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 ❤ 😉

 

 

 

Normandy, France: A Bittersweet Weekend Away

Normandy, France has been on our “must see before we leave Europe list” since we arrived in the UK in 2013.  B is a huge history buff, and being affiliated with the military, we just knew it was something we had to see.  Normandy is not actually terribly far away, so we could’ve driven if we had wanted, but I found flights on Ryanair for like $8 apiece and jumped on them right away.  This was Marybel’s first flight, so I was interested to see how traveling as a family of four would go.  Overall, I think the long weekend (Columbus Day) was incredibly meaningful and memorable, and the kiddos did amazing, especially with the amount of car travel we did.

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**I am going to admit outright that I am terrible with history/names/dates/etc., so I apologize in advance for minimal information and/or if I inadvertantly make a mistake.  I will do my best to post the most accurate information and links to more thorough details regarding everything we saw.

We flew from London Stansted to Deauville-Normandy airport, which is definitely one of the smaller airports I have ever been in!  This was our first time ever renting a car for our travels, but it was necessary in the Normandy area, as everything we planned to see was pretty spread out.  I booked the car through Ryanair when I purchased our flights, and picked up the car at the airport upon arrival.  The only downside to renting a car whilst traveling is bringing two carseats for our littles.  I have used meet and greet services before at the Stansted airport, but didn’t this time, and immediately regretted it.  It would’ve been worth it to pay the little bit extra to not have to lug our checked suitcase (we almost always check a bag nowadays with two littles, it is just easier in the airport and on the plane), diaper bag, backpack, Benjamin in the stroller, Marybel in the Lillebaby, and both carseats through parking lots, on and off the shuttle, and up to the check-in desk.

Anyway, some friends of ours were traveling in the area as well and were on the same flight, so we both picked up our cars, then headed toward the town of Caen.  One of my college roommates had been traveling around Europe for a few months, and we made plans to meet up in Normandy, so we were picking her up at the train station in Caen.  The city isn’t terribly large, but it took us a bit to find the train station [I blame this on a number of things: lack of sleep, signs being in French, driving a rental car on the opposite side of the road, etc.].  Anyway, we finally found her, got ourselves situated back in the car {it was a little like playing Tetris with our luggage, two carseats/kiddos, and three adults, but we did it!}.  B really wanted to do a cheese tour while we were in Normandy, so that was our first destination.  We headed to Camembert, an agricultural town housing a museum and gift shop/cheese tasting area for the Camembert cheeses.  It was about 45 minutes from Caen, winding through vast farmlands and cute towns.  We skipped the museum (much to the chagrin of the worker there, even though we technically paid for the museum fee so that we could do the tasting), and dove straight into the tastings.  We were each given three different cheeses, served atop bread slices.  I personally enjoyed all three varieties, as did my college roommate.  The others liked two out of the three, but were completely turned off by the very pungent smell and strong taste of the third.  I like to think that I must have an exceptionally mature palate, which is why I enjoyed all varieties 😛

Other than our cheeses, we hadn’t eaten much all day, so the next thing on our agenda was to check into our AirBnB and find some dinner.  When I first booked accommodations, I didn’t know that my roommate would be meeting up with us; luckily I had booked a place that could sleep up to four adults.  The AirBnB we booked was an adorable flat in the tiny seaside town of Langrune-Sur-Mer (sorry, no English translation).  Our host was incredible–she was very welcoming, gave us lots of suggestions and information, and the flat even had a pack and play (cot), high chair, and books and toys, which my little guy loved!  It was cozy, with a small living area and kitchen, one bedroom with a large bed, and one bedroom with bunkbeds.  I loved that it was in a secure gated area also.

Once we got settled, we decided to walk around the town to see if we could find somewhere to eat.  Our legs needed to stretch out after being in a plane and car all day.  Unfortunately we are not ‘European enough’ to eat dinner late, so we didn’t find anything in our town open for dinner yet [not that there were tons of options anyway since it was such a small town!].  We ended up back in the car, and drove to the next town over, Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.  We ended up at a yummy pizza place, La Mama.  After dinner, we picked up some wine and headed back to the apartment so that us adults could catch up with each other and the babes could sleep.

Saturday was to be our “D-Day day”, and we had a lot we hoped to see.  The Normandy area is huge.  There is SOO much to see, from Mont St. Michel to the D-Day sights to Monet’s garden.  I knew we weren’t going to be able to see it all, so we made a plan to start with our “must-sees” and work our way back toward the AirBnB.

