Paris Part 2: Disney and Con Air

Bright and early Tuesday morning, we made our way to Disney Paris. After going through the scenario of an early-morning train ride with the kids and my parents, we wisely hired the driver from Allonavette a second time and were dropped off close to the front gates around 9:30am. Technically the park opens at 10, but we were told the gates may open up to a half hour early. I know Disney can be quite divisive, but my family and I are firmly in the “Disney lovers” camp. JR on the other hand, not so much. He played along for the sake of the kids and even smiled once or twice for pictures.

We walked to the back of the park to start the day in Adventureland. Instead of being excited by Dumbo or the other rides, Abby asked when she could see a princess. We were right beside the Princess Pavilion and the sign said you could meet Snow White with only a 60 minute wait. I tried to discourage her, thinking no way would she want this to be the very first thing we did, but she was determined. So in we went. To her credit, she did not complain once while we waited every minute of that hour. I’m not certain how there were already that many people in line for a 60 minute wait but she was thrilled to meet Snow White.

Meanwhile, JR was living his best life, riding the Tea Cups and It’s a Small World with his in-laws and William. William is quite the talker these days and loved pointing out some of the animals on the rides.

After our princess encounter, we joined everyone else for a few rides before sitting down for lunch. We’d packed peanut butter sandwiches and snacks for the kids, but assumed we could buy cheap, quick-service food at the park. Well it was available but it definitely wasn’t cheap and it tasted pretty terrible. The only food place close to where we sat down was serving some version of a sausage, with some funky red sauce (not even close to ketchup) and fries.

Ready to tackle the afternoon, we made our way to Fantasyland to find Pirates of the Caribbean. I was so disappointed to see a sign saying expecting women couldn’t ride, so I kept William with me while everyone else went ahead. Abby said this was one of her favorite rides of the day and even JR said it was fun!

Then it was time for the Halloween Parade! The parade was a little underwhelming. They danced and sang, but there were only a few floats. They spread out and stopped and did their performance and then it was over. We walked to a Pinocchio ride, which is when William woke up and basically lost his mind. JR saved the day by whisking him off to the carousel – although he was very displeased when that ride ended. Luckily my mom and Abby were in line as well so he joined them for another round.

Oh so conveniently located near almost every ride was a store selling overpriced Disney goods. My grandma sent both kids a little spending money and it was burning a hole in Abby’s pocket. I left her alone in the store with my mom for about 15 minutes, which was apparently plenty of time for a purchase and complete outfit change.

The rest of the day passed quickly. We rode a few more rides, watched two more parades and a short show, and had a very sub-par dinner. Around 6 or 7pm JR and I were ready to call it. My parents could have gone on for several more hours, I’m sure, but by the time we boarded the train to go home it was clear we were all spent. The train was completely packed, we were really lucky to get seats because it was about a 45 minute trip back to the city. Overall, I’m really glad we went!

The next morning JR and I took the kids to Monmartre to ride the little train around the neighborhood. The kids loved it. We rode it up to the Sacre Coeur (one of my very very favorite places in the world!) and we enjoyed the view and some snacks. We told the kids the story of how we sat on those very same steps on New Year’s Eve in 2013 when I was pregnant with Abby.  They weren’t that impressed and were only interested in their snack cups. On the way back they took turns napping in their strollers as we walked through the neighborhood.

Leading up to the trip, Abby was insistent that she wanted to not only see the Eiffel Tower at night, but that she wanted to go to the top. We kept an eye on prices for Skip the Line tours, but they were expensive and I’d read that you could wait hours if you just showed up without a ticket. We thought she might be satisfied by our trip to see it when we arrived, but the girl would not be deterred. My parents offered to take her that evening and Abby will still tell you it was one of the best parts of her trip. She called JR and I a few times from the line from my Mom’s phone, just to keep us updated, and she was absolutely adorable. She also just HAD to wear her “best” dress (the new Minnie Mouse one she purchased and wore the day before).

Thursday was our last real day. JR spent the morning at the Catacombs while my mom and I took the kids to a playground. My parents offered us a final date night in the city and we weren’t about to turn that down, so we rushed out of the apartment before they could change their minds. We walked over to St. Germain and enjoyed a few hours of walking without strollers and backpacks full of kid supplies. We had a very French dinner (fondue for me, rabbit for him) and then enjoyed one last crepe that can hopefully tide me over until our next visit.

