“Let’s go to a museum or something today!” I say to my kids one Sunday morning. With trepidation.
We might live in Florence but that doesn’t mean we spend a lot of time visiting its cultural treasures. Our weekends are about birthday parties, supermarkets, bike rides, piano lessons, playdates, lego sessions and homework – and yet my two girls (aged 10 and 8) complain that they get dragged around the sites much more than their (Italian) classmates do.
“But … but … we don’t want to … It’s boring … It’s hot today … I have homework … We’ve seen everything already!”
I’m quite good at keeping our family cultural visits short and interesting. I’m qualified to do so: I have a degree in art history and I studied here for a bit, I have an eye for symbols and details that can keep them interested, and I can almost decipher the often-poor-quality labels and guides on the wall. In fact our doses of culture are so short that we haven’t even visited some of the main sites, almost 2 years in. But whether you’re visiting an historic place for 2 day or 2 years, it can take energy to make it worthwhile for your kids.
Today however, my older daughter is inspired. “Let’s go to San Miniato al Monte”, she says. “I was just there with my class.”
Aha, a new secret weapon – she can share the school tour with us!
San Miniato al Monte is one of the oldest, and most atmospheric and amazing, churches in Florence. Actually it’s a basilica and still-working abbey, with an interesting cemetery. As my daughter is studying the Romans and lots of geometry in 5th grade right now – it made sense to visit: Miniato (the saint) was a victim of the Romans in Florence and apparently studying the patterned facade is a good geometry exercise. Sounds way better than my own memories of school trips to cold Dublin parks.
You can read the full history of San Miniato yourself in any guidebook or online (and there is also a town west of Florence with the same name). The building was begun in the early 11th century. But here I’ve set out some basic tips on how you can visit it (or any site) with kids: small doses, rest and quirky details.
Tip 1. Take your time
After walking all the way up from the river (see note on practicalities below) why shouldn’t you sit and read some more of your Topolino (Mickey Mouse) comic book while your older sister talks about the history? Of Romanesque architecture, the saint (Miniato) whose head was chopped off and who then walked up the hill, carrying his head, and why someone decided to build a church here.
Tip 2. Spot the saints
If you’re going to learn anything about medieval and Renaissance art while in Italy, it’s good to start early with your saint-spotting so you can learn something from the thousands of frescoes you’ll find. Here’ s a handy list you can study up before you make a visit. And read up on frescoes too.
“Look at the huge size of this saint – Christopher maybe? Know his story?” This giant is not someone I would have noticed 20 years ago but definitely a detail we saw today.
Random little creatures and details in a huge basilica.
Tip 3. Symbols and details
San Miniato – as my daughter tells me – is full of images of an eagle, often standing on some cloth. This was the symbol of the local association (the Florentine cloth merchant’s guild) that doled out the money for the monks to build the church: so the deal was – we’ll give you the money and means to build your church up there, help you drag the marble you need from Carrara and you just need to be sure and show off how generous we are, stick an eagle all over the place. “Well isn’t that how advertising works nowadays”, I ask her. She looks askance.
And sure enough there are eagles all over, even on the top of the front. This one was in front of the altar.
“Feels like Indiana Jones in here!” “Who’s that?”
The stone floors of San Miniato are amazing but none of our photos came out. But if they had brought a sketchbook they could have worked with lots of patterns, shapes, creatures. Like in this bizarre carving near the altar.
Tip 4. Find the messages
While Italian kids don’t learn Latin until middle school, they do start learning some useful snippets, like reading Roman numerals. When we came across this beautiful phrase chiselled into the stone along the righthand side, my daughter amazed me by mostly remembering how the teacher translated it:
Stando davanti a Dio non state con il cuore vagante perchè se il cuore non prega in vano la lingua lavora
(more or less: Do not stand before God with a wandering heart because if the heart doesn’t pray, the tongue labours in vain)
Remember kids, they had no printers back then.
