Cinque Terre: Five Stars for the Five Lands

The moment I stepped off the train and saw the gorgeous, colorful buildings nestled atop and beside one another, paint fading and peeling with age and ocean spray, I was enamored.

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But let me back up.  In my previous post, I blogged about part one of my second encounter with “The Boot” country, which included Florence and Pisa.  We stayed two nights in Florence, then spent an afternoon in Pisa before taking the train from Pisa to La Spezia, and then on to Vernazza {one of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre, which literally translates to “five lands”}.  We arrived late afternoon and immediately found our AirBnB host [even though our communication had been hit or miss due to the trains and service].  Vernazza is one of the smaller of the five towns, so really it would’ve been hard not to eventually find him!  It mostly consists of a single ‘roadway’ (I say that because cars can only fit in a small area of it, then it becomes super narrow, plus I only ever saw vehicles there for deliveries, all other cars were parked up kind of above the town) lined with beautiful buildings in an array of colors leading to a harbor.  All five towns in Cinque Terre are relatively small, sleepy fishing towns along the Italian Riviera.  They are truly like something out of a storybook.

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Anyway, the train from Pisa to La Spezia was about an hour long, then there is a train that goes back and forth between La Spezia, Levanto, and the five towns.  From La Spezia, each of the towns is just a few minutes away by train.  As Cinque Terre is actually a national park, there is also a network of trails that you can hike/walk, but they were unfortunately all closed while we were there.  We were definitely there on the off season, which had its perks and drawbacks.  It was nice to be in the area with basically no crowds.  We often had an entire train car to ourselves, the roads were not packed with tourists, and while I would’ve loved for it to be just a smidge warmer, I can’t imagine what it is like in the brutal heat of the summer!  That being said, there were quite a few stores and restaurants still closed for the season; most began opening in mid-March.  In fact, the two nights we were there there was only one restaurant open each night in Vernazza!  I am not a huge beach person, but it also would’ve been nice to enjoy a few hours on the beaches in Monterosso with the kiddos.  Regardless, I would still recommend visiting these spectacular towns any time of year.  If I could do it again, I would probably try to go in April or May, when everything is more lively and a touch warmer, but we were working with a time schedule.

So.  We arrived late afternoon and our wonderful host took us straight to the apartment, which was literally like a minute’s walk from the train station.  The apartment was fantastic! It was on the second story of one of the charming buildings along the main pathway, with an area to store our stroller at the bottom of the stairs.  It had a very cozy, compact living area, two bedrooms [one with an en suite], and another bathroom.  The host was able to provide us with a single bed for our toddler and a pack-and-play cot for our 8-month-old, which was incredible.  B and I very much enjoyed not having two extra sets of feet kicking us and sleeping at odd angles throughout the night!  While there was no kitchen in the apartment, there was a kettle and assortment of teas/coffees.

We got ourselves settled in and headed out to check out the town.  There was a small convenience store open, but other than that, most shops were closed that evening.  Taverna del Capitano was the only restaurant open in Vernazza that night, so that’s where we went.  I’m not sure exactly what was going on there, but it appeared that there was only one person working, and though the place was relatively small, it was packed.  The one worker was very obviously overwhelmed, frustrated, and annoyed, so service was not amazing.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Marybel had been sick all day, and she still wasn’t feeling well.  About half of my glass of wine into the dinner, she threw up all over me, and I decided it would be best if I took her back to the apartment.  I’ll be honest, I was a little relieved, as I had ordered some sort of seafood pasta, and the seafood looked like it was more work than I was used to 😀  I was sad to leave the wine behind, but the crew brought me my pasta and a bottle of wine from a nearby cafe/store to share once they finished eating.  We enjoyed our wine and chatted for a bit before hitting the hay.

Tuesday was our family’s only full day in Cinque Terre, as we were leaving Wednesday evening (C&S stayed an extra night, lucky ducks!), so we wanted to see as much of the towns as we could.  We ate a small breakfast at the cafe near the water that sold us wine the previous night–Benjamin was beyond thrilled to be able to eat PIZZA for breakfast!  At the train station in Vernazza, we each purchased a day pass for the train that runs between all five of the villages.  It was around 13 euros and well worth it, as we planned to hop on and hop off throughout the day.

Our route looked something like this:

Vernazza–>Monterosso–>Riomaggiorre–>Manarola–>Vernazza–>Manarola–>Vernazza

Monterosso

Monterosso is the beach village of the five.  Immediately upon arrival, we walked out and found a gorgeous view of the ocean.  It was far too cold for us to enjoy the beach while we were there, but it was still pretty to look at!  Benjamin enjoyed throwing rocks into the water, and we all just relished the crisp, salty air.

