I sometimes dream of spending the afternoon inside a sprawling art gallery, getting lost in the endless halls of hanging canvas, and studying the intricacies of each piece-- every brushstroke, smudge, and drip. I’ll make up stories about the artists and what their work means, say something snooty to the person next to me as we contemplate. “See how the tiny paint bubbles pepper the negative space? How obviously optimistic.”
But, if I’m real, I don’t really get art. I want to get it. But, I get bored of galleries just about as fast as I do watching golf on t.v., and the fanciest thing I have hanging in my house is a print of Kandinsky’s Concentric Circles I picked up from Ikea when I was in college. How obviously cliché.
So, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel about Florence, or Firenze as they say in Italy, home of world-class masterpieces and birthplace of the Renaissance. With its gorgeous backdrop, Florence is the stage for all the greats: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and Galileo. Would any of it make sense to a girl who gets her art from Pier One?
I decided to find out.
After sizzling in Rome at the Colosseum and Vatican, we turned up the heat (if that was even possible) and headed north on a train to Florence to get a taste of haute couture. It was a quick trip by train and our hotel, the Ambasciatori, was a skip from the station. We dropped our bags and decided to tour the town.
Since the crowds and heat were high in July, we skipped the Uffizi in favor of the Accademia Gallery--home of the David. Now, I’d prepped Skinny Jeans just about as much as I could. I explained we’d be seeing a very famous sculpture and that he would be, well, naked. After a multitude of questions (“Will we see his privates?” “What happened to his clothes?” “Will we see his butt?”), I thought we were good to go. Come to find out, it was the adults who took the audible gasp, blushing and giggling like seven-year-olds, upon seeing David in all his massive glory.
Being the art aficionados we were, we promptly staged photos of us pinching his cheeks while gawking at his chiseled butt. Someone had to corroborate the obnoxious traveling American theory, why not us? Solid first introduction to sculpture, if you ask me.
After the David, we explored a bit, got lost in an outdoor market and stopped on a whim at an incredible, quaint gelato spot tucked into a fold of the city. Little did we know that Ettamo, with its award-winning strawberry balsamic gelato, was a fan favorite. It was exactly what we needed to beat the heat and feel like we’d been let in on yet another secret from Florence.
The day of wandering and wangs led us back to our hotel to freshen up for dinner. After the sunset, we walked to what ended up being my favorite part of our entire trip: Trattoria Marione. The small restaurant was a true gem and absolutely everything you’d want in a Florence trattoria (not as fancy as a ristorante, but a step up from an osteria): servers who knew their shit and kept bringing out specialties and aperitifs, if you asked for them or not, a bustling atmosphere, and, of course, bistecca alla fiorentina.
Now, I had heard about this steak, a classic in Florentine fare, and hadn’t thought much of it. I’m from Colorado where beef is what’s for dinner, and I am no stranger to the meat sweats. However, nothing in the states quite compares to the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina, and the unique butchering and cooking that comes only from Florence. Cooked from room temperature at a high heat for just 3-5 minutes, the steak is legit rare, and served with no condiments, just a bit of salt. It is, to be exact, pure heaven for those unafraid to gnaw a T-bone the size of a tennis racket.
Me + Florence
While Florence is known for its artists and art, what I loved most were the lesser-known things about the city: the Museo Galileo which we had all to ourselves on a Uffizi free day or Ristorante Zocchi hidden along a white-knuckle, winding road just outside the city. When it was time to leave, I felt like we’d become friends, Florence and me. We’d giggled through galleries, taken down some serious steak, and gorged on gelato. She didn’t even care that I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to say Uffizi. If that’s not a girlfriend, I don’t know what is.
There are a few rules about visiting the Vatican you need to know. First, women must cover their knees. This means long dresses are preferred. Second, women must cover their shoulders. This means you’ll likely need a scarf or shawl to pull over your sleeveless maxi dress. Third, men must also have their knees covered. This means every American man who has ever visited the Vatican in the summer has spent hours measuring the length of their cargo shorts, sitting and standing, moaning about the audacity of God to ask they cover their hairy legs (Adam didn’t have to!), and eventually succumbing to the fact he’ll die in full-length pants in 90+ degree heat.
The baby on this trip was not Skinny Jeans.
Inside the City Walls
Our tour guide, Katia (same as from the Colosseum) met us early at the Vatican doors. We skipped a few lines and were led towards a long hallway adorned with statues where she explained a some things to us before heading inside and making our way to the Sistine Chapel.
As we sat on a marble ledge, Katia took out a long, laminated picture and handed it to the kids.
“Who is this?” she asked, pointing to a man sitting at the center of a table.
“Have you heard of the Last Supper?” she asked.
