Austria

Recently we have been taking a lot of whirlwind trips without much time to relax. I wanted our trip to Austria to be something the boys would enjoy doing. Something that mixed summer break fun with history and culture. Austria did not disappoint. If I could go back and do this trip over I would do everything exactly the same. I would do it again next week. An absolutely perfect trip spending quality time with my boys.

Where we stayed

Being Austria, I wanted to stay in the country and have views. Laschensky Dependance was the perfect hotel. It’s only a few miles from the airport but you would never know it as its set in the quiet countryside. A taxi to Salzburg is 15 minutes and costs around 15 euro, but you can also take a bus which will be cheaper (but take 45 minutes). There isn’t anything to do in the general area but the hotel offers free bikes for you to explore and we spent a lot of time walking around the village. Just behind the hotel there is a family farm with kittens, rabbits, goats and donkeys. We walked over a few times to say hello to the animals. No one spoke English there but didn’t seem to mind us poking around.

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I highly recommend staying here with children but it would also be a great romantic trip. You could come to Austria and never leave this hotel. The pool, which was undersold on their website,  is a natural spring with views of the mountains. the water feels amazing. There is a sprawling playground complete with a zipline, sand pit and slides where the kids can play while you order and wait for your food. They even have a kinder room with legos and other toys. The hotel is family run and they went above and beyond to make sure we had a great stay; always calling me a taxi or giving my boys ice cream and a band-aid when they got hurt. English isn’t as widely spoken in this area so be aware you wont have English menus or channels on tv. The only thing I regret is that my husband could not be on this trip to experience it with us.

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Hallstatt 

This was a bucket list item; the entire reason I wanted to come to Austria. I had a hard time finding full day tours from Salzburg to Hallstatt so had to settle for a half day tour (which only gave us a few hours in the city)…not enough time. Please google image Hallstatt and you will see what I mean. It’s one of the most picturesque small cities in Europe. It’s so pretty the Chinese made an actual replica of the entire village.

The bus ride was about 1.5 hours through the lakes district and you make a couple stops to take photos. One of them being St. Gilgen which took my breath away. I had to wake the boys up from a nap to get them off the bus and take pictures with me. Some of the things these kids have slept through…

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Once we arrived we headed straight for the sky walk. This is a do not miss activity if you are short on time. The cable car takes you 350 meters above the village where you have amazing views over Lake Hallstatt. There is also a nice, casual restaurant but I thought it better to use our short time eating in the village. Instead we opted for gelato after awkwardly asking strangers to take photos for me and the boys.

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Once we got into the village we spent some time dipping our feet in the water, shopping and eating. I really wish we had more time here as its one of the cutest villages I’ve ever seen. It’s probably magical at Christmas time. The boys could have spent the entire day throwing rocks and splashing around. For lunch we found a great spot overlooking the lake. Austria is a very meat-and-potatoes kind of country and I’m here for it!

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Salzburg

After the Hallstatt tour we were dropped off in the city center and spent a couple of hours walking around. I didn’t really have much of an agenda since we were doing the sound of music bike tour the following day. This trip really wasn’t about museums and looking at old buildings so I steered clear of those types of activities. I wanted to be outdoors, enjoy the weather and let the boys lead the way.

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When planning a trip to Austria I knew it had to be a warm weather trip. Id always envisioned riding bikes as a family in the sunshine amongst the flowers and the hills. Corny, I know, but that was my dream. Even without my husband I was determined to make that happen. I booked a Sound of Music bike tour that takes you through the city and surrounding countryside showing you all the filming locations for the movie. It was about 8 miles total and advertised as kid friendly. So I booked a bike with a trailer for Carter and booked Kellan on his own bike. I prepped Kellan weeks in advance on how it would be a difficult day and he would be tired but I knew he could do it. He was very excited. Little boys love to show off how strong or brave they are.

When we arrived to the Fraulen Maria’s tour our guide, Leo, brought Kellan a bike…but it was too big for a 5-year-old. It was more suitable for an 8-year-old. Kellan is used to a small bike that has brakes in the pedals. This bike had brakes on the handlebars with gears- which his small hands could barely reach. He also couldn’t touch the ground from a seated position on the bike. I immediately knew this was going to be a problem (and so did Leo) but Kellan was not going to back down from this challenge. He practiced riding in circles and braking as the guide went over the events for the day.

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Something else I didn’t realize was how we would be biking on very busy city streets, and up and down very steep hills. Hills that a fit adult couldn’t handle. I was so proud of my baby but after about 2 miles we had to call it for safety reasons and Kellan had to go into the trailer. This meant I was now pulling the equivalent of my body weight or more behind me on this bike. It was 90 degrees and this ended up being the workout of my life. After it was over I told my husband that climbing Mt. Fuji was easier. I had so many people on the tour offer to switch bikes with me so that I could have a break but I guess Kellan and I are too alike in that I was not going to back down from this challenge!

