From D.H., Washington, D.C., June 2009.
I am just back from a week in Italy with nine-year-old Isabelle, my dear granddaughter. We had a superb time in Florence, Siena and Venice. For the second year in a row, I used Context for guides in each of those cities. All but one did a great job bringing the subject matter alive for Isabelle, and for me. The best guide I have EVER had, for anything, was Kristin Stasiowski in Siena. She has a Ph.D. in Italian Literature and was also a member of one of the contradas in Siena, so we had a private tour of the Onda “clubhouse” and a private showing of a Palio video from 1995, when Onda last won the race. Life for Isabelle is now centered solely around civetti (owls) as a result of our walk through the neighborhoods to see each of the fountains in the contradas. She has the owl scarf, an owl contrada bracelet and about a million owls in glass, wood, silver, etc. etc, that we purchased during the rest of the trip.
A true highpoint of the trip was the fresco workshop in Florence that Context arranges. We spent the afternoon sitting in a tiny studio overlooking the rooftops of Florence in the Oltrarno district (VERY Room with a View) being tutored in fresco technique by Hector, a Brit restorer who lives in Florence, and we actually painted a fresco of our own. As abysmal as I am with my hands, I still enjoyed the session enormously. It was a VERY special afternoon.
Allyson and Louisa, our guides in Venice, were also excellent. They had a great sense of humor, connected immediately with Isabelle and really did a superb job of imparting the information in a very palatable way. What I have noticed after last year’s trip to Rome, and now again this year, is that guides who speak in accented English are NOT good for kids. The kids spend most of their time straining to understand what they are saying instead of immediately getting the picture about the history or whatever it is they are supposed to be learning about. In Florence, we had one non-native English speaker who spoke so slowly and tried so hard to give every detail about paintings in the Uffizi that Isabelle turned off in the first five minutes, never to return. She just missed the point and didn’t know how to sift through the description of the paintings to keep Isabelle’s interest. Our guide at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice was the opposite. An American with a degree in medieval art, she spent a short time in front of about eight paintings and was able to keep Isabelle’s interest the entire time. I really felt that she taught Isabelle how to LOOK at a painting.
As for hotels, the Lucchesi Palace (Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia 38; 39-055-26236; www.plazalucchesi.it) in Florence, right on the Arno and next to Santa Croce, was fine – a bit tired, perhaps, but the location was terrific and the concierge was extremely helpful. There’s no room service on Sundays, though. Two restaurants near Santa Croce, Leo (Via Torta 7r; 39-055-210-829) and Baldovino (Via San Giuseppe 22; 39-055-241-773), were perfect for families.
In Venice, the San Clemente was a perfect escape from the crowds of San Marco at the end of the day. My granddaughter found the fifteen-minute shuttle boat back and forth a tiny bit tedious by the end of our stay, but the pool was delightful and we had perfect weather to enjoy it. They no longer serve milkshakes, though! We found a wonderful private letterpress for engraved stationary with your choice of just about ANY design or animal: Gianni Basso. Of course, we ordered owls on bookmarks for Isabelle, and I got camels on bookmarks for my husband. They’re not cheap – thirty euros for ten – but the work is lovely, and he puts the now-extinct Mrs. John L. Strong to shame. Aqua Pazza was the “in” restaurant for Venice.
See an ideal three-day Venice itinerary for families
Read an interview with Context Travel’s founder Paul Bennett
Get recommendations for a family-friendly trip to Rome