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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ❤ 😉

 

 

 

A Taste of Dublin, Brugge (again), and Amsterdam

I have been lucky enough to have a few visitors while living overseas, including my sister and her husband last summer.  My sister’s husband’s brother (did you follow that?) is also stationed overseas in Germany, so they made a trip to see us and then meet up with him and spend some time in Germany.  Unfortunately, B was out of town for work while they were here, so he missed out on spending time and traveling with us.

This was Shelby & Uriah’s first time meeting Benjamin as well, so they were super excited!  While in England the four of us made a day trip down to London, checking out the typical sights and doing a lot of walking.  We also rode the London Eye, a first for me.  Benjamin absolutely loved it, but I wasn’t overly impressed for the price.  It was a cool thing to experience and the views were pretty amazing, but the dang thing moves so. darn. slow.  

Anyway, I digress; this post is about Dublin, Brugge, and Amsterdam isn’t it?  After a couple of days in England, we set off.  Our plan was to fly to Dublin for two days, then fly to Brussels, where Aaron (my sister’s husband’s brother) would meet up with us driving and take us to Brugge.  We would spend a night there, then head to Amsterdam for about the same amount of time.  From there, I would head back to London, and the rest of them would make their way back to Germany and do some exploring along the way.

This was Benjamin’s first flight– he was about seven months old at the time.  For anyone interested in how I travel with my little guy, I am a babywearing mama and used a K’tan carrier when he was itty bitty (which I LOVED), then switched to an Ergo original when he had good head control and was a bit bigger.  So, for traveling, the Ergo is/was my savior–when he was little I typically didn’t even bring a stroller or carseat on trips when I didn’t have to.  This trip was a bit tricky though; I knew I would have help carrying stuff during most of the trip, but coming back to the UK was going to be difficult since I would be by myself with Benjamin.  Also, because Aaron was driving from Germany, I knew I would have to bring a carseat.  This was my packing strategy: I had Benjamin’s diaper bag (using a backpack is a thousand times easier than a traditional diaper bag for us), my carry-on (which is what I packed both Benjamin and my clothes in), Benjamin’s carseat (which was checked for free), and I carried him in the Ergo.  [On the return trip, I managed by wearing Benjamin in the Ergo on my front, wearing the backpack on my back, and carrying the carseat and my bag together.  It was a little bit of a pain, but definitely doable.]

Again, I digress.

Dublin, Ireland…. We left London the morning of June 23 and arrived in Dublin around 9:30.  Because I had the carseat, we decided it would be easiest to take a cab to our hotel.  We stayed in a triple room at the Clifden House, which was beautiful, clean, and comfortable.  It was a little bit of a walk from the centre of the city, but definitely doable!  After we dropped our bags and the carseat, we headed out to explore.  Ironically, one of my sister’s high school friends was in Dublin at the same time, so we met up with her for brunch.  She introduced us to the delicious Queen of Tarts.  {I think we ate here both mornings we were there *AND* I took B there when we went back to Dublin in August…so yummy!}

Our first tourist stop was St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  It was, like most cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe, beautiful.  I am always in awe of the architecture and stained glass windows.

After wandering the streets a bit, we rested at the apartment, then headed out again for the afternoon/evening.  We took the tram toward the Guinness Storehouse, but we had heard that the tour there wasn’t as good as the Old Jameson Distillery, so we just peeked in before moving along.

*Sidenote: After returning to Dublin with B, I wholeheartedly disagree with that opinion–I absolutely loved the Guinness Storehouse tour and would do it again in the heartbeat!  I will write about that in my next Dublin/Northern Ireland post*

Dublin is a really interesting mix of old and new, quaint and not-so-quaint, beautiful yet also kind of dirty and gross.  I liked it, but not as much as I expected to.

We ate at the famous Temple Bar for dinner, and it did not disappoint!  My sandwich was phenomenal, the Guinness was incredible (and I am not even much of a Guinness drinker), and the atmosphere was fantastic!  I am always a little bit hesitant to go to the “hot spot” touristy places, but I was really glad we went!