Our itinerary for Saturday ended up being: Saint-Mere-Elise/Airborne Museum —> Utah Beach —> American Military Cemetery —> Omaha Beach —> Pointe-du-Hoc

We started the day at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which was one of the first towns to be liberated in the D-Day invasions.  The highlights were the church and the Airborne Museum.  The church displays a dummy of the American paratrooper John Steele, who landed on the church during the invasion, and played dead so that German troops wouldn’t shoot him.  He ended up being taken prisoner by the Germans, but later escaped and rejoined the Allies.  The Airborne Museum was really cool and interactive, I would highly recommend visiting!  There were several buildings that housed different parts of the museum.  We walked through model planes amongst life-sized soldiers, saw paraphernalia from the D-Day invasions, and even got to “feel the wind” as we were able to *experience* what it would be like to be a paratrooper during the invasions.  Benjamin wanted nothing to do with that part of the museum (and I would advise parents not to take very young children through it, as it is a bit overwhelming; our friends’ 2.5 year old did okay, but was still a little bit frightened by it), so B and I took turns.

Next, we made our way to Utah Beach, one of the American beaches.  It was, in essence, just a beach, but there were memorials, and it was surreal to be standing on the very same beaches these young men stormed so many years ago.  After taking a moment to let it all sink in, we decided to move to our next destination: the American Military Cemetery.

The cemetery makes the whole experience of Normandy incredibly real.  The sheer number of crosses and vast expanse of land dedicated to the cemetery is overwhelming and humbling.  As I write this, I find myself having a difficult time finding the words to even express the experience.  Hopefully my photos will help, otherwise, I hope you get the opportunity to visit this area one day.

Omaha Beach was next on our tour, the other American beach.  Again, it is another beach with memorials and reminders of its grim past, but being there was just so strange and trying to put into words how it felt is beyond me.

It was getting late in the day, and we had only really snacked throughout the day, so we were all getting hungry.  However, we really wanted to see Pointe-Du-Hoc, as it was highly recommended by many.  We made our way there, and I was so glad we went.  Please take some time to read about the invasions and all of the places I am mentioning, as they are all worth it.  I cannot adequately describe these places and events in a few sentences.  At Pointe-Du-Hoc, we saw the cratered cliffs and were able to go into some of the German areas of fortification.  The views were also pretty incredible.

After our long day of heavy and powerful sightseeing, we decided we would head back to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer for dinner again.  As I mentioned, the sights throughout Normandy are fairly spread out, so we had done a lot of driving, walking, and hauling the kids in and out of the car.  They did absolutely incredible…..until our drive to dinner.  We were still about 30-45 minutes away from the town when all hell broke loose in our car.  Marybel was hungry and crying, and Benjamin thought it would be funny to mimic her cries, so he was both screaming and laughing for most of the ride.  I felt awful for my college roommate, who was sitting between them in the back seat.  I’m sure I scarred her for life and provided the best birth control ever!  We finally made it back to the town, and settled on Les Gourmands Disent for dinner.  We all enjoyed both dinner crepes and dessert crepes!  Delicious!  Once again, we ended our night with some wine and good conversation.

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Sunday was another full day of sightseeing, with lots of time in the car again.  The plan was to head to Mont St. Michel in the morning, then squeeze in anything we felt we missed the previous day in the afternoon.  I had heard from friends who had visited Mont St. Michel that it was incredibly beautiful from the outside, but that the inside was nothing super special and that it was usually packed elbow to elbow, as the pathways were super narrow.  We had all decided that we would see how we were feeling when we arrive as to whether or not we would venture inside.

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The drive from Langrune-Sur-Mer to Mont St. Michel was about an hour and half.  You could start to see the island from quite a bit out, as it is set up so high.  It’s magnificent to see in real life!  I think we pulled over at least twice to take photos from afar before we even got to the parking lot.  The island is sometimes surrounded by water, other times not, depending on the tide.  We all arrived at the visitor center around 10:30am, and immediately agreed that we should definitely go inside the small village.  Luckily, the employee at the visitor center advised us not to bring our stroller, as the pathways were steep and cobblestone.  I carried Marybel in the Lillebaby, and Benjamin half walked, half rode on daddy’s shoulders.

