The churches! The museums! The boredom! What do you do when what most attracts you to a city are the very things that scare off the kids?Here, a family of three shares their strategy for keeping everyone happy. The dad—New York Times Magazine writer James Traub—weighs in first, followed by 12-year-old Alex and his mom, Elizabeth, a.k.a. Buffy.
JIM Alex would have been perfectly content—as he often told us—to spend the week after summer camp sleeping late, listening to music, seeing his friends, and going to a Yankees game or two. Instead, we took him to Florence. My wife, Buffy, is an art historian who has been there many times and is always eager to return. I'm drawn to the city for all the reasons lay people are—the history, the art, the churches, and, above all, the ice cream. We knew Alex would like the food, but what about the rest of it?
ALEX Computer: none. Football: none. Friends: none within 4,000 miles. When I heard we were going to Florence, I wasn't exactly thrilled. I knew I could count on pasta, pizza, and gelato, but there was all that art. I was afraid this trip was going to be as boring as 60 Minutes.
JIM We knew we had to dole out the museums carefully. On our first afternoon, we walked among the great palazzi and narrow lanes in the tiny area bounded by the Duomo and the Arno—the center of the world 600 years ago. I kept up a running narrative of hit tales from the Renaissance. Before we left home, I'd had what I considered the inspired idea of reading Alex Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King's enthralling account of the obstreperous genius who built Florence's Duomo. I planned a Brunelleschi-themed trip. We would visit San Lorenzo, the Medicis' church; Santo Spirito; and the Ospedale Degli Innocenti, said to be the first example of Renaissance architecture.
BUFFY Jimmy was yammering about how Brunelleschi's rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, had schemed to get him thrown in jail when I finally interrupted to say, "Can you stop talking for a minute so we can look at the actual city?" I pointed out the golden balls of the Medici family crest inscribed over a window. When you go to Florence, you have to look.
ALEX When we walked into our suite at the Lungarno, our hotel along the Arno, I thoughtI was seeing heaven on earth. The bathroom had this big marble Jacuzzi.In my room there was a giant television, so I could watch the Italian version of MTV. The terrace overlooked the river. What more could you want?
JIM As it happened, we were in Florence during a heat wave. Our walks usually lasted about a half-hour before Alex would say, "Can we get something to drink?" We would push him another 10 or 15 minutes, and then the whine-o-meter would sound: "We've been walking for like three hours!"
BUFFY We would stop at a café to administer an emergency infusion of frulatto, a fruit milk shake. Gilli, a Victorian café in the Piazza della Repubblica, has sandwiches with their crusts trimmed just so, wonderful fruit-shaped marzipan, courtly waiters, and irreproachable air-conditioning. Our days became increasingly organized around air-conditioning, which isn't easy to find in Florence. Alex led us into the Ricordi Mediastore, where he looked for Italian hip-hop while Jimmy and I basked in the cranked-up AC.
ALEX We had to get gelato at least twice a day. In Florence, they have flavors you've never heard of, like panna cotta, which tastes like a Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino, except better. A famous place called Perchè No! makes good mint-chip. And the fruit-flavored gelato comes in the reds, oranges, and purples of Japanese anime videos.
JIM It was blessedly shady along the ancient Borgo San Jacopo, a lane that runs parallel to the Arno. The Borgo is lined with the stone towers that the great families of Florence built to protect themselves from one another during the fratricidal wars of the 13th and 14th centuries. Across from the ivy-twined Belfredelli towers, we found...an Internet post.
ALEX AOL Instant Messenger, I love you. The café, which was called the Internet Train, was run by a really nice guy who spoke very good English. I IM'd with friends for an hour for three euros (about $4).
JIM I tried hard to work in the Brunelleschi theme. We spent an hour in San Lorenzo, a clean-lined church with just the right number of things to look at—a few paintings, a pair of immense sarcophagi with splendid carvings by Michelangelo, and a semi-sphericalsacristy designed by Brunelleschi and decorated withbas-reliefs and bronze doors by Donatello. The doors show bearded saints expostulating with one another. Alex said, "Look, the foot is coming right out of the panel!" At the back of the church is the Medici chapel, which contains some of Michelangelo's best sculptures.