I pretended I was letting the children have a chance to answer.
“Jesus?” Katia asked, eyes widening.
She continued to explain the frescos in the picture, as simply as she could. Stories of Moses. Stories of Jesus. Every once in awhile, Katia asked “Do you know…?” and “Haven’t you heard…?” and I wished I paid more attention all those years I went to mass. Skinny Jeans blurted some random references to Little Mermaid and, perhaps, Captain Underpants just to prove she’s a heathen and the rest of us were grateful she broke the silence so we could get on to the good stuff.
Katia led us through incredibly intricate museums of sculptures, tapestries, and maps. We passed through as a mob of hundreds, looking every which way to take it all in. Now knowing her audience, Katia skipped the scriptures and pointed out the tapestries that had eyes that appeared to follow us and answered questions about where all the penises have gone on the sculptures.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, guards regularly shouted, “SILENCIO!” and no photography was allowed. It was smaller than I expected, but still breathtaking. Katia had explained several key pieces of the ceiling (e.g, a super-buff Jesus, a serpent wrapped around the naked body of a man who’d protested Michelangelo, someone holding the skin of another) that made Skinny Jeans excitedly point in recognition.
St. Peter's Cathedral
From the Chapel, we were on to St. Peter’s Cathedral. Katia had a story for practically every nook of the enormous church, and we spent hours spying for animal carvings in the ceiling, rubbing the feet of St. Peter for good luck, and looking at embalmed popes.
While our visit to the Vatican wasn’t the most sacred, it was certainly the most memorable and we were all glad we did it. The city holds secrets and stories that are fascinating to all--even those who think Christmas is about Santa.
But, if the Vatican just isn't your thing, be sure to check out our other adventures in Rome.
When in Rome
It’s taken me this long to figure out where to even begin. Our three-week trip to Italy now seems like a dream, a blip in the summer where we traded in the normalcy of good old American pool parties and firework dotted skies for endless gelato and oven-hot cities where the streets twist like grapevines. Over our 20 days of wine drenched wander, we went from Denver to Munich to Rome to Florence to a farm outside of Siena to an island out in the sea and back. We traveled by plane and bus, train and ferry, and made ourselves dizzy driving along the rolling hills of Tuscany. It was exciting and strange and difficult. There were times we longed to come home and times we were desperate to stay.
Italy or Bust
Our adventure started with a red-eye to Munich. We flew with Lufthansa, which wasn’t my favorite. Leading up to the flight, I had a difficult time getting anyone to help me with the kids menu to check for Skinny Jeans’ allergies. Apparently, not a single person knows what the hell is in the food they are serving. While I’m completely accustomed to bringing food for Skinny Jeans, the flight was over 10 hours long and one can only keep food cold for so long. The safest bet was the vegan meal, but you try feeding a seven-year-old flaccid tofu and fart-smelling broccoli.
We landed in Munich where, much to our surprise, there was a play area right by our gate. In the couple of hours we had to wait for our next flight, Skinny Jeans made friends with kids from different countries, all speaking different languages. It was incredible to watch how much language and nationality meant nothing to a bunch of kids playing hide-n-seek.
Calling Rome Home
Rome was our next stop and we got there just in time to enjoy the afternoon and settle into what would be our new digs for a few days. Opting to stay somewhat close to the action, we chose the Hotel Serena, a modest boutique hotel with breakfast and fat and friendly dog at the reception. The room included a queen bed and a twin--perfect for the three of us. After unpacking, we wandered around for a bit, taking in the bustling streets and blowing off the eager waiters all vying for our business. As the temperature spiked to 95 degrees, we were on the hunt for something to cool us off. A trip to oldest gelateria in Rome, Fassi, did the trick. Tired from travel and exhausted by the heat, we went to bed early, cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go, and didn’t even mind the rock-hard mattresses.
Explain it to me like I'm five
The next morning, we met my sister and her family who had just arrived from the States, and took the bus to the Pantheon where our tour guide, Katia, was waiting. Katia was recommended to us by a friend, the principal at the American School in Rome. As a group of seven with kids ages 7, 11, and 15, I was worried about how to keep everyone engaged during the three-hour tour. Rome, to a kid, looks like it’s broken, like a run-down apartment complex where the slumlord refuses to fix anything. But, Katia did not disappoint. In the time we spent with her at the Pantheon and Colosseum, she was able to bring the ruins to life with her captivating stories (and trusty iPad). And while the Pantheon was stunning with its giant oculus and the Colosseum breathtaking and surreal, my favorite part of the tour were the lesser known stories and secrets Katia shared. Like, did you know the pope has his own personal store where he gets his socks? Or, that behind the Pantheon there’s a sculpture of an elephant flipping off (among other things) a monastery because the artist was in an argument with the priest who lived there? History buff, I am not. But give me a good, gross story, and I'm in like the rest of the kids. Katia quickly learned her audience.
