After a couple of particularly grueling months, my wife, Nancy, and I were looking forward to getting away from our jobs in London for a few days in Rome: a quiet little hotel, some leisurely sightseeing and substantial quantities of good pasta, wine and ice cream.
The only problem with this perfect plan was that our kids, Lizzie, 7, and Jonathan, 4, wanted to come too. "Well, the last few weeks have been just as tough on them," Nancy allowed.
"And it's work, not the kids, that we want to get away from," I agreed.
As it turned out, we needn't have worried about the Eternal City's appeal as a family destination. Even on a quickie getaway, we found plenty to keep the kids amused.
Our hotel, near the Termini central train station, was one of those European establishments that cater to traveling salesmen, families and groups of academics. Our rooms were on the off-street side, so the lack of either morning sunlight or traffic noise helped ease one of our big worries -- that the kids would get up at the crack of dawn, as they do at home.
Instead, they got right into the getaway spirit, and we always seemed to be scrambling to get downstairs by 10 a.m. to breakfast. The waitress brought the kids hot frothy milk from the cappuccino machine, and it was such a hit that they had it for almost every meal in Rome.
We started our explorations in the vast archaeological park surrounding the Forum, the heart of old Rome. Sunken 25 feet below today's street level, the area was virtually buried until excavations began in the 19th century, uncovering the ruins of debating halls, law courts, temples and other landmarks. Nancy and I pored over our guidebook, pointing and postulating, while Lizzie and Jonathan scrambled up and down the remains of pedestals and foundations with other kids whose parents also had their noses buried in guidebooks.
Jonathan somehow absorbed something from our attempts to explain the excavations. Perhaps tying this in with some of my tales of Pluto and Hades, he became captivated with the idea of "the underworld" and was soon finding it everywhere.
"Look, Mom, the underworld," he would shout, whether peering down a 2,000-year-old tunnel to an ancient sunken arch or down a modern drainage grate.
As we walked from the ruins of the Senate and Rostra, we fed the kids cookies and tidbits of stories about Julius Caesar, Romulus and Remus, Vestal Virgins, Nero and the Roman Empire.
"What's civilization?" the kids asked.
I resisted the impulse to answer, "Caviar and champagne," and our efforts to explain civilization became something of a theme for our four days in Rome. We talked about how Roman society organized itself economically, legally and culturally for the greater good, but also about the slavery that helped Rome flourish and the sloth that brought its decline.
Perhaps due to my efforts to describe to the kids what Rome looked and smelled like 2,000 years ago, I too began to visualize the noise and bustle: the drone of legal arguments from the basilica, people in white togas drifting through jewelry and perfume shops, merchants selling baskets of still-fresh oysters that had been brought in by relays of runners from Brittany in a mere 24 hours.
We walked up into the lush gardens and royal palaces of the Palatine, one of the seven hills of Rome, and looked down on the dusty oval that had been Circus Maximus. We told the kids about chariot races, and resolved to rent "Ben Hur" when we got home.
After a late and leisurely lunch, we slowly made our way on foot back to our hotel, stopping three times: first so the kids could have donkey rides in Traianeo Park, second to watch half a dozen police cars screech up and roughly arrest a guy on the opposite sidewalk, and third to explore a church we happened upon.
The first was one of Lizzie's highlights for the entire trip, the second one of Jonathan's and the third one of mine.
The church was Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's four major basilicas, with dozens of extraordinary mosaics dating to the 5th century. "That's the thing about Rome," Nancy said. "Even when you don't intend to, you keep literally running into one ancient splendor after another."
The kids were tired that evening, but we voted unanimously to walk over to the Trevi Fountain, which friends had told us is best seen first at night. They were right. The spectacular 18th-century fountain, just plopped down in an otherwise ordinary little piazza, was a great way to end our first day in Rome. We tossed in coins over our left shoulders, thereby guaranteeing that we would return to Rome some day.
The next day we stormed the Vatican Museums, marveling at as much as we could take in, and pausing occasionally to relate snippets of the Bible stories that inspired tapestries, sculptures and paintings. The Sistine Chapel was crowded, but we managed to get seats on the benches, gaze at the ceiling for 20 minutes and tell the kids a little about Michelangelo.
Outside, we grabbed sandwiches and sodas for a picnic in St. Peter's Square. After touring the cathedral and descending into the caves to file past the tombs of popes, we hiked across the Tiber and down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II for a little window-shopping. Half an hour later, we stopped at Piazza Navona, one of Rome's largest and liveliest squares, with lots of souvenir stalls, street performers, caricaturists and sidewalk chalk artists.
The Pantheon was closed, so we regrouped down on the steps of a little (by Roman standards) church on the nearby Piazza Maddalena and listened to a strolling guitar band until its echoes disappeared down a side street. The church was jammed with ornamental craftsmanship and art that would make it a national treasure in most other countries; in Rome it didn't appear in any of our guidebooks.
After another satisfying, relaxed pasta supper at a grandmom-and-grandpop trattoria ($40 for the four of us, including wine), we headed once again for the Trevi Fountain. Jonathan, who had insisted upon returning, clambered up the boulder-like edges of the giant sculpture. "Look, Dad, I'm fountain climbing," he called. We lured him down by waving an ice cream cone at him. We walked home that night under a huge full moon.
Tuesday was Nancy's shopping day, and we checked out the shops on the Via Condotti and its side streets, known for fashion boutiques. But Nancy found slim pickings compared with past Italian buying sprees. We spent some of the money we saved on lunch -- yes, pasta again at another little tratt, but this time with seafood salads -- and I marched everyone back to the Pantheon. After the jam-packed opulence of so many of Rome's churches, the ancient monument was all the more impressive for being relatively spartan, and drawing its grandeur primarily from its own design and construction.
"Excuse me," a fellow tourist interrupted us. "Can you tell me why it doesn't rain through that big hole at the top of the dome?"
"It does," we replied.
Indeed, that was the only moment during four days of sunshine and 65-degree temperatures that we wished for a banging thunderstorm; the lightning flashes in the rotunda and the rain splattering onto the marble floor are supposed to be terrific.
From the Pantheon, we set off on a 20-minute walk down Via di Torre Argentina and Via Arenula in search of a shop recommended by a friend, for what she claims is the best ice cream in a town that prides itself on ice cream. We found the shop, Alberto Pica, on Via di Seggolia near the Ministry of Justice.
I don't want to rave, but this ice cream was good. And we're tough critics. Ice cream sometimes seems to approach religious proportions in our family. We've eaten it in more than half the American states and at least a dozen foreign countries, and I don't think we've ever had four more enthusiastic thumbs-ups. The pistachio, cream and fruit-based concoctions at Alberto Pica were all out of this world, but the real prize-winners were the rice-based ice creams, particularly riso con panna.
Afterward, we grabbed a taxi across town to Via Veneto to continue our shopping. In truth, though, we were still thinking about the ice cream. "Maybe we can go back there for lunch tomorrow on our last day," Nancy said.
We spent Wednesday morning at the Colosseum, where both kids were fascinated with stories about gladiators, Christians and wild animals. And then, before we knew it, it was time to leave. Unfortunately, we didn't have time for a return visit to Alberto Pica. But I think it's the idea of that ice cream, more than our four coins in the fountain, that will inspire a return pilgrimage to Rome.
For more information on travel to Rome, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10111, 212-245-4822.
Timothy Harper, a journalist and lawyer, is the author of the business book, "Cracking the New European Markets" (John Wiley & Sons).