Other than being physically demanding, the tour was amazing. Leo was an incredible guide, one of the best we’ve ever had. He was extra corny and had speakers so we could all sing to the soundtrack as we biked. My dream came true! He was so sweet to the boys as was everyone in the tour group. There were a lot of Americans so it was great chatting with people from home. Some of the stops were quick but we did have several stops where we got a 15 minute rest while listening to the history and filming details. I can’t believe how well my kids did on this trip. Sometimes I question how they can be total terrors at home but put into unfamiliar situations; long travel days outside their routines, and they really shine. I couldn’t be more proud.

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Stay tuned for my write up on our week in Cornwall!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baltic Cruise

When we moved to Europe we had a top 5 MUST DO list and a Baltic cruise was on it. Specifically the Royal Caribbean cruise as it ports for two days in Russia while most others port for only one day. Unfortunately, this cruise only runs in the summer months and my husband always has to go away for work during the summers. Being our last year in England I had to go ahead and book the cruise for just me and the kiddos. A couple of months later we randomly found out my dad and his wife (in America) unknowingly booked the same exact cruise. What are the chances?

There are two reasons why I wanted to see the Baltic countries via cruise. The first is that these are pretty expensive countries. It’s a good way to see some highlights of each without paying for hotels, etc. in each country. No, the cruise was not cheap- in fact it was one of the most expensive trips I’ve ever taken, but it is a fraction of what you would pay to see them all separately. The second reason…and really the main reason, is um, Russia!  It’s just a place I never thought I would have the chance to visit and I was going to take the opportunity while I could. More on that later.

The Cruise line

Couple of things about cruising the Baltic during the U.K. school term time: there were hardly any children at all on the ship, and it was catered towards people of retirement age. This isn’t saying it wasnt child friendly…but there were definitely plenty of people on board that did not want kids around. There is a kids club that is supposed to be autism friendly but we had a major problem the first time I took Carter so we didn’t go back. That’s a story for another post! The good thing about this 7 night cruise is that you are only at sea for one day and you stay very busy at port. There isn’t all that much time spent on the ship other than eating and sleeping.

There was a very diverse range of nationalities on board; mostly Europeans, Americans and Israelis. The food was really good, the room was perfect, entertainment was nice. There is a water slide but we never used it because it was just too cold outside. There is an indoor pool but it was only open to children a couple of hours a day. The majority of staff was friendly and everything was well-organized.  All in all I thought it was a good ship and would recommend it.

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65 degrees out but they don’t care

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Stockholm, Sweden

We flew into Sweden a day early so that we could explore the city a bit before boarding the cruise. The bus from the airport to the city center was really easy and I highly recommend staying at the Grand Central by Scandic. It is right across the street for the train/bus station and had one of the best breakfasts spreads I’ve seen in Europe. Easy walking distance to shopping and sites.

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We walked around the city while waiting for my dad to arrive from America. We had unknowingly arrived on a major national holiday and not much was open. We finally found a taco shop to eat dinner and y’all don’t want to know how much some tacos cost in Stockholm! Phew…

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Before our cruise the next day we did a full loop on the HOHO bus. We didn’t have a lot of time since we were on a tight schedule so we elected to stay on the bus and see the sights. The HOHO bus does make a stop at the cruise terminal so its worth the price of the HOHO ticket since you save on transportation from central station.

I have to say Stockholm impressed. It is the cleanest city I have ever seen. No trash whatsoever on the streets and you can tell they take great pride in keeping their historical buildings clean. I didn’t see any homeless people or for that matter anyone even looking like they hadn’t showered in the last 24 hours! Probably the safest I have felt in a city that size.

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Helsinki, Finland

For our day in Finland we booked a guided bus tour of the city. Helsinki can easily be done on your own so we elected for a short 2.5 tour which would give us time in the afternoon to explore on our own. There are only 5 million people in the entire country so it is a very small, clean city. Something I really enjoyed learning about all the Baltic countries is how their education systems and taxes work. In Helsinki they give 35 percent of their income to the state! That seems like a lot but they receive so much in return like healthcare and education. Every country we visited said the same thing-  they don’t mind how much they pay in taxes because what they receive in return is worth it.

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After our tour, Dad and Diana went back to the ship while I stayed behind in the city with the boys. The sun came out and Carter decided to take a snooze in the stroller. We shopped, had some pastries at a cafe and spent some time at the park. Helsinki doesn’t have a lot of famous attractions so it was nice to just walk around without an agenda.

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Russia Day 1

Russia is one of the tougher countries in Europe to obtain a tourist visa. Going on a cruise, you do not have to obtain a visa but you must use an approved tour company. This means you are always with a guide and never allowed to wander off on your own. Be aware that Russians generally do not speak English and do not like when others assume they could.