Our first full day in Rome was soaked in history, mysteries, and more sweat than I’m proud to admit. We were off to a great start and ready to tackle the next thing: The Vatican. In 100 degree heat. With a kid. Just us and about 1 million other tourists. What could possibly go wrong?
Where to Stay: Hotel Serena. Simple and small. Close to the train station and lots of restaurants.
What to Do: Pantheon and Colosseum. When in Rome!
Where to Eat: I can’t say our first day included any fine dining. We popped into a ristorante, La Piccola Cuccagna, for classic Roman pizzas before the Pantheon. It was good and the Peroni was cold.
Fassi is a fun place to visit, lots of antique gelato-making machinery and delicious gelato.
As adventurous as I like to claim I am, there are some things I’d just never do. For example, I’d never wear socks with sandals. I’d never (again) ask my stylist for a bowl cut trying to look like Demi Moore from Ghost. I’d never intentionally skip a meal. I’d never say Donnie is the cute one from NKOTB.
And, for the most part, I can proudly say I’ve stayed true to my beliefs here.
When you’re a new parent, you say things like, I’d never let my kids demand to eat something other than what we’re eating. I’ll never rub that poison death cream into my baby’s soft skin to protect him from the sun. My child will never eat a month-old french fry off the floorboard of the car. He'll never pitch such an epic fit in the grocery store that I shamefully slide out the back door, leaving a piled-high cart of groceries inside, only to have him sweetly smile and say, “I love you Mama” once I’ve reached the car, pit stained and throbbing with embarrassment.
Oh, no. Never.
But, of course, you do it all. In the name of love. In the name of desperation. In the name of FINE-I’ll-give-you-the-goddamn-iPad-if-it-means-you’ll-stop-whining-for-just-one-minute.
But the mother of all never-evers, the one that I’d smugly swore to never even consider, the one that caused my upper lip to curl at the mere thought of it was this: I’d never, ever step foot into an American Girl Place.
In college, I lived just a half a city block from the Chicago American Girl Place and would watch, from my apartment window, all the pink-cheeked, ponytailed brats bounce into the building and exit, hours later, with magenta bags of bullshit. I would be outraged by the ridiculousness of it all. Doll outfits that cost more than my real outfits! Somewhat trashed moms with mimosas digging deeper into designer purses so their girls could sip pink lemonade and dine with their overpriced dolls. Tantrums thrown by spoiled little girls whose first words were “I want” and whose Daddies bought them ponies for Christmas. It all made twenty-one year-old me want to vomit.
Never. I would never.
But then, I had a daughter. A sweet, beautiful daughter who was turning seven who, thanks to smart marketing and catalogs sent through the mail, wanted nothing more than a Luciana Vega doll from, you guessed it, American Girl. Suddenly, all the never-would-I-ever became maybe-I-could-just-this-once. Besides, American Girl had come a long way in 20 years. There was now some diversity among the dolls and some pretty positive girl-power type messages within the not so well written stories. Upon researching, I even discovered that while the company did rob its customers for doll ear piercing (Seriously! Doll ear piercing?!) and hairdos, it also gave to some great charities. American Girl is a modern day Robin Hood! It can't be that bad. (Warning: this is the exact kind of rationalizing that puts you on the fast track to a bowl cut that you think could be cute.)
Eventually, my never, ever ended up being two plane tickets to Chicago, two-nights stay at a hotel, one massive birthday lunch at the American Girl Cafe, a Luciana Vega doll, and a matching girl/doll outfit.
The doll is an astronaut. Science is good! A female scientist is a great role model! (See what I’ve done there?)
At the end of it all, I had one happy Birthday Girl and boatload of remorse, but it wasn’t nearly as regrettable as the bad haircut.
What to do: American Girl Place Chicago, of course! It really is what little girl dreams are made of. Then, when you’re done, hit up the Shedd Aquarium and donate some money to saving the oceans. It’ll make you feel better.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Raffaello Hotel. Great little hotel so close to American Girl Place that you could almost throw a rock to it.
Where to eat: Pizano’s is an awesome kid-friendly Italian restaurant off the beaten path. Cheesecake Factory is everything you’d expect it to be. American Girl Cafe included top-notch service and makes incredible accommodations for food allergies (egg-free Birthday cake!).
“Isn’t that the place where that climber amputated his own arm?” I asked, quickly turning to my phone to Google it.
“No. That guy was in Canyonlands.”
“I swear it was Arches. Moab, right? Remember the movie with James Franco?”
