Bath

On our way home from a Wales trip we stopped into Bath to explore for a morning. Everyone says Bath is one of the best cities in England and they weren’t kidding. I wish we could have spent more time here. It is actually much larger than I thought it would be   and quite picturesque. There is so much to do here from museums to shopping to having the Cotswolds close by— do yourself a favor and spend at least 2 days in the area.

The only thing on my agenda for the morning was to see the Roman baths and the royal crescent. Being the earlier hours of New Years Day it seemed much of the city was still sleeping when we arrived. We found free street parking close to the bath house. Be aware you should probably pre book your tickets and that strollers are not permitted inside the museum. They do have baby carriers that you can borrow. Audio guides are available, which Kellan is really into because he loves history…as well as being able to press the buttons at each information point.

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The Romans used the natural hot springs since ancient times and have been modified over time. You can see the steam rising from the water as the cold rain fell. The museum holds artifacts from the Roman period such as stones and coins. We spent about 90 minutes here.

Afterwards we walked around the surrounding area of the city and had brunch. I wish we had more time to explore! Something I noticed about Bath is that every building is the same color stone.

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The royal crescent is famous for its architecture, being 30 terraced homes forming a crescent. High society lives here! Its been used in tv and film, including one of my favorites- the Duchess with Keira Knightly.

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South Wales

I can’t believe its taken us 2 years to drive out to Wales… but we have finally done so. We waited until Christmas break since both boys were on holiday and the prices to fly off the island are insane. We found some really great deals on premier inn’s during the week after Christmas (think 40 pounds a night) and decided to hotel hop along the southern coast. We will save North Wales for another trip..a warmer trip.

Fun fact: my husband’s family is from Wales and he was a dual citizen before enlisting in the military. His grandfather was in the Royal Navy but they have lived in America for quite some time now. It’s always fun taking the boys around to places they can see their heritage. We made sure to get the Welsh flags for their rooms so they can always remember their time there.

Day 1: Cardiff 

We stayed in the city center and spent a good amount of time just walking around and shopping. There is a castle right in the center but we elected not to tour and just take pictures from the outside. We took the train down to Cardiff Bay where this also a lot of restaurants and shopping. You can take a 20 minute boat ride around the bay for 3 pounds a person. The boys had a great time and the captain let them drive the boat for a bit. There is also a hands on science museum called Techniquest where you can spend a couple of hours.

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Day 2

We drove to Caerphilly where the largest castle in Wales is located (second largest in the U.K.). We set aside a few hours of the day just to tour the castle since there is a lot for the boys to do. Unfortunately, as soon as we parked the car it started to sleet and we made the decision to just keep moving about our day. I have seen plenty of castles at this point and making the kids miserable wasn’t worth it. Seeing from the outside though its evident as a great place to stop with kids, and gorgeous!

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If you look up Brecon Beacons National Park you will see that this is somewhere I probably could have done as a vacation all its own. Green hills, waterfalls, the country- its my style. Being on limited time and in cold, wet weather we opted to pick one waterfall. Henryd Falls is easy to get to and not far from the car park with minimal hiking. We were able to have the place to ourselves. In warmer weather you can actually walk under the waterfall. We didn’t attempt this because even standing in front of it we were getting wet. It’s very misty.

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The Mumbles is a cute little seaside village just south of Swansea. I imagine in the summer months it gets very busy. Aside from the beach there is shopping, a pier, and restaurants. Not a lot going on down here in the rainy winter so we spent about 30 minutes walking the area of the pier. Well, I actually missed it altogether because Carter was napping and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up.

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On the way back to Swansea there is a beach called Three Cliffs Bay. It is a secluded beach that requires a 40 minute hike to get to from the nearest car park. Since we were nearing sunset we found a road with an overlook to get pictures from a distance.

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We stayed the night in Swansea and arrived after dark (3:30 pm). After getting some ice cream from a famous local creamery, we took the boys to a play place so they could have some fun and burn some energy. Unfortunately, we also got a case of hand, foot, and mouth disease along with our play. It started with Carter…then Kellan….then Mama. We all slowly developed a fever and it put a damper on the rest of the trip- but c’est la vie. I don’t know how Ben avoided getting it.

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Day 3

We made our way out west to the Pembrokeshire coast. Our first stop ended up being my favorite in South Wales. Tenby is a picturesque seaside city that looks like something you would see in Italy. This place is probably packed in the summertime. We had a good meal, walked around and spent some time at our happy place- the beach! I saw just as many dogs here as a did people so it’s a great place to go when traveling with dogs. I would love to come back here when its warmer and sunny. We probably say that for a lot of places in the United Kingdom but summers here are short there is just no way to fit it all in during that time.

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Pembrokeshire continued to impress me. Barafundle Bay and Church Doors cove are two bays separated by a peninsula. With Carter starting to not feel well we parked and took turns exploring the area. The views of the cliffs are gorgeous and the “door” is a cave in the sandstone cliff. There are stairs that lead down to the beach but we arrived during high tide and the waves were quite stormy and crashing right at the base of the stairs. If you want to spend time on the beach here make sure to check the tide schedule first.