 

Friday was departure day for everyone. One downside to our AirBnB was that it had a 10am check out, and we couldn’t do a late checkout (or so we thought) because they had another booking that day. Our return flight didn’t depart Paris until 9:20pm, so we rented a day room at the Hilton near the airport. Our room was huge, and they also brought in a pack n play for William. The hotel had a small pool which claimed to be heated but wasn’t exactly warm and the kids loved it anyway. We all took a long nap, watched some French cartoons, ate dinner at the hotel and then took the free shuttle to the airport.

As we boarded our flight, there were 3 policeman at the door of the plane. We walked to our seats in row 15 and I think there were probably about 25 rows total on the plane, with a 3-3 configuration. I was getting the kids situated and JR was across the aisle. He stayed standing looking at the back of the plane, and you could hear some commotion back there. He said he thought they were arresting someone. I tried to look but couldn’t see much, but now that I was paying attention I could definitely hear someone’s muffled yells. After about 10 or 15 minutes of this, I asked JR why they weren’t just getting him off the plane? I also wondered if they were going to take him out a different exit because he sounded quite unhappy and I didn’t want him walking past us on his way out. JR asked one of the policeman closest to us what was happening and when he would be removed. The man said “oh no, he’s staying on the plane. He’s being deported. Don’t worry, no violence, 3 policeman will fly with him.”

Uh huh. That “no violence” thing was not super reassuring when this man was screaming in Georgian like he was possessed. Like the mature adults we are, we made a few jokes about being on Con Air and wondering when Nicolas Cage would appear. JR called me “hummingbird” a few times and kept asking “why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”

Thankfully the guy eventually quieted down once we took off and the flight home, overall, was fine. William passed out in my arms and Abby eventually fell asleep in her seat. I knew from our experience in London she would be a beast when it was time to wake up and get off the plane. I handed William to JR and starting waking her, with the promise of cookies if she would just wake up and walk off the plane herself. She did, and when we got on the bus to take us to the airport William woke up and started saying “Cookie? Cookie?” And that, my friends, is why my children were on the floor of the Tbilisi Airport eating cookies at 5am a few weeks ago. Because it’s all about survival.

Paris Part 1: Direct Flights and Crepes

Sometime last year, I was at an Usbourne Books party and saw the cutest book about Paris so I purchased it for Abby. I love reading it with her, and started to fantasize about taking a family trip to Paris. We were planning to use our last R&R tickets to visit Ohio this November (we haven’t been home since last summer, which is the longest I’ve been away since moving overseas), but those plans were scrapped when we learned we were expecting baby #3! Knowing we’d be heading home in January for a maternity med evac, that left us with no plans for this fall and suddenly, my Paris dreams weren’t so far fetched.

I thought it might be a stretch to convince JR, but he not only agreed, he also suggested we invite my parents along! The new direct flight on Georgian Airways to Paris was a big selling point. We aren’t located that far from the major European cities, but there are very few direct flights, and the connections/layover times are not desirable. For the flight to Paris, it left at 3:20pm on a Friday. In the afternoon. As in, daylight hours. Practically unheard of in Tbilisi, and such a strange feeling for us to be boarding a plane in the middle of the day!

We decided to bring two single strollers instead of our Britax double. I thought we might struggle with the side-by-side stroller walking in the city, and since my parents were with us, we might split up and each need a stroller at some point. I also learned my lesson when taking Abby to London – she gets very whiny about walking too far (no clue where she gets that!). When we landed in Paris, I was annoyed but not totally surprised to learn our gate checked strollers would be delivered at baggage claim. You know, because when you gate check, you don’t do it so you can have the item as soon as you get off the plane, but what you REALLY WANT is to wait until the absolute last items have come off the baggage carousel to track down an airport employee so you can wait another 15 minutes for your strollers to be delivered.

Aside from that, our travel was uneventful and we had a driver waiting for us at the airport for convenience and our desire for car seats for the kids. We hired Allonavette, and we were very happy with their service. The driver had a large van, with comfortable and spacious seats, and most importantly, two installed car seats. He dropped us off at our rental apartment in the Marias district and the kids passed out immediately. I was able to almost completely unpack. I’ll put in a plug for packing cubes again. They are a game changer! I pulled the cubes (Abby’s clothes, William’s clothes, pajamas/bed stuff, toiletries, outerwear, and my clothes) out of the suitcases and put them in drawers or closets. It’s so nice to get the suitcases put away and feel a bit settled right after arriving someplace new. While I was doing that, JR ran out for a few groceries. It was almost 11pm by then, but my superstar husband still found me a crepe and brought it home for me.

