The Living Part
After a quick search I realized that it would be impossible to find a nice hotel that offered suites in our price range. When you’re staying somewhere for a month, it adds up. Then a friend suggested renting apartments, something I’d never considered. It turned out to be a wonderful tip. There are hundreds of websites listing apartments and houses in every price range. Most are on a weekly basis, but some offer daily rentals. We paid $110-235/night, while the moderately priced hotel suites were at least $250/night. The cost was only one benefit, though. We could cook, entertain friends and, best of all, we felt like we were actually living in Italy, not just visiting.
Most places in Italy don’t have AC, fans or even screens in the windows. Thinking of mosquito-ridden summers in the US, I was afraid we’d be miserable but it wasn’t a problem. It was very hot in Rome, so we had to sleep with the windows open, but the other apartments were cool enough to sleep with the windows and shutters closed. The shutters keep rooms dark and quiet in the morning and encourage an afternoon siesta.
In Rome we stayed in a wonderful neighborhood just outside Vatican City on Via dei Gracchi. It isn’t too touristy, but there are lots of restaurants and shops in the area. I shopped at the local mercato—indoor market with separate stall for meats, fruits, and other essentials—every day and found that the shop owners remembered me by the week’s end. The few key Italian phrases I had memorized really helped me there. The rental agent, Mauro (www.omtour.it), was terrific. He picked us up from the airport (included in the rental price), gave us a tour of the neighborhood, gave us a mobile phone to use during out stay (included in the rental price), drove us out to the Porta Portese market on our first day, and drove us to the rental car agency.
We spent two weeks in Tuscany at Castello di Montalto (www.montalto.it), a castle about 20 km. from Siena in the Chianti region. The castle has one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and cottages that are rented on a weekly basis. The castle is secluded (3 km. down a dirt road), peaceful, and well-restored. They have a swimming pool (and baby pool), sandbox, tennis courts, and bocce court. The owners, Giovanni and Diana Nunziante, have lived in the castle for over 30 years. They, like all of the staff, are available but not intrusive. The castle library is stocked with up-to-date tourist guides and maps as well as other helpful information about regional festivals, wineries, and places of interest. The castle was a great base for day trips around Tuscany and a great source of playmates for my daughter. There were several Danish families with young children whose stay overlapped ours. They, like many visitors, were return guests. We quickly felt at home and my daughter enjoyed playing with the dog, cats and chickens. It was great to stay in one place for two weeks. We were able to relax, enjoy the countryside and each other. It felt like a vacation within a vacation, with no pressure to “see this” or “do that.” The castle would make a great setting for a family renunion.
In Florence we stayed four nights at the Erta Canina Guesthouse (www.ertacanina.com). This was the most expensive apartment, but definitely worth the price. It’s in an excellent location—within walking distance of the major sites, but in a residential neighborhood—and beautifully decorated. The owner, Francesca, speaks perfect English and was very helpful. She led us to an American-style supermarket and loaned us Disney videos. The apartment is well-equipped with a TV/VCR, CD player, computer with internet access, telephone and treadmill. There’s a lovely, child-friendly garden and Francesca let my daughter use her children’s outdoor toys. Everything was perfect, except for the family renting the basement apartment whose noisy children and television kept us up a few nights. There’s a connecting doorway (that can be locked) between the two apartments making it ideal for two families traveling together.
For our last night in Italy we stayed in a hotel near the airport, The Cancelli Rossi in Fiumicino, which was a big mistake. Neither the hotel nor the town had much to offer.
The Eating In and Out Part
Most grocery stores close from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, so stock up. You can often get milk and juice at Bars for takeaway. Look for a sign saying Latteria. Diapers, formula and sometimes baby food can be found in Farmacias (pharmacies). Fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, cheese and meat are abundant and inexpensive in Italy. You can buy excellent (and cheap) wine and beer everywhere.
Peanut butter, cheddar (or any orange) cheese and raisins are another story. So if your child is a picky eater, you may want to bring a supply with you. Since we couldn’t find four of my daughter’s “staple” foods and she doesn’t eat pasta, we had to get creative. Luckily most restaurants served Macedonia di Frutta Fresca (fresh fruit salad), pizza, and of course gelato. These were sure bets when dining out.
Dining out is a highlight of most vacations and a real pleasure in Italy. Most Italians love children and welcome them in restaurants. We never received annoyed looks from other diners or waiters, even when my daughter was noisy or wandered among the tables. On our first night there, an Italian woman at the next table offered my daughter part of her focaccia appetizer. Although many restaurants don’t have high chairs or baby-changing areas in restrooms, the staff is usually very accommodating. At one restaurant, the waiter, concerned for my daughter’s comfort, piled several cushions on her chair.
Although most restaurants tend to serve dinner late by American standards (around 7:30 pm), bars, cafes and pizzerias often open earlier. Also, restaurants in tourist areas usually open earlier for dinner, but I’d avoid them. A few experiences we had in restaurants near tourist sites were unpleasant. They tended to be fairly expensive, often with poor service and mediocre food. Look for places off the main streets. We found a superb trattoria in an alley near the Trevi Fountain. If possible, eat where the Italians eat .
Excerpted from "Overseas with a Toddler: Traveling in Italy" in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 30.