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Can 18 hours in the air be bearable? Airlines bet on ultra-long-haul flights

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Last Thursday, the world’s longest non-stop flight — a 15,343-kilometre , 18 1/2-hour journey from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, on Singapore Airlines’ new Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft — touched down, raising the bar for super-long-haul travel, which most industry experts define as any flight more than 12,875 km one way.

New, lighter and more fuel efficient, dual-engine aircraft — including the Airbus models and Boeing’s Dreamliner — make flying for nearly a day economically viable as the number of ultra-long-haul flights increases.

A Singapore Airlines jet.
A Singapore Airlines jet.  (SINGAPORE AIRLINES / The New York Times)

Singapore’s new route, which takes 18 hours and 45 minutes in the opposite direction, is not the only rear-numbing new itinerary. In March, Qantas Airways launched a London-to-Perth route. It is the third-longest flight at about 14,485 km , according to the aviation industry consultancy OAG, after Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland route. In September, Cathay Pacific Airways began flying 8,153 miles, its longest route, between its base in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. In late November, Air New Zealand plans to add service between Auckland and Chicago, its longest flight at a distance of about 13,200 km.

As flight times grow, carriers are experimenting with everything from healthy menus to onboard gyms to make almost 20 hours in the air more bearable. Business classes are the beneficiaries of most of the new investment. Some airplanes, like Singapore Airlines’ new craft, contain only business (a recent round-trip fare was $5,000 U.S.) and what are called premium economy seats ($1,498 round-trip in December), which are more spacious than standard coach. But across the industry, even regular economy passengers will find extra perks.

Healthier and better-timed food

Business-class flyers on Singapore Airlines from Newark can still get dishes by its partner chef, Alfred Portale, of Gotham Bar and Grill, but with its new Newark-Singapore route, the airline is introducing meal options created by the spa Canyon Ranch. Available in both classes of service, the dishes might include prawn ceviche (170 calories), seared organic chicken and zucchini noodles (370 calories) and lemon angel food cake (140 calories).

Working with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center, Qantas offers lemon and ginger kombucha, wake-up shots of probiotic-infused juice and sleep-inducing tea in its top two classes. In addition, meals are delayed upon take off to align closer to meal times at the destination to help travellers adjust to time-zone changes.

And then there’s food on demand. Rather than requiring passengers to climb over sleeping neighbours to reach the galley for a Coke midflight (not necessarily bad, from a movement perspective), Air New Zealand will allow passengers on its newest super long-haul flight to order snacks via the touch-screen entertainment system.

Relaxation, hydration, yoga and sleep strategies

Well-being exercises on some of the new long-haul flights go beyond the extend-and-flex directions of older exercise programs. In some cases, they are beginning before passengers even get on the plane.

When it launched its Perth-London route earlier this year, Qantas created a new transit lounge at the Perth airport for business class travellers featuring stretching and breathing classes offered every 15 minutes, bathrooms with light therapy in the shower suites designed to help travellers adjust to time changes, and a hydration station with fruit-infused water and herbal tea. An open-air terrace is open to flyers in all classes of travel.

Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific joined with the international yoga studio Pure Yoga to launch a new in-flight wellness program called Travel Well with Yoga. Six videos feature yoga and meditation exercises to improve circulation, mobility and relaxation.

Singapore Airlines’ partnership with Canyon Ranch extends to guided stretching exercises demonstrated by the spa’s exercise physiologists in videos on the seat back entertainment systems. The onboard e-library also includes suggested sleep strategies, and flyers who download the airline’s app may receive push notifications with the advice.

Gyms, bars and nurseries

As far back as 2005, according to reporting in the Guardian, Richard Branson touted the advent of casinos, gyms and beauty salons on aircraft, which never fully materialized. More recently, the Middle Eastern carriers, including Etihad Airways, which sells an apartmentlike suite, and Emirates, which offers showers, have offered deluxe amenities in their highest service classes.

Now Qantas aims to reimagine how aircraft cabins are designed to include, possibly, bars, children’s nurseries and exercise areas. Its new exploratory program called Project Sunrise has challenged aircraft-makers to design planes that could fly more than 20 hours between Sydney and London or New York by 2022. The airline is exploring how it can convert space not suited to seats into bars, stretching zones and work and study areas.