**As a side note, we used to have an Ergo baby carrier, but sold it and bought the Lillebaby mesh once Marybel was born.  I loved my Ergo, but I like that the Lille can be used from birth (8lbs and up) without an insert, can forward face (only recommended for short periods of time), and that it is the mesh version, so it is much more breathable than the Ergo.

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Anyway, there are several ways to get from the visitor center to the island; you can walk, take a free shuttle bus, or arrive by horse and carriage for €5.30.  We chose to truly live in the moment and took a horse and carriage ride.  Not only did the kiddos love it, it gave fantastic views along the way.  Had we known French, we probably could’ve learned a whole lot along the way as well 🙂  I think if we had unlimited time and didn’t have the kids, we might have walked out there, just for the experience.  The whole area is just breathtaking.

Once inside the walled village, we mostly just wandered and took a ton of pictures.  While I could totally imagine that it could get packed in the high tourist season, I am so glad we went in for the full experience.  The town was adorable (though most of the restaurants and shops were super overpriced), and there were some really great photo ops.  Since we were kind of on the shoulder/off-season, it was busy, but not terribly packed.  Before heading out, we stopped at a little restaurant (I don’t know what it was called 😦 ), where I had the most delicious omelette!

**Here is a picture of Benjamin having one of his epic “silent tantrums” on our walk back to catch the shuttle bus to the parking lot….

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As we headed back toward the area of Langrune-Sur-Mer, we discussed what D-Day sights we felt like we missed out on from the previous day, and all agreed that we would like to see the German Military Cemetery.  My roommate had been told to go to both the American and German cemeteries, if only to compare the two.  Both the kiddos fell asleep on the drive to the cemetery, so B and I took turns checking out the grounds.  It certainly was different from the American cemetery.  While it was kept neat and nice just like the other one, the grave markers were simple, small plaques on the ground, rather than the pristine white crosses, and most of the plaques indicated two fallen soldiers, rather than just one.  I’m glad we experienced this sight, I think it was important to see the “other side”.

From there, we had absolutely no agenda, so we just sort of drove around, looking for signs for interesting D-Day sights.  We ended up at Arromanches, which was used as a portable harbour for the Allied forces.  The beach here was recently used as the location for a memorial art installation in which two British artists (along with volunteers) etched 9000 life-size silhouettes in the sand, representing those who lost their lives on D-Day.  The images from the installation are stunning!  We stopped at a lookout area, then headed town to the actual town.  The town was adorable, and the beach was beautiful, especially in the late afternoon lighting.  While many of the towns and memorials paid tribute to the United States and Allied forces, this town in particular paid a great deal of respect with lots of signs and memorabilia.  We had a yummy dinner [and dessert] at Au 6 Juin {note the reference to D-Day!} before we drove back to our apartment.

That evening was spent packing up and drinking yet more wine.  The following morning, we had to drop my roommate back off in Caen to catch the train before we headed back to the airport to go back home.

**I don’t really want to end this post on a bad note, as we had such an amazing, meaningful weekend in Normandy, but our experience at the airport heading back was less than fabulous.  First, we tried to return our rental car, but no one was at the rental place, so we couldn’t figure out how to get it back to where it belonged.  Finally, our friend found a code for the gated parking lot on the rental agreement (which we were NOT informed of when we picked up the car).  While the boys parked the cars, the girls got everything prepped for security and VISA checks with the littles.  Security was a nightmare.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Deauville’s airport was tiny.  The line for security was literally one teensy, tiny room with one scanner.  We thought we had everything ready (bags/coats/etc in bins, iPad out of the backpack, belts off, items out of pockets, etc.).  Marybel was in the carrier, as she was on the way through security at London Stansted, and I still had my boots on, just as I had in London.  We had Benjamin out of the stroller, as they usually have us push the stroller through, then carry him through with us.  Well, they first made us take our iPad out of the case.  No biggie.  Then, they told me I couldn’t wear Marybel through, I had to take her out of the carrier, take the carrier off and send it through the machine, and take my boots off before coming through.  Meanwhile, they made us fold up the stroller, then Benjamin had to walk through on his own {not a huge deal, as one of us was on each side, but still super annoying as he was already cranky and upset}.  They wanted to pat me down, so once the stroller was through, I unfolded it to put Marybel in it for a few minutes so that I could get patted down and put my shoes back on.  Well, while I was doing that, they took Brandon aside as well to get patted down, so Benjamin was trying to climb in “his” stroller with Marybel, and most of the workers didn’t speak English, so we struggled to ask them if one of us could go get the kiddos and then switch once the other was finished.  Finally, we were able to put all of our stuff back tougher and get Marybel back in the carrier just in time to get on the plane.  It was by far the worst experience I have had at an airport, and I have been to many, many airports in my travels!

