Italy with kids – those are three words that should make family travel lovers sit up and pay attention, going as they do together like pasta and sauce. Just over a year ago, in March of 2015, my family spent ten days in northeastern Italy visiting and eating our way through Ferrara, Ravenna, Venice, and Bologna. I don’t have one big story to tell you of Italy, but many small ones, which I plan to share over the next few weeks. Perhaps you want to open a nice bottle of Sangiovese and slice some of mortadella to accompany your reading, which I hope will also be savory and pleasurable.
Have you ever heard of Ferrara, Italy? It is not, as you may think, the headquarters for Ferrari sports cars, which are made about 60 miles away in Maranello. Located in northeastern Italy and tucked in between Venice and Bologna this small city can be overlooked in a part of Italy filled with famous foodie destinations like Modena or Parma or names from Shakespearean literature like Verona.
Ferrara has all the things that should make it a prime tourist destination: one of the best preserved and most intact Renaissance city walls in Italy surrounding it; a castle with a moat; a cathedral whose origins date from the 12th century; and an ancient university attended by no less a scholar than Copernicus himself. Its city center is a Unesco World Heritage site and its small streets are chock full of 15th-century buildings whose terracotta decorations and brick facades give it a gentle pink and gray glow.
But Ferrara feels not like a museum, just mostly like a place where people live and eat (oh, how they eat – more on that to come) and go to school as they have for centuries. Several times a week the central portion of the city is overtaken by market stalls and everyone, from the youngest children to grandmamas wearing eyeliner and brilliant scarves, rides bicycles whose baskets are filled with tempting parcels wrapped in brown and white paper.
We came to Ferrara not because we knew of any of these things but for another good reason: We had friends from home who were spending a sabbatical year there with their children. I’m a big fan of traveling this way, that is to stay, going to places where someone we know is living, especially if they have kids. Whether these friends are natives or are just staying temporarily, it always eases the transition into a new place when someone else has done the recon. I love the experience of staying in someone else’s home, seeing how they eat and live and where their children go to school and do their homework. Equally pleasurable is the chance to enter into the daily rhythm of a new place, to stroll and shop and do little else than observe. You can also do this when you stay in a hotel of course, but somehow it always feels easier when you are guest in someone’s home.
Italy here we come: Heading to Ferrara
We would stop in other cities, and would make our first family trip to Venice, but our trip would begin in Ferrara. And so it was that an evening at the end of a very cold February found me, my husband Matt, nine-year-old Teddy, and twelve-year-old Tommy on a red eye flight out of Philadelphia just ahead of a snowstorm we flew overnight to Heathrow and then on to bright Bologna, our plane bumping and lurching over the Alps. Although no one was at the airport to greet us, our friends made our arrival easy by explainng that we could ride a shuttle bus from Bologna to Ferrara, about 40 minutes away.
The bus didn’t leave for an hour so we ate tortellini at La Vecchia Bologna, at a table made from a tall barrel. We could have stayed quite comfortable cocooned in this small airport, which despite its size boasts a full-service supermarket, a large bookstore, a stand selling the artisanal cheese and charcuterie that Bologna is famous for, and this sit-down restaurant serving the stuffed pastas that are a specialty of the region. A fatigued Teddy spilled a nearly full bottle of lemonade everywhere but no one scolded. Almost immediately the sticky mess was cleaned and another drink stood in its place. We all nodded off on our way to Ferrara and when we arrived there it as to the blessed smiles of our friends Art and Sarah and their daughter Ella, home from school with a terrible cough, which she suffered, uncomplaining, the entire time we were there.
We bumped our suitcases across cobblestones for just a few minutes, and lo, there was the blocky red tower of the Castello Estense, named for the Este family who ruled here six centuries ago.
A statue of Girolamo Savonarola his arms outstretched menacingly, loomed nearby. This grim native son, born in the 15th century, is famous for burning books and paintings that he considered to be immoral in large public bonfires until he was excommunicated and himself burned. Having already decided we were quite comfortable with Western decadence in the form of bellies full of food and wine we ignored him, until Matt pulled out the copy of Vanity Fair I purchased for the plane – my guilty and slightly immoral indulgence that along with Xanax helps ward off my fear of flying. He posed cheerfully under the statue of the scowling monk, magazine in hand, finger pointed heavenward- see! This is the birthplace of the Bonfire of the Vanities. His own academic joke.
