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Pisa

Our second day trip from Florence was to Pisa. It was really not a day trip but a stopover on the way to our final destination of the vacation. We checked out of our Airbnb, and with all our luggage in tow, caught the train to Pisa. We used the deposito bagagli again at the Pisa train station and set off on foot for the Tower.

It’s a nearly 1.5 mile (2km) walk from the train station to the Piazza del Duomo where the Leaning Tower leans. I’ll be honest – not a single person in our group of 9 was having a good day that day. It was hot. It was crowded. The kids were cranky. The adults were cranky.

By the time we got there, enthusiasm had waned significantly. We tried to get a group shot – the group wasn’t having it.

Not long before our trip that year, I had reconnected with a childhood friend of mine. Her parents and my parents were friends in the ’70’s when my parents lived in Bologna. When we started spending our summer vacations in Italy when I was a child, she would often come and spend a few days at the beach with us.

I knew she worked at the Pisa Tourist Office in the Piazza del Duomo. I hadn’t told her we were coming to Pisa that day because I really didn’t know if I would have a chance to see her, but when we found ourselves standing right outside of the Tourist Office trying to get the failed group shot, I went in to see if she was working. And she was! It was a fun surprise.

She recommended lunch at alabona, and everyone’s moods did improve after a few large glasses of wine, lemon sodas and heaping bowls of pasta with ragu di cinghiale (boar) and of course, another round of gelato.

Then it was back on the train to our next destination – the Tuscan beach town of Marina di Pietrasanta!

What We Say About Pisa

A bad day is always improved with a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mom

The Leaning Tower was wacky

Big Sis C

I liked the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Lil Sis M

Pisa was amazing, and so was the people watching

Dad
Featured

Siena

Using Florence as our base, we made two day trips via train. The first – Siena. The kids LOVE riding on the train, and it’s so much easier than trying to find parking for a rental car.

The walking route from the train station in Siena is unremarkable until you get to the medieval wall and pass through Porta Camollia. It’s a pretty impressive entrance to this historical city center, and once through, the streets carry on the majesty.

Like all self-respecting tourists, we made the Piazza del Campo our 1st stop. We entered the Piazza from Vicolo S. Pietro for the wow factor – descent down stairs in a tiny alleyway and then BAM! We hung out in the Piazza for a while, trying to imagine the Palio and taking it all in. The kids wanted to buy tickets to climb the bell tower, but there was a lengthy wait, so we passed.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Siena, taking in the scenery, visiting the Duomo, and occupying the kids by identifying all the contrade symbols as we passed from neighborhood to neighborhood in the city. The flags are the most obvious, but you can spot contrade symbols on plaques on the walls, sculptures, mosaics, and even light fixtures.

During lunch at Osteria La Chiacchera, we asked the kids to design a symbol for their own contrada. It was a great activity that kept them occupied until the food came.

To my kids, all the churches eventually start to look the same. While they enjoy the cool temperatures inside and a break from the hot summer sun, they do get bored pretty easily. A sure way to get them excited about visiting a church – challenging them to find relics inside. The Siena Duomo has a window in the floor that visitors can peer through to see relics of Siena’s patron saints.

Happy in Siena!

What We Say About Siena

The first glimpse of the Piazza del Campo is breathtaking

Mom

I liked looking at all the flags

Big Sis C

I like the gelato

Lil Sis M

I will never understand relics

Dad

Featured

Florence

After a busy 3 days in Rome, it was time to head to the next stop, and base for a few days, Florence. We started the day wishing J a Happy Birthday! Turning 40 in Italy is pretty great, but if you get to be that lucky, you do have to wear embarrassing birthday flair all day.

We took a Frecciarosa train to Firenze, a short 1 hour and 15 minute ride. When we arrived, it was still too early in the day to check-in to our AirBnb, so we used the train station Deposito Bagagli. Many train stations in Italy offer this service, especially the ones in the larger cities. For a small fee per bag, you can check your luggage for a period of time into a secure location – great for exploring the city unencumbered by heavy luggage.

After we dropped our bags, we made a beeline to the Mercato Centrale for lunch. Located on the ground floor of the historic San Lorenzo market, the space has been reimagined as a food court with stalls, shops, and open, communal seating.

Properly fueled for the day, we set off on another self-guided walking tour: The Duomo and Baptistry – Piazza della Signoria & Palazzo Vecchio – Ponte Vecchio – Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. It was excruciatingly hot in Florence that day. Since my motto is “when the kids get cranky – get gelato”, we stopped for gelato a few times. Once at Perch√© no! and the 2nd time at an emergency bar somewhere on Via della Scala.

With 5 kids under the age of 10, we knew that lots of art and museums were not in the cards for this visit to Florence. We did not go into the Uffizi or the Duomo, and that’s OK. We did show the kids the replica of the David in the Piazza outside of the Palazzo Vecchio (see below: it left quite the impression), and we spent time checking out the sculptures in the nearby Loggia dei Lanzi.

