It's an oft-repeated truth: Don't drag young kids round Rome -- or any European city -- during a high-season cruise. It's not worth it, as this sorry tale will prove.
It all started off so well. Rewind a few months when I announced the trip to my two boys, ages 4 and 8:
Me: Guess what guys -- we're going on a cruise!
Them (not looking up from iPads): Ennh.
Me: And what's more -- we're going to Rome!
Them: (no response)
Me: And ... you can dress up as a gladiator!
Them (finally making eye contact): Yay!
Lesson 1: Don't assume it's a family-friendly excursion
Fast forward to late May, and we were all onboard gorgeous Allure of the Seas on a weeklong Mediterranean cruise. Our "Learn How to be a Roman Gladiator" shore excursion was all booked, yet the youngsters were staging a rebellion of their own.
Them: Do we have to get off tomorrow? Can't we stay in the kids club? I don't want to go to Rome. What's Rome?
Me: It'll be great! You'll see! You get to dress up as a gladiator in the Coliseum and fight each other.
Wife: They do that at home already.
Readers familiar with the port for Rome (Civitavecchia) know that the city is 80 minutes away. The night before our trip, I ensured the iPads and portable DVD player were charged, and various coloring books and soft toys were packed. Come morning, we were all set.
The first warning that this trip might not be quite what we expected was when we met our group in the main dining room. You'd think that this tour would be full of kids. Not so. There was only one boy besides ours -- and the rest were an odd collection of grumpy adults, who presumably had a strong interest in learning how to be a gladiator. (I blame Russell Crowe.) Most seemed irritated to share their weapons with the younger set, even though the tour was geared toward kids. I noted glumly that this probably wouldn't end well.
Lesson 2: Underplay, and over-deliver
After a tedious journey to Rome, we finally arrived at the Gladiator "school." I saw immediately that I had built it up to my boys just a tad too much.
The grounds consisted of a series of ramshackle wooden enclosures, including a mini-Coliseum, a tiny museum and an arena (not even a gift shop). It was surrounded by junkyards and broken-down cars. A stray dog sauntered past.
The 4-year-old was having none of it. He threw a tantrum worthy of a willful emperor; his mom had to remove him. The 8-year-old was game, although slightly bemused. We learned a few moves from the cheery instructor, took a "tour" round the mini-museum and … that was it. We did receive a certificate proclaiming us "Roman citizens," which my son deigned to keep.
Lesson 3: Make a plan, and stick to it
The next part of this excursion consisted of two hours of sightseeing followed by lunch. Foolishly, we decided to branch out on our own.
There was a time (pre-kids) I would have figured out the shortest route for myself and my wife to get to the most authentic restaurant or bar in town … and stayed there all afternoon drinking local wine. But not so with two small people in tow.
Instead, we plotted a strategy: Have a cheap lunch, look at the Coliseum, buy gelato and escape back to the coach.
We achieved the first two by going to a park overlooking the Coliseum. The park also seemed to be very popular with local alcoholics and homeless folks, who kept walking past us and smiling (they seemed very polite), with bottles of booze in plastic bags. My kids didn't notice.
Then came the fatal flaw. My wife announced we would deviate from the plan to go to a toy shop to get the kids some authentic Roman gifts. I put "toy shop Rome" into Google maps and a location came up -- 15 minutes by foot. So we set off, me carrying the youngest. It was 1 p.m., and the temperature was rising. You know this isn't going to end well, don't you?
Lesson 4: Don't assume kids will "eat local"
We pass an ice cream stand.
Me: Look kids -- gelato! Real Italian ice cream! You must try this.
Them: No. We want ice lollies (ice pops).
Vendor: No ice lollies.
Luckily for us, the kids held it together. But the grumpy meter shot up past 11, well into the danger zone. Where was that coach when we needed it?
Lesson 5: Don't trust Google Maps
We headed deeper into Rome, and the crowds of tourists became thicker as we were funneled into a series of ever-smaller streets and squares. My child felt heavy on my shoulders. The temperature continued to rise. Everywhere we turned, there seemed to be more people -- great hordes of them -- ambling along, blocking our way.
I consulted Google maps, which seemed to be taking us in circles.
Wife: "Hold on. We've just walked through the Spanish Steps. Why are we back here?"
Me: "I'm just following the map."
Her: "How much further?"
Me: "It says eight minutes."
Her: "But it said six minutes five minutes ago."
Me: "Really? Hmm. How odd." I tapped in the address again. "Yup, still eight minutes. I think it's this next street, and then just 'round the corner."
Lesson 6: Be flexible
A kind of mania sets in when you're determined to find a place. (Remember National Lampoon's European Vacation?) It didn't matter that the kids were protesting. It didn't matter that they didn't want "authentic Roman toys." It didn't matter that the temperature had risen to the mid-80s.
What DID matter was that the bus was scheduled to leave in 30 minutes, and we were nowhere near our pickup point.
Reluctantly, I gave up on the toy store. We jumped in a cab to meet the bus, begging the question: Why didn't we take a cab to the toy store in the first place?
As my wife searched for our guide, I sat against a wall, my youngest lying asleep on top of me. The elder also sat against the wall, looking mournful.
Lesson 7: Beware of old women bearing gifts
As I sat there -- dirty, disheveled, hot and bothered -- I spotted a familiar sight: school chums strolling across the square.
I held out my hand to wave. At that very moment, an elderly lady held out hers and pressed a euro in my hand before disappearing into the crowd. Clearly she thought we needed a handout.
I gave the coin to my son who asked: "Why did that nice lady give you money, Dad?"
I didn't have an answer.
Lesson 8: Sometimes it's just better onboard
Rome's great, but I think I'll leave it for the couples with time for leisurely strolls and long, wine-fueled lunches -- at least until the kids are older. I have never -- ever -- felt so relieved to get back onto our air-conditioned, easily navigable, family-friendly cruise ship.