesters, you never know, mom! You better be careful! Can we trust them? I want to go to a place recommended by a real person!” I hush him up with a chuckle and we proceed to L’as du Falafel.

I want to add a quick apology to all of you who provided me with ideas and suggestions. I am sorry that you all were fodder for our kid’s jokes, for all of your drug use! (Of course I want to add a huge thanks to you as well!)

We have a bit of a wait to get in to the restaurant. The atmosphere in and around L’As du Falafel is lively and fun. Dinner is good, and inexpensive.

We have a good walk home and a quick goodnight to the grandparents and the kids. It is time for us to go out for a drink alone. We hit the bar/restaurant just at the corner.

My husband and I have a drink and then decide to share an Irish coffee. The waiter brings the hot coffee and somehow trips or has a spastic hand motion and spills the whole coffee all over my husband. Thank goodness it isn't too hot and he has thick pants on. I am glad it isn’t me as I have a nice skirt on. The waiter is upset and very apologetic.

The long and short of it is we have a night of free drinks. They bring us each a new Irish coffee and comp the whole tab. I guess it is worth it, especially since I didn’t get any coffee on me!


The Louvre

Day Three in Paris​

We meet Michael again in the late morning at our hotel. He takes us by a market nearby and we walk among the locals shopping for their dinner and looking over the clothes. My daughter looks longingly at all the cool skirts on display. We spent a long time before the trip shopping and buying skirts trying to look like hip Europeans. We are wearing some of the same skirts hanging up in the market. We don’t really wear them in the same way (at least I don’t) but somehow it makes us feel trendy and fashionable.

We are going to the Rodin Museum and then to the D’Orsay. We wander the outside of the Rodin and the kids love to imitate all the poses in the outdoor sculptures. It is fun and we take lots of photos. We stay a long time at both of these museums and we are hungry for lunch.

We find a small grocery store and we buy some bread, wine, cheese and some soda for the kids. We begin to walk down Rue de Rivoli to find a picnic spot. I see a crepe vendor on the street and know that I want the kids to try the nutella crepes. We buy one and pass it around.

We see the next group of people getting an egg crepe and half of us decide to eat this for lunch. The rest of the group settles on the picnic and we find a great place with a view of the Eiffel Tour. We hang out on the bench, sipping wine and talking. The kids go throw a ball around on the grass and take some teenage power naps. We older people watch and soak up the atmosphere

Michael has plans for us. He wants to take us up to Montmarte. We love the idea and get on the bus and head in that direction. We walk around the Moulin Rouge area and enjoy the change. Lots of conversation about the area and the kids love the storefronts!

We take one of the Montmartre buses up to the top and walk around the church. It is so much more crowded than we remember it from our last visit to Paris 15 years ago. I am so glad we made it back here again. We take the little bus back down and walk a ways to our dinner destination.

We say good-bye to Michael at the Chartiers restaurant, also recommended by my drug dealer friends! It is a cavernous place with many French families enjoying dinner. We are herded upstairs where a very French waiter welcomes us. We manage to communicate fairly well as he writes down our order on our tablecloth. The food is just okay but the ambience is so interesting and the kids enjoy the hustle bustle going on around us. It is fun to pretend we are just a French family out for dinner; of course we are speaking English with each other so our pretense is pretty weak!

The teenage boys decide to go out for drinks by themselves. They want to see if they too can have free drinks in Paris. Alas, there are no spills for them and they have to pay for their drinks. My husband and I wander a bit further from our hotel to let the boys have a little privacy.


Our thinkers

Day Four in Paris​

We decide that our last day in Paris is perfect for a little Eiffel Tower climb. We split up and my parents take the elevator. My mom is being kind and going with my dad; she can easily do the climb. We meet on the second floor and all go up to the top together.

At the end of the climb, we stop for crepes, buy tickets to the Bateau boats for the nighttime and get ready to go to Versailles. I missed Versailles the last two times in Paris and want to go this time. We enjoy the rest on the train after the climb at the Tower. Versailles is amazing even though they are working on the Palace of Mirrors and it is only half open, with the other half behind a wall of construction.

We take the train back and walk across the Siene to get ready to take the boat home to our neck of the woods. The sun is setting and the sky lights up with pink, purple and red. We board the boat and head toward the Eiffel Tour. It is so beautiful, sparkling and radiant in the night.

We ride along and it becomes evident that the kids are hungry and have had enough of the ride. We abort at Notre Dame and figure that we can just cross the bridge and get to the other side instead of staying on the boat until it makes it around to the Marais area. We walk and walk and walk. My dad is the only one who wonders out loud how far we are from our hotel.

We decide to spend our last dinner in Paris at the little square, the Place de Marche St. Catherine, that we loved the first night. I figure we will go to the restaurant recommended by the hotel our first night. I head right for the recommended restaurant. The older boys see the food at a Korean restaurant and begin to lobby in earnest. “Please, oh please.” Of course we go there and it turns out to be one of the most memorable meals of the whole trip.

Everyone loves his or her skillet of stir-fry. We all try different ones and everyone raves. My dad tells our waiter that he fought in the Korean War (he doesn’t mention that he never left the army base in the States and neither do any of us). The waiter loves my dad and consequently the rest of us! We talk with him a bit and laugh and drink wine together.

The kids will talk about this dinner for a long time. It is after 12:00 when we finish our meal! We close the square down and head back to the hotel happy and satiated.


Dinner at the Korean Restaurant

Day Five - We Head to Florence​

We wake up in the morning and get ready to go to Orly for our flight to Pisa. We find out from our lovely hostess at the hotel that our Bee Shuttle had arrived the day before to take us to the airport. Our hostess was in the process of confirming our reservation when the shuttle showed. She corrected the Shuttle driver and thanks to her our shuttle shows up (again!) to take us to Orly on time.

We get to the airport in plenty of time and wait in the Easy Jet area. We end up standing the whole time, as Easy Jet seems fairly disorganized. Some of the other flights have many windows open for check-in but somehow the flight to Pisa doesn’t seem to rate.

We all notice this strange looking woman wandering around. She comes up to us and asks about our line. She really wants to cut in line. We see her trying to break into the line in a few places (and later we see her in a second line way ahead of us). I catch the eye of a teenage girl in front of us. She also sees this woman. We share a bilingual laugh.

My daughter asks me to ask the teenage girl with headphones if she is listening to a certain singer. My daughter recognizes the tune the young girl is humming to herself. The young girl is listening to that particular music and she begins to talk with us. She and her family are Italian and returning from a vacation in Paris. We spend the entire wait talking with her family.

She can speak a little English and we have a nice time talking. Her dad wants us to know a lot of great places to go but he doesn’t speak any English except “Wow!” He mentions all the places he wants us to see by saying “Wow” after them. The wait is much easier. I am excited about Italy. I exchange email addresses with the young girl when she tells me she wants to go to Hollywood. I tell her she can come and visit us in Boston. It isn’t Hollywood but it is still in the States. She is so pretty and personable I hope she makes it to Hollywood some day. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Our flight is uneventful and much easier than the wait has been. We land in Pisa and wait in line for our rental car. We are lucky as a flight from Great Britain comes in right after our flight. It looks like their wait could be hours. We have already arranged with AutoEurope for a car and a van. AutoEurope turns out to be great as we have a bit of an accident later on in our journey.

