The Rug Rats and the Renaissance: Our family’s voyage through Tuscany
Having just returned from our family’s week-long voyage through Tuscany, I feel compelled to note my memories of in words rather than just photos. I now know three truths:
- Everything you’ve heard about the food, wine and ice cream in Italy is entirely true;
- A family of five and an Alpha Romeo do not go together; and,
- It’s more than a shame to have only one week to explore Tuscany – it’s a cardinal sin.
I am truly grateful to my Tante Daina who chose this location to celebrate her 65th birthday with a group of 18 family and friends. After months of internet exploring, she chose La Fattoria Romignano, a wonderful tourist farm (in this case a working vineyard and olive grove) in the Tuscan countryside. An hour south of the Florence airport, all the major relic Tuscan villages were an easy day trip away. Think old-world charm (especially in the kitchen and bathroom), its two charming dwellings easily accommodated our famiglia with 11 roomy bedrooms, 8 bathrooms and 2 kitchens.
Somewhat jet-lagged after their first transatlantic flight, our kids slept off and on their first day as my husband and I navigated the villages leading to our fattoria (most unhelpful directions from a young boy in Triaina – I thought you could still trust a kid on a donkey these days), shopped for groceries in the IperCoop (or was that the UberCoop? which is what we nicknamed this Walmart of Italy), tentatively planned our day trips and welcomed family as they arrived in dribble and drabs from 3 different countries.
Though cool temperatures, constant rain and Easter Sunday Mass parking woes hampered our first day excursion to Siena, we endured the wet cobblestone climb to the Piazza del Campo which is mercifully closed to all vehicular traffic. Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rivals Florence as the most popular and picturesque tourist site in the province of Tuscany and the site of the famous medieval il Palio bare-back horse race (which is still run twice a year amid its cries of barbarity) and its magnificent 700 year-old cathedral. Like the skyscraper building scrum of Manhattan in the early 1900’s, all Tuscan villages aimed to outdo each other in the height of their Towers and the Torre del Mangia sores over Sienna’s piazza. On the way back to the Fattoria, we couldn’t help a quick visit to Monteriggioni, a tiny but completely walled village 12k north of Siena, built in the 1200’s and seemingly well preserved to that period.
The vampire lovers in our group quickly clued me in to the fact that the Twilight series movie sequel, New Moon, was partially filmed in Montepulciano, and while not on my list of Tuscan ‘musts’, this became our second destination. Seeing that it was also famous for its Vino Nobile, I didn’t put up a big fight. We traced the footsteps – or flight pattern – of the vampire Edward through the Palazzo Communale and climbed to its top. Montepulciano proved to be another medieval and Renaissance, car-free treasure in Tuscany.
Sun and warmth greeted us in Assisi, our only excursion outside Tuscany. It seemed appropriate to bring my daughter, a lover of animals, to visit the tomb of St Francis in its magnificent Basilica di San Francesco. Though still very much venerated, I couldn’t help-chucking over what St. Francis would think of these Franciscan clerics on cell phones and driving cars! Modern monks aside, the breathless climb to the towering ancient Rocca Maggiore provided the most impressive view of Italian countryside for me and evoked powerful medieval spooky stories for my kids!
All tour buses head to San Gimignano and our Alpha Romeo joined the line. Did we come to see, up close, the spendour of an ancient skyline of 14 medieval towers that can be seen from miles away? Were we intrigued by a village that lost 2/3rds of its population to the plague in the 1300’s? Are you kidding?! San Gimignano is home to Pluripremiata Gelateria, crowned World Champion of Gelato in 2006-07 and again in 2008-09 (not sure what happened in 2007-08 and 2009-10 but if quality was down, we didn’t notice). The rest of San Gimignano was pretty awesome too.
Finally we could no longer fend off the pleas of our kids, and we pointed the little Alpha Romeo towards Pisa. Not without a stop, however, in Lucca where the Italian poet, Dante spent some of his time in exile and the famous opera composer Puccini was born. Our quadriceps and stomachs were now accustomed to navigating the winding and twisting passageways and streets in our other Tuscan stops, so we were immediately struck by the civilized and orderly pattern of the streets in Lucca. This is a Tuscan medieval village? Actually, no, it was founded by the Romans in 180BC, hence the more organized street grid. The high, walk-able wall which surrounds the historic part of town has got to be the most beautiful running trail I have ever seen. Sure, I took a stride or two.