In part the efforts are motivated by Australia’s remote locale relative to other major airports. “We’re not a hub carrier, we’re an end-of-line carrier,” said Phil Capps, the head of customer experience at Qantas. “We have to take the customer more seriously than other carriers might in global hubs.”

Sleeping and sitting (more comfortably) in coach

The most exciting onboard amenities that have been proposed, such as gyms, tend to be restricted to business and first-class flyers, and most analysts think such offerings, if they can’t be monetized, won’t fly. But Qantas is also considering repurposing part of its cargo holds on long-haul aircraft, and converting them to economy sleeping bunks and areas for passengers to walk around and stretch their legs.

When Air New Zealand begins its service between Chicago and Auckland with the Dreamliner 787-9 V2, the 15- and 16-hour flights, depending on the direction of travel, will include two coach classes. In Premium Economy, 33 seats will offer 41- to 42-inch seat pitch, leg and foot rests. In the 215-seat economy cabin, the Economy Skycouch combines three seats sold together with leg rests that extend 90-degrees up to create a five-foot, one-inch couch for a more comfortable place to sleep.

The growth of long-haul routes has even revived dreams of supersonic travel 15 years after the Concorde was cancelled. In Denver, a company called Boom is building a supersonic 55-seat plane that it aims to begin testing next year that would eventually fly from New York to London in three hours and 15 minutes, rather than seven hours.



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What the queen of drag queens can’t travel without

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The most famous drag queen in the world, RuPaul, has collected three Emmys for hosting the reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, and is a singer and author to boot.

His latest book, GuRu, a collection of essays with a forward by Jane Fonda, was just published by Harper Collins.

A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape, a flashlight and matches are among the things that the Emmy-winning drag celeb takes with him on every trip.
A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape, a flashlight and matches are among the things that the Emmy-winning drag celeb takes with him on every trip.  (images by ESTELLE MORRIS / The New York Times)

RuPaul Andre Charles and his husband, Georges LeBar, spend their time in New York, California and at their Wyoming ranch. “I packed a bag when I was 15 years old and I’ve never unpacked it,” RuPaul said. “I knew from Day 1 I was going to hit the road and never stop.”

A recent vacation saw the couple zipping around the West. “We stayed for three nights at the Hotel California, which is absolutely fabulous,” he said.

“It’s designed by Martyn Lawrence Bullard, whom I’ve known for about 24 years, and it is so gorgeous. And then we hired an air taxi to take us to Las Vegas, where we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental.”

RuPaul is a minimal packer, but he does shop when he travels, often shipping the clothes he buys home, or to his next destination, rather than packing them.

He doesn’t check luggage ever, because, he said, “Ain’t nobody got time for baggage claim.”

Here’s what he packs for every trip.

Clothing essentials

“I’ve learned over these 45 years of travelling that you really just need some lounge clothes to wear around the hotel. That could be a track suit that you could also, in a pinch, wear down to Starbucks in the morning. And then a suit. I have this old Prada suit that doesn’t wrinkle, and I wear it like a pair of jeans. Spring, summer, winter, fall, it’s always good. Wear it with a black button-down shirt and then pack a white button-down shirt, with a pair of Gucci loafers and, baby, you are set for anything!”

Eyebrow pencil

“I will always have an eyebrow pencil because most of the time I shave off my brows, so I can paint them on properly. But when I’m out of drag, I will have another pencil where I can emulate natural brows. I do it very well, too. No one would know they’re fake brows.”

iPad

“My iPad is filled with books. Ivana Chubbuck, my acting coach, has a book called The Power of the Actor, and I’m reading that right now. I love the iPad because I can have books and my ‘Golden Girls’ episodes on there, and do my banking, and everything on it. But I’m also reading Calypso by David Sedaris, which is really, really fabulous.”

PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE – ONLINE OR IN PRINT – BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —  (ESTELLE MORRIS)

Essential oil

“In every bag I have my doTERRA On Guard. It’s an essential oil. It heightens your immune system. It’s what they call a ‘protective blend’; you put some under your tongue or you put it on the palm of your hands and rub it, and it keeps you from getting sick. So it’s another way to stave off all the things you come in contact with when travelling.”

PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE – ONLINE OR IN PRINT – BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —  (ESTELLE MORRIS)

Double-sided tape

“It can be used for so many things, not just with the wardrobe malfunctions. I use it sometimes as a tie clip if I don’t have a tie clip, or sometimes I’ll put it behind a pair of earrings if the backing doesn’t fit. Anyway, it’s just one of those MacGyver tricks, that you should always have some double-stick tape.”

Disposable surgical masks

“I like to use them if I want a quick disguise. Unless I laugh, then people know who I am.”

PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE – ONLINE OR IN PRINT – BEFORE NOV. 11, 2018. — A Prada suit “that doesn’t wrinkle,” doubled-sided tape and surgical masks to (temporarily) shroud his identity are among the things that the Emmy-winning “Drag Race” star takes with him on every trip. (Estelle Morris/The New York Times) — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY RUPAUL ESSENTIALS ADV11 BY NELL MCSHANE WULFHART FOR NOV. 11, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —  (ESTELLE MORRIS)

Flashlight and matches

“I always, always, always have a flashlight with me, and matches, always. That’s the Boy Scout in me. I’ll go downstairs to Walgreens or CVS and buy a candle and light a candle, because you know, there are bathtubs and I want to light a candle. Or just as a human on this planet, if you get stranded somewhere, you’re going to need some water and you’re going to need some matches. And a flashlight would be lovely.”



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Downtown Chicago grabs attention with its myriad of new discoveries, installations

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Chicago’s 77 neighbourhoods — including Lincoln Park, home to the new Wrightwood 659 gallery — offer myriad reasons to stray from the beaten path. But lately the Loop, as the downtown district is called for the elevated train tracks that encircle it, is fighting for your attention with a new architecture centre, writers’ museum, river walk, design-centric hotels, destination restaurants and Art on the Mart, a digital art installation broadcast across a 2.5-acre building façade on the river. All of the city’s train lines fan out from downtown, making it a great base from which to explore beyond, particularly for those in search of vibrant storefront theatres, design shops and breweries. Late fall and winter are bargain times to appreciate them, when rates for everything from airfare to hotel rooms drop. But the best reasons to visit Chicago now largely defy climate.

Friday2:30 p.m. First Drafts

Art on the Mart, a digital art installation, projects across a 2.5-acre building facade facing the Chicago River.
Art on the Mart, a digital art installation, projects across a 2.5-acre building facade facing the Chicago River.  (Michelle Litvin / The New York Times)

Two new cultural stars have concentrated the appeal of the Loop district. The former Chicago Architecture Foundation moved to a prominent riverfront location in August and, having added an intriguing museum with models of famous buildings worldwide, renamed itself the Chicago Architecture Center. It is the start of the centre’s famous riverboat architectural tours ($47 (U.S.) fares), now launching from across the street (through Nov. 19). Out of river season, join one of the downtown walking tours ($26) that tell the story of Chicago’s design evolution. Nearby, the interactive exhibits of the American Writers Museum, including manual typewriters where patrons are encouraged to add to crowdsourced stories, bring the art of storytelling to life (admission $12).

7 p.m. Fine and Friendly Food

At the new Bellemore, diners in the West Loop are treated not just to refined food and glamorous design, but the kind of pretension-free dining that characterizes Chicago’s vibrant restaurant scene. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos uses global ingredients and cooking techniques to create richly flavoured, multi-textured seasonal dishes including, recently, a salad with port-marinated pears ($14) and grilled lamb belly with eggplant, pickled grapes and chickpea crackers ($36). Menu splurges include the Instagram-famed oyster pie ($68), but guests need not succumb to enjoy what is simultaneously a down-home and dressed-up dinner while listening to David Bowie and ogling the taxidermy birds above the bar.

10:30 p.m. Late Night Laughs

Visitors take in a performance of “Made in America” at Second City's Up Comedy Club.
Visitors take in a performance of “Made in America” at Second City’s Up Comedy Club.  (Michelle Litvin/The New York Times)

Chicagoans may be divided on the merits of deep-dish pizza, but when it comes to homegrown invention, no one disputes the reign of improv comedy. Members of the seminal Compass Players went on, in 1959, to form Second City, whose alumni range from Bill Murray to Tina Fey. Catch a late-night improv show at Second City’s slick Up Comedy Club in the Old Town district (tickets from $18). Or Uber about a mile west to iO Theater, where the Improvised Shakespeare Company specializes in long-form improv using the playwright’s language to craft two-act comedies based on a single audience title suggestion (tickets $20).