We wandered our way into town, enjoying some great views along the way (though we didn’t climb all the way to the St. Francis church at the top of San Cristoforo Hill).  Monterosso seemed to be quite a bit larger than Vernazza, and just as beautiful.  More peeling, colorful buildings playing Tetris along narrow cobblestone streets.  It was definitely a bit more lively than Vernazza, although that could’ve been because it was closer to midday.  I split a massive trough {seriously, guys. it looked like a trough} full of pesto pasta with Carla (and Benjamin, as the boy can scarf down some Italian food!), and enjoyed a glass of wine at Ristorante Belvedere overlooking the water.

Benjamin was getting a bit antsy as everyone else finished up dinner, so I took him around the corner to a cute little playground.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is the southernmost town, and is built basically into cliffs.  We wandered into a mostly (steep) residential area before finding the pathway that lead to the more central part of town, including the marina area.  We really enjoyed checking out the boats in the marina area, but the rest of the town wasn’t really as appealing to us.  I could see it being bustling in the summertime for sure though!

Manarola  

*Sigh*  Manarola may be my favorite of the towns, and by far the most photogenic, in my opinion.  We arrived mid-afternoon, and made our way through town to the water-front area.  This actually reminded me quite a bit of the town of Oia in Santorini, with the closely stacked buildings, beautiful ocean view, and stretches of pathways perfect for taking sunset photos.  We decided on a mid-afternoon drink at a bar/cafe overlooking the ocean, which was perfect, as the sun was starting to set.

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Brandon took Marybel on a walk along the waterfront cliffs, and texted us from there, telling us we had to come check out the view.  I am not one to miss out on a good photo op, so we headed there as well, and it was definitely one of my favorite places in Cinque Terre!  The pathway provides the most magnificent views of the rainbow montage of buildings making up Manarola.  It was perfect as the sun was setting!  There is even a little playground at the top of the hill, but Benjamin was asleep so we didn’t get to play on it.

Vernazza

We returned to Vernazza with the intentions of freshening up at the apartment, and then eating dinner at the other restaurant in Vernazza (which was the only one open that night).  **By the way, I had a friend highly, highly recommend Il Pirate restaurant in Vernazza, which we stumbled across when wandering at some point, but it was still closed for the season.  Anyway, the restaurant was full and they didn’t seem very interested in trying to give us a reservation for later or even a time to return, so we decided to head to one of the other towns to eat dinner, as it was already getting late.  Hence, our return to Manarola.

Once back in Manarola, we found La Scogliera.  I am not normally a lasagne lover, but I had the most amazing lasagne here!  And I topped it off with a fancy schmancy tiramisu, YUM!

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Sadly, the following day was our last day in Italy.  Though we didn’t leave until evening, we knew we had quite a bit of train and bus travel ahead of us, so we planned on hanging out in Vernazza for the morning/early afternoon.  After another light breakfast, we just relaxed in the sunshine by the water.  Benjamin chased birds (of course) and watched a fisherman on the dock.  Oh, and we had AH.MA.ZING. gelato and picked up some artwork for our collection!  It was a nice relaxing end to our time in Cinque Terre, though I didn’t want to leave!  Finally, B, the kiddos, and I gathered all of our stuff and bid farewell to C&S on the train (we headed to La Spezia to connect to Pisa, while they headed to the only town we didn’t get a chance to explore, Corniglia.  A few minutes to La Spezia, an hour to Pisa station, then a few minutes on the bus and we were back to the airport to head back home.

Italy was already my favorite country, and Cinque Terre just clinched that.  It is so incredibly gorgeous and would absolutely love to return one day!  I hope that if you are ever in the Tuscany/Liguria area you get a chance to fall in love with it as well!

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Another love affair with Italy, Part One: Florence & Pisa

I fell in love with Italy while visiting Rome in November, and just knew I wanted to explore more of this beautiful, welcoming, delicious country.  So, when my parents’ friends (C&S) were headed to Europe for work and wanted to squeeze in a vacation as well, their top choices were Italy, Belgium, and Greece.  Needless to say, I was elated to discover that Italy was the most affordable and most agreeable option for everyone.  They were not particular about what cities we visited, so I did some research and narrowed it down to Verona & Venice, or Pisa & Florence.  Ultimately, Florence won out, and with it, Pisa and Cinque Terre.  While I have yet to visit Verona & Venice, I think we made the right choice! [Truthfully, I am convinced you can’t go wrong with Italy!]

