CLARA: The grins on my sisters’ faces as they scan the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, lingering on Michelangelo’s Pietà, tell me we’ve started our tour of Italy in the right place. Just hours after my family’s plane landed in Rome, we’re already out exploring.
Midway through a junior year abroad at the University of Bologna and after spending two summers in Rome, I am hosting my parents and siblings in Italy for the Christmas holidays. We’ve rented a three-bedroom apartment in Prati, a neighborhood of high-rises and sidelong views of St. Peter’s dome. The apartment, which overlooks a courtyard with a moss-covered fountain, is just blocks from Mosca, a bakery with fresh-from-the-oven pizza and pastries that I grew to love last summer while living nearby.
EVE: Not having visited Rome since teaching here 30 years ago, I’m enjoying having my 20-year-old daughter as tour guide. Thanks to Clara, I’m using the city’s efficient Metro system. Clara has introduced us to the Trionfale, one of Rome’s great markets, which fills each morning with vendors of reasonably-priced produce and meat, enabling us to cook at home. And I’m seeing the city from a new perspective: my daughter’s.
One morning the six of us walk to the nearby Vatican Museums for a two-hour tour of the enclosed Vatican Gardens, a contemplative antidote to Rome’s urban chaos. The Savannah-born tour guide, on learning that we’ve reunited as a family for two weeks, asks, “Are you all getting along?”
“No!” we reply in unison, only partly joking. We have the same squabbles here as at home. But it’s reassuring to know that no matter where on earth we are, our family stays the same.
Traveling does make it more challenging to accommodate our disparate inclinations. One of our three college-age daughters is determined to see every painting by Caravaggio in Rome, while another has already seen far too many museums and churches. Among us are a 14-year-old, whose idea of fun at the end of the day is to climb 550 steps to the top of St. Peter’s cupola, and two middle-aged parents, whose feet grow sore after a few miles.
CLARA: Conflict develops over who should be our navigator. I’ve lived in Rome long enough to feel confident making my way around without a map. But my parents, less comfortable with meandering, sometimes put more trust in the iPhone Maps app. Regardless, there are plenty of unplanned detours to contend with. On our way across the city to Piazza Navona, we catch a glimpse of the Colosseum at the end of an alleyway. To my relief, my family doesn’t argue when I tell them the Colosseum is best viewed from outside; nevertheless, the landmark diverts us all the way to the Imperial Forum, thronged with performance artists and street vendors.
EVE: On Christmas Day we visit one of my favorite places, St. Paul Outside the Walls, a papal basilica outside Rome’s ancient boundary. The twisted marble columns and winter-weary roses of its early 13th-century cloistered garden are as lovely as I remember. Inside we read about recent scientific analysis of human tissue from the tomb beneath the altar, where St. Paul is believed to have been buried, dating the tomb’s contents to the first or second century. In a side chapel, Clara points out a 12th-century mosaic of the Madonna and Child, which so moved St. Ignatius of Loyola that he founded the Society of Jesus on this spot in 1541.
CLARA: Following our week in Rome, we spend a few days in the city where I’m studying. We stay in the comfortable, centrally-located Hotel Touring and eat only in restaurants. Bologna, capital of the province of Emilia-Romagna and home to one of the world’s oldest universities, is renowned for its porticoes, towers, and culinary delights.
On our first night, I convince the family to trek 20 minutes to order handmade lasagna and tagliatelle from Pasta Fresca Naldi. Dessert at Cremeria Funivia, my favorite gelateria in Bologna, puts everyone in an even better mood.
The next afternoon we walk outside the city walls to savor tortellini con brodo and gramigna alla salsiccia at the lively Trattoria Meloncello. Then we hike up a portico-covered path to the Basilica of San Luca, with stunning views of the snow-dusted countryside. That evening we enjoy more fresh pasta at Trattoria Anna Maria, whose chef, Anna Maria Monari, learned to cook from “mia mamma e mia nonna.” To the amazement of my blue-cheese-leery siblings, everyone’s favorite pasta dish is the tortelloni con Gorgonzola.
Another day we visit the Gelato University and Museum in nearby Ansola dell’Emilia, where a master gelato maker, Stefano Tarquinio, teaches aspiring professionals. Under his supervision we make our own scrumptious pineapple and Calabrian-orange sorbetti. We also stop by one of Bologna’s famed laboratorios where pasta fresca is made. A woman in her 60s rolls out dough on a large pallet and cuts it into tiny squares with a blade. She delivers the pallet to a well-staffed table, where each square receives a dab of filling before being pinched and twisted into Bologna’s signature savory treat. These tortellini, including the dozen that my brother and I clumsily assemble, are subsequently sold in the family-owned delicatessen Bruno e Franco across the street.
EVE: We spend two chilly days in Venice trying to avoid the crowds gathering for New Year’s Eve. Thirty-minute vaporetto (water-bus) rides to and from the tiny agricultural island of Mazzorbo, where we’re staying, provide down time and beautiful views. But our best view of Venice comes atop the bell tower of the Benedictine church on San Giorgio Maggiore, an island a short vaporetto ride south of Piazza San Marco.
Inspired by the Bolognese cuisine, we set out to taste authentic Venice too. After visiting the remarkable medieval and Renaissance art collection at the Galleria dell’Accademia, we notice several Italian couples waiting in an alleyway outside Il Vecio Marangon, a trattoria with a handwritten menu posted in the window. Once seated, I ask the waiter for “whatever that couple has.” It turns out to be a delicious Venetian sampler called cicchetti.
Throughout our time in Venice, I keep hoping to come across the Basilica de Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which Italian friends have raved about, but it is never quite on our path; another bakery or glassblowing shop always lures us away. Then, on New Year’s Eve, as we trudge to the station to catch an overnight train back to Rome, I try one last time to find I Frari. In the dark, we reach the square where I think the church is located, but all the doors are locked. Two minutes later, in a different square, Clara calls out, “Oh wait – this is I Frari! People are going in!” The six of us follow local parishioners, clad in fur coats, inside – past Titian’s tomb, a statue by Donatello, and a Bellini triptych – and sit down. Facing us, above the high altar, is Titian’s early masterpiece, “The Assumption of the Virgin.”
CLARA: Back in Rome for our last few days together, we treat ourselves to a Michelin-starred, New Year’s Day lunch at La Terazza, on the top floor of the Hotel Eden near Via Veneto. Seated around a corner table, we dig into seafood linguini and wild-mushroom risotto, followed by the best tiramisu I’ve ever tasted.
Floor-to-ceiling windows let us scan the city. Below lies the vast green swath of Villa Borghese, home to Galleria Borghese. At this museum last week, my brother observed how much the marble limbs in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne resemble real flesh. To the south we see the blindingly white Vittorio Emanuele monument, which my mom likens to a wedding cake. And off to the west, silhouetted against the clouds, is the unmistakable dome under which our voyage began.