Finally we head off in a caravan to our villa outside Florence. I drive the van and my husband drives the car. My 18 year old (Henry) is in charge of directions and he does a great job. We have no problem finding our villa.

The only problem we have is that we can’t make the rental cell phone work. We don’t call the villa to tell them where we are and when we will arrive. It turns out that we make better time than expected. We arrive and the caretaker is really mad! He yells at my husband whose car is the first one into the villa.

My car, the van, is a little late to arrive because I stall on the way up to the villa. The road is so windy and steep. As I drive up one of the switchbacks I slow down a bit too much. The van stalls on a very steep incline and I can’t start it up.

I stall again and again and even begin to roll down the hill. My daughter starts crying in the back seat. The crying makes me mad as it mirrors my own frustration. I try again. No luck. My father, in the passenger seat, volunteers to give it a try. He hasn’t driven a stick in a very long time but manages to start her up and make it up the hill, leaving behind a great plume of smoke and diesel fumes.

When we arrive at the villa I see that I have some public relations disaster to repair. It is difficult, as I don’t speak any Italian. The caretaker speaks no English, and the owner, who is supposed to speak English, is on vacation.

It seems that the problem is that we are too early and the dinner that they are preparing is not ready yet. It is very puzzling because we had a long series of e-mail exchanges with the rental agency where we all decided that we would not have a dinner prepared for us because of the high cost.

Alas, we have to think quickly. How could we stop their preparation at this point? I go into the kitchen and it is evident that the preparations are in high gear. It is then that I discover to my great pleasure that one of the cooks speaks some French. I also speak some French. (It will be the first and last time that I see this woman and her French would certainly have been an asset later on in our further mishaps with the villa and it’s caretaker.)

I explain the situation to the cook and she translates to the caretaker and he promptly calls the owner in Sicily. The phone is handed to me and I begin to explain to the owner. It is fairly fruitless as the connection is full of static and I decide to tell the owner we will gladly eat the dinner and save the fight over the price for the agency.

The mood lightens as we get a tour of the beautiful villa. We open a nice bottle of wine and relax. The view from the pool area is breathtaking. The kids are negotiating their sleeping arrangements. We hear them from afar as we wander the property outside. They are behaving well and we look at each other and let out a sigh of relief. I stop thinking about how in the world I am ever going to drive that van up the hills on all the adventures I have planned for the week. I will tackle that problem tomorrow.

We are called to dinner and it is magnificent! We eat and talk and drink for what seems like hours and everyone is happy and getting along so well. The atmosphere in and around the outside table at the villa is magical and the conversation is far superior to our usual family dinners. Maybe it is the wine that just keeps coming. Everyone is drinking. The caretaker seems to have warmed up and is constantly patting my daughter’s head. I can tell he likes children.

After dinner the kids decide they want to take a short swim. I volunteer to supervise. My mom and dad retire early and I go up to the pool area. I am really surprised that my oldest son Henry doesn’t join us for a swim. Neither does my husband. Later I find out that my husband is busy cleaning up the foyer of the villa. My son missed the bathroom because he drank too much wine, too fast. Not a good sign but easily cleaned.

The kids play a swimming game and it looks like fun. It’s dark and they beckon me to join them. Of course my swimsuit is back in my suitcase. With the lights of Florence below us in the valley I join my kids in my underwear. The youngest two kids, Emma and Charlie, skinny dip! What fun! We wander off to our respective bedrooms and go to sleep contented.


Florence from our villa

Day Six in Florence​

In the morning we wake to the caretaker’s anger. The moment we emerge from the house with our coffee in hand he is screaming at us in Italian. Where is the woman who speaks a little French when we need her?

It feels like we have been ambushed. We suffer a few hours of his raging presence before he abruptly retreats into his red car, shrieks "arrivederci" and angrily drives down the long driveway.

We figure out that there is a problem with the pool and we are sure he feels we have broken it with our short swim the night before. All the good feelings in and around the property seem tainted and we are stunned.

We walk around in a daze for about an hour and then I know what we have to do. We have to call the agency and complain about this behavior. We were all set to swim and hang out at the villa today for most of the day.

I call the emergency number and speak to the owner of the agency. He assures me that the caretaker is just frustrated with the broken pool (yes, the pool is somehow broken) and does not mean to take out his anger on us.

I say that he could have fooled me because it sure felt like personal anger. We are told to have a good time and go about our business. We try to have a good attitude and decide to change our plans. We will go into Florence early and begin our explorations there.

We have reservations at the Academia in the late afternoon. We load up into our cars and head down the mountain. The way down is not as scary as the drive up the night before. I feel confident that maybe I can make it up the hill at the end of the night. I am relieved because we have dinner plans and a rendezvous with our old au pair from 15 years ago.

She is from Germany and lived with us for almost a year when the three oldest boys were little. She left our house when the twins were just 2 years old and we have not seen her since. She and a friend are flying in from Germany to spend four days with us.

We drive into Florence and navigate perfectly until I miss a turn for Piazza Michelangelo, where we have been instructed to park for a beautiful view and free parking. I single handedly make the caravan perform many repeat turns and I finally make the correct move and we arrive.

The walk down into Florence is a nice leisurely walk and we head directly to Grom for some gelato. Grom is delicious and we all slurp tastes of each other’s gelato. The only problem is that everyone wants one of every flavor. We will just have to return. Of course.

Our reservation at The Academia enables us to skip right to the front of the long line waiting at the front door. I am glad that I made it as we all enter. There is an exhibit of old musical instruments that my dad finds to the right of the main hall. My dad loves all things musical and we follow him into the side room. Everyone finds a computer and learns a few things and listens to some music.

I am again awed by the magnitude of David. In another room there is an amusing set of videos of lectures given by two wine drinking professors on the significance of David. We all rest our feet and enjoy the surreptitious way the professor drinks and continues her lecture. It was evident that the professors were enjoying their wine as they spoke.

We arrange to meet our friend Uli and her friend Astrid outside the museum. It is a wonderful reunion and we are all happy to meet again. We wander the streets, talking and laughing and remembering how we used to be so many years ago. She can hardly believe the boys and how they have grown. They don’t remember her at all, but they know to let us have our space and reconnect.

We have a lovely dinner at Quatro Leoni in Santo Spirito. I have made this reservation online from home because of the Italian holiday and the fact that so many restaurants appeared closed on Sunday. Somehow I had forgotten to take the address of the restaurant.

When we hit the Piazza Santo Spirito I realize the restaurant is not where I thought is was. I know I need to ask for some directions. We have to ask a few times but we eventually find the restaurant and they have a nice large table already waiting for us. The dinner is very good and the house wine is great. Everyone enjoys their meal and the food is delicious. The crostini appetizer is so good we have to order seconds!

It is time again for a late night gelato. We walk back in the direction of our friend’s hotel and have gelato in a very expensive spot. We will talk about the cost of this gelato the rest of the trip, as we compare other places and prices.

