It’s ten o’clock on a Saturday night and for Italian children, the night is still young. In the small, seaside town of Polignano a Mare, in Puglia, children of all ages convene in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle to play soccer and tag, fill balloons with water in an ancient fountain and have the time of their lives under the not-very-watchful glances of their parents, who may or may not be very nearby.
Oh to be a small child growing up in Italy, or any number of other Mediterranean countries where the parents couldn’t possibly be more different from the hyper-cautious American super-parent. On Saturday night in Polignano, we let our boys, ages 2 and 4, play in the piazza until 10 p.m. and couldn’t help but feel as though we were doing something illicit.
“We could probably get in trouble for keeping our kids out this late at home,” my wife remarked.
But in Italy, especially on weekends, the night is just getting started around 10. Many restaurants don’t open until 8 – my children’s bed time in the U.S. – and you wouldn’t be a very nice parent if you didn’t let your kids have some gelato afterwards, right? Then it’s time to burn off that sugar in the piazza. In Polignano on a Saturday night, it’s not unusual to see toddlers strolling the streets and playing in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle close to Midnight.Italians love to indulge their children. We were recently on an Italian cruise line, Costa, and were amazed by the protocols in their children’s club. First, it’s open until 1:30 a.m. Perhaps even more remarkably, the night owl kids are given sugary snacks at, get this, 11:30 p.m. each night! This isn’t a dirty little secret – the plan is printed right on their schedule. You could seriously be arrested in the U.S. for that.
You might not want to take a completely go-native approach to parenting while in Italy, but here are some tips for helping your kids enjoy themselves while visiting.
Take the train. Long bus and car rides are more confining than taking the train. On the train, your kids can walk around and on some of the regional train lines, the drivers will let your kids come into the driver’s car to blow the whistle if you ask (see photo). On Italian trains, children 4 and under are generally free, though in practice, I’ve noticed that most Italians don’t pay for kids who look even older. My older son is 4 and no conductor has ever asked us how old he is. The downside of train travel with kids is lugging your baggage. Larger train stations have elevators, which make it easier, ask for the ascensori (ah-shen-sore-ee).
Rent an apartment. Even in the U.S., sharing one hotel room with small children can be a tribulation, but quarters are even tighter in Italy, so if you want to preserve your sanity, look for an apartment. You’ll have the added benefit of a washing machine and a kitchen, which come in very handy when you’re traveling with kids.
Mangia. You can get plain pasta and pizza everywhere and there are McDonald’s locations in most larger towns and cities. Places that serve paninis, can make you something that approximates a grilled cheese sandwich. Nutella and gelato are available everywhere. Many restaurants don’t charge the coperto, or cover charge for small children. In practice, this is negotiable and if you balk at paying it for small kids, they’ll usually take it off the bill. Make sure you have snacks as restaurants open later in the evening.
La Pausa. Day trips are tricky to navigate in Italy, thanks to La Pausa – the siesta – when most sites, shops and many restaurants, especially in smaller towns and cities, close from about 1 or 2 p.m. until 4, 5 or 6, depending on the place. It might take some adjustment, but if you can get your kids to nap, or at least rest, during this time of day, you won’t feel so bad about letting them stay up late.
Set a Modest Itinerary. The American mentality is to try to run around and see the whole country in a week. Make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to see everything and go slow. There are pros and cons to using the home base/day trip approach to travel in Italy. If you choose the home base option and plan to make day trips, you won’t have to pack and unpack, a big plus if you’re traveling with a lot of baggage, but the downside is that day trips can be hard to manage in many parts of Italy where La Pausa is observed.
If you sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast and catch a late morning train to your destination. You’ll arrive just in time for the whole place to shut down for several hours. Depending on the transportation options, you might consider traveling during La Pausa – and arriving at your destination in the late afternoon, and then stay until dinnertime, enjoy the evening passegiata (stroll) – and then catch the train back to your base.
Playgrounds. Trying to find playgrounds, called gioca per bambini, near touristic centro storicos is tricky, but if you ask around you can usually find one in the vicinity. Many Italian towns also have pay-per-ride midway rides. Toy stores are also nice for the kids but note that many store owners aren’t wild about letting kids touch things. We’ve had some instances where we were followed around the store as though we were shoplifters.
Bath time. Space is always at a premium in Italy, and many hotels and apartments have showers rather than baths. If your kids are used to taking baths and don’t like the shower, let them handle the showerhead themselves to make it more fun for them.
Strollers. Navigating strollers in Italian towns and cities can be tough. The general rule of thumb is that you want to bring a compact, very lightweight stroller with you but understand that in some places, like hill towns, they’ll be essentially useless. Depending on the size and weight of your children, think about bringing some type of carrier. I don’t envy anyone who tries to navigate a double stroller in Italy.
Fun in the piazza. Find the liveliest piazza in whatever town you’re in and there’s instant entertainment for your kids, especially in the evening.
Italian TV. Let your kids watch some of their favorite cartoons in Italian. They’ll pick up some of the language and they won’t mind the fact that they don’t understand what’s being said.
Go with the flow. Italy’s a great country to travel in with small children but you need to have patience and a sense of humor. You won’t be able to stick to an American schedule and your kids won’t get everything they want, but if you go native while in the country, at least to a degree, you’ll have a better time.
wipes- salviettine detergenti
playground- gioca per bambini or terreno di gioco
[Photos by Dave Seminara]