Monday, 16 April 2018

A Family Trip To Rome

Over the past 8 years or so I've been on a mission to introduce my children to my favourite places, both at home and further afield. They don't always quite get it; a trip to Soho's Bar Italia - my favourite cafe in the entire UK - left them thoroughly bemused and underwhelmed, not least because, unsurprisingly, they're not too fussed about coffee. Being rather urbane city dwellers, used to state of the art interiors and babyccinos, the rough-hewn, conspicuously outdated charm of the place was totally lost on them - they just couldn't understand why I would like somewhere so obviously behind the times. 

Travel trips have, thankfully, been a bit better received and it's been one of the most joyful aspects of parenting to share my love of certain places with them. This year, it was the turn of Rome to have a go at capturing their hearts as it did mine some 20 years ago.

People often ask me about the feasibility of taking children on city breaks, particularly to places as busy as Rome, and I would recommend you go with the knowledge that your trip won't be in the least bit restful. There are few times you'll feel more aware of the burden of parental responsibility than when trying to navigate the Roman metro system during rush hour - clasping my 9-year-old in an iron grip in fear of being separated on the heaving train, I can't say I was feeling the relaxed holiday vibes.

But the benefits so outweigh those moments of stress. It's important to keep expectations realistic too; in a city such as Rome, there is so much to see and the queues can be insane, so you'd be crazy to expect to try and tick off everything in the guide book. It's also nice to have a bit more time than just a couple of days, if your budget allows. 

We were in Rome for five days which allowed us to explore the city at a more leisurely pace without dashing from one historic sight to another. We made a pledge at the beginning of the holiday to queue for no more than two attractions during our stay, as it was clear that coming during holy week - perhaps the busiest time you could possibly visit Rome - equalled exceptionally high visitor footfall.

If you're visiting Italy for the first time, you might be shocked to find Rome isn't as picture-perfect as you might imagine. It's certainly stunning and heaving with architectural delights in all directions, but it's a working city, and one that often feels a little unable to cope with the impact of the modern world. It costs the guardians of the city huge amounts to maintain and excavate its numerous ancient ruins so the rest of the city can be a little overlooked in terms of infrastructure and amenities. 

But its crumbling chaos is an experience like no other - turning a shabby street corner to find you're standing in front of the Colosseum is really something, as is negotiating the more modern part of the city to suddenly find yourself in the heart of Dolce Vita Rome at the Trevi Fountain. 

We stayed at a great value Airbnb just moments from the Colosseum which made getting to all the city's key sights really easy. Located on a nondescript street off the busy Via Merulana, it offered great value family accommodation and was perfect for our needs. An important thing to bear in mind is that Rome Fiumicino is a bit out of the city so having central accommodation that isn't difficult to get to on public transport is useful if you're travelling with kids. 

Be warned that while shuttle buses are the cheapest way to get to and from the airport, it takes an hour and coming back we were lucky to get a seat - save the stress and pay a bit more to travel on the train. It cuts your journey time by half. 

Once in Rome, I would recommend limiting your use of public transport if you can - the metro system is incredibly overcrowded and very stressful. Buses are plentiful and a bit more comfortable but we ended up walking pretty much everywhere. You'll notice lots of ticket operators promising fast-track access to the key sights but I'd be wary; some may be genuine but there's no easy route to seeing the Sistine Chapel, though out of season queues might not be so bad. 

As I mentioned, we wanted to limit queue time, so we bought an all-in-one advance ticket for the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill which offers a great value option if you want to get your fix of the key ancient sites - look out for the cabin on the road opposite the Colosseum where you can buy tickets before your visit, minimising some of the queueing.

These key ancient Roman ruins are incredible - obviously you'll have to use your imagination for some of the buildings on the Palatine Hill and Forum, but you can't fail to feel the weight of so much history as you wander through the epicentre of the Roman empire. The Palatine is a particularly tranquil spot to recharge and take in Rome's unique atmosphere. I think this trio of sights is a must-see, and - along with the stunning Pantheon - gives young visitors the perfect introduction to Rome's incredible history.

No trip to Rome is complete without a bit of coin-throwing at the Trevi Fountain. Perhaps my favourite spot in the city, I would really recommend going as early as you can as its charms can be tempered by crowds of selfie stick-wielding tourists guaranteeing a return to the city by throwing a coin over their shoulders. Located in an atmospheric square, this iconic fountain is spectacular - grab a takeout coffee and find a perch so you can enjoy its beauty at leisure. 

From here it's quite easy to get to another of Rome's prettiest squares - the Piazza di Spagna whose cascading steps lead to the lovely church of Trinita dei Monti. The views from the top are well worth the climb. From here, you can mooch around Rome's glitziest quarters - the roads off the square are lined with some of the city's most expensive shops and restaurants.

For something a little more wallet-friendly, there are interesting, authentic neighbourhoods to discover in both Monti and Trastevere. The former is just moments from the Colosseum but feels very local; it's a bustling, recently rejuvenated area filled with trattorias, fashionable cafes and cute vintage shops. Trastevere - on the other side of the River Tiber - is Rome's old working class neighbourhood and is said to be the place to experience the authentic Roman identity. 

