Our school break road trip with Jon and Annamarie took us from skiing in the alps (see blog here) to Rome and back up through Italy to Venice, hitting a few notable cities along the way. Jon’s biggest bucket item was visiting Rome and the Vatican – with a huge bonus of seeing Pope Francis’ address in St. Peter’s Square – and Annamarie had been dreaming of Venice. So, we pulled out all the stops and orchestrated the ambitious “1200 mile” itinerary with incredibly good luck, cooperative kids, awesome weather, and VERY excited energy! Our first stop was in one of the many little hilltop cities that exist in the Latium region of Italy, Orvieto.
Thanks to a friend who clued me into the “Rick Steves’ approved” suggestion of parking for free in Orvieto and taking the train into the city, it was a no-brainer. We found a lovely place to stay, where our view from the bathroom was the ancient skyline of Orvieto, and made our way into town. Our host Giulio was quite possibly the most generous and friendly host we have ever had at an apartment. He didn’t speak much English, but we communicated well with google translate. We expected to park in the free parking lot and take the funicular up into town, but instead he insisted we follow him to HIS private, gate-controlled parking spot right on the side of the hill, where he gave us his key card and even guided through town for a bit. He was so sweet – he even took us to the train station in the morning to make sure we made it on time to the right train to Rome. He certainly went above and beyond! This Orvieto option ended up saving us valuable time and money as well as the convenience of not having to have a vehicle in the depths of Rome. Plus the kids got to ride the train – a great experience for them!
Orvieto is one of many hilltop “fortress-type” ancient towns in Italy, and this one happens to be well known for its church and tower. We made it inside the walls and were able to take in the clear, late afternoon views before venturing into the town center. The tower had just been closed as we arrived, but the four cute kids (who were antsy from riding in a car all day) seemed to convince the guard to open up the tower just for us. We paid the small entrance fee and went flying up the square “spiral” staircase to the top, where we had even more impressive views all to ourselves!
By the time we made it back down the tower and wound our way through the old town to the church, Duomo di Orvieto, it had already closed for the day. We weren’t able to see the marble Pieta statue, tour the museum or walk through any of the underground caves, but seeing the unique facade of Duomo was a sight indeed! The kids got their first taste of ancient ruins outside of the museum, and they were thrilled to be “set free” to chase pigeons and wander the beautiful mosaic stone streets.
After our mini-tour of the top spots in Orvieto, we had to find a place to feed the hungry monkeys. As Italy is one of the countries where you can’t eat dinner at a proper restaurant before 7 PM, we managed to find a little cafe serving paninis, pizza and spaghetti – and it hit the spot. Of course we had to scoop up some gelato after dinner, even though it had turned quite chilly once the sun went down! Boy it was good! And it cost just about the same as dinner. HA! The glowy streets were beautiful as we walked back to our exclusive parking spot and made our way back down to our apartment Casa di Giulio, about 5 minutes from the city walls. We turned in, preparing for a very full day in Rome!
We woke up bright and early to get a head start into Rome on the 7:30 train from Orvieto. We were all very excited to visit a city we had never been to! We scheduled a guided tour of the Vatican at 10:00, so we wanted to make sure we were there on time. Giulio helped us to the train station – in spite of us insisting he didn’t have to – and bid us farewell. It was the epitome of hospitality! We took the fast train which didn’t stop until we hit Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome, in just under an hour. The kids had mixed feelings about the train, but ultimately we were happy to be able to sit and look out at the countryside instead of having to navigate the big city in a vehicle.
When we arrived, the first order of business was picking up a new pair of sneakers for Annamarie. This worked out perfectly as we found a shop right across the street from the train station and she is a quick shopper! The next mission was finding lockers to stow our luggage for the day until we could check into our apartment later. At some point Didi realized she lost the back of one of her earrings, so we had to snag a temporary pair of earrings for her too, which was right on the way to the lockers. Annamarie found a pair of magnetic earrings she was thrilled about too, and even though only one earring made it back home to Maine with her, it was still a special souvenir! Poor Didi…we eventually learned that cheap metals caused her ears to have an allergic reaction but she had to endure her earrings a few more days before her little rashy earlobes could heal. The locker plan was a good one – it allowed us to move about the Vatican without added baggage and we made it to our tour meeting spot with time to spare.
