by Judith Anne Testa
If you're planning on visiting the Eternal City with your school-aged kids or grandkids, there's a new book that you won't want to leave home without.
Children are the world's most militant conservatives. They want everything to stay the same; they hate having their routines interrupted. They're usually suspicious of new foods and often frightened by unfamiliar places and people who don't look or talk like the folks back home. They miss everything left behind -- toys, friends, foods, beds, blankets and who knows what else -- when their parents drag them off on travel jaunts to faraway places like Italy. One of the saddest (not to mention most annoying) situations I encounter in Rome each time I'm there is the spectacle of American parents struggling with their bored, tired, angry children. The kids don't care about the 3,000 years of art, architecture, history and culture that Rome represents. They just want to go home. And most parents haven't got a clue about how to interest their children in the things that interest adults, so they just haul the protesting little ones along, trying to ignore the whines and yowls.
But it doesn't have to be like that. Recently I decided to peruse a book called "Rome with Kids," by J.M. Pasquesi. Personally, I'd rather be shot at sunrise than travel around Rome with children, but I've so often encountered people trying to enjoy Rome while burdened with protesting progeny, that I was curious to see what suggestions the author might offer. Rather to my surprise, the book turns out to be an excellent, compact little guidebook, full of practical suggestions, useful information and intriguing tidbits about the Eternal City, most of them of interest to adults as well as children. The intrepid author has traveled to Rome repeatedly with her two young sons, and has written a knowledgeable and readable guidebook to the Eternal City that focuses on strategies for keeping the kids both entertained and informed, while also allowing their parents to enjoy the experience -- and that's no easy task.
There's one warning I'd offer to parents who might be tempted to see this book as a magical source for solving all their children's problems with travel: if you can't keep your children under your control at home, you most likely won't be able to control them in Rome, either, even with the help of this guidebook. But if your kids will actually listen to your suggestions now and then, and for the most part obey you when you tell them to do or not to do something, then you'll find this book a treasure trove of helpful material.
Perhaps the most difficult situation for parents in Rome with children is when the parents themselves are novice visitors. Rome is confusing and overwhelming enough for anyone visiting for the first time -- trying to figure out what to see, how to get to those places, where to eat, and so on -- without having to contend with children's needs and demands in addition. The terrific thing about this book is that it's a genuine guide to the major sights of Rome, whether you have children with you or not. It's sensibly divided into a series of walking tours of non-Long March length, beginning with Ancient Rome, moving on to the Medieval and Renaissance city, and then to Baroque and Modern Rome. Each section opens with a wonderfully clear and non-crowded map of the section of the city to be covered. These will help even the first-time visitor stay oriented. There are also diagrams of the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and the interior of St. Peter's that are models of clarity.
Interspersed with standard but well-written and engaging guidebook fare are numerous notices of things of special interest to children of various ages. These are sometimes within the text and at other times highlighted by the word "KIDS!" in the margin, backgrounded in orange, so they're hard to miss. Some of the suggestions strike me as more exciting than others. The author is certainly right in claiming that kids will love the gigantic head, knee and hand, the remaining fragments of a colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine, to be found in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums, but I'm not so sure they'd be engaged by the task of comparing the steep steps up to the church of the Aracoeli with the more gradual "cordonata" (designed for horse-drawn carriages) that leads up to the neighboring Capitoline Hill. This sounds more like an assignment from an introductory Art Appreciation course for college freshmen than something to grab the interest of small children. But I love the author's suggestion that children observe a local custom and place flowers on the spot in the Roman Forum where the body of Julius Caesar was cremated. Even if the kids have only a foggy idea of who Caesar was, this is an attractive and calming activity.
Mamma Pasquesi makes a great effort to find ways for families to avoid standing in lines, a situation that drives most kids batty with boredom. (She might have noted -- but did not -- that on Augustus' Ara Pacis, that beautiful marble monument of the first century BC, there are several images of bored and crying children that present-day youngsters would easily identify with, but maybe she didn't want to give the little ones any ideas along that line.) She suggests visiting the Vatican Museums in the afternoon, rather than rushing to get there in the morning -- along with every tour group and every determined German tourist in Rome -- and waiting in a line that can take several hours to snake around to the entrance. She also strongly cautions against trying to cover both St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums in a single day. Absolutely correct -- and that goes for anybody -- not just families with children. She further offers the helpful suggestion that visitors to the Colosseum -- a must-see for children -- purchase tickets for the combined entry to the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill from a booth near the Arch of Titus, rather than from the ticket office within the Colosseum, where the lines are endless. Now, it's possible to purchase tickets on-line, which is an even better idea.
Other suggestions for things that will intrigue kids include the "pointing fingers" on the façade of the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, which indicate how high the Tiber rose during floods in past centuries. This could be supplemented by a walk along the Tiber embankments and a brief explanation of how the building of those embankments in the late 19th through early 20th centuries prevented any further flooding. Although the enchanting Trevi Fountain hardly needs to be "sold" to children of any age, the author notes that kids will especially enjoy using the little drinking fountain over on the right side. Don't worry about water quality -- your kids will be drinking from the Acqua Vergine -- the best and purest water in Rome.
Another fountain, one that seems almost to have been designed with kids in mind, is the Barcaccia, or Sinking Boat, in Piazza di Spagna, the work of Pietro Bernini, father of the more famous Gianlorenzo Bernini. Because of low water pressure (most of the Acqua Vergine is busy feeding the Trevi and the fountains in Piazza Navona), this fountain is mostly at or below ground level, which makes it particularly appealing and accessible for children. But the author should have warned parents not to allow their children to stick their mouths over the inviting-looking jets of water. The water pressure is much stronger than it looks, and may choke or even knock over smaller kids! (I've seen both of these things happen.) Better activities would be to let children touch the jets with one palm, so they can perceive the pressure safely, or fill plastic water bottles -- they'll be amazed at how quickly their bottles fill up.
In addition to her many ideas for keeping children entertained and engaged while touring Rome, the author also includes the names of "family-friendly" restaurants, hotels and B and Bs. This is a bit redundant, since children are welcomed virtually anywhere in Rome -- the city has the second-lowest birthrate in the world, so children are rare little creatures who tend to be fussed over and catered to in a way that amazes even the most indulgent American parents. The websites included by the author for short-let apartment rentals in Rome offer very expensive places; many visitors who opt for an apartment rather than a hotel to accommodate their families can find much better prices at other sites by searching the Internet themselves.
All in all, I'd say this book is a bargain. It's written by a woman who really knows Rome, and whose background in classical studies provides her with in-depth knowledge that's never dispensed in a heavy or pedantic way. She begins her book with the words "Rome with children is fun," and goes on to demonstrate that this dubious proposition can actually be true. Furthermore, this is an excellent small guidebook even for those who aren't traveling with children. As a lifelong lover of Rome and the author of a book on the Eternal City, I'm always eager to learn new things about the place, and Pasquesi provides many bits of information that were new to me. My ultimate compliment to the author is that I intend to take her book with me on my next visit to Rome.
"Rome with Kids," by J.M. Pasquesi (Austin, TX, Synergy Books, 2007); paperback, $16.95.