Moldova: Miles of Wine & A Country That’s Not Really A Country

It’s been almost a year since I visited Moldova, so I suppose a blog post is in order.  My trip to Moldova was a super quick weekend getaway with a super travelista and friend, Katrina.  She twisted my arm into going with the promise of miles of underground wine cellars.  We arrived in Chișinău around 3 in the morning Saturday morning after a very long evening/night of flying.  Katrina is amazing and made all of the travel arrangements–she is a rockstar traveler (enjoying her 100th country as I type this!).  I am usually the one making all of the plans, so it was kind of nice to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Our hotel picked us up from the airport, and we managed to get in a few hours sleep before an early morning wake-up for our first tour.

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The first part of Saturday was spent with a driver and tour guide leading us to Transnistria, the country-that’s-not-really-a-country.  The entirety of Moldova is nestled between Romania and the Ukraine.  It definitely boasts an Eastern-European vibe and continues to try to find its identity in a Post-Soviet era.  Transnistria acts as its own entity, with its own military, money, and school system.  To get from Moldova to Transnistria,  we indeed had to go through a “border-crossing” guarded by the Russian military.

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Our tour guide was incredibly informative, giving us a thorough walking tour of Tiraspol, the main city in Transnistria.  We visited a church and market, and strolled through the fairly barren streets.  Once we made our rounds, we had to hop back in the car to make it back across the river to Moldova proper to enjoy our afternoon tour of Milestii Mici.

It did not disappoint.  As the National Geographic post and their website boast, Milestii Mici contains miles of underground wine storage.  Our driver took us underground, where we were then led around on a tour of a fraction of the facility.  Moldova is a massive producer of wine, and it shows.  We were treated to a wine tasting, complete with the most delicious spread of meats, cheeses, and desserts alongside visitors from all over the world.  One of my favorite things about traveling is interacting with people from around the world, especially over good food and wine!  We also picked up a few bottles of wine to bring back to the hotel; I think each bottle came out to around 5 US dollars.  After having slept a handful of hours the night before and a long day of tours, us old ladies were enjoying a glass of wine in bed around 8:30pm!

Sunday was spent relaxing and wandering around Chișinău.  We explored a history museum, meandered the cobblestone streets, and bartered our way through flea markets filled with local art, beautiful matryoshka dolls, handmade lace wares, and other odds and ends.

2017 Recap & What’s In Store For 2018

Welp, 2018 is officially underway, and it is certain to be one for the books.  I have a lot in store for this year, but I will get to that shortly.  First, a recap of 2017.  2017 was actually a bit of a slower year for European travel, as the hubs went on a TON of work trips and we traveled to the states over the summer.  Here is a peek at what our year looked like…

Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre, Italy

I just love Italy.  A trip to Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre with some family friends was just what the doctor ordered to cure the mid-February winter blues.

 

 

Solo Trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, France  

I will be writing a blog about this trip shortly, but it was a peaceful and relaxing (albeit wet) weekend away on my own in France.  The quaint, cobbled streets of Toulouse and beautiful walled city in Carcassonne provided a perfect for a little getaway over spring break.

 

 

Three Weeks In the States: Chicago, Milwaukee, Port Clinton, Columbus

Again, I am in the process of writing this post.  We spent three weeks visiting family and friends in the states, including a night in Chicago, a visit to Brandon’s family in Milwaukee, some time on the lake in Port Clinton, Ohio, and about a week in Columbus, Ohio.  It was a fantastic and exhausting “vacation”; it was wonderful to see so many people!

 

 

Jurassic Coast 

While Brandon was back in the states for a work trip, the kids and I spent the weekend with friends at the Jurassic Coast in southern England.  Our day at Durdle’s Door was gorgeous, while our second day was very wet {but what is a trip in the UK without a little rain, right?}

 

 

Childless London

B and I had a quick, childless trip planned to Aalborg, Denmark in September, but then Ryanair had a massive pilot problem and had to cancel a ton of flights.  So our trip was cancelled.  Since we already had babysitters lined up, we decided to take advantage and spend a night in London on our own.  I heart London.

 

 

Failed Trip To The Lake District

Ugh.  The Lake District has been on my UK bucket list since we have been here.  And alas, it still is.  We had a trip to the Lake District planned for a long weekend in November.  First, Brandon didn’t make it back from TDY to join us, which wasn’t a big deal, but still a bummer.  Then, we set off on a Thursday night, planning to stop about halfway in the Peak District to stay the night.  Well, the kiddos and I were almost to the apartment we were staying in when I hear Benjamin say his belly hurt, then promptly throw up down the front of himself.  I guess the winding, hilly roads of the area didn’t agree with him.  Because I knew much of the rest of the drive was going to be the same, we stayed in the Peak District for the night, then headed back home.  We did get a few great views and some yummy breakfast!

 

 

Winter Wonderland/London

Winter Wonderland in London is always a favorite of mine…what could be better than two of my favorite things: London and CHRISTMAS!  Our family friend was in town again in December, so we spent a Saturday and Sunday exploring London and visiting the beautiful Winter Wonderland!