Enough time, in fact, to enjoy an espresso, hot chocolate, and some delicious focaccia before meeting up with our small group. Beau’s favorite was the rosemary potato focaccia, and we all tried that, as well as and some yummy plain and tomato basil varieties. You just can’t get it anywhere like you can in Italy!
We met up with our tour guide and another little military family from Canada, and made our way into the Vatican Museum. Having seen the lines and the crowds, I can’t imagine doing this any other way. Francesca led us past all the long lines straight up and into the museum, paying careful attention to the kids and their questions the whole time. We spent a lot of time in the Giardino Quadrato as part of the museum was closed for renovations (the Carriage Museum) and the Sistine Chapel wasn’t opening until 11. To kill some time, the kids worked in their little workbooks provided by the tour company, and Francesca led the children in a Sistine Chapel puzzle activity as she answered questions and let them pick a little kumquat or orange from the nearby citrus trees.
Inside the museum we saw beautiful works of art dating back to 1,000 B.C. all the way until today. Of course the most impressive of the sights was the Sistine Chapel, but before beholding that sight we enjoyed the Egyptian exhibits complete with exposed mummy (!), ancient Roman sculptures, and a spectacular hall filled with maps of Italy from wall to wall. Beau and Jon loved that! Every single ceiling we saw was replete with impossible-to-absorb detail. Even the tiled floor was boggling! Unfortunately the amount of people pressing through the museum made it somewhat difficult to appreciate the grandeur of it entirely, but we did our best. Francesca pressed on, as we could finally enter the Sistine Chapel, so we did – and of course, no photos allowed!
After being awed by the Sistine Chapel we were led out to a lovely view of St. Peter’s Square. From there we said goodbye to our tour guide as she let us explore St. Peter’s Basilica on our own. The square seemed smaller than what I had pictured, watching it fill with (millions of!?) people over the years on TV, but this day was fairly quiet. We took in the expanse of it all with the sun on our faces and a little snack in our hands. In a hilarious twist of fate, Didi’s granola bar was stolen from her by a pesky pigeon. We learned all about minding the birds while in Italy!
Inside the Basilica was fairly quiet as well. We were able to wander around and see Michelangelo’s Pieta, the great alter of St. Peter, and Annamarie finally had a chance to say a veiled prayer in the holiest of cities. A truly special moment! We made our way to the lower level – the necropolis, or crypts – where we saw the tombs of pontiffs past. We had intended to go up into St. Peter’s dome as this was recommended by our tour guide, but our tummies were really rumbling and the kids were getting restless. Jon and Annamarie had plans to return to the Vatican the next day for the Pope’s public address, so they decided to climb the dome the next day. Our last stop was seeing the Swiss Guards outside the Vatican and a couple of them were friendly enough to let us snap a photo!
After a little stop at the Vatican souvenir shop we made our way to a sidewalk cafe just outside of Vatican City where we sat and relaxed over pizza, coke, and a Bellini. From there we walked back to the metro which took us back to the lockers where we grabbed our luggage and walked to our apartment. Around seven miles of walking around the city and touring the Vatican left us pretty spent for the day. I also was kicking myself for not grabbing more focaccia whenever we passed it on our walk, as those little sidewalk shops are the very best!
Photos from the following morning when Jon and Annamarie were able to see and hear Pope Francis speak in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a trek to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome.