My husband, my oldest son Henry (our navigator), and I leave the group sitting at a table and eating their gelato (perhaps that is one of the reasons it cost so much). We walk back to our cars and find our way to pick up our family. Later we realize we were right around the corner from one end of the Ponte Vecchio. No wonder the cost was so high!

The first test of driving back up to the villa is passed with flying colors. I am now driving the car and my husband is driving the van. I don’t drive the van again.

We arrive back at the villa late and go quickly into the house to avoid another confrontation with our irritated caretaker.


View near Piazza Michelangelo

Day Seven in Siena​

The next morning I don’t go up to the pool with my coffee to enjoy the amazing view, as I am afraid of his wrath. I huddle next to the kitchen to enjoy the morning air. We are off to Siena for the day before the Palio. Our friends have decided against joining us, afraid of the crowds. The folks at Slow Travel have encouraged us to go and we are really glad we have followed their advice.

We have a bit of trouble finding a place to park in Siena. (This parking issue is a recurring theme.) I have reams of paper about where to park in Siena from Slow Travel but I seem to screw up each time I try to coordinate them.

We finally decide, with the van following us, to head to the train station and look for a bus to take us into the city. We find the train station, circle it a few times, miss the turn into the station two times and finally arrive. We park underground and walk upstairs.

I have brought some gifts with me for Cristina’s daughters because I think we are buying some tickets to the contrada dinners from her today. I forget to take them out of the car and have to run back down to retrieve them. We are all still questioning whether we should park in this desolate garage (maybe it will not be open when we come back?)

I am still underground alone when I hear some English being spoken somewhere in the garage. I decide to ask the English speakers if they think it will be okay to leave the cars here for a long time. I approach their car.

It is amazing. It turns out that the English speakers are our friends from our place in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. We are meeting them later in the week at a vineyard for a wine tasting but we are not aware that they will be in Siena today. I bring them up to my family and we are all surprised that we are together here.

We stay together on the bus into Siena and as we walk into the main piazza. It is crowded and hard to stay together, all seventeen of us. We kiss good-bye and make sure we have phone numbers for later in the week.

I call Cristina and it turns out we have no seats and no dinner tickets (a traveling e-mail mix-up). We decide to make the best of it and enjoy the festivities. My two youngest kids have bought the flags of Cristina’s contrada. We love the colors and the flags all around.

We split up ourselves and we wander around a bit separately and come upon a flag ceremony in the very contrada that matches our flags. There is a group of teenage girls sitting and watching the flag dance intently holding their own flags. My daughter inches her way close to the girls, sits down tentatively and holds her flag tightly. She inches closer and closer and almost convinces herself that she is hanging out with these Italian girls. We snap pictures of their backs.

My son Charlie mimics the dancing as soon as the young men leave the square. We encourage him and he hams it up for us.

It is decided that we will have a picnic in the center of the main campo and wait for the race to start. We buy some wonderful cheese, some roast pork and some olives at a little store a few blocks from the square. The older boys have made a pilgrimage for some pizza and pasta.

We have a small feast and share some cheap chianti. It seems like the surge of people entering the square happens suddenly. We have to stand and hold each other to keep from getting trampled. Stupidly, I have encouraged us to be as high as possible and didn’t notice that we were right next to an opening in the enclosure. People descend on us. We pile up our picnic and hold our ground.

There are some English-speaking folks near us and we strike up a conversation. They are a wealth of knowledge about the race and share some insight with us. We are busy chatting as my photographer son is taking “butt shots” of lovely woman and we are lucky that he isn’t noticed.

The race is about to begin and the camera battery goes dead. But at least we have wonderful pictures of beautiful woman’s behinds! We do have one or two shots of the crowd and they do remind us of the wild atmosphere and the spirit in the campo that day.

The rain clouds gather as the horses jockey for position. The excitement mounts and the crowd grows silent. The race is over in seconds. People shout, wave and cheer. We are jostled again as the gates open. The skies also open and the rain begins as the crowd disperses. At this moment we feel lucky that we are heading out of town.

On our way to the bus that will take us to the train station we see hasty attempts to try to cover the tables all set up for the contrada dinners tonight. Tarps are being hung up and people are running for cover. We are totally drenched when we reach the bus stop.

The train station still looks as quiet and unoccupied as it did when we parked here hours earlier. We make it back to our villa, up the winding roads. I am not sure that I will make it up the steep road with the standard car but I do. I feel like a racecar driver squealing up the hills.


Emma and her "friends"

Day Eight in Florence​

We had planned a relaxing morning sitting at the pool and swimming. We know we can’t do this and let the kids sleep late. We organize quickly once they are awake and we are up and out of the villa.

We head back to Florence and meet our friends again. We walk around Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. We split up and enjoy the market in San Lorenzo. My husband sneaks into San Lorenzo itself to see the Tomb of the Duke of Nemours by Michelangelo. The weather is great.

My husband wants to see the museum in the Duomo (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) and the kids want to climb. Our friends have done this climb earlier in the day and choose to go back to their hotel to retrieve the dinner ingredients they have planned for a special dinner back at our villa tonight.

I climb the Duomo with the kids (minus my oldest, who spends the afternoon checking his e-mail and connecting with friends back home).

My parents enjoy a drink and some people watching at a café around the corner from the Duomo. My husband returns raving about the museum.

Our friend Uli has long wanted us to come and visit her in Germany. We have never made it there, and she wants us to experience some homemade German cooking. Her mother has made many maulthaschen for us all. They are ravioli like pockets filled with delicious chopped or ground meats, spinach and spices.

She and her friend have carried these homemade delicacies in a large carry-on bag from Germany. We are all going to our villa and we will help them create a German feast for us.

It is late when we finally arrive at the villa and we drive fast to try to beat the sunset, which is spectacular from the villa. We manage to make it within minutes and we are proud to show off our magnificent view.

The grownups move into the kitchen under the direction of our friends. The cooking is at once slow and fast. They move quickly but the kids are restless. My mother volunteers to play some cards with the kids and enlists my dad to help her. The kids are entertained as the preparations continue. The momentary kid crisis is averted.

We finally serve dinner, late for our crew. It is another magical night. We eat outside and the food is amazing. We keep thanking Uli and Astrid, and Uli wants us to remember her mother who made the wonderful maultaschen. We toast Uli’s mother and thank everyone for the delicious taste of Germany. Someday we must go and visit.

My husband and Henry take Uli and Astrid back to Florence. The others settle in for the night and I wander outside. I sit on the stone wall for what seems like hours, just staring at Florence in the distance and pinching myself.


Climbing the Duomo

Day Nine in Pisa​

I have promised the kids that we will climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa and today is the day. We get out relatively early and take a long time navigating the streets of Florence to pick up our friends who will join us for the day.

It is a mistake to drive back into Florence just to pick them up and then go out of the city. I don’t like city driving to begin with, and the added concern of keeping two cars together and trying not to get lost makes it even more difficult. We agree that we shouldn’t do this again.

