Our Italian Summer, Part 1: The Home Base

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

I am so excited to bring you this multi-part Italy series based on our 10-week immersion nella bella Italia. Since so many people are starting to plan trips for next year, and since some of you have specifically asked about our Italian summer immersion, I thought I would round up all of my notes and share them with all of you to help in your planning phases.


Since this is only Part 1, if you'd like to get an alert when other parts are posted, please subscribe by clicking the text in the green box at the top of this post!

Clockwise from top left: Marino, the kids and I eating ice cream in Florence; Us again, with Zia Ale and Gabri at Castel Sant'Angelo with the Basilica of St. Peter behind us in Rome; Dante and Leila wandering the narrow and deserted streets of Tarano; All of us with Zia Ale's family and some friends on our last night in Frascati
Just a few of the wonderful places and people: Clockwise from top left - Florence, Rome, Tarano, Frascati

This post is really for everyone and anyone. If I could do most of this on my own with two small children (ages 3 and 7) or as a family of four (the last three weeks that my husband could join us), then anyone can do this!

There will definitely be sections on accommodations, transportation, booking activities, best local-recommended/frequented eats, tips on doing it all with kids, etc.

This series is divided into short itineraries that can be combined as you’d like:

- Part 1: choosing a home base, a breakdown of the whole summer, where we stayed, etc. (what you're reading now)

- Part 2: a 3-day Roman Holiday – the must-see Roman to-do list (with plenty of hidden gems only locals know about)

- Part 3: When you only have 2 1/2 days in Florence and Your Son's Name is Dante

- Part 4: Two kids, a stroller and 2 1/2 days in Venice

- Part 5: A quick escape up the central Italian Coast – Grosetto & Pisa (and why not Cinque Terre with two small children)

- Part 6: Napoli, Capri and Pompei in 3 Days (2.5 if you have to)

- Part 7: All the hidden gems you never thought to see and are so much more authentic than the usual tourist attractions (Tropea, Gargano/Peschici, Forme, Ortolano)

- Part 8: Logistics when traveling through Italy (internet/phone, transportation in and between cities, places to stay, etc.)

While some of these itineraries are jam-packed, if you happen to have more time, you can definitely stretch them out over a few more days and squeeze some more activities into the mix! We had to squeeze in a lot into the 3-weeks Marino was able to join us for.

Our 10-week summer immersion exploration of Italy – A Summary

Before COVID messed with our plans, we had decided to forgo annual summer camps for our children in favor of summer language immersion travel (we speak Spanish, Russian, Italian and English at home). Well, we got one summer in 2019 – 10 weeks in Italy!

Now, with this intention in mind, I knew we’d need a non-touristic home-base where English wasn’t spoken, and where there would be a group of children for our children to play with. We also knew that Marino would be joining us for the last 3, and Ale for the last 2, weeks of the trip and so, we left the cities and sites that they wanted to see (and that we could fit into such a short period) for later.

So, the trip went a little like this:

- Week 1: Settle in and get to know everything and everyone in Tarano - our Home Base

- Week 2: Tarano with a day trip to Rome for the Zoological Museum and Villa Borghese

- Week 3: Tarano, with a day trip to the Selci Sports Club (pool day) and a day trip to Rome for the Children’s Museum & Italian book shopping

- Week 4: First overnight trip – 2 nights in Grosetto, 1 night in Pisa

- Week 5: Resettling in to Tarano, day trip to Rome, for the Spaghettongola (Clam & Spaghetti festival) and the Selci Atheltic Club (pool day)

- Week 6: 3 day/2 night (with overnight train) to Tropea, Calabria

- Week 7: Resettle in Tarano, hang out and finalize all plans for all 3 weeks

- Week 8: Marino arrived! 2 ½ days Florence (and Fiezole), 2 ½ days Venice

- Week 9: 1 Day Rome, 2 days Tarano (for the Sotto le Stelle festival), 2 days in Abruzzo Ortolano and Forme (Crocante Festival), 2 more days in Rome and Frascati and Ariccia

- Week 10: 3 days for Napoli, Capri, Pompeii, 3 days for Peschici in the Gargano Preserve, 1 final evening in Rome and Frascati

Our Home Base

It just so happens that Zia Ale’s (my soul sister) family lives part-time in a small town called Tarano (45 min outside of Rome) in the Sabina in the Province of Rieti, with a rich history dating back to at least the 10th century.

A collage of Tarano, from top left: A picture of Tarano from the road, with houses overlooking what once used to be a moat; the entrance to Tarano, with a lookout tower, and an arched entrance way into the city; an old weathered wooden door closing in a "taverna" - garage/storage; two views from Tarano looking out over the Sabina - with lots of lush greenery, and farms and crops growing in the distance; one of the narrow pedesterian-only streets through Tarano, snaking up to the central plaza
Can you see the city-state it once was? The guarded entrance, the houses snaking upwards to the central piazza

Having both grown up there and in surrounding areas, Marisa and Enzo (Zia Ale's parents) try to spend as much time there as possible with all of their friends and family and they also just happen to have a quaint 1-bedroom apartment (currently for sale!) that we could call our home base between trips.