 

 

Algarve, Portugal

We rounded out 2017 with a trip to beautiful, sunny Algarve, Portugal.  I will also be posting about this before too long, but it involved lots of beautiful colors, gorgeous beaches, and fantastic coastlines!

 

Now for some BIG news!  At the end of the year, we also found out that we will be moving to Okinawa, Japan in the summer!  While we were originally really hoping for the base in Italy, we are beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to explore another part of the world.  I’ve heard absolutely brilliant things about Okinawa, and cannot wait for the big move over the summer!  With that in mind, we I have had some serious European travel panic attacks.  There are still so many places to see and things to do!  {I would say that even if I had been everywhere, but it’s so true!}  I have quite a few trips planned before the move, and a hopefully a few more in the works.  As of now, my travel plans for 2018 include:

  • Berlin and Prague (with hubby, sans children!!) in February
  • Moldova in March (girls trip)
  • Croatia over spring break
  • Colmar, France in late April (another girls trip)

We move in August, and we are hoping to have some family visit before we head out.  Hopefully we will get some travel in with them as well– possibilities include Iceland (dreamy!), Scotland, and Germany.  Thinking waaaay ahead, Taipei, Taiwan might be a possibility in the fall/early winter and of course, exploring our new island home of Okinawa!  [If you don’t know anything about Okinawa, just Google it…alllll the heart eyes!]

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.

Oh, There’s No Place Like Rome For The Holidays…

Well Barcelona, I’ve found your competition…his (her?) name is Rome.

Italy may have won me over in the form of cozy, antiquated, charming, comfortable Rome. I’ll be honest, I was apprehensive about Rome.  It was actually one of the cities I wanted to visit the least out of Italy, as I expected it to be obnoxiously touristy, dirty, overwhelming, and underwhelming all at once.  Let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised.

The pizza. The pasta. The wine. The gelato. The bread.

The cobblestones. The sweet, meandering roads. The colorful alleys.

The feeling of being completely enveloped by history at all times.

Ahh. Amore.

Okay, okay, snapping out of my euphoria cloud so I can actually tell you a little about my trip.  Thanksgiving weekend was a perfect time to visit Rome- it was the off season, so it wasn’t overly crowded, yet the weather was still pretty nice (definitely nicer than the UK!).  Our group ended up being 10 people; 5 adults, 2 kids (6 & 8), and 3 littles (2, 1, 5 months).  Our flight was at the ungodly hour of 6 something in the morning, so my family decided to stay at a hotel out by the airport so that we didn’t have to drive the hour+ in the wee hours of the morning.  We stayed at the Premier Inn Stansted, which was fantastic.  We have stayed at several Premier Inns throughout the UK and all have been absolutely wonderful!  In the morning, we just zipped on over to the airport and met with our Maple Manor Meet and Greet service.  I have used several meet and greet services before, and they are super convenient when flying early or lugging lots of stuff {which we usually are since we have two littles!}  I was disappointed this time though upon our return, which I will talk about later.  Anyway, we got all checked in and settled.  This trip, we brought our umbrella stroller, Lillebaby carrier (for Marybel), and toddler Tula (for Benjamin).  We wore Marybel in the Lillebaby for most of the trip, and used the umbrella stroller most days with Benjamin.  It’s nice now too, that Marybel is big enough that she can be in the umbrella stroller for a little bit at a time {until big brother pitches a fit about “my seat!!!!”}.  I digress.  We did use the Tula for the Colosseum tour, but I am now getting ahead of myself 😉

We arrived at Rome Ciampino airport around 10am.  We ended up taking a bus, then the train, then a cab to our hotel, which was probably not the most economical choice in terms of time or money.  [When we returned to the airport, we just took a cab straight there, which made much more sense and was way easier!]  If you do take the train, be sure to validate your ticket, it took us forever to figure that out!  The ten of us stayed at a fabulous apartment in the middle of Rome called Apartment Cynthia.  It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with plenty of room for all of our guests, and the host provided two cots for our littlest travelers.  There was a cozy little living room and a spacious kitchen, stocked with the basics.  The apartment was right above a bustling little street with restaurants and a grocery store, which was incredibly convenient for us.  The host met us there to give us an overview of the place, and she recommended some sights and restaurants nearby.  Despite the zillion stairs [and one tiny elevator], I would definitely recommend the place!  **Also, be sure to read correspondence from accommodation emails carefully; upon arrival, we were asked for the payment in cash, which I was not expecting.  After looking back through all of my emails, I finally noticed that on the bottom of one of my emails, it was noted that only cash would be accepted.  We got it taken care of, but it was definitely something we weren’t prepared for initially.  Anyway, we got settled and refreshed, then decided to head out to explore.

