No matter how well one prepares for this port of call, a day in Rome with young children seems intimidating. There are lots of ruins, museums (although most are closed today, Monday), crowded palazzos, crazy drivers on the road, and, most daunting of all, a lot of time spent driving. That's because our ship (and many others) docks at the port of Civitavecchia, which can be in excess of an hour away. We decided to make the best of it by hiring a driver, as we did in Naples, so we could squeeze in break times where and when needed and see the mix of things we wanted to cover in the day.
As I got ready this morning for a quick departure, I was wondering: If someone came to visit us near Washington D.C. (or even in Boston, where I used to live) and said "Show us the city in eight hours, with kids," I’d tell them they're insane.
But insane we were about to be in Rome, because even though "Rome was not built in a day," we were attempting to see it in such.
Our guide Peppe picked us up at the gangway, and we got on the highway for the hour trip (we were lucky, little traffic) into the city. The boys happily filled out their Rome journals. (Don't tell Cameron, but those things are like homework. He's learning history, geography, a bit about art and foreign languages -- but the difference is that here it feels like play).
Our schedule for the day starts with a visit to the Catacombe di San Callisto, a walk around the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine (from the outside), quick stops at the Forum and other ruins, lunch and a gelato at Piazza Navona, a tour of the Vatican, then take just a moment to make a wish in the famous Trevi Fountain -- and climb the nearby Spanish steps -- before heading back to the Magic.
Our first stop was the catacombs. According to Peppe, there are 32 catacombs (underground burial places) in Rome, but our first stop, San Callisto's Tomb, is the most interesting. It is here that you can descend a few floors underground (complete catacombs are 75 ft. deep and five floors below ground) as you walk through tunnels, past Corinthian style columns, and along marble flooring in some places. It proved fascinating for the boys to climb so far underground, and it conjured up images of Harry Potter's Hogwarts for Cameron and me. Buried here at one point in time were third century Popes, many bishops, and up to half a million people.
After the catacombs we made our way toward what is known as the cradle of ancient Rome, and as if ticking off a checklist, walked around for half an hour and saw:
The Colosseum (explored only from the outside while reading to the boys about how the Roman's favorite form of entertainment was the gladiator fights that used to take place here, and also how and why someone would choose to be a gladiator)
The Arch of Constantine (erected in 312 A.D. to commemorate Constantine the I's victory over Maxentius making him the unchallenged ruler of the West)
The Roman Forum (place where famous orators like Caesar and Cicero delivered speeches)
While Tim and I were trying to appreciate just a morsel of the history surrounding this area, the best part for the boys turned out to be something Disney arranged. And when you think about it it's pretty smart: Two men were dressed as gladiators and posed for photo ops! Sure is a lot more interesting than, say, taking one at the bottom of the gangway. All folks from Disney Magic, even those not on ship tours, could step up and pose; we pick them up later onboard.
Piazza Navona was our next stop. This lively city square is studded with fountains, street performers, and artists selling their works. The square is lined on all sides by outdoor cafes where all the chairs face out toward the activity in the center. It's an ideal and entertaining midday stop for lunch and gelato, albeit at inflated tourist prices. We had pizza on a bench in front of the Fountain of Four Rivers (which represents the Nile Danube, Ganges, and Plata rivers), walked around this wide square, and stopped at a little Italian toy store full of Pinocchio toys, puppets and gladiator costumes.
We knew were tempting the, er, Gods, by tacking on an escorted tour of the Vatican. Because by this point, the kids were asking how many more minutes until they could get to the pool (despite being told today was not a swim day), and Colin was complaining that his legs were tired. But we wanted to see the home of the Catholic Church and world's largest museum (and smallest country) at seven kilometers long. Our goal seemed fairly simple: View a few of the Raphael rooms, take in the Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo frescoes, and duck in to St. Peter's Basilica.
What we didn’t realize is you have to cover almost the entire museum to see those three things. Hence, Colin spent the afternoon on Tim's shoulders (which actually provided him with a great view of the brightly colored frescoes in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that depict the Creation, Noah and the flood, and the Garden of Eden). When we arrived in St. Peter's Basilica, I discovered what is now my favorite Michelangelo sculpture -- Pieta. It's of the Virgin Mary suffering as she holds the dead Christ, and it's one of Michelangelo's few signed sculptures. Our Vatican guide pointed out that even though Mary would have been in her mid 40's by then, Michelangelo created her with an adolescent looking face. According to our guide, when Michelangelo was asked why he did this, he said, "Because those who know God do not age."
Speaking of our Roman born guide (who intriguingly spent some of his childhood in Oklahoma), Peppe could talk as fast as a New Yorker, squeezing in over two hours worth of information on the Vatican in 90 minutes. If I digested all that I learned from him I now know more about Rome and the Vatican than I do about American history ... and how many years do we get to learn that in school?
My ears were exhausted by the end of that tour, and to be honest, when we got back in the car for our quick stops at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I didn't want to hear another thing about Rome. Not because I wasn't interested, but because I felt like my brain had run out of room about an hour before to store anything else. And in fact, my wish in the Trevi Fountain was that if I should visit Rome again, it would be alone with my husband!
As we finished our wishes, I noticed a Mickey shore tour guide paddle in the air yet again. Almost everywhere we've gone we've seen them, along with fellow shipmates following along like kids on a field trip. By this point it was comforting to know that know matter where we seemed to go in Rome, a Disney crewmember was close at hand. There is just something about being in a foreign city with your children that provokes anxiety for parents. What if they wander off? What if they get hurt? What if your wallet is stolen?
We were so exhausted when we got back in the car we passed out for the ride back to the ship.
And as the ship's bright red smokestacks loomed into view, the kids were reenergized. Colin said, "Yeah, we're home!" and Cameron chimed in, "I can't wait to see Ivo" (our dining room server). Tim and I were looking forward to sitting down for a quick dinner. We were happy to be on the early seating, especially on one of these long days, because the restaurants turned out to be half full, which meant quick service, more time for the boys to chat with Ivo and an early bedtime. Disney was prepared on these nights for guests to show up late, and without a full room to serve, could turn over the restaurant fairly quickly for the later seating.
Tonight's regional specialties were tuna and swordfish carpaccio a la Sicilian with extra virgin olive oil with a main course of Italian seafood Cannelloni Al Forno -- oven baked pasta rolls stuffed with seafood and served with a pomodoro sauce. The best part of tonight's dinner though was the opera singer that performed midway through. Realizing that many passengers would be too tired to make it to much of the evening entertainment, Disney arranged to bring the entertainment to the guests on particularly long days in ports. Ship entertainment staffers had done this before -- in Naples, another power-driven sightseeing day, a violin quartet played in the atrium as we arrived onboard. Tonight's was special too; the gentleman went from table to table, nudging husbands to join in as he serenaded their wives with old faithful favorites like "O Sole Mia".
It was the perfect way to end the day. We felt relieved to be "home again," and looked forward to relaxing with the kids tomorrow in a little known gem of a place, Lerici, when we call at the port of Le Spezia, a jumping off point for the wonders of Tuscany.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):
Secoond image of Rome courtesy of Christine Koubek