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Italy with the kids

Must-see icons doable, but itinerary needs tweaks

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ROME -- We looked at each other nervously as the fast-talking cabbie studied the large map book on his steering wheel, flipping pages, his foot firmly on the gas pedal. We were speeding down Viale di Trastevere's tramway corridor (perfectly legal, he assured me; fortunately, tram drivers were on strike). We were heading -- we hoped -- to the apartment that would be our home for the first leg of our three-week Italian journey.

We reached the cramped, cobblestoned streets that distinguish Trastevere, a lively neighbourhood on the west bank of the Tiber River. It turned into a bumper-car ride. We hit dead ends, expertly made hairpin turns with millimetres to spare. The driver-side mirror hit a pedestrian's purse on a crowded stretch -- "Sorry, sorry," he yelled out the window in English as we continued on our way.

Safely dropped off at our apartment, jet-lagged and giddy, we burst out laughing as the taxi zoomed away. This would become a family story.

The ride was the perfect introduction to Italy as we set out on a tour with our three children -- ages six, 10 and 13.

Italy can be chaotic compared with Canada, but it was clear this was going to be a fun family adventure. In Montreal, the kids have attended Saturday-morning Italian school for years. Our tour of Rome, Tuscany and Venice was their chance to learn about the homeland of the grandparents they never met and develop a taste for travel to boot.

Rome's churches, museums and restaurants were the main attraction on previous trips, but with kids along this time, the itinerary and pace had to change.

We did hit the iconic musts -- the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Castel Sant'Angelo, St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums -- knowing they would be eye-opening experiences for the kids.

But there was an inevitable no-more-churches/no-more-museums rebellion, leading us to new corners of the Eternal City.

We lingered at a cat sanctuary in the heart of town, where hundreds of stray felines lounge among the remains of some of the city's oldest temples, dating from 200 to 300 BC.

We walked up Janiculum Hill, Rome's second-tallest hill, to enjoy a breathtaking view of the city, some say the best.

We wandered around the location of the ancient Circus Maximus stadium, imagining the crowds that once cheered on chariot races.

Just being in Rome is an experience, and Trastevere, with its bohemian/small-town feel, was an ideal home away from home. The narrow streets are highly walkable and the street life -- restaurant patios, street performers, vendors of all sorts -- make it a perfect spot for people-watching.

Though a bustling metropolis, Rome is very walkable. Fountains, piazzas, the Tiber -- there's something to experience around every corner.

Crossing Roman streets can be daunting at first. Just realize drivers do indeed stop for pedestrians who clearly show they want to get across. If in doubt, wait for a bold local. Public transit is extensive and relatively easy to use if you plan your excursions beforehand.

After six tiring days of tourist-ing in Rome, we escaped to an idyllic setting.

Picture a cosy apartment in an old stone farmhouse -- complete with swimming pool and a chicken coop -- on a Tuscan hill with a view of San Gimignano, a 13-towered mountaintop town founded in Etruscan times.

It was our base for Week 2. We didn't need to (and wouldn't have dared) drive in Rome, but a car for this portion of the trip was a must -- to help us get around, but also so we could enjoy spectacular panoramic vistas.

From the top of every hill was another picture-perfect scene -- contrasting greens of the olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees and countless ancient, red-roofed towns perched on mountains.

Our favourite destinations in Tuscany were the quaint old hilltop towns, including Certaldo, reached via a funicular; Volterra, thought to have been inhabited since the 8th century BC; and San Gimignano, home to Gelateria di Piazza, our pick for Italy's best gelato.

We took in small local-history museums, explored ancient dungeons, climbed to the top of towers with spectacular views.

Some quick trips were taken to the unavoidable bigger cities. We hit Florence to experience its architecture, window-shopped on the Ponte Vecchio and a rode an antique merry-go-round. Instead of the exhaustive Gallerie degli Uffizi museum, we took in a hands-on exhibition of replicas of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, including flying machines, a crane and a machine-gun.

We also did a drive-by in Pisa so we could snap obligatory leaning-like-the-tower and holding-up-the-tower photos.

Our one longer big-city excursion was to Siena, where we soaked up the feudal ambience. We arrived the day after a palio race, the famous inter-neighbourhood bareback-horse competition that takes place twice a summer in the town's grand medieval square. The city was still buzzing -- the packed-dirt path used by the horses was still in place and residents of the winning neighbourhood were still partying over their victory.

It's hard to resist the allure of Venice, but the cost of staying there can be exorbitant, so we opted for an apartment in nearby Padua, reaching the lagoon city via a 45-minute train.

The train drops you off at the Santa Lucia station, its wall of glass giving visitors their first glimpse of the stunning views to come.

We balked at the cost of a gondola ride (roughly $110 for a 40-minute ride). Instead, we took the practical route -- using a vaporetto (water bus) as a tour boat. From the train station, we jumped on a packed vaporetto that took us on a 40-minute ride along the Grand Canal, all the way to Piazza San Marco. For about $50 for the five of us, we had great views of the city and canals, and it saved us some walking. Try for a window seat or stand outside at the back of the boat.

The 11th-century St. Mark's Cathedral is spectacular, but so is the square, lined with covered galleries that provide welcoming shade, shops, restaurants and gelato counters.

The highlight of our two days in Venice (aside from the canals, of course) was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, overlooking the Grand Canal. The modern-art museum's accessible art and its manageable size was a welcome respite for kids weary of stuffy museums and enormous churches with art that can seem repetitive.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 E5

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