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Our first stop, of course, was food.  Our host recommended Pizzeria Da Baffetto, which was literally right downstairs from our apartment.  It was delizioso!  It was true Italian style, thin-crust pizza in the most quaint, intimate little restaurant I’ve ever been in.  I devoured my pizza while leisurely sipping wine {ahh, to finally be traveling whilst not pregnant!}

Always the planner, I created a very basic itinerary for the day based on a walk found in Rick Steves Rome 2015 Guidebook .  While I am not much of a guidebook follower, I do like to get ideas of things to do, and this walk seemed like a perfect way to see a good chunk of Rome.  The apartment was near both Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona, so we quickly popped over to Campo de’ Fiori first.  It is one of the many squares in Rome, and when we arrived, they were having a market.  We wandered and snapped some photos, but the market wasn’t as good as many I’ve seen in my travels, so we made our way back toward the next stop on our walk, Piazza Navona.

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I loved Piazza Navona.  It is a beautiful, open square with fountains, shops, cafes, restaurants, and plenty of space for the littles to chase birds and the adults to people-watch.  Street artists sell their goods here, and we ended up buying paintings from an artist there later in the weekend.

Continuing on our walk, one of the guys wanted to stop in an old church, which worked out just fine, as I wanted to check out Biblioteca Angelica, and the older kiddos needed a bathroom break.  Bibliotheca Angelica is a magnificent old library, housing ancient manuscripts.  I love books, libraries, and bookstores, so I just wanted to peek inside and take a few photos.  I was glad I did; it’s definitely a hidden little gem.  I loved that when I went in, people were there working and actually using the library.

Our next stop was the famous Trevi Fountain, arguably the most beautiful fountain in the world.  There is an interesting history to the fountain, and legend has it if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, you will return to Rome one day.  This was the first place Rome felt really crowded and touristy.  We could barely get to the rope to take photos, let alone get a good one without a million people in the background.  But it was gorgeous, and I did indeed throw a coin in, fingers crossed the legend is true!

We stopped at Il Gelato di San Crispino for our first taste of Italian gelato.  Oh man, do I love me some gelato.  Especially dark chocolate.  I could totally live in Rome, just give me some pizza, pasta, wine, and alllllll the gelato!

To finish off the walk, we trekked up to the Spanish Steps.  We somehow took a back way that ended us up at the top of the steps.  This was both a blessing and a curse.  It was a blessing because I think if we had approached it from the opposite direction, and started at the bottom of the stairs, we would’ve said no way to climbing them with the strollers, and I would’ve been super bummed to miss out on the view and photo ops from the top!  However, it was curse too because, well, we had to somehow get to the bottom in order to make our way back toward the apartment, and the only way down was to go down all the stairs with the stroller.

*As a side note…I am not particularly interested in the history of everything I see while traveling (unlike my nerdy husband); I prefer to take everything in visually and document it all with photographs.  I often go back and read about the things I see, but if you want to know details, click on the links {that’s why I include them!}

Upon reaching the bottom of the steps, we decided to make our way back toward the apartment to wrap up the long day with dinner.  We ended up walking down one of the fancy shmancy streets with all the expensive stores (Louis Vuitton, Armani, Ferragamo, etc.), which was interesting to see.

Ristorante Pasquino was right down the street from our apartment, so we had dinner there.  I devoured a delicious pesto pasta, wine, and tiramisu {because…when in Rome, right?}.  Overall, our first day left me starry-eyed for Rome.  I just loved that no matter where I was in the city, I felt surrounded by beauty, history, love, and happiness!

Friday we had booked a 3 hour Colosseum Tour through Walks of Italy [highly recommended], which included the underground arena floor and top tier of the Colosseum, as well as general access to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, all with a tour guide.  Our tour didn’t start until 12:30, so we picked up some breakfast on the road and meandered our way toward the Colosseum throughout the morning.  As I said before, you are always surrounded by history in Rome, so we were often stopping to marvel at ruins, churches, and just the permeating beauty of the city.  We stumbled upon the Teatro Marcello, which seemed to be a kind of abandoned miniature colosseum; Capitoline Hill/Piazza del Campidoglio, where the boys ran around between massive buildings and intricate statues and provided a great view of the Roman Forum; the adjacent Santa Maria in Araceli {atop approximately 30954983274652093846572394586734 stairs 😛 ); and several of the free public water fountains.

Finally, we arrived at the Colosseum.  Nothing quite prepares you for the grandiosity of the Colosseum.  It is massive, and the fact that it used to be even bigger just blows my mind!  We still had some time before we were supposed to meet for our tour, so we had lunch across the street from the Colosseum.  It was surprisingly good for how close it was to the Colosseum.  We then met up with our tour guide and set off with our fashionable headsets.

Obviously I won’t (and cannot) describe our entire tour, as it lasted over 3 hours and covered tons of information from the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill.  The Colosseum was a place where I was especially less interested in history, as I know the basic history of it, and it’s not something that fascinates me (again, unlike my husband).  It was definitely cool to see the ancient building and experience standing in a place you read about in history books, but it’s a little creepy and depressing too, especially the underground portion.  The third tier gave some great views of the city.  We had two different tour guides, and both were super knowledgeable, but our main guide was much more friendly than the one who showed us the underground arena and third tier.

