For Laura’s family

February 2016.

The timeless island

Dear Laura,

The planning of any travel starts with an empty canvas upon which are plotted destination points. Slowly, the canvas is elaborated with the itinerary’s detail, adding texture and color. A balance must be struck between activity and rest, between simplicity and grandeur, between order and spontaneity. Fortunately, for me, the interest and passion of you and your family provide a rich palate of colors with which to paint. Your eagerness to not only see but to also experience leaves me with no doubt that, during your sojourn in Italy, you and your children will acquire a remarkable depth of understanding of the history, culture, and tradition of this romantic and bountiful country.

Day 1: Arrival in Rome

It’s hard to say what you will find most breathtaking about the Eternal City: the sumptuousness of the Vatican, the timelessness of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat 500, the gruesome grandeur of the Colosseum, or perhaps the elegant balance of your caffe latte. You and your family will live passionately, indulging in all the rich pleasures the city has to offer, from the grandiose thrill of feeling centuries of tumultuous history under your feet to the enjoyment of eating pistachio gelato on a hot day.

Upon touchdown, you will be met by your guide, Antonio, who speaks excellent English. He’ll be at your disposal throughout your stay and will be sure to point out the sights of the city on your way to your lodging. No doubt tired from your journey, you will head straight to the repose of your hotel and relax until dinner.

Day 2: Ancient Rome, explored

On your first morning in Rome, you and your family will hit the road—not just any road, but the Queen of Roads, the Appian Way. Built in 312 BC, this road was once lined with elegant villas and monumental tombs belonging to notable Roman families. Traversing the first few miles, which are now an archaeological park, you and your family will directly encounter this romantic and majestic past.

Continuing down the Appian Way, you will take in the grandeur of the Circus of Maxentius, a full-sized stadium built by the Emperor Maxentius for horse races. Beside the stadium, you will find the tombs of his son Romulus and Cecilia Metella. Tombs aren’t the only sources of macabre mystery along the Appian Way—your children will also delight in the spooky catacombs. These underground vaults vary in size, and the design and detail of these Christian holy sites capture the imaginations of visitors of all ages.

Emerging from these twisting chambers, you will head to The Old Appian Way Park—a perfect spot for a picnic. Enjoy your fuel-up in this quiet haven, and prepare yourself to become even more closely acquainted with history, as you step into the shoes of a Roman gladiator. This unique and intense experience will last about 90 minutes and will be conducted by an experienced private trainer who will tailor his instruction to you and your children’s abilities and interests. During the lesson, you will master the basics of hand-to-hand combat, discover the secrets of Rome’s gladiator games, and develop an experiential understanding of what life was like in ancient Rome.

Concluding your time on the Appian Way, you will proceed to the Pantheon. Remarkably, over two thousand years after its construction, the Pantheon survives virtually intact as the most magnificent symbol of the Roman Empire. Its grandeur begins with its mighty dome, still today the biggest brick dome ever built. Everything, from the columns, to the marble, to the inner decorations has barely changed in two thousand years. Particularly notable is the floor, constructed with precious marble from all over the Mediterranean Sea. Take a moment to appreciate that your feet fall where once emperors like Hadrian walked.

After experiencing history in so many forms, you will be brought back to the present by an event that’s sure to delight your taste buds: a gelato-making interactive demonstration. This culinary exploration takes place in one of the oldest ice-cream parlors in Rome, the renowned Giolitti. Your kids are sure to spend their time in Rome tasting a wide range of gelato, and so this is a great opportunity for them to learn a bit about the sweet treat they are enjoying. Under the supervision of professional gelatieri, you and your children will try your hand at making gelato, and then, of course, will get to enjoy it!

Day 3: The Holy City

After a day of hands-on history, today will start off on a holier note—a visit to the Vatican. Your English-speaking Vatican guide, Lucia, will meet you at the Vatican. With special training, she is an expert specifically trained by the Vatican and licensed to give tours inside the Vatican City State. You will begin with botanical beauty, as you visit the gardens of the Pope, one of the world’s most imitated and venerated gardens. In particular, I think you will appreciate how the progression of history can be seen even in these living paths and plots. Originally developed in the thirteenth century by Pope Leo IV, the Vatican gardens were expanded or altered by every successive pope, expressing, in a sense, each leader’s vision of his own legacy in horticultural form.