Saturday10 a.m. Art History at Home and Abroad

The Art Institute of Chicago features several Chicago-centric exhibitions, including dollhouse-scale architectural vignettes.
The Art Institute of Chicago features several Chicago-centric exhibitions, including dollhouse-scale architectural vignettes.  (Michelle Litvin/The New York Times)

You do not need us to tell you to go to the Art Institute of Chicago (admission $20 to $25). But while you are there, here are a few specifically Chicago-centric exhibitions you might otherwise overlook. Through Jan. 6, “Hairy Who? 1966-1969,” features the boldly graphic work of six countercultural South Side-based artists. Then make your way to the quirky Thorne Miniature Rooms, a subterranean collection of 68 dollhouse-scale architectural vignettes from a Gothic church and Tudor great room to a New Mexican dining room in the 1940s. All were designed by Narcissa Niblack Thorne, a Chicago artist and the wife of James Ward Thorne, heir to the Montgomery Ward retail fortune. From Nov. 17 to Jan. 8, several of the rooms are decorated in denominationally appropriate holiday style.

Noon. View Points

The BP Pedestrian Bridge, designed by Frank Gehry, connects Maggie Daley Park to Millennium Park.
The BP Pedestrian Bridge, designed by Frank Gehry, connects Maggie Daley Park to Millennium Park.  (Michelle Litvin)

For a panoramic lunch, dine at Cindy’s, the conservatory-like rooftop restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel overlooking Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. Share the generous seafood cocktail ($22) and cast-iron chilaquiles ($27) while taking in the views. Then continue north to the Chicago River to stroll on the 2-year-old Chicago Riverwalk, a 1.25-mile-long, water-level promenade. In fair weather, the kayak launches, picnic lawns and cafes bustle, but even in the off-season the walkway offers good perspectives on the surrounding landmark highrises.

2 p.m. Style Sales

After appreciating design in the city, take a souvenir home from a clutch of North Side shops that specialize in architectural salvage, modern design and antiques. Begin trolling at the vast warehouse where Architectural Artifacts trades in decorative building castoffs from wrought iron railings and wooden mantelpieces to terra cotta gargoyles as well as more portable art tiles and juggling pins. In the nearby Andersonville neighbourhood, visit Brimfield for vintage plaid blankets and college pennants. Next door, Scout deals midcentury furnishings and funky finds as well as Impressionist Chicago cityscapes by local artist Chuck Meyers.

4 p.m. Brew Break

The explosive Chicago microbrew scene is largely neighbourhood-based, from Argus Brewery in the South Side Pullman district and Moody Tongue Brewery in Pilsen to Temperance Beer Co. in north suburban Evanston. Among the most popular, Half Acre Beer Co. recently opened a tap room, restaurant and beer garden just west of Andersonville. Claim a rustic wood table and a pint of its signature Daisy Cutter pale ale, Pony Pilsner (each $6) or wet-hopped black ale Sticky Fat ($8) to relax in the family-friendly locale. Alcohol-free options include local Dark Matter Coffee ($2) and 164 Soda ($3). When hunger strikes, do not miss the housemade bread ($6) and roast chicken ($18).

7:30 p.m. Tiny Houses

Five major theatres in Chicago, including Steppenwolf and Goodman theatres, claim Tony Awards. But it is the city’s small, often storefront-based theatres — more than 200 of them exist — that form the backbone of the rich theatre community. Go intimate at A Red Orchid Theater in Old Town where actor Michael Shannon is a founder. The ensemble-focused Strawdog Theater in the North Center neighbourhood is known for immersive staging of new works and rewritten classics such as “Great Expectations.” Steep Theater in the Edgewater area has strong ties to contemporary playwrights such as Simon Stephens, and often stages searing shows before audiences of 60 or fewer, who toast performances post-curtain at the theatre’s new adjacent bar.