Throughout this tour, Benjamin was mostly in the Tula carrier, and Marybel was in the Lillebaby.  Benjamin is at an age that it is getting difficult to do structured days and tours, as he has a little mind of his own and wants to do what he wants to do.  Overall, he was well-behaved for the tour, but it was long, and he did get antsy!  The Colosseum was another relatively crowded site- I can’t even imagine how it would be in the summer!

The tour moved from the Colosseum to Palatine Hill, where our tour guide let us in on some of the best views of Rome and the Forum and Colosseum!  We then moved down to the Roman Forum, which was huge–like a beautiful winding maze of ruins!  It used to be the centre of Roman public life in many facets.

Overall, my opinion of the Walks of Italy tour:

Pros of the tour:

  • Tons of information!
  • Skip the line
  • Access to underground and third tier
  • Expert knowledge of history as well as places for great photo ops, etc.

Cons of the tour:

  • A bit pricey
  • Long, especially with kiddos

We were all starving after our lengthy tour, so we did an early dinner at Ristorante Gran Caffe Cavour, not far from the Colosseum.  More pizza and pasta!  We wandered our way through the city back to the apartment, stopping for gelato, of course.  The boys decided to have a few beers at the bar downstairs, Birra e Sale.  My husband said it was amazing!  [They somehow also ended up with meat and cheese, which they apparently also sell?]  Us girls stayed with the kids and shared a bottle of wine 🙂

Our Vatican City tour for Saturday morning was also booked through Walks of Italy, and included the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Our walk to Vatican City was nice; we left with plenty of time to wander through the foggy streets of Rome.  We found our designated meeting place, and had some coffee while the littles ran around in the little square area.  Hubby and I decided to wear Marybel, as usual, but keep Benjamin in the stroller.  This worked out fine for the most part, even though there were quite a few stairs in the museums and we had to check the stroller for St. Peter’s Basilica.

 

At around 9:30, we headed into the Vatican Museums with our tour group.  It’s crazy that one moment you are in Rome, and the next you are officially in another country, as Vatican City is technically just that!  Other than being a bit snippy about a bathroom incident (sometimes $#!+ happens with little ones ;P), our tour guide was great-super knowledgeable and friendly.  In addition to the fact that skipping the line was the best.thing.ever. there, I feel like I would’ve been completely lost in the museums without a tour guide, so I am glad we went that route!  We started out with an overview of what we would see in the Sistine Chapel, as our tour guide wouldn’t be able to talk once inside.  They have pictures of the panels in the courtyard, so she was able to explain each panel and things to look for, which was really helpful!  We saw so much artwork from a wide range of artists, places, and cultures as we made our way through the museums.  Tons of painted ceilings, amazing sculptures, enormous tapestries!  I loved the Gallery of Maps *I have a map obsession* and they were absolutely beautiful!  Many were from years and years ago and were incredibly accurate, even though some were measured in human feet!  I was also incredibly impressed by the many Trompe-l’œil murals and paintings–I had just taught my students about this type of art, so it was cool to see and take photos of!

Finally, we made it to the big event, The Sistine Chapel.  Man was it impressive.  Some thoughts on the Sistine Chapel:

  • Obviously, absolutely amazing and overwhelming beautiful art!
  • It was much larger the I anticipated–I expected a narrow, small chapel with a lower ceiling.
  • Did not feel like a chapel at all.  Obviously, there are not any pews, etc. in there now so that was part of the reason, but also, there were SO many tourists packed shoulder to shoulder and guards were scattered throughout.  There was also a loudspeaker announcement every few minutes saying “Silence, no photos” in various languages, which took away a little bit of the peaceful serenity of the place.
  • Despite the loudspeaker warnings, there were so so so many people taking photos.  I really could care less if you take them {I didn’t}, but seriously, have a little couth; turn your camera/phone on silent and for goodness sake, TURN OFF THE FLASH!
  • Amazing to see the difference between the areas that have been cleaned and restored versus the areas that haven’t.  It literally looked like black vs. white!
  • I would really love to spend more time in there {preferably without a zillion tourists} and see each panel up close, and read/hear about each of them as I look at them!  There is just so much information in the paintings!

After the Sistine Chapel, we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, also part of our tour.  The entrance to St. Peter’s gave an incredible view of St. Peter’s Square

We had to check our stroller here, which was a little bit of a pain, but not terrible.  Also, we didn’t have to worry about this while we were there, since it was late fall and cool, but if you go, be sure to check the dress code and dress appropriately!  Anyway.  Holy cow.  St. Peter’s Basilica is HUGE.  Ginormous. Massive. It’s really freaking big, guys. And ornate!  Carvings, sculptures, and walls upon walls of mosaic art.  The tour guide gave us lots of good information here too, like how much of the marble came from the Roman Forum, and how you could get married here, but you basically have to get on the list to reserve it as soon as you are born, haha!