After a few beers a nearby pub, we called it a night.  Oh right, and some gelato.  For some reason, I just love eating gelato wherever we go 🙂

Dublin is kind of like Brugge in that you can pretty much see the main highlights in a day or two, so we decided to start the next day with a little morning trip out to Dún Laoghaire (pronounced “Dun Leery”), a nearby seaside town.  We hopped on the DART train and took a pretty 20 minute ride to the harbor area.  It was nice to get out of the city for a few hours; it was quiet and the water was beautiful.

Coming back from Dún Laoghaire, we decided to get off the train at Grand Canal Dock Station, which looked pretty trendy and cool in pictures, but was actually fairly disappointing.  We found an Irish pub for lunch {I had some traditional Irish stew; yummy but nothing to write home about} and then made our way back toward city centre.  We stopped for a beer and to listen to some live music, which was one of the things I loved most about Dublin.  I am all for a good pint and some good tunes!

Our final stop in Dublin was the The Old Jameson Distillery.  My sister and her husband are both whiskey fans, so they were especially excited about this!  While I do enjoy whiskey every now and then, I am definitely no connoisseur!  The tour was really informative and our guide was hilarious!  I felt incredibly odd bringing a 7-month-old into the distillery, but he slept in the carrier the entire time {baby carriers have magical sleepy dust, I swear!}!  The tour guided us through the different stages of Jameson production, and at the end there was a tasting that included a scotch, Jameson, and American whiskey.  Uriah was a champ and took them all; Shelby and I both took some sips but weren’t tough enough to finish them all!

Overall, I liked Dublin, but didn’t fall in love with it, like I had other places.  I think seeing places in such a short timeframe is also hard because I love to wander, explore, and get lost in cities.  Onto Brugge…

Brugge, Belgium….  Early Thursday morning (June 25), we hopped on a flight from Dublin to Brussels, Belgium.  As I said, Aaron drove from Germany to pick us up and take us to Brugge.  The drive was quite the adventure in itself.  There were lots of delays on the highway, so we ended up taking all kinds of random roads, including backroads *literally* through farms as well as crazy city streets through Ghent.  Ghent looked really cool- if I ever make it back to Belgium, I think I want to take some time to see it!

Anyway, we made it to our apartment mid-afternoon, much later than we had hoped.  The apartment was fantastic!  It was spacious, clean, and really reasonably priced.  It was located right outside of the city centre, about a 10-15 minute walk.  Our first stop, of course, was a waffle!  Then we wandered around, enjoying the beautiful summer day.  My sister, Benjamin, and I took a canal tour (the same one I had done with L on my girls day) while the boys found a pub.  Benjamin was definitely a crowd pleaser on the boat- he even got a picture with our driver!

Afterward, we joined the boys for a few beers, then headed to The Church of Our Lady (again, the same church I visited with L).  Aaron is an art history buff, so we all paid to go see the Michelangelo sculpture housed there, Madonna of Brugge.  It was pretty impressive to see something that old and well-known!  It was a long day of travel, so we made it an early night after dinner.

The next morning, we had an absolutely fabulous breakfast at Detavernier/ “Carpe Diem” tearoom.  Shelby, her hubby, and Aaron all were hoping to climb the Belfry before we headed to Amsterdam, but when we arrived, there was a huuuuuge group of kiddos on a field trip there ahead of them, which was taking foreverrrrrrr.  So they decided against the climb and we got on the road to Amsterdam around midday.

Amsterdam, Netherlands….     

