Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand—wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side—and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way.
The Detour is a bittersweet novel about artistic obsession, misplaced idealism, detours, and second chances, set along the beautiful back-roads of northern Italy on the eve of war.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.36(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Piedmont, Northern Italy
The russet bloom on the vineyards ahead, the yellowleafed oaks, a hint of truffles fattening in moldy obscurity underfoot—none of it is truly familiar, because I first came here not only in a different season, but as a different man. Yet the smell of autumn anywhere is for me the smell of memory, and I am preoccupied as my feet guide me through the woods and fields up toward the old Piedmontese villa.
When a salt-and-pepper blur charges out of the grass and stops just in front of me, growling, I stand my ground. I resist retreating; I reach out a hand. Foam drips from the dog’s black gums onto the damp earth. I am in no hurry, and neither is she. The sprint seems to have cost the dog most of her remaining energy, though. Her thin ribs heave as she alternately whines and threatens.
The teeth retract and the quivering nose comes forward. Her speckled, shorthaired sides move in and out like a bellows.
“Old hound, is it really you?”
She sniffs my hand, backs away for one more growl, then surrenders her affection. These have been ten long and lonely years. Take a scratch where you can get it.
She guides me, as if I have forgotten, up to the old barn.
Through a dirty window, I glimpse the iron bed frame, one dresser. But other items I’d once known by look and touch—the red lantern, the phonograph, any trace of woman’s clothing—are gone. A dark stain mars the stone floor, but perhaps it’s only moisture or fungus. In the corner, wedged into the frame of an oval mirror, is an old postcard of the Colosseum. I know what is written on the other side. I wrote it.
I consider walking up the hill to the villa’s family burial ground to check for any recent additions—but no, even after coming this far, I’m still not ready for that. Tartufa trots ahead toward the side of the main house, toward the figure seated alone at the wooden table, a spiral of blue smoke rising from his thick-knuckled fingers. The door from the terrace into the kitchen hangs crookedly. Everything about the house seems more worn, sloping like the old man’s shoulders.
He calls out first. “Buongiorno.”
“Adamo?” I try.
Now he sits up straighter, squinting as I approach.
It takes a minute for him to recognize me.
“The Bavarian? Grüss Gott,” he cackles, using the only German phrase he knows. But still, he doesn’t seem to believe.
“You’re coming from the North?”
“No, from Rome. I took the train most of the way. Then a ride, a bit of a walk . . .”
“You are living there?”
“Just visiting museums.”
“Repatriation of antiquities.” And I explain what that means as he nods slowly, taking in the names of new agencies, international agreements, the effort of my own homeland to undo what was done—a history already begging to be forgotten. Wonder of wonders, the old man replies, how the world changes and stays the same. Except for some things.
After he pours me a glass of cloudy plum liqueur, I take a seat at the old oak table and ask him about his sister-in-law, Mamma Digiloramo. He gestures with his chin up to the hill.
“And Gianni and his wife?”
They occupy the main house with their four children, Zio Adamo explains. He lives with them, and though this villa has been in the Digiloramo family for three generations and Gianni is not even a blood relative, it doesn’t matter—Adamo himself feels like a houseguest now. Fine, it’s less of a headache for him. Fewer worries about the crops, which haven’t done so well in the last few years. Surely I noticed the shriveled black grapes on the west side of the road, approaching the main house.
When I empty my glass of liqueur and decline a second, he says, “You haven’t asked about everyone,” with an emphasis on the last word.
When I don’t reply he volunteers, “She moved to town. During the war, everything here went to pieces. Now she works in a café. She lives with her son.”
Stunned, I repeat his last word back to him: “Figlio?”
I must appear tongue-tied because he laughs, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s about how her mother looked way back when, discovering the happy news. Not a virgin birth, but close. We celebrated without any questions.”
“È quasi un miracolo.”
“Your Italian is much better than last time.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
“No particular reason. It’s a beautiful language.”
He runs his tongue over his teeth, unconvinced. “If you wait, I can find someone to take you into town—if that is where you are going.”
“Grazie. I’ll walk.”
“It will take you two, three hours.”
“Va bene. I could use the time with my thoughts.”
“I don’t recommend it.”
“No, remembering.” He doesn’t smile.
Gesturing for me to wait, he pushes to his feet slowly, reaching for the cane leaning against the table’s corner, then escorts me back down the path, past the barn, to the track that leads to the dusty road lined with hazelnut bushes. Something is bothering him. At the end, he straightens his back, lifts his whiskered chin, and brushes his dry lips against my cheek. “That’s as far as I go, or I won’t make it back.”