10:30 p.m. Toddlin’ Town

In a town where nightclubs and bars stay open an extra hour on Saturday nights, there is a nightcap for every mood. The polished new Z Bar at the Peninsula Chicago hotel offers bird’s-eye views over Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile downtown. In bohemian Wicker Park, the intimate Up Room atop the Robey hotel channels a midcentury lounge with Chicago accents, including drinks inspired by the Great Fire of 1871, such as Holy Cow milk punch ($15). In the Loop, enter through a neighbouring diner to reach the neo-dive-bar Moneygun and huddle in a circular booth with a classic cocktail like a Pink Squirrel ($11.75). Nearby, play a game of foosball or bocce ball at the retro Game Room in the Chicago Athletic Association.

Sunday10 a.m. Lakefront Tour

Eighteen miles of paved pathway edges Lake Michigan, the Great Lake that moderates much of Chicago’s weather. Biking is the best way to appreciate the city’s sparkling outdoor asset. Rent a hybrid, town cruiser or road bike from Bike and Roll Chicago at Millennium Park or Navy Pier (from $12.50 an hour) and head southbound for a traffic-free cruise and stellar skyline views on your return back north (the heavier Divvy shared bikes are another option at $3 per 30 minutes). Winter occasionally disrupts this plan, in which case head to Maggie Daley Park next to Millennium Park to skate on the meandering ice ribbon that simulates a frozen prairie path amid surrounding highrises (free; skate rentals $14).

Noon. Cultural Consumption

The Commons is a public space at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Commons is a public space at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  (Michelle Litvin/The New York Times)

In recent years, the Museum of Contemporary Art (admission $15) has used innovative exhibitions such as the recently closed group show “I Was Raised on the internet” and the current “Picture Fiction” on Kenneth Josephson’s conceptual photography (through Dec. 30) to attract younger patrons, rejuvenating the gallery experience. Stop in to see how, then head to the museum’s new ground-floor restaurant Marisol for brunch. Its chef, Jason Hammel, a farm-to-table pioneer with Lula Cafe in Logan Square, brings his savory skills downtown to the fittingly modern space. Indulge in a housemade doughnut ($4) frittata ($14) and crispy pork succotash ($16), then walk it off on the nearby Magnificent Mile stretch of Michigan Avenue.

Lodging

The 1929-vintage Carbide and Carbon Building newly houses the 364-room St. Jane hotel in the Loop. Named for pioneering social worker Jane Addams, the hotel plans to donate 1.1 per cent of hotel revenue to a local charity. Guests will find local brands in the mini-bar and a destination all-day American brasserie, Free Rein, on the ground floor. Rooms from $269; stjanehotel.com.

Though occasional downtown apartments come up on Airbnb, most rentals tend to cluster in more residential neighbourhoods. Those in the Old Town district tend to run from $64 to $130 and offer easy mass-transit access north or south via the Red or Brown Line trains. In the opposite direction and conveniently on the Red Line, look for good deals in Chinatown, where apartments start around $65. Airbnb.com.



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A Tuscan family adventure replete with pasta dreams and flying machines

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Last year, we had some leftover airline credit on Norwegian Airlines. On the day it was set to expire, in a panic, I asked my four-year-old son, Holt, where we should go.

“I love pasta!” he said. “But not with red sauce.”

Tagliolini basilico e pinoli con burrata Maremmana, at Trattoria Osenna, San Quirico, Val D' Orcia.
Tagliolini basilico e pinoli con burrata Maremmana, at Trattoria Osenna, San Quirico, Val D’ Orcia.  (Susan Wright / The New York Times)

In retrospect, perhaps I should not have organized an entire trip around trying to prove to my four-year-old that he did, in fact, like pasta al pomodoro; he just didn’t know it yet. Yet how could I ignore that ancient proverb of Italy, chiseled above the gateway to every town: Sucus ruber omnibus dilectus, “All love red sauce.”

Yes, Italy! We would go to Italy. At the time it seemed like such a good idea. Culture! Sun! Vespas! Ciao! It was only after buying the tickets that I remembered the problem with travelling with young children is that when it comes time to travel, you actually have to bring your young children with you.