We wrapped up our afternoon walking tour back at the train station, picked up all our luggage, and grabbed taxis to our Airbnb. This apartment was located a bit outside of the city center and is owned by an American family now living in Florence. The girls and I picked up a birthday torta for J, and we held a mini birthday party with the kids.

The adults had bigger plans for celebrating a 40th birthday in Florence! After EXTENSIVE research and review reading, both families agreed that we felt comfortable enough getting a babysitter for the kids from International Babysitters so that we could have an adults only night. We were nervous, the kids were nervous, but it worked out just fine.

We celebrated J with a birthday dinner at Locale Firenze. The restaurant is located in a former Palazzo, and the cocktails and food were incredible. We had SUCH a spectacular evening!

All dressed up. Happy Birthday J!

For our 2nd day in Florence, we made the bold decision to take the kids on a Chianti Wine Tour with Viator. We spent a leisurely morning in the Airbnb letting the Dad’s catch up on some work and then made our way to meet the bus for our tour. Even though these types of tourist tours aren’t my favorite, we knew it would be our safest option to do some wine tasting.

The tour stopped at two wineries – Riseccoli and Poggio Amorelli. Both wineries are family owned, and the group was led through a wine tasting at both locations that was also accompanied by locals meats, breads and cheeses. They also provided alcohol free beverages for the kids and allowed them to snack even though they obviously weren’t wine tasting. The bus also stopped for visits in the towns of Greve in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti for exploring and shopping. We obviously got the kids ice creams in both places ūüôā

One day when the girls are older, we’ll take them back to Florence. We’ll visit the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, talk about the Medici family, explore the Boboli Gardens and climb to the top of the Duomo. But for this trip, for their ages, this was just right.

What We Say About Florence

I’m looking forward to visiting the Uffizi with the girls one day

Mom

The vineyards were really pretty

Big Sis C

I just love the gelato

Lis Sis M

Dinner at Locale was an amazing cap to my 40th birthday

Dad

Featured

Rome

When J and I decided to start a family, we knew that our willingness to travel internationally with small kids (and ALL THEIR GEAR) in tow would likely diminish, but we also knew that there would come a time when the challenges would be outweighed by the desire to introduce the love of travel to our girls. We set a goal. When all naps were dropped and strollers were no longer needed, we would take the girls to Italy.

In the summer of 2018, we did just that. Big Sis was 7 and Lil Sis was 4. We even somehow convinced some of our best friends to come with us – with their 5, 7 and 10 year old kids in tow too! The 2-week itinerary – Rome, Florence, Siena, Pisa and a beach week at Marina di Pietrasanta.

Our departure day was a Friday the 13th. We should have known better. Our 6:45pm flight didn’t take off until 2:15am. A 7.5 hour delay of which only a small portion was spent in the terminal. The rest of the time, we were on board the aircraft. There was an error with the freight weighing/flight balancing software, then people wanted to get off the plane because they feared we wouldn’t be able to take off safely, then a “conflict resolution officer” came on board to calm down some angry passengers…..and then the delay was so lengthy that the crew was now beyond their regulated flying window, and so we had to wait for a new crew to arrive.

The girls were hungry, exhausted and BEYOND cranky. They refused all food on the airplane…..and also pretty much refused to sleep as well. I personally feel that they have never recovered from the “trauma” of this travel day, and the memory of it has contributed to their less than enthusiastic approach to transatlantic flights ever since.

We finally arrived in Milan at 3:30pm. We rushed through passport control and baggage claim in a mad dash to catch the 4:15 train from the airport to Milano Centrale, the main train station. We knew we had missed our reserved Frecciarosa train to Rome that departed at 2pm by a mile, but unlike our 2019 trip when there were no more train reservations to be found, thankfully on this trip we were able to buy new tickets on the next available train to Rome.

We bought some panini, waters and a beer – our first real meal in 24 hours and headed to Rome.

We made it to Rome by 9:30pm. We happily splurged on a taxi to the delightful AirBnb where our friends were waiting for us with cold white wine and collapsed in bed.

Waking up in Rome. The best feeling.

This wasn’t just my girls’ first trip to Italy, it was also the first time for our friends, the E Family. Mom E shared with me her must-sees list during the planning of the trip, and I did my best to work them all into the planned itinerary.

Our first morning in Rome was spent on a self-guided walking tour through part of the historical city center. Piazza Navona – Pantheon – Trevi Fountain – Campo Dei Fiori.

The original plan for the morning was to walk all the way to the Spanish Steps and then to eat lunch at Forno in Campo Dei Fiori on our way back to the AirBnb, but the kids were getting tired and didn’t want to go any further to the Steps. So what did we do? We popped into a nearby Gelateria, of course. Never underestimate the power of a morning gelato to reenergize tired little legs.

When we got to Forno for lunch, it was closed. GAH! We looked around the piazza and settled on Obica. The kids were happy with pizzas, and the adults shared mozzarella in all preparations and the first of MANY Aperol Spritz.