We booked a two-day tour with Denrus and they were beyond amazing. It was a group tour with a French Candian couple (I LOVE Canadians..the nicest)  whom we became fast friends with. Our tour guide, Lana, gave us so much insight into the past and present of Russia. I’ve always found Russia to be a mysterious country and I could write for days about all the things I learned during my time with her. She told us that when she was a girl they were not allowed to travel and the media portrayed Americans as unsafe from their government and that we were very, very poor. Only athletes like gymnasts were allowed to leave the country and they would come back and tell people what the world was really like outside of Russia.

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Day one was mostly spent touring the city. It was very busy due to the World Cup match taking place there. Our first stop was to view the Egyptian Sphinx that has been in Russia since 1834. We actually learned about this sphinx from our tour guide while we were in Egypt so it was exciting to see it in person. The boys enjoyed running around the steps and burning energy.

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Another stop was to the Peter and Paul fortress, which used to be a prison and execution site but now serves as a museum. On this tour we only viewed from the outside. St.Issacs cathedral was also a quick photo stop. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was one of the attractions in St. Petersburg I was most excited about. I was disappointed to see all the scaffolding during our visit but there is no denying this Russian Orthodox church is breathtakingly beautiful.

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A good portion of our day was spent at the famous Hermitage museum. It’s the second largest museum in the world and impossible to see everything in just a few hours. Its large, its crowded- not my favorite thing to do with small children but it is a must see when in St. Petersburg. It is room after room of beautiful things. The tour guide took us to all the highlights and afterwards we had a small meal at the cafe.

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That night we watched the most incredible Russian folklore group perform on the ship. One of the highlights of our trip!

St. Petersburg Day 2

Our second day we traveled an hour and a half south of the city to tour Peterhof Palace; considered the Russian Versailles. This day is a perfect example of why I don’t love taking tours with kids. We had beautiful weather and a beautiful outdoors location…my boys wanted to run and play! I wanted to take my time, lay in the grass, enjoy the experience. But because we could only go via the tour it felt rushed. Nevertheless, we still enjoyed walking along the fountains. The series of palaces and gardens is impressive. You could spend the whole day at this UNESCO world heritage site. Since it is so far out of the city it takes a good chunk out of your day just traveling.

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For lunch we stopped at a Russian cafe in the city that served kulebyaka (Russian pies). We got one meat pie and one that was filled with custard. Afterwards, we spent a good bit of time shopping in a Matrioshka doll shop. Someone needed to take my debit card because I wanted to buy everything!

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Kellan was in love with our tour guide. He kissed her and picked her flowers. “Everyone loves Russian girls!” she said. 

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Estonia

Talinn surprisingly ended up my favorite of the Baltic cruise, probably because I love the small, walkable cities in Europe that aren’t overwhelming and don’t require a strict agenda. We took a short two-hour tour via bus around the city and its outskirts. Afterwards, Dad and Diana went back to the cruise ship while the boys and I wandered around the old town. Everything about the old town is just so picturesque as its one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It’s a walled city with cobblestones streets, cute shops and plenty of gelato to keep my boys happy on a hot day. We even found a playground and I just sat back and let them explore. If you can’t make it to Russia, Estonia is a close second since it has such a large Russian population. I imagine Talinn has a great Christmas market atmosphere in December.

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The boys loved spending time with family. 

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Latvia

Being my 5th country in 6 days I was burnt out by the time I got to Riga. It was our last port and I was just tired. Traveling at a fast pace with little boys does that to you. We had a 3.5 hour tour booked and I decided I was going to take the tour and head back to the ship…no exploring on my own today.

Riga was a mid-sized city compared to the previous ports. And its beautiful. We mostly viewed the city from the tour bus but there were a few photo stops. At the end we got to spend an hour in the medieval old town which just isn’t enough time. Had I not been so exhausted I would have loved to spend an entire day just walking the streets. It’s a pedestrian only area filled with shops and cafe’s. I imagine this area, like Tallinn, is also gorgeous at Christmas. Something I loved about these cities along the Baltic is how colorful they were. More cities in America need to adapt this look.

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So there you have it. I survived a Baltic cruise with my boys; and relatively stress free until we exited the cruise and they had made an error in my pre booked transportation. They actually don’t provide buses to the airport I had requested and paid for. That was a stressful situation trying to find my way to an airport 90 minutes away with the kids, stroller and luggage. But we made our flight (barely). I am so glad I was able to fulfill my dream of going to Russia and making memories with both my boys and my Dad.