That aside, our weekend in Normandy was fantastic, given the atmosphere of the visit.  I am so glad we were able to experience this incredibly important historical place; it is something I will never forget.

Non-London Fun

While I love London, it’s not the only fun thing to do near where we live in the UK.  In fact, there are tons of amazing sights and sounds all within an hour or two of our house!  Some of my favorites are listed in this post…

Cambridge

We don’t visit Cambridge nearly enough.  We are only about 30 minutes away, and the city is absolutely beautiful!  There is so much to see and do there it’s unbelievable.  One of our most favorite things that we have done though is “punting the Cam“.  The River Cam is a river that meanders through Cambridge and runs along some of the most prestigious, gorgeous colleges in England.  You can hire a chauffeur to guide you along, or try it on your own!  We went with some visitors for my birthday one year and were not disappointed- our guide was knowledgeable and humorous and we had lots of great photo ops!

Great Yarmouth

We haven’t done a lot of exploring in Great Yarmouth yet, but it is definitely a place I want to return to!  The day we visited, it was one of those rare almost-80-degree-sunny-with-no-clouds days in the UK, so it was perfect for walking around and relaxing at the beach.  It has a super boardwalk-carnival type feel, complete with rides, games, kitschy tourist shops, beach restaurants, and of course, beaches.  If you’re looking for a laid-back day during summer, this is your spot!

Duxford Air Show

Last year we went to the Duxford Air Show at the Imperial War Museum just outside of Cambridge.  They have air shows there a few times a year, and have permanent military-related exhibitions in their museum.  It was pretty chilly the day of the show, but the planes were awesome and there were lots of great food vendors and collectible kiosk shops!

Colchester Zoo

Colchester Zoo is probably one of the best zoos I have ever been to!  We went with a few other couples and their kiddos (I think there were 7 adults and 4 kids, all under 4-years-old).  All of the kids {and all of us adults} had a great time!  There were tons of animals to see; Benjamin especially loved the penguins!  We went in the spring and the weather was pretty good so lots of animals were out and about.

For the past year we have had an English Heritage pass, giving us free or discounted access to many historic English buildings, monuments, and other sites.  Some are fairly close to where we live and provide a nice afternoon out:

Audley End House

The Audley End estate is huge and beautiful!  There is a lot to see and do there- you can wander through parts of the decadent mansion, check out the nursery {with toys! Benjamin enjoyed it!}, see how the kitchen used to look and function, stroll through the amazing gardens, and see horses in the stables area.  The grounds are breathtaking on their own, worthy of an afternoon picnic (or an afternoon of sketching or painting for the artists out there!).  We got extra lucky, as there was an old car show going on the day we were there, so B was in heaven checking out all the beauties!

Framlingham Castle

Framlingham is also a great spot for a relaxing afternoon out.  There are castle walls you can climb and walk around, giving fantastic views of the surrounding area.  The interior has a huge grassy area with some outdoor games and there were sword-fighting shows the day we were there.  There is a small museum area as well.  It looks as if the castle hosts various events throughout the year too.  The town surrounding the castle was cute as well, we stopped for lunch and ice cream nearby!

Castle Rising

We actually visited Castle Rising before we got the English Heritage pass, but it is one of their properties.  While the castle is actually fairly small, it is really cool, and the surrounded landscape is gorgeous.  The castle, which is now mostly ruins, was built in the 1100s and many of the walls are still standing!