The next morning we woke up ready to explore. We took a walk along the Seine over to the Ile Saint-Loius (where JR and I stayed during our last visit when I was pregnant with Abby) before making our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Abby was really excited, but kept asking when she’d see the Eiffel Tower. We let the kids chase pigeons in front of the cathedral before making a loop around the building. It’s a small park with 3 little things for kids to crawl on.

 

We returned home and waited for my parents to arrive from the States. Our apartment was on the 2nd floor of a busy street, with huge windows that opened to a faux balcony – great for fresh air, terrible for child safety – and the kids loved waiting to see Nana and Papu pull up in their taxi. After an afternoon of naps and relaxing, and helping Nana unpack her suitcase full of goodies, we walked towards Les Halles, a large shopping center that has a renovated play area beside it. The place was packed! It was probably 80 degrees, and there were kids everywhere. It was a great spot to let the kids play, and I wish our apartment had been a bit closer to it (it was about a 20 minute walk). At Abby’s insistence, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, trying to time up our arrival with sunset and the lights turning on. I got that one way wrong, but Abby went nuts when she saw it from the distance. I loved her excitement and enthusiasm when she saw it for the first time and it only amplified the closer we got to the tower. Also, to the entrepreneurial geniuses who now walk around the areas near the Eiffel Tower selling wine by the bottle or glass – GOOD ON YOU, BUDDY. Excellent idea.

I had big plans for our Sunday, but woke up feeling terrible. After weeks of every member of my family having strep throat, it was finally my turn. I sent JR, the kids and my parents off to the Louvre with plans to meet up later. Well you know how plans work. The Louvre was packed so they skipped ahead to the Tuileries Garden, which I promised them would have a great playground. Turns out the big play equipment was roped off and being repaired.

They managed some fun anyway and both kids were ready for a nap. Well, kids and dad.

That night we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and then made our way slowly down the Champs-Élysées. Our whole group perked up when we saw a Five Guys (you know how I feel about American hamburgers!). It was crazy expensive but delicious. My parents offered to take the kids home for baths and bedtime, so JR and I stopped by Frog Revolution to sample some local craft beers.

On Monday, we walked back to Notre Dame first thing in the morning. It’s nice to get there before the crowds and lines start to form. JR, my mom and Abby went inside while William and I enjoyed pain au chocolates outside. An older couple could not stop staring at William – must have been that blonde hair – and started taking a bunch of pictures of him. I figured it was harmless, but did find it a little strange when the woman even came close to pose beside him while her husband continued snapping away. This face though, I get it!

We walked to Sainte Chappelle, one of my favorite sights. It was great to visit a second time, because it was partially being renovated during our last trip. Then I lead everyone on a longer than expected, warmer than expected, walk to the Luxembourg Gardens. Fear not, I told them, it will all be worth it when we arrive at this magical playground I’ve read about online! Here are some of the photos of what we expected to find:

Image result for poussin vert paris Image result for poussin vert paris

The reality, after an additional 10-15 minutes of trekking through the huge, but beautiful, park grounds, looked nothing like that. The play structures were removed, the ground was dug up, and the whole area looked like a field of dirt. I’d been promising Abby a trip to the best playground in Paris, and I honestly wanted to cry! Funny how the internet neglected to tell me the playground was being completely renovated. Ugh. Abby took the news in stride, much better than me. JR asked what I wanted to do instead, and I said just order me an Uber, I need a nap. And so he did. My mom and I took the kids home while he wandered around a bit longer, searching for things far more interesting than the next playground.

Back at home, my parents made a second attempt (and were successful!) to visit the Louvre while the kids and I napped. When everyone was together again at the apartment, they offered to cook dinner for the kids so JR and I could go out. I was super excited to try a fondue place, Pain Vin Fromage, so we set off. JR was not overly impressed but man…cheese, ham, bread…I was in heaven. The restaurant was teeny tiny, and the manager was horrified that we didn’t have a reservation. He said we could stay as long as we finished by 8:30 (no problem pal, that’s my bedtime) and he stuck us in the furthest corner table he could to prove his point. Really this just allowed me to feast on my melted cheese in private, so I was fine.

Halfway through our trip, I was feeling better so we made our final plans to visit Disney Paris on Tuesday! To be continued.