Here, where each Pope has had his favorite place for walking and meditating, nature is at its most luxuriant. Attention to detail is evident in every leaf, bud, and stone, shimmering in the diaphanous water jets of the fountains. The atmosphere is peaceful, discreet and silent, yet, at the same time, full of life. Per our conversation, this will provide you with a chance for mid-morning repose that both you and your children will enjoy. Once you’ve had a chance to relax in botanical bliss, Lucia will offer a tour rich in anecdote and detail, conveying to you the oral and physical history of a place that features artifacts ranging from a fragment of the Berlin Wall to a gnarled old olive tree transplanted from Gethsemane in the Holy Land.

Your detailed and personalized tour will continue. Given your interest in how the past meets the present, you might be particularly interested in the Vatican’s heliport and the railway station, the Vatican Radio station, or the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In fact, the experience of a visit to the Vatican gardens is a testimony of the possibility of gracefully integrating the secrets of an ancient world with the function of our modern time.

Once you’ve concluded your time in the gardens, you will pass through to the Vatican museums, where you will explore the main areas open to the public. Naturally, your visit will include a stop in the incomparable Sistine Chapel, but you will also have the opportunity to view some sections unseen by regular visitors, including some of the private chapels of the Pope, inestimable treasures, and a breathtaking terrace offering panoramic vistas over the city.

When you are finished exploring, you will be whisked around the crowds, straight in to St. Peter’s Basilica. Here, enveloped by the greatest sacred monument ever built, you will feel, in a deep and visceral sense, what it is that makes this city holy. The interior is overwhelming in the richness of its gilding, the magnificence of its statuary, and the solemnity of its papal funerary monuments. From my conversations with you, I know you will want time to take it all in. When you’ve had a chance to bask in the hallowed atmosphere, Lucia will tell you the tortuous and fascinating history of this vast project, which was constructed under the oversight of no fewer than eighteen popes.

Your tour of Vatican City can go on as long as you wish, though I suspect it might be cut short by your children’s hunger! Antonio will meet you and help you choose a delightful and authentic local café for lunch. Once you’ve finished eating, the afternoon is yours—a chance to unwind with a swim, or perhaps, if you’re looking for more sightseeing, venture to Trastevere.

Day 4: A day in Florence

You will say goodbye to Rome in the morning and depart for Florence. Antonio will be an asset here, as he has particular experience assisting with children during travel. Fortunately, you don’t have to far to go, and will arrive in time for a simple lunch of pizza at a lively local spot after checking in to your hotel.

Once satiated, your explorations will begin anew. Florence, with its vast history of wealth and art, has a great deal to offer. You will begin with a tour that will bring you to the Ponte Vecchio, which, though built in 1345, stands almost exactly where the bridge was first built by the Romans stood after the city was founded, as Florentia, in 59 BC. A view of this oft-painted river is the perfect place to begin to get to know the city. The Arno was fundamental to the development and wealth of this city during the medieval period when Florence became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe, boasting a flourishing cloth trade and some of the first banks in Europe. The older parts of the city extend northwards from the river, and that’s where you will head next.

In Piazza della Signoria you will see the awe-inspiring Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall) that housed Florence’s local government from the early 14th century, when Florence was a powerful independent citystate. Local government offices are still housed there today. Piazza della Signoria is an open-air sculpture gallery and houses a breathtaking array of original sculptures of mostly mythological figures including Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze Perseus, Giambologna’s famous Rape of the Sabine Women, and Ammannati’s Neptune. You will also find a copy of Michelangelo’s David, which stands where the original stood until it was moved into the Accademia in 1873. As you view these sculptures, you will get to hear the intriguing tale of the rise of the Medici family, and how they, along with other merchant families, helped give birth to the Renaissance.

You will progress on to the Duomo, Florence’s Cathedral, which was built over a period of 175 years and consecrated as Santa Maria del Fiore in 1436. It is still one of the largest churches in the world and dazzles with its pink, green and white marble exterior and magnificent Dome (or cupola). Here, you will certainly get another chance to feel speechless in the face of the historic and the divine. This majestic and dominating structure is complemented by the Romanesque baptistery, which stands in front of the Duomo, and is the oldest religious building in Florence. Its interior is as stunning as the Duomo’s exterior, bringing together 13th century mosaics over a marble inlaid floor, with access through three sets of gilded bronze doors. Your children will no doubt delight in the stories—of both the Old and New Testaments, some of which will likely be familiar to them—etched on these doors.