So, what do you do? Namely, do you ruin your life on their behalf? With kids in tow you cannot have long, lingering 20-course dinners. (You cannot have two-course dinners.) You cannot spend a whole day in an art museum scrutinizing the pathos of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. You cannot while away an afternoon reading Dante’s “Inferno,” downing six bottles of Chianti as Pavarotti belts his way through Tosca.

In order for you to be happy, your children must be happy. If I’ve learned anything about living and travelling with children, it’s to keep things simple. Boil life down to its essence. Path of least resistance.

So, here was our entire agenda for our Italy trip in June: “Eat as much pasta as possible.” Full stop. Anything else that happened would be purely a bonus.

Our rough itinerary was to rent a car at the Rome-Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport and head up to Tuscany, spending three nights in the stunning Val d’Orcia region, where we would bounce around hilltop towns sampling the local pasta specialties. We would then flee north, to Siena and Florence. We would probably not see much art, if any. Our history lessons would be limited. We would eat pasta and then more pasta. We would turn pasta into a daily ritual, a prayer, a philosophical question, a prison sentence. We were either geniuses or fools. (Or both.)

Somehow we managed to survive the eigh-and-a-half-hour flight to Rome trapped in a metal tube with our children and 200 other passengers.

The airport was complete chaos. We finally located our lost luggage and a car with four wheels and, after a two-hour drive, jet lagged and completely discombobulated, we pulled into the dream that is Chiarentana, a huge, ancient Tuscan farmhouse built around a cobblestone courtyard with a linden tree at its centre. Chiarentana is on the sprawling La Foce estate overlooking a pastel valley of lavender and cypress trees. Olive orchards spill forth. Crickets buzz. The view from every window feels borderline illegal. Beauty has a way of simultaneously welcoming you and keeping you at arm’s length.

The formal garden at the main La Foce residence in the Val D' Orcia region of Tuscany.
The formal garden at the main La Foce residence in the Val D’ Orcia region of Tuscany.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

Iris Origo, an Anglo-American transplant, purchased La Foce in 1924 and proceeded to transform what was then a collection of poverty-stricken farms into a vibrant place, constructing an astonishing formal garden at the main La Foce residence, and building a school for the farm children of the valley. During the Second World War she took in several dozen orphans, which she wrote about in the evocative and slender “War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-1944.”

Chiarentana is now run by Iris’ lovely daughter, Donata. They sell several varieties of their own olive oil, including the frantoiano, which can transform a simple piece of bread into a gustative epiphany of earth and arbor and sky.

The place bleeds history. But my son Holt did not care about any of that. He was intent upon setting up a cheap plastic bowling set in that magical cobblestone courtyard. He created an elaborate game with arcane rules that could only be played in this courtyard, under this linden tree. I tried playing with him, but got it all wrong.

“No, that’s the home pin,” he said, weary at such ignorance.

There is something refreshing about watching the very young play in a very old place. We must care about history, but we must not care too much. The wheel of time spins.

The author's family ordered three pastas at Restaurant Dopolavoro on the La Foce estate in the Val d' Orcia region of Tuscany.
The author’s family ordered three pastas at Restaurant Dopolavoro on the La Foce estate in the Val d’ Orcia region of Tuscany.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

On our first full day in Tuscany we headed to the restaurant Dopolavoro La Foce, just down the road.

“Are you ready?” I asked Holt.

We ordered three pastas, including eliche with fresh ricotta and wild fennel. Eliche means propeller in Italian; the pasta is shaped like a spiral, or the path a propeller would make in the water. Holt enjoyed this information. Like many boys his age, Holt is fascinated by systems, shapes, how things work and don’t work; it seemed like his entire third year was composed simply of reciting a taxonomy of construction vehicles.

The pastas came. They were divine. Life shrunk to its simplest ingredients. We do not need much to be happy in this world: something to slurp, something to sip. Everyone sat very quietly eating, even Max, our youngest. We marvelled at the path propellers make from our mouths to our stomach. Suddenly Holt held his fork aloft, eliche skewered on its tongs. “This is the best thing in my life!” he exclaimed.