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We stayed the night at a cute inn by the water in Pembroke Dock. This would be a good base point for anyone wanting to explore Pembrokeshire (which you should-its beautiful).

Day 4

St. Govans Chapel is named after an Irish monk that lived in a limestone cave in the 6th century. While some of it can be dated back that far, most was built in the 13th century. It was said he was hiding from pirates and decided to live amongst the limestone while warning the locals of possible attacks. Good place to stop if you like to mix history with the gorgeous views.

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On our way out of Wales we stopped at the McArthur Outlet mall. This is a good place to stop for anyone traveling with kids because it has a good food court and indoor playground.

Next stop: New Years Day back in England- Bath

Auschwitz

Planning a trip to Poland was complicated as I knew I couldn’t go without touring Auschwitz. This is not a place you want to take small children if they are anything like mine. First, we have Kellan who was overwhelmed with emotions and questions during visits to the Titanic experience and Culloden battlefield. Then we have Carter, a toddler with special needs that got us kicked out of a castle tour in Germany for being loud and distracting to others. No way was I bringing these two. Even in a typical museum I hardly get to read or fully absorb information.

We talked about taking turns touring the museum while the other stayed behind in Krakow with the boys. We decided to go ahead with this plan until some friends in Germany mentioned wanting to go to Poland but having the same concerns about their toddler boys. It worked out perfectly meeting them in Oswiecim one morning and spending a full day swapping being with the kids and touring the museum. The men went first, so Kaitlyn and I had breakfast with the boys at a cafe and then walked around the city and a local park.

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4 little boys = endless energy

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When the men came back a couple hours later we took the kids to a local play place called Park Family Fun. The boys had the place to themselves and is the perfect place to burn some energy. Kaitlyn and I drove a couple miles to the museum where we chose to tour on a pre booked “individual basis”. This is where you can tour the museum on your own time instead of being in a group. We purchased a tour booklet so that we could still follow a map and read about each building. Word of advise, we were very late for the time slot we had pre booked and we barely made it in. We hadn’t thought it would matter given we were on an individual tour but they almost didn’t let us enter.

Concentration camps are something I’ve learned about my entire life but nothing compares to learning about it as you walk along the same paths an unfathomable amount of murdered people walked. Brutally and unimaginably murdered and for no wrong doing. It is a surreal and humbling experience. You cannot help but think about your family and how fortunate you are.

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The first things prisoners saw entering the camp: Work will set you free

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The courtyard of block 11: also named the Death Wall as it was used for execution by gunfire

Auschwitz was established in 1940 and 1.3 million people died here. Some of the buildings we walked through included the gas chamber, crematorium, and experiments wing. While touring the camp you will witness things that will tear at your heart. Perhaps the toughest bit to see for me was upstairs in block 5. On display is 2 tons worth of haircloth made from human hair of the victims. The hair of Jewish women murdered in the gas chambers was used for textiles and sold to German companies. I think it was seeing something so physical and real that used to belong to someone’s body, and in such mass quantity, that put it all into perspective. I decided to skip block 6 which has a room on the children of Auschwitz. I just didn’t think I could handle it emotionally.

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floor plans to the gas chambers 
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Near the entrance to the gas chambers. People were brought here under the promise of a shower and instead were killed using Zyklon B

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empty canisters of the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers 
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Prisoners were documented by photographs accompanied by name, date of birth, occupation, date of arrival and date of death. Every type of occupation is represented from farmer to accountant. 

Touring Auschwitz is an eye opening experience because not only do you feel humbled and thankful for your life;  you will also have the unique experience of walking out a changed person. It’s impossible to come here and not reflect on the world’s history, the need for power, and the desire to not repeat the mistakes once made.

 

 

Krakow

My husband never has much of an opinion on where we holiday but Poland has been the one place he has continuously talked about visiting. I am pretty certain the reasons for going has nothing to go with the sites or culture- he wanted to go because his friends told him how cheap it was. Who doesn’t love a cheap getaway?

They weren’t lying. Poland has been the most affordable place we have been to date. The flights into Krakow were a bit more expensive for the time we wanted to travel (and by expensive I mean over $75 for a ticket), so we saved money by flying into Katowice and driving an hour via rental car.

Where we stayed

P&J Apartments have two bedroom flats one block from the Old Town main square. If you plan to walk to all the sites this is a great place, spacious and clean. The realtor told us the buildings in Krakow are very old and it’s one of the only buildings with an elevator. Parking is easily found on the street. They even sent a team of people to rescue me after the lock jammed when I tried to exit the bathroom. I was stuck in there for an hour, y’all. So embarrassing.

What we ate

The food is so cheap in Poland you will feel like you are eating like royalty. We would even order multiple entrees per person just because we could and wanted to try everything. Pizzatopia just off the main square was so good we ate there twice. Its child friendly, serving ‘build your own’ artisan pizza in 3 minutes. What’s unique about it is how creative you can get with your toppings. The craft beer is great, too.