I know Pisa’s rich history has more to offer tourists than its Leaning Tower, but having arrived at 3p it was all we could manage to see before heading back to our fattoria to take a turn cooking dinner. Its flood of tourists, long lines and tawdry souvenirs were also heavy deterrents at this point in our day; but the kids got the tacky photo ops they came for!
This is where my story takes a sad turn: leaving Florence to explore on our last single day in Tuscany is like – well – eating just one potato chip, or taking just one sip of wine – simply cannot be done. Yet I knew its churches, museums and art galleries would wear out all but the most dedicated of our little tourists and after my husband quipped to my relatives, “She takes no prisoners”, I knew we would have to tone it down. Upon arriving to La Piazza il Duomo, I realized I was wearing a skort, having forgotten about the European churches strict dress codes for its tourists (no bear legs). I was mortified but wasn’t turned away from a single church nor was I even sneered at – a sure sign of changing times in the Roman Catholic church. Having been warned of the long lines and high price admissions at L’accademia and L’Uffizi, we settled L’accademia – for we knew Michelangelo’s David would surely make an impression. After my son asked if we’d ever had a “Ta-Da!” moment, because he’d just had one seeing David for the first time, I knew we’d made the right choice. Then we hiked over to Basillica Santa Croce where my kids claimed they walk over 270 dead guys. Actually they did not, but did enjoy seeing the tombs of Michelangelo, Gallileo and Machiavelli (who they now know is not their mother reincarnated). The “really cool bridge” that my son posted later on Facebook was, of course, the Ponte Vecchio and we concluded our day trip in Firenze with a 45-minute (I know, another cardinal sin) visit to the San Lorenzo street market.
Getting back to my three truths, I would do anything to eat and drink my way through Italy once again. I am sure my memory of the tiny Italian car and our big family will soften because having a vehicle and not being tied to train or bus schedules proved most liberating (easy for me to say as I did none of the driving).
So, ciao Italia! Alla prossima!
So here’s what’s on my “Trip to New York” iPod Playlist….
- New York, New York (Really? Leave this one out?) – Frank Sinatra
- New York’s Not My Home – Jim Croce
- Nights on Broadway – BeeGees
- New York Sate of Mind – Billy Joel
- New York Groove – Kiss
- New York Minute – Don Henley
- Bad Bad Leroy Brown – Jim Croce
- Englishman in New York – Sting
- Sullivan Street – Counting Crows
- I am, I Said – Neil Diamond
Believe it or not, all these songs came from my current iPod library and not a single one purchased for the sole intent of this road trip playlist.
(I know. My iPod music could use a serious injection of something from this decade)
(Actually, it’s not even my iPod)
And no, as a matter of fact, not. My kids recognized not a one. Okay maybe New York, New York (thanks to the movie Madagascar). If you can think of anymore I should add, please help me out. My hip-itude is rapidly losing pace with children’s.
Sightseeing in New York City…
When in Rome, do as the Romans… right? Having lived in Manhattan for a time, I really wanted to show my kids another face of New York and not just the touristy facade. I guess we all got a taste of both and in the end, that’s probably not a bad way to see the Big Apple for the first time. Hooking up with Manhattanites I knew and staying in an apartment instead of a hotel probably went a long way to help achieve our New York State of Mind…
Here’s what we did in our first four days as New Yorkers:
- Sony Wonder Technology Lab – It’s free but you have to call at least three weeks ahead to make a timed entry reservation. Lots of techno-fun from making a footprint of your voice, editing your own video clip to anchoring your own newscast. We were there for about 90 minutes. We then enjoyed sipping some Starbucks in the Sony building atrium while the kids gawked at the gargantuan Spiderman (had to be 15 stories high) mounted on atrium window.
- Walking tour of Central Park – We met my friend Adam, who was born, raised and has lived most of his adult life in Manhattan. We picked up some awesome deli sandwiches at Lenny’s on the Upper West Side, and, along with his wife and their daughter, had a picnic at Turtle Pond in Central Park. I could think of no one better to give my kids a walking tour of Central park. We visited the Pond and all its RC sailboats, explored tons of statues including Balto the Dog and Alice in Wonderland. I still enjoy the Poet’s Walk even if at my age, I still haven’t heard of half of them. A carousel ride, some ice cream and a walk through the Central Park Zoo (although we didn’t actually go in). Saturday in the Park – you’d think it was the Fourth of July. New Yorkers are obviously used to walking. Adam’s two-year old daughter complained the least on this leg of our journey.