From that very successful first lunch things became a bit wobbly. My children, like most children, do not sit at tables for extended periods of time. Why sit at a table? Tables are boring, flat things that cannot be slapped, climbed upon, taken apart without reprimand. Children wonder: Why do adults always sit at tables for hours and hours, talking and not talking?

My children preferred hanging out with Bertoldo, the depressive, wise donkey of Chiarentana who bleats at the sadness of mortality each morning. Holt loves a good patch of sand from which he can narrate the history of the universe. Max loves a good door threshold. Or a ramp. He will spend half an hour opening and shutting a door or running up and down a ramp. But neither of them will sit at a table for very long. Oh no.

On our second day, Holt also made the declaration that he hated all old buildings. This did not bode well for our trip. He made this announcement after we visited the geometric Horti Leonini Garden in the village of San Quirico d’Orcia and came across a medieval tower that had been destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the countryside during the Second World War. In Holt’s mind, all old structures would fall down on top of us. Entropy was inevitable. He woke up in the middle of the night completely inconsolable.

“I hate old buildings!” he wailed over and over. “I want to go home!” In the gloaming, Bertoldo, the donkey, commiserated.

Outdoor dining at Trattoria Osenna in the village of San Quirico.
Outdoor dining at Trattoria Osenna in the village of San Quirico.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

We did not follow the logic of the toddler. We did not go home. We ate more pasta. So much pasta. In San Quirico, village of the fallen tower, we savoured homemade pici al cinghiale at Trattoria Osenna. This is pasta made from a sumptuous ragu of wild boar. It will change your life.

Pici is the local style of eggless peasant pasta; it is like plump, irregular strands of spaghetti, stretched out by hand. The term pici comes from the Italian word “appiciare” which is the ancient action of rolling and coaxing out those long, lumpy strings. The owner of Osenna, Luca, told us his mother, the chef, could stretch a single strand of pici to more than 6 feet long.

“You could wrap it around your whole body!” said Holt. Luca said this was not traditional but he would convey the idea to his mother.

After several days of drifting through the villages of the Val d’Orcia, a life I could easily adjust to, we headed north to one of the true gems of Italy, Siena, an ancient walled city of winding passageways and bountiful gelaterias that is a perfect size for kids and adults alike. We walked up the hill and suddenly found ourselves face to face with the Duomo, that jaw-dropping cathedral adorned in its distinctive black and white stripes.

I winced, wary of Holt’s allergy to antiquity, but he was awed by the intricacy of its facade, replete with biblical scenes, grumpy lions and saints frozen in various karate poses. Inside, we marvelled at the giant mosaic covering the entire church floor and the Piccolomini Library, filled with an array of huge, illuminated manuscripts that took the breath away. On our way out of the cathedral, Holt wanted to light a candle.

Children light candles in the Duomo of Siena.
Children light candles in the Duomo of Siena.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

“Every day you come here to bless God,” he said, completely out of the blue. Then: “This is my favourite building in the world.”

The city is famous for its Palio di Siena, a 400-year-old manic horse race that circles the Piazza del Campio. Twice each summer 10 horses and riders representing the various “contrade” or districts of the city run pell-mell around a temporary clay track.

We were in Siena a week before the first Palio of the summer, and the clay had just been laid, and rickety bleachers erected all around the racetrack. Imagining the screaming hordes, we sneaked through the ropes into the middle of the piazza, the still-wet clay sticking to our stroller’s wheels. We were practically the only ones in the whole square, a moment of perfect serenity. Holt pretended he was a horse. Max pretended he was Holt.

Later, after eating a divine tagliatelle al pesto made from zucchini and almonds and a simple, flawless spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico (Red Sauce!) which Holt declared was “pretty OK,” we wandered through the green oasis of L’Orto de’Pecci, once the site of a psychiatric hospital and now a co-operative garden with a little restaurant, resident peacocks and a sculpture of a giant steel head that you could walk inside called “Open Mind” by Justin Peyser. Everyone was happy: This was art that you could slap.

Villa Il Castagno Wine Resort is near Siena.
Villa Il Castagno Wine Resort is near Siena.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

We probably should have just stayed in Siena. It is like that other ancient Italian proverb: Libentissime cum liberis uno loco se continere. “When your kids are content, don’t move an inch.” But my wife had never been to Florence and so we headed up the winding autostradale for the last leg of our trip.