Our rough plan was to fly into Pisa early Saturday morning, spend two nights in Florence, then spend two nights in Cinque Terre.  In the midst of that somewhere, we planned to also see the Leaning Tower of Pisa {because when in Rome Pisa…}.

Our flight was supposed to leave London Stansted around 9:40 in the morning Saturday, but we ended up getting delayed on the runway for like 30 minutes (always fun with a 2-year-old and 8-month-old).  Finally we headed out and landed in Pisa early afternoon.  C&S  had already arrived from the states, so we gathered our items and met them in the (tiny) lobby area.  Pisa is located kind of smack dab in the middle of the places we were visiting; Florence is about an hour train ride east, and Cinque Terre is about an hour train ride north.  We hadn’t nailed down a solid itinerary, so our first order of business was deciding whether we wanted to do Pisa that afternoon, Monday in between Florence and Cinque Terre since we had to change trains there anyway, or right before we left Italy.  We decided that an afternoon in Pisa would be a nice way to break up our train travel from Florence to Cinque Terre, so we planned on doing that Monday.  We hopped on the Pisa-Mover bus that went straight from the airport to the main train station in Pisa.  It looks as though they just recently installed a train that makes this direct route in 5 minutes, which is awesome!  From there, we took a train to Florence.

Ok, so this next part is a bit embarrassing to write, and still makes my stomach drop a little bit thinking about it.  We knew we had to get off at Firenze Santa Maria Novella (SMN), which was where the train terminated.  Well, I {yes, me…I will painstakingly take full credit for this mistake} didn’t realize there was another “Firenze” train station on the route, Firenze Rifredi.  At the Firenze Rifredi station, I heard “Firenze” and assumed it was our stop [and that the train was ending there]…. So, we gathered up all of our stuff and started putting it on the train platform.  Well, as we were all shuffling in and out of the train, gathering our luggage and backpacks, we hear the train conductor indicating that the doors are closing.  None of us made it out of the doors in time, so we immediately panicked, as almost all of our luggage {including the diaper bag which had my wallet and our passport holder} was still on the platform.  Holy. Shizzzzz.  Guys.  Watching your luggage get smaller and smaller on a train platform as the train goes barreling away is one of the WORST.FEELINGS.EVER.  Ever. ever. ever.  So the entire ride to the next station (the actual Firenze SMN station) we were freaking out, trying to press the emergency buttons and get ahold of someone to no avail.  Now, the next stop wasn’t truly that far, but it felt like an eternity.  Once there, we literally ran off the train, tried to talk to someone who worked there {always exciting with a language barrier}, and they basically said that all we could do was go back and hope that it was still there.  There was no one we could call to even try to look after our items or anything…  So we decided to divide and conquer.  C&S took the next train back, while B, myself, and the kiddos hopped in a cab.  I’m not sure that our cab driver even understood half of what we were saying, but we finally got across that we needed to go to the *other* Firenze train station and FAST.  He definitely understood that second part, as it was one of the scarier cab rides of my life…  BUT… we finally made it back , and B took off running while I paid the driver and gathered the kiddos and the little bit of stuff we still had.  Somehow, the travel gods were looking down upon us, and all of our stuff was still sitting there on the platform, untouched.  C&S arrived shortly after we did, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  I feel like I am a pretty seasoned traveler, and have spent my fair share of time on trains, but this incident sure made me feel like a rookie!  {Not to mention the judging looks from all of the workers we spoke to 😛 }  Anyway, I can now look back and laugh about this moment, but jeeeeez it was a hot mess and a half!

So after our excitement, we got back on the train to Firenze SMN (with all of our luggage), then caught a cab to the Family Apartments Florence office.  This cab ride was much more relaxing, and as we meandered our way through the narrow streets of Florence, I felt my heart burst with the same joy I felt when we were in Rome.  Italy is just my place.  I got us all checked in, and we were taken to the apartment, which was just around the corner, on a cozy little street near Piazza della Signoria.  The apartment was spacious, clean, and in a fantastic (albeit a bit noisy) area.  My only very minor complaints about the apartment were that one of the rooms had two twin beds [not entirely practical for us, as we had two couples, but probably super nice for families with older kiddos!], and they were not able to provide cots for our littles.  The bed in the other bedroom was huge though, so B and I made it work with the kiddos in bed with us.  Once we got everything situated, we made a quick grocery run to pick up a few items before wandering around in search of a place to have dinner.  I just love the streets of Florence.  I love how relaxed and comfortable they feel, how cute and quaint everything is, and how they buzz with energy.  There is also a ton of hidden (and not so hidden) street art; I loved finding murals, painted street signs, and people creating chalk art on the streets throughout the city.

