Four Days in Rome (With Teenagers)

… So how did that go? One woman lived to tell the tale.

Rome had always held a special place in my heart. In my youth, I took the requisite baby boomer rite of passage – the summer backpacking trip across Europe – and it was then that my love affair with the city began.

With little money in my pockets, I’d siesta the steamy afternoons away under the low-hanging boughs of the Villa Borghese gardens’ trees, trees that had seen more of civilization from this high-ground perch than all the citizens of Rome. A few years later, as a young married, Rome was the first holiday abroad that I’d take with my husband (aside from our honeymoon), and it was a week that stuck with me. We’d make our way into the main hub of the city, arriving early every morning at the Piazza del Popolo, with its immense obelisk piercing the sky, while high on the hill above, the enduring gardens standing watch over it all.

It would be nearly 20 years until I’d climb those stairs again to view the stunning vista of church domes, rooftops and ruins – and with good reason. I’d spent most of that time as a working mother, raising two kids in whom, along with all that good parenting stuff, my husband and I hoped to infuse a sense of wanderlust, of global thinking and cultural exploration. We’d ridden elephants in Thailand, explored Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula where Helen eloped with Paris and had taken a dip with giant stingrays in Grand Cayman. But Rome had eluded us – until now.

We were visiting family in Europe, and I saw the opportunity for a long weekend stopover, as Air Canada flies direct between Rome and Toronto in the summer months. Finally, after a score of years, I’d have a chance to share the city with my now 17-year-old son, Chris, and 14-year-old daughter, Maddy. I hear what you’re saying: yes, teenagers. But you can do Rome with teens.

The question, however, is how to do it in four days? Rome may be eternal, but our time was fleeting. We planned to hit the ground running and see as much as we could, like locals, walking everywhere (Spanish Steps, here we come!), choosing a place to eat – standing at the bar, of course, while munching panini – at a moment’s notice, hopefully in one of the many fountain-filled piazzas (Navona, naturally) that dotted the city and still throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. The lineups, however, for the “musts” like the Vatican Museum, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum were notorious, with many tourists waiting in line for the better part of a day, in the hot August sun, no less, just to get a glimpse of where Caesars and gladiators and artists lived and breathed – and died.

A guided tour might be the ticket, but did I really want to trap a pair of teens on what most of us still believe tours to be: days on a bus with a group of tourists? (Get ready for that myth to be busted.) A little research brought my answer: Monograms. Known for its “independent” approach to tours, the company offers four-day excursions to the Eternal City but only one morning of concentrated touring. In other words, you’re on the bus but only for a morning and mainly because a well-connected guide takes you to all the highlights, allowing you to skip the lineups and head straight in.

Independent it may be but you’re not left to flounder in a foreign country, which is what I really like. A driver – who looks like he’s strolled right off the fashion catwalks of Milan – picks us up at the airport to take us to our hotel. Tailored shirt, Gucci belt, polished Pradas on his feet, he’s the perfect introduction to a culture that has an appreciation for all things beautiful.

The idea of the good life, la dolce vita, permeates the Italian capital. It’s not a materialistic thing, mind you – quite the opposite. Why fill your life and your view with things that are nothing if not beautiful? Finer things, things of great beauty and craftsmanship here may include an arresting fountain, sculpted in another age, by which a young mother and her children sit, laughing to the flow of water; a platter of hand-made ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and coddled in Mama’s sauce served à la famiglia at the local ristorante; a tiny piazza, deserted but for a grandfather reading to his grandson while sitting on the steps of an ageless church, wearing a strictly made-in-Italy fedora. Even the street vendors are on to it – the aforementioned fedora is the chic sun hat of choice here – and no logo-blasting baseball caps preferred. Get the idea? It is beauty in the eye of the beholder but also looking at beauty in a whole new way. Kind of like those Borghese trees that shaded me so long ago.

We start the touring day early because that’s when the lineups start, too. Oreste, our local guide, collects the group in the lobby, and it’s on to the bus. A word about said group: yes, there are retirees – and then some. From all over the world, there are history buffs on a bucket-list trip, but there are also family members from teen to 70 as well as a few honeymooning newlyweds – and nobody lacks in energy or enthusiasm. The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica are our breakfast, artistic and spiritual nourishment to fuel the day ahead. We’re kitted out with headsets, so that even if we wander off a short way from the group, we can still hear the insider wisdom and lore as told by Oreste. He gives us a tour of the grounds and regales us with tales of what’s rumoured to have been said within these walls.

The Sistine Chapel is beyond the definition of beauty. Understanding what its architect, Michelangelo, went through to produce its magnificence has a profound effect on the teens. When we enter the room, it’s not the ceiling I look at but them. Necks craned, eyes wide with wonder, mouths slack as if to say something but just not being able to find the words. They both turn to look at me at the same time, astonishment written all over their faces. Maddy, a would-be artist, is particularly gobsmacked, and that’s saying something. It’s a moment I will cherish forever (though perhaps not so much if we’d stood in line for hours and arrived, hot and sweaty and grumpy, to the zenith of the Vatican Museum). We spend a few minutes looking for some of the artist’s hidden humour, as Oreste had revealed to us that Michelangelo used the faces of those he liked and, sometimes, those he didn’t like, in his paintings as a way of patronage and protest.

A fan of ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology, Chris is excited to get back on the bus, believe it or not, after the tour of the spectacular St. Peter’s, because our next stop is the Colosseum. He spouts stories of Spartacus and weapons and gladiators as our bus driver navigates the curving Roman streets. Once again, we glide past the lineup, which wraps halfway round the rotund arena.

“Thumbs up or thumbs down?” I gesture to Chris, playing at my best Caesar, as we stand over the ancient amphitheatre.

“Thumbs up,” he says, “definitely.”

IF YOU GO

Monograms is part of Globus brands, which also includes the budget-friendly Cosmos and the award-winning Avalon Waterways river cruises. Four-day tours of Rome include three nights first-class or superior hotel, breakfasts and airport transfers. A local host will meet you at your hotel, give you suggestions (and a map!) of where to eat, drink and be merry, book any additional tours (you can do this before your trip and pay in Canadian dollars). On day one, you’re free to explore. Day two is tour day, but you’re done early in time for a siesta. The rest of the time is yours. (www.monogramstravel.ca or see your travel agent.)