Can you see how thick the walls were?!? (red arrow) - no need for air conditioning; and the view from the bedroom!

Tarano epitomizes a sleepy Italian town and if you speak a little Italian (or even just try) the locals will gladly share bits of information they’ve gathered about its WWII history, give you a tour of the “magazzini” (storages/garages that snake into the depths of the hill), and speak to the historical significance of its architecture.


You can also get fresh produce from many of the locals who gather at the sole café/bar/restaurant, "La Fontana" to the locals, in the evenings to play cards and just chat - and some of the best vegetable sott’olio from a farmer named Luciano (the Italian way to preserve veggies with olive oil).


Because I really wanted Dante and Leila to connect with the local children, we did not take many trips in the first few weeks. We got to know the streets of Tarano (where few cars can even get through), the local folk, and we just got to hang out in a magical setting so unlike anything I’ve ever lived in.


We spent a few days here and there at the Club Sportivo di Selci or travelled to neighboring towns in the Sabina. We visited Forano, and Borgonuovo, amongst others, for a dinner out, or sometimes, for a music and/or specialized food festival.

Clockwise from Top Right: Tex Miller Restaurant outdoor area: Leila and Dante bouncing on trampoline rides at a Borgonuovo music festival; Dante playing foozeball with other local kids and Leila on a mechanical car ride outside a fantastic ice cream shop
Plenty of festivals in Borgonuovo, as well as one of the yummiest ice cream shops and restaurants in town!

The video above (sorry if it makes you dizzy) is of a pasta festival in Forano. Each ticket got you four pasta dishes – ragu di pecora, pesto, tonno y pistacchi, and fagiolini! You could easily purchase dinner for two and feed a family of four, with four different pastas, bottled water, and dessert included!

We also took a few day trips to Rome to visit Explora - Il Museo Dei Bambini Di Roma (Children’s Museum), Museo Civico di Zoologia (Rome’s Natural History Museum), and La Casina di Raffaelo (Children’s Book and Activity Space) (subscribe above to be alerted to Part 2 of this series which will have all the details on planning your Rome itinerary!).

Clockwise from top left: Dante and Leila in front of a waterless world map at the zoological museum, Leila and Dante playing at the water table at the Explora museum, Dante smiling and Leila napping in her stroller in front of a small pond at the Villa Borghese park, Leila and Dante relaxing and reading books at the Casina di Raffaello
Clockwise from top left: Zoological Museum, Explora, Villa Borghese, Casina di Raffaello

I think if anyone is looking for this kind of immersion travel, it is important to find a small town that receives sufficient public transportation, is near a grocery store, and that is a relatively short distance from a big city that can connect them to the rest of Italy. That is, unless, you are interested in renting a car, in which case, if you’re interested in my thoughts on that, Part 7 of this series, which includes practical considerations re grocery stores, transportation, SIM cards and getting data, etc. Please click on the text in green at the top of this post to subscribe and receive an alert when other parts of this series, including Part 7 are published!

I also strongly recommend renting an apartment/house in the town limits, as opposed to the surrounding countryside. There are some wonderful agritourism hotels but, staying in the town makes it so much easier to get to know the locals and for the kids to gather with other kids.

And, if you’re weighing an agritourism hotel vs. an apartment in town, you will save so much on your budget with an apartment! First of all, the price of the apartment will be fantastic, especially if you’re staying for a month or longer.

Second, your food budget! We spent approximately $100 USD per week for one adult and two growing children buying most of our food to cook at home (see Part 7 for my thoughts on the best supermarket chains - subscribe above to get alerted when it is published). As a side note, many Italians prefer to eat dinner at home and then go out for a coffee or ice cream with friends.

I would be more than happy to connect you with some of the lovely people I met in Tarano, who may have access to accommodations and could support your immersion experience. (I do not receive any financial gain from this, I just want others to experience the beauty of this kind of travel).

A Typical Day in Tarano

Did I mention we were in Italy in the summer? It was hot! Most of Italy shuts down during the hottest part of the day – lunch through 4p.m.-ish. With average daily temperatures in the high 80s with 75% humidity, I understand the custom.

Also, so many people and children come out in the evening, when the temperature is more moderate, that Dante and Leila never wanted to miss out. However, this meant going to bed far later than usual. So, when figuring out our groove, we had to adjust to the fact that bedtime was 10/11p.m. every night!

How the local kids could still manage to wake up at 7/8a.m., I have no idea. Dante and Leila were waking closer to 9:30/10a.m. By the time they were dressed and ate breakfast, it would be 11a.m. We’d have a good hour of outdoor time exploring Tarano, kicking the ball around, or heading to Zia Mirna’s house to play with Riccardo.