Another family friendly dine-in place we enjoyed was Taco Mexicano. We can’t help ourselves when we come across Mexican food in Europe as we don’t get it very much. The food was good (again-cheap), and there is a small play area for the kids to enjoy while you wait for your meal.

For Polish food we took to the streets. We had takeaway of kielbasa and fries from kebab shops and traditional dishes from the Christmas market such as perogies. The best thing I tried was grilled oscypek, a cheese dumpling topped with cranberries. Sweet mized with salty…mmmmm!

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artisan pizza at Pizzatopia
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of course the boys favorite was the gelato

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lunch and train table at Taco Mexicano
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Cakes for US equivalent $1.50. Yes, we had a lot of treats!

The Christmas Market

We were in town for the opening of the Christmas market which is held in the main square of Old Town. We spent our evenings walking around with some friends that met us from Germany and letting our boys play together. Europe really knows how to make Christmas feel magical. This was a smaller market with but still charming. Sold the basic sweets, ornaments and other locally made items. There are street performers dancing and playing instruments.

My only disappointment was the lack of children’s activities. Last year we went to markets in 5 different countries and each had small rides, a Santa’s grotto and other activities. This one didn’t have anything like that aside from carriage rides. In fact, we didn’t see a lot of children at the market or generally in the city of Krakow for that matter. I noticed that the city had a young, trendy vibe full of attractive and well dressed people in their 20’s.

 

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Strolling the city

We didn’t make specific plans for things to see in Krakow. We really wanted to just walk around, shop and eat. We spent hours wandering the streets. It is a great city to just stroll about while admiring the architecture. Those are my favorite cities. The ones where you don’t have to be on a schedule, get advanced tickets and wait in lines for things. Poland is famous for its pottery so we made sure to pick up a couple pieces. I also picked up way more ornaments than was necessary because I couldn’t believe how cheap they were.

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Took a break to let the boys chase pigeons- their favorite activity

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Former home of the Pope

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Wawel Castle 

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Wawel castle is considered to be the most historically significant site in Poland. We didnt tour inside the castle but chose to walk the perimeter. Built in the 13th century it is where the kings of Poland resided and now serves as a museum. It is said the area has been populated by humans for 50,000 years. In the middle ages bones were found that the people believed to be dragon bones. They were believed as such up until the 19th century when they were revealed to be of a wooly mammoth. This is why a dragon is the symbol of Krakow.

At the bottom of the hill is a dragon statue that breathes fire every 10 minutes. The boys had a blast pretending to fight the dragon with their swords. Every castle we visit we always tell the boys to look for dragons and protect us with their swords. It was so much fun having this castle display a fire breathing dragon.

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**For my next post I will be writing about our trip to the nearby Auschwitz camp**

 

 

Slovenia

After some fun outdoorsy trips like Ireland, Scotland, and Croatia, I was looking for somewhere that would have a similar feel. Slovenia proved to be another amazingly family friendly destination that had the perfect combination of fun for the boys and sight seeing for the adults. With just a few days to spare we were able to see everything on my list. Being a bit cheaper, we flew into Trieste, Italy where we rented a car and drove an hour to the capital city of Ljubljana. Know how to pronounce that? Neither did I. Thanks google!

Ljubljana is a charming and picturesque small city that reminded me of Bruges in Belgium. It’s very walkable and does not have a lot of “must see” attractions. One of those places you just walk around and eat street food and listen to street performers. These are my favorite cities in Europe. I just like to eat and take pictures of architecture.

We arrived at night and checked into Hotel Emonec (highly recommend) before heading out to the main square for snacks. I saw that there was an illusions museum nearby that looked similar to the one we enjoyed in Edinburgh. While the boys had a good time, it is much smaller and only took about 40 minutes to complete. Afterwards we had some of the best gelato I’ve had in Europe….you need to stop by Gelateria Romantika during your visit. Strawberry. You’re welcome.

The next morning we walked around Old Town a bit more before heading 40 minutes south where we planned to meet some friends for the day. We have been following the Grassel family around the globe for 9 years now. First Japan, then Florida and now Europe. Our lives have always run parallel and it’s nice having another family that lives a similar lifestyle. They had recommended meeting at Postojna caves since it’s a popular day trip from where they live in Italy.

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Postojna caves are the longest cave system in Europe at 24 km long (and pretty old too- at 2 million years). It’s so large you actually get to ride a train through them, which is actually pretty exciting. You constantly feel like your head is going to hit a stalactite. Slovenia is worth visiting simply for this attraction alone. My boys loved the train ride and walking throughout.

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Our next stop was 9km north at Predjama castle, a 13th century castle built within a cave. This is one tourist destination that looks exactly like the pictures online. It’s that beautiful.  It’s made its way onto my favorite castles list because its got the full package. Not only is it beautiful but there is so much to see inside. From hidden caves to torture chambers and weaponry. Self guided tour headphones are provided with the cost of admission and you’ll learn quite a lot. My favorite thing about this castle was the weapons display as it really puts into perspective how violent the time period was. Morning stars, anyone?

