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In Florence, a Family Discovers How to Get Kids Really Animated by High Culture

By Katherine Kam
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page E01

Florence has always struck me as a sublime place for a treasure hunt. Just hand me a map and I'll wander the stone alleys until I discover a wealth of art, from Botticelli's "Primavera" to Fra Angelico's heavenly frescoes. Then last May, when my husband and I traveled to this fabled Italian city with our two small children, the fantasy hunt came with a twist. We found ourselves chasing after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--not the "fearsome fighting," pizza-chomping Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michaelangelo of cartoon fame, but the flesh-and-blood Renaissance heroes who took the art world by storm.

Ben, 7, spotted Michelangelo first. In the outdoor courtyard of Florence's renowned Uffizi art gallery, a statue of the great artist, chisel in hand, stared across the centuries. Buoyed by this easy find, we coaxed Christina, 3, to help, and walked the entire square. A few paces from Michelangelo stood Leonardo da Vinci. Another few paces, the sculptor Donatello. But our fourth turtle, Raphael, eluded us. We gave up. But once inside the museum, we scored a hit: a self-portrait of the painter Raphael. Amid the whispers of awed museum-goers, one happy boy let out a whoop.

I've never been a Ninja Turtles fan, but those "heroes in a half-shell" provided something that turned out to be a key to the kids' enjoyment of a foreign country: Familiarity amid the foreign. Along with gelato, pizza and spaghetti, the Turtles were one of many links that helped put Ben and Christina at ease in Italy. Not every day of our three-week trip to Florence, Siena and San Gimignano went smoothly. But we returned home confident that someday our kids might love traveling as much as we do.

It helped that we chose a country that my husband, John, and I had visited before, and we made sure we got there with a minimum of fuss. Nothing ranks higher on the misery index than traveling with small children and unwieldy luggage, so we packed light. We jammed everything into two carry-on bags, with three outfits each for the adults and five each for the children. One more necessity--an umbrella stroller--and we were off.

We had been tempted to book all our hotel rooms in advance, but we didn't, just in case the kids needed a few extra days' rest somewhere, or a town enchanted us so that we couldn't bear to board the train. In the end, we booked only our first night to make sure we had a place to sleep off our flight to Milan. By going in May (we had worked out a "study contract" with Ben's first-grade teacher), we beat the summer tourist crush. Every night, we had a room to call our own.

To reduce hassles even more, we chose Tuscan towns with plenty of centrally located sights and dispensed with the car rental. We hopped from town to town by train or bus, limiting each journey to no more than three hours.

Shooting straight from the airport into a hectic urban scene, such as Florence, seemed better suited to families who really like stress. We retreated instead to spend our first few days on Lake Como, north of Milan, to acclimate the kids. The move proved wise. Our kids needed five days to switch their body clocks fully to Italian time. Unwittingly, my son's little travel diary told the woeful tale: "When we got to our first hotel, we stayed up all night. The next night, we stayed up all night again." My husband will never forget trailing our bouncing 3-year-old through Bellagio's deserted alleys at 5 in the morning.

When we felt rested, we plunged into busy Florence. The cozy and friendly Pensione Centrale, aptly named for its closeness to the city's historical center, served as our home. Our host, Franco, pinched the kids' cheeks, playfully refused their greetings of "hello" in favor of buon giorno and taught them the endearing ciao-ciao.

Each morning, in a breakfast room laden with flower baskets, the staff brought us pitchers filled with scalded milk and coffee for the adults and hot chocolate for the children. Then we helped ourselves to a buffet of rolls, cold cuts, yogurt, fruit and boiled eggs. My son, the picky eater, stashed away the unfamiliar hard rolls to feed the pigeons. Fine with us. By lunchtime, he devoured pasta by the pound.

After breakfast, we would tuck a hotel business card into each child's pocket and take off to see the sights. Already, my husband and I had made a pact not to drag our children along the culture circuit. Nor would we set ourselves up for frustration by planning too much to do. These were compromises, but when you travel with kids, you swallow the whole lasagna.

It took us a mere five minutes to walk from our pensione to Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's Gothic duomo, or cathedral, of green, white and rose marble. The church's huge red dome was heralded as a miracle of architecture when Filippo Brunelleschi built it during the Renaissance. Across the cathedral stood the Baptistery, an ancient octagonal building where, today, crowds jostle to glimpse Lorenzo Ghiberti's brilliant bronze doors (actually copies--the real ones are in a nearby museum). A short stroll from the Baptistery along the Via de' Calzaioli brought us to the Palazzo Vecchio, a stone palace that once housed the Medicis, the ruling family that paid the bills for a lot of Renaissance talent.

Then there was Florence's premier art museum, ringed with daunting lines. I had decided long ago that I would lay down my life for my kids. But sacrifice the Uffizi? No way. Ben and I slipped in before closing time at 6 p.m., when most tourists had drifted off. As we strolled past the sculptures, from Venus de Medici to busts of the Roman emperors, my son often asked the same two sophisticated questions: "Who is it?" and "Why isn't it wearing any clothes?"

While greatness can be found in Florence's museums and monuments, we also savored the simple charms of street life: the portly restaurateur, wine glass in hand, belting out an aria to entice passersby; the Andean musicians playing spirited pipe-and-drum tunes in front of the Florentine Baptistery; the mobs of schoolchildren in matching baseball caps doing their traditional May art museum tours. On the Ponte Vecchio, the city's oldest bridge lined today with jewelry shops, we caught sight of a young bride and bridegroom, he in a conservative gray suit, she in a modern white shift with a chiffon scarf, posing for wedding photos. We eyed the cross-section of Italians buzzing the narrow streets on motor bikes, from cool young rebels to matronly women in business suits.

