When my wife and I first thought of running a tour company in the Italian region of Abruzzo, accommodating kids wasn’t really top of our minds.
It’s not that we don’t like kids. We love kids. We just don’t have any ourselves, and the visions for our vacation villa and tours focused on more adult activities.
My wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais, and I figured adults would like exploring and learning the history of medieval villages and Roman ruins, visits to wineries and long, lingering dinners followed by after-dinner drinks on our grand terrace.
I do think taking a bunch of 10-year-olds to a wine tasting would be hilarious. But that’s just me, and it’s also strong evidence that my lack of offspring is a net plus for humankind. (You’re welcome world.)
The point here is that when we started marketing our all-inclusive tour packages, we started getting inquiries about what a kid-friendly tour would be like, and we were a bit stumped. Yes, the villa has a pool and there’s the Adriatic beaches close by, but beyond that, we really didn’t know how we would keep kids busy for a week.
Quick research turned up an adventure/zip-line park in the mountains, a water slide park, and some caves near by. These would help, but even though we had movies, great wifi, and games, it looked like getting together a kid-friendly package might be difficult.
Time for some serious thinking. What do kids like? They like the usual kid things like heros and villains, magic stuff, gross stuff, scary stuff, funny stuff, stuff you can climb on, stuff you can smash, and great stories preferably all rolled into one. Guess what? The pre-Roman, Roman, medieval and renaissance history and landscape of Abruzzo is filled with that stuff.
I figured all we had to do was adjust our tours slightly and they would still appeal to adults while keeping kids at least engaged enough to ward off the “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “This sucks” routine.
The plan was that when there were kids, the tours would be less National Geographic and History Channel and more Dora the Explorer and Adventure Time.
For example, the Roman ruins at Alba Fucens would become less of an important historical outpost in the first century BC during the move from the semi-democratic Republic to the imperial Roman Empire. Instead, it would be more about a place where kings and queens from far away conquered lands were imprisoned in chains, bloody sacrifices were made to strange Gods, and gladiators were ripped to pieces by lions.
If things were heading towards full meltdown, Alba Fucens could also become a place where so much poop ran down the open gutters in the streets, they made stepping stones so you could get across without getting poop all over your shoes.
The Fortress at Rocca Calascio also became less of an important military installation and more of a place where crazy gross things happened, like eating your fellow soldiers to keep from starving to death during sieges in the middle ages, or the filming of the 1980s movie Ladyhawke.
Even eating traditional Abruzzese lamb skewers (arrosticini) would be more about acting like a gluttonous medieval knight than nutrition.
So, we felt ready when starting in July 2016, as our first year of operation moved into the summer holiday season, the kids, some as young as six years old, started arriving.
As predicted, the pool was a major hit. Some kids didn’t want to leave at all. The Adriatic beaches were a major hit too, especially for the teenage boys.
The zip line place got good reviews. The caves and mountain canyon hikes were cool too - sometimes literally as the annual summer Italian heat established itself.
But what was most satisfying for us was how the parents and kids both enjoyed the tours given by our guide Luca and myself. When we would return home, the parents would speak of the beauty and history of what they’d seen while the kids would talk about the witches and bloody and gross stuff.
Not once did I hear that they had a boring day.
Yes, there were days when the television got turned on, and, yes, a lot of wifi megas (or whatever the hell they are) got consumed by tablets playing cartoons. (Ever notice that kids look like zombies while watching cartoons?)
But, anyway, it seems our tour plan worked.
My favourite part was the horrified look on the kids faces when I took them right into the interior halls of a Roman amphitheater to the exact spot where a doomed person would be held in a cage before being shoved out at spear point to be ripped to pieces by wild animals while 10,000 people cheered on the bloody spectacle.
I would crowd them up against the cage while the dark mysterious interior halls of the amphitheater rang out with my chant of “Die. Die. You’re going to DIE.” I would increase the volume to ear-splitting. Then in pitch blackness, I would show them the tiny light at the end of the tunnel, a light that meant certain DEATH, and tell them to go toward the light. Then I’d start screaming, and usually at that point, they would start screaming while their concerned parents stood outside listening.
When we’d come out into the sun, their faces said it all. Some where smiling and joking, but most were scared shitless. Perfect.
It wasn’t 10 year olds at a wine tasting fun, but it was close, and I can’t wait to do it again.
Next week: Special Guest Blog – Helen’s pilgrimage to Abruzzo.