We ended up at an adorable rustic-looking restaurant, MaMMaMia.  After our exciting and nerve-racking day, we all indulged in some adult beverages–I had some of the most delicious wine I’ve ever tasted!  The food was also pretty amazing; I had the tagliolini with artichokes and pecorino cheese (known in the Tuscany area), and got to sample some of the cheese, nut, and honey platter that C&S ordered—absolutely delizioso!

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With full bellies and happy hearts, we rambled our way back to the apartment to sleep off our long day of travel.

This trip was intended to be mostly about relaxation and leisurely exploring, especially after our sight-seeing heavy trio of trips to Normandy, Rome, and Paris in the fall and winter.  While Florence is home to such gems as Michelangelo’s David and the Uffizi Gallery, we weren’t really concerned with spending time in museums, we really just wanted to immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds of Firenze.  And that we did…

Sunday morning we strolled through Piazza della Signoria and the Ufizi courtyard on our languid walk toward Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence.  The bridge is beautiful and colorful, and filled with shops.  Before we crossed the bridge, we had coffee and breakfast at the highly recommended Caffe delle Carrozze.  I think my only disappointment with Italian cuisine is their breakfast.  They are not really “breakfast people”, other than a hot cup of something caffeinated!  While I love my coffee, I also enjoy a big old breakfast to get me energized for the day.

With full-ish bellies, we ambled our way across the bridge, and walked along the river on the opposite side.  We eventually hiked (literally) our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo, which gives the most breathtaking views of Florence.  It was definitely a trek to get up there, especially with a stroller and baby wearing, but it was totally worth it for the amazing views!  The square is pretty large, and was hosting a car show while we were there, which B and Steve loved– they are both super into cars, so they inspected and chatted.  Meanwhile I chased Benjamin around as he chased more birds around 🙂  If I ever go back to Florence [yes, please!], I have every intention of enjoying a bottle of wine while enjoying a sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo!

After taking the steeper, less scenic stair route up to the square, we found a less grueling (and more scenic!) route back down to the river.  We needed to refuel ourselves, so we headed to top-rated Grom, stopping to snap some photos in Piazza Santa Croce along the way.  My gelato at Grom was delish; I could eat gelato every. single. day. ❤

As we devoured our gelato, we wandered our way to Florence’s pride and joy, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (aka il Duomo di Firenze, or simply, the Duomo).  The Duomo piazza also contains the Baptistery of San Giovanni, and both are simply stunning.  We didn’t go in either building, but since it was a beautiful day, we took advantage and relaxed in the piazza for a bit.  I fed Marybel, Benjamin chased birds {again}, and we all took a few [thousand] photos!

We roamed the city some more {sensing a theme here?}, then settled on Il Magnifico for lunch.  We went here purely for convenience, as we were hungry and it was the closest place open for lunch.  Knowing it was probably going to be so-so since it was in a touristy area, we took our chances.  Despite the awful ratings and reviews, I actually had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten there!  I will admit it was a bit pricey for what we got, though.

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A quick pit stop at the apartment to rest and refresh, then we were out the door again.  This time, we headed toward Ponte Vecchio again, but turned a different way to get lost in another area of the city.  Our path landed us in front of yet another church, the Church of Santa Maria Novella.  The exterior of these churches are so different from many of the churches I’ve seen in Europe with their gothic architecture and immensely decorative colored marble facades.  We did get to peek inside; I love seeing the various types of architecture and design used in churches!  Outside of the church, in the nearby square, there was quite a crowd of people relaxing on the benches, taking advantage of the good weather and a street musician.

C&S are beer snobs, so they requested we check out BrewDog Firenze.  BrewDog was founded in Scotland, and has spread across the UK and is expanding internationally.  It was a cool little joint, and it was fun to hear and see the wide range of languages and people hanging out there.  We all drank a beer and chatted while the kiddos napped.  Heading back toward the apartment, we stopped at Agricola Toscana  for dinner.  Because I can’t ever have too much pasta, that’s what I ate again, paired with a yummy local wine.  That evening, I got the kiddos settled into bed while B, C&S headed to a bar around the corner for a nightcap.

