Wondering what to do with the kids for spring break? How about a spot of time travelling to swot up on history amidst Rome’s ancient wonders?
Words by: Ellen Himelfarb
The taxi from Ciampino airport hurtled through the centuries like the Tardis. We skimmed moss-infested 5th-century ramparts, nipped past the arched remains of the Circus Maximus, and orbited the Pyramid of Cestius – razor-sharp and chalky-white, like some 2,030-year-old prototype for London’s Shard.
‘Look, quick!’ I shrieked to my daughters, struggling to fit the Colosseum in the window frame. ‘Gladiators fought lions here two thousand years ago.’
To my left, Lola, 9, inspected her fingernails. On my right, Camilla, 7, craned half-heartedly in her seatbelt. A minute later, palatial Il Vittoriano reared from behind a forest of pillars, and they were jolted to attention by the white marble.
Lola gasped in awe. Now she’s getting it, I thought.
And there it was, out of the back window: a branch of the Danish variety store Tiger.
‘Can we go?’
We’d been looking into holiday villas in Umbria when, on impulse, I slotted in a two-night stopover in Rome. I hadn’t been in a decade. And facing a yawning gap in our August diary and a hubby preoccupied with work, I anticipated the need for more time away from home.
The kids, who’d gobbled up picture books on the ancient city, would be enchanted seeing the real thing, I reckoned. I knew it wouldn’t all be amber-tinged, pepperoni-flecked and perfect. But I saw these 48 hours as an opportunity for 100 teachable moments. What are the school holidays for, if not the expansion of young minds beyond the classroom?
And if the educational part fell flat, there would always be gelato.
We dropped our bags in our faux-frescoed room by Piazza Navona and rushed out into a backstreet shadowed by ochre stucco. Slowly, so as not to break into a sweat, we crept towards the piazza with a terrace at every corner, where waiters carried trays
The ‘rhubarb-rhubarb’ of tourists intensified. In the heat, a flush crept up the girls’ cheeks, but soon they were distracted by the majesty of Navona, that one-time sporting oval ringed with domes and towers. At the white marble Fontana del Moro, mermen thrust water-spouting conch shells, anatomy dangling in the mist.
In the waning afternoon, street artists had already set up on the cobbles, and we settled in to watch one transform splotches of spray paint into a waterfall. Beside us, Bulgarian students queued for a portraitist displaying charcoals of George Clooney. Or was it Zachary Quinto?
‘I’m hungry,’ whispered Milla.
My memories of Rome were of a chaotic metropolis with wide, snarled streets and a contempt for logic. But staying in Navona cut it down to size, its tight lanes crowded with restaurants. A Roman friend had pinned my Google map with recommendations. ‘Don’t go anywhere else,’ she urged. Her first choice, PizzeriaDa Baffetto, was a block away, so Milla was in luck. Except… ‘Chiuso per le ferie’, read a sign taped to the door. A funfair? Where? No matter. Down the road was Da Baffetto’s sister restaurant, La Montecarlo. Also dark. At Campo de’ Fiori, calmly cleared of the morning’s market stalls, I found that auspicious sign ‘Forno’ — a bakery serving bubbling rectangles of pizza. Pre-empting an insurrection, I bagged two white-cheese tranches and the girls nibbled happily as we strolled down Via dei Giubbonari. By the time we reached Renato e Luisa, a taverna locked behind extinguished lanterns, the penny dropped. Ferie. August. Vacation. Schoolgirl error.
Thankfully, a few minutes down still narrower lanes, we plopped down outside Ba’Ghetto, a raucous trattoria churning out tuna-topped bruschetta and aubergine pizza. In the twilight, we eavesdropped on families splayed across the pavement where once, Jesus would have been locked in by the authorities.
Next morning, we woke at 10am, alarmed that the morning is half over. But without my slowcoach husband to contend with, we were ensconced on the terrace at Sant’Eustachio by 10.30am, sipping fresh orange juice and, for me, coffee brewed with water from an ancient aqueduct. Gnawing on an ice cube, Milla spotted her first fresco, in the direction of the Pantheon… just your average breakfast, then.
Soon, we were following a slow procession of tourists through the Pantheon’s Corinthian pillars, as worshippers have done since before Christianity. We navigated to the dead centre of the marble rotunda, nudging aside an Australian pensioner to get into place. Light beamed down on us like figures in a Michelangelo as we looked up, spellbound, to the circular opening in the dome. I’d forgotten the joy of gazing through that oculus to brilliant blue sky; I’d forgotten the Romans could build domes.
Onwards to the Trevi Fountain, past palazzos and obelisks so commonplace in Rome they were barely signed. Fair enough, but they couldn’t match the big reveal around the bend.
‘It’s not a fountain, Mum,’ said Milla, spotting the arsenic-blue water tumbling over Trevi’s muscular marble horse-wrestling bodies. ‘It’s a waterfall!’
This calls for a coin, I thought, retrieving two pennies from my purse as we neared the mass of spectators. Handing them over, I told the girls, ‘They say you’ll return to Rome again, as long as you toss a…’
Thunk. Never able to hold on to money for long, Lola had misread the distance and clocked a toddler between the eyes. Downright gladiatorial behaviour.
We moved in nearer, apologised, and squeezed onto the ledge so Lola could decipher the Roman numerals inscribed on the pediment: 1735, probably the most modern attraction we’d visit all weekend.