 

 

 

3 days in London

When I realized I would be heading back to London for a quick 3 day trip, I somehow convinced JR that I should take Abby along. I’m so glad I did, because I don’t know when we would have an opportunity like that again and it was pretty cool traveling with just her on a girls’ trip to London. Well, cool and a touch exhausting. It’s hard to be set up for success for any trip when you have to wake up at 2am and leave for the airport by 2:45. Abby popped right out of bed (the idea of going to bed with her clothes on just thrilled her) but had a harder time than expected saying goodbye to her Dad. She perked up during the car ride and our first flight, but tiredness set in once we arrived at the Istanbul airport for our layover.


All smiles on the first flight

If you fly out of Tbilisi and connect anywhere, you have to go through security again. It’s a huge hassle and particularly awful in Istanbul, where the security line was backed up as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t even a line to join, as the spot where we were backed up was just a mass of people trying to get ahead of each other. It was hot, we only had an hour to catch our next plane, and Abby was already over it. Splendid. Luckily, I made eyes with an employee (I told JR that during this trip I really perfected a look of exhaustion and desperation coupled with kindness) and we were ushered ahead, skipping the ENTIRE line. Victory! I convinced Abby to take a nap during the second flight, and then had to cajole her along at Heathrow because it was a lot of walking. I debated bringing the stroller but figured it would be unnecessary and man, was I wrong. I hoped we could get into our room right when we arrived, but we were still too early and early-check in wasn’t an option. After a quick lunch I went to my favorite burger place that I insist on visiting each time I’m in London and then took her to get pasta. When we returned to the hotel the room was finally ready. Abby gets really excited about hotel rooms. Her face was priceless when we walked into the super simple room, she couldn’t wait to pick a side of the bed, pull things out of the backpack, and of course, jump on the bed.

Over the next few days we enjoyed the Big Bus Tour, the London Eye, and several great playgrounds. I like the hop on, hop off bus tour because you can see a lot at once, and it’s also a nice transportation option to get to the different sights and parts of the city. For the London Eye, if you enter the ticket office, go directly to your right and use the self-service kiosk to save time, as the ticket line was quite long when we arrived. I considered paying more for a Fast Track ticket, but opted for a standard which was still expensive. Fortunately, the line moves quickly and we probably waited a total of 20 minutes, and we were kept moving almost the whole time.

Jubilee Playground is located directly behind the London Eye and I would say it was perfect for kids 4 and up looking to let off some steam. There was another small playground just a few minutes’ walk from Buckingham Palace, located in St. James Park. It had restrooms for children, picnic tables, and a small food vendor outside, and would entertain toddlers and more. The best playground in my opinion was located in Hyde Park, the Diana Memorial Playground – and is perfect for all ages. We absolutely loved this place and would have stayed much longer, but Abby had woken up around 5am that day and was in need of a nap. All of the playgrounds were fenced in and well-maintained.


Jubilee Playground


Playground at St. James Park


Diana Memorial Playground – our favorite!

On the way to dinner one night, I saw Hamleys Toy Store up ahead and made a critical parenting error.

Me: Abby, we’re about to walk past a super expensive toy store. We can go inside and look, but we can’t buy anything. Do you want to look or should we just skip it?
Abby: Let’s go!
Me: Okay, we can, but remember, we really cannot buy anything in this store, okay?
Abby: Mm hmm.

60 seconds later…


Of course I didn’t let her buy this! How would I even get it home? Plus it probably cost 200 pounds.

But then she saw this bear (wearing a purple dress and a crown) and gave me puppy dog eyes and I couldn’t say no. I’m weak.

We had dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, and she was very entertained by the animals and sounds of the faux rainforest. Dinner was expensive and not particularly tasty, but she enjoyed herself.

From her point of view, the highlights were drinking hot chocolate, the playgrounds, ICE CREAM!, and staying in a hotel together. When we went to bed that first night she gave me her biggest smile and said “This is just like having a sleepover, Mom!”.

We were both happy to get home to JR and William, but I loved the one-on-one time with my sweet girl.

Marvelous Malta

While my mom was visiting, JR and I took a quick trip to Malta where we spent 5 glorious days lounging by sea, napping, and eating a lot of ice cream (mostly just me on the ice cream). Malta wasn’t really on our radar until some colleagues mentioned their upcoming trip and the short travel time. I found a good deal on tickets from Tbilisi and worked hard to convince JR that it was a necessity.