 

 

 

 

 

Monaco

On a trip to the French Rivera with my girlfriends, we decided to take a day and explore the second smallest country in the world. Monaco is very expensive to stay in so basing yourself elsewhere and taking the train in is easier on the wallet. From our hotel in Nice we took the train in and booked the HOHO bus. If traveling to Monaco you really can’t go wrong with the bus. Being such a small country you can see all the sites in 45 minutes without even getting off. The bus takes you all around Monte Carlo as well as a great viewing area overlooking the entire nation.

Being a fun girls trip we wanted to spend our days unstructured. We really just walked around, went to a casino, and ate some amazing seafood.  I highly recommend the French Rivera for a getaway with friends.

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Egypt

Warning: This will be a long and detailed post.

I usually only write about our holidays so that friends and family can keep up with what we are doing while living in Europe.  I feel compelled to share more about this trip simply because I’ve had SO many people ask me: where we stayed, what we did, how much it cost. The main question I am asked? Was it safe? What they really want to know is, should I go? The answer is YES.

Who doesn’t want to see the last remaining ancient wonder of the world? It is probably something every single person on this planet wants to see. Now really is the time to go. Tourism is low right now. Beat the crowds because soon the tourist spots will be crowded once again.

I can only speak as a mother traveling with toddlers but this is not the type of trip where you book tickets and just wing it. If you have children you need to arrive with a plan. I did a lot of research going into this holiday. I read every blog under the sun, listened to podcasts, annoyed previous visitors with hundreds of questions. You need to be aware of what traveling Egypt will be like. Hopefully I can provide some information that will help you plan your trip of a lifetime!

Now to answer the question you all want to know. Yes, we felt very safe as tourists! (Tourists that go directly to all the sites every other tourist goes to. This is not a trip you want to go off the beaten path with your kids.) The people who say otherwise are the people who listen to the media in America and have never actually been themselves. Would I ever venture out into the cities without a tour guide? No. You will be traveling through very poor areas where everyone wants money from you. They will try to scam you into paying for a service or they will aggressively try to sell you items. They will not be up front about how much an item costs and they will haggle with you until you give in. These people do not want to hurt you, they just want money. In Egypt the average annual salary is $5,000. So just a dollar to them is a lot. This is where your tour guide comes in. They speak Arabic and they act as your advocate.

Be prepared to tip for everything. Even something like going to the toilet you will need to tip to get toilet paper. We are talking like 10 cent. Be prepared that nothing comes with a price tag on it. Everything is up for bargaining. When a someone quotes you a price you automatically need to make a counter offer of 70% LESS what they quoted. Then you can work from there. Do your research as to what the common scams are. For example, at the pyramids there will be men selling these white cloth hats that you can wear on your camel ride. You think about how cute your pictures will look as you ride around the desert. What you have now done is put a big white target on your head for all the others to know you are a sucker and an easy target.

Also, never accept a gift from anyone. It’s not really a gift and you will be expected to pay. Do not allow anyone to put a hat or other clothing on you. If you aren’t looking to buy anything, don’t make eye contact or just say no until they walk away. There are lots of taxi scams and ticketing scams but I won’t go into those since we went with a tour guide. If you go with a tour guide you probably won’t encounter any of these issues at all. We had zero problems because we came to Egypt educated on these matters, aware, and we let our guides help us.

With that said, people in Egypt are very friendly and they love children. We had people ask to take pictures with us. People wanted to give our children high fives or touch them. We were scolded on several different occasions when they felt we spoke to our children too harshly or we worried about how our kids behaved. I felt like they were constantly trying to put our minds at ease. I also felt like because we were Americans we were well taken care of. They want Americans to come to Egypt. We are the ones that spend the most money and tip the best. Every single person we came in contact with asked where we were from. After all, mostly Europeans visit and they can tell immediately we speak differently. We were always greeted with a smile and sometimes a handshake. We were told “you are welcome here”. Our hotel must have called us 5 times a day to ask if we are ok and if we were happy and what we needed. They went above and beyond to make our trip enjoyable. Egypt needs tourism. They wanted us to go back and tell everyone that Egypt is amazing and to bring their children.

The last thing I want to mention before I dive into our itinerary is how to dress in Egypt. Men should dress modestly, making sure armpits are covered and if wearing shorts they should be on the longer and looser side. We made sure that my husband never had a shirt off, even at the beach- because he has religious and military related tatoos. Closed toe shoes are very important because sand will get in your feet and you WILL encounter toilets where you are quite literally stepping in pools of urine. You could also step in camel poo like I did. I wanted to throw out my shoes after our day trip to Cairo. Women should dress modestly, covering legs and shoulders. Wearing less clothing is ok at a resort pool but if ever walking around you should be respectful. Egypt is a country where women’s rights are extremely poor. I wont go into this any further but do your research.

Still reading? Now to the details of our trip!