Tip 5. Bring your own camera
…and let them find their own interesting scenes. My daughter just started using an Instax camera, a modern version of the instant-print Polaroid. Here she is lining up a shot.
When she borrowed my own camera she found all sorts of odd things.
Tip 6. Rest and necessities
We brought water but could probably have found a water fountain in the park around the church if we needed to. I had run out of coins but the nice young student minding the bathroom kindly let the two kids run in for free (be warned, they won’t all do that!).
Like many monasteries in Italy, the (Olivetan) monks at San Miniato make and sell their own cool stuff at the pharmacy shop. And they have ice-cream!
It could also be an amazing (or boring) experience to hear the church in its full use during a Gregorian chant service. Why not try it?
Tip 7. Pause and reflect
We always stop to light a candle in a church, the girls enjoy knowing that we’ll take a minute and think about other people we love who aren’t with us.
Stop in the moment and feel how your eyes and senses take a few minutes to adjust to the darkness and history inside this place.
This really is one of the most beautiful spots in Florence, we didn’t see it all, didn’t learn all of its history and stories and after less than an hour they really needed to move on – especially the younger one who had long finished her comic . But I think that the impression these snippets can make is enough to teach them something of the heritage we’re so privileged to live within and continue forward.
Getting to San Miniato al Monte
As well as being a big old dusty church the biggest drawback to San Miniato is that it’s way up on top of that hill on the south side of Florence. But it’s just up a little from Piazzale Michelangelo which is a must-see stop for every visitor to Florence.
Solution 1: drive all the way up or take a bus (12 or 13 from the train station) to Piazzale Michelangelo.
Solution 2: It’s really best if you walk all the way up from the river – it is steep but it’s actually not that far and relatively car-free for little feet. Not so easy for strollers though.
I persuaded my two girls to walk all the way up from the river. We bought some sandwiches and cold drinks at a hole-in-the-wall panini shop squeezed in among all the restaurants on via San Niccolò, and sat and ate them on the steps of the church opposite.
The San Niccolò area is very cool, with lots of nice places to eat, shops and interesting street art on the walls – read more on how kids can enjoy the vibrant street art of Florence.
Head through the enormous old city gate, the Porta San Miniato and keep going up and you’ll come to steps – via del Monte alle Croci – and you’ll get to Piazzale Michelangelo at the top. (On another day take the walk along the wall to the right, up to Forte Belevedere and explore that area.)
The walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo is not actually far but it is quite steep. Once at the top you can see San Miniato and the steps up to that.
Some cool kid-friendly spots along the way up:
Along the walk you can still see the remains of the old Via Crucis (stations of the cross). And behind the fence on the right is an official city cat colony – you can see the cute cat houses marked with the red iris leaf of the Florence city council.
The Rose Garden is a lovely spot – views, wacky Belgian sculptures, grass to picnic on, flowers.
Piazzale Michelangelo is usually full of visitors and you’ll soon see why – the views over the whole city are superb. Underneath it you’ll find the cleanest public toilet in Florence, run by a grumpy man and his dog who listen to a classical music station.
On the other side of Piazzale Michelangelo is the Iris garden and you can walk down that way to another city gate, Porta San Niccolò.
Secret route up the hill: after the Fuori Porta restaurant, at the little watercolour shop, turn right and then before the restaurant Beppa Floraia (a favourite with locals) follow the path on the left that’s grassed over. Keep walking up and this turns into a real (hidden) road, Via dell’Erta Cantina. It’s like a little hidden village with its own great views and fun for kids. It’ll also take you up towards San Miniato.
Bribes for tired kids:
- souvenir sticker or poster from street artist/traffic sign hacker Clet‘s workshop on via San Niccolò.
- a good ice-cream back down at the bottom of the hill. Read my blog post to learn about ordering ice-cream.
- a souvenir from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Comments? Let me know if there are other spots in Florence you’d like to hear about visiting with kids. I can’t guarantee they’ll come with me but we’ll give it a go!