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The Christmas Market Trip that Diverted to Italy

Early last summer I made reservations to take my two grandsons and my daughter (their aunt) to the Christmas markets. Arranged to take them out of school, and planned nine nights on the ground for a taste of some of my favorites: Rothenburg, Mittenwald, Salzburg, and Munich. Ticketed to FRA on the night before Thanksgiving and flying home from Munich. Knew from the get go that everything could go kaput again this year, and all my hotels were refundable, most down to 24 hours ahead of arrival.

When the Munich markets cancelled I started scrutinizing the German news. In Munich we mostly wanted to do the BMW factory tour and see the Ice Box surfers, and I thought if we wanted another market we could take the ICE train to Nuremburg for the day. But when the Bavarian markets cancelled and Salzburg went into lockdown, I set a new record for planning a trip to Europe — about six hours. Cancelled all the hotels, and graciously refunded every dollar of my prepaid car rental. Now we’re going to Venice and Rome!

Buying four new RT airfares to Italy at the last minute was prohibitive, so took the next best option, to keep our original tickets and buy connecting flights on Lufthansa to get us from FRA to Venice and from FCO back to Munich. (I started with an ambitious, unrealistic idea to get to Venice by train via the Bernina Express, but clearly too much travel and not enough days.) I didn’t underestimate that getting to Venice would be one long, harrowing travel day, but both boys (12 and 14) were thrilled about going to Italy.

I always planned taking a water taxi to our apartment, because I wanted a special first memory for them. It was gloomy and wet in Venice when we landed, and we couldn’t sit in the back of an open boat as I had envisioned, but I was so brain dead it was great not to have to negotiate busses and vaporettos, and we got a scenic ride down the Grand Canal, sitting in a warm dry space, even if we were looking out rain-splattered windows. The Venice airport was almost empty, the ticket machine for the vaporetto passes worked, booking a water taxi on arrival was easy, and we were dropped at the door of our apartment.

My favorite area of Venice is the Dorsoduro, and on VRBO I found a pretty 2 BR, 2 bath, first floor apartment, overlooking a canal. It’s not too noisy, and it’s so close to an artigianale bakery, Grom gelato, a grocery store, and Volo takeout pizza - all places we love. We arrived late afternoon with just enough steam left for a grocery run and giant floppy pizza slices from Volo, which both boys pronounced the best ever. Crashed early.

I love off season travel to avoid crowds and cross my fingers for decent weather. Our first full day started out foggy, but in the beautiful way that is Venice. When I’m traveling with friends we’re usually up and out early to see as much as we can. Kids need a gentler awakening and more food. My guys liked getting cappuccini and cornetti from the bar. We activated our 72 hour vaporetto passes about 10AM, leaving us time to get to the train station by 10:30 three days later. Made it to St.Mark’s for the illumination, and looked out on a practically empty Piazza from the upper balcony of the Basilica,

Our next stop was San Giorgio’s on Giudecca for the awesome view from the bell tower. Easy to ascend by elevator, and we were the only ones on top. Took the boat to the Zaterre stop to explore new territory on the way back to our apartment. A lunch stop for paninis, gelato from Grom and an afternoon break before our dinner reservation at Taverna San Trovaso. My older grandson told me Venice was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, and his brother said it was the best Italian food ever, so we’re off to a good start.

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Woke the next morning to perfect weather. A ride down the Grand Canal to the Rialto Market and cappuccini and hoodie shopping outdoors in the square. This was our day to wander back streets in San Polo and the Dorsoduro, the Friari church, and enjoy a long, sunny outdoor lunch on Campo San Toma at Birraria La Corte. Very few tourists are about, but a couple of my favorite shops also have disappeared. Sadly, the wonderful green-shuttered print shop behind the Friari church, is now a bar!

My family are all foodies, and my goal in Italy is to not waste meals on the mediocre, be it restaurant or take-out window. I aim for one nice, restaurant meal a day, and find something simpler for the other. There were many choices near our apartment, most catering to nearby university students, and we made multiple trips to Grom.

Our third, and last, full day, another beautiful one, was for Burano. It was easy to get off at the Rialto Bridge stop, then follow Google maps to the Fondamente Nove. I take advantage of T-Mobile’s free coverage in Europe, and use GoogeMaps frequently. Early on I handed over my phone to my grandson to be the map reader, and who knew enlarging a map made it so much easier to follow! On Burano we bought cookies, looked at the colorful houses, and had a spectacular seafood lunch at a restaurant I had visited with friends several years ago, Trattoria da Primo. We racked up a spectacular bill, but they will always remember the seafood antipasti and pasta with lobster.

