Published: May 2009
By James Traub, Alex Traub, Elizabeth Easton
One clan comes up with the right equation
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.
ALEX When we went to museums like the Uffizi, I gave myself a project: Find the Ninja Turtles (Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo). You can see Michelangelo all over Florence—his David is in the Galleria dell'Accademia. Even though there are copies of it everywhere, you should still go to the actual site—it looks even better than it did in SpongeBob.
BUFFY The Duomo, besides marking the center of Florence, is the biggest dome built before the 20th century. We took a brief tour of the marble and stone interior, and Alex insisted on walking up the 473 steps to the top. I let the boys take that excursion by themselves, while I found a shady spot near the Baptistry with a good view of the dome. When they reached the top, they called on the cell phone, and I waved from 350 feet below.
JIM Every day I would say, "And now we're going to go to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo." Well, it never happened. On our last afternoon in Florence, Alex and I took a taxi to the Cascine, the big park in the western part of the city, and went to the Pavoniere,Florence's best public pool. It has pavilions at either end that look like Roman temples. The whole scene was sort of early Hefner, with guys wearing Speedo-style briefs and women in bikinis. The Florentines strolled to the snack bar; they lay on their tummies and worked on their golden tans. What they did not do was swim. Alex and I had the pool to ourselves.
ALEX The souvenir shopping was another good thing about Florence, especially at the Straw Market near Ponte Vecchioand the San Lorenzo market, a hippie place. I loved Florence, and the amazing thing about it was that my parents didn't torture me.
DOUBLES FROM $420. 14 BORGO SAN JACOPO; 39-055/272-61; www.lungarnohotels.com
LUNCH FOR FOUR $40. 39R PIAZZA DELLA REPUBBLICA; 39-055/213-896
8R VIA BRUNELLESCHI; 39-055/214-104
19R VIA DEI TAVOLINI; 39-055/239-8969
30R BORGO SAN JACOPO; 39-055/265-7935
Le Pavoniere pool
OPEN JUNE THROUGH SEPTEMBER, 9 A.M. TO 7 P.M. 2 VIA DELLA CATENA, PARCO DELLE CASCINE; 39-055/362-233
Recommended guidebook: Italy with Kids (Open Road Publishing), by Barbara Pape and Michael Calabrese.
More tips on where to stay and what to do
Ciao Bambino! (www.ciaobambino.com) An Oakland, California-based agency that specializes in helping families plan trips to Italy.
WHERE TO STAY
Villa La Massa (24 Via della Massa, Candeli, Florence; 39-055/62-611; www.villalamassa.com; doubles from $630) A 16th-century Medici estate that is sister property to Lake Como's Villa d'Este. Located 15 minutes outside the city, the resort has a pool-plus special robes for kids-making it an ideal retreat for families. There are 37 rooms within three villas.
Grand Hotel Minerva (16 Piazza Santa Maria Novella; 39-055/27-230; www.grandhotelminerva.com; doubles from $305) This Carlo Scarpa-designed hotel has a rooftop pool overlooking the Duomo. Rooms 111 and 114 are special family suites—two-level apartments with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and room to romp. N.B. the hotel is one of three Florentine properties owned by the Concerto group (39-055/238531; www.concertohotels.com), all of which offer special programs for families with young kids. Expect treats on arrival, coloring books and crayons, rental bikes with kids' seats on request, and a babysitting service.
WHERE TO EAT
Il Mercato Centrale (Piazza di Mercato Centrale; open Mon-Sat. 7 a.m.-2 p.m.) Cured meats hang from the ceiling on the first floor of this two-story food market. The fresh fruits and vegetables are upstairs. Look for the delicious dried strawberries.
La Spada (62r Via della Spada; 39-055/218-757) A casual trattoria near Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Be warned: the Tortellini Medici (homemade pasta with peas and ham in a tomato cream sauce) and roasted potatoes are addictive.
WHAT TO DO
La Specola Natural History Museum (17 Via Romana; 39-055/228 8251; closed Wednesday.) The The Zoological building, the oldest science museum in Europe, houses a menagerie of taxidermied animals, both extinct and common: a hippopotamus, Galapagos tortoise, and Tasmanian wolf. For those not easily disturbed, there are wax models of human bodies used to teach aspiring doctors in the late 18th century. The most famous model is the "skinned man.".
Museo Leonardiano di Vinci (Castello dei Conti Guidi; 39-571/56 055; open daily 9:30-7:00) Located 40 minutes from Florence in Leonardo's hometown of Vinci, this medieval castle-turned-museum is full of the Renaissance master's greatest creations.
Giardino di Boboli (entrance at Palazzo Pitti; 39-055/294-883; open daily 8:15-5:30, closed first and last Monday of the month) A garden with unparalleled views of the city. Kids love to explore the sprawling lawns, and the fountains and grottoes.
Museo dei Ragazzi: Palazzo Vecchio, Museo di Storia della Scienza, Museo Stibbert (1 Piazza dei Giudici; 39-055/265-311; www.museoragazzi.it) These three museums, ideal for kids, are housed in contiguous buildings. At the Museo di Stora della Scienza, kids can peer through a Galilean telescope; CD-ROM kiosks help them reconstruct the Palazzo Vecchio from scratch. Don't miss the 18th century childbirthing instruments at the Museo di Storia della Scienza. The Stibbert is for the weaponry-obsessed members of the family. All three museums offer excellent programs that introduce children to the collections via costumed guides playing historic figures.