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Our next stop in Slovenia was Lake Bled, somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit during the summer months but in retrospect I’m glad we went off season. The changing leaves were gorgeous and the lake not crowded at all. Not being able to swim in the lake was quickly forgotten due to the unexpected upgrade at our hotel. We had booked  fairly cheap stay at the 3 star Hotel Savaca only to find out we had been upgraded to its 4 star sister hotel Hotel Golf. I don’t even know how much it would have cost to book there but let’s just say my boys loved it so much Kellan cried when we left…. and asked if we could move there. The pools were amazing. It was an entire complex of pools for all age ranges and the best was the heated outdoor pool overlooking Bled castle at night. We ended up spending more time there than the actual lake.

My absolute must do excursion for the Lake Bled area was to hike the 2 mile Vintgar Gorge to Sum waterfall. It’s a hike along raised wooden platforms along the water, similar to that of Plitvice lakes in Croatia. We woke up, ate breakfast and headed directly to the Gorge. About 10 minutes in we came to a gate and discovered the rest of the path was closed for maintenance. My heart just sank because it was beautiful outside and our only day we could make the hike. In my mind all I could think about was the FOMO I would forever have from coming all the way to Slovenia and not seeing Vintgar Gorge and the waterfall.

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Back at the gorge entrance I noticed an unmarked path leading up the mountain. We decided to start hiking up the mountain in hopes that maybe it was an alternative route to the waterfall or it at least gave us views of other parts of the gorge. We hiked for about 20 minutes uphill with no signs of anything we wanted to find, all the while the trail becoming more and more dangerous with the path being right on a mountain cliff. We eventually ran into a woman on her way down that spoke little english but managed to tell me that the path did lead to the waterfall but that it was a long ways away. Having come so far already I didn’t want to turn around but Ben was more than happy to take the kids back to the car and wait for me.

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I now understand why so many women enjoy traveling alone because the hour I had solo in the Julian Alps was one of the most peaceful and reflective times of my life. The views were just breathtaking. I eventually started coming down the mountain and crossed paths with a elderly man cutting wood who helped point me into the direction of the waterfall. A short time later I realized I was heading towards a small village. I came upon another man leading his horses out to pasture and he directed me to the village which would have signs for the waterfall.

Pulling out my phone I gathered that Ben was only a 20 minute drive away and could actually meet me there. Having originally planned to hike the gorge to the waterfall I had no idea it actually had a car park and you could drive right up to it. So here I am walking through these people’s muddy horse pastures with them probably thinking I’m a crazy person. I need to say that the people in Slovenia are the kindest and most helpful people.

Sum waterfall was worth the trouble. There is a bridge that walks right over its top and I had the place to myself until my family arrived…another reason why I love off season travel.

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The rest of our day was spent around Lake Bled taking in the sights. Our first stop was to Bled castle which has the most incredible views over the surrounding area. It’s the oldest castle in the country- first on record in the 11th century. The castle itself was not much of an excursion with just a couple courtyards and towers but you come here for the view.  Down below you can see the Church of the Assumption, another popular attraction at Lake Bled. You can take a boat out to the island but with such short time I was happy just seeing it from above.

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We spent some time down by the lake riding ponies, feeding the ducks and listening to live music (polka!). There are stalls with wine tastings, cafe’s and of course…lots of places to stop and eat Bled cream cake. A lot of places seemed to be closed and I am not sure if that was because it was a Sunday or because it was off season. I imagine the lake is quite lively in the summertime.

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On our way back to Italy we hit a snow storm and I was thankful we got to see the snow but didn’t have to walk around in it since we were very limited on clothing.

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Slovenia is a country I feel doesn’t get enough love from U.K. tourists. Probably because it borders Italy and Croatia which are very popular travel destinations. However, you really need to spend a couple days here, especially if you have children. It’s very safe, family friendly, and affordable.

 

 

 

Venice

Before I moved to Europe I lived in the most picturesque neighborhood in Florida with some of the best neighbors a person could ask for. Seriously- this place was straight out of a Nicholas Sparks movie. Erica and April became like family during our time there and when they decided to visit me in England I was ecstatic. There is nothing like some girl time to recharge your body and mind in the midst of raisin’ babies. Shout out to the hubbies for making this trip possible.

We flew into Venice late on a Friday night and took the bus to the Piazzale Roma. This is as far as a bus can take you- it’s all water taxi’s after this point. We opted to walk to our hotel which was a good 25 minutes of narrow alley ways and bridges. Thankfully we packed light. I chose a hotel that had 24 hour reception and was right in the middle of the touristy area. Residenza Goldoni is steps away from the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge, perfect location for being able to walk and take water taxis anywhere you need to go.

We didn’t really have any plans going to Venice other than to walk around. Everyone will tell you that Venice is a good place to “get lost” and that’s pretty much what we did. We have 7 toddlers between the three of us and we honestly didn’t want to be on a schedule, wait in any lines or do anything we would have done with kids. Plenty of prosecco was consumed and one of us decided to get a nose piercing-wasn’t me- but I did think about it!