The next day Jon and I split up with our respective spawn and headed out into Rome on a mission to see as much as we could possibly see. I headed to the Colosseum with the kids (tickets purchased in advance, always!) and Jon went back to the Vatican with Annamarie. On our long 9 mile journeys that day, we saw so much amazing history! It can be overwhelming to try to absorb everything, let alone trying to explain things to children. Luckily the book shops have great kid-friendly books to help.
The Colosseum was an impressive sight – the third major arena I have seen since living in Europe. (The first was in Verona, Italy, and the second in Pula, Croatia.) This, of course, is the largest and most legendary, as it was once the seat of all major “sporting” events for the people of Rome, the center of Italy. We arrived early in the morning, just a 10 minute walk from our apartment, and took a few low-crowd photos outside before our time slot to tour the grand arena.
Once inside, I did my best to force the Rick Steves audio tour on the kids, but I think I was the only one who got anything out of it. The kids were more impressed with my dramatic explanations of what once took place in the arena, as well as what is now visible under the arena floor. It is hard to imagine what it must’ve been like for people to attend a day’s worth of bloody events here, all of it orchestrated like clockwork in the largest amphitheater ever built in Roman times.
After their morning at the Vatican, Jon and Annamarie were also able to visit the Colosseum in the afternoon. The portion of the arena floor that has been reconstructed is visible in the photo below.
After touring the Colosseum, the kids were already getting hangry. We grabbed another snack of focaccia and (probably the best) gelato at Flor gelato outside of the Colosseum and headed past numerous street artists and performers to the Roman Forum. There seemed to be people from all nationalities and walks of life showing their talents. The kids loved the fire dancer, painters, and musicians!
This incredible spot amidst the “Seven hills of Rome” boasts some of the most impressive Roman ruins we were able to see in Italy. The forum used to serve as a marketplace for the people of Rome, where they would come to gather and sell their goods. It also served as the parade route for returning armies bringing loot from conquered lands. This area was known as a city center of Government. In Roman times, this area was positively glittery with pristine architecture meant to be a show of power and wealth, and awe Roman citizens. We walked through the paths and gardens and it felt a little bit like being in a graveyard with all of the toppled columns and building ruins surrounding us on all sides. This was, for me, the most impressive place we spent time in Rome. I couldn’t get enough of the images depicting what it “used to” look like and what it was like here in ancient Roman times. It was truly fascinating.
It was so fun to wander up the big stairs of the Dominus Tiberana monument with a view out over the entire forum. From there we made our way through the beautiful gardens of Palatine Hill to the stadium (pictured below). We imagined that this was a place of impressive sporting feats – but what we learned was it was actually a place to exercise horses – more of an opulent sunken garden – in Roman times. We walked from here back to our apartment for a brief rest before venturing out again for another round of sightseeing and Italian food indulgence.
Piazza Navona & The Pantheon
A bit later we took an Uber to Piazza Navona to throw a coin in the fountains and make a wish. The Fiumi Fountain (pictured below) by Bernini is especially impressive as it represents the four major river Gods of the time: The Ganges, The Nile, The Danube and The Rio de la Plata, topped by an huge obelisk. It is fun to learn about the meaning behind these gorgeous works of water art around Rome – everything has a story!
We walked a block or two over to the Pantheon and as we turned the corner into Piazza della Rotonda, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. There is no question I wasn’t prepared for the Pantheon. I knew it was the worlds largest concrete dome, but the plaza with yet another beautiful fountain ornamenting an overwhelming entrance of columns blew me away. We learned that each column – quarried in Egypt – was 40 feet tall and weighed over 60 tonnes. It is impossible to get a feel for the magnitude of this place. Walking into the Pantheon (free of charge) felt like something out of a movie set. We were like ants, with the columns shooting into the sky in the “portico,” easing the gaze upwards in preparation for the final “wow” – the dome itself. It is impossible to take it all in with just normal human peripheral vision, and instead we found ourselves slowly gazing back and forth in wonder. The center of the dome is marked by a 30 diameter hole or “oculus” which is hard to comprehend given the relative height of the columns outside. This place is gargantuan on any scale, and it is certainly an inspiring sight. Inside we were able to see the tomb of the artist Raphael, who the kids remembered from good old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was special, too, to see in person the work of architectural genius that inspired Thomas Jefferson to build his beautiful rotundas in America.
