Rome: Taking the kids

Gladiatorial violence, pizza, ice cream - this city has got everything a child could desire. Just ask Isabel Lloyd
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The Independent Travel

Find an eight-year-old boy and his six-year-old brother. Stand them up straight, and look them in the eye. Tell them that you are taking them to a foreign city where it's warm and where everyone eats pizza and ice cream. Then tell them they are going there on a train with lots of bedrooms on it.

Try it some time. It's a blast.

Taking the sleeper train to Rome for a long weekend with two young boys may not be an obvious choice, but we'd long felt our brattish pack would respond to the gory history of the Eternal City. And getting there in a manner that didn't require take-off, landing, or a small power station's worth of fossil fuel was just the ecologically sound ticket.

So it was that "Rome" for the children started at Waterloo, 10am one Saturday. A cafe lunch in Paris was followed by a rough and tumble around the Centre Pompidou. Then a taxi to Gare de Lyon and our train, waiting to sweep through fields of dusky sunflowers with their faces turned, like us, to the south.

After a stimulating evening in a hot sleeper compartment, testing the weight-bearing possibilities of fold-down beds, eating broken biscuits and staring wide-eyed at unshaven Frenchmen as they lurched down the carriage to do something unspeakable to the toilette, the children were something adjacent to overexcited. But the rattling, rocking train did its work, and they slept all the way to our 9am arrival at Stazione di Roma Termini. This meant they were in decent shape; their parents, on the other hand, were a thirsty, raddled, bad-tempered mess. But what else was new?

We were, even at 10am, blasted by the sun, and scuttled into the back streets west of the station. At first the children were fractious and uninterested. But as we moved beyond Santa Maria Maggiore, the streets narrowed and gave way to tall shuttered houses with 1950s murals, workshops with idling mopeds outside, a mossy drinking fountain, and the sound of plainchant drifting through barred Renaissance windows. First Jack, then Tom stopped whingeing and started watching.

When you visit tourist sites with a child, all the flotsam that would ordinarily irritate suddenly has a point. The Colosseum's dressed-up gladiators are not simply photo-opportunistic tour guides, but flesh and blood fighters. The children's wonder when they got to heft a legionnaire's sword rubbed off on us, and lasted all the way through the ruins of the Foro Romano, where a young American history PhD who liked the cut of our togas gave us an impromptu tour.

My knowledge of Roman life was limited to Latin "O" level and Caecilius est pater. But the classical world he described was physical and full of smells, from the laurel leaves used to sweeten laundry to animal blood from the arena running through the sewer. He told us of vestal virgins crushed in stone tombs, and Vandals throwing tantrums. The boys couldn't get enough of it. "Do Roman emperors still murder their mothers?" a thrilled Jack asked, and wasn't fooled when I told him there weren't any emperors these days.

Rome is a layer cake of history, one that an adult could feed off for a lifetime. Children need more substantial meals, though, and the city didn't let us down. Italians worship children, which must be why they invented the most child-friendly cuisine on the planet: to have come up with pasta was clever, but to add pizza was just showing off. They accept children in restaurants the way middle-aged English women accept dogs on the bed. We had Sunday lunch at a busy trattoria. There was no menu; instead the restaurant was given over to a buffet of (oops) offal. Amazingly, the children were unfazed by lingua (tongue) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew).

On the final day, we went to the Villa Borghese zoo.Penguins and baby giraffes kept things ticking over, until we reached a 40-foot rock face. Suddenly, from a cave high above stalked a Siberian tiger. Behind him, his mate preened, eyes glowing. Whenever I have seen tigers in captivity, they have always been quite mad, heartbreakingly so. This one stared at us with bright-burning hauteur, in full possession of his senses. The boys fell completely silent. At the last moment, in the most unexpected spot, they'd found what I said didn't exist: a real Roman emperor.

Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers return fares from London to Paris with an overnight connection to Rome for £208 per adult and £154 per child. The price is based on London-Paris Eurostar travel and four sharing a four-berth couchette from Paris to Rome.

Our favourite city break

We love the bespoke tours organised by Russia Revealed (0870 366 5454; www.russiantravel.co.uk), which has got endless ideas to keep your not-so-little darlings entertained - it says 12-18 year-olds get the most out of its holidays to Moscow or St Petersburg. Choose from traditional troika rides, performances by the Slava the world-famous clown, tours of the Museum of the Soviet Army, and more. Then get it turned into your perfect itinerary. A three-night weekend break, including return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation starts from £459 per person, based on two people sharing.

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