Booked a Trenitalia fast train to Rome for the the next morning, which had slightly better rates than last minute Italo tickets since I had two bambini under 15. Four hours to Termini and a taxi to our VRBO apartment near Piazza Navona. A word about taxis in Rome during Covid: my husband and I were in Rome in October and were impressed with the masking and the plexi partitions. In December, finding taxis to transport four people took stamina and persistence. I think there may be a rule limiting a regular size taxi to three passengers. We rarely found a larger van taxi, but our odds of getting a regular size legal taxi willing to take us all were about 1 in 5. My 12yo spent most trips wedged into the wayback, while his more rule-observant 14yo brother was probably traumatized by the lack of seat belts.

On our arrival afternoon in Rome we walked to nearby Piazza Navona, into the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to see the Caravaggios, by the Pantheon (line too long) and on to Bernini’s Elephant before taking a taxi to Trastevere to Teo’s for our dinner reservation.

With four nights, we had three more full days in Rome. On the first we did the wonderful Taste of Testaccio Food Tour with Eating Italy, found the Puma store to buy official Italian National soccer jerseys, and ended at St. Peter’s in late afternoon. The elevator was broken, so we didn’t get the sunset view from the roof, but the security line was short, and the interior was almost empty, something I haven’t seen in years. Since we we had spent four hours earlier almost nonstop eating, everybody was content with pizza slices from our neighborhood Forno for dinner.

Second day we started in Campo dei Fiori for breakfast, then walked to Torre Argentina to see the cats. We had tickets for the Underground Colosseum tour with an archeologist at noon, which I was lucky to find on the Coop website less than a week before. These were the 32 euro tickets (less for kids) that include access to both the Forum and the Domus Aurea. At 12 noon there was no line at all. Our guide was excellent and boys liked the tour, but it was after 2PM when we left, and I knew they needed food more than a walk through the Forum right now.

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My favorite restaurant in the Colosseum area is La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, but we already had reservations there for dinner that night. It’s on a small street behind a big street with those aggressive waiters outside begging for diners. There are often good options on the small streets, and we found one on Via della Madonna dei Monti and had great bruschetta, salad, and pizza. Once everybody refueled they were ready to go inside the Pantheon (short line now because it’s been raining), throw some coins in the Trevi fountain, and get ready for another festive dinner tonight.

Last full day in Rome we woke to the expected torrential rains. We knew it was coming and saved the indoor activities for today. First to the Capuchin Crypt, weirdly decorated with bones of almost 4000 of their former friars. Mid afternoon reservations at the Vatican Museum. I didn’t want my grandsons to leave Rome without seeing the Sistine Chapel, but also didn’t want them to remember the Death March with Mimi. Virtually no entrance line and light crowds inside. We did the Egyptian exhibit, [more compact than the British Museum, but equally high quality] the animal sculptures, the gift shop, the coffee shop, and ended with the Sizzling Chapel, as my daughter thought for years was its name.

They have unblocked the side benches since October, but the ceiling is not the easiest to really study. I told them both I hope they will get to return many more times, but for now, when they see reproductions in books, they will understand the scale of the architecture and paintings. (We also bought a 1000 piece puzzle of the ceiling.) The Last Judgment is easier to see, the crowds weren’t the usual shoulder to shoulder, and the guards were less exasperated.

Here I will insert my rant about taxis at the Vatican Museum. I like taking taxis in Rome, except the ones near the Vatican Museum. They are infuriating. There are really no good nearby options, and they know it. They automatically quote an inflated off meter rate that I doubt is legal. I am generally a well behaved visitor in other people’s countries, and live in a part of the US that greatly values manners, but that block of taxi drivers unleashes my inner tiger. I sometimes negotiate a little better rate, but never win. I wish you luck.

In total contrast, the driver our apartment owner arranged to take us to the airport charged 50 euro for our door to door trip. There’s even more wasted airport time now, and we knew it would be a long slog home. We left Rome at noon and got to MUC late afternoon. Stayed at the airport Hilton and woke up to snow. I had booked an early afternoon flight with a connection to avoid a 5:30 wake up when we originally planned tp be staying in downtown Munich, so we had a leisurely morning and lots of time to shop and wait. Delta recommended we arrive 4 hours ahead; we aimed for 3 and still waited 1 1/2 hours at the KLM counter for an agent to arrive.

If I were traveling with my friends we would probably see more sights, definitely more museums, but this was a realistic plan for tweens and young teens. They liked the relaxed feel of Venice more than the intensity and distances walking in Rome. They both loved the food tour! In general, I up the eating and slow down the sightseeing to increase their enjoyment. They both really liked this trip.