- The Cathedral of St. John the Devine – My kids were thoroughly unimpressed to be at church while on vacation, but the fact that the Statue of Liberty can fit inside this immense cathedral interested them enough to stay another – oh – 5 minutes. However, this is a truly spectacular Anglican spectacle in the middle of Harlem… a couple of centuries in the making and still not complete.
- South Street Seaport – this should be a weather-dependent excursion! Though the vendors, eats, shopping and Harbour boat tour satisfied my crew, I would have enjoyed it so much more on a sunny day.
- The Rock (observation deck) at Rockefeller Center – go at night so you don’t have to wait 3 hours in line and the night skyline is extraordinary. The ride up the elevator is half the fun (don’t forget to look up)! The professional picture taking was a little hokey but you’re under no obligation. It’s comparable in price to the Empire State Building. We also got crushed in the crowd waiting to enjoy Leonard Cohen at Carnegie Hall. “Please!” I begged the kids, “Someone ask me how to get to Carnegie Hall!”. They didn’t get it.
- The American Museum of Natural History – Don’t miss it – and take the subway! It’s the best museum in New York hands down. Take in the Discovery Room if going with kids (it’s a hidden gem). It is also one of the many museums in New York which lists “Suggested Admission”. Knowing we had only 3 hours to spend there, I told the clerk I had $30 to spend (I think suggested admission for all five of us would have cost $50 – which I believe is what we spend in their food court).
- Yankee Stadium – We bought our tickets on line before hand. Bleacher seats were all we could find (read: afford). So for $15 a pop, we went early for batting practice, snagged a few free ball caps, caught a few errant fly balls, ate gross stadium food, sat in the bleachers and froze our buns off but the kids never complained except when we decided to leave early in the 8thinning.. The highlight for me? The beer vendor carded me! A great night out though. Yankee fans are hard core and make Hab fans look like saints. But seriously, when looking for tickets my husband misread the “best available’ seats for $29.00 when they were actually $2900. “Who actually sits in these seats?” he wondered aloud. Well, while at ESPN Zone we noted that Donald Trump was actually sitting in those seats.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( +Guggenheim, 92nd Street Y) – as much of a New York experience as this should be, my kids were not at all into this museum. Once we’d finished touring the Egyptian and Medieval Wings it was time to lunch and lounge in Central Park again. I did walk them past the 92ns Street “Y” which I called home for 8 months back in ’86…unimpressed. En route to the Met I took them past the Guggenheim. Not only were they interested in seeing the museum because it was shown in the movie Men in Black, but also because my friend Adam’s wife and regaled a very funny story about it. Apparently, a friend of hers some twenty years ago had decided to see how far she could get skateboarding down from the upper level (you will only understand this possibility once you see the Guggenheim for yourself). Well, the story goes that she got ¼ of the way down before a security guard nailed her and kicked her out.
- Playing ‘catch’ in the park – just taking in a sunny day in the Park, I showed the kids the Reservoir where I used to jog almost daily.
- Phantom of the Opera – I’m not sure if it’s the best place to get discounted Broadway tickets (apparently some theatres now have lotteries!), but still a sure bet are the TKTS booths offering 50% of same day shows. What I did learn this trip, however, was that the booth at Southstreet Seaport was much more expedient than the one in Time Square. So $300 later, we had 5 orchestra level seats to Phantom of the Opera. “This is great”, my daughter quipped, “but when do they stop singing?”
Here’s what was also on my Agenda and had planned to do but ran out of energy, time and/or money:
- Magic Bus Tour of Manhattan City bus M5 route is a 90-minute loop we could have taken with our Metro card…. Takes you past all the major sites of lower Manhattan. You can pick it up at Columbus Circle.
- The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
- The Shark boat tour of New York harbour (I guess I should say harbor?)
- The Empire State Building
- The Bronx Zoo
…all to do next time…
There are close to 3,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone. It is just plum full of amazing restaurants – a recent article in the newspaper highlighted some of the sweet deals you could get at many fancy and famous ones (ask for prix fixe or sampler menus!). So when my kids are older, perhaps we’ll explore every one of them! That being said, I had no intention of spending my Manhattan days shopping for groceries and cooking meals. A quick trip to The Food Emporium on Third Av. ensured we were well equipped for a nutritious and ample breakfast in the apartment before venturing out (including coffee – especially since I recently heard of a bombing of a Starbucks in the neighbourhood in which we stayed!) and snacks for the road. Plenty of delis and street vendors would ensure we were well fed at lunch. While I did spend some time exploring reasonable and kid-friendly restaurants (ones that I could stomach as well), we still had some trouble finding a place to eat late on Sunday evening and sadly resorted to TGI Fridays after being turned away from several restaurants closing early Sunday evenings. Note to would-be travelers to Manhattan: even though my kids loved it, you can skip TGI Fridays.