The following morning we had to head out, so we dropped our bags off at the office while we grabbed a bite to eat at a cafe around the corner.  Actually…I need to back up…the morning started out a little rough– Marybel woke up not feeling well and threw up all over the place, blech!  We got everything cleaned up and tried to get her situated and feeling better.  Unfortunately, she didn’t feel well most of the day- she was pretty much either sleeping, eating, or throwing up what she just ate all day.  Luckily, it was just a 24 hour bug, and she was back to feeling her normal, happy self the next morning, but I just felt horrible for her all day!

Anyway, after breakfast, we hoofed it to the train station, which wasn’t a bad walk at all- we totally could’ve walked there when we arrived {though after our crazy arrival, I’m not sure we would’ve wanted to!}.  We hopped on the next train to Pisa, which was about an hour ride.  The ride was actually a nice time to relax for a few, and try to get Marybel feeling a little better.  Benjamin absolutely loves trains, as I am sure I have mentioned before, so he was perfectly content looking out the window with a snack in hand.  Once in Pisa, we stored our luggage [for an absurd amount of money– that luggage storage has got to make bank!] so we could head into town for a few hours.

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As I said before, it seemed silly to be so close to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and not go see it!  It didn’t take long for the bus to take us from the train station to the Square of Miracles, where the tower is located, along with the Baptistery  and cathedral.  To be completely honest, I was prepared to be unimpressed.  Everything I had heard and read said that Pisa was barely worth seeing; the tower is just there with nothing around it and it’s just that, a tower that leans.  But y’all.  I was pretty darn awestruck!  We had to wander through the tourist kiosks selling knick-knacks and snacks, but as we walked through the walled archway into the actual square, I was just stunned by the sight!  I definitely didn’t expect it to be surrounded by such beautiful buildings and amazingly green, lush grass.  I also didn’t expect it to be quite so… lean-y.  I mean, I know it’s called the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it really does seem to sort of defy gravity!  I also loved seeing all of the people doing their various poses to “hold up” the tower for photos (and of course, I had to do one too!).

We were all hungry after our train ride, so we popped into one of the nearby [touristy] restaurants and ate lunch before exploring the square more.  Benjamin, as usual, chased birds while we took photos and marveled at the tower from various angles.  Spending the afternoon in Pisa really was the prefect way to break up our train rides from Florence to Cinque Terre and knock something off of the bucket list!  The weather was perfect for us too!  I can’t wait to write my ‘Part 2’ of this post about Cinque Terre; it is truly one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen in my life!

Travel Journal for Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre

Paris: The City of Epic Tantrums and the Eiffel Tower

Was it Audrey Hepburn that said “Paris is always a good idea”?

Well.  She must not have had a 2 year old at the time.

Oh Paris.

While I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience your twinkling lights and beauty, I have to say I was decidedly under-impressed.  Now, this could be for a number of reasons: the chilly winter weather {though I feel I was prepared for this}, the fact that I visited shortly after my swoon-worthy trip to Rome, or, perhaps, the apparent disdain my two-year-old had for you.  {To be fair, Paris is not exactly a two-year-old’s paradise.}  Still, I am not so sure I would’ve been overly impressed with the city even without traveling with my littles.

Paris had been on our “to-do” list since we arrived in Europe over three years ago, mostly just because it was such a high-profile city and we were so close; it seemed silly that we would live here for four+ years and not visit.  We actually won a Paris trip through Brandon’s work Christmas party in 2014, but it fell through several times for various reasons {I am actually quite glad we did our own trip, I think the one they had would’ve been incredibly impractical for our family and traveling style}…  Anyway, we ended up using the money from the prize for a different trip, and figured we would just plan our own Paris trip eventually.  This summer rolled around, and with it, the “one year left” mark for our original date of departure from the U.K.  We freaked out a bit because there was so much of Europe we still wanted to see.  Ergo, us planning back-to-back trips in October, November, and December to some of our top destinations: Normandy, Rome, and Paris.  [Since then, we have been fortunate enough be able to extend our time here in the U.K. at least another year, so our travels will continue, hooray!]

I digress.