A note about restaurants. In Rome, even in the very off season, even with very diminished tourists about, if you want to eat in a particular restaurant at night (meaning 8PM or later) you need a reservation! Many restaurants seem to be using the Quandoo app, but I found it unreliable; didn’t get a response for days. Worked much better to call from the US and make direct reservations at restaurants.

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I’m so tired of talking about Covid, and you may not want to read about it either. In a nutshell…. In ATL Delta checked to see we had everything required when we checked in. In FRA Lufthansa basically said it was our responsibility to have everything needed when we landed in Venice, where nobody checked. At FCO I think Lufthansa did a basic check of our CDC cards at the counter. In AMS, where we connected after a power walk/run from a B gate to one of the farthest F gates and arrived during boarding, there was a scrum of people trying to fill out the required Affirmation form. Thankfully Delta had sent this to me the night before, and we had it printed in the hotel and completed it. I don’t think anybody ever asked for our negative test results, but I sure wouldn’t leave Europe without them.

This was an easy, memorable trip that we all enjoyed. I had taken each of my grandsons to Europe previously, but this was their first trip together. Although we visited only two cities, four hours apart by train, getting to Rome ate up most of a day, a fact that is easy to overlook/ignore. I’m rethinking my plans for redoing the Christmas markets trip next year. Maybe I will slim it down to three places, or even two plus some day trips. The hardest part is relocating.

I’m accustomed to traveling with well organized women who can pitch in their travel cubes and be on the road after breakfast. My grandsons started out with carefully organized backpacks weighing only 18 pounds each. They had their own bedroom and bathroom, and I didn’t pay much attention to the growing mound of clothes in each, until we were packing to leave Rome. “Mimi, it won’t fit!” Hard law of physics: clothes wadded in a ball occupy a different volume than the same clothes folded neatly in cubes!

They were both delightful traveling companions, and I can’t wait to take them again.

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16640 posts

“. . . foggy, but in the beautiful way that Venice is. . . .” Love that. And enjoying your report. Thanks.

Posted by
3979 posts

Great save, Mimi! I’m so glad you got this nicely paced trip with your grandsons this winter. Sounds like you all had a wonderful time!

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4278 posts

I second Mona! Sounds like a wonderful trip and a great save on the experience with your grandsons!

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3926 posts

Thanks for the report and tips. My grandsons are much younger and we can’t wait to take them to Europe when they are older.

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99 posts

Thank you for a lovely trip report Ruth! It brought back fond memories of a similar trip my husband and I took years ago.

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15969 posts

Great report, Ruth, and kudos for being able to reorganize/rebook the trip on a dime! How wonderful to have been able to see some of Rome's usually crowded attractions with far fewer bodies to contend with. :O)

A question for you? This comment:

We had tickets for the Underground Colosseum tour with an archeologist
at noon, which I was lucky to find on the Coop website less than a
week before. These were the 32 euro tickets (less for kids) that
include access to both the Forum and the Domus Aurea.

I'm curious about this one as I don't see that ticket anywhere on the Coopculture site. Are you sure you didn't mean Colosseum, Forum and Palatine instead of Domus Aurea? LOL, things change ALL the time so this may be a new ticket that I'm overlooking.

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The first mention I heard about our ticket including the Domus Aurea was from our guide at the end of the tour. I guess she knew what she was talking about, although I went to that site in October, and had to buy a very specific ticket for an English guided tour. The Coop website continues to be something of a puzzlement! Or maybe our guide made a mistake, although her English was quite good.

[I liked the Domus Aurea tour, but it was long on history and short on sights. There were a few kids in the 12-14 age range, and they pretty quickly looked like they had enjoyed about as much as they could. ]

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15969 posts

Thanks, Ruth! LOL, "puzzlement" is an understatement for that site, eh? I try to stay on top of it so's to try and help baffled newbies to Rome but it can be a confounding thing indeed. Will keep digging... 🧐

Sure do envy you that great trip, though. Rome without the masses; a little bit of heaven, that!

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4419 posts

What a memorable trip and what a wonderful grandma you are! I'm really impressed at what a great job you did of changing your trip and planning a new one in such a short period of time! To hijack a famous quote "Italy is always a good idea".

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6352 posts

What a great post! I love the trip report, and am very impressed with how quickly you were able to jettison your old plans and come up with a new, (and to my mind, better) itinerary.

We're headed to Venice and Rome in the spring, so I enjoyed your more specific comments. We're also booking the Testaccio food tour, so I'm glad to know you enjoyed it. Thank you!

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978 posts

Thanks, Jane! If you sign up now for the Eating Europe website you might have a chance for one of the discount coupons they occasionally offer. I lucked out on a 25% discount offered on Thanksgiving week. That was a significant reduction on four tickets!

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583 posts

As always a fabulous trip report. Great details and sense of fun. Many thanks!