The dog has followed us, grateful for her master’s unhurried pace. I reach down to pat her side and mumble a few final endearments, whispering her name a final time.
“That isn’t the original Tartufa, you know,” Zio Adamo says, looking a little embarrassed to be correcting me. “It’s her pup—the last one.”
“This, a pup?”
“A very old one.”
“They look the same,” I say, squatting down to scratch her ears again, patting her ribs, puzzling over the pattern of her coat.
He leans on the cane, face lowered to mine. “Certainly, you remember what happened to Tartufa . . .”
“Yes,” I say, standing up to brush my hands on my trousers.
“It makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who makes mistakes.” Zio Adamo smiles. “I’m sorry for not recognizing you right away. Even after you sat down, it was hard to believe.”
“No need for apologies—”
“It’s not just your Italian.”
“I couldn’t put two words together back then.”
“No,” he insists, with sudden vehemence, enough to make me wish I’d accepted that second, courage-bolstering drink.
“You were different in other ways.”
“Weren’t we all?”
But of course, I know what he means.
There is a temptation to say that the long-ago past is a fog, that it is nearly impossible to recall the mindset of an earlier time. But that is a lie. The truth is that more recent events, such as the days leading up to the surrender, are a fog. In and out of the army, where they sent me again once it was clear I had made a mess of things on what might have been a relatively simple professional assignment—all that is a fog. I passed through it in a half-numb state, registering few sensations beyond the taste of watery potato soup and the unsticking of dirty, wet wool from frozen, bleeding feet.
A year or two, or eight, can elapse that way, mercifully, while a fundamental childhood incident or an essential, youthful journey can remain polished by obsessive and dutiful reminiscence. It can remain like marble in one’s mind: five days in Italy—harder, brighter, more fixed and more true than anything that has happened before or since.
Except I’d forgotten about the dog, and only now that I am reminded can I hear in my mind the stranger’s fatal Luger shot and recall how we all stopped, stunned, watching—and clearly forgetting, wanting to forget—even as the sound rang out across the farm, the first shot of several that morning, my last morning in Italy, ten years ago. Of course.
And if I have confused that one detail, have I confused anything else? Am I remembering my final moments at the villa inaccurately—not only the bitter, but also the sweet? Am I imagining a tenderness and a sense of possibility that never were?
But that’s too much to ask without time to absorb and reflect on what Adamo has said, what the quiet of this villa and the padlock on the barn suggest. I cannot truly remember her, cannot truly remember then, until I can remember the person I was that long decade ago—a difficult portrait of an even more difficult time.
On this afternoon, with acorns crunching beneath my feet, I have several hours and nothing else to do as I walk, inhaling the soft musk of the season, realizing with each footfall that I have little to lose given how much has been forfeited already. Is there also something, perhaps, to gain? No telling. Only the brittle sound of cracking shells, the memory of a different breeze on my face, the recollection of a less pleasant stroll, and all that followed.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for THE DETOUR
READER'S GUIDE QUESTIONS: Art, beauty, travel, duty, propaganda, the "perfect" body, and love....
1. Ernst Vogler takes solace in the image of the Discus Thrower. Is there an object or image in which you've taken solace? Are there times when reverence for an object or image has misled a person or people?
2. "For beauty, you cannot prepare," claims Enzo. Ernst Vogler, by contrast, thinks that beauty (and specifically, art) requires intellectual preparation. Who is right, or are they each right in different situations?
3. Is there a particular work of art in any form (including music, architecture, or film) that has captivated you, and why? What does it say about you personally that this particular work so enthralls you?
4. What makes Vogler a poor candidate for this mission, and what, in his mind or objectively, makes him an ideal candidate?
5. Vogler's mentor, Gerhard, feels that his young protégée needs a trip to Italy. Why is this so? Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the poweror limitationsof a short-term experience to change us? Have you ever taken a trip that radically changed your outlook on life?
6. Is Vogler overreacting when he is anxious about his own personal mark of "difference"? Why or why not?
7. Various German artistsincluding a preeminent conductor and a world-famous filmmakerwere essentially forgiven for working in high positions or in close collaboration with the Third Reich. What is your opinion on the choices they made and the post-war attitudes toward artists like them?
8. To what extent do we hold people accountable today for working in or for unethical companies, organizations, or governments? To what extent are they innocent? To what extent are they culpable?