Like I said, Paris was on our list mostly just because we felt like we had to go.  Obviously, we were excited at the prospect of seeing such iconic landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triomphe, but overall, we kind of went into it knowing we would probably be underwhelmed.  And…we were.  It’s funny though, because after the trip, I posted pictures on Facebook and someone mentioned that it looked like we had a great time.  I didn’t necessarily intend for it to look that way, as I do try to be realistic about our travels {but taking photos of crying babies and toddlers isn’t really my jam}…plus it’s not like it was a horrific trip, it just wasn’t as amazing as many of our others.  But, I was thinking about why I do take photos—and I think I have come to the conclusion that I really just try to capture the essence of the places I visit: the beauty, the ambience, the eccentricities and quirks.  And that is how I more or less remember it, through my photos.  Don’t get me wrong- I will never forget Benjamin’s temper tantrums at the Lourve and Sacre Couer, or how my back ached from the long days of baby wearing and hauling Benjamin around in his stroller.  But having beautiful, meaningful photos does help me put on my rose colored glasses 🙂

Again, I digress.

We planned Paris for my winter break, the week before Christmas {December 20-23}.  This was mostly my doing, as I am a Christmas fanatic and figured if we were going to The City of Lights, why not experience it all lit up for Christmas?  For the first time since we arrived in Europe, we took the Eurostar high speed train from London St. Pancras International train station to Paris Gare du Nord.  I would highly recommend this mode of travel, especially if you have littles!  The train was clean, quick, and felt much more spacious than an airplane, especially since we were able to get seats around a table.  To get to London St. Pancras station, we drove to Stratford International Station, then took the high speed commuter train to St. Pancras– SIX minutes y’all!  That’s it!  Another thing I liked about taking the train is that we only had to be there an hour before our departure time, unlike the two hours for the airport.  At St. Pancras, we grabbed some coffee and a light breakfast and made our way through security to the Eurostar waiting area.  Once our train was called, we followed the crowd, and eventually ended up on the platform, where we had to locate our car number and seats.  Like I said, the seats were spacious, we had a table area, and there was plenty of room for our luggage {oh yes. that. we could basically take as much luggage as we needed…I mean, there are restrictions, but we would’ve had to pack for an army to go over. So glorious!}  The train took a little over two hours (everyone slept most of the way except me, surprise surprise), and it dropped us right in the middle of Paris at the Gare du Nord station.  At this point, it was about 10:30am, and our AirBnB wasn’t ready yet, so we took the metro to Gare de Austerlitz, which was one of the larger stations in Paris and literally right next to our AirBnb.  We stored our bags there, then decided we should go pick up our 2-Day Paris Passes, which I purchased through Viator.  We weren’t sure really about the lay of the land yet, so we figured a cab would be the quickest and easiest way to navigate, since we needed to be back by two to meet with our AirBnB host.  Y’all.  If Viator tells you to print your voucher, DO IT.  AND DON’T FORGET THE PAPERS IN YOUR LUGGAGE THAT IS BEING STORED AT THE TRAIN STATION.  Seriously.  The moment we stepped in the Paris Pass office, I had that dreaded feeling.  I just knew we left the paperwork.  Luckily, the lady there was exceptionally nice and allowed me to {after repeated attempts} email her my voucher, so she could print it and get our Paris Passes sorted out.  I am 100% positive she didn’t believe me when I said I did print them and just left them in our luggage…but guys, I promise I did!  Anyway, we got our passes, which we were going to use Wednesday and Thursday.  By the way, this was our first *Benjamin being a butt* experience– he was super crabby at the office, and at one point, hit his head or something silly like that.

Next order of business was lunch, because we hadn’t eaten since our light breakfast at the train station.  We walked a bit, then hopped in a cab back toward Austerlitz, and found a nice little restaurant right by our apartment.  We ate at Au Soleil d’Austerlitz, where I had pasta with foie gras.  To be honest, I didn’t know what foie gras was before I ordered, I just knew it was a delicacy in France.  It was actually pretty good; even Benjamin had some!  Our timing worked out pretty well, we were able to meet up with our wonderful host and head straight up to our apartment after lunch.

The apartment was wonderful!  It was, like I said, literally right next to Gare de Austerlitz, which made getting everywhere super easy.  It was a studio style apartment, but extremely spacious, with a reallllllly comfortable queen bed and a sofa bed, as well as all the necessary items (kitchen, sightseeing info, table, TV, clean bathroom, etc.).  Our host was great too!  I will mention that the apartment was on the 3(?) floor I believe, and there was no elevator.  We are pretty accustomed to this, so I almost don’t even feel like it’s worth mentioning.  There was an entrance area downstairs (within the locked gated area) that we were able to leave our stroller in, so that was nice.