It's a great place to get some respite from the main tourist areas - we enjoyed sitting in the main square with a gelato, enjoying the sunshine and a spot of people watching. A great place for sundowners, dinner or just an afternoon stroll, Trastevere has plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars to tempt you.

Other must-sees include the graceful Piazza Navona and the Campo de Fiori market, both bustling and colourful squares surrounded by interesting side streets to get lost in. You'll no doubt encounter the Vittorio Emmanuele monument too; it's not to everyone's taste and jars with the city's prevailing architectural aesthetic but it's pretty impressive nonetheless; my kids were particularly keen to seek out the elegant looking traffic controller who stands amid the ceaseless flow of cars and buses, trying to create some semblance of order amongst the chaos.

A bit of a little-known gem lies just behind the monument, on the Capitoline Hill. The Terrazza Caffarelli is part of the museum complex here but can be visited for free. Offering amazing views across the Roman skyline, we had the space pretty much to ourselves during our visit. On a sunny day, it's a restful spot to enjoy a cool drink while taking in stunning views of Rome's rooftops and church domes. 

Talking of church domes, you can't really go to Rome without making a visit to the Vatican City. A very different side to the city awaits you in the world's smallest sovereign state, seat of the Catholic church where papal audiences are held for the public every Wednesday morning. 

On a previous visit pre-kids I failed to see the Sistine Chapel and didn't do so this time either - the queues were insane 20 years ago and they were insane this time, too - I'd love to see it one day but there's so much to see in the basilica itself (which again, you will have to queue for) that we didn't feel too bad about missing out on this experience.

As with most of the key sights in Rome, early arrival is crucial if you want to minimise queueing time. You can, of course, forgo the queues altogether and just enjoy the church from the outside before stocking up on your Pope Francis souvenirs and light-up Virgin Marys.

There are numerous other beautiful churches dotted across the city, from Baroque beauties to less ornate affairs but if the former style is your thing, be sure to add the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to your itinerary - it's almost as impressive as St Peters but you don't have to queue to get in.

For me, no trip to Italy is complete without frequent coffee stops - I know I've properly arrived when breakfast involves propping up a bar, a perfect cappuccino in front of me and a grumpy old man reading the Corriere dello Sport at my side - quintessential Italy. 

Avoid the main tourist areas if you want to find the best coffee, with the exception of the wonderful Caffe Tazza d'Oro, located in a street overlooking the Pantheon. This place is an absolute must-visit. With its vintage interior, seemingly unchanged since the 1940s, the cafe is a deserved Roman institution and serves excellent coffee. 

Other places we visited for our cappuccino 'n' pastry hit which I'd recommend are the famous Caffe Sant'Eustachio (opt for bar service rather than the pricey seats outside) and Panella, an amazing bakery and cafe on Via Merulana. Heaving with all kinds of delicious patisserie and chocolate treats, this chic cafe was our breakfast stop of choice.

If you find yourself near Campo de Fiori, pop into Caffe Peru, yet another retro-style cafe-bar with amazing tile floors and other 1960s features - the perfect place for an Aperol away from the bustle of the market. 

For eating more generally, Rome isn't quite as renowned as other parts of Italy for its cuisine but it does all the usual standards pretty well. We had a fab pizza at Li Rioni, a stone's throw from the Colosseum. Great value and prompt service, it's the perfect place to refuel hungry kids after a day touring the city. Food on the go is also easy - you're never far from a deli where you can pick up a fresh-from-the-oven slab of focaccia or the local speciality, a 'Rosso' pizza (essentially pizza dough slathered in a yummy tomato paste.)

We had a lovely lunch at Di Qua, a sweet little restaurant we stumbled on while mooching around by Piazza di Spagna - considering its expensive location, we had some great pasta (be sure to try the Roman speciality 'cacio e pepe' during your stay) that wasn't quite as exorbitant as I'd been expecting. 

We also dined in style at L'Asino d'Oro, a place to try more experimental cuisine without breaking the bank, located in the heart of the Monti district, a great place to experience Rome by night. Stop by the bustling Ai Tre Scallini bar, just down the road from the restaurant, the perfect place to enjoy a glass of local wine while you watch the Roman night unfold.

For ice cream, I would definitely put Grom up there with the best - its pistachio is other worldly. There are branches across the city.  

But what did my children make of Rome? And would we recommend it for a family break? A lot might have changed in the 20 years since my last visit - it's a lot busier and dirtier than I remember, and I'm pretty sure we didn't have to queue for anything (there were no metal detectors to walk through at the Colosseum or St Peters - a sad reality of travel in the 21st century). 

But for sheer eye-popping history and a real sense of place, Rome is simply unbeatable. It's a trip best reserved for older children who have some context for Roman history and will get the relevance of the numerous ruins scattered across the city. My boys were, rather surprisingly, swept along with the romance of the Trevi fountain - sitting in the spring sun with them, we had a mutual moment of appreciation for those things that encapsulate the Italian experience: sunshine, history, architecture and beauty. 

I hope they'll remember sitting with their mum by the Trevi Fountain when they're older and make a return trip with their own children one day. We all threw our coins into the fountain, so I think it's a given...


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