The kids love Pisa. They love the tower, the street vendors and the whole aura of the historical area. I think all the tourists around just add to the fun. We have to wait and everyone stretches out on the grass and enjoys the sun and the company.

The climb is fun. The stone steps are worn down and do tilt to the side. The view of the Basilica as you climb is stunning, especially on a cloudless day.

We enjoy a sandwich on one of the side streets and eat outside. Half of our large group goes to one shop while the other half finds something across the street. There is a table open on one side of the street but the owner asks us to leave as only some of us have bought sandwiches from him. The owner on the other side sees this and motions to my husband to come back to his side of the street as a table has opened up. He doesn’t care that we didn’t buy all of our sandwiches at his shop.

After Pisa we drive to Lucca. I absolutely love Lucca. We stroll down the streets and end up having a gelato and sitting outside at a nice little café. There are pigeons in the square and the kids watch and chase them. We relax with our gelato and soak up the scenery.

Dinner is at a Florence restaurant recommended by Astrid and Uli. It is a huge place with lots of space available for us. The dinner is delicious and the house wine is good. We eat lots of crostini, pasta and pizza. The liver crostini is outstanding.

My mother indulges her craving for Florentine beefsteak; it is her birthday. We toast mom and everyone is happy. The waiter offers us limoncello and everyone wants to try it. The older boys love it and the little kids pucker their faces. I order a grappa because as usual I have eaten too much. It goes down wonderfully well.



Day 10 in Tuscany​

We have reservations at the vineyard Casa Emma with our friends from home. It is an early reservation for our teenagers. We also have to pick up our friend Uli (Astrid has chosen to spend the day alone in Florence) at a bus stop outside Florence. We get smart about driving into Florence to pick her up and she has an easy bus ride out to our neck of the woods.

We rally the kids and they do motivate fast. I apologize to them for the early start and they try not to be too grumpy. We are going to Casa Emma partly because it is recommended by Diva from Slow Travel and partly because my daughter’s name is Emma, and sometimes that is just how decisions are made.

We make amazing time and get to the vineyard a half hour earlier than our time to visit. Unfortunately our friends are a half hour late. Luckily Paolo is kind and we wait for our friends. The twins sleep in the car and the rest of us explore a bit of the winery.

When our friends arrive, the tour starts. Paolo is the winemaker and tour guide. The tour is really interesting and educational. Paolo keeps everyone engaged. We follow the tour with our tasting.

He sits us all around an oval table with him standing at the head. There is bread with his award winning olive oil. It is delicious and it is devoured. We taste three Chianti and one special wine made from merlot grapes. We hear his story about the making of this wine, that he calls Solo-io. He does a great job of teaching us about his wine and leaving us alone to talk about it. We end with a little Vin Santo and some biscotti.

(Later, after the trip, my twins Sam and Alex both say that the winery visit is their favorite part of the trip. Kudos to Paolo and his wonderful winery.)

My friends volunteer to take our younger two kids back to their villa in Castellina in Chianti for a swim while the rest of us go to Monteriggioni for a fancy lunch. I have made a reservation online at Piccolo Castello in Monteriggioni for all 17 of us but thankfully they don’t have a record of it and we don’t screw anything up by arriving with only eight of us.

It works out beautifully because the little kids would not have appreciated the lunch enough to outweigh it’s cost. The rest of us enjoy the lunch and love our food. I have a risotto made with butternut squash and it is rich and delicious. It is our most expensive meal so far.

It is great fun to see another villa and we laze the afternoon away beside our friend’s pool. We finally get our pool day! Everyone is happy as we catch up with our friends and the kids play and swim together. We drink the magnum of wine that Paolo has given us as a thank you for buying so much wine to ship back to the states. The sun is shining as we sit by the pool, play catch with the kids, talk, laugh, swim and relax.

The afternoon extends into early evening and we know we have to leave our friends and go back to Florence. My dad drives the kids and my mom home to our villa and my husband and I navigate our way into Florence to say goodbye to Uli. It is a teary goodbye and a promise to stay in touch and see each other sooner than another 15 years.


Emma in front of Casa Emma
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Day 11 in Arezzo​

We go to Arezzo to meet my husband’s colleague who is semi-retired there with his partner. Our friend Jack is an art history professor so we know we are in for a little education.

We see Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco. It is magnificent and the recent renovations are clearly evident. My kids begin their education about Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Later, in Rome, the tour guide will quiz the kids on this and they will remember.

My daughter and youngest son are not feeling great today. My daughter is hanging on me as we walk down the streets and lying on my lap during the entire sitting down events. I usually carry Advil and Tylenol with me but left my purse in our friend’s apartment.

My dad carries his high test Advil with him. My husband breaks the big tablet with his teeth, we buy a water and the two kids take their medicine. It is miraculous and they are back to their normal selves in 20 minutes, ready to enjoy the day. Quick thinking saves us, as it is hard to see too many sights with two kids who need to be dragged through the streets. When the medicine wears off the kids are fine so we think they are just overtired and vow to get a longer night sleep tonight.

We walk through the Piazza Grande and hear stories about its famous antiques market. We go into the Palazzo della Fraternita dei Laici and see the Madonna relief by Bernardo Rossellino.

We stop for a wonderful lunch and are joined by Jack’s partner Norman. We enjoy wine and delicious food. The appetizers are bountiful and we pass the plates around. It is a long and relaxing lunch and our table is outside on the side of the street and the conversation is flowing.

The kids are really beginning to get comfortable with the idea of nice long lunches. I have wonderful ravioli with butternut squash filling with a sauce made from cream and vin santo. Heavenly! My daughter states that the pizza here is the best she has ever eaten.

After lunch we go to see the fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca in the church off the Piazza Grande.

We say goodbye to our friends and head to the garage to retrieve our two vehicles. Of course I am driving the car while my husband has inherited the van. I follow him and go up the very steep incline to pay our ticket. All of a sudden my husband is honking and motioning me to back up. I go all the way down the incline and look up. There is a little diesel fuel smoke and major tire squealing happening.

It turns out that the machine to pay one’s parking fee is located on the incline at the top, but not on the part that has flattened out at the very top. My husband stops and stalls a few times and then, with one valiant attempt, stalls, and begins to roll backwards and suddenly smashes into the right hand side of the garage with a crash. The side mirror comes off and there is some definite damage to the side of the car.

The attendant comes rushing up to my husband and thinks he is trying to start in second gear. Again, that darn clutch. Our friends hear the commotion and come and help us communicate with the attendant. My husband tries again. At this point there is a large crowd at the small opening to the garage. They are watching and enjoying the spectacle. Luckily this attempt is successful and the van lurches out of the garage.

I have a little flurry of fear in my stomach as I follow him up to pay at the ticket machine. I hope that the attendant will just leave the gate up and let me out without a problem but no such luck. I concentrate well and make it out of the garage without a similar problem. We wave goodbye to our friends and all the gawking spectators collected near the entrance to the garage.

All of us in the car are glad we are not driving with my husband as we make our way to our villa for our last night in Florence. As we near the hills that take us to our villa I remember that we have to settle up with our caretaker before we leave in the morning.