After our 3+ hour tour, we were itching to sit down and eat some yummy food, so we found a little trattoria nearby.  It was on a super touristy street, so we knew it probably wasn’t going to be top notch authentic Italian.  Everyone else was pretty disappointed with the food, but I actually had a quite delicious pasta dish!  And, since we were back in Rome, we had to do as the Romans, and get more gelato after lunch 😉

We wandered our way back toward the area of our apartment, making our way past the Castel Sant’ Angelo and across the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, both beautiful.  Eventually, we found our way back to Piazza Navona in search of some street art, as that is what we collect when we travel.  As I mentioned before, we found some gorgeous paintings done by a local artist, then sat and enjoyed a little mime show while Benjamin snoozed for a bit.

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While in Piazza Navona, we ran into another couple we knew who were in Rome for the weekend as well, so we all decided to go see the Pantheon, as none of us had seen it yet.  The sun was setting as we arrived, which was magnificent!  It was a nice little square, and while we were hanging out, who should stroll by but Stephen freaking Hawking!  Seriously, I couldn’t make this up!  We later found out that he happened to be there for a conference, and he, no joke, went right past us–in fact, we had to move Benjamin’s stroller out of the way to make room for him.  How crazy?! And awesome!?  The boys, of course, scrambled to take epic selfie while I just kind of stood in shock!

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We were leaving the following morning, and I was kind of bummed that we hadn’t gotten to see the neighborhood of Trastevere, as I had heard such great things about it!  Since we still hadn’t eaten dinner, I suggested heading over there, as I heard it was a favorite area amongst locals.  It was definitely a cute little area worth checking out- lots of shops and restaurants, and more delightful little streets and alleys to meander.  Our even-larger-than-normal group found a great little restaurant, Gino 51, where we enjoyed yet more pizza, pasta, and wine.  As it was our last night, we felt compelled to get gelato {again} before heading back to the apartment.  Del Viale was probably my favorite gelateria we went to all weekend!  It was delicious and the guy working there was fantastic!

Since the boys had had a “night out” the previous night, us girls decided to check out a little wine bar, Il Piccolo.  A bottle of wine and some girl talk sans children and hubbies was just what the doctor ordered to finish out a fantastic weekend in Italy 🙂

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The following morning we packed up and caught a cab to the airport for our late morning flight.  Ciao Italy, thanks for stealing a little piece of my heart ❤

**To follow up on my disappointment with Maple Manor meet and greet (and to end another blog post with a bummer note, sorry!)…  We arrived back in London at our scheduled time, and once through customs and passport control, we grabbed our checked bag, then called Maple Manor.  They gathered my information and told me there should be a van waiting outside in the appointed area.  We headed out {into the very cold UK air with two littles}, but there was no van to be found.  We waited around for about 10 minutes or so with no luck, so I called back.  Again, they took my information and told me that the van left because I wasn’t out yet, and that another would be coming soon.  [As an aside, I thought this was weird because I had purchased the meet and greet option, and thought that they were supposed to bring my car to me, but I let it go, not wanting to make a big deal about it].  So finally a van comes and we practically have to fight other families to get a spot (even though we were the first ones outside), and we rode back to where they park the cars.  I gave them my ticket with my information and they gave me my keys….then proceeded to say something to the effect of “you booked meet and greet, we were supposed to bring your car to you….”  I. was. fuming.  BUT. I kept my cool and just said “yep, I know, but your people just kept telling me to wait for the van.”  The guy half-heartedly apologized, but I was just ready to get in the car and head home.  Argh!  Live & learn!

P.S. I still love Italy ❤ and traveling ❤ 😉

 

 

 

Spring Break Part 3: Bucharest, Romania

I put off writing this post for awhile, thinking I would have plenty of time to do it while I was home with the baby (which I have, but I’ve been lazy).  I will post about Baby Herbie #2 soon!  🙂 Anyway, we added Bucharest, Romania (not to be confused with Budapest, Hungary–on our to-do list!) onto our spring break trip because we had a few extra days before I had to return to work and we had some extra cash through the travel agency that we were able to use on the hotel there.  After visiting Athens and Santorini, Greece, we ended up back in the Athens airport for most of the day before heading to Romania.  The airport was actually pretty nice and they had a fantastic kids’ play area where we hung out for a bit before eating.

Our flight was in the evening, so we landed in Romania somewhat late, then took the bus into the city centre.  Once we got to the central station, we took a {very sketchy} cab to the Central Hotel by Zeus International.  The hotel was nice and fairly centrally located.  Once we arrived there, we checked in and dropped our bags.  We had a very cranky, hungry toddler on our hands, so we did something we almost never do while traveling- we ate McDonald’s for dinner.  It was basically attached to our hotel, so it was easy, cheap, and made our little guy happy.  After that, we all crawled into bed and passed out.