We stayed at a great hotel in Valletta, only a few minutes walk to the city walls. The Grand Hotel Excelsior was a bit dated on the decor, but the service and location were fabulous. Honestly, anytime I can order drinks and food from my lounge chair, I’m a happy camper. The proximity to the city center allowed us to walk there for most of our meals, and to enjoy the beautiful streets and views from almost every turn. The city is really hilly, one minute you are on a gradual decline, then you make a turn and have to walk up 100 steps to get to your next destination.

 

Anytime JR and I go on a trip, I have to remind him – constantly – that I can’t keep up with his pace. He could walk for days, uphill, downhill, carrying bags or children, sweating or freezing, it doesn’t phase him. Me? I like a casual stroll with my purse in 74 degree weather. In the shade. We signed up for a full day Game of Thrones tour and it was really great, minus the whole walking a lot in extreme heat thing. The tour guide, Malcolm, was an extra in several scenes in Season 1-3, so he had a ton of great inside info on the show and filming tvs and movies in general. Apparently Malta is really popular for filming. It was cool to see many of the places they filmed, not just because of the connection to the show, but the tour also took us around the island to see the ancient walled city of Mdina and other great spots. JR was delighted to learn they filmed Robin Williams’ Popeye there in 1980.

Valletta was full of shops, people, and outdoor cafes. We found a great spot for dinner one evening, complete with a nice little guy singing along to his guitar. Anytime someone is playing live music in front of me, preferably covers of my favorite songs, I’m content to sit and sing along. Even if the setting doesn’t really call for that, like on this particular night when no one else was singing and the guy was playing songs I didn’t know. After a few of those, he played Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis and I started humming along. When the song was over I whooped a little too loudly and JR shot me a look.  BUT THEN, he played Teenage Dirtbag and I just could not help myself. JR shrunk down in his seat and sipped his beer while I helped the guy out with my less than stellar vocals. Apologies to the rest of the restaurant patrons!

We loved our time in Malta but we were also happy to return home to the kids. Part of me looks back at my mom’s time here and I think, what did we even do while she was here? But then I can list off all the things she did with the kids – swimming, making crafts and Froot Loop necklaces, making popsicles, planting a small garden for Abby, throwing a princess party for the girls in the neighborhood, water balloon fights, face painting and more. To my momma (hopefully you still read these?) – we can’t thank you enough. We love you!!

 

 

 

La Dolce Vita: Wineries and San Gimignano

Thursday morning we had the free wine tour that came with booking our house on AirBnB. Truthfully I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. I was tired from traveling the day before, and since we were taking the kids I had doubts on how much I’d enjoy a tasting while entertaining them. To my surprise, we had the BEST morning at Villa Calcinaia with Vincenzo, our trusty tour guide/property manager/fixer. I say fixer because anytime we texted Vincenzo during our stay, he did more than just give us a basic reply, he would send multiple texts to ensure our questions were answered. When we asked him if we could buy diapers at the Coop, he first texted yes, then texted the location in the store, and then sent a picture of the diapers in the store, just in case. Can’t beat that level of service!

We met at 10:30 and enjoyed learning more about the history of the winery and a tour of the grounds. According to Vincenzo they have been making wine there for over 30 generations and we learned that the main house even held American soldiers at some point during WWII. I also thought it was awesome that they had a few random soccer balls in the main yard which kept the kids busy. It was cool to see our rental house, and the others they maintain, from the estate. When it was time to head inside, rather than taking the main entrance, he let Abby knock and enter through the old wooden door so she could fulfill some more princess dreams.

Inside, after learning a bit more about the aging and bottling process, it was time for our tasting. Wow. I can’t say enough about the wines he shared with us, or the fantastic spread of their own olive oil and local cheese and meats from Fornica. I won’t say how many glasses I “tasted” but when he asked if we wanted to buy a case to ship home I responded a bit too enthusiastically. JR was left to shake his head and contemplate our credit card balance while I selected which bottles we just had to have. Since we were uncertain if the bottles could be shipped to Georgia, we had the case shipped to my mom’s in Orrville to be included in our next consumables shipment (which we are now counting down the days until it arrives!)