Your day will conclude with a visit to the Gallery of the Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David currently resides, alongside his unfinished Slaves or Prisoners. The gallery is so named because it was originally founded as a collection of paintings for the students of the adjoining Accademia delle Belle Arti to study. Given your daughter’s aptitude for art, Antonio will be sure to bring along a sketchpad so that she—or anyone who wishes—can follow this tradition.

Day 5: South to Siena

You will start your day with a scenic drive south to Siena, one of the most beautiful cities in Tuscany. Resting on three red clay hills, steep narrow streets and Gothic architecture convey the city’s original medieval atmosphere. During your adventures today, suspended between past and present you will, in sum, feel yourself to be a link between two worlds, between two realities, between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Once you arrive, Antonio will usher you first to the Campo, considered one of the most beautiful piazzas in the world, where the famous Palio horserace is run twice a year between the different districts of the city. You will continue on to the Duomo, Siena’s magnificent cathedral with a lofty striped marble façade. Inside, you will find many notable works of painting and sculpture. I’d particularly recommend stepping in to view the original 14th century frescoes—covering the entire stretch of the nave walls, these frescoes depict the stories of the Old and New Testaments.

Per your preferences, I have left some latitude in your afternoon. Antonio will help you find a lunch location that matches your children’s fancy and your inclination. Afterwards, it’s up to you. However, I do have some recommendations that might tickle your fancy, or that of your children. For the art lovers among you, I’d highly recommend visiting the city museum, where more glorious frescoes abound in the chambers of Siena’s medieval government. The Cathedral Museum, which currently houses Duccio’s incredible Maestà, the largest painting of the Medieval period alongside Giovanni Pisano’s extraordinary life-size sculptures, will also fit nicely with the theme of awe and grandeur. If you are feeling inclined to give your tour a more local flavor, I’d recommend the Pinacoteca—this is the city’s museum of painting and houses a complete collection of works by Sienese artists.

In the early evening, you will make your way back to Florence, perhaps waving goodbye to the graceful hills of Siena in the gathering dusk. However, if you choose to head out a bit earlier, you can stop in at San Gimignano. I personally love this stop as a follow-up to Siena—it is perfect for those who delight in experiencing the passage of time and history. Siena obviously balances medieval origins with modernity—and San Gimignano offers a deeper experience of history, with 13 preserved tower houses—often called the Manhattan skyscrapers of Tuscany—which stand out on the horizon as you drive up to the town. Stretch your legs with a leisurely stroll through the main streets, browse in the shops, and perhaps indulge in a gelato at the prize-winning gelateria in the main square.

Day 6: A taste of Tuscany in Val di Pesa

Today will be a real treat, as you will delve into the culinary and cultural history of Tuscany, eschewing big cities for artful spots that will show you the heart of the region. Drawing inspiration from the region’s simple and seasonal cuisine, this day in the countryside will shed light on the staples of local cooking—from olive oil, to mellow cheese, to grilled meats, beans, and breads.

You will start your day on the outskirts of Florence at the Certosa del Galluzzo, a working monastery built in 1341 as a center for religious education. Today the monastery is inhabited by a group of monks who maintain many of their old traditions, which include distilling herb liqueurs. Your private visit will include an hour-long guided tour with one of the brothers through the monastery, palace and galleries that feature works of art from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

Next, you will journey to the quaint village of San Casciano Val di Pesa, situated midway between Florence and Siena, where the Gepke family will welcome you to their 140-hectare fattoria for a tasting of their premium wines, sheep’s milk cheeses and olive oils. These mild, fresh, and earthy flavors are typically pleasing to palates of all ages, and so should whet the appetite of your whole family. Luckily, lunch at Dario Cecchini’s Slow Food restaurant in Panzano will be sure to satiate. There, you will be served various meat courses (you might wish to try Dario’s MacDario), chosen by the chef, with seasonal vegetables, white beans, bread, olive oil and local wine.

The day will end in Greve’s piazza, ringed by medieval and early Renaissance palazzi. Be sure to visit Folorni, one of tuscany’s most famous salumerias, and then enjoy your slow return to Florence on the famous Chiantigiana route, which runs through the middle of the Chianti Classico wine zone and offers iconic Tuscan landscapes to enjoy. These sights will appear all the richer when seen through eyes that have gained so much knowledge of the region over the course of the day.