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St. Mark’s square is the famous Piazza that dates back to the 9th century. There are churches and museums to visit in this area but we opted to drink wine and shop for art and jewelry. I found a beautiful watercolor piece for my wall and a bracelet for my niece’s upcoming birthday.

It’s also just a great place to people watch or sit and enjoy the view of boats hopping from island to island. We had plans to taxi over to Murano and Burano but as we were about to board the boat it began to thunder and lightening. I’m not one to be frolicking around when it’s lightening outside so we had to pass on that excursion.

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Venice is well known for glass blowing

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The food In Venice was pretty great. I found the gelato to have been better in Rome but nearly everything else was fairly similar. People think it’s weird when I say this…but probably my favorite dish was a pizza topped with potatoes. Carbs on top of carbs? Yes, please! I think my next trip to Italy will need to entail the countryside and off-the-beaten-path dining since I’m sure that’s Italy at its finest.

The locals were all very friendly but what’s disheartening is the lack of Venetian culture actually living on the island. You have probably seen on the news this summer that many European cities have begun anti-tourism protests. Venice was among one of the cities claiming the overwhelming amount of tourists (mostly those off cruise ships) are raising rents, causing pollution, and forcing locals to move out. Venice was the first city I have visited where this claim was very apparent. It felt like we were only amongst tourists and barely any locals. Almost like being in an theme park. The locals want to protect their centuries old buildings and heritage and I can see why.

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DEA (our squad name)

Since we were in Venice we had to go on a gondola ride. Sure, it’s pricey but it’s a bucket list item you have to check off. My advice to anyone heading to Venice is to do the Gondola ride first.  Since we waited until the end of the day, we were taken down canals we had already walked down multiple times. Doing it at the start of your trip will give it more of a wow factor. However, it was nice going right before sunset. Felt really romantic with two of my favorite gals!

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Now that I have visited a couple Italian cities I need to know what should be next on my list for Italy. The country? The beach?

So tell me-where is your favorite place in Italy?

Paris

I am not a huge city person, especially when I have two toddlers in tow. We much prefer outdoorsy trips. When my sister and a friend had a couple days overlapping in Europe we all decided to head to Paris and leave the kids with their Daddy. This was my first trip away from both the boys, and it was a little hard but I have to admit I needed a getaway after a couple months of solo parenting.

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When you are traveling kid free and it’s an empty flight. Score!

Where we stayed 

This was a pretty last minute trip so getting a hotel in the arrondissement we wanted was impossible. August is a busy month is Paris. Hotel des 3 Poussins in the 9th arr. was a good last minute find. It’s a cute boutique style hotel near a metro station and about 10 minutes walk from the Moulin Rouge. The area was pretty quiet and we felt safe walking around at night. No views of the Eiffel Tower but we were happy!

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Wish we could have seen a show but tickets here are not cheap

 

How we got around

We took a flight to Paris but took the Eurostar train back. I highly recommend the train over flying. Easier check in, no long lines, more comfortable, and we had no luggage restriction. Plus, there were some shady characters circling us at CDG. We had men stopping very close to us and pretending to tie their non-existent shoelaces, etc. Paris is the only place I’ve visited in Europe where I was constantly paranoid of being robbed.

From the airport and within the city we took the metro. It was very cheap, especially compared to the London underground…but it was also pretty grotesque. It smelled of urine everywhere and we generally just didn’t feel safe, especially walking through the metro stations at night. Next time I would just spend the extra money on a cab. Erica and I had an incident where the doors shut behind me before she had hopped on and we got separated without her having a phone. We thankfully found each other at the next station but that was pretty nerve wracking.

We did spend some time on the hop on hop off bus which is a great way to see the city on limited time. We only had one full day and two half days. Even being busy tourist season is ran very efficiently.

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Where we ate

Honestly, all the food in Paris was great. Probably one of my favorite things about the city. I was excited at all the possibilities of eating out without children and wasn’t disappointed! Erica had cravings for pistachio macarons and pasta so we had plenty of that. Our favorite restaurant was near our hotel in the 9th arrondissement, Ristorante al Caratello. We had the best meal, some drinks and great conversation with another patron and the owner.

Our only negative experience was outside of the train station before we went home. While the food was good, we chose to eat outside and there were beggars constantly stopping and asking us for money and food. One woman actually took my plate of fries and dumped them into her bag when I said I was done with them. You can avoid the harassment by simply eating inside the restaurant.

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Pizza place near the train station.

The Eiffel Tower

Shame on me… but I didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower. Partly because I don’t like heights all that much and partly because I didn’t want to waste half a day with ticketing and lines. Paris in August y’all- it’s busy. Instead, we chose to enjoy from below. We walked around, took pictures and spent a good amount of time frantically looking for toilets for my sister and niece. Something that’s majorly lacking at one of the largest tourist destinations in the world? Bathrooms. You could probably spend just as much time waiting in line for a toilet as getting up the tower.