Cash is required, although at this point I don’t know how much because it all depends on how much the first night’s dinner will end up costing us. I haven’t worried about this until now and I honk and honk to stop the van in front of us. My dad takes over and drives the kids home and my husband and I begin the hunt for cash with everyone’s bankcards and pins in our hot little hands.

We are partly successful with the money situation. Some cards work, some do not. We have more than enough to pay for the dinner if the dinner is the lesser of the two prices but not quite enough for the more expensive price. Maybe we can hunt down enough change and stray euros at the villa and in everyone’s pockets but we are not sure.

We are out of options at the two bank machines in the small town and decide not to venture into Florence. I will try to negotiate about the price when we check out.

When we arrive back at the villa the kids and my parents are enjoying a swim in the pool. It is so amazingly beautiful up there that everyone is happy. My mom has brought out some appetizers (trying to use up all the food!) and some wine and juice.

Unfortunately, I am the only one that does not get to enjoy this scene. It takes me almost two hours to finish our check out papers with the villa’s caretaker.

First, while he waits for me outside the villa, I am holed up in our bedroom with my cell phone out the window for reception, talking to the agency in England. It takes a few phone calls back and forth for me to be ready to begin to “talk” to the caretaker.

It takes more than an hour to finish this business outside. I talk to the agency, he talks to his owner, we switch phones and he talks to the agency and I talk to the owner. At one point I make a joke and try to have the two cell phones talk to each other!

We are trying to be patient but it is hard; we can’t communicate with each other to fill the time when the owner and agency must talk and our phones are silent. The afternoon wears on and by the time I finish it is almost dark. I miss the swim and the appetizers but feel vindicated by the agency as our bill is reduced in front of me.


View from Piazza Grande

Day 12 - We Head to Venice​

We leave our villa with last looks all around. We all talk about how nice it would be to wake up every morning with a view like this and sigh.

We are off to Venice. The ride is uneventful but very long. It seems to be much longer than my research has indicated. The traffic is really awful in the beginning of the ride and probably adds an hour to the time.

As we near Venice the sky looks very threatening and it is clear that a storm is coming in. It will be the only bad weather we encounter throughout the trip.

We figure out where to park with our rental car and are informed that we can just leave the keys with an attendant. We think we should go inside and talk to someone because of the accident. We leave the rest of our family sitting on the luggage by the rental car parking.

We run inside (trying to beat the rain storm) and wait in line. The woman at Europecar just takes the form, asks us to write down what happened and quickly says “no problem” and we are on our way. We have no idea if we will have a problem later but we decide to worry about it when we get home.

While I am standing in line at the rental counter my husband inquires about transportation to our hotel. It turns out to be just marginally more expensive to take a water taxi rather than the waterbus because we are such a large group. For ten or twenty euros more we get a faster ride into the city. Again we run out, find the family and walk down to the waterbus area.

There is some sunlight streaking through the clouds but the sky has turned a very dark gray and rain is imminent. We take the taxi.

Venice greets us, lit up by the sun’s rays against a black sky. Our eyes are wide with wonder. The driver is nice and says he will get us closer to our hotel. Unfortunately I have all these precise directions from the San Marco stop and we are soon lost. My son goes into a police station and finds the way to the hotel.

The hotel, Locanda Orseola, is enchanting. We walk into a small courtyard and enter the hotel. Immediately the patrons come out and greet me by name. They slowly introduce themselves to each of us and show us around the lobby and breakfast area.

Barbara is very gracious and the staff is so nice. My husband and I have a room with a window onto a side canal. My youngest son sleeps in the foyer of our bedroom, a little area around the corner from our bed. It is a perfectly adequate space for him and he is happy with the TV right in front of him.

We decide to get right outside and wander around; we want to see as much as we can before the downpour. We head outside and end up with a good hour before the rain starts to come down. We buy a couple of cheap umbrellas on the street; the men selling the umbrellas appear at exactly the right time.

We have a nice walk with great views of Venice in the rain. The light is so strange because the sun is trying to sneak out of the clouds. The buildings seem lit up with stage lights while the sky is almost black. We come back to the hotel, get out of our wet clothes and change for dinner.

While walking around on our way to dinner we see a pastry and gelato shop that is calling our name. Our better judgment keeps us from buying everything in the shop but we vow to return.

We have reservations at nine for a nice dinner at Acqua Pazza. It is about 45 minutes early when we walk past the restaurant in our explorations. We decide we are hungry and they have room for us early. It is a nice outdoor spot and a great meal.

This is the restaurant where our two youngest, Emma and Charlie, do not love their meal. Emma has four cheese pizza and one of the cheeses is gorgonzola and it is too strong a taste for her. Charlie has a seafood pizza and it also is too strong for him. Luckily for us they like our dinners and we love their pizzas.

It is by far our most gourmet meal in Italy. It is also our most expensive. We stay a long time and the waiter brings everyone limoncello (the kids included) and grappa.

The whole ordering experience is different here as the waiter really tries to create a menu for us. My mom says she is in the mood for fish and he jumps right in and before we know it she is sharing a large fish with grilled vegetables with my father. My son Sam does not like this technique as he feels the waiter jumps in and almost orders for him when he hesitates about his choice. He does love his pizza though.


Doges Palace after the rain
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Day 13 in Venice​

We wake to a great breakfast. The made-to-order crepes and omelets are delicious. I have my omelet with roasted vegetables and it is wonderful. My kids can’t decide and share the sweet and the savory.

We make our way to the Doges Palace to wait for the Secret Itinerary Tour to begin. Everyone enjoys this tour; it is very interesting. It is quite touristy but we have not done it before so it is new to us.

We are all intrigued by the story of Casanova and his time in the jail. It is fun to see the chambers where so many decisions were made and imagine the activities of all the characters. The woman leading our tour is very informative and answers all questions.

We especially like being able to see the space between the ceiling and the roof of one of the largest rooms. It sounds funny, but the beams and the construction is out of the ordinary. When the tour is over we wander down into the room that we had seen the “insides of” and it is a different perspective on the large hall. The kids enjoy seeing the crests and the portraits of some of the people that we have learned about on the tour.

It is raining when we move out of the Palace. We walk around in the rain and the colors of the umbrellas on the bridges remind us of paintings by Prendergast.

At this point we decide to split up a bit. When we were last in Venice we missed out on going to the Peggy Guggenheim museum. My oldest son Henry decides that he also wants to see the museum.

I know my other kids and my parents would love to go to Murano. I ask at the hotel and realize that it is Sunday and the factories are closed. The hotel says that a representative of a glass factory can come to the hotel and take them for a tour. I ask if there is a hard sell associated with this little tour. I am assured that there is no hard sell. I should have trusted my instincts here.

Actually, everyone says that despite the pressure to buy something much more costly than they want to buy, the tour is worth the time. The kids love to see the blower working. Unfortunately, since it is Sunday, they just see a short demonstration instead of a workday amount of blowing.

Aside: the gifts they bought just arrived today from Venice. They were intended as a surprise thank you to me for planning the trip. Unfortunately, I did get a heads up when the custom’s agent called to say we owed some money to have these gifts continue on their way to us.

