This trip was a real departure for me. I’m accustomed to traveling to Italy alone, but this time I was flanked by a jaunty gaggle of family members for a modern, mini version of a Grand Tour. Our group started as five, and included my sister Rosie and her husband Jon, kids Jasper (14) and Rosie ‘Junioressa’ (10). We became six after my niece Victoria joined us in Bologna.
We crammed a lot into nine days: three days in Rome bookending the trip, three days in Venice, one in Bologna, two in Abruzzo/Fossacesia.
Rosie was hoping to instill a love of Italy in her kids, and we succeeded to the extent that both said they wanted to come back. They might have been speaking with gelato’d tongue, but we’ll take the win.
We planned the trip to be kid-friendly, allowing time for beach or pool most afternoons. The downside of hotels with really nice pools is that they tend to put you a bit outside the heart of the city centers, but the relief from the scorching heat was worth it. We also tried to make afternoon and evening gelato stops. Favorite spots were Grom, which is a very good gelato chain, Suso in Venice, and the grand winner, Martinucci in Trastevere, which is also a great pasticceria.
Beyond swimming pools and facefuls of gelato, big hits with the kids included Il Bosso Wolf Sanctuary in Abruzzo, Italian candy stores, Venetian glass miniatures for Rosie and Italian style for Jasper, and the Fossacesia beach!
In fact, the kids did great being dragged around day and night, but for a tendency to flail a bit in crowds and occasionally smack fellow travellers with their water bottles or step on touring toes. Moreover, while we'd been a little afraid that, at 14, Jasper would be a little too figo for school, he really did spare us any huge doses of teenage scorn.
These virtual postcards are less Baedeker than photo-essay of meals, moments, memories, miscellany.
On the day we arrived, we had a late afternoon drink in Piazza Navona, where little Ro made her first purchase: gladiator-themed pencils!
Piperno, one of the restaurants that has for years been on most “Best of” lists, was a towering disappointment for a first night’s dinner. Perfectly mediocre, though a very pretty setting. This photo was the first in a series that amused us.
Here's the rest of our un-PC Toast of the Town series. We chortled again and again while some onlookers no doubt considered calling the Carabinieri. What to say? We’re simple folk.
We celebrated Big Rosie's birthday dinner at her sentimental favorite in Venice, Antico Martini, where Jasper clearly took a dim view of the tarted up and, let's face it, self-important Shirley Temple. (The rest of us were star-struck.)
We followed dinner up with a visit to Piazza San Marco.
Earlier that day, we took an hour-long mask-making workshop, after which we deemed ourselves highly accomplished artisans. The experience was among little Rosie’s top memories.
Behold the product of our artistic labors! Mine is going to Goodwill this week, but I will try again.
We had lunch twice at Al Giardinetto da Severino, one of our favorite restaurants in Venice. It was there that Jasper discovered his love of arrabbiata, my all-time favorite dish. He had the temerity to ask the waiter for extra sauce while the rest of us dived under the table, and I had the temerity to pour the remainder into a water bottle (not sure what I thought I would do with it) while everyone else took another table dive. (I proceeded to leave my saucy treasure in the hotel fridge, alas.)
It's worth noting that Jasper’s other dining adventures over the course of our odyssey included several dishes of octopus and crab, pasta with lard and pecorino, and a selection of three cheese gelatos with fig jam. While these departures from the vegan-friendly arrabbiata pained me a little, I had to agree that his intrepid palate deserved a round of applause. Attaboy, Jazzy J-man!
A gondola tour gave our hot, aching feet a welcome break, which is part of the reason Rosie and I look so darned happy.
Here's Jon's time-lapse video of the gondola ride:
By the third day in Venice, I’d had about enough of Rosie and her excessive drinking. It was time to throw her off the Rialto Bridge.
Venice is one of big Rosie's and my favorite shopping cities. She found the kind of Guernica-inspired mask she's been seeking for decades. I went on a jewelry bender.
...Where we discovered great shopping, refreshing lemon soda, and -- holy cupcakes! -- penis pasta!
...along with some interesting facts (also phallus-focused, as luck would have it) about the central piazza's Neptune statue and the medical school of the University of Bologna, Europe's oldest university.