The drive from Brugge to Amsterdam was about 3-3.5 hours (and much less eventful than our drive from Brussels to Brugge, thank goodness!).  The AirBnB apartment we stayed at was smack dab in the middle of the city, so we had to find a parking garage.  I would suggest to anyone visiting Amsterdam not to drive, or to find a park and ride outside of the city, as driving there is a little crazy and parking is pretty pricey.  Getting our bags to  the apartment was a bit of a hassle too; the narrow cobblestone streets and crowds did not mix well with Shelby & Uriah’s roller suitcase (they had a bigger bag since they were staying in Europe longer…).  The apartment was a bit tricky to find, as it was situated over a cute little jewelry/gifts shop.  It was adorable though–very small and cozy, but cute nonetheless.  The owners were great too!  We had a great view of the neighborhood.  **If you have big luggage and stay here, take caution, as the staircase was spiral and very narrow!  The price was a bit steep too, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Amsterdam is just a more expensive city to stay in.

Amsterdam is gorgeous.  It has a similar look to Brugge with the canals, cobblestone, architecture, and old-Europe feel, but you can tell its bigger, busier, and more culturally diverse.  It is known for its bikes- and even though I knew this before getting there, I was completely unprepared for the actual sheer volume of bikes I saw!  It seemed as if everyone was on a bike!  While we were there, we learned that there are approximately 700,000 people in Amsterdam, but over a million bikes!  and they have to fish 25,000+ out of the canals each year.  After dropping our bags off, we wandered around and just explored the sights and sounds of Amsterdam.  Dinner was okay, but nothing to write home about….HOWEVER….our dessert for the evening…OUT.OF.THIS.WORLD.  We had Poffertjes from a local little shop, and they were ah.ma.zing.  Seriously, getcha some.  We picked up some wine and beer to enjoy in the apartment and relaxed the rest of the evening.

For our second day in Amsterdam, we were planning on renting bikes and braving the crazy, narrow streets of the city.  However, I got a migraine early, so I knew I couldn’t go (so, so bummed 😦 ).  The rest of the group decided not to go either {which I still feel horrible about!}.  We ate some breakfast, then began to explore again.  The boys wanted to go to a sporting good store, so Shelby, Benjamin, and I explored a church, had a light lunch, and just relaxed by the canals for a bit.  I was finally starting to feel better, so once we reconvened, we took a canal boat tour.  It was incredibly informative {even though one of the guides was a bit of a blonde…} and, like Brugge, a great way to see the many different areas of the city.  We boated under lots and lots of bridges, alongside many houseboats, and through the famous Red Light District.  That area isn’t really my “thing”, but I think if I went back without Benjamin it would be interesting to explore.

After the tour, Benjamin snuck in a nap while we chilled out by the canals, and the other three climbed the bell tower in the church.  It was getting later in the afternoon, and I had to head to Eindhoven, where I would stay the night and fly out early the next morning, and the others had to begin their journey back toward Germany.  Aaron drove Benjamin and I to our hotel, and we all had an overpriced, unimpressive dinner at the hotel before they headed out.  It was really bittersweet saying goodbye to them, as I knew it would probably be quite awhile until I’d see them next.  It was so, so good to be able to spend time and travel with them though!

So, my overall thoughts on Amsterdam:  It’s kind of hard to say because I feel like I didn’t really get the “full experience” between the short stay, having a 7-month-old,  and my horrible migraine.  It was such a gorgeous, exciting city with so much to do, but I feel like I didn’t do a lot.  I did like the laid back vibe and thoroughly enjoyed the people watching there!  If I were to go back to the Netherlands/Amsterdam, I definitely would want to rent bikes, see the Anne Frank House (the line was outrageous when we went by; I’ve heard it’s  best to get tickets well in advance), explore the Red Light District a bit, and see the countryside some too!

Dublin/Brugge/Amsterdam Travel Journal

 

Travel Journal

I keep a travel journal to record all most of my adventures and keep bits and bobs like ticket stubs, maps, etc.  I try my hardest to update it while I am actually traveling, but every now and then I have to update it later.  Today I am posting pictures of my pages from Porto and Brugge–while all of the writing is done for these pages, I will probably still go back and add drawings, color, or paint some of them.  Most of the writing is similar to what I have written in my blogs (in fact, I often use the journal to jog my memory when blogging).  I apologize in advance for the terrible quality photos, I took them with my camera phone in awful lighting.  My travel journal is definitely one of my prized possessions and I think I would cry if I lost it!

