National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Christopher Elliott recently spent a week in Italy with his family. Here’s what he discovered.
When you think of visiting Italy, a familiar highlight reel probably comes to mind: the Roman Colosseum, the Vatican, Michelangelo’s David, or pigeons in St. Mark’s Square.
But try making the trip with three young kids, and your perspective quickly changes. My five-year-old son will remember Rome for the Margherita pizza he devoured after spending a day on a plane.
My four year-old daughter? Gelato. There was a little place next to the Trevi Fountain that made the “yummiest” dark chocolate ice cream she’s ever had. At least that’s what she told me.
And my nine-year-old son, whose palate is little more sophisticated, will never forget the traditional Venetian menu– complete with crispy calamari–he enjoyed at the Westin Europa while he watched the gondolas float by.
I’ve got to admit, I was troubled by their fixation on food. I mean, as a father, you want every trip to not just be unforgettable, but also educational. You want your little ones to learn about the Roman Empire at the Forum and the Pantheon and to understand the Renaissance as they tour the Medici Villa. You want them to not ask you questions about their next meal.
But the longer I spent in Italy the more I realized that they understood this country better than I did. It’s all about the food, the desserts, and with apologies to Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita.
Traveling Uncle Walt’s way
Coordinating seven days on the ground in Rome, Florence, and Venice was too much even for a family of five as independent as we are. We joined an Adventures By Disney tour group, which handled many of the logistics, including transportation, tickets, and accommodations.
Disney hits the same tourist attractions as the other Italian tour operators and removed many of the hassles from the trip. For example, you don’t have to drag luggage around, stand in a long line to check into a hotel, or wait to get into the Forum. That’s all quietly handled behind the scenes by your tour guide.
The difference is that Disney adds what its cast members refer to as “pixie dust”– the snapshots of your family next to the Spanish Steps in Rome or the collectible pins issued for each day’s adventure. These are all meant to turn what would be an ordinary tour into something special and memorable.
Italy for foodies
Now that I think about it, our guides spent a lot of time talking about food, from the smoked pigeon and wild boar in Orvieto (um, neither of which we tried) to the pasta in Tuscany. They even included a pasta-making class and an exclusive wine tasting event for the adults during our stay in a hotel next to the Medici Villa
The fact that Disney emphasized food makes me conclude that it did its homework about Italy. This wasn’t my first visit to this part of Europe, but I think it was the first time I truly understood how integral the culinary arts are to this destination.
Let me put it this way: An earthquake could level the great archaeological sites of modern civilization, and it would be shrugged off as inevitable. But take away the pasta, the espresso, and the wine–ah, the wine!–and the Romans will riot in the streets.
A coin in the fountain
They say if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, and it’s done right, you will come back to Rome. I did–we all did–and we don’t regret it. At least, for the most part.
I like Rome, but I could do without the traffic and throngs of tourists. Florence was too crowded, even at this time of year. The Umbrian and Tuscan countrysides, by contrast, were peaceful in mid-September and the weather was perfect. The highlight of the trip came in Venice, where the only traffic was gondolas vying for a perfect view along the Grand Canal.
I think timing is everything. Had we waited a few weeks for some of the larger tour groups to leave, we might have missed the mob that descends on Italy’s most famous tourist destinations during the warmer months. I would have also planned every meal more carefully, and maybe packed some loose-fitting clothing to accommodate the inevitable carbohydrate overload.
But the kids are right and so is Mickey. What would Italy be, if not for the food?
Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home.