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We didn’t have a lot of must-see’s on our Bucharest list, especially since it was a last-minute addition to our trip.  The following morning, we ate a yummy and filling breakfast at the hotel [while the Romanian women swooned over Benjamin].  We then decided to take free walking tour.  It started at ten, and thanks to my misguided navigation skills, we barely made it to the meeting spot on time.  BUT, we did make it, and I’m glad we did!  Our tour guide was absolutely fantastic, and I learned so much about the city!  Without giving away all the details, we saw the Union Square, the Old Town, a statue of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula!), “the ugliest statue in Bucharest”, Stavropoleos Monestary, and Revolution Square.  The Monestary was easily one of the most unique and gorgeous churches I have ever visited!  Romania has gone through much turmoil and has had many political problems, even in their recent history.  It was fascinating to hear about all the issues and how much the people there have overcome!

Union Square & our awesome tour guide

Old Town

Vlad & “The ugliest statue in Bucharest”

Stavropoleos Monestary

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Revolution Square

During our tour, we walked by Caru’ cu Bere, a restaurant I had seen on several websites I visited before our trip.  We decided to stop there for lunch– the interior was breathtaking!  Our lunches were good, but the dessert was what really made the meal.  We ordered the papanasi, which is a traditional Romanian dessert, much like a donut with cheese and jam.  While we devoured our delicacy, a group of musicians played some music, much to Benjamin’s pleasure 🙂 {In fact, he enjoyed it so much so that he fell asleep on daddy’s lap while watching!}

After lunch we took a leisurely stroll down to the Palace of Parliament, which is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon (I didn’t know the Pentagon was that big!)  It is GI.GAN.TIC!  I could barely even get it all in one photo!  While we were wandering around, Benjamin woke up from his nap, so we headed to a huge playground near the palace.  The playground was super cool; we noticed that Bucharest had a ton of green spaces, parks, and playgrounds.  We made our way back to the hotel before heading out to dinner.

Restaurant Vatra was about a block from our hotel, so we popped down to give it a try that evening.  I am glad we did!  The waitresses were IN LOVE with Benjamin–even took a picture with him!  I had delicious Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls with polenta…DELISH!  And we even got to see some Romanian dancers!

One our favorite things to do when we are traveling is find awesome bookstores or libraries.  Bucharest happened to have a super cool, modern bookstore, Carturesti Carusel, so we just had to go!  It was beautiful with tons of fun things to look at, and we of course bought some kids books {our fave!}

Surprisingly, Bucharest’s Old Town has a pretty lively night scene–we wandered through, and if we didn’t have Benjamin (and Baby #2 in my belly), we probably would’ve stopped for a drink or two.

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Day two started with another yummy breakfast at the hotel, then packed up and stored our bags at the hotel after checkout since our flight was late in the evening.  Our first stop of the day was the National Museum of History.  The main exhibit was a plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, which is a Roman triumphal column that is located in Rome and commemorates the Roman Emperor Trajan’s triumph in the Dacian wars.  {Now that we are planning a trip to Rome in the fall, I am excited to see the actual column!}  The bas-relief images were carved in a spiral going up the column, which was really cool.  There were lots of other artifacts, such as jewelry and the crown jewels, but Benjamin was getting a bit restless so we left before we were able to see everything.

Next on our agenda was lunch, which we had at Manuc’s Inn in the old town.  The inn is gorgeous, and we were able to eat lunch on the patio in the beautiful sunshine.  Brandon enjoyed a Romanian beer, while I sipped on some delicious lemonade before eating some more yummy traditional Romanian food.

The rest of our afternoon was spent eating ice cream from Cremeria Emilia (YUM!) and wandering around, enjoying the sunshine.

Romania was definitely a different destination; you could feel and see the communist influences and Eastern European vibe.  I enjoyed our time there, and only have one regret: not taking a day trip to visit Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania.

Bucharest Travel Journal 

 

Spring Break, Part 2: Santorini, Greece

Santorini.  Swoon.

Chances are, if you’ve ever envisioned a picturesque Greek island getaway, you were probably picturing Santorini.  Ya know–those unbelievably beautiful, screen-saver-worthy photos filled with white buildings and blue domes, a too-blue-to-be-real sea meeting gorgeous sunny skies?  Yep, it’s real.  It’s Santorini.  And it’s every bit as beautiful in person as it is in those photos.

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As you may or may not have read in my Spring Break, Part 1 post, B, Benjamin and I spent a night in Athens before taking the ferry through the Aegean Sea to Santorini.  We arrived at the port mid-afternoon Sunday, April 10 after much anticipation.  I’m not sure what I had envisioned the island looking like, as I knew Santorini was part of a volcano caldera remnant, but it wasn’t what I expected at all.  The whole side of the island was comprised of cliffs with those picturesque light-colored buildings settled on top, like icing on a cake.  I was actually quite surprised by how big the island was; the many websites I had scoured gave me the impression that it was relatively small.