After lunch, we headed back to the apartment for naps for most. Dad E and I went out for a caff√® and then to buy bus tickets for the afternoon outing. That afternoon, we all jumped on the public bus down to Piazza Venezia and then walked over to Trastevere for dinner. I always prefer to walk everywhere in foreign cities because there’s always so much to see around every corner, but sometimes the distance is just too far, so it’s helpful to be able to get closer to a certain neighborhood using public transit.

Along the way to dinner at Ristorante La Gattabuia, we just casually passed ancient ruins along with the Temple of Hercules and La Bocca della Verità. I just love that about Rome. We also ended up having a spontaneous pre-dinner aperitivo at Bar 404 Name Not Found along the way to test out its claim to fame.

We were up early the next morning to catch the bus to the Colosseum and the Forum. I don’t normally sign up for guided tours when abroad, but with 5 kids in the group, we wanted to make our visit to this famous site worth it for everyone – with minimal whining and maximum excitement. Mom E did some research and found a private family tour geared towards kids from LivItaly Tours that included NOT waiting in line. Our guide Melanie spoke excellent English and was fantastic with kids. She brought along a bag of tricks to keep them entertained – a scavenger hunt, stamps, activity pages, and cardboard glasses that use an app on your personal phone to turn the Colosseum and the Forum into a Virtual Reality experience.

After our tour wrapped up, the kids were VERY hungry. We strategically did some souvenir shopping on the way to lunch to prevent meltdowns. It’s amazing how a sword, 3 purses and a replica of the Colosseum can instantly boost moods.

We ended up going back to the Airbnb every day after lunch for naps and showers. Rome was VERY hot that week, and we did a ton of walking outside most days. We encouraged the kids to lie down and nap or at least rest because we were often up late each night. This is one of the reasons I love renting apartments when traveling – while the kids napped the adults can hang out in a separate space.

In the afternoon, we descended upon Up-Sunset Bar on the roof of the department store Rinascente to meet up with my Italian sister Maria Pia. The summer I was 17, I lived with Maria Pia and her family as an exchange student. I had last seen her in 2008, and we were so excited for her to meet my girls. There were more Spritz for us and pizzette for the kids while we all enjoyed the spectacular sunset over Rome.

For dinner, we tried to find the Rome location of the famous Neapolitan Pizza joint Da Michele with no luck, so we just stopped at another pizzeria that looked decent. We made up for that tiny snafu with a visit to the Trevi Fountain lit up at night and a gelato nightcap at San Crispino while we waited out a thunderstorm. We got back to the AirBnb around 11pm that night – eek!

On our final day in Rome, the E family set off to do a tour of the Vatican Museums, but we didn’t feel our girls were ready just yet for that. Instead, J and I took the girls to St. Peter’s Basilica, amidst a crowd of people that seems unbelievable now. When visiting St. Peter’s and the Vatican it is important to remember that there is a strict dress code. The Swiss Guards will deny you entry if you do not adhere to them. I always bring along a scarf or light cardigan to wear to cover my shoulders. Make sure your shorts and/or skirt aren’t too short either.

We spent the afternoon exploring Castel Sant’Angelo. In all my previous visits to Rome, I had always admired Castel Sant’Angelo from the outside, but I had never been in. It is well worth a visit, and as a bonus, there are 360 degree views of Rome from the top!

We had a final gelato in Rome at Gelateria del Teatro before we headed back to the Airbnb. I personally think this is the most delicious gelato in Rome, and everyone always loves watching the behind the scenes action from the large window.

We met back up with the E Family at the Airbnb that evening to begin the always unpleasant task of packing. After 3 days in Rome, we were off in the morning to Florence!

Rome is my favorite place in the world, and it’s always so difficult to leave. When the Pandemic subsides, and we can all travel freely again, I do believe Rome will be one of the first places I visit. She has my heart.

What We Say About Rome

Rome is my favorite city in the world. I will never tire of her energy and beauty.

Mom

The ancient ruins were cool. I liked to imagine them during Roman Times.

Big Sis C

I really liked the Colosseum

Lil Sis M

Rome never disappoints.

Dad
Featured

Postojna and Predjama

After our full day at Vintnar Gorge and Lake Bled, we woke early the next morning and drove to Postojna to check-in to Hotel Jama. Postojna is famous not only for its caves, the 2nd largest cave system in Slovenia, but also for nearby Predjama Castle.

Jama means Cave in Slovenian

When we started planning this leg of the trip, it seemed to make sense to spend the night here to allow us plenty of time to visit both sites. We wouldn’t normally stay on site at such a tourist attraction, but this particular article from the British newspaper The Telegraph giving high scores for convenience, food & drink, and value for money sealed the deal. Here’s what else is cool about this hotel. It was built in 1971 during the Communist Era, and when it was renovated in 2016, secret rooms were discovered – rooms for wiretapping for eavesdropping on important guests as well as an entire, secret communications hub for the Communist Yugoslavian government.