 

London: Some of our favourites

One of the best things about being stationed in the UK is being so close to one of the most amazing cities in the world, London.  We are approximately 90 miles away (if we were to drive directly into the city).  To give you an idea of how exciting this is compared to where we used to live, it was approximately 90 miles from Clovis, New Mexico (where we were last stationed) to the closest “big cities” (Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas)–neither of which were exactly tourist traps!  So to have one of the biggest, most captivating cities in the WORLD at our fingertips has been amazing!  Though we could drive into the city of London, we don’t do this for a variety of reasons: parking, congestion charges, traffic, and just general ease of travel.  We typically park at Epping Tube Station, which is about an hour away, which puts us on the Central Line right into London.  We purchase all-day travel cards for myself and B (Benjamin rides for free :)) so that we can hop on and off any of the trains all day.  London is huge, so this is super helpful.  When Benjamin was smaller, wearing him in the Ergo was the easiest way to travel, but now we use our lightweight stroller, and he loves being able to watch everything!  Some of the tube stations have lifts (elevators), but others don’t- in which case B and I haul the stroller up and down the stairs.  We are pretty much pros at it by now, and it doesn’t bother us a bit.  There was one time {and only once with reason} that we took our large jogging stroller and we immediately regretted it, as it is so large and bulky.  Taking the stroller on the actual train is a piece of cake.

Anyway, there is definitely no shortage of things to do in London .  I think anyone and everyone could find something to do there!  Living so close allows us to visit often enough that we don’t feel like we have to rush and see tons of stuff each time we go.  For the most part, we have seen most of the touristy things, even if we haven’t gone inside or done the tours and such (Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, etc.)  Eventually, we want to do at least some of these tours, but so far we’ve been pretty content wandering and seeing what we can find.  Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of B and I’s favorite things to do in London…

**I apologize in advance if you are a Harry Potter fan, I am not {gasp!}, and therefore have no information on anything HP-related in London, though I know there is a lot!  

The British Museum

The British Museum definitely ranks in both of our top five places to visit in London.  First of all, IT’S FREE!  {We always make a donation, but it is not required.}  Second of all, IT’S HUGE!  Seriously, I don’t even think it’s possible to see everything in one day.  B is a huge history nerd, and I just love museums, so we could spend hours here.  I think our favorite exhibits have been the Egyptian displays, including the Rosetta Stone!  A helpful hint: don’t go on Boxing Day {it’s closed, as we found out after walking 2 miles…whoops!}.  Anyway, it’s a must-see if you are any sort of history lover!

Borough Market

B and I try to make it to Borough Market almost every time we travel to London, usually for lunch.  It is located near London Bridge, not to be confused with Tower Bridge.  It is chock-full of produce stalls, vendors, and delicious eateries.  We often stop for a yummy pie from the Pieminister stall and eat it while wandering around or find a seat near Southwark Cathedral to people watch.  The market is a bustling, colorful, exciting place to be, especially on beautiful weekends!

Camden Market

Another market I love (B was not as impressed) is Camden Market.  This area is a relatively large “hipster-y” part of London with tons of shops, restaurants, bars, vendors, etc.  I think I mostly loved the vintage feel of everything in the area, as well as the great photo ops.  You could definitely get lost in this part of town, and spend the whole day there!  After wandering and shopping, we had an amazing lunch at Porky’s, a BBQ joint nearby.  You can pick up some great vintage goods at Camden market and just enjoy the atmosphere and people-watching.

 

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is the centre of it all.  It is a tourist hot-spot with statues, fountains, and many restaurants and museums nearby.  B and I just love the authentic big-city London feel here, and the people-watching is fantastic.  There are often street performers in this area, and sometimes demonstrations or protests.  The National Gallery is located here, which is a huge, free art museum.

Shakespeare’s Globe

We just recently actually went inside Shakespeare’s Globe and did the tour, which we loved!  One of our friends from the states was in London, so we met up with her and took the tour of the theatre.  There is a museum outlining the history of Shakespeare, and there were actors practicing sword-fighting inside!  Our tour guide was fantastic and hilarious, and gave us some awesome information about the theatre and history.  The open-air theatre was pretty amazing, B and I agreed that it would be cool to see a performance there sometime!  There is so much history in London it just blows my mind.

Winter Wonderland

If you are in London around Christmastime, I highly recommend visiting Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland.  From November through January, Hyde Park is magically transformed into a wonderland full of carnival rides, restaurants, bars, and food vendors, craft stalls, even an ice rink and circus!  We have been twice in the three years we have been here and will probably go back again.  Entrance to the actual park is free, but the various rides and events cost money.  The first year we went, it was just B and I and we ice skated.  It was fun, but I don’t know that it was worth the money we paid for it.  It is cool though, that we can say we have ice skated in Hyde Park in London!  This past year we took Benjamin and went with our friends Lindsay, JD, and their three-year-old.  They ice skated (well, until their little one decided it wasn’t for him) and rode some carnival rides, and we ate lots of yummy food and bought some cool stuff from the craft markets.  We also went to the Zippos Circus.  It ended up being way cooler than I expected, and Benjamin loved it!  Winter Wonderland is definitely not an all-day event, unless you plan on riding lots of rides and doing all of the different activities, but it is a fun-filled few hours!