Then back home by 12:30p.m. while the whole town shut down until 4p.m. Home time was filled with reading Italian books or playing with the few toys we packed or borrowed from a neighbor.


When 4p.m. hit, we were back out again, exploring and playing. Dante and Leila would have their small group of mixed-aged children they would play with and I would be chatting with local parents and grandparents. After a quick stop at home for dinner, we’d be out again, usually at La Fontana, for an ice cream and to play some more. I know the below picture is super low quality but it was just so perfect - the kids all hanging out together, chatting, just up the hill from where I was sipping a cold coffee with Marisa.

Day Trips - Generally

Day trips definitely took a little planning and certainly required us to wake up earlier – say, 7-8a.m.-ish. The excitement of a day trip was usually enough for the kids to say goodbye to their friends earlier those nights.

Tarano is a 20 min. bus ride from the train station in Stimigliano. I will put in a disclaimer though that Ale’s dad, Enzo, enjoyed driving us to Stimigliano in the mornings and picking us up. He loved taking us to a different bakery along the way to try some cornetti (Italian croissants) or to pack some pizzetti or porchetta sandwiches for the trip.

TrenItalia was our best friend because it has the regionale - regional train (that takes you to/through all the small towns around Rome). We would take an hour-ish ride on the regionale from Stimigliano to Roma Tiburtina. That, in turn, was our “hub” for everything because it has the greatest number of connections – subway (la metropolitana), bus, and, for our longer distance travel – regional and long-distance trains, whether TrenItalia or Italotreno (more on how to use these in the most budget-friendly way in Part 7).

A map of the area surrounding the Roma Tiburtina station - it is. a hub for regional and long distance trains, buses and subways
Regional and Long Distance trains, Bus hub to anywhere in Rome, and 3 subways within walking distance - perfect!

We always packed along some coloring or Italian reading books for the rides. Though, the children preferred watching the cows and horses, or fields of sunflowers or olive trees, or the great Tiber river through the window.

(Please do see Part 2 on Rome Itineraries to read about our day-trips to Rome)

Day Trips – Club Sportivo di Selci

One activity I highly recommend is day trips to the local Sports/Aquatic Center – you can just look up which one is near where you plan to stay.

The town of Selci has a fantastic sports club – Club Sportivo di Selci – and is 20 minutes from Tarano, accessible by car or bus. Again, Enzo loved taking us so he could show us the surrounding areas and he’d surprise us with ice cream from the Sports Center’s snack bar when he came to pick us up. For approximately 30 Euros, we had all day entry for 1 adult, 2 children, 2 lounge chairs and an umbrella. We packed snacks and lunch and I treated myself to an espresso and the kids to ice cream.

It was fantastic! The kids immediately joined in with other kids– language practice! We beat the heat! The facilities were clean, not too crowded, and it was a nice way to experience a lazy summer day like the locals. It was also a nice way to have a “do nothing” day with fun activities built right in. They have life jackets, floaties, noodles, and fins available for free as well.


What I would have done differently

I love that the kids found a group of children to play with. I will say that it took a bit longer than I had hoped for Dante to start speaking comfortably – it was mostly one-word interactions until about four weeks in. I think one useful addition to any immersion trip is a couple weeks of a ½-day summer, which is much more affordable in other countries. For example, Dante could have done two weeks of swim camp at the Selci Sports Center, where many of the kids from Tarano were signed up, giving him more time and opportunity to interact with them. I could have also enrolled Leila in a Reggio Emilia or Montessori preschool ½ program, too.

I might have rented a car ONLY for those weeks when I did not plan any big-city tourism. Travel from one small town to another, especially not in the same province or comune, is a bit more challenging and takes longer. If you really want to follow all the food festivals around Italy, or simply take in all the wonders that these small towns have to offer, renting a car might be worthwhile. More on this in Part 7, so don't forget to subscribe at the top of this page to be alerted when it is published!

Also, I probably would have gone to Rome to stock up on books a bit earlier in the trip so that the kids had a bigger choice of Italian books to browse/read through during rest time, train trips, or any other time they needed to engage in a quiet activity.

Summary

To wrap it all up, having a home base in a small town like Tarano was the best thing that could have happened to Dante and Leila’s fluency in Italian. We really felt like part of the community and could experience Italian small-town culture. We were also plugged into nearby towns for groceries, dinners out, music and food festivals, and lazy pool days and could easily access Rome and all of Italy through its train/bus network.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, as well as any questions you may have if/when planning your own immersion experience!

Please look out for Part 2 in this series, in which I will share with you our Roman Holiday – what we did, where we ate, and some of the not-so-touristy parts we explored! - Subscribe, by clicking on the text highlighted in green at the top of this page so you'll be alerted to when the other parts of this series are available!

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