Funny the salesman did not tell my parents that they would have to pay these costs. They were not pleased but when I opened the gifts last night and everyone saw how beautiful the glass is they were a little less angry about the whole thing.

I think it should be a warning to anyone who takes a private tour that there is a lot of high-pressure salesmanship going on and I wish the hotel desk had been a bit more honest about this. My family would still have done the tour but would have been more aware. Maybe I am just naïve and this is so obvious to more seasoned travelers but the warning stands.

The Guggenheim is amazing. When we go into the museum it is raining but when I get tired, and sit in the café, the sun is shining. It is a nice rest at the café and soon my son and husband join me and we relax for a bit.

We decide to walk a bit around the museum and it is fun to explore with just three of us. We go into a church near the museum (can’t remember the name) and admire the floor of the church. The tiles are really great and we take some photographs.

We decide to take the traghetti back across the canal. I had wanted to take a gondola ride but the economics of nine people in two gondolas has changed my mind. The traghetti is a fun alternative and we are back at the meeting place in short order.

It is time to walk to the pastry shop. My dad opts for a nap and my husband wants to go to the Venice Biennale. The rest of us walk to the shop and eat gelato, candy and macaroons. We also buy some of the huge macaroons to bring back to the others. We practically dance back to the hotel on our sugar high!

The walk to the pastry shop is long as we walk over the Rialto Bridge into San Polo and then into Dorsoduro. On the way back we split up.

The older boys want to wander on their own with their own map and my mom and I take the younger two kids home. We are doing fine until the rain comes. Somehow I get disoriented (again a bit of a recurring theme), cross one or two bridges too many and we are lost.

I pull out the map and it immediately gets wet. Luckily my 13 year old has a good sense of direction. He takes command and we retrace our steps over the last few bridges and we are back on track.

We change out of our wet clothes for dinner. We all walk to a restaurant near the Accademia recommended by our friend from Arezzo. Unfortunately we don’t check it out first and it is closed. We try another one in a lovely courtyard but they don’t have room for nine.

We are in luck though, and we come upon a square with a nice looking restaurant with room inside for us. The food turns out to be really good and the price is right. Everyone enjoys their meal and we leave happy. I wish I could remember the name.


Venice in the rain

Day 14 - We Head to Rome​

We must leave Venice. Our last breakfast is wonderful and I begin with the early breakfast eaters and stay until the last teenager is done. I sit in the warm café, with it’s rich colors of red, maroon and gold, listening to classical music and sipping espresso.

Our bags are stacked in the lobby as the taxi approaches. We duck our heads and step through the hotel window and land gingerly into the taxi. Franscesco and Barbara wave goodbye from the window as we head to the train station for our ride to Rome.

We had a lot of problems getting these train tickets. I tried to get these tickets early, online with trenitalia. I learned about some special fare tickets on SlowTrav. I tried to get the tickets early because I was worried that we wouldn’t all be able to travel together.

I never received confirmation of my purchase so I contacted the Venice hotel for help. The folks at the hotel figured out that my transaction was never finalized and finally, after a lot of legwork on their part, acquired these nine tickets for us.

We settle in and discover that there is plenty of leg room in second class. The four boys play cards for hours as they have a table in front of them. Just as the kids are getting a bit restless a little girl who couldn't be more than two walks down the aisle. She is singing to herself. Her family is Italian and they are happily talking amongst themselves. There seems to be a lot of them on the train, just behind us.

This adorable little girl walks right up to my daughter and begins singing happy birthday. We guess this from the tune alone. She sings one verse and then looks up at my daughter and claps her hands together and says “Bravie”. We ask our tour guide in Rome later about this and she says that the little girl is probably just learning the word. She continues to sing, stop, congratulate herself, and clap and do it again for the last hour of our trip.

She begins to interact with my youngest son as well. He is also in the outside seat. Soon she has my whole family mesmerized. We are all egging her on. Occasionally her father comes back to us, and whisks her away.

She wanders back. With our laughter we tell the father that she is okay with us. She is not bothering us, she is entertaining us. We will always remember this little girl and her happiness. I wonder if it is her birthday, we will never know.

When we land in Rome I call Prudence who is our contact with ContextRome. Somehow I can’t make the phone connect so I call Helen who is on vacation. After our experience with our villa I had called Helen from the train. So, I have to interrupt Helen again on her vacation. She couldn’t be nicer about it and tells me she will call Prudence and to go on ahead to our apartment. We pile into two taxis and we are off.

Prudence is waiting for us in the apartment and opens the window and shouts down to us as we look for the door. It is an amazing apartment right between Piazza Farnese and Campo di Fiori.

The apartment has a wonderful old long dining room table that reminds me of a movie set. The living room faces out onto the Piazza and you can see the French Embassy. It is such an interesting space with funky artwork and lots of hidden bedrooms.

The windows are really large and very thick. The noise in the Piazza is silenced when the windows are closed. When you open the windows the world outside becomes alive. Right away we all know we are going to love this place.

We quickly head back outside to explore. We are amazed that there is so much going on right outside our door. There is a bakery, butcher, cheese store, pizza place and many little restaurants and bars. We all walk around for a long time.

My husband and I head up to the nearest grocery and get some supplies. Later that night we cook some fresh pasta with homemade pesto sauce from the cheese shop. Our appetizer is cheese from the same cheese shop and crostini with liver spread from the little grocery store. It is delicious and my pesto pasta is great as well. We drink some of our Casa Emma wine and feel like we live in Rome.

At night we explore the area. Of course we need gelato as well. My youngest two kids and my parents head back to the apartment after their gelato. My teenage boys have a night on the town. My husband and I are left on our own.

We walk down to Piazza Navonna and then back to Campo di Fiori. We settle in at one of the bars and watch the square come alive. We are just amazed that this is a Monday night in Rome.


Campo di Fiori
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Day 15 in Rome​

The morning is so wonderful in Campo di Fiori. I go out by myself and stroll through the market and get a few things for dinner tonight. We haven’t decided if we will cook in again but I think nothing will go to waste.

We are scheduled to meet our tour guide, Allison Beatty, at 2:00 in front of a famous restaurant in Piazza Farnese. We think about walking to Dino and Tony’s for lunch but I can’t make our phone work to call Allison to change our meeting place. We have pizza in the Campo and the kids like being on their own to search for the best place.

I have been a little bit worried about money for our Rome adventure. Both the apartment and our tour guide need to be paid in cash. I have planned to bring euro travelers checks for the apartment and a personal check for Allison. At the beginning of our trip I realize I have forgotten the one check I need. I am thinking of a way to take out enough cash to pay both Allison and her driver. It will be difficult.

Within minutes of meeting Allison I mention my money problem. I ask her if she would help me navigate a credit advance on my credit card. She immediately tells me that I can send her a check when we return home. I am so relieved and happy that she will trust us to do this. It takes a huge weight off of my shoulders and I can relax.

We are off to the Vatican. We arrive around 2:30 and the lines are not as bad as I think they will be. We are all surprised at the size of everything.