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1056 posts

Thank you so much for a complete, concise travel report. I will be taking my then 16 year old granddaughter on her first trip to Europe next summer. We’re doing the Rick Steves family tour but spending four extra days in Rome at the end, as Rome is one of my favorite cities. And I concur that the Testaccio food tour is amazing. I was lucky enough to get the discount as well, although I opted to use the discount for a gift card rather than a specific booking so I as to leave my time in Rome a bit more flexible as to date of the tour. I can’t wait to show Europe to my granddaughter, who has a terrific interest in art and food.

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4971 posts

Thanks for posting- a very practical Trip Report which also reflected your love of travel, flexibility,and positive attitude. Best wished for future adventures!

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7377 posts

What a great trip report, Ruth! Ahh, so wonderful to hear about people enjoying travel again and to some favorite locations!

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14150 posts

What a fun, fun trip and yea to teaching the kiddos that you can pivot plans when the situation warrants.

I just had to laugh about stuffing things back into the back pack and clothes not "fitting" in. You must have had a sinking heart, lol!

Thank you so much for making my morning! Loved reading about your trip and am very glad the kiddos had a memorable time. I hope Auntie did as well!

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3255 posts

You did a brilliant job of planning an entirely new itinerary on short notice! Thank you for sharing the details of a memorable trip for all!

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606 posts

How wonderful to read your trip report and hear what an enjoyable trip you gave your grandsons. I wish I could be at the next Atlanta travel group meeting to hear more in person! Such an example of flexibility. Glad you were able to make it work.

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262 posts

I enjoyed reading your report. How fun! What lucky grandsons you have.

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470 posts

Merry Christmas/Happy 2022 Ruth! You are my inspiration! Early July of 2023 we two grandparents are taking 5 grands (ages 6-12) and their parents (11 total) on a Med cruise. Husband and I have travelled Europe independently (just there in Oct) but a cruise and land excursions just easier for a large group. So….9 sailing days of seeing Spain, France and Italy. Cruise ends in Rome. We need to show this wonderful city to them. Yikes!
Cabs will be nearly impossible? There are other ways to get around…and we have, but last time there we ran into strikes. Not good! Soooo….Lots of planning and reservations and slower pace and food always for kids! But remain flexible too! …And worse…. I know it will be hot and crowded! The only timeframe that works!? Will try to get a hotel with pool, close to the sites and good A/C. After a few days there we hope to go north to Austria and Germany. I know, it’s a huge deal to travel and sightsee in Europe with large family…but we have always done family travel. This will be a major feat! So reading how you got around and saw sights and changed it up (quickly) from Germany to Italy…it can be done…you amazingly did it all so well! So glad for your report and good travels!

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978 posts

Happiest 2022 to you too all2alb! Thanks for your kind words. I'm in awe of YOU for taking such a large group. I'm going to throw some opinions in the mix, and you know your family best, so totally ignore what doesn't fit. I've also never been on a cruise so I don't know how tired/relaxed one is after that long on a ship. I have made three trips to Europe with grandsons when they ranged from 9-14, and more with my own kids when they were about the same age. When I came home from this last trip I remarked to my husband that an ideal trip with kids might be 4-5 days sightseeing, followed by 2-3 days total relaxation, then repeat - IF time were not always an issue.

I love Rome! It was the city that rocked my world when I was 19 turning 20. I never tire of revisiting there, but every visit I'm reminded of how intense it can be. We were there this time in almost ideal circumstances - no crowds, no heat, no rigid agenda, getting around exclusively by taxi, and everybody was happy to do whatever I told them we were doing. I'm not sure how well any of us would have held up in crowded heat on day 10-12+ of "vacation." Maybe, maybe, a Tuscan or Umbrian villa with a pool and a couple of cars might give everybody a change of pace for a few days. I rented a villa in Todi once for 12 people for a week, with 3 cars, and everybody got what they wanted! I have German friends who returned to the same Tuscan villa (with multi apartments and a pool) every year where their kids could meet new European kids and the adults could travel around or drink wine by the pool. Sometimes that might be even more memorable than seeing more ruins. I know if you are brave enough to take this on, whatever you plan will be a great trip!

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2482 posts

Thanks, Ruth, for a delightful report. I have bookmarked it for my two days in Rome coming up in March after my stay in Florence. Yes, the dream of travel! This trip will be a wonderful memory of how you snatched victory from the jaws of defeat; Covid, take that! You taught us how to not cry over spilled milk and create a new plan.
You reminded me of the cat sanctuary in Rome, I must see it. And I must go back to the Vatican and see the Sizzling Chapel again. March may have lighter crowds again. I agree the Last Judgment is the easiest to view and that is what I concentrated on when I was there before packed in with the other sardines!