Hurghada

Wanting a trip that mixed fun and culture, we opted to book tickets with Thomas Cook direct to Hurghada from London. Hurghada is a beachy, touristy town on the Red Sea where all the Europeans vacation, especially the British and Germans. As soon as you get off the plane you will need to queue for your visa. I had read that Visa’s were $25 a person so we brought US dollars. However, we were told that even though we had American passports we needed to pay our Visa in British pounds since we came from the UK on a UK airline. 25 dollars and 25 pounds is not the same price… so we tried to argue our point, but were denied. Thankfully we had brought pounds as spending money for the plane. The next thing we did was get out Egyptian pounds since you will be needing a lot of bills for tipping. As I mentioned before, everyone will expect a tip from you for anything. Next, we stopped at the Vodaphone desk to get sim cards for our phones. I can’t recall the price but they were very cheap.

It’s a really good idea to make sure you have a private transfer booked ahead of time. Once you exit the arrivals area you will immediately have people trying to get you into their taxi. Taxi’s, like anything else in Egypt, are not a set price. They may haggle with you, quote you an unfair price or scam you. Never pay for a taxi before you have reached your destination. Always agree on the price and be specific about the currency in which you will pay. The locals know how to convert currencies in their head, they are experts at this. You will many times be quoted a price in currency other than Egyptian pounds. We booked our hotel transfers with Memphis tours and we had a driver waiting to take us directly to our car. Easy.

We stayed at the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hurghada for 7 nights… a resort that will forever be compared to all future resorts on future holidays. We paid $800 for a two bedroom suite all-inclusive. Yes, it was that cheap. We booked on booking.com and found that booking our hotel, transfers and flights separately was significantly cheaper than a package from a travel site. It’s 5 stars (for Egyptian standards) and perfect for both couples and families. We stayed in block 2 which is a good central location to the kids pools and kids activities. Block 5 would probably be a good fit for older children as its closer to the taller water slides. There is a kids club, play area, shops, cheesy evening entertainment, and all you can eat food and snacks.

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There are so many pools to choose from and many are heated for the winter months. That is really nice since it was warm during the day but it dropped down to the 50’s at night so the water would be very cold.  Lots of sun beds and drink services with two pool bars. I think the boys ate their weight in ice cream by the pool.

The hotel was across the street from a private beach. It’s a 5-10 minute walk to get there but they provide golf carts to anyone not wanting to walk. The beach is small, clean, and the water is gorgeous. I never imagined I would get to swim in the Red Sea! Water sports are provided but we didn’t use them. There is a restaurant on the beach which is included in the all-inclusive package. They only serve lunch; pizza, wings, egg rolls, and ice cream. We ate here several times since the buffet food does start to get repetitive after a few days.

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Street separating the hotel and beach. You must pass security on both sides so that only hotel guests can access.

We only ventured out into the city one day. We scooped up a taxi outside the hotel and began the ordeal of haggling over our fare. After coming to an agreement our taxi driver asked us if he could take us to all the locations we wanted to go in Hurghada. He said “I need the business”. So he ended up waiting for us outside of each location! This worked out really well since we didn’t have to worry about hailing new cabs.

Our first stop was a small aquarium/zoo. We were the only people there which was really nice since we got individual attention from all of the animal caretakers. It is really expensive for the size but if you have children you know that it does not matter where in the world you go…if you take them to a zoo they will be happy happy.

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Our next stop was the Senzo mall which has a small souk, tons of European stores and food, as well as a fabulous kids area with rides and games. Had we known about this place sooner we would have spent much more time here but arrived an hour before closing.

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Our last stop was the Hard Rock Cafe. It was the only place we ate outside the hotel in Hurghada. The water in Egypt is very harsh on the bellies of the non locals so they advise you to not drink things with ice or things that have been rinsed with tap water. Thankfully, our hotel used only bottles water for everything (including the tea and coffee machines, I checked). No one wants to get ill on holiday so I was extremely careful about where we stayed and what we ate for this reason. I figured the Hard Rock was safe since the only people who eat here are tourists. Thankfully we never had any tummy troubles during our stay. Make sure you pack some anti diarrhea meds though just in case. Also make sure you hand sanitizer with you at all times since hand washing opportunities may be infrequent.

We had an amazing meal so do make a stop here if visiting. Being the total sucker I am I brought an extra hamburger out to feed all the cats and their babies. Your heart will break by the stray animals you see in Egypt. They are starving, one look at them and you see it. I saw pregnant dogs that looked like they were skin and bones. We saw a dead horse on the side of the road in Cairo. I spent a lot of time trying to feed animals.