9. Various governments have tried to gain or keep control of artistic and archaeological objects and artifacts over the centuries, and have used these symbols in propaganda efforts. Can you think of examples, and why do these objects matter so much?
10. Hitler was a failed artist. Churchill was a successful one. Mussolini played violin every day. Is art as important in the lives of today's leaders or opinion-makers? If not, has something else taken its place?
11. There are multiple father figures in the novel. Discuss their relevance and their positive or negative impacts on Vogler. Do you think this has particular relevance to Germany at this time in history?
12. If Vogler's trip to Italy is meant to shake him from his blinkered approach to life, or his ethical paralysis, does it? What people or events are most significant in changing his attitudes or behaviors?
13. Both the ancient Greeks and the Third Reich held the "perfect" body in great esteem. What are your thoughts on this?
14. How are Ernst and Rosina similar, and how are they different? What are their chances for happiness, and do theydoes anyone"deserve" it? What life do you envision for them, beyond the final chapters of this book?
Q&A with Andromeda Romano-Lax and two bonus essays
INTERVIEW WITH THE DETOUR AUTHOR ANDROMEDA ROMANO-LAX
The Nazis spent all of World War II plundering art. Why set this story so early, before their art acquisition project had gained momentum, and before the war?
During the war, the Third Reich stole over a million artistic works from both public and private hands. Many of those works were repatriated after the war. Others remain missing to this day. But before the Nazis' schemes were fully understood by a horrified world, and before Hitler stole and looted art, he bought it. One of the most significant early acquisitions was an ancient Roman statue, copied from an earlier Greek statue, called The Discus Thrower, purchased from an Italian owner in 1938, against the objections of many, and no doubt with some help from Mussolini. Robert Edsel, in Rescuing Da Vinci, calls this purchase "theft by any other name." The narrator of The Detour, Ernst Vogler, calls it "one of the earliest symbols of our questionable intentions."
It's easy now to recognize the rapaciousness of the Third Reich, as reflected both in its "Final Solution" and its unparalleled looting of European art. More interesting to me, as a novelist, was trying to imagine how these issues would have seemed before the war, especially to someone living at the geographical heart of Nazism. I wanted to imagine the difficulties faced by an average German who doesn't know what's coming, who can't seem to extricate himself from the activities and influence of the Third Reich, who may feel that his own livelihoodeven his own lifeare at stake. Given a simple jobcatalog art, and visit another country to retrieve itshould he have any qualms? By framing the story before the war, it places us in the position of imagining difficult choices made without the benefit of retrospective, historically-informed wisdom. In our own lives, we are more like Ernst. We don't know what's coming, and we are influenced most by own our experiences, our own hopes and fears.
Ernst knows a lot about classical art. But he is self-taught, and only narrowly. He doesn't know much about the history of more recent art, or anything about modern abstract artwhich in Germany was declared as "degenerate." What is the significance of this naivete?
Ernst admits that 1938 is not the time to be a Renaissance man. It is the time for "the deep, clean, and relatively painless cut of narrow knowledge." (Not the only cut in the novel, by the way.) His ignorance spares him. In his mind, it's a valid excusehe doesn't choose to speak up against some of the Nazi's views about abstract "degenerate" art, for example, because in most cases he doesn't even know the arguments. But it's still an excuse. Of course, after working in art curation for two years, he could have learned more and developed some opinions. He certainly has enough taste (he realizes the Nazi collectors favor some real contemporary dreck, in addition to the masterpieces) to start forming some questions or to think about defending the artists the Nazis were ostracizing, if he wanted to look up from his basement office and catalog cards. But Ernst is reflective enough to realize his narrowness, and able to recognize it as both a form of self-defense and a source of weakness. A price will be paid.
The Detour is also a road trip. Prior to writing fiction, you were a travel writer (and you're still a frequent traveler). Any connection?
Absolutely. For some people, travel usually means vacation. For others, it is a chance for potentially life-transforming encounters. I enjoy both kinds of travel, but it's the latter kind that means the most to me. I dated my husband, Brian, for four months before we went on a two-month sea kayak expedition in the Sea of Cortez, and we married less than a year later. In response to anxious and questioning atmosphere following 9/11, I traveled to Puerto Rico in search of a meaningful, heroic story to tell. That story, about an anti-fascist cellist (originally inspired by the life of Pablo Casals), ended up inspiring my first novel, The Spanish Bow. In 2006, my husband, two children and I took an amazing trip to the Middle East that helped us see current events in a very different way. When I'm unsettled and longing for answers, I travel, and usually, when I'm traveling, serendipitous incidents and encounters change what I know and feel. Drawing from personal experiences, I've sent many of my characters on road and train trips, to see what will happen to them when they're at their most vulnerable and exposed to the unfamiliar.
