“A llure” said Alessandra, “now we make the sauce per la pasta.” My 13-year-old granddaughter Sarina and I are standing by an old table in the simple family kitchen of a farmhouse outside of Florence where we have come for two days of Italian cooking lessons. As we chop vegetables and amiably chit-chat in a verbal stew of Italian and English, I suddenly realize that it’s not the onions that are making my eyes water; it’s this vivacious young woman at my side, expertly wielding her knife.
“A llure” said Alessandra, “now we make the sauce per la pasta.” My 13-year-old granddaughter Sarina and I are standing by an old table in the simple family kitchen of a farmhouse outside of Florence where we have come for two days of Italian cooking lessons. As we chop vegetables and amiably chit-chat in a verbal stew of Italian and English, I suddenly realize that it’s not the onions that are making my eyes water; it’s this vivacious young woman at my side, expertly wielding her knife. How can it be that the baby girl I diapered 13 years ago has grown up so beautifully and that we are actually sharing this amazing experience together? I lovingly smooth her long, raven hair to divert her from noticing the outline of my heart on my sleeve.
Four years ago, when my first grandchild, Jonah, became a Bar Mitzvah, I said to him, “Everyone in the family will be giving you money. I want to give you memories. Pick a country you want to visit and we will go together.” He chose Italy because he knew I’d spent my junior year of college living there.
True to my word, the following summer, he and I and my husband packed our bags and went for two weeks. Thus was established a new family tradition: the Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip. Now it was his sister Sarina’s turn, and she also insisted on Italy. “It’s your country, Nana,” she said, “and I want to discover it through your eyes.”
Both by design and by accident, this was to be a different trip, albeit to the same cities — the Rome/Florence/Venice trifecta. Unlike Jonah, who’d never been to Europe, Sarina had already done some spectacular travel with her family. Trips to Morocco, Thailand, China and three sojourns in Paris had taken the edge off her “wow” factor. Moreover, she was, by nature, more introspective, unusually mature and, also, a girl, which meant more shopping! With Jonah, we’d mostly combed street-vendor kiosks for soccer shirts. I think we bought more than a dozen. With Sarina, it was like girlfriends on a spree, trying on clothes and preening in front of the mirror. We traipsed tirelessly through the big designer outlet near Florence, strolled in and out of little boutiques wherever we saw a dress or shoes or a handbag we liked. We coveted nearly everything but bought carefully. Of course, she looked great in whatever she slipped on and, had I unlimited funds, she’d have come home with many more goodies than could fit in her suitcase.
The cooking lessons were another way to personalize her trip, and it turned out to be one of the best things we did. There is an abbondanza of residential cooking schools in Italy and, after many hours searching the Web, I found Il Pezzatino (www.ilpezzatino.it). The small, rustic B&B featured a pool, vineyard and a delightful owner, Alessandra, who promised to instruct us in the basics of Italian cooking as she’d been taught by her mama. (Cost was 1200 euro for three people for two nights and six meals.) Alessandra’s style was informal to say the least, but we actually learned a lot. While my husband sat under the grape arbor and read, Sarina and I prepared two delicious dinners for all the guests, washed down by the farm’s own excellent wine.
Naturally, there were some things we’d done with Jonah that simply had to be repeated. Because I felt it was important to include some Jewish content, in Venice we toured the ghetto, the name of which comes from the Italian word for the iron foundry slag stored on the same tiny island where the Jews were confined by decree in 1516. Squeezed into narrow, multi-story buildings, each of the three ethnic communities built its own little synagogue on the top floor so they could worship according the traditions they’d brought with them. Today, the ghetto has a fairly decent kosher restaurant and serves as the cultural and religious center for Venice’s 500 remaining Jews. In Florence, we visited the Great Synagogue, a magnificent domed structure built in 1874 and richly decorated in the Moorish style. It has been restored after desecration by the Nazis, who turned it into a garage for their tanks and poked their bayonets into the holy ark.
Traveling with a teenager means carefully weighing how much culture they can handle. I tried to limit planned activities to one or two major sites a day, occasionally interspersed with walking tours which can be booked online and are useful for covering a lot of ground without too much didactic lecturing. For anything that requires tickets, I highly recommend booking in advance on the Internet before you leave. (A good site is www.viator.com.) Lines at popular tourist sites can be endless. (To my shame, I forgot to make arrangements for The David and we couldn’t get in!) Art lover that I am, I steer clear of museums like the Uffizi and its emphasis on Renaissance painting. I’ve never met a teen who isn’t bored to death with that genre. And whatever you do, plan on a mandatory stop for gelato every afternoon.
Here’s my personal list of kid-friendly favorites in Italy. Rome: The Vatican, The Coliseum, the Trevi fountain and the Borghese Gallery (it’s hard not to be impressed with Bernini’s sculpture no matter your age); Florence: The Duomo, the Ghiberti baptistery, the Medici chapels with the Michelangelo tombs and the Ponte Vecchio; Venice: St. Mark’s to marvel at the mosaics and the isle of Murano to lust after the glass.
In my experience, 13-year-olds aren’t keen on staying in separate hotel rooms in foreign countries and suites in a decent hotel are, expensive and hard to come by. My solution has been to rent apartments, which are readily available for under $300 a night for two-night stays or more. I like the comfort of apartments and the fun of going to the local produce markets to buy breakfast and snacks because it feels less touristy. However, if you are dependent on a concierge for assistance, this may not be a good idea. With a little patience, you’ll find tons of options and the pictures are generally a reliable guide. Some sites I like are www.viewsonvenice.com and www.rentalsinrome.com. In Florence, I found a marvelous and reasonably priced B&B (www.casadelgarbo.com) right in the center of town that had a lovely two-bedroom suite with a kitchenette.
Within two years, my next grandson will become a Bar Mitzvah — he is already anticipating his special trip. He will get his own set of memories and so, too, will I: This now-established traveling tradition is as much a gift to me as it is to them.
Carol Saline is the chief medical correspondent for Special Sections and Inside. This article originally appeared in a special "Mazel Tov" supplement to the Exponent.