Two years ago, we had a three week holiday in Italy. Before we went, I checked out as much advice as I could find on travelling in Italy with children (Callum was 6, Declan 4 (and a half! I can hear him correcting)). Most of it boiled down to – forget it and go to a beach instead. But we had a wonderful time.
Myth 1 – Children won’t enjoy “cultural experiences” – We saw quite a few “cultural things” – archeological sights, famous churches and cathedrals, even an art gallery. I think there are a few tricks to making this work. First – preparation and stories. Before we went, we had found some age appropriate books about the Romans to help us figuring out how to explain it all to the boys. They were particularly fascinated by stories of everyday life in Rome, which helped imagine what was missing at the Forum, and by anything bloodthirsty – the Colosseum, and the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination.
We tried to make sure we had told them a story or something like that about every place we went before we got there. Although we did find that that entailed more explanation of the Christian religion than we had ever needed to do before (try explaining Michelangelo’s Pieta without tracking back and talking about Christianity!)
Myth 1 – Venice is not a good place for children – I read this on a few travel websites. Really, what they mostly boiled down to is that you have to walk everywhere in Venice. We did our best to do a bit of training in the months before (we like to walk as a family anyway, but there was less giving in and carrying them on our shoulders than we had been used to). If you can survive the need to walk, Venice is the best city for children in Italy, possibly anywhere. We spent a week there, and could have had more. It’s very exciting having no cars, and streets full of water. The buildings feel much more child sized than anywhere else. The children can run around very safely in many places. Feeding the pigeons in St Marks Square is heaven for a four year old boy who loves animals.
And best of all (at least from a small boy’s perspective) it flooded while we were there, which made it very exciting, watching everyone trying to pick their way through the floods, the traffic police directing the tourists on the narrow duckboards, and the water bubbling up through the drains. This book, Kids go Europe: Treasure Hunt Venice, had some great ideas and had us spotting wingled lions (the symbol of Venice) every where we could find them.
Myth 3 – Italians love children – you will read this everywhere, even on non travel websites. I had been particularly looking forward to travelling with blonde Challum in southern Italy, as I thought that a blonde small boy would be irresistable to fawning shop assistants and waiters. To help, we taught both boys to say Grazie and Per favore before we left.
But I don’t think we got any better service in Italy than we do in Australia. I think we got better service, often, than we would have without children (at least we got more smiles) but that’s true in Australia, too. A friend suggested that only angelically behaved children might trigger the fabled Italian fawning. Our boys are reasonable, but they do like to run around now and again, which often got frowns, and more often than in Australia, direct intervention, at least to the parents (quite fairly I might add).
I think Italians are more interactive with children, and more prepared to interact with them directly (including correcting misbehaviour) but there doesn’t seem to be the same level of unconditional adoration that I had been subconsciously expecting. Perhaps at 6 and 4, they’ve outgrown their cuteness a bit too much.
Myth 4 – Italians are manic drivers – Actually this one is true (especially in Sicily!).
Some random highlights:
- Wandering around Rome’s fashion quarter with Declan, who was determined that I should buy some new clothes, “beautiful ones, mummy”
- Playing soccer in one of Venice’s minor squares with Declan and Callum, near a few locals doing the same thing
- Trying to sit still enough in the Mediterranean waters of Sicily to get the very tame fish to nibble at our hands
- Standing up in the traghetto (public transport gondola) in Venice across the Grand Canal
- Playing hide and seek in the small back alleys of Burano, a small island near Venice proper
Of course there were a few downsides compared with that beach holiday, or with the holiday we would have had pre children. There isn’t much english language television in Italy, so occupying the boys when tired was a bit more labour intensive than it would be at home. We didn’t see as many adult “sights” as we would have without the boys. We’re still, a few days after coming home, in various states of jetlag. And, of course, from Australia, the beach holiday would have been much cheaper.
But because of the children, our holiday felt more like an experience of another country, rather than the backpacker holiday that crams as many sights into a small period as possible we had done together 20 years before. We deliberately picked places and stayed there (so only three different places in three weeks) and tried to do as much as we could in each place on foot, rather than catching trains or driving anywhere.