After we checked-in and dropped our bags, we grabbed our warm sweatshirts and went to pick up the tickets we bought online in advance. We chose the Full Park Experience ticket to also allow us a visit to the Caves, Predjama Castle & the Vivarium.

We visited the Vivarium first – essentially a museum in a cave with exhibitions dedicated to all the unique animals that live in the Postojna cave system. In particular, this creature – the olm – a creature that lives exclusively in the caves. Some believe that they are actually baby dragons!

The tour of the cave system begins and ends with a ride on a train to take you deep into the cave system followed by a guided tour. The cave is COLD – a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. I tried, but the pictures below really don’t do justice at all to the beauty of all the formations within. You can find much, much better pictures here.

We all got VERY cold inside the cave and had to sit out in the sun for a bit to warm up once our tour was over. There was A LOT of whining (see pic below). We did some souvenir shopping and then grabbed lunch at the on-site Mill restaurant. Jason was drawn to the goat that was being roasted on a giant spit at the entrance. I was drawn to the wine to warm me up.

After lunch, we took the shuttle included with our ticket to Predjama Castle. I say shuttle, but it was actually a giant tour bus.

This castle is just amazing. Built into the side of the mountain and within a cave mouth, it was occupied by various aristocratic families beginning in the 1200’s, but it’s most notable occupant was Erasmus in the 1500’s. Legend has it, he was killed by a cannonball fortuitously aimed at the achilles heel of the castle, the toilet, built of wood and positioned off of the side of the castle. (The girls very much delighted in this historical detail) During WWII, the castle was confiscated by Communist Yugoslavian authorities and turned into a museum.

Predjama Castle

It was a long day of sightseeing. Once the Cave closed, Postojna Jama really emptied out and became rather peaceful, so we decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. The Telegraph article had great things to say about it, and they weren’t lying. We dined out on the empty patio overlooking the countryside, and it was a wonderful last dinner in Slovenia.

We had planned to spend a few hours in Verona the next day on our drive back to Milan, but with temperatures close to 100 degrees, we made the wise decision to scrap that plan. Instead, we took our time on the drive west, made sure to stop at an Autogrill or two (we really developed a DEEP love for Autogrills on this trip) and then spontaneously did some last minute shopping at an indoor shopping mall before checking in at our hotel near the Malpensa Airport.

We always stay at the Holiday Inn Express Milan when we fly out of MXP. It offers a shuttle to the airport, a continental breakfast, and it’s very clean. On previous trips, we had always arrived to the hotel after dinner, but this year, I had to find a nearby restaurant for our last meal in Italy. Luckily, there was a “plate restaurant” in the suburb town of Busto Arsizio not too far away.

Over 15 years ago on a trip to Venice with my parents, I ordered a Fritto Misto di Pesce at a restaurant that came with a commemorative Ceramic plate to take home. From that moment on, I have always tried to work in a meal at a “plate restaurant” that belongs to the Unione Ristorante Buon Ricordo whenever possible to add to my collection.

The member Restaurants all offer a signature dish that highlights the cuisine of the area. The commemorative plate lists the name of the restaurant, town, and the dish and includes a symbolic image. All the plates are hand painted in Vietri sul Mare, one of Italy’s most famous ceramic producing towns on the Amalfi Coast. The Restaurant in Busto Arsizio is I 5 Campanili, and its signature dish is the Sinfonia Bustocca.

Departure days are always tough for us because a Family Adventure is coming to an end. They are usually just a series of NOT noteworthy train rides, car rides and flights back home. But for this Family Adventure that started with an epic and memorable arrival and travel day, it was only fitting that it would end with one too.

Our flight from Milan to Dusseldorf, Germany left without incident. However, our Dusseldorf to Newark flight experienced a series of delays resulting in a total layover of 9 HOURS. Thankfully, the Dusseldorf airport has a lounge that is not specific to any airline and offered day rates. We spent the entire day in this lounge – napping, eating all the food and snacks, and drinking all the drinks.

Slovenia really surprised us with its beauty, the friendliness of its people, and its delicious food and drink. It also yielded some of our best pictures of the entire trip. We hope to return again someday to explore it even more.

3 Beauties

What We Say About Postojna and Predjama

Cold caves are NOT for me, but the castle was breathtaking

Mom

I liked the spaghetti and ice cream shaped rock formations

Big Sis C

I loved the castle

Lil Sis M

I can’t imagine building a castle into the face of a cliff, but I’m glad they did. It was amazing.

Dad

Featured

Ljubljana

We are always thinking about places we would like to visit with the kids, but the inspiration source for this Family Adventure to Slovenia was by far the strangest. J called me over to look at his laptop one day and showed me a picture of a tiny church on an island in the middle of a lake. It was one of the images that Windows uses as a screensaver on the locked login screen. “I looked it up”, he said. “This is Lake Bled in Slovenia. I want to go here.”

And so when planning this summer 2019 trip, the itinerary fell into place with that screen saver picture in mind. Isole Tremiti to Venice to Ljubljana to Lake Bled to Postojna.