Art and Sarah promised Ella we would stop for pasta, which confused us since we’ve already had lunch but we followed them in a happy haze into a crowded bakery where they were greeted if not by name, then very warmly. Ah yes, pasta also means pastry. Rows of cakes, some with glossy tops, others shaggy with grated chocolate, lined trays inside the case.
Croissants were stuffed with Nutella or cream or jam. Lap dogs sat on their owners’ legs and enjoyed their share of the treats. The air was rich with the scent of coffee and a wafer thin young woman with a wild mane of curly brown hair carried a cup of it topped with a large pile of whipped cream to her small table. Americans all, and still with our luggage, we seemed to take up five times as much room as the Italians but eventually we were all seated. The espresso was nectar.
We had only been in Italy a few hours and it was already so utterly perfect that I almost could not bear it.
Getting acquainted with Ferrara
After our treat, we re-entered the spring sunshine and straggled along the sidewalk toward the apartment Art and Sarah rented for the academic year outside the Renaissance wall that surrounds all but a small portion of the city. Here were banks and corner stores and streets busy with buses and newsstands and the trappings of modern life. And so it was that we traveled not just from the United States to England, from England to Italy, but from the 15th to the 20th century as seamlessly as everyone who lives in Ferrara does every day.
At the apartment the boys and Matt settled in, pooped, while Sarah and I left to pick up Ella’s younger brother Sam from school. We strolled once again through the central district where shop windows invited me to buy a t-shirt sporting a rhinestone pin and the words LOVE fashion-design-shoes-happiness-shopping-music-food-diamonds-passion-moda-paris-fantasy. If you think I wasn’t tempted, you would be wrong.
We headed for other side of town, to the graceful green Piazza Ariostea, named for Ludovico Ariosto, poet and diplomat, who worked in service of the Este family and hated it and after they lost power wrote about how cheap they were and how poorly they paid him. His play I suppositi is said to have inspired The Taming of the Shrew. After paying our respects to his statue, we entered Sam’s school through a large door at the end of a graceful arcade in one corner of the piazza.
It should have been a simple walk home, nothing too much out of the ordinary other than my presence, but much to Sarah’s chagrin an excited Sam ping-ponged his way down the narrow sidewalk, heedless of traffic passing just inches away (although the central part of the city is closed to motorized traffic, until we enter the narrow maze of streets near the castle and cathedral there were cars). And of course, as they did everywhere in Ferrara, bicycles whizzed past.
Eventually she grew weary of scolding him and decided we would catch the bus the rest of the way home. While we waited for it to arrive an older woman in a black coat, trim of ankle and wearing heeled shoes, observed that Sam was neither calm nor respectful enough of his mother and let him know it. His response was to rush past her onto the bus when it arrived; this unleashed a torrent of Italian, a good long talking to, which Sam bore manfully, his eyes fixed straight ahead. I thought of how in the United States it would be Sarah who would be blamed for Sam’s behavior; adults here go for the source and have no qualms (apparently) about helping to communally parent.
Back at the apartment there was a bottle of lambrusco – a slightly fizzy local red wine – and all kinds of dried sausages and meats to slice. There were wedges of cheese and bread and there was laughter and companionship until all of a sudden the four of us realized that we had been awake for almost two entire days and so were put to bed by our friends who promised pizza, Etruscan treasures, and gelato the next day.
When staying with friends, you want to be the best guests you can. One way to help achieve this is to talk in advance about their schedule and expectations and to make a plan for outings and meals.
On all my family’s trips to Europe we’ve flown the red eye, arriving early in the morning. We always plan for our first day to be low key but also make an effort to stay awake as long as we possibly can, which helps us to get on a regular schedule almost immediately without wasting a day.
Ferrara is easy to get to as it is on the main train line between Venice and Bologna; it is also less than an hour from the Bologna airport; shuttles run eight times a day. It’s a wonderfully walkable city; and as my friend Keryn shared after her visit there, can also be seen on a bicycle.
Next up on the Italy with Kids schedule: Market day, real Italian pizza, and more of Ferrara including the National Archeological Museum.