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Cairo

This trip will go down in history as one of the best days of my life. I had anticipated a very long day with the kids, stress, and anxiety. Everything ended up going exceptionally smoothly. Not one thing went wrong and I have not one complaint. It was the most beautiful 72 and sunny with a breeze weather. The reason our day went so well? Memphis tours. There are plenty of highly recommend guide companies in Cairo- get one. It is worth every penny. We booked a trip with them through air because its a 5-6 hours drive to Cairo from Hurghada. They picked us up at the hotel at 4 am and took us to the airport. After a one hour flight we were greeted again at the airport and set out on a one hour drive to Giza.

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4 am at the airport. My boys are such troopers. Our hotel packed us a bagged breakfast.

The traffic is chaotic here. Lots of blaring horns and weaving in and out of traffic. Our driver did a great job making us feel at ease on the road. The guide will answer all your questions, go over the plans for the day and discuss the things you see in passing. Most Cairo tours will include going into the city center, the Egyptian museum and souks. We opted to shorten our day and just go see the pyramids and sphinx. Had we not planned to go to Luxor then we would have done the full Cairo tour but we knew we would be going to Souks another time. We have always stuck to our guns when traveling with toddlers and that is to never push them to their limit. Never make the day too long, allow them to nap if they need to or take a break. This is part of what makes exploring the world with them so succesful.

Once we arrived at the pyramids our guide handled everything. I could tell that Shahinaz was a well-respected guide. If she told someone something, they listened. If she told them not to bother us, they listened. If we were quoted an unfair price she would literally yell at them for being unfair, and they listened. She was a huge part in why our day went so well. She was so sweet with our boys, giving them a gift upon meeting them, holding their hands and giving them direction if they needed it. I wrote her company and told them she deserved a raise as I can’t imagine having a better guide. She took hundreds of pictures for us.

Once you pass security and ticketing the great pyramid is right in front of you. It is huge. It is the first thing you see and overwhelmingly a pinch-me type moment. We spent the first ten minutes talking about the history and letting the boys run around and burn energy from the car ride. I love that the world is their playground and they can now add an ancient wonder of the world to that list.

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There is an area of the great pyramid where you can walk along the bottom stones which I wasnt even expecting to get to do. You can also tour the inside of a pyramid but we opted not to do that with the boys as it’s essentially empty, tight, dark, walkways and we thought Carter might get scared.

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Perspective as to how large these stones are

There are camels all around the base of the pyramids but I had listened to a podcast detailing where the best camel operators are located. So I asked our guide to make sure we booked through them. They are located up a sandy road at an overlook. It has toilets (porto potty style), some people selling souvenirs, and a great view. Even if you don’t want to ride a camel you should still go up for the view. We must have taken hundreds of pictures. Our guide has us do all the typical cheesy poses.

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By the way, make sure you have plenty of cash in Cairo! Not just for tips but everything you purchase will be in cash. Our camel ride for 30 minutes cost about $20 each for the adults and the boys were free. Our guide told us ahead of time that this was the fair and typical price.

Getting up on the camel was no joke and I am sure hilarious to anyone watching from afar. I must have accidentally kicked mine while trying to hop on and he stood up without warning as I dangled. So definitely make sure you get on before your child. Once you are up you feel like you are incredibly high off the ground. You don’t actually sit on the camels but rather some padding that sits atop its humps to create a flat space. As we went down the hilly sand dunes you are really rocking back and forth and it was a workout holding on while making sure Carter was secure. Once we reached even land I was able to relax more. The boys had a blast. This was the most surreal moment of my trip. The weather was perfect, my family was happy and it felt like we were the only people there.

It’s a good idea to have a hat that is secure or ties around the neck to avoid blowing off. We had to stop many times due to the boys hats flying off and eventually had to put them in our bag. Also, you will need both hands to hold on for most of the trek so dont expect to use a bulky camera. We have a gopro selfie stick that swivels with the press of a button and could be used one-handed.

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We stopped halfway and took pictures at another overlook where you can see all 9 pyramids in one shot. Our camel guide took pictures of us and we let the boys run around and play in the sand, laughing as they saw camel poop- completely unaware that this was one of the greatest privileges they have ever experienced.

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We made our way back down to the base of the pyramids where our driver and Shahinaz were waiting. I thought the 30 minute ride was perfect for the boys but you can opt for a one hour ride. Kellan of course fell in love with the camel and didn’t want to leave him behind.

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Our next stop was to see the Great Sphinx. We walked by some ruins, a wishing well and spent maybe 20 minutes taking pictures and learning its history. History has not been as kind to the sphinx as it has the pyramids so we had to view from behind a gate and not allowed to walk right up to it. Shahinaz did a really great job explaining things to my son in a way that made him interested.

