City breaks don't have to end just because you have a family; you just need to plan better, writes William Gray
For a moment I thought the maître d’ might actually bar us from the restaurant. He glanced at Joe and Ellie, our three-year-old twins, then fixed me with an abhorrent look, as if I was trying to bring a pair of rabid dogs to dinner. We’d booked an early table, the restaurant was empty and there was nothing to say that children (or rabid dogs, for that matter) were not allowed. Earlier, we’d had the ‘raised eyebrow’ treatment in an art gallery and narrowly escaped eviction from the cathedral cloisters when Joe discovered its potential for echoes.
I admit there are certain things in the world of family travel that don’t mix. There would be little point, for example, in taking Joe and Ellie (now four and a half) to an exclusive spa resort – we’d leave feeling more stressed than when we arrived. But I don’t see why kids and city breaks should be considered so incompatible.
I suppose, more than anything, the city break embodies those heady days of pre-parenthood when you could nip off to Paris or Rome with nothing more than an overnight bag and a pair of theatre tickets. With youngsters in tow, it can become more like a city breakdown as you haul your bored offspring from one museum to another, desperately trying to do the sights between tantrums. The mistake new parents make (and I am as guilty as any) is to try to recapture the essence of a city break as it was before children. It rarely works.
The key to remaining sane in the city is to re-prioritise. Don’t scour the map for museums until you’ve pinpointed the parks, public toilets and nearest toy shop. As tempting as that new Picasso exhibition may be, begin your city escapade with something for the kids, whether it’s a hands-on exhibition, boat ride, trip to the zoo or making brass rubbings in the cathedral. With a bit of forward planning you can also pick out those major sites that have child-friendly activities, such as quiz sheets, craft areas and, joy of joys, a crèche.
Two cities that went down well with Joe and Ellie were Naples and Québec City. Soon after arriving in Québec City we were on the verge of catching the next flight home again, such was the hideous reality of jet-lagged toddlers. Fortunately, salvation came in the form of the Terrasse Dufferin. This wide boardwalk overlooking the St Lawrence River could almost have been purpose-built for young families. Not only is it supremely buggy-friendly, but it was also riddled with street performers, ice-cream vendors and other distractions for our irritable duo.
Pushing a double buggy around the cobbled backstreets of Naples, on the other hand, was pure hell. But for some reason, Neapolitans have a soft spot for twin babies. “Gemelli, belissimo!” people would cry as they grabbed Joe and Ellie by the cheeks before delving into the nearest paticceria to emerge with fistfuls of cakes. My wife, Sally, and I would then watch, bemused, as our children were force-fed pastries.
I’m not sure Joe and Ellie absorbed anything of particular historical value during that city break – but they certainly never went hungry.