PORTO TRAVEL JOURNAL PAGES

BRUGGE TRAVEL JOURNAL PAGES

“Babymoon”: Porto, Portugal

I’m back.  Finally.  It’s been a busy year.  Benjamin turned one (!), I finished my master’s degree, I worked two different jobs (and am currently teaching art which makes me incredibly happy), and am now pregnant with Baby Herbie 2.0!  I have also done quite a bit of traveling, which is probably going to be the focus of most of my blogging from now on (don’t worry, I will still post pictures of my incredibly cute baby boy and other adventures in my life, traveling will just be the main focus.)

I was going to progress chronologically through the last year with my travels, but I think I might just kind of hop all over the place instead, starting with our most recent out-of-the-UK travel to Porto, Portugal.

Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal, and is located along the Douro river.  Its western area extends to the Atlantic Ocean.  One of the things it is most famous for is its wine- Port wine.  I will get into that later!

While Benjamin has traveled with us quite extensively, we decided to make this a baby-free trip.  This proved to be a great choice, as Porto was not especially child/stroller-friendly.   B and I arrived in Porto mid-morning Saturday, January 16 after an early flight from London.  We decided to check a bag this trip, as we knew we wanted to bring back some wine from the area (being 4 months pregnant prevented me from fully enjoying the fruits of the Douro valley…pun intended 🙂 ).  We hopped on the metro from the airport and enjoyed an easy 40 minute ride into the city centre.  There, we met up with the owner of the AirBnB apartment we were to be staying at for the weekend.  The apartment was not ready yet, as it was still morning, so the owner was kind enough to take our bag and meet back up with us when the apartment was ready.  He also was incredibly helpful in providing us a map of the city and outlining all of the top sights and some delicious restaurants.

B and I wandered off into the city for a bit, armed with our map and a handful of Portuguese words (which, by the way, is nowhere near as similar to Spanish as I expected!).  We stopped at the Mercado do Balhao first, an open market with food, fish, etc.  Compared to many of the markets I have been to throughout Europe, it was very dilapidated and old, but still had an air of charm and beauty.

 

 

A lot of Porto’s buildings are quite dilapidated actually, which I think I was surprised by. I was also surprised by how hilly Porto was!  I knew Lisbon was hilly, but I didn’t know quite as much about Porto, and hadn’t really paid much attention to the photos I had seen.  It was a little rough on this pregnant lady’s body, but it was worth every step (all 25 miles we walked that weekend)!!  The beautiful tilework, cobblestone streets, and colorful buildings were breathtaking as well.

After the market, we popped into Estacion Sao Bento, a functioning train station filled with the blue tiles the area is famous for.  It was gorgeous!

 

 

We stopped for a light lunch at a cute cafe near our AirBnB- Taberna do Largo – then headed to our AirBnB apartment to rest for a few.  The apartment was absolutely amazing!

Despite being pregnant, we booked a wine tasting at the highly recommended Ferreira Wine Cellar for that evening.  Before crossing the impressive Luis Bridge to get to the “wine cellar side” of the Douro, we wandered along the Ribiera, which is lined with gorgeous shops, buildings, and restaurants.

 

 

Our wine tour was fantastic- our guide was incredibly knowledgable and funny, and even B, the non-wine-drinker, enjoyed it!  I actually learned quite a bit about wine (especially Port wine, which I am not a huge fan of…).  We had a tasting of two types of Port wine at the end of the tour, neither of which I really liked- much too sweet and strong for my liking.

 

 

After the tour we took a “leisurely stroll” (aka a long, steep, arduous hike) up to a building right above the Luis Bridge.  Did I mention Porto was hilly?  It was worth it though for the amazing view of Porto all lit up at night!  We walked back across the top of the bridge to get back to the other side of the Douro to make our way to dinner.