We go into the museum and begin to look around. Allison tells my kids that it would take 26 years to see every piece of artwork in the Vatican Museum if you spend one minute in front of each item. Charlie wants to move in and do just that. He has a plan!

The Gallery of Maps is amazing and we take many pictures in front of the places where we have traveled on this trip. The Sistene Chapel is not very crowded and we spend quite a bit of time in there. Before we leave we all sit on the benches and just stare at the ceiling. Allison gives us some stories about Michelangelo and the making of the Sistene Chapel.

We go into the St. Peter’s and walk around the chapel. It is like a small country in there and the kids are intrigued with the measurements of other churches and how they compare to this one. We all talk about how awe-inspiring it is in the church. We are not Catholics and we talk about the impact of this church to Catholics.

We say goodbye to Allison for the day and head back to our neck of the woods. Campo di Fiori is hopping and we are ready to join in the fun. I head to my cheese shop for some more cheese and some more pesto sauce while my husband runs up to the grocery store for some more fresh pasta. At the bakery we find the bread for dinner.

We have a few different appetizers, some pre-cooked chicken and different bottles of wine but the dinner is essentially what we had the night before. We all loved it so much we were very happy to repeat the experience. We go out for gelato again and walk around the area.

We walk to Piazza Navona. We walk a different way back to Campo di Fiori and again split up for the evening. My husband and I frequent a few places in the Campo and come home late at night. We arrive a few minutes before the teenagers come in and I don’t have any time to worry about them.


St. Peter's

Day 16 in Rome​

We meet Allison at 10:00 in the morning. We give the kids an extra hour of sleep. I am looking for some brownie points but I am not sure I get them as they drag themselves awake.

We have a full day ahead of us and we have the use of a van and driver to make things easier. I know we don’t have many days in Rome and we want to see as much as we can so the van seems like a good idea. My dad is getting a bit tired of walking and quickly makes friends with the driver.

We head first for the Coliseum and buy our tickets at Palatine Hill where there is no line. We buy some water to take in with us and all use the bathrooms. We walk all around the Coliseum.

We stop for photos and learn about the Velaruim, a sort of awning that was supported by poles on the upper story and created shade for the spectators. We also see where the animals were housed down below the floor. It is quite something to see the places you have seen in movies and read about in books.

We leave the Coliseum and head in the van to the Arch of Constantine. Allison wants to be sure that the kids know who Constantine is; she asks them a few times to make sure they remember him.

We go to a street with a different view of Palatine Hill and she tells us the story of the Founding of Rome with the twins Romulus and Remus. Some of our kids have studied this in Latin class in school and a spirited discussion ensues. We also see Circus Maximus and talk about chariot races and other sporting events.

We are off to the Pantheon for one more event before lunch. We can’t seem to stop talking about rain coming in through the enormous hole in the ceiling of the Pantheon. Everyone is hungry and Allison suggests her husband’s aunt’s restaurant outside the ancient city. We are all excited to go to a restaurant off the beaten path and quickly tell her that we want to eat there.

She calls the restaurant and finds out that her young daughter and husband are having lunch there now. She becomes hesitant to go as her daughter will see her and want to stay with her, and she is working. We tell her we want to meet her daughter and family and a small scene with her daughter won’t bother us.

We go to the restaurant. It is called Steak House-Pizzeria L’Archetto 3. It is on Via Ancona, 33/35. We are warmly welcomed and given a table in the back. We are definitely the only tourists in this place and we leave it up to Allison to order some of the specials for our appetizers. We share some fried zucchini flowers and some fried rice balls and they both are delicious. There is enough for everyone to try.

We get some house wine and order our own lunches. I order one of the specials of the day, on Allison’s recommendation. She tells us that her mother-in-law comes in to the restaurant in the morning to help her sister make all the specials of the day. I have the ravioli in vin santo and it is wonderful.

Halfway through our meal Allison’s husband arrives to say hello and he brings her daughter. Her daughter, quite spontaneously, gives me a big kiss right on the mouth and giggles very loudly. She is adorable. We meet Allison’s husband’s aunt and uncle and the whole family is friendly and happy to host us in their restaurant.

We say our goodbyes and head off to the Trevi Fountain area. We park a bit away from the Fountain to walk after lunch. My twins, Sam and Alex, remember their favorite gelato place is near the Fountain and they set off to try and find it. We relax at the fountain and take some pictures and cool off a bit.

Sam and Alex come back triumphant; they have found the gelato spot. It is San Crispino, Via della Panetteria 42. There is always room for gelato. This time I lean toward the fruit flavors and get a delicious raspberry.

We are off to the Catacombe di Priscilla. Allison must take many people here, as the nun at the reception desk knows her and they chat for a minute.

Allison takes us down into the catacomb and we learn about the tunnels and burial procedures. There are no bones in most of the places where the bones used to be; they have been removed. There is one spot where the bones remain and we get to see them and imagine them in the rest of the catacomb.

Our friends from Arezzo told us about the Church of San Clemente and this will be our final destination. Ancient Roman buildings are underneath a 4th century basilica. The basilica is under a 12th century church, which is under the current church. An Irish Dominican prior of San Clemente began excavations in 1857 and discovered what was underneath his church. The church is undergoing renovations so the “modern” part is not completely accessible, but the older areas are interesting and worth a visit.

It is time to say goodbye to Allison. She is an excellent guide and we all highly recommend her. We ask her for a recommendation for a good restaurant for our last night in Italy. She suggests Café Luigi, which is not too far from our apartment and on Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

We freshen up and relax a bit in the apartment before we gather to walk to our dinner. My husband, as usual, is in the lead. My dad, as usual, holds up the rear of our little entourage.

My husband and the older boys spot the restaurant and before we know it the host comes out and quickly seats us. The table is suspiciously close to the busy street and only separated by an iron fence.

I am skeptical but we are quickly asked for our drink orders and oblige the waiter (who is also the host). I know something is wrong when I can’t find fried zucchini blossoms or fried artichokes on the menu. I had had a long discussion with Allison about these two things and she said that Café Luigi does a wonderful job with them.

Suddenly the water and bread is upon us. The water bottles (one with gas and one without) are plastic and the bread is pretty plain. Almost at once my mom and I look up and see that we are at Papa Razzi (strange that it is the same name as a chain back in the states). Café Luigi is right next door down a sort of alley and not really on the main street.

As soon as we say something my husband gets really upset. It is too late to move, we are not so brave as to do it now. My husband Jeremy is mad at himself and then at everyone else for following him.

The only way to handle this is with some humor. Everyone starts making jokes, really stupid jokes, and my husband relaxes. We all try to laugh about our mistake. Someone mentions the money we will save and what we can do with it. We talk of walking past a few more tourist stands to spend the extra hundred dollars. There are giggles and grins and wine and before long we forget that we made a mistake.