We departed Venice on an early morning bus to the airport to pick up the rental car for the drive into Slovenia. All vehicles driving on motorways in Slovenia require a toll sticker for the car, a vignette. Fortunately, we were able to buy a weekly one with ease at a rest stop on the Italian side right before the border.

Our first stop across the border was the town of Vipava in the Vipava Valley, a wine growing region of Slovenia known for its dry white varietals. Everyone was already hungry by the time we arrived in town, and so after stopping in the tourist office for lots of free literature, we found a seat at Restavracija Podskala situated along a sleepy section of the Vipava river.

After lunch, we were hoping to do a wine tasting at Vinoteka Vipava, a wine store in town with a wide selection of wines from all over Slovenia. Unfortunately, the tastings were at set times during the day, and we knew the girls wouldn’t be very keen to wait around for the next one. Instead, we hopped in the car and headed into the neighboring village of Slap to find a winery to visit. Wine tasting wasn’t meant to be – we couldn’t find any wineries open. Such a bummer, but we were excited to get to Ljubljana, so we got back on the road.

In Ljubljana, we chose to stay at another Airbnb. This apartment was a short 20 min walk into the historical city center. The girls loved the foosball table, and J and I really enjoyed all the space, light and modern amenities. After we unloaded the car and got settled in, we set off on foot to explore Ljubljana.

Our first stop, because we aren’t quitters, was a local Wine Bar to taste some Slovenian wines. Vipava and Slap were failures, but Wine Bar Suklje didn’t disappoint.

Slovenian wine flight

Ljubljana was love at first sight for all of us. The old town is situated on either side of the Ljubljanica river and connected by multiple bridges, each with their own style. We explored on foot for much of the late afternoon and early evening until it was time for dinner at Jakob Franc Gostilna. We were too busy eating to take any proper pictures, but the restaurant is a farm to table concept – raising their own pigs and then preparing the pig in every conceivable way. It was delish.

The following morning, we were up early and ready to explore Ljubljanski Grad, Ljubljana’s Castle. Visitors can either walk up to the castle or buy tickets for the Furnicular. We purchased our castle tickets in advance and chose the option that included a roundtrip ride. Sweaty kids with tired legs is NOT the way to start a day of sightseeing.

The castle brings history to life for young visitors through the tales of Friderik, the Castle Prison Rat. He even has his own instagram page!

The history of Ljubljana also includes the tale of how the dragon became the symbol of the city. After we were finished exploring the castle, we rode back down the funicular and browsed through the market area on our way to the Zmajski Most or Dragon Bridge. The girls loved the dragons on either end of the dragon bridge, and naturally, the trip wouldn’t be complete without dragon souvenirs.

After the busy morning of sightseeing in the heat, it felt appropriate to refuel with ice cream or sladoled. When you’re on a family adventure with children, there are no rules regarding appropriate times for the consumption of cold treats. You eat them whenever they are requested or it is deemed necessary to keep smiles on faces. Fortunately, we found Cacao just as the crankiness was ramping up.

On our way back to the apartment, we stopped at the local grocery store to grab food for a picnic lunch. Next to the grocery store, we noticed a small “wine shop”, and I suggested that Jason run in and grab a bottle to have with lunch. The “wine shop” was indeed a place to buy wine, but the shop was more like a small clubhouse. Not pictured were 3 of the man’s friends sitting at a little table in the corner playing cards and probably waiting for the sausages to be ready that were cooking on the little skillet you can see behind J in the picture on the right.

The wine was homemade and served from a tap by a very kind gentleman who was happy to fill up a plastic litre bottle for us for the bargain price of 3 Euro.

After lunch and a rest, we walked back into the historical center to do some shopping – especially for the two things we always try to buy from a new destination: an ornament and a city print. The girls had already purchased their stuffed animal dragons, but we also chose a dragon ornament to remember the city by.

We had time to spare before dinner and decided on a spontaneous boat ride along the river to experience Ljubljana from the water. It is possible to book boat rides in advance, and some even include cocktails, but there are also simple rides that accept walk on passengers. The boats dock underneath the bridges, and we arbitrarily chose one simply because it was leaving soon and we wouldn’t have to wait for the next departure. We all enjoyed the ride so much!

For dinner, we chose Pop’s Place Pizza. Slovenia claims to have pizza that rivals Italian pizza, and so naturally, we needed to test this claim. Ultimately, we decided that while Slovenian pizza IS very good, it’s still not as good as Italian pizza. Sorry Slovenia!

Pop’s Place Pizza

As we walked back to the apartment after dinner, we were all feeling sad to leave the next day. We had enjoyed Ljubljana more than expected. Our decision to visit Slovenia was based on our desire to see Lake Bled, not for anything that we had heard or read about Ljubljana, and yet we left the capitol with a strong desire to return again one day for another visit.

Fortunately, we were off to other Family Adventures in Slovenia. Next stops, the Vintgar Gorge and that famous, picturesque lake from the Windows screensaver, Lake Bled.