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View from Trocadero, a good place to get full pictures of the tower
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At night the tower lights up and sparkles for the first ten minutes of the hour

My favorite thing about being at the Eiffel Tower was getting to experience it with my niece Emily. My boys are little and I am sure there is plenty Kellan will remember when he is older. But Emily is definitely old enough to remember that she got to travel around Europe with her Aunt. I also loved being able to tell she appreciated what she was experiencing. I am really big on experiences and making memories over having things. This is a special memory we will always have together.

The Louvre

We spent a couple hours walking around the Louvre which was pretty grand and at first a little confusing to navigate. Not quite as maze-like as Vatican City but you can definitely spend a lot of time here. At first we were unsure if we wanted to spend time here, knowing it would be very crowded and seeing the Mona Lisa would be a spectacle. However, I am really glad we decided to go. Afterall, it’s the most famous paintings and the most famous museum in the entire world. We also didn’t have any issues buying tickets on site and walking straight into the museum because we took the entrance from the metro below ground.

And yes, seeing the Mona Lisa was an event. Pretty sure it’s the closest I’ll ever feel to being part of a cow herd. You enter the back of the herd and slowly inch forward while your body is pressed up against strangers on all sides. Once you get to the front you have to take a minimum of ten pictures and then turn around and get a selfie with her too. It’s all a part of the experience and I am still thankful we got to see her. Erica mentioned to me that no one actually gets to sit and admire the painting, and it’s true, which is quite sad. If that’s something you would like to do- don’t go to the Louvre in the summer.

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behind bullet proof glass

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My fave painting I saw

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Champs-Elysees

This is the famous avenue surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a touristy area everyone has to visit when they come to Paris. Lots of shopping, dining, and the views of the Arc are amazing. Don’t buy your souvenirs here though as they are twice as expensive as you pay elsewhere.

Something to consider when you visit this area is preparing your children for what they may see. There are many homeless refugees lying right in the middle of the sidewalks either sleeping or begging for money. At one point I saw three small children sleeping with their mother on a mattress right under a window display. This kind of stuff just tugs at your heartstrings and I imagined the questions my 4 year old would have had had he seen those children. How do you explain to a small child why some children don’t have a home? Why people walk right around them and pretend they aren’t there?

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Other sites from the HOHO bus

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Notre Dame
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Notre Dame

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Framlingham Castle

If you speak English (and you probably do if you’re reading this blog) then you have certainly heard the song “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran. He wrote this song about Framlingham, his hometown and the 12th century castle of the same name. I’ve visited castles all over the world yet it took me 18 months to visit this one an hour from my home. Go figure.

With a couple of my friends visiting I took the opportunity to finally go see this castle on the hill.  With the kids in tow, I was pleasantly surprised by the children’s activities put on by English Heritage. There is a slide that descends from the castle walls, role playing activities and storytelling. The gift shop sells ice cream and swords and other toys to make the trip enjoyable for the kiddos.

 

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Something I hadn’t realized was that Framlingham does not have an interior. Past the exterior walls there is only a grassy courtyard where the activities are put on. The admission into the castle gives you access to walk along the upper castle walls, giving you a full view of the countryside in every direction. Gorgeous.

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Something else I learned was that the Howard family onced owned Framlingham. The Howards were a very political family during the war of the roses era. That era of England fascinates me. Check out Framlingham for a day of fun and history.

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Isle of Skye

I was originally supposed to take this trip with my mom but she had an unforeseen move and the timing did not work out. When my sister said she and my niece were coming I knew Isle of Skye is where I wanted to take her. She is someone that would fully appreciate the history and the beauty. With only a months notice we had a very difficult time finding somewhere to stay on the island. I emailed and called every accommodation on Skye and we had no luck. August is the busiest month. If you plan to head there during this time frame plan far in advance. We had to stay off the island which took time away from the time we spent on it. Overall, everything worked out though and we got to see almost everything that was on my list.

Simply driving around the island is breathtaking. It is very underdeveloped and natural. I wonder if the life of a sheep farmer is for me because something about this place makes you want to leave everything you know behind and live a simpler life. Everywhere you turn there are highland cows, sheep, horses, rainbows and waterfalls.

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Fairy pools

The fairy pools are a bit out of the way compared to some of the other sites. To reach it you travel down a small single lane road and it is very secluded. As we drove up the weather started to turn and by the time we arrived it was pouring rain. This was my niece Emily’s number one must see attraction so there was no way were going to miss it. So we put on all the rain gear we had and set off hiking. The rain was coming in sideways and from all directions so everyone was soaked within minutes. I was wearing Carter in the Ergo and he amazingly slept the entire hike. Even at almost 3 years old the Ergo is his place of calm.

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Even hiking in the rain my husband is still going to wear his dress shoes. Yes, I married a pretty boy.

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Due to the rain and fog we did not have a lot of visibility so my pictures don’t compare to anything you will see online. It is still beautiful and worth it. I only wish the sun had been out so the kids could enjoy it more. Poor Emily and Kellan were so wet it was hard for them to enjoy.