Our Airbnb was in Oltrarno, the hip, Brooklyn-like Florentine neighbourhood just south of the River Arno, filled with little eateries and shops selling artisanal rucksacks and handmade puppets.

Our first day we ventured into the sweaty scrum of central Florence and were quickly repelled by a tsunami of tourists. Florence in the high season is a nightmare. You cannot breathe, you cannot move. Our whole family grew quite cranky until we bought some gelato alla stracciatella. It has been proven by science that gelato is the cure for all ills, including gout, gunshot wounds and existential despair.

We didn’t even try to make it to the Uffizi Gallery or see the famous sites. My traveller alarm bells kept going off: We were missing out on the Caravaggios! But you are always missing out with kids. That is kind of the point. The beauty is in the miss.

Museo Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence is where children can crank and pull at his inventions.
Museo Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence is where children can crank and pull at his inventions.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

Instead, we headed to the small Museo Leonardo da Vinci, where the kids could crank and pull at all of his inventions, including what looked like the world’s first bow flex exercise machine. They were very happy. In one corner stood Leonardo’s helicopter, which resembled the eliche propellers we had eaten that first day.

“It didn’t work,” I said to Holt, pointing to the helicopter. “It couldn’t fly.” This felt perhaps more tragic to me than it should, a metaphor for our times. Good ideas that never take off.

“That’s OK,” Holt said. And it was.

To complete the famous Dead Scientist Museum Double, we visited the first-rate Museo Galileo (just past the foolish hordes waiting for hours to get into the Uffizi!) It’s a rich space filled with cosmographic spheres, a pantheon of cannonsize telescopes, sensuous maps of the heavens, and two of Galileo’s actual fingers.

One exhibit in particular caught my eye: a marble run with two paths of descent, the first a straight decline and the other a longer, lazy bend called the brachistochrone curve that goes down and then up again.

By all appearances, the straight line, the shortest path, is the quickest route to the bottom. Right?

Nope. Galileo discovered it was the brachistochrone curve, which, despite being longer, delivers the ball first. And as I watched Holt put marble after marble down each path, testing and retesting the hypothesis, I began to irresponsibly apply such principles to our little Italian adventure. The straightest way is not always the best way. Rather, by weathering the natural curves of life, by going down and then up, by lingering at the doorway for half an hour as Max joyfully closes and opens the door again and again, you are actually taking the more efficient path.

Our last evening in Italy we skipped into the Boboli Gardens just before closing. The evening sunlight was loose and pillowy. We were almost completely alone; the masses toiled in the city beneath. The Boboli is a tiered Florentine paradise of ancient statues and geometric fountains and rambling hedgework. In one clearing we came across a strikingly modern sculpture: a clean, white marble oval entitled “Secret of the Sky,” by Ken Yasuda. The perfection of the form was startling against the wilds of the surrounding greenery.

“It’s like a gem turned sideways,” Holt said. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” When you are four-years-old, there is no such thing as hyperbole.

Alla Vecchia Bettola is a Florentine restaurant with communal tables and iron pots hanging from the ceiling.
Alla Vecchia Bettola is a Florentine restaurant with communal tables and iron pots hanging from the ceiling.  (Susan Wright/The New York Times)

Nearby, we found a magical little restaurant, Alla Vecchia Bettola, with communal tables and iron pots hanging from the ceiling. They managed to seat us despite being packed with Florentines. After 14 straight meals of pasta, this would be our last.

By this point, the four of us were used to things. We were like a well-oiled machine. As soon as we sat, we ordered the children’s meals. The kids tolerated the tableness of the table. Max did not demand his customary ramp exercises. We had our iPhone apps at the ready but did not need them. We all seemed to sense this little experiment was coming to an end. A group from Quebec at our table remarked how well behaved our children were.

“They are not like this normally,” I said. “They have been trained. Like seals.”

The restaurant hummed. Locals laughed and made intricate gestures with their fingertips that meant all was not lost.

I had one more bite of ravioli. And then I was done. I had finally overdosed on Italian food, something I did not think was scientifically possible.

“Down,” said Max, pointing at the ground.

And down we went. We had taken the wandering path and arrived at this moment, just in time.



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