We discover that Ernst has a physical defecta very small one. What role does this play in his professional life, and what evidence is there that such a small defect might concern a German man of his time?
Ernst's defect is common and minor. But to him, it suggests some internal inferiority lurking within his genetic makeup, at a time when eugenics are a national obsession. In the 1930s and early 1940s, hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Germans judged to be physically or mentally inferior were put to death, for conditions as common as epilepsy. In addition, hundreds of thousands were forcibly sterilized. It's disturbing to note that during this same period, compulsory sterilization campaigns were also taking place in many countries around the world, including the United States.
You are descended from German and Italian ancestors, and you've married into a Jewish family that includes relatives who barely escaped the Holocaustas well as some who didn't. What side of this story, if any, do you relate to most personally?
All of them, which is one reason I wanted to write it. In writing the novel, I thought most of all about my maternal grandfather, John Cress, German-American (and a mix of other ethnicities too, of course), a high school gymnastics and springboard diving coach well-known in the Chicagoland area. A gymnastics invitational is named after him. But he was also a student of history, a military man, and a former vaudevillian who performed gymnastic tricks of agility, strength, and grace. My mother and aunt were raised performing athletic stunts and visiting the German-American "Turner Halls"community centers with a strong fitness component that really launched the idea of physical education in America. My grandfather"Papa Coach," as everyone knew himinstilled all of us with that classic German concept, "Sound mind, sound body." He did everything he could to promote our participation in sports. This is the positive side of the German (and Ancient Greek) obsession with the ideal, physical human form. The corruption of that idea is the Nazi obsession with genetics, a false idea about the perfection of the Aryan race. Not long before his death, my grandfather was hospitalized after a cycling accident in which he was training on the icy track of an outdoor velodrome, getting ready for sprinting races. When the doctor found out how he'd fallen and broken his hipat that agehe was astounded. When I look at the Discus Thrower statue, I see Mediterranean features that in some way resemble my own, a balanced muscular physique that resembled my grandfather's, and an idea, in an extreme and corrupted form, which came close to wiping out my husband's family. Every good idea, taken too far, can become grotesque.
In your first novel, The Spanish Bow, a cellist refuses to collaborate with the Fascist Spanish governmentrefuses even to perform publicly, once they come to power, and in so doing, sacrifices his own happiness as a musician and, it can be argued, fails to save a loved one. In this novel, an art lover works for an equally despotic government, and dutifully carries out his missionor tries toand yet still loses people close to him. Are the novels conveying opposite answers to the same question, about whether artists and art lovers can be expected to take a stand against dictators?
The novels are intended to raise related questions, while challenging the idea that there is a single, correct answer. In difficult political times (and aren't we always living through some sort of difficulty?), we may have to choose between sacrifice and personal happiness. What both novels agree upon is that everything we doeven our practice of and appreciation of arthas an impact. Art, music, film, all of it influences us, and historically, art, music and film have often been used to propagandist ends. To be aware of its power over us is to appreciate all the more the wonder of these man-made creations.
This story begins in the darkness of Munich, and travels through sunnier Italy, becomingin the enda love story. Did you intend to write an optimistic love story?
That was a surprise, and it may have grown out of both the novel's setting (Italy, which I do find romantic) but also the time in which the novel was written: the height of the recession. When I wrote my first novel, The Spanish Bow, America was in a patriotic fever pitch, and shallow ideas about heroism were getting lots of press. That prompted me to write a story that started out light and innocent but moved toward the darkness, with a more skeptical tone. In 2009, when I was writing The Detour, things were unshakably gloomy, and I, for one, wanted to move toward the light, toward the possibility that people can become more self-aware and break free and find some measure of happiness. In other words, I'm a contrarian. And also, I do tend to write a book first and foremost to discover and tell myself a story. If others respond to it, too, all the better.
Names also seem to matter a lot in your books. The narrator of your first novel was named Feliu, a name that almost means happy (Feliz). This narrator is named Ernst.