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Fairy Glen

Probably my favorite thing we did on the Isle of Skye was the Fairy Glen. It really does have a magical feel about it. Green hills and valleys with sheep wandering about. We were fortunate enough that we avoided rain while hiking. We also got lucky with not many other visitors there. I had read it can get so busy you sometimes have to park and walk 30 minutes away but we had no problem finding parking.

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We told the kids that we were searching for the fairies that live there. Emily said they live in flowers so Kellan was searching in every flower for a fairy. They really enjoyed running free and climbing on all the mounds. They wrote a note to the fairies and places them among the rocks for them to find. It was really fun having them use their imaginations and make the hike even more mystical.

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Sligachen

Anyone coming onto Skye passes Sligachen and its brewery. This is a busy area and great place to stop to eat, let the kids play on the playground and do some light hiking. We did not eat here but did stop and walk around a bit for some pictures around the bridge. The scenery is stunning.

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Duntulm Castle

Up on the northern area are the remaining stones of Duntulm Castle. The remains itself aren’t much but the views on the walk there are spectacular. Built in the 14th century during feuding among two clans, it was the 17th century when it became the seat of clan MacDonald. The MacDonalds eventually took the stones from Duntulm and used it for another house nearby.

There is a more preserved castle on Skye called Dunvegan, seat to clan MacLeod, but we did not have enough time to visit.

Kilt Rock

Kilt Rock is probably the easiest site to visit on the island as it has its own car park just steps from the waterfall. We didn’t even get the kids out of the car as they were napping and just took turns going for a look. This makes it very crowded. In the past there were many deaths from people trying to look over the cliff’s edge but today there is a designated viewing point with fencing. We were pleasantly surprised by a man playing the bagpipes for the crowd of tourists.

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Old Man of Storr

Due to the kids being exhausted and napping in the car we elected not to hike Old man of Storr. Next time!

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Quiraing

Another area to hike is Quiraing on the northern side near Kilt Rock. We decided to give the kids a break from hiking and took pictures from the car.

Lealt Falls

This is another busy area of Skye due to its proximity to Portree and easy access. The gorge is close to the road so you must hike up a hill and look backwards in order to see it. When we stopped it was extremely windy and beginning to rain. There is no barrier on the cliff so take precautions with children in bad weather. I believe there is access to view from a road more eye level to the falls but I wasn’t sure how to get there and chose to leave the kids in the car. Again, we took turns on the short walk up.

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Isle of Skye was the trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful we got to experience it. If it isn’t already on your bucket list…make it so. To the locals- don’t be surprised if you eventually see a foreign school counselor and physical therapist as your new neighbors.

 

 

 

The Highlands

It finally came. My dream trip to the Scottish Highlands. When we moved to Europe I had a top 5 MUST DO list and this was on it. The only thing that could make it better? My sister and my niece Emily joining. We have visited and lived in a lot of cool places and it’s always nice when people make the effort to come see you and experience what your life is like. They flew into London and hit the ground running, leaving straight away for Scotland. There was a lot to get done in 5 days.

*Before I dive into the gloriousness of Scotland- I want to give a shout out to American Airlines for being the worst airline and customer service ever. They will never get my business again after what they put my family through with their luggage. To put it as plainly as possible- it was lost, separated and not returned to them until they were leaving England.*

I digress. Day 1 we spent driving to Glasgow. We arrived at midnight due to the delay with the luggage situation so our plans to see the city were put off -which I was okay with. The star of this trip was the Highlands anyway. Warning- there will be talk of Outlander ahead. And yes, I did download all the Outlander soundtracks and make my family listen to it on repeat for a week as we drove. I can’t help it.

Glencoe

People said Isle of Skye would be the highlight of my trip but Glencoe gave it a run for its money. Maybe it was because it was the first thing we did so it produced that initial wow moment for me. Maybe it’s because some Outlander scenes were filmed there so it made it more special. Either way this place is a must see when visiting Scotland. I wish I had known to devote more time there. We basically drove through and stopped in at the Three Sisters. They are three stunning mountain ridges overlooking a valley. The car park is right at the viewing point so you can choose to get out and enjoy the view or you can hike. We brought a kite and hoped to do some hiking but that didn’t last long because it started to rain heavily. Being that my sister and niece did not have their luggage they had almost no rain gear with them and no extra clothes for if they got muddy. They ended up buying all new gear the next day because we didn’t want to miss out on any more hiking while waiting for the luggage.

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Fort William

We were running short on time in order to catch the Jacobite train so we had to settle for driving around Fort William and not stopping as we had planned. It was a very picturesque small city and I would love to return.

Glenfinnan

At Glenfinnan station there is a small dining car that serves cafe food such as soup and toasties. The kids really liked eating here and the food was good. There are not a lot of dining options in the area so this is a good place to grab a bite before exploring.