What We Say About Ljubljana

I loved Ljubljana’s approachable and laid back vibe

Mom

It was awesome

Big Sis C

I loved playing foosball

Lil Sis M

I think Ljubljana is one of the most underrated cities in Europe

Dad

Vintgar Gorge & Lake Bled

We departed Ljubljana in the morning and drove north for about an hour to Vintgar Gorge. The gorge was carved by the Radovna River, and the wooden tourist walkways were added originally in 1893. The walkways hug the walls of the canyon and occasionally cross the river. Thankfully, they’ve been renovated a few times since their original construction!

We parked in an outer parking lot – really someone renting their yard out for parking, and walked to the entrance to the gorge to pay the modest entry fee. We trekked the entire 1 mile length of the gorge…..and then realized we had to turn around and walk all the way back. It was stunning, very crowded with people, but absolutely worth it.

After a well earned sladoled (ice cream), we got back in the car for the quick drive to our next destination – Lake Bled.

We chose another AirBnb for our 1 night stay in Lake Bled, and after we checked in, we waked to the nearest restaurant for lunch. We were all VERY hungry after the Gorge trek. Finally, we were rewarded with our 1st view of the lake from Restavracija Sova Bled! She’s a stunner.

Restavracija Sova Bled

We had 3 options for our afternoon – walk around the lake, ride a boat out to the church in the center of the lake, and/or visit Bled Castle. With the girls’ already rather tired legs from the Gorge trek and their love of castles in mind, we chose the castle. Instead of walking around the lake, we waited at the closest stop for the tourist train. The train runs completely around the lake, and it was a nice way to get the lay of the land. We rode it about 3/4 of the way around and got off at the castle stop.

We should have realized that a castle so high up above the lake would require some effort to reach it. There were a LOT of steps. We reached deep into our parenting bag of games and tricks to pass the time while we ascended the very long switchback staircase. One of those tricks was the promise of a dessert at the top – the Bled Cream Cake for which Lake Bled is famous. Unfortunately, the Bled Cream Cake did not satisfy the discerning tastes of our 6 & 9 year old. J and I weren’t really all that impressed either.

We were, however, impressed by the spectacular views of the lake from the top! Finally, with our own eyes, that little church in the middle of the lake. The inspiration for this trip to Slovenia. I think J may have become a little weepy Clark W. Griswald style for just a moment or two.

Normally, we would have chosen another restaurant on the lake with beautiful views for dinner, but the reality is that we found Lake Bled to be VERY touristy. Beautiful without a doubt, but also too touristy for our taste. So instead, we drove a bit into the surrounding countryside to a restaurant recommended by a friend of ours with traditional food and live Slovenian music – Gostilna Avsenik.

This joint was a bit touristy too, but the girls really enjoyed themselves – until the end of the video – ha!

Lake Bled was the inspiration for this trip to Slovenia, and seeing this beautiful landscape in person was worth the visit for sure. However, I’m glad we only allotted a day here. Sights become touristy because all tourists want to see them, us included, but sometimes the tourism takes over, and this is what I feel like has happened in Lake Bled.

But still thankful for this great family pic!

What We Say About Vintgar Gorge and Lake Bled

The view alone was worth the trip

Mom

The water in the gorge was awesome – sometimes still and clear and sometimes fast and choppy

Big Sis C

The lake was pretty

Lil Sis M

It was everything Windows told me it would be

Dad

Venice

** I am finishing this post amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic. As I look back on this part of our vacation, I can only hope that this bizzare time in history will come to a quick end, travel will be a possibility again, and these pictures of Italy we took in 2019 won’t be the last we ever take of this amazing country. At least the waters in the canal are running clear again….

After we departed the Tremiti Islands with my sister’s family and my parents, we all caught an intercity train together from Termoli to Bologna. The girls and their cousins fought over seats and snacks, and the adults worked up a good sweat in a rather hot train car until a very kind train official moved us to a cooler car in another carriage. We said goodbye to each other in Bologna, and my family of 4 then caught a regional train from Bologna to Venice. It was a looooong travel day, but once we stepped out of the train station and watched the girls catch their first glimpse of the canals of Venezia, we forgot all about it.

Big Sis C’s excitement is apparent. Lil Sis M’s fatigue is also apparent.

By the time we checked into our AirBnb, it was late and everyone was hungry. We let the girls pick out a restaurant, and even though they chose a rather touristy spot at the end of our street along a big canal, it turned out great.

View from our dinner table

Whenever it makes logistical sense, I like to stay in AirBnb apartments when travelling abroad. I’m very particular when choosing them, and so far, we’ve lucked out with excellent spots and friendly hosts. I always look for a place with wifi, air conditioning, a washing machine, very few knick knacks, walkable to restaurants and with a good looking couch. That last criteria may seem odd, but if the couch is old, ugly and worn, then odds are the rest of the apartment is too.

This AirBnb in Venice was located in the Cannaregio neighborhood – within walking distance of the train station, and we loved it.