Street Feast

Ahh, Street Feast.  I almost don’t want to give out this delicious secret.  It is one of B and I’s most favorite {and yummy} things to do in London.  Set in various locations, Street Feast is basically a gathering of street food/drink vendors in warehouse-like areas.  The atmosphere is amazing, the people-watching is fabulous, and the food and drinks are to die for.  We have been a few times and hope to go back many more times!  We love trying different types of foods, as there are always vendors from all kinds of cuisines, from BBQ to South American grub to Asian dishes and everything in between {including delicious desserts!!}.  It is free to get in between 5pm and 7pm, and costs something like £3 after that.  Though it is kid-friendly, if we have Benjamin with us, we usually try to get there relatively early and get out before it gets too rowdy.  I think the first few times we went, we were child-free and though I was pregnant, B thoroughly enjoyed the whiskey roulette bar, where him and some buddies spun a wheel to determine what kinds of shots they had to take.  At one point they came back with empty whiskey bottles, which scared me a little, but it was all in good fun 🙂  I am pretty sure that most of the times we have been I have been pregnant, so I have yet to fully enjoy everything Street Feast has to offer, but you can bet we will be back so I can enjoy some wine and yummy beer!  Check it out if you are in London on a weekend!

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list of things to do in London, just a few of our favorites.  I’m sure I will continue to add to this list as we experience more and more there!

Hiking in Snowdonia

Snowdonia National Park is, by far, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  We had a three day weekend for Labor Day the first weekend in September last year, so we decided to visit the Snowdonia area and hike Mount Snowdon.  Mount Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and England, and though we didn’t hike to the very peak, we were pretty darn close!  B, Benjamin, and I went with a single guy B works with as well as another couple and their three-year-old.

So five adults, a three-year-old, and a ten-month-old made the drive in two cars Friday, September 4, 2015 in the afternoon.  It was quite the adventurous drive across England and into Wales.  We were staying in the adorable town of Betws-y-coed, about 20 minutes from Mount Snowdon.  By the time we got into Wales, the windy, narrow roads were made even more difficult to navigate by the dark and rain.  The seven of us stayed in an awesome house called Bryn Awel {only downfall was its driveway, which was quite treacherous!}.  The house was situated in a perfect location; we could walk into town for meals and exploring, and it allowed easy access to Mount Snowdon, Swallow Falls, and Conwy Castle.

So, the Welsh language is pretty insane.  Luckily, most things were in English as well, but seriously, can I buy a vowel?

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Anyway, we arrived late Friday night and pretty much just passed out immediately, as we were planning on hiking Mount Snowdon the following day.  We started our Saturday morning with a walk into Betws-y-coed town centre and had breakfast at Alpine Coffee Shop (we enjoyed it so much that we returned Sunday and Monday morning too!).  After filling our bellies we gathered some info about the mountain from a local information centre, then headed to the trailhead.

We got there around 11:30, and ended up having to park a little ways away from the actual start of the trail.  There are 6 main routes up/down Mount Snowdon with varying degrees of difficulty.  Because we had two kiddos in hiking backpacks, we decided to do a kind of middle-of-the-road difficulty trek: the Pyg Track up and the Miner’s Track down.  Including our journey from the car to the trailhead, we ended up hiking about 11 miles total.

**Sidenote:  B and I purchased a hiking backpack [similar to this one] secondhand from another military member, and it was perfect for this trip–it provided much more stability and support than our normal everyday carriers, was mostly comfortable on the hips and shoulders, and had some storage room for a few diapers, wipes, and snacks.  I carried Benjamin on the hike up, and B took over for the descent.  I didn’t like the idea of falling forward with something like 30 extra pounds on my back on the way down, so I opted for the ascent!  As you can see, Benjamin seemed to like the carrier too!    

The weather was absolutely perfect for us.  No rain and barely a cloud in the sky {practically unheard of in the UK!}, with the sun shining and temps in the 50s.  We truly couldn’t have asked for a better day!!  The scenery was seriously breathtaking.  I have never seen such green grass and turquoise, sparkling water.  I will just let some photos do the talking….