Day 7: Gaining familiarity with Florence

After deepening your knowledge of the region, you will have a chance to get to know your host city a little better. Florence today is still divided into four major districts that are concentrated around four of the more important religious monuments in the city. Santa Croce, your focus for the morning, has traditionally been one of the poorer districts in the city because it is most susceptible to flooding. This does, however, mean that lively and industrious activities flourish in the area, with many artisans’ workshops in the surrounding side streets. Here, you will also find one of the largest and most magnificently decorated Franciscan churches in Italy – Santa Croce. This church still preserves some of its original 14th century fresco decoration, including works by Giotto, the artist who almost single-handedly took Western art from the stylized icon-like images of the Byzantine period into the more human and life-like images that will ultimately evolve into the Renaissance. After this foray into art history, you will get your chance to pay homage to a handful of cultural giants, as you view the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.

Once again engaging your children’s interest in not just the question of “what?” but also that of “how?”, you will continue your morning with a visit to a marble mosaic workshop. There, you can see how this ancient art is still being carried on today using traditional techniques. In this family run workshop, the artisans produce exquisitely crafted landscapes, cityscapes, and copies of painted masterpieces that sometimes take years of work. The late afternoon and evening will be for relaxation.

Day 8: Venturing to Venice

As when you left Rome, you will depart from Venice after a scrumptious goodbye breakfast. When you arrive in Venice, you will check into your hotel and then prepare to familiarize yourself with the city. Of course, the most entrancing aspect of Venice is, perhaps, to be found outdoors, in the labyrinthine wonder of its canals and sottoporticos, and so your plans will vary with the weather. If the weather is favorable, you may wish to take a vaporetto to San Giorgio. There, the Basilica, by Palladio, was begun in 1566 and finished after Palladio’s death in 1610. Of note are the two glorious paintings of Tintoretto and the choir stalls.

After enjoying the Basilica, you will pass by the attendant monk and take the lift up to the bell tower, which will give you an unparalleled view of the Venetian archipelago. This is a great opportunity for you and your children to contextualize what you have seen and experienced so far. I’d also recommend picking spots around the city to visit later—Antonio will be sure to note your interests, and can help you find them by foot or by boat later. If the weather is bleaker, Antonio will facilitate this same adventure, but with less exposure to the elements.

Day 9: Canals, continued

Antonio will meet you in the morning in the hotel lobby, and will take you to the heart of Venice, Saint Mark’s Square. There, you will visit the Basilica, the Pala d’Oro, and the Horses Loggia. You will then get a chance to walk in the nearby area from Santa Maria Formosa to Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. No doubt your children will relish the chance to explore this unfamiliar water-city on foot. Antonio will, as always, be at hand to help you choose a restaurant that precisely fits your fancy.

After a leisurely bite, you will turn your feet toward the Accademia Bridge and the Dorsoduro area. There, you will enter the Mask shop. Here is another opportunity for hands-on learning and engagement with history: you and your family will first learn about, and then actually make, a Venetian mask, the likes of which you will see throughout Venice. Thus familiarized with one of the great artistic traditions of the city, you will walk back part way, stopping in to the resplendent Frari Church. After absorbing the simplicity of the brick exterior, duck inside and take in the sanguine design and art, including works by Bellini and Donatello, before heading back to your hotel in gondola.

Day 10: A view of Venetian artisans

Your final full day of adventures will provide you with another chance to learn the technique behind famed Italian art. Your day will begin with a glorious private dawn boat ride to Murano, the famous glass blowing island of Venice. Stop to see the glassblowing and then reboard your boat and head out to Burano, an Island famous for its lace-making. After learning about these delicate crafts, you will return to Venice for lunch.

Your last afternoon will be spent as you wish—an opportunity to pursue whatever you might have gotten a taste of, but wish to explore at greater length. Antonio will be available to guide you during these explorations, and another guide will also be available in case your family’s interests lead them in divergent directions.

Day 11: Farewell Italy

In the morning, after a final caffé and farewell Italian pastries, you will wave goodbye to Italy as you take off from Marco Polo Airport, bound for the USA. You will leave with, perhaps, a few knickknacks and keepsakes—but, more importantly, with a wealth of knowledge and hands-on understanding of what makes this country a true mecca for lovers of art, people of faith, and students of history.

Now, with the canvas of your journey painted, all that remains is for you and your children to go and live out the brushstrokes. As always, if I can do anything to be of service to you before, during, or after your trip, please let me know.