 

 

Our AirBnB apartment owner recommended a restaurant called Cantina 32, so we ended up there.  It did not disappoint- we split beef steak, potatoes, and salad, as well as delicious pumpkin soup.  A detour on our way back to the apartment led to some yummy ice cream to top off the night.

Sunday we ate breakfast at a hotel restuarant near our apartment before hopping on the old Port Tram City Tour.  The tram was super cool and old-school, and gave us great views of the river.  We got off where the tram ended, near the western coast where the Douro meets the ocean.  B and I found a mini golf course and decided to play a round.  The course was crazy, but a lot of fun.  Next to the casual mini golf course was the “Petergolf” course, which was a professional course (yes, professional mini golf, who knew?!).  There was a tournament going on while we were playing, which was both interesting and hilarious to witness.

 

 

B destroyed me, as usual (thanks to a 20-shot hole I had, oops!).  We then headed down to the beach area and took a walk along the coast.  It was half rock, half sand, and almost completely littered with trash, which was a bummer.  It started to rain a bit, so we headed back toward the tram to take us back into the city centre.  We ate lunch at a restaurant along the river, sharing the Porto-famous “Francesinha” sandwich.

 

 

Since it was mid-afternoon, we decided to head back to the apartment to rest and come up with a game-plan for the evening.  Our plan was to check out the San Francisco church, then get dinner at a nearby restaurant.  The church ended up being closed, so we tried to go directly to the restaurant.  Being silly Americans, we didn’t realize it wouldn’t be open for dinner yet (they opened at 7:30 and it was only 6ish).  Most of Europe certainly runs on a different time schedule than America, and even somewhat different than where we live in the UK.

It ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise that both the church and restaurant were closed as we ended up wandering around, running right into the Livraria Lello, a famous old bookstore in Porto.  It was high on my list of things to see in Porto but I thought it was closed on Sundays, so we were planning on going the next day before we left the city.  I am so glad we stumbled upon it, even though they were closing in 20 minutes.  It was absolutely beautiful!  It is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, and often makes the list for most beautiful bookstores in the world!  Rumor has it that JK Rowling used to frequent it when she lived and taught English in Porto.

 

 

After a bit more wandering, we ended up at another highly recommended restaurant for dinner, Traca, which was right around the corner from our apartment.

Monday was our last day in Porto, but we didn’t leave until afternoon, so we did a bit of exploring in the morning.  Before leaving the apartment in the morning, we headed out for some coffee and also bought some local olive oil to bring back to the UK.  The owner of the shop we went to was beyond kind and helpful- forcing allowing us to try all the different types of olive oils they sold.  We also stopped at a wine shop and stocked up on some (non-Port) Douro Valley wine to bring back for me to enjoy this summer.  We also bought some for our amazing babysitter, since she had to put up with Benjamin all weekend ;).  We carefully packed our goodies into our suitcase and headed to the train station to store our bag until we headed to the airport.  We checked two more things off of our “must see/do” list by the afternoon- the famous and delicious Majestic Cafe, and the Dos Clerigos tower.

The Majestic Cafe was just that, majestic!  It was beautiful and old and served the thickest, richest hot chocolate I have ever tasted in my life!  The french toast was delectable as well- definitely a good choice for brunch.

 

 

To work off our breakfast, we headed to the Clerigos tower church exhibition to climb the bell tower.  After many, many stairs, we made it to the top, where we were greeted with stunning views of the city.  It was definitely a nice little time-filler and photo-op before we had to head back home.

 

 

Overall, we really enjoyed our “babymoon” getaway!  Porto is a sweet, beautiful, old city filled with charm and character.  I am so thankful for the opportunities that I have to travel living here in Europe!

Porto Travel Journal

Look for more soon, I hope to post about the following adventures:

*Girls day trip to Bruges, Belgium

*London (our many experiences there so far!)

*Exploring the UK (Dover, Canterbury, etc.)

*Dublin, Bruges, and Amsterdam with family

*Dublin (again) and Northern Ireland

*Hiking in Snowdonia

*Thanksgiving in Barcelona