You can actually ride the Jacobite steam train between Mallaig and Fort William but we settled for watching it pass on the viaduct. It is about a 10 minute walk from the highlander memorial car park and passes at 11 and 3. This train is famous. Not only because it is a steam locomotive traveling through some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery, but it was used as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

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Glenfinnan is where the Jacobite rising began in 1945, led by Prince Charles Stuart. The history of the highlands, the rising and fall of the clan system is simply fascinating. I find it actually quite similar to how the English viewed Native Americans tribes in the new world. Both were viewed as tribal societies or savages.

There is now a memorial here overlooking Loch Shiel in tribute to the Jacobites.  The view is amazing. The kids really enjoyed throwing pebbles into the water. It’s the little things that keep them happy.

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Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

On our way to Inverness we got to drive the length of Loch Ness. There are a few little villages along the water that are worth a stop if time permits, all selling cute Loch Ness monster souvenirs, of course. We arrived at Urquhart castle right as it was closing so we only got to take pictures from afar. Something else to put on the list for next time!

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Inverness

This is the capitol of the highlands and such a cute little city. We did not spend much daytime here but walked around a couple evenings along the river Ness, did some window shopping and eating dinner. Our favorite place to eat with the kids was Zizzi; a rare gem that is super kid friendly but also had amazing food.

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Culloden Battlefield 

Not far outside Inverness is the battlefield and museum of Culloden- not to be missed if you love history. This is where the Jacobite rising came to a violent end in 1975. The museum has a gift shop (complete with Outlander souvenirs, yes I shamelessly bought a Jamie Christmas ornament), a cafe, and interactive displays for the kids to enjoy. There are costumes for the kids to dress up in, weapons and artifacts they can touch and a movie depicting the battle, which I realized very quickly was too violent for my oldest son. Oops.

Outside the museum you can walk along the battlefield, visit clan markers, and the memorial Cairn. There are blue flags indicating where the Jacobites were positioned and red flags for the government army. There weren’t many people there the day we visited but we did meet a sweet elderly couple with a three legged dog. They walk the battlefield yearly and pays respect to their heritage, clan Mackintosh.

Carter napped the whole walk. Kellan is my curious child and probably did not stop talking the entire time. He wanted to know every detail of the battle, who lost and won, where they are today and what happened to their families. I thankfully had a good base knowledge of the history but even that was not enough for him since he is still not fully understanding what it means to me killed. I do love that he has such inquisition for old things, history and battles.

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Eilean Donan Castle

We have been to many castles since we moved to Europe. I mean, a lot. Eilean Donan absolutely gets to be in my top 5 faves. This place is stunning. A 13th century castle, it was built as a protective measure against the Vikings and aided in the Jacobite rising. What I learned is that it housed Spanish soldiers that were supporting the Jacobites, so the government bombarded the castle and it sat destroyed for 200 years before being rebuilt.

You can spend a good bit of time here just walking around, touring the castle ( a lot to see inside), eating lunch at the cafe, and shopping at the gift shop. The kids had a great time simply walking around the waters edge, under the bridge, and throwing pebbles. Give my kids water, rocks and rain boots and they are happy.

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Scotlands most photographed castle. Not hard to see why.

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I was really excited to show Emily and Jess their first castle. Emily has a really great imagination but also old enough to understand more things than my boys do. Something I like to tell my boys when we visit castles is that we have to find the dragon and slay him. It’s just a way to make it fun for them being that they usually have to walk slowly, be quiet and not touch anything. For whatever reason, Kellan took this occasion very seriously and was on a mission to find a dragon. This poor Scottish woman sat and listened to him forever as he went on and on with questions on where the dragon may be hiding. So patient! Scottish people are so friendly.

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Necessary to fully enjoy!

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Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the castle.  I was trying to keep mental notes of all the great displays they had. Many weapons and maps marking the timeline of the Jacobites. The decor was very detailed with extravagant furnishings. You will even see a lock of hair from Bonnie Prince Charles. Kinda weird but…wow!

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Kinloch Rannoch

This is a lake near Tay Forest Park and my journey here served one purpose: it is the filming site for Craigh Na Dun in Outlander. It is a trek to get here, very small and winding roads within the mountains. The people that scout for filming locations on the series did a great job finding this gem. It is a pivotal location for the show as it is where Claire journeys through time via the standing stones. The stones were placed here by production but as soon as we pulled up there was no mistaking this was Craigh Na Dun!

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When we arrived we found the area to the hill is gated. My sister was a little uneasy about opening the gate but my love for Outlander is too strong to travel all that way and not see it. I had Ben stay behind with the kids so we could quickly and quietly walk up, take pictures and leave. **Whispers to self** Outlander is not real, Outlander is not real.

While taking pictures Kellan decided to have his first encounter with stinging nettle and you would have thought he broke an arm as loudly as he was screaming. He was in a lot of pain. So much for being inconspicuous.

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Mallaig

We only stayed one night in Mallaig while waiting for a ferry to the Isle of Skye, but I have to give the name of the B&B we stayed at. Seaview guest house was such a pleasure. Great communication, friendly and very comfortable/stylish rooms. Wish we could have stayed longer.

**Stay tuned for my write up on the beautiful Isle of Skye!**