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Our first adventure of the trip was to see Paris’s star, the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We bought a Skip-The-Line Tour Ticket through Viator, and our tour time was 4:45.  Again, we didn’t really know the lay of the land yet, so we figured we would head out and if we were early, we could wander around a bit.  We took the metro again {super easy to navigate!! just pay attention to the stops, as my French is pretty terrible and what they say doesn’t at all look like what the name is!} and ended up right down the street from the tower.  Ok guys, I am cringing and sweating while writing this, because I feel like I’m about to be judged so hard….when we climbed up the metro stairs to the street level and saw the tower over the buildings along the street, I was…disappointed.  Eek. I know. Cringe.  I just expected it to be so….shiny…and massive….  And it wasn’t.  Granted, we were still a bit away from it, but first impression?  Not so amazing.  [Don’t stop reading my blog because of this, I’m sorry Paris and Eiffel Tower lovers]

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Anyway, we had time to kill, so we walked down to the tower and, of course, took some obligatory selfie(s) and 7 bajillion photos from different angles.  I will say I was much more impressed once we actually reached the tower- it was so grand and sturdy.  I think I expected it to be more delicate and feminine, if that makes sense.  I also am pretty sure I expected it to just be “sitting” on a grass field, and it definitely wasn’t- obviously, it is surrounded by the ticket booths and security checkpoints, as well as some shops.  I finally figured out where our tour was meeting (the next street over), so we headed that way.

Our tour guide was knowledgable and friendly, but the tour wasn’t anything over-the-top amazing.  I mostly booked it so that we could skip the line, which is always good with littles.  We went through security and headed straight to the elevators (you can take the stairs but that was definitely not an option for us!).  Our tour allowed us access up to the second level, and from there, you could choose to purchase tickets to go all the way up.  The elevators are a little crazy–they are at an angle so it feels super strange going up, plus they are pretty big so it feels like there are way too many people in them!  I am normally not fazed by heights, but the Eiffel Tower actually kind of freaked me out.  I think it was because it’s not solid– you can obviously see through all of the beams and, while the beams are sturdy and solid, it still feels kind of…empty…  Anyway, because of this, I was fine stopping at the second level- it would’ve been cool to go all the way up, but I feel like I still got an awesome experience!  By the time we got up, the sun had mostly set, so we got to see the city all lit up.  Our tour guide told us all kinds of really cool things about the city, but I am a horrible listener, so ask my husband 😉  I kind of wish we had gone up during the day too, so I could get some daytime pictures, but we took more obligatory photos, and decided to head back down.

Then, my most favorite part of the Eiffel Tower happened: the lights show!  Every evening on the hour, the tower sparkles with flashing lights, making it appear absolutely magical!  Seriously, it might have been my favorite moment from the whole entire trip!

There was a small Christmas market right by the tower, so we strolled amongst the markets, and ate some German food for dinner [I feel like I always do this; my first meal in a foreign country is always something distinctly not from that country…haha]  We finally made our way back to the apartment to wind down and relax after our long day.

Our second day in the city started off with croissants and coffee from a cafe downstairs from our apartment, then we took the metro toward the museum area.  We meandered our way around the city a bit, allowing us to see some of those iconic Paris sights: the Paris Eye and obelisk, the giant roundabout, Champes Elysees, etc…  We used our Paris Pass to go to the Lourve.  The pass came with a skip-the-line deal, but I think we would’ve been ushered to the front anyway with the kiddos in tow.  The Lourve is HUUUUUUGEEEEE.  I mean. GIGANTIC.  And beautiful, inside and out!  It is absolutely an art-lover’s dream, thought we didn’t get to enjoy it much.  Benjamin was being his two-year-old self and only wanted to run around and look out the windows.  We got to see a few sections, and of course, stopped in to say hi to Mona.  She’s so tiny, it’s crazy!  And the room is just swarming with tourists.  But we had to say hello and take our photo!  This is definitely a place I would like to revisit when the kids are on another continent  older, or staying with their grandparents, perhaps 🙂

The Big Bus Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour was included in our Paris Pass, so we hopped on after the Lourve and rode around for a good bit of the afternoon.  It was nice to sit and take in the city from the bus, and Benjamin even got in a bit of a much-needed nap.  I like the bus tours, as they give great information, provide an easy way to get to and from all of the main attractions, give us a good idea of the layout of the city, and Benjamin loves busses!  There are two routes for the Big Bus, so while on this route, we drove by Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay, the National Assembly, Obelisk, Paris Eye, Champs Eylsees, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Hotel des Invalides, and Opera Garnier.  We hopped off at the Opera Garnier stop, as we were starving.  We had a delicious lunch at a nearby cafe, then tried to go into the Opera house.  Unfortunately it was closed to public for the evening, so we got back on the Big Bus and headed for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was gorgeous.  We have been to many, many cathedrals, churches, etc. during our travels, and this definitely ranks up there.  It was dark by the time we got there, so it was all lit up and decorated for Christmas.  After taking a peek inside, we walked across the street to check out a small Christmas market, as well as the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  I only stole a small glimpse inside, but I’d love to go back and peruse their shelves and sip a coffee there!