We walked from the Pantheon to a yummy quick-pasta eatery “Pasta-Eat Roma,” where we downed four types of pasta cooked in front of us (alfredo gnocchi, cheese ravioli, spaghetti Bolognese and pesto Fettuccini) before walking back to our apartment via the Imperial Road to the Colosseum and the glorious Piazza Venezia. Pictured below is the Alter of the Fatherland, as well as the Michelangelo-designed Campidoglio hilltop square. The kids were spent, but they rallied when I said we could have one more serving of Flor Gelato on our way back to the apartment. HA! It was so worth it! I recommend this place so highly – amazing quality gelato at a terrific price!
On our way back past the Colosseum, the sun was setting and the views were stunning. We had so much fun this day and couldn’t wait to hear how things went for Jon and Annamarie. We weren’t able to communicate all day (without wifi for Jon’s phone) so it was great to reconnect in the evening and compare notes. We certainly earned our gelato that day with close to 20 miles of walking between our two groups!
Jon explained that he and Annamarie had a great experience at the Vatican in the morning and then enjoyed the Colosseum in the afternoon. Thereafter they discovered a church nearby – Scala Sancta – with a set of holy stairs that are said to be the stairs Jesus crawled up to meet Pontius Pilate for his sentencing during the Passion. The stairs were transported here from Jerusalem in the 300’s AD and have been a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics ever since. They missed the stairs by about 5 minutes the evening they discovered it, so they woke up early and were there as the doors opened the next morning. What a special treat for them to be able to have the stairs all to themselves for prayerful reflection!
We headed back to the Roma Termini train station bright and early to catch our train back to Orvieto and drive up Italy to our apartment outside of Venice. It was lucky we gave ourselves plenty of travel time because our train platform was the furthest away from the terminal that we could get! The kids were ready for a road trip day after two straight days of walking in the footsteps of the Romans.
What would a seven hour road trip be without a few key stops? Another bucketlist item for Jon was seeing Michelangelo’s David, but the Galleria dell’Accademia was closed the day we passed through, so we had to settle for the outside bronze version of the David in the Piazzale Michelangelo. It turned out to be a perfect pitstop, where the kids could run around and giggle at the David, Annamarie could dance to a fiddler, Beau could pick up a marionette souvenir, and we could get a perfect view overlooking Florence. Didi made a friend with a mini poodle and Willow showed us how to nail the perfect “jump photo” on the terrace overlooking the split city of Florence and the Arno River. What a gorgeous day!
“You can’t always wait for the perfect time. You must dare to JUMP!”– Anonymous
Bologna was an unplanned stop as we realized it was directly on our route. I knew of a worthwhile hilltop pitstop called Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, and since visibility was good that day, we went for it. The city of Bologna boasts the world’s longest network of porticos, so it was especially fun to bring the kids here and show them the start of the portico system at the Sanctuary on top of the hill. I visited here last year on a tour through northern Italy with my friend Hayley (see blog here) but we weren’t able to climb to the top of the dome – only the Sanctuary. This time we enjoyed the views from the large dome, looking out over the Italian countryside in one direction and over the foodie city of Bologna in the other.
We had dinner at the nearby Vito a San Luca restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious, authentic meal of brick oven pizza and tortellini con brodo, or homemade tortellini pasta in broth. The waiter took such good care of us here, and I was impressed by the elaborate and seasonally changing decor in this cozy eatery! Jon had his first pizza topped with arugula (I think he liked it!) and the kids took home little colored pencil packs as souvenirs. Super cute!
We made it to our apartment outside of Venice by nightfall and got a good night’s sleep in preparation for another marathon day in the floating city.