I was trying to maintain a pretty strict budget as well, so a trip to Momofuku Ko or Convivio were not on our agenda – nor was Tavern on the Green. Here is my summary (bearing in mind the palates of an 8, 11 and 13-year old):
- ESPNZone on Broadway at 42nd: Yes. Absolutely. A total media circus! However my kids have never been to Manhattan so Time Square was a pretty fitting first outing. Assuming this would be all-sports-pub-grub, I was actually pleasantly surprised with my tasty warm steak salad. Be warned though, if you don’t like watching TV while [actually] going to the bathroom (no, seriously), you better take a Hail Mary pass on this restaurant.
- Monte’s in the West Village is a traditional Italian eatery that has been around for almost 100 years. The walk through this neighbourhood was part of the fun. We walked past dozens of eateries and pubs (including my favourite from many years back, The Back Fence, on Bleeker Street). The service was impeccable. The only thumbs down came from my 11-year old who could not understand how an Italian restaurant could not serve pizza. Suck it up, Buttercup. And he did. He ordered fresh, broiled lobster. Who’s doing the sucking up now?
- By far, our favourite meal was Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway at 51st. If you’re interested in knowing how Broadway wannabees earn their keep… this is a great place to visit. The food is Americana 1950’s but we all found something we loved – especially the most amazing milkshakes. You can’t leave room for dessert!
- My regret? We never made it to Chinatown.
- My other regret? It would appear that NYC menus now post not only the prices but also the caloric value…try not to get the two confused…
Seven hours in the van and suddenly the skyline of Manhattan comes into full but hazy view. The greenery and scenery of the drive from Ottawa to New York City are gorgeous but what we found truly astonishing was that while we were still in the midst of this greenery, Madame GPS was telling us that we’re 30 minutes from “arriving at destination”. Oh – but wait – it took us an hour to get from E 42nd Street to Park and 63rd. Then, at registration, I am told what no one wants to hear after 8 hours in the car: “We have a little situation with your accommodation”.
So let me step back a couple of months when I first started researching potential accommodation for our family trip to New York City. There are literally thousands of hotel options! If you’re flexible with your vacation dates, there are lots of deals to be found …especially with this recent economic turmoil. A friend of mine alerted me to a Hot Deal at the Radisson at $160/night room rate but not for the dates we wanted. I started making inquiries (by the way, most on line booking tools have an issue with any configuration beyond 2 adults and 2 kids), I was also informed by each hotel that, due to fire regulations, we would require 2 rooms for our family of five. Ouch. Trying not to miss too much school we chose to go over the Canadian May long weekend. Another friend told me about short term apartment rentals so I started researching that option. Several places I contacted would not allow children (can’t say as I blame them) and several others would only offer a minimum of one-month stay (I thought that would be great but my husband thought it was a little excessive.). After several calls, I found an agency that allowed children and had a minimum 5-night booking so we started to explore their offerings. http://www.manhattanlodgings.com was able to offer us 2-bedrooms for $475/night. I know that’s expensive, but it turned out to be cheaper for us that 2 hotel rooms for this particular weekend of our choosing. A pretty big downside to booking an apartment versus a hotel is that most agencies have a pathetic or non-existent cancellation policy. A 30% deposit is typical and is generally non-refundable if a cancellation occurs (though we were assured that if our plans were altered, a credit would be arranged).
So back to the saga of our check-in after 8 hours in the car. Apparently renovations in the building in which we were originally booked (at 7th and 58th –) had required the rental agency to move several guests due to excessive noise and dust. She offered us alternative arrangements, right there at Park and 63rd. It was a very quiet first floor apartment at the rear of the building looking over the patio of someone much wealthier. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, renovated kitchen… couldn’t really complain. Naturally she mentioned it was more expensive than what we booked but that discrepancy was quickly settled. We unloaded the van and my husband was discharged to find parking which he did for $45/day. There is cheaper parking available – certainly you can be lucky enough to find a spot on the street, but have you seen the way New York cabbies drive? Outdoor lots are also possible and perhaps I would grow to love the graffiti on our aging Toyota Sienna. Instead we opted for an indoor garage with security at $45/day. Once the van had also been settled into its own abode for the next five days (and $225 later), I got the thinking? I wonder if anyone has tried to spend the $45 a night for parking and slept in their van? Cheaper than a hotel and safer than the streets, don’t ya think?