I’ll admit it. One of the primary reasons I wanted to homeschool that first year was so I could travel in Italy with my kids and not have to beg the principal to excuse their absences. It probably wasn’t the most logical reason, but it was the birth of our Fieldschooling Adventures.
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For years I dreamed of traveling to Italy. I was fascinated by the history, the culture, the artists, well, everything. I convinced my husband that we HAD to go for our 10th anniversary. One problem. I gave birth the month before our 10th anniversary. Gone were my dreams of a romantic trip to the Tuscan countryside. So, I waited a few years until the babies were grown a bit and realized we could go to Italy as a family.
And since it was ALSO our first year of homeschooling, I could devote the entire year to learning about Italy!
So, for the next 8 months, we learned the Italian language, listened to Italian composers, attended Italian operas, studied Italian Rennaissance painters and read about Ancient Roman history, architecture and mythology. We immersed ourselves in all things Italian. But, nothing prepared us for the awesomeness which is Italy.
Studying for Our Trip
Traveling to Italy is not a minor undertaking. I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I wanted to make sure my children were excited about our adventure, and I wanted them to anticipate seeing sites they had only ever read about. So, we started a year-long study of all things Italy.
I began by looking into studies that would follow that period in history. I started with Simply Charlotte Mason’s History study that included Ancient Rome and the Gospels. Along with this study, we also used their The Stuff They Left Behind from the Days of Ancient Rome kit.
We read books about The Roman Colosseum and how the City of Rome was designed. While I read Augustus Caesar’s World and The Story of the Romans, the girls worked through their Life in Ancient Rome Dover History Coloring Book. For our family reading, we found some great titles in fiction and non-fiction that we really enjoyed. We loved the Henry Winterfield books, Detective in Togas and Mystery of the Roman Ransom. We also read Red Sails to Capri, while my youngest read about Pompei.
It was also important for us to study the great artists and composers of Italy. We read about and studied the works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Giotto, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. We attended the Opera and saw La Boheme – with subtitles. And, of course, no study of great Italian artists and inventors would be complete without the amazing Leonardo DaVinci.
So, we wouldn’t be totally lost in a foreign country, we also learned a bit of the language using Little Pim and Learn Italian: Instant Immersion. We didn’t spend enough time to become fluent in Italian, but we did learn enough to survive.
Setting Up a Travel Plan
When traveling to a foreign country, I highly suggest seeking the advice of experienced travelers or visiting your local AAA. They can help you make hotel and train reservations. When traveling in Italy, train travel is an easy and economical way to go. We did rent a car to travel to our condo in the Tuscan countryside, but most of our trips were by train.
Some things to note if you are renting a car:
- Before entering the country, obtain an international driver’s license. You can get these at the local AAA.
- Purchase rental insurance (you are in a different country, and your auto insurance may not cover you in Italy).
- Know how to drive a manual stick shift. Most of the vehicles are not automatic, so if you haven’t driven a stick in years, you might want to brush up on it.
- To put the car in reverse, you must either push a button or push down on the stick shift. I say this because it took us 2 days to figure this out. At one point my husband started driving up hills and putting the car in neutral just to go in reverse. Hysterical now, not-so-much at the time.
- Have a navigator. The Italian countryside is covered in traffic circles. To get to our condo from the train station, we had to navigate SEVEN circles. It took all of us to keep up with which circle we were on and which direction for that circle.
- Be prepared to drive in a much smaller vehicle. We rented a van for the 7 of us and our luggage. The “van” ended up being a 7 person compact car. We had luggage on our laps, under our feet, and hanging out the windows. We were a bit cramped, to say the least.
The best site I found, by far, for planning tours and sightseeing trips is Viator. We used them to plan tours to the Colosseum, The Forum, and Palatine Hill. I would highly recommend the Underground Chambers and Upper Tiers tour of the Colosseum. We also used the “Skip the Line” tours of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
Traveling in Rome with Kids
Our first stop in Italy was Rome. Our plane landed on Italian soil on my youngest’s 7th birthday. We immediately set out into Rome (because our hotel rooms weren’t yet ready) in the pouring rain to find an appropriate place for a birthday lunch. Rome is very tourist friendly and easy to navigate. Many hotels have shuttles, but there are plenty of taxi options. Riding in a taxi in Italy is a memorable experience. Traffic rules are more like guidelines, and road lines are generally ignored. I spent a lot of time clenching the arm rest and praying while bracing for an impact that never came. The most interesting of these experiences was our bike ride from the Colosseum to the Pantheon – or as we like to call it “Our Near Death Experience.”
Some of our Favorite Things in Rome
Definitely get a tour of the Colosseum and the Forum. They are next door to each other, and both are truly amazing. You will walk the same streets as Julius Caesar and Paul. It is a humbling experience.
While in Rome make sure to tour the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The museums are huge, so you may only want to go to parts. For kids, give them a heads-up that there is no talking in the Sistine Chapel and to stay close. It is extremely crowded and easy to get lost. In fact, we lost part of our crew and it took a while (and a security guard) to find them again.
Traveling in Florence with Kids
Florence or Firenze is an amazing city. We spent two days here, but we could have spent more. Because of the fantastic museums, like the Uffizi and dell’Accademia, we spent a lot of time touring amazing works of art.