The food comes and then there is a moment of panic but almost everyone has a meal they like. We think my mom’s veal would be something else but we are sure it is a translation mistake and not a cooking misstep. I think it is pretty good but she doesn’t love it. She shares some of my pasta, which is actually quite good. Jeremy’s pasta is very uneven-some of the pieces are soggy and some are not cooked enough. His is by far the worst meal. The kids like their pizza, and my dad likes his dish. It is not terrible for a mistake but nothing like the elegant looking restaurant in back of us.

We will always remember our last meal in Rome. It is now a funny family story. How quickly we were seated and how slow we were to realize our mistake.

We have a nice walk back through Piazza Navona to our apartment and gelato. Of course we couldn’t have our last night without gelato and then drinks in the Campo.

This time Jeremy and I find ourselves at a table at a very full bar on one side of the Campo. Before we know it there is conversation with our young female server. She finds out that we are American and gets excited and tell us her boyfriend is American.

He is the bartender inside. Soon he comes out to say hello, bringing us two shots of some kind to try. It is a shot of the same drink that our friend the server is bringing to the table next to us. It is good and we stay for another round.

There is a man doing a magic act who parks himself in front of the tables out front. We wonder if he is the same man the boys talked about the other night, the one they saw perform in Piazza Navona. The boys said he took off his wig and used it to collect tips at the end of his “show.”

There are a few men at the table just next to me and I hear they are speaking English, with heavy accents. I turn around and ask them in English what the magician is saying to the crowd. They explain that he is saying, “Look at me, look at me.”

This begins a conversation and we both turn our chairs and talk for a while with the guys at the next table. We enjoy our conversation but one of the men gets a cell phone call and they have to leave. It is pleasant talking about cultural differences with these men, one in particular. He is originally from the Middle East and knows the owner of the bar.

Soon our server comes over and asks us if the owner could come over and have a chat with us. It seems the owner found out we were from Boston and he went to Boston College in the 90’s. It is truly a small world and he also brings us a shot of something sweet and interesting on the house.

We are really having a nice last evening in Rome. Our first server comes over and I ask him where he is from-his English is fluent without accent that we can detect. His Italian seems fluent as well. It turns out he is from Denmark. At the end of the evening, when the tables are being put away, we get up, rather slowly.

All the servers come over to say good-bye and the Danish man says that he was confused as to our nationality when he first came by our table. It seems that he asked us a question in English but we were too engrossed in our conversation with each other to hear him. He then tried Italian but we weren’t paying attention. After that he wasn’t sure about us.

Now he asks us, because he hasn’t heard the stories from the others. I joke that I am from Denmark, why didn’t he think of that. Suddenly he starts speaking Danish really rapidly and pointing to me as if I was his long lost sister. It is a funny moment and we all share a laugh.

We walk slowly back to the apartment. We are definitely the last ones to arrive home and hope that we will be able to get up in the morning.


Septimius Severus

Leaving Rome, Heading Home​

I set the alarm really early so that I will have time to walk around the market in the morning either before or after final packing. There is always a lot to do to get ready to check out, especially with nine people.

My mom and I walk around the Campo in the morning and buy some souvenirs for gifts and some wonderful spice concoctions to take home. We also go into the bakery and I try to buy some calzones for the kids for breakfast.

Unfortunately I can’t understand the woman behind the counter. I buy them anyway and they are nothing like I imagined. I like them but I am the only one. They come home on the plane with us and I eat them again for breakfast the next day. The filling is a mixture of greens, some bitter and some like spinach.

We have enough leftover bread and cheese and a whole plate of pasta pesto. Everyone finishes the leftovers in time as the van arrives to take us to the airport.

Our flight from Rome to Paris is uneventful except for a delay in departure and then again a delay in reaching the gate once the plane has landed. We are concerned about our connection to Boston from Paris. We are right to be concerned.

There is a mother and son behind us as we wait to taxi to the gate in Paris. We begin a conversation and they are also trying to get on the same plane. When the buzzer sounds they are up and out like a shot. Of course it takes longer for nine of us to get off the plane, painfully longer.

The moment we walk out into the terminal there are voices shouting destinations. It seems that New York and Boston flights have airplane personnel on hand to guide us to the departure terminal for our next flight.

We begin the race to cross Charles DeGaulle Airport. It is like a scene out of a crazy movie. I am worried about my dad who can’t run as fast as we are running. He can’t walk as fast as we can walk. We are all spread out as the fast runners are up with the airline representative.

I notice behind me that my dad has another representative with him. Thank goodness, as surely we would have lost him. There is music playing somewhere and it feels like we are in the great race. We hit security as the music reaches a crescendo. Half of us are through security and safely in line at the gate when my son Henry rushes up to us. At eighteen he is feeling pretty confident about navigating the travel issues but he is breathless. He says the attendant put him on the spot and asked him if he learned any manners at home. He was flustered and didn’t know what to respond.

Finally the attendant says, “Didn’t your mother or father teach you to say good morning or hello when you greet someone?” I guess we have to remember the French custom of saying “bonjour” or “bonsoir” at all occasions, even while preoccupied about missing your flight. Henry was a bit insulted. He thinks maybe that this attendant spends his day and gets a lot of pleasure teaching young American kids their French manners.

One last crazy moment and my long saga will be finished.

Our family usually walks in some kind of weird line, sometimes one deep, sometimes two, but almost always with my father in the back of the pack. The rest of the group takes turns in the lead and in the middle but my dad always holds up the rear.

During the flight home we have a discussion about the customs declaration. I always fill it out for us and my dad is going to fill it out for my mom and dad together. The flight is smooth and we leave the plane. I count bags and suddenly remember that someone has left one of our “extra” bags on the plane. I tell everyone I will be right back.

A policeman says I can’t turn around and go back. I beg him and finally he relents and accompanies me back to the first corner. There is a heated conversation and finally I am allowed to walk back to the gate. Luckily a nice flight attendant emerges carrying my flaming yellow bag. It is full of wine from Casa Emma so I am happy to see it.

We go through customs and then security. All of a sudden we hear my mother call ahead to us. “Wait, she says, they won’t let me through.” I try to go back to see what is going on but they tell me to stay put. At the same time I hear my husband swear softly as some of the wine is crashing around on the x-ray belt.

My mom is standing by the declarations man and he is nodding his head back and forth. It seems she doesn’t have a form. Well, my dad is nowhere around. We look behind us, but he is not in view. We can’t figure out how he got so far behind when my husband yells that my dad just went through the final door. I turn around and try to walk toward the door.

Another policeman shows up out of nowhere and won’t let me get my dad. My mom tries to explain that my dad has filled out the form for them both. My husband asks if my mom can just be a part of our form but the answer is no. The agent is busy looking through all the collected forms, still shaking his head.

People are watching us. Our yellow bag crashes to the floor and my husband swears, loudly this time. I look at the x-ray attendant and she says “Bad day or what?”

Finally the attendant checks my dad’s name with my mom’s passport and says she can go on and join us.

We all go out the gate and see my dad. He is sitting in a chair waiting for us. He says, “What took you so long!” It is the first time in the whole trip that he is first in line and he never looked back. He just left my mom hanging.

Everyone looks at each other and we all laugh at the same time. Dad doesn’t get it at all and we explain what he did as we make our way home.


Parting Shot

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