Ambling through the streets seemed to put our daughter Christina at her best. She stopped to admire each fountain and fed every pigeon in Italy. When she got tired, we strapped her into her stroller and kept her busy with inexpensive toys. Her favorite, purchased from a Florence street vendor, was a putty-filled green balloon adorned with two eyes and a tuft of red yarn hair. For hours, she was content to sit in the stroller, twisting and thwacking "Walter" into a dozen tortured shapes. Ben picked up a loose round cobblestone, scribbled on a face and made it his pet rock.

Often, we refreshed ourselves with the pure pleasures of gelato, Italian ice cream. We marveled over the unusual flavors--among them, rice, hazelnut and melon. The Festival del Gelateria, located just off the Via de' Calzaioli, featured a huge selection guaranteed to brighten a kid's face. Our children bought chocolate chip, and I tried an airy tiramisu mousse, lovely in texture and only a little too sweet.

Travel gourmets would die, but I'll admit that we ate more burger meals than we would have if we had left the kids at Grandma's. We got to know the McDonald's across the street from the Florence train station very, very well. We also struck pay dirt with Italian fast-food joints that sold pizza e frutta--pizza paired with a bountiful cup of fruit salad, or macedonia.

It was this flirtation with the familiar that seemed to provide our children with enough sense of home that we were able to enjoy the unfamiliar. After many Happy Meals, they were content to let us sample the Tuscan duck stewed in herbed tomato sauce and creamy mushroom risotto. After we let them jump for hours inside the McDonald's children's cage that was filled with plastic balls, the kids generously accompanied us to the Galleria dell' Accademia to view Michelangelo's "David," and found themselves just as awed as we were by this marble giant (Goliath would have bolted). After we bought Ben a Buzz Lightyear doll at the Disney store in Florence, he happily went along with us to check out Tuscany's country-style ceramics.

In fact, the children were making their own discoveries. Equipped with cameras--Ben's real disposable one and Christina's toy--they saw Italy through a child's eyes: the stacked towers of blue, red and yellow cone cups at a gelateria; a boar's head mounted on the wall of a sausage store; a display of stuffed pigs sitting at a red and white check-clothed table; a real suit of armor outside a tiny medieval museum. During cathedral visits, both children lingered around the confessional booths, which rivaled the hotel bidet for curiosity value.

Lest anyone think we had birthed two of Raphael's cherubs, there were the garden-variety sibling squabbles and displays of ill humor. But whatever our children did, the Italians were forgiving. Excluding a couple of bait-and-switch hotel operators and a crabby train waitress who snatched cups out of our hands, the Italians treated us kindly and displayed their legendary love for children. Old men patted our kids on the head and sacrificed bus seats for us. On trains, grandmothers tried to chat with our kids in Italian. One old woman laughed when she watched Ben gobble all the salami out of a sandwich, then hand his father the bread. "Children are all the same," she sighed knowingly.

Aside from occasional tantrums and the earlier jet lag, our only other problem was motion sickness. I had taken great pains to pack a portable drugstore to combat diarrhea, fever, upset tummies, sunburn, and cuts and scrapes, but I left out the only thing we ended up needing: children's Dramamine. A bus ride from Siena to San Gimignano along winding roads had made our son queasy and sick. On my way to a pharmacy, where Italians go for minor ailments, I flipped through my phrase book to find "motion sickness" or "car sickness." Neither was listed. And the pharmacist didn't speak English. So I blurted out a string of Italian words that meant, "son seven bus nausea vomiting United States Dramamine." Recognition flashed in her eyes, and soon I had a box of Pediatrica Xamamina in hand for our return trip. "Like Dramamine," she murmured reassuringly in Italian.

Granted, traveling abroad with children may not be for everyone. With our slow pace, I missed treasures that I'll have to catch during a return trip. (I never did see the Fra Angelicos.) But our holiday allowed us to build a family history of traveling together. As one another's playmates for three weeks, our children also forged a new closeness. At the end of our vacation, Ben, homesick early on, began to wish that he could stay in Italy longer. I know he loved the country, but he also loved our time with one another.

Now that we're home, the kids often mention Italy with fondness. My husband and I can't wait to rent "Enchanted April," "The Agony and the Ecstasy," "A Month by the Lake" and any other movie even remotely related to Italy.

And what the heck? We'll even throw in a Ninja flick or two.

Katherine Kam is a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Details: Tuscany With Kids

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to Florence. We flew to Milan, about 200 miles northwest. From there, trains make the three-hour trip to Florence, for a round-trip fare of about $54. Numerous airlines offer connecting service from Washington to Milan. United has a daily nonstop flight from Dulles; it is quoting a round-trip fare of $408, with restrictions.

Within Tuscany, train and bus routes connect towns, including Florence, Siena and San Gimignano. Or rent a car to drive through the hill towns.

WHERE TO STAY: Florence and other Tuscan towns aren't cheap, but a budget-conscious family of four can find pensiones and hotels in the $100 to $160 range, private baths not always included. The Pensione Centrale, within blocks of Florence's sights, is a good bet (phone: 011-39-55-215-761, fax: 011-39-55-215-216).

WHAT TO EAT: While you're in Tuscany, sample the regional specialties, which include bistecca alla fiorentina, steak broiled over coals and seasoned with salt and pepper, and Siena's panforte, a rich, dense cake concocted from honey, nuts and fruits. Kids who love pepperoni pizza should ask for pizza diavola, a very close Italian cousin. Pizza takeouts and gelato shops abound.

INFORMATION: Contact the Italian Government Tourist Office at 1-800-ITALY-07 (1-800-482-5907) to receive brochures, or 212-245-5618 with specific questions. On the Internet:

--Katherine Kam

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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