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The last stop we made for the day was at the papyrus factory. Papyrus was used to make the first paper as early as 3000 BC. The factory is an air-conditioned building where you will sit, be offered beverages, be able to use a proper toilet,  and watch a demonstration as to how the paper is made. There is artwork that you can purchase and we ended up buying 3 large pieces at $300. They are incredibly beautiful and something I will cherish the rest of my life. As with all things, there are no upfront prices here either. When we did start to bargain on price we were told things like “I’ll give you a good price, I’ll take care of you, I’ll make you happy’. Or tour guide takes a break during this time since we are in a building watching a demo. It was not until the very end when he was packaging the artwork we had picked up that we started to bargain. I’m still not sure if we paid a fair price so its worth researching the factory beforehand or asking your guide what fair prices are before entering.

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After the factory we headed back to the airport and was back in time for dinner. What a day! Be aware that driving through Giza you will see some things that will tug at your heartstrings. It is very dirty and you’ll see things like women and children rummaging through huge piles of trash. My boys were oblivious to what they saw but you may want to talk about this with older children before visiting.

Luxor 

There aren’t any direct flights from Hurghada so we had to drive to Luxor which takes 4 hours one way. We also booked this trip with Memphis tours and they picked us up at 5 am from our hotel, who packed us breakfast in a bag. Our guide, Mohammed, briefly went over the plans for the day and then everyone went back to sleep aside from me (since I’ve never been able to fall asleep anywhere but face down on a bed).  The first portion of the trip is desert and mountain driving where we made one stop at a small shack-like store with proper toilets and coffee.

The second half of the road trip is through farmlands which was the most fascinating part of the journey. Until that point we had mostly seen the resort town, city, and tourist spots. Now I got to see the real heart of Egypt. The poor, rural farming communities with small children that should be in school working sugar cane fields. Donkeys being used for labor. Every women dressed in black where only their eyes show. Men sitting on street corners casually holding guns like it was a cup of coffee . I just sat in the back of the van and took it all in. At least until Carter woke up panicking and decided he needed to poop right then and there in the middle of the village on the side of the street. If ever a moment I was afraid on this trip it was that one. Simply because we were not in a tourist spot and I was terrified the people (who are clearly very modest) were looking at us like it was an indecent or disrespectful act. None of the onlookers said anything though and the driver and guide simply chuckled as Carter went about his business; me repeating “Im so soooo sorry” as they laughed “we are all men here!’

The first stop was the Karnak temples, an ancient compound of temples and buildings which is the second most visited historical site in Egypt. When you arrive there are toilets and shopping you can do before you enter. Please do not ride the horses here as you will be offered a carriage ride. Those poor horses look sick and malnourished. Just don’t. Also, don’t be surprised if children approach you to sell items like bookmarks as their fathers watch from afar. What they are asking for is literally pocket change. Kellan wanted to give one boy a sucker but the boy pulled back his lips to reveal why he couldn’t take it- his teeth were rotted.

Inside the temples our guide spoke with us in-depth on what each structure meant and in which time period it was built. Its simply breathtaking to be standing in the center of this place. The massive columns and the hieroglyphics. We walked around, talked history and let the boys run in the area where tourists were scarce. I have an appreciation for the passion these guides have for the history in Egypt. Even though he has been doing this same tour for 4 days a week going on 15 years; it still felt like he was invested in the stories he told. Proud of the nation’s history.

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Our next stop was to the souks in the city for some shopping. We quickly realized that Mohammed was not like our guide in Cairo. He was going to let us become fully immersed in the culture by doing every bit of haggling on our own. At first I was a bit annoyed by this since Shahinaz really took charge of our shopping experience at the pyramids. Then I realized that this was going to be an adventure and experience we would remember. I can look back now and laugh but that trip to the souk was a major fail. We ended up in the second story of a dusty shop where there were carpets piled floor to ceiling. Literally. We expressed interest in the beautiful silk carpets and I naively thought that being in Egypt we could get those for cheap. After the owner charmed our entire family and avoided any questions regarding price for thirty minutes, I finally narrowed down my choices to 3 silk rugs. When we finally got hit with an offer of thousands of dollars  for one small carpet we started panicking because we did not have that kind of money and were only willing to spend about $300. We went back and forth forever before realizing we just couldn’t afford this product and we wanted to leave. I felt bad for wasting this mans time. He ended up letting us walk and we had now wasted our entire allocated hour in that one shop and left with nothing! I really wish our guide had stepped in earlier but I honestly think he took us there thinking we would be willing to pay those prices.

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For lunch we were taken to a nice hotel overlooking the Nile river. Lunch was included in our tour cost. We were served pizza, soup, and a dish of fish and veggies. Mohammed also ate there but sat at a different table- probably to get away from the hundreds of questions my 4-year-old was asking. Kellan really gets into the history of these places, I tell ya. He had more questions than Ben and I combined. 99% of them being about King Tut.

