School trips leave an indelible impression in the mind. When I was 17 – and again at 18 – I travelled by coach on trips loosely based on classics and art.
We travelled to Verona, Venice, Florence and Rome. We gasped in awe at the exhibitions at the Uffizi (second time lucky: the first day we went was half-day closing); we giggled – inevitably – at the statue of David; we quoted lines from Romeo and Juliet at the balcony where the young lovers were said to have declared their undying affection.
In Rome, we felt the full impact of history as we walked in the footsteps of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. We imagined the thrill of listening to speeches made by Cicero and other brilliant orators and smelt the blood and fear in the Colosseum.
The days were magical. The nights and mornings were inevitably awful, thanks to the grotty hotels we stayed in (it kept the price down).
In Rome, in particular, I still shudder at the fleapit with dark walls, grimy brown sheets and bathrooms that would make Kim and Aggie faint.
Inevitably, it was in a red light district so for the 30-odd teens from my all girls’ school were not allowed out after we had returned from Tony’s Trattatoria, where we dined on possibly the worst food in Italy: the eggs Florentine were legendary for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, we had a brilliant time, but since then, I have vowed to return to the Eternal City and do it properly: stay in a decent hotel and relive historical Rome without the gaggles of girls and panicking teachers.
I never quite managed to get round to it – until now. When a hotel claims to be one of the most family-friendly in Rome, well, you have to throw down the gauntlet and say “prove it”.
We all know that Italians love their bambinos and are far more family oriented than in, for argument’s sake, the UK, where they are often viewed as a necessary evil.
At the Duke Hotel in Rome, children are positively welcomed from the moment they swing round and round the revolving doors and into the reception area.
The Duke is in the upmarket Parioli district of this frenetic city, which has advantages and disadvantages.
The upside is that it is rather quieter in this plush residential area, where there are also many embassies – central Rome is a cacophony of noise: unbelievably busy traffic and honking horns – so sleep came quite easily to us.
The downside is that it is a good way out of the city centre (on a map, it looks like a 20 minute walk, but took us a good 45 minutes.
Uphill) and it is off the metro line.
Thankfully, the Duke puts on a complimentary minibus to ferry its guests to the city walls. It was a Godsend and used faithfully by many of the hotel guests.
With so many high-class hotels to compete with, the Duke has to be innovative to attract the tourist.
It has sponsored an art exhibition in the city, has offered free zoo trips for children and is planning to set up cookery courses with its chefs, as well as music and arts packages, and if you want to take the stress out of sightseeing, it offers chauffeur-driven limousine trips with private guide to a number of the main attractions in the city.
We had interconnecting rooms, so that both the adults and the children had our own space, with widescreen TV and two plush, compact marble-clad bathrooms.
They were large enough not to feel like battery hens, although they were not spacious.
The food is one of the hotel’s great strengths: the buffet breakfast was a feast, with a myriad cakes and pastries (chocolate cake for breakfast! Woah!), cold meats, cooked options, fruit and yoghurts and the evening meals were classical Italian dishes that oozed flair and imagination.
We ate in Il Duchi, the main restaurant where elegance and a touch of class are evident, but where children are not looked upon as an intrusion.
The love lavished on children here is evident even when looking at the children’s menu, which had been prepared with thought and care. There were no chips or junk here.
Home-made pasta with a variety of sauces, veal escalopes, fish and meat were pared down versions of the grown-ups menus, not cheap food to fill them up and shut them up. My two studied the options carefully – even deciding on the pudding before the mains (well, they do learn from their parents) – and the fresh pasta dishes and fish platters disappeared quickly.
It’s not surprising, though. You do work up a great appetite in Rome. We walked for miles.
The city might, upon perusing a map, seem to be fairly compact, but with two small children in tow, walking from the spectacularly busy Spanish Steps (with its designer boutiques) from the equally impressive Colosseum takes an age.
What appeared to be a 15 minute walk took nigh on an hour, not taking into account rest stops for gelato.
Thankfully, we quickly discovered how easy the metro was to use. Although not extensive, is a quick and easy way to get round chief parts of the city. Just keep a close watch on your bag and it’s a doddle – and cheap. Taxis are plentiful, reasonably priced and metered. We crossed the city for just eight euros, which was a bargain anyway, and more so if it was measured against the agony of walking for another hour with fractious little ones.
The bus system is a little more complicated, but a great way to see the city without wearing out the old shoe leather.
Rome is a fantastic destination for families: you barely walk a metre and there is some monument marking some landmark moment in ancient history; the parks and green spaces just by the Parioli park and gardens are lovely; and the city is spectacularly exciting and busy, particularly if you watch how drivers navigate the city. They are either the worst or the most skilled drivers in the world.
We were given tickets for the zoo – or Bioparco, as it is more politically correctly named, which nestles in the Villa Borghese park.
It is, apparently, smartening itself up, but I was not too impressed with it. The enclosures seemed pitifully small for some of the animals, although, the monkeys seemed to have a great time.
The ones behind bars enjoyed it, too.
We saw a lonely-looking lion, tiger, elegant giraffes feeding as well as a myriad other wild beasts as we trundled around on a little train around the grounds.
It certainly wasn’t a highlight in this fabulous trip, but when you have such sights as the Vatican, Capitoline Hill, Pantheon, Roman Forum, it is hardly surprising.
This article appeared in The Birmingham Post in April, 2007. It m ust not be reproduced without the prior permission of Jayne Howarth.