Barely noon and the sun was already punishingly fierce as we crouched for selfies among the marble togas. Dipping even a toe in the water is forbidden here, so I knew I had to act fast. Time to deploy the ace up my sleeve – a Capuchin convent nearby. With the girls wilting at the traffic lights in Piazza Barberini, it was a prescient move.
Shaded by oaks, the Convento dei Frati Cappuccini has a small museum displaying the terrifying tools of self-mortification. That’s just the entrée. The crypt at the back is the main event: cool, damp and decorated with the bones of 3,700 friars exhumed from the catacombs.
In one chapel, shoulder blades form winged patterns under the arches; in the next, tailbones spread like tiles. Ribs, then skulls, congregate in the hundreds. Mummified bodies in robes lean in like Madame Tussauds waxworks.
‘I’m hungry,’ whispered Milla.
Once again, I didn’t see the connection.
There were still the Spanish Steps on the agenda, four blocks away. Alas, we found the vast staircase wrapped in scaffolding. Luckily for Milla, round the back just off posh Via del Babuino, two women laden with shopping gorged themselves with bowls of pasta at Dillà. She wanted in.
Nobody in this chic bistro seemed to mind my two limp lasses. And the lasses didn’t mind that the menu was aimed at ladies who lunch. Milla devoured lasagne layered with paper-thin courgette – a vegetable I thought I’d never see on her fork. Lola sighed over spaghetti carbonara. And I returned to aubergine, suspecting they’d be too revolted to steal a bite. Yet piled under ricotta, tomato and fresh pesto, they wanted that, too.
After 24 hours of chipping away at my wish list, the pressure was beginning to subside, too. I let the girls choose. Would we see Vatican City, the world’s smallest country, or Villa Borghese, Rome’s most glorious gardens? The latter, which they could see from our map was just next door, won out.
What we couldn’t foresee was the steep, sweaty climb up from Piazza del Popolo. What should have taken five minutes took us 15, me alternating piggy-backs up the steps. It was worth it, though. At the top, from classical stone railings, our eyes followed deep boulevards all the way to St Peter’s, and the girls saw this majestic city laid out like pieces of a Lego set.
Villa Borghese is a generously shaded city-within-the-city, with bridges, Palladian follies and the Neo-Classical Galleria Borghese, plastered with Caravaggios. The latter books up months ahead. Just as well. There was a fanciful fountain to stretch out on, where a toddler called Nicola pushed a toy boat to his nonna. When a rickety tourist train pulled up, we bought tickets and felt the first breeze of the day as we weaved around the property. The afternoon should have ended here, but – under the guise of zooming back to the hotel – I hailed a taxi and rerouted to Trastevere, a vine-clambered quarter I remembered as soothingly modest and, not coincidentally, home to the gourmet gelateria Fatamorgana. Even at 4pm there was a queue out the door, but the betrayal was forgotten as the girls contemplated the bizarre list of flavours: pear and gorgonzola, chocolate and wasabi…
‘Strawberry!’ cried Milla.
‘Strawberry!’ cried Lola.
We might not have managed the 20-minute trek back to the hotel if not for the high boutique-to-footstep ratio in the streets either side of the sagging Ponte Sisto. Cones dripping, we browsed handmade jewellery on Via del Moro. And, over the bridge, we paused on Via del Pellegrino to admire Murano-glass figurines priced like sweets – then snapped up a pick ‘n’ mix menagerie.
Over slurpy spaghetti that evening at Cul de Sac, I let the girls spread out their tiny glass pets and they enthusiastically negotiated swapsies. Some souvenirs – even the cheapest ones – pay dividends.
Saturday morning at 7.30am, I was waking my soldiers with a nagging reveille. The battle of getting to the Colosseum by the 8.30am opening had begun. We gobbled continental breakfast and I requested a taxi at the desk, then panicked when it hadn’t arrived at 8.15, 8.30, 8.40… Three calls later, we arrived with our printed tickets and… sailed past the crowds.
Small victory. For 15 minutes we effortlessly toured the bleachers, peering down at the floor where the gladiators’ beasts were confined, inspecting ancient graffiti. After that, flag-waving tour guides and vastly taller crowds obscured every view, and we retreated, defeated, through the access hall, where vitrines displayed old lion bones and stumps of Corinthian columns.
On leaving, we discovered the best view of all was from the pavement across the street. I made a mental note. Awestruck at the half-eaten cake of a building, the girls fell quiet. Their little brains, I hoped, were busy making mental notes as well. There are few happier feelings than walking in the steps of the Romans from a sheer miracle of architecture, a child holding each hand. Until those children turn on you.
After brunch on the plant-shrouded terrace at La Bottega, in a wee piazza off Via Cavour, we began an early return to the hotel, past the Colosseum, Il Vittoriano and…
OK, they’d earned it.
We browsed, but ultimately they decided against Danish souvenirs. Perhaps they sensed the yellow emoji pillows at the shop outside our hotel were more evocative of the current era. Besides, the Largo di Torre Argentina, the neighbouring ruins where Julius Caesar was butchered in 44BC and where we took our last sightseeing stop, were crawling with cute stray cats. We later learnt that volunteers herd them here, then sterilise them. If
our moods were fully restored by Tiger, the live cat antics were the clincher.
Milla looked over to a series of openings barely visible above mounds of earth and fallen brick.
‘How did people get in those little doors?’ she asked.
You can just see the tops of them, peeking out from the undergrowth – the temples having been partially excavated beneath the tarmac (with some walls still buried). As a final teachable city moment, it was a delight: deeply entertaining and quintessentially Rome.
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Credit: Ellen Himelfarb / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Syndication