I tapped my phone.
Arches National Park.
Cut off arm.
For the record, the climber who cut off his own arm with a 2-inch dull knife in 2003 was trapped in a canyon in Canyonlands, just 30 miles from Arches National Park.
“See?” Peter said. “Totally different.”
And that was that. We were going to Moab to explore the arches and try not to lose our limbs.
The Adventure Begins
Located in Eastern Utah, Moab is the high desert city that holds the key to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Surrounded by some of the most breath-taking and gravity-defying red rock formations in the world, Moab’s combo of small-town vibes and thrill-seeking adventure is a gem in the American Southwest.
Our adventure started with a reservation at Aarchway Inn. While most would say the real way to experience Moab is by camping, I prefer not to sleep with visions of rattlesnakes dancing in my tent. Also, you can read about how I feel about camping here.
Aarchway Inn is a basic hotel but had plenty for Skinny Jeans to explore within the property. With the temps reaching close to 80 in April, the pool was a welcomed way to wash off the winter. The on-site playground and breakfast (unlimited Fruit Loops!) were also a plus.
Rocks are Weird
After a night at the hotel, we prepped for a day at Arches. Backpacks. Water. Snacks. Pocket knife (just in case). A winding drive through what looked like red rock geysers erupting from the Earth took us to the visitor center where we tried to figure out what the hell was happening to make the landscape look like Mars. Inside the visitors center, it was a geologist’s dream, and I got lost somewhere between tafoni and cyanobacteria and picked up the Junior Ranger Adventure Guide so I, I mean, Skinny Jeans, could understand this natural phenomenon through matching games and coloring pages.
With a map in hand, we charted our course. We were unsure how much hiking Skinny Jeans would be up for or how much time we had before I started to get phantom pains down my arm as I imagined the climber pinned between boulders, sawing and cracking through his bone. (We’d be staying on the easy trails, mind you, many of them practically paved and wheelchair accessible, but this is how my brain works, people.) Driving from trailhead to trailhead and getting out of the car at each to explore makes the enormous park doable for just about anyone.
About nine miles from the visitors center, we stopped at Balanced Rock, which is exactly as the name suggests. From there, we hit up the Windows and hiked the primitive trail loop. We then drove out to the Delicate Arch viewpoint. With little kids, this is a perfect way to see the park’s biggest rock star. (I had to.)
We continued on to Sand Dune Arch, which was our favorite. Entering through the narrow nook is like slipping through a magic portal. Within a few steps, you’re inside what looks like a gigantic sandbox protected by high walls of red rock. Skinny Jeans loved playing in the sand and climbing from rock to rock. She looked longingly as the more prepared parents produced sand toys for their children, causing Peter and I to rummage through our backpacks to find anything resembling a shovel and pail. Unfortunately, Skinny Jeans was left to scoop sand with her shoe.
We ate a picnic lunch somewhere near the campground at Devil’s Garden before heading back down the road and out of the park. All the rock hopping burned almost an entire day and we were all ready for a dip in the hotel pool afterwards.
90s Rap Music Videos Lie
The town of Moab is quaint and full of folks who all look somewhat like the rocks around them: chiseled, red, and weathered. Most have spent the day (or decade) outdoors and are cooling down with tall, frosty drinks as they compare stories under umbrellas on the patios. As the sun sets, the town dims into a laid-back, slow-swaying evening; a stark contrast to the harsh heat and extreme edges of the afternoon. The thrill-seekers take a seat, maybe for the first time all day. The campers quietly wander back to their sites with bundles of firewood, bags of marshmallows, bars of chocolate. Quite honestly, it’s nothing like 2Pac and Dr. Dre made the desert look like in the “California Love" video, and I’m slightly disappointed no one is organizing a four-wheeler race across the sagebrush. But then again, it is Utah, after all.
Moab is like nothing I’ve ever seen and was an awesome adventure for my family. While I doubt we’d ever go in the dead of summer when the temperatures rise above 100, I’d go back in the spring or fall in a heartbeat. It’s good fun for everyone and just as extreme as you want it to be.
And--bonus!--no one lost an arm.
Where to Stay
Breakfast included, nice pool (although a little deep for kids under six or seven), playground. Two miles from Arches National Park.
What to Do
Arches National Park There’s a trail and rock formation for everyone. We loved the visitor center, and these easy trails: Balanced Rock, The Window Section, and Sand Dune Arch. If you go without little kids, Delicate Arch is where it’s at.
Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum: we didn't have time to do this, but if you've got a dino die-hard, you might want to check it out.
Mountain Biking: Moab Brands trails. Bar-M Loop is a mellow family ride.
Where to Eat
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