Anyway, once off the boat, we found a bus headed toward Fira, the capital city which overlooks the port area and the actual volcanic island, Nea Kameni.  The bus was cheap and easy, and took us right into the town centre.  The drive was a bit nerve-racking, as the road up the side of the cliffs is relatively narrow and full of terrifying drop-offs, loose gravel and rock, and lots of switch-backs, and the bus is a huge charter-style bus playing chicken with the other buses, cars, bikers, and hikers on the road.  We all made it to Fira in one piece, and my hero husband figured out where our apartment was from there.  Luckily, it was a pretty quick walk, and mostly downhill.

Oh yea.  The hills.  Oh man, the hills.  I suppose this is a good time to remind you that we accidentally  left our Ergo baby carrier in my {non-working} car…  Had we been thinking in Athens, we would’ve found a store and bought a dang carrier there, but our minds were apparently in vacation mode.  Anyway, we realized upon arriving at the bus stop that it was going to be a rough few days with the stroller…

Back to the apartments.  This was another accommodation booked by the travel agency; we were much more impressed this time though {good thing since we were staying four nights!}.  We stayed at the Anessis Apartments in a cute little beachy-feeling kind of a room.  At first, we were a little skeptical; the apartments were located in kind of a strange place, off one of the main roads on a sketchier-looking drag kind of in the middle of nowhere (yet still pretty close to Fira’s city centre, if that makes sense).  Our minds were put at ease though as soon as we arrived.  The apartment had a single bed and kitchen area with a table in the entry room, then a larger bed  with a table and closet space in the next room, followed by the bathroom, which was equipped with a glorious shower!  A pack-and-play was provided for Benjamin (as I’ve mentioned in other posts, it is rare that we stay somewhere that is unable to provide one). The only thing that was a bit tricky was not having a tub, as it was really difficult to bathe Benjamin, but we made do.  The staff members at the apartments were absolutely fantastic!  They made us feel incredibly welcome, answered all of our many questions (even helped us try to locate a baby carrier!), and provided a yummy breakfast each morning.

We unloaded what we didn’t need, then headed back out to do a bit of exploring for the rest of the afternoon/evening.  Despite the inherent difficulties with having a stroller in an area filled with hills, stairs, and cobblestone, I absolutely fell in love with Fira.  The city was bustling with people, shops, restaurants, and excitement, even on a Sunday night.  After wandering a bit, we ended up having dinner at Ellinikon, a restaurant in the town square.  It was pretty good, we both had pasta (yes, I know, our first night on a Greek island and we eat pasta, haha…but we were starving and wanted to be sure we went home with full tummies!) and were impressed for the most part.  The staff was especially nice!

After the long day on the ferry, we were all glad to make it to a comfy bed and get a good night’s sleep.  The following morning we started with breakfast at the apartments.  As I said, the staff cooked us up a great breakfast each morning; Benjamin was surprisingly especially keen on the Greek yogurt mixed with honey.  Our goal for the morning was to find a baby carrier, as we knew our days in Santorini were going to be tough without one (especially since we had booked a tour for hiking the volcano).  The apartment staff helped us brainstorm some potential places to check out, and we were on our way.  To make a long story short, none of the stores in the main city centre sold or rented carriers, and the one store that does normally carry them (which took us on a nice little stroll along the cliffs overlooking the port) didn’t have any in, as there had been a boat strike and the shipment hadn’t come in yet.  We were super bummed to say the least, but hoped that maybe the store would get them in that day or early the next day {spoiler alert, they didn’t 😦 }, so again, we made do.  I got some great photos of the volcanic island from our walk, and Benjamin got to see his first donkey of the trip.  He’s really funny, because he can’t say the names of animals, but he knows how to make most animal sounds, so we spent a good portion of our Santorini vacation listening to him squeal with “neighs” and giggles.

We stopped for some coffee in town, then ended up in the square for some delicious gyros from Bagiatiko.  They were super inexpensive and amazingly delicious–B and I each had a gyro and Benjamin chowed down on a pork souvlaki and fries.  While we ate, we sat in the square and people-watched, a favorite activity for all of us.  Benjamin loves waving to people (and animals), and makes admirers wherever he goes!

After a nice long walk that put Benjamin to sleep, we relaxed and refreshed ourselves at the apartments.  Our goal was to get back to the bus stop by 4:30 to catch the bus to Oia, a town about 20-30 minutes away.  Oia is actually the city that is most pictured in those gorgeous white-building and blue-dome photos, and is located at one of the tips of the crescent-shaped island that is Santorini.  The bus ride was not for the faint of heart–the drivers fly along windy roads, teetering on the edges of cliffs.  B was definitely not a fan.  But again, we made it in one piece and set off to explore.  Oia is a maze of pathways meandering through hills of restaurants, shops, churches, and other buildings.  Just wandering through the town is mesmerizing, there is so much to look at and experience.  At practically every turn there is a gorgeous view of the ocean and the lingering smell of delicious food.