We only had one full day to spend in Venice, so we started off early pounding the pavement – I mean the cobblestones and bridges. We wanted the girls to see the highlights and take a gondola ride OF COURSE, but we also wanted them to see the uniqueness of this special place.

As soon as we left the apartment, the girls started talking about when we would ride a gondola. Thankfully, we found an official stop nearby in our neighborhood and climbed aboard. The city of Venice sets a standard rate for Gondola rides hailed at official stops throughout the city at 80 euro for 40 min. It was worth every euro cent.

With the gondola ride complete, we continued on to Claire’s most anticipated sight, Acqua Alta Book Shop, catching a quick shot of the Rialto Bridge along the way. The Rialto is always very crowded, and since we didn’t want to end up the other side of the Grand Canal at that point in the day, we chose not to cross over and just admire it from the side.

See that pink bunny in the picture above? Molly spotted these furry backpacks the moment we left the train station the night before. They were sold in all the shops in every imaginable color, and she just HAD to have one as her special Venice souvenir. We purchased it early in the day, and she wore it alllll around Venice. It appears in multiple pictures, and it brought her immense joy that day.

Pink bunny wasn’t touched again for the remainder of our vacation and now hangs on the end of her bed, sad and forgotten.

We really wanted to find a cool place to have cicheti for lunch. Cicheti are the signature small plates, snacks and side dishes sold in Venetian wine bars. I had a bunch of potential spots marked on a map, but we passed them too early before lunch. Thankfully, we found Enoteca Al Volto near the Rialto Bridge, and although I usually try to stay away from restaurants near major attractions, this tiny wine bar was perfect.

Blood sugars back to normal levels

After we filled our bellies and quenched our thirst, we made our way to Piazza San Marco. The girls were impressed and recognized the church and clock tower from one of their favorite books, Olivia Goes to Venice.

Refreshed with gelato, we walked all the way home. Midway, we came upon a church with an extensive, hands-on Leondard da Vinci exhibit where we spent some time learning and stepping out of the hot sun for a bit. I should also mention that we endured an extended detour looking for a friend for pink bunny for Claire in the form of a smaller blue bunny on a keychain, but not just any blue, the perfect shade of blue.

During the planning of our trip, the girls had requested that we eat dinner along a canal. Trattoria al Ponte del Megio had a canal AND a bridge, and we were literally about to fall into the canal we were so close. I chose the restaurant for its location, but bonus, the food was also delicious. On our meandering walk home, we saw a huge line coming out of the Magnum Ice Cream Store. As it turns out, you can design your own Magnum Ice Cream Bar. Can you guess whose is whose?

To me, Venice is always worth a visit, even amidst throngs of tourists in 90 degree temps. Despite having visited many times, there’s still so much of the city that I have yet to explore. And while I would have stayed a few more days, we had a rental car to pick up the next day at the airport for the next stop of our trip – Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Bella Venezia

What We Say About Venice

In Venice, it’s ok to get lost because there is adventure in finding your way again

Mom

I loved Venice. It was very fun

Big Sis C

The gondolas are cool

Lil Sis M

Venice is one of the most unique cities in Europe

Dad

The Isole Tremiti

In the pre-internet years of my youth, my parents chose some of our travel destinations based on articles in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler. This is how my Mom found out about a cluster of small islands off the Gargano Peninsula on the east coast of Italy called the Tremiti Islands, Le Isole Tremiti.

We spent a few summer vacations there when my sister and I were teens, and we LOVED it. She and I never stopped talking about going back one day, and this past summer, we finally returned with our parents, husbands, and kids.

San Domino and Cretaccio as viewed from San Nicola

J and I really enjoy a hectic travel schedule to start off every Family Adventure (sarcasm)! The plan was: land in Milan, train from airport to Milano Centrale train station, take train that requires a pre-booked reservation from Milano to Pescara, switch in Pescara to regional train from Pescara to Termoli, meet my parents at hotel, shower, go out for a wonderful 1st night in Italy dinner with pasta and lots of local wine, then crash and catch ferry to the Tremiti Islands in the morning.

Well……Our late night flight from EWR to Milano Malpensa was slightly delayed due to thunderstorms. No surprise then that while on the train from the airport to the train station in Milano, we realized we weren’t going to make it in time to catch our train south. There were no other seats available to book on ANY trains going south for the rest of the day. So we did what any weary travelers would do – we got off the train halfway to Milano Centrale, got back on a train returning to the airport, booked a rental car at the airport, and DROVE the 6 hours to Pescara.

Heading back to the airport…..after just leaving it

Thankfully, the girls napped in the car, we discovered the magic of Italian Autostrada rest stops and arrived in Pescara with juuuuuust enough time to ditch the rental, run into the station, and catch the LAST train of the day to Termoli. I think we finally arrived in Termoli just before midnight, a nearly 24 hour travel day.