Thursday we decided to get back on the Big Bus Tour, on the other route, up toward Montmartre.  We had to upgrade our passes for 10 euro in order to keep a second all-day bus pass, which was well worth it for us with the littles!  We passed by the Moulin Rouge (we passed on going in), then stopped near Sacré-Cœur, located high above the rest of Paris, giving amazing views of the city.  We wandered through Montmartre, and stumbled upon an “I love you” mural (where approximately 37,592 Asian tourists were taking 342,341,565,475,678,456 selfies in varying poses).

After a few selfies ourselves, we made our way back to Sacré-Cœur.  I absolutely love the look of Sacré-Cœur.  It’s unique and strong and beautiful and welcoming all at once.  You can climb the stairs to get to the basilica, or you can take a little tram up there, which is what we did–bonus: it was included in our all-day public transportation pass 🙂  It was a misty, gray day, so the views of Paris were okay, but not as good as they could’ve been.  We headed inside the basilica, but Benjamin decided he wanted to throw a tantrum, so I took him outside while B looked around inside.  {Yet another place in Paris I’d like to truly get to see!}  We took the tram back down and ate lunch at Le Studio Cafe, which was right across the street from Sacré-Cœur.  While I am not normally one to eat so close to a tourist hotspot, it was actually pretty good, and we had a great view of the basilica while we ate!

Once our bellies were full, we wandered our way to Gare du Nord, where we were able to get back on the Big Bus.  [By the way, Benjamin was being a crankypants toddler pretty much the whole time, and finally fell asleep as we were waiting for the bus.]  We got off by the Opera house again, and while walking to it, found a candy store with some delicious chocolate 😀  We tried visiting the Opera house again, but the tours that were included in our Paris Pass had sold out for the day by the time we got there 😦  We were super bummed!

Instead, we made our way to the Musee d’Orsay, which was on my list of things to do for sure.  I loved it.  First, it’s in an old train station-SO.COOL.  Plus it has more contemporary stuff, including some stuff from Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Another thing I realllllllly wanted to do while in Paris near Christmastime was visit the Christmas market on Champs-Elysées.  I tried some white vin chad {mulled wine}, which I promptly threw out.  I have tried several types of mulled wine, and have not enjoyed a single one, much to my chagrin.  It’s apparently just not my thing.  Anyway, we devoured some yummy market snacks, “window”-shopped, and let Benjamin ride a motorcycle on the carousel.  By the time we had made it up and down the avenue, it was almost time for the Eiffel Tower light show, so we hung out a few minutes to see it from afar.  Once again, it did not disappoint!  To this day, Benjamin talks about the Eiffel Tower, watches the video on my phone, and points it out in any photo or image whenever he sees it!

It was getting late, so we headed back toward the apartment, and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant before packing up our stuff at the apartment.

In the morning, we gathered our luggage and took it to be stored at Gare du Nord, as we had to be out of our apartment by midday, yet our train wasn’t until evening.  We aimlessly wandered about for a bit [my favorite way to explore], and found the most amazing little lunch spot:  La Maison Bleue.  It was definitely my favorite meal of the entire trip!

We were on a mission that afternoon to find a Seine river boat cruise, and walked alllllllll along the river looking for one.  I love the little bouquinistes (street booksellers) along the river, which have been around since the 15th century.  We ended up getting some street art along the river to add to our travel collection.

We stumbled upon one of the love lock bridges, where we also finally found a river boat cruise at Pont-Neuf.  The cruise was about an hour long and allowed views of all of the major attractions in Paris.  It was interesting to see everything from a different perspective, and nice to be able to relax on the heated boat!  They also gave a ton of in-depth info about everything we saw.  It was extra fantastic because Benjamin absolutely LOVED the boat- he ran around from front to back, up and down, side to side, watching everything.  I think my favorite view of Notre Dame was actually from the boat tour!  I am so glad we decided to do the tour, it was probably a highlight for everyone in our family!

Finally, we had a snack and coffee before heading back to the train station to catch the Eurostar back to London.