Yes, Ernst, which sounds an awful lot like earnest. Which he isoften to a fault. As the narrator himself also reveals, it also means "willing to fight to the death," which he is not. Ernst is like most of us: he really just wants to live. In 1938, that meant keeping a low profile, trying not to anger his superiors, or be targeted by army bullies, or raise any alarms. But by trying so hard to live, he doesn't live at all. And he knowsas he witnesses the disappearance of his mentor, and even as he experiences the joyless affection of another self-servingly cautious co-worker, a Munich secretarythat this way of living isn't living. What he experiences in Italy is something altogether different. Through his road adventure with Cosimo and Enzo, but most of all by meeting their sister Rosina, he experiences spontaneity, friendship, pleasure, and a little terror, too. As well as new views, bluer skies, food and family and hospitality and (am I giving away too much?) some unbridled sensuality. Flesh, instead of marble. It breaks him out of his paralysis. It awakens something real in himsomething that will end up sustaining him long after the Italian trip, which is a good thing, given that the clouds of war are on the horizon.
As for his last name, Vogler: Originally, I did not pick it for any intentional meaning (it means simply "fowler" or "bird catcher" in German). But reflecting on it now, it does sound like "vulgar," a word that now means indecent, but used to have no negative connation. It once meant simply "common." And Ernst is a common man: not fully heroic. It is perhaps too much to expect perfect heroism of most people who happened to be entering adulthood just as the Nazis came to power. What is amazing is that some people did manage to have integrity and skepticism about the Nazi project. Ernst's mentor, Gerhard, whom we meet only briefly, is one of those men.
As for Enzo (short for Lorenzo) and Cosimo: these are common Italian names, which happen to correspond to famous members of the Medici political dynasty, a Renaissance family known for their patronage of art.
And your name?
Ah yes. Writing The Detoura novel about a Roman copy of a Greek statue purchased by a tyrant who is intent both on destroying the Jews and acquiring all of the Europe's finest art (among many despicable plans), I realized I would never come up with a novel that better matches my own name and my own heritage, both by birth and marriageas well as my own thematic and philosophical concerns. "Andromeda" is from Greek mythology, "Romano" means from Rome, "Lax" is Jewishand all those cultures and heritages are bound up with the central issues of the story. It's a strange convergence, and it helped me to feel that I was telling a story I was meant to tellwhether it was ever published or read. I wrote it to explore my own passions and questions, to follow the road from Rome, and to see where that road led.
Essay #1: Before Hitler Stole Art, He Longed for the Discus Thrower
In addition to his plans to conquer Europe and exterminate the Jewish people, Hitler was obsessed with the idea of acquiring artistic masterpieces. These were not just beautiful objects he wished to own, but symbols at the heart of an ideology about racial purity, cultural cleansing, and Germany's determination to justify its schemes by linking its identity with that of glorious earlier civilizations. During the war, the Third Reich stole over a million artistic works from both public and private hands. Many of those works were repatriated after the war. Others remain missing to this day.
But before the Nazis' schemes were fully understood by a horrified world, and before Hitler stole and looted art, he bought it. One of the most significant early acquisitions was an ancient Roman statue, copied from an earlier Greek statue, called The Discus Thrower. Hitler purchased the statue from an Italian owner in 1938, against the objections of many, and no doubt with some help from Mussolini, with whom Hitler was then becoming friendly. Because strings had to be pulled (the purchase may have violated Italian law), author Robert Edsel, in Rescuing Da Vinci, calls the Discus Thrower purchase "theft by any other name."
It is easy now to recognize the rapaciousness of the Third Reich, as reflected both in its "Final Solution" and its unparalleled looting of European art. More interesting to me, as a novelist, was trying to imagine how these issues would have seemed before the war, especially to someone living at the geographical heart of Nazism. I wanted to imagine the difficulties faced by an average German who doesn't know what's coming, who can't seem to extricate himself from the activities and influence of the Third Reich, who may feel that his own livelihoodeven his own lifeare at stake. Given a simple jobcatalog art, and visit another country to retrieve itshould he have any qualms? Politics aside, what would a trip abroad to a vibrant and sensuous place mean for a naïve young man who has lived a cautious and even timid life?
In The Detour, set in 1938 Italy and Munich, apolitical art lover Ernst Vogler is sent on that trip. From the start, much goes wrong, and the adventure ends up challenging Ernst's views not only about art, but also about duty and love. The story begins with a classical statuean iconic image of bodily perfection, sculpted from stone. But it ends with something altogether messier: the question of how we break free from stone-like paralysis and get on with the sometimes painful, sometimes joyful experience of living.