Some advice for traveling in Florence with kids:
- Get everyone a cheap digital camera or make sure they have plenty of room on their iPods and phones. My kids had a blast photographing everything in site. Remind them that flashes are not allowed in the museums.
- Have everyone wear good shoes. There’s a lot of walking around the town.
- Take a horse and carriage ride. My kids loved the tour around Florence, and it gave our feet a break.
- Stop for chocolate! Florence has some amazing chocolate shops.
- Pick up the museum guides. The girls enjoyed checking out where their favorite art pieces were located before we arrived in the museum.
Some of our Favorite Things in Florence
Il Duomo di Firenze is a beautiful cathedral built in 1436. The construction began in 1296. This is one of the things I love about Italy – the ancient buildings.
Don’t miss out on the museums. If you’ve done a little prep beforehand, your kids will be excited to see the works of art they have studied up-close-and-personal.
Florence’s squares are beautiful, but they are made even more amazing by the Italian Street Musicians. We often felt like we were in a movie and the kid’s had fun dropping money in their hats.
Traveling in Italy with Kids: The Countryside
You could spend weeks traveling the Italian countryside visiting all the ancient little towns and their historical and cultural sites. But, alas, most of us don’t have that luxury so we must pick out a few villages to visit. This part of our trip wasn’t as planned out as the other parts. We didn’t schedule tours or trains. We just decided each day where we would go and hopped in the car and started our adventure. The countryside is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, we often said that the pictures we took truly did not adequately portray the beauty.
Some of our Favorite Things in Italy
Let’s just be honest here. I dreamed of the Italian food. I was so excited to eat authentic Italian food that I honestly didn’t take into consideration what my children would eat. Luckily, one of them was happy with a two-week diet of Spaghetti Bolognese while another was happy to have Pizza Margherita every night. Fair warning. Italian pizza is NOTHING like American pizza. The rest of us (including my adventurous eater) enjoyed different meals with multiple courses. The food was simply fantastic.
Some things to note when eating in Italy:
- We made a point of eating at local restaurants and trying to avoid tourist restaurants. The tourist spots often tried to Americanize the food for us and would end up with a dish that was neither Italian or Italian-American and was subpar.
- When eating at local restaurants, you may have to pull out your Italian dictionary. Often these local establishments in the countryside are owned and run by locals who do not speak English. So, being able to speak a few phrases and point at the item on the menu is helpful.
- Italians do not eat dinner before 8 pm. This was a bit of a shock for us. The first night in Selvatelle we arrived at the (yes, “the” as in only) restaurant at 7 pm. There was one couple in this very large restaurant and they were obviously tourists, too. We began trying to ask the hostess if the restaurant was closing. She assured us that they were not. We sat down by ourselves and ordered our food. By the time we had finished eating the entire restaurant was packed with loud, happy, hungry Italians.
- Along with not eating before 8 in the evening, another adaptation we had to make was to do any shopping before 1 pm. After this time, the local Italian business would shut down for “siesta” and not open up again until after 4.
- In the larger cities, you may have to pay to use the restroom. Keep that in mind if you have littles who like to frequent the potty.
My youngest claimed Pisa as her favorite place in Italy, and I have to agree it was one of our favorites. Before we traveled to Italy all we knew of the small town of Pisa was the Leaning Tower. When we arrived, we discovered that there were many other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli including a cathedral, duomo, and baptistry. In hindsight, I wish we had purchased tickets to the Tower before arriving as they were sold out until late in the evening.
Be careful driving in Pisa. There are many one-way streets and several of them were closed which made our GPS ineffective. A year later we received a ticket for driving the wrong-way down a one-way street. We had no clue until the ticket arrived.
One of our favorite stops was in the town of Vinci. You may recognize the name as it is the birthplace of the famous painter and inventor, Leonardo. We toured the museum dedicated to he famous inventor, climbed the tower and dined at my favorite restaurant in all of Italy, Il Ristoro del Museo.
Our favorite opera composer, Giacomo Puccini, was born in the town of Lucca. While visiting Lucca, we thought it would be great fun to ride a bicycle made for four on the wall of the city. Notice I said we “thought” it would be fun. We discovered trying to bike in coordination with three other people is, in fact, not fun at all. But, we did get a good laugh.
Gelato in Italy is famous, but we couldn’t figure out why. When we had stopped in Rome to eat this frozen confection, we decided it wasn’t much different that American ice cream. But we decided to give it another try at the world famous Gelateria Dondoli. I am so glad we did. This gelato is like nothing you have ever eaten. And while we were waiting in line we were introduced to the owner who explained, quite hysterically, why his gelato was the best and all the other gelaterias surrounding him (and within earshot) were inferior!
Traveling in Venice with Kids
Venice or Venezia is the city built on water. Luckily we were there during one of the non-flooding times, so we didn’t have to walk on tables and platforms. This city is so unique. There are no automobiles. All transportation is done by water taxis, ferries and walking. Venice is also a tourist city. So, you don’t need to know the Italian language as most of the people there speak English fluently.
Traveling in Italy was the experience of a lifetime, and I am so glad we waited so we could share it with our kids. Traveling in Italy with kids is not difficult. A little planning helps to make the adventure exciting.
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