I’ve had people ask what kinds of kids’ activities there were for Benjamin on the island, and to be really honest, we didn’t run into many–not that we went out of our way to look for them either.  He is usually pretty content relaxing in his stroller (or in the carrier when we have it), people-watching.  On this trip, we let him get out and wander around on his own quite a bit as well, which helped to wear him out too!  He loved seeing all the {stray} dogs and cats, and again, made all sorts of admirers–we seriously have people come up to us all the time to tell us how beautiful he is–sometimes in languages that we can’t always quite understand!  We do bring books and small toys in his diaper bag/stroller for when he does need a little distraction, but usually that is just at mealtimes if the food isn’t out yet.

We were hoping to watch the sunset in Oia, as I’ve heard that is a “must-do” there, but we were also starving by that time….  Lucky for us, we found a rooftop restaurant {Kyprida} with a sunset view that had plenty of room for us and wasn’t outrageously priced [much of Oia seemed pricier than Fira; while the whole island is definitely touristy, Oia seems to be the most touristy, and the prices reflect that].  I had the delicious traditional Greek dish moussaka, which is kind of like an eggplant lasagna/casserole.  The sunset was, indeed, beautiful, but to be honest, I preferred the view in Fira!

After dinner and a stroll through the lovely night scene in Oia, we hopped back on the final bus back to Fira and called it a night.  Though I adored Oia, I am glad we didn’t book a hotel there, as Fira is much more central and has more to offer in my opinion.  Oia is definitely a must-see though, if you are on Santorini!

So, I just realized that I have written a lot….and I still have a lot to write….so I just wanted to say sorry {or maybe sorry not sorry I have so much to say about this incredible place?}  Oh well, I shall continue….stick with me, there’s lots more to see!

Tuesday was my 31st birthday.  How lucky am I?!?  I got to spend my 31st birthday 31 weeks pregnant in GREECE!  Not only that, we had booked a tour through Viator for the day.  Our tour would take us to the volcanic island for a hike up the volcano, then to another nearby island to experience the natural hot springs.  I have mixed reviews of the tour:

Pros:

  • the company provided all transportation: a guide picked us up from our hotel and        dropped us off by the cable cars that would take us down to the port, the round-trip cable car tickets were provided, and of course, the boat rides to and from the islands were included.
  • the boat was awesome!
  • the hike up the volcano gave us incredible views of the harbor and island of Santorini, and we were able to feel the hot air vents at the top….we also learned quite a bit about the volcano from our guide
  • the weather was perfect–I even got a sunburn beautiful glowing suntan 😉
  • overall, it was a relaxing outing

Cons:

  • it was relatively pricey
  • the hike was a bit more difficult than we were anticipating {being almost 8 months pregnant and toting an 18 month old without a baby carrier didn’t help matters…}  B and I traded off carrying Benjamin, and let him walk some on his own as well.  B was a champ and did the whole thing in sandals!
  • I was looking most forward to experiencing the hot springs and mud, but was not allowed to go, as I was pregnant {and let me clarify that I did indeed do some research beforehand to see if pregnant women were allowed to go in hot springs, which they are! but apparently not for this particularly company/tour–this was not indicated anywhere on the website, which was a big bummer to me}

So, would I do the tour again?  Maybe if I wasn’t super pregnant and we had our baby carrier.  It was pretty exciting to say that I hiked a volcano on my birthday 🙂

Once we got back to the Fira port, we took the cable cars back up to the city.  The cable cars are an experience all in themselves – I would highly recommend at least one trip on them if you are there.  They are a bit rickety, but I really enjoyed the views and experience!

We had another delicious Greek meal on a rooftop at Parea Tavern.  The gemista I ordered was amazing, as was my baklava dessert.  As you can tell, I thoroughly took advantage of having Greek food at my fingertips for the whole trip- SO. YUMMY.

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As usual, we took a mid-afternoon siesta (yea, yea, I know, wrong country) and relaxed at the hotel before heading back out for dinner.  In all honesty, we were still pretty full from lunch when we headed back out, but we ate at Mama’s House.  It was pretty good, but definitely not our top meal of the week–possibly because we were still full {and maybe a little because Benjamin was being a wild child!}  Even with my full belly, I made it my mission to find something chocolate to eat for dessert for my birthday.  We ended up back in the town square, where I found the most decadent birthday dessert at Crema Latte: waffle bites with chocolate syrup and dark chocolate ice cream.  It was to.die.for.  While B and I ate our ice cream, Benjamin danced to the street musicians performing in the square.  Perfect birthday.

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Wednesday was our last day in Santorini, as our flight was the following morning.  We didn’t really have any plans, so after breakfast we decided to take the bus to the beach in the nearby town of Kamari.  The town was mostly still closed down for the season, but you could tell they were prepping for the big tourist rush soon.  The beaches were black pebble beaches and were lined with amazing hotels and restaurants {most of which were not open yet}.  It was a perfect relaxing few hours–we sat on the beach soaking up the sun; B and Benjamin tossed rocks into the Aegean.  I can imagine that this area of the island gets pretty busy during the summer, and probably pretty rowdy in the evenings!