Essay #2: An Italian Family Road Trip
In my second novel, The Detour, young German art-lover Ernst Vogler is unsatisfied with knowing his favorite classical statue, The Discus Thrower, only through photographs. Only by seeing this ancient work of art in person will he come to know more about the statue's value and what it has to say to him about physical beauty and the ultimate meaning of art.
Like any person inclined to travel, I, too, love to see works of art, historic buildings, and landscapes in person. No amount of library research can compete with an afternoon walking through the streets of Romethat chaotic city of ancient ruins and fountains and plazas buzzing with people, cars, and scooters. Or an evening in Tuscany or the Piedmont, walking past vineyards, grocery shopping for cheeses, fruit, and wine.
Every book I've written has required travel of some kind, and I've always brought along my husband and children: to Puerto Rico, France, and Spain for my first novel, and to Italy and Germany for my second. During our Italy trip, my son was 15, and my daughter was 11. My son is an art aficionado who always travels with a sketchbook, so he couldn't get enough of museums, usually lingering in each gallery long after my feet were begging for a break. My daughter, on the other hand, suffers from premature museum exhaustion. For her, a better experience than any museum was being set free at dawn in a Roman farmer's market, with a handful of coins and an assignment to bargain for strawberries using the few words of Italian she'd learned. Some souvenir shopping, a gelato at the Piazza Navona, and a visit to the Trevi Fountain is more her style.
At our next step, in Tuscany, all of us loved staying for a week just outside Florence in a compound of medieval, stone-walled apartments still owned by the Machiavelli family. (We brought two copies of The Prince alongthe regular version, and a graphic novel treatment that also covered Renaissance politics and philosophy.) Later, we headed northwest to the Piedmont, a place suggested by my husband, who had starting reading about that region's wine and trufflies, and found us an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast in a quiet valley. If not for his early interest, the last third of my novel might have taken place in another out-of-the-way region, like Umbria or Lombardy.
If I were sharing advice with other travelers, especially traveling families, I'd suggest:
1. Rent apartments, cottages, or villas; there are endless options online. We've done this in many foreign countries and haven't stumbled into a bad deal yet. For a short while, you feel like a local. Having more hangout space than a hotel room allows makes for easier afternoons and evenings with children (or any small group) and less pressure to pack the day with formal sightseeing. You can cook your own food, which in Italy, is great fun, because it gives your day some structure. Walk to the local market, sample food and practice your Italian, walk home and cook. The simplest homemade pizza and pasta is astounding, using authentic Italian cheese, meat or seafood, tomatoes, and basil.
2. Seek out some of the lesser-known museums. The Uffizi in Florence is famous for good reason, and Rome's National Museum has lots to see. But our favorite museum was the smaller Museo e Galleria Borghese in Rome. Housed in a sumptuous 17th century villa surrounded by an urban park, the collection includes statues by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, ancient mosaics and more. Reservations are required, and visitors are allowed two hours to see the collection, but this planning requirementa little intimidating at firstreduces crowds and makes the visit more worthwhile, especially for kids who are tired of feeling trampled.
3. Take a cooking class. We found ours in an affordable bed-and-breakfast in the Piedmont. Our host couple spent a long evening with us, allowing all four of us to help make two kinds of homemade pasta, one of them filled with squash, and a cheesy mushroom risotto that took hours (and which I've never managed to duplicate perfectly at home). At the dinner itself, also attended by other B&B guests, we tasted about seven wines and liqueurs, most of them made by the lodge owner. This class and included meal cost no more than forgettable restaurant meals in Rome and Tuscany.
4. Prepare. With our kids, we watched several historical documentaries about the ancient Romans (Caesars and gladiators aplenty), and about artists like Caravaggio, Bernini, and Michelangelo. Those stories made our later walks through Rome and Florence come alive.
5. Indulge your touristy side, too. Our original trip plan was Rome, Tuscany, and Piedmont. Our 11-year-old daughter really wanted to see Venice. (I'd seen it years before, and remembered it as beautiful but a little kitschy.) Luckily, we let her talk us into it. We stayed just outside Venice to reduce the cost, and took public transportation into the city of canals. Seen through my daughter's eyes, it was completely magical. Most of our time was spent riding around on the vaporettos (water taxis), including at night, when the canals are all lit up. We didn't hit any major attractionswe just wandered, people-watched, and did a little sketching, painting, and journaling on the side. To this day, my daughter reminds us of what an amazing two days it was.