When traveling with our family, every morning is marked by some sort pitstop at a bakery or cafe to indulge in whatever pastry the area is famous for. On this trip, Jon grew to appreciate the beauty of espresso (delicious, smaller portions, less need to pee when touring around) so once we made it into the city of Venice on the bus, we stopped for a yummy cream filled donut and coffees before catching the water taxi. It was so convenient and affordable to park at Venice City Park and grab the bus into the city – it made all transport and navigation super easy. We got all-day passes for the vaporetto (water taxis) and made our way down the grand canal past the colorful buildings and countless boats and gondolas. We noticed it wasn’t that busy (is it just me or is this a trend for us?). We were very lucky that it wasn’t flooded and we were able to traverse the city on foot in beautiful weather and see all the sights on our list. Also it was terrific to be in the city during Carnivale, a little added bonus on our trip! Several days after we toured the city, the Veneto and Lombardi regions of Italy was put on alert due to a public health scare (Coronavirus) and the Carnivale activities were cancelled. We were very lucky to make it there when we did!
We stopped at the Rialto bridge area to make sure we signed up for a good (free) slot at the top of the high end shopping center Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the best rooftop views in town. From there we hopped back on the water taxi all the way to San Marco where we did all the things.
The colorful masked and be-costumed Carnivale attendees…
St. Mark’s Basilica in St. Mark’s square was Annamarie’s top “must-see” spot on the entire trip. She couldn’t wait to see THE famous golden horses inside the church (technically no photography allowed) and I was excited to go inside the church as last time it was recovering from flooding and they weren’t allowing people inside. Entrance to the Basilica is free, and we jumped in the fairly short line to tour through the musty but grand interior. Up a steep set of stairs is the museum where the infamous four original horses are housed. To our surprise they didn’t look much different from Battaglia’s replica horses on the exterior of the church.
My favorite part of the square is the smaller tower with intricate celestial clock – Torre dell’Orologio. We all enjoyed a lovely view of St. Mark’s square from the outside Basilica terrace. Annamarie and Jon went up St. Mark’s tower via elevator to get a bird’s eye view of the famous fish-shaped archipelago we call Venice. This is such a colorful place with mosaics everywhere, it was hard not to get a sinking feeling (pun intended) imagining the incredible works of art and architecture that would be destroyed in the next hundred years or so due to a slowly sinking city and the rising tides of climate change.
The kids had a great time chasing pigeons and dodging seagulls who were aggressively trying to steal food from our hands! We browsed endless Venetian glass and mask shops, saw all kinds of amazing Carnivale costumes, and even got a chance to ride on a gondola! It seemed like the perfect time to visit Venice…there were times we felt like we had the place to ourselves! We got a quick view of the Bridge of Sighs between Doge’s palace and the prison, but if we return to Venice I definitely want to tour Doge’s palace!
We enjoyed more beautiful views over the rooftops near the Rialto bridge before we selected a nice variety of (cheap!) cicchetti at Osteria Al Squero. I may have been the most excited about this exclusively-Venetian delight but Jon got to try his first Aperol Spritz (in honor of mom who loves them!) so overall we were quite happy with the quick sidewalk fare of Venice!
As the sun began to descend in the sky, we walked back to San Marco square and waited patiently for the water taxi to take us to Constitution Bridge and our bus back to the parking lot just outside of town. What a day we had – wandering narrow streets endlessly, smelling all sorts of smells, tasting yummy foods, and packing up terrific souvenirs from Venice!
Overall this trip was incredible! We were filled with gratitude and laughed about how truly perfect it was – positively serendipitous time in Italy together. We were able to do and see all the things, which, looking back on it, couldn’t possibly have gone any smoother than it did. We were certainly blessed with healthy bodies, positive attitudes, splendid weather, shoulder season small crowds and high-endurance days of exploring. What a gift! I’m so grateful my brother encouraged this ambitious itinerary and that we pulled it off without a hitch. These were memories that will last a lifetime!