Into every traveller's life a little face-plant must fall, particularly after a bout of nervous exhaustion courtesy of the Kafka-esque Bologna train station. Where is your train track, you ask? Why, simply follow the arrows that point to other arrows.
Counting on getting a rental car in Italy that can accommodate six people plus luggage, particularly in a smaller city like Pescara, can be a pipe dream. I was promised a Jeep Compass "or similar." Unfortunately, the Or Similar meant little more than an engine-powered vehicle rather than a Fred Flintstone trade-in . We were able to upsize a bit, but poor RoRo was wedged into a kind of jump seat in back with the luggage.
I'd been a little worried that my quiet little town would be a disappointment after the likes of Rome and Venice. To my delight, Fossacesia was a hit...from the stony beach to the stone-ground pizza.
Abruzzo is a wonderful region for skiers, hikers, rock climbers, and nature lovers of all stripes. We booked a guided tour of Il Bosso Wolf & Wildlife Reserve in Maiella National Park, which was a bit of entertainment-cum-education against a beautiful backdrop.
There were only three wolves in residence at the moment and we saw them from behind a windowed wall, which made it hard to capture them on camera. Fortunately, this is also a sanctuary for wild boar and several types of deer, some of whom found us intriguing and came over to say hello.
Our lovely guide, Luciana, asked for a copy of this shot to use on the Reserve's site.
Dinner on a trabocco (a picturesque and storied fishing apparatus peculiar to this strip of the Adriatic coast) is a really special experience. Ours at Punta Punciosa got bonus points for what was very possibly the best Prosecco I’ve had yet.
(Jasper should have that arm looked at.)
Rosie's signature gazelle leap before the Pantheon
Our tour under the relentless Roman sun threatened to add some of us to the long list of Christian casualties in the Coliseum.
By the time we took our Sistine/Vatican Museums tour, I was nearly lame. I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel three times now, and should I ever get it into my head that I want to see it again, I hope someone will remind me that I really don’t.
Fun with sculpture mimicking in the Vatican Museum. The two Rosies were the only ones who nailed it. (Truth to tell, they were the only ones who were really trying.)
It’s any philosopher’s guess what Jasper thought of the School of Athens in the Raphael Rooms.
The spectacular Trevi Fountain by night never disappoints. The kids did the coin toss in traditional style and, minutes later, a roar went up as a young man proposed and a young woman accepted. It’s the kind of grand gesture I find a little hokey and I know some Italians find mystifying , but it was a crowd-pleaser.
Hotel Hits and Misses
MISS! Rome Cavalieri. The pool was wonderful as always, but lunch a shocking failure. Think we’re done there.
HIT! Rome's Parco dei Principi. Our favorite hotel this trip. Great pool and much better food poolside. (Photo below.)
HIT! Venice's Hotel Excelsior on the Lido. Beautiful and took the gold for “kids' fave pool.” It was the right choice for family travel in summer, but shuttling between the Lido and the Venice “mainland” ate up a lot of time. I don’t think I’d do it on future visits, but wouldn’t mind having a home on the Lido.
HIT! & MISS! Bologna's Art Hotel Commerciante. The apartments were very nice and ideally located, but service was poor.
Restaurant Reviews by Thumb
-Nino UP Hiding in plain sight in Via Borgognone, and excellent.
-Piperno DOWN Dead to us.
-Clotilde (recommended by Forbes) UP Very strong on antipasti. Somewhat less so on mains.
-Papa Re in Trastevere UP An unassuming neighborhood place serving traditional Roman fare. The only problem was it was hot, which my sister seems unlikely to let me forget.
-Trattoria Da Me UP With one or two minor exceptions, dishes were exceptional.
In and Around Fossacesia:
-Il Coccodrillo (Rocca San Giovanni) UP What a great find, suggested by a local friend.
-Punta Punciosa (Rocca San Giovanni) UP Unbeatable setting.
-Antico Martini UP Beautiful place with reliably great food.
-La Tavernetta on the Lido DOWN Forgettable.
-Al Giardinetto da Severino UP Always great.
-Da Gobbo UP A very pleasant surprise. We wanted a quick dinner near the meeting point for our Ghostly Venice evening walking tour (which we ditched after 30 minutes), and lucked into some outstanding food here.