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After lunch it takes 30 minutes to drive over to the west bank where the Valley of the Kings is. This was the highlight of our trip. No words can describe the feeling of being here. The overwhelming history and ancient culture. For those that don’t know,  Egyptians cut out tombs into the mountains to place their pharaohs for the afterlife. I can’t even really begin to go into detail all the information about this place but just trust me- its a must see. For 500 years they used this site for their royalty. There are about 64 tombs which would require a long time to view. Being we were on a day tour with limited time our guide took us to some of the more famous pharaohs. It would really need a full day to take everything in. Mohammed didn’t go inside the tombs with us. He would give us the history of the pharaoh and then wait outside while we looked around. Each tomb has a 1-2 people inside to answer any questions. They are also there to check you have purchased a photography ticket which is not included in the price of entrance. It is fascinating how much work and detail go into these tombs. You will want to buy the photo pass.

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map of the valley above ground
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map of the tombs below ground showing how large each is and what depth into the undergound they were placed

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Everyone has heard of King Tutankhamun. What is surprising about him is that he wasnt even that famous when he was alive as he died as a teen. In fact, his tomb was the smallest we entered. What makes him famous is the discovery of his tomb in 1922. It is the most intact tomb ever to be found and his mummy the best preserved. His mummy lays under glass inside the tomb but pictures are not allowed. His artifacts were then the most displayed in museums helping make him the most well-known and recognizable throughout the world. Even Kellan knew who he was and declares this his favorite moment.

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With our guide. The man who answered all of Kellan’s questions about King Tut for the 8 hours leading up to this picture.

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Our next stop was to see the temple of Hatshepsut, a Queen who had a lot of family drama in her day. Our boys were in need of a break at this point so we elected to take pictures from afar and not walk the temple itself.

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The last temples we saw in Luxor were of Amenhotep. This was a quick 5 minute stop to take pictures. An ancient earthquake damaged these statues so they have been restored. They had broken into 200 large chunks and eroded by water so they’ve literally been glued back together.

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The last adventure of the day came at the alabaster factory which was similar to that of the papyrus excursion. Our guide took a break and we watched a demonstration as to how they make things using alabaster before being ushered into the shop to purchase. We chose a large pyramid for the house and two small ones for the boys. At this point we had become knowledgable on how to haggle prices on our own and instantly cut their quote by 70%, which they accepted. I enjoy buying products that are materials from the region and were made by hand in country. Alabaster has been used in Egypt since ancient times for all sorts of uses.

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Our trip back to the hotel was 4.5 hours long because we were coming from the west bank of the Nile. It was a long day but surprisingly smooth and it was nice being able to sit back and relax in the van when we normally are the ones having to drive and navigate on our trips.

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I want to touch back on the safety of our trip. We felt safe at all times with our guides and I would take my children back tomorrow if we could. My 4-year-old said it was his favorite trip ever and asks me daily when we can go back. Other cultures just simply aren’t used to the way Egypt desperately seeks tourism dollars. Sure, we had uncomfortable moments in regards to purchasing things but we never felt in fear of our safety. You really just need to be informed as to what to expect which is why I discussed that aspect so much.

To end this blog I will tell the story of us leaving. We arrived to the airport and my husband realized he had left our artwork on the bed of the hotel. There was no way I was leaving that behind so we decided to check into our flight and have Ben go back to the hotel while we waited inside. In egypt there are two security lines. The first security line is when you enter the airport and the second is when you leave the checkout counters to enter the terminal. When Ben tried to exit the airport again the airport police commander would not allow him to leave. He hailed Ben a taxi and instructed the driver as to which hotel to pick up the art from. He then took Ben to a holding room where he asked Ben to sit, talk, and smoke a cigar with him.

When the taxi driver arrived with our goods, Ben tried to give him 200 Egyptian pounds. This is about $11. One would think $11 is not too much to reward someone for driving on good faith alone to your hotel and bringing back expensive artwork. However, it made the police commander very angry that the driver accepted the money because (as he explained to Ben) that was A LOT of money in their country and he does not want his people taking advantage of Americans since they want Americans to come back to Egypt. He said ” this will make us look bad”.

Ben was a bit confused since it wasnt as if the driver demanded that fare. Ben offered it. Alas, the commander got into an argument with the driver and forced him to return half of the payment! He then explained to Ben what we should have been tipping all along was a fraction of what we had been. It kind of puts you between a rock and a hard place because a couple of dollars to us means so much more to them. In America we are used to tipping well for good service. We had good service…. so we tipped well! But to the commander that just reestablished the stereotype that Americans are the ones that should be scammed or hounded the most because we are the tipping culture. Food for thought.

I hope reading this insanely long post gave you insight as to whether making a trip to Egypt is right for you. I personally think everyone should visit once in their lifetime. We grow as people each time we enrich our lives with others cultures. It truly was the experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?