Travel hour 23 and fake smiles on the way to Termoli

My parents had a pizza and a bottle of Prosecco waiting for us at the hotel, thank goodness. While it wasn’t the relaxing 1st day in Italy we were hoping for, we were at least laying our heads down that night in country (My sister and her family didn’t make it to Italy that day. They were spending the night in Barcelona, Spain – the closest they could get – and were hoping to make the afternoon boat the next day to the Islands. At the time, we were so worried for them, but spoiler, they made it!)

The next morning, we walked with our luggage down to the Termoli port to catch the Tirrenia Hydrofoil out to San Domino, one of the 2 inhabited islands of the Tremiti, and the one with the majority of the accommodations for visitors. Tickets for the Hydrofoil can be booked in advance on the website or at the port on the day of departure.

Once we arrived, our friends from the Hotel Le Viole picked us up to take us up to the village at the top of the island. My parents were staying at Le Viole on this trip, but this is also the hotel we stayed at as a family every summer many years ago. There are not enough family rooms there for my sister’s family and ours, so she and I rented two adjoining apartments a quick walk from the hotel. After we checked in, dropped our bags, and had lunch at A Furmicula, we all walked back down to the Port to meet my sister and her family. A Furmicula is a Ristorante/Pizzeria that also turns into a discoteca at night. It is owned by the same family that owns Hotel Le Viole, and we chose to eat there every night on this trip even though there are numerous other restaurants on the islands.

Our days on the Tremiti generally followed a similar schedule. Wake up, decide which cove or beach to spend the day at, have an awesome day, enjoy a family dinner, evening passeggiata and gelato. Repeat. The Tremiti are not fancy but they are stunningly beautiful. We spent the majority of our time on San Domino. The entire island is easily accessible on foot. The village sits at the top of the island, and there are numerous paths leading down to all the swimming coves. Cala della Arena is the largest sandy beach on the island with another smaller sandy beach area at Cala Matano. You can also rent chairs and umbrellas at these spots. The rest of the island is rock slabs that slope gently down to the water. Most visitors just find a flat piece of rock to lay down a towel, but we did notice some platforms at other coves that were available to rent for the day as well – like the one in the picture below.

In addition to swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling and more swimming, we also did some sightseeing and a little bit of shopping. We spent one morning on a short hike out to the old lighthouse at the southern tip of San Domino. Another morning, we took a boat over to San Nicola and explored the old fortress and abbey. There aren’t many stores on the islands besides souvenir shops, but Lo Scrigno on San Domino is a store that makes all their own sea inspired jewelry. It’s beautiful, and we always buy something.

In our family, it’s not a vacation without an afternoon cocktail hour, and we have a few favorite spots on the Islands. Up in the village of San Domino in the main piazza is Bar Disco Diomede. My sister and I used to dance late into the night here as teens. They serve up delicious cocktails as well as aperitivo hour food bites that change daily. Also on hand, a stocked ice cream freezer for the kids’ treats.

Further up in the village is Capatosta. They are open from breakfast to late night with inventive cocktails and burgers, stuzzichini, games for the kids to play, and a hamburger eating challenge that Uncle Bro entered, but sadly did not conquer.

Closer to the port is Bar L’Approdo. Alexander, the bartender, mixes up wild concoctions! Not only is there gelato nearby for the kids here too, but there is also a shallow swimming hole that they could explore while we relaxed.

By unanimous agreement, the highlight of our trip was the day we spent on board The Victor. My family had always noticed the boats in the San Domino harbor that took visitors out on day trips around the islands with lunch on board. This trip – we finally booked a trip for ourselves on the Motonave Victor. Our group of 10 were on board with another 6. The boat spent a full day cruising among the islands and anchored at different spots throughout the day for swimming. The top deck had pillows for sunbathing, and the main deck had ample seating along the sides and in the bow for all the guests. Captain Roberto and his wife Flavia cook a gourmet multi-course lunch in the boat’s kitchen for all the guests each day complete with seemingly bottomless wine and homemade limoncello. We were also lucky enough to have an appetizer of fresh sea urchin pulled up from the sea floor while we were enjoying our first swim stop.

Leaving these beautiful islands is never easy for me, and I was so happy that my family loved it too. My girls and their cousins are already asking repeatedly to go back to the Tremiti again. Fortunately for us, our summer trip last year continued on with a second week spent in Venice and Slovenia.

What We Say about The Isole Tremiti

It’s not just the beauty that makes these islands special – it’s the people too

Mom

I liked swimming at a different beach every day

Big Sis C

I loved going to the beach

Lil Sis M

For such a small group of islands, the Tremiti provide a variety of things to do for everyone

Dad

A Long Weekend in London

It seems appropriate that the first family adventure I share is our recent trip to London over Thanksgiving weekend. That weekend, we found ourselves looking up our old expat blog from a decade ago, and I finally decided to start documenting our travels again.

Sometime in late summer or early fall, J found a great price on round-trip flights to London Heathrow on Virgin America. We had been wanting to take the girls to London, but summer airfares had been consistently too high to even consider. So when this opportunity presented itself, we just booked for Thanksgiving weekend and figured we would work out the rest of the details later.

Continue reading “A Long Weekend in London”
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