Not content with just one stop, we dropped the kids and grandparents back at the house and then went into town to check out Enoteca Falorni. Reviews said this place was underneath the Coop grocery store and you could sample over 100 wines. What’s so interesting is that they had it set up as a completely self service wine tasting. Wines were organized together by type around the huge room, and placed in these automatic dispensers. You gave the cashier your credit card and she handed you a card back that you placed inside the dispenser, then you pick your wine, then you pick your size – a tasting, half a glass, or full glass. It automatically puts that amount on your card, and you return to do it all over again after you finish your first selection. Genius! While convenient and new-fangled, it lacked the personal service touch we’d received at every other stop during our trip.

Friday morning we drove to San Gimignano. It was about an hour, which was pretty much the max amount of time I was willing to travel with the kids during the trip. While we loved our trip to Scotland last year, we spent a lot of time on the road and I didn’t want to repeat that. San Gimignano is another “must-see” for its city walls, medieval towers and churches. We had a lovely afternoon exploring the town, chasing the kids around, and yes, more fantastic gelato.

  

That night JR and I enjoyed our last date night in Greve, first stopping at Santa Margherita winery for a tasting. We had the best server, Isaac, who picked perfect samples for each of us. It turns out Isaac is from Michigan but married an Italian girl and ended up in Tuscany. The appetizer he brought out was way too crazy for me – dried squid ink with an anchovy on top and then a dollop of cream of pea sauce, no thanks! I was worried about weight and how much we were allowed to pack in our suitcases so we only purchased two bottles, but there were several kinds I wanted. We had reservations at Gallo Nero for dinner where I ate the best steak of my life. It was so good. JR ordered tortellini which he said was perfectly fine, but he gave me sad puppy dog eyes every time I took a bite of my amazing steak.

Saturday was our last full day in Italy. I can’t remember what did that morning. After lunch, my mom stayed with the kids while we returned to two previous spots so JR could enjoy them –  Castello Verrazanno and Vicchio Maggio. We even convinced JR’s dad to take a sip of wine!

It only made sense to have our final meal at La Cantina back in Greve. It was bitter sweet – we were all ready to go home and return to normal routines, but you also never want a vacation to end.

I don’t want to do a whole separate post about our travel home, so just a couple quick things. The Florence Airport is the actual WORST. It’s very tiny, which okay, whatever, we knew that going in, so we ate before passing through security at the only real restaurant available. We had over 3 hours to wait, far too long for an airport of this size, but we would have paid a hefty fee to turn in our rental car late so we tried to make due. My biggest complaint is the complete lack of facilities for changing diapers. No where, in the entire airport, do they have either a changing table or a bathroom counter with space to change a baby. COME ON MAN. I was so heated about the whole thing that I wanted to change William’s dirty diaper in front of everyone, but I realized that wouldn’t really address the problem. What I need to do is write a strongly worded letter to their management, have it translated into Italian, and take the time to follow up. It’s not going to happen so I’ll just vent here instead.

The flight to Munich was a breeze, and we find Munich to be very manageable because there are plenty of food options and multiple play spaces. Munich is less maneagable when the airline forgets/misplaces, for the UMPTEENTH time, your gate-checked stroller. Apparently this happens regularly (and not only to us!) so the Lufthansa rep directed us to a service area where they had a loaner stroller we could use during the layover. Good to know for when that inevitably happens again.

We’ve been home for a few weeks now and jumped right back into work, school events and endless discussions with friends about children’s sleep patterns and attitude issues. Not quite as fun as Italy, but close.

Finally, a few of my very favorite pictures from this amazing trip.

 

 

La Dolce Vita: Rome and Pistoia

For several months, we planned for JR and his Dad to spend two days in Rome during our trip. My mom and sister wanted to take a day trip there as well, and I said I was happy to stay home with both kids for a day. Turns out, I lied. As I mentioned, the house had some quirks (a medieval fireplace you could walk into) that made it difficult to turn your back on William for even a second, and it was very hard to entertain both of them in the house for an extended period of time. Like for more than ten minutes. It was cooler outside than we expected, so my visions of playing outside with them all day faded too. A change in plans was necessary, so as of Sunday night it was decided that everyone would travel to Rome on Monday except for William and I.

That night my sister became incredibly sick. In the morning she said there was no way she could go. My mom didn’t want to go without her, so she drove JR and his Dad to Florence so they could catch their train to Rome, and then she returned to Greve for the day with me and the kids. A lifesaver was the Play Doh Drill n’ Fill dentist kit that both kids loved -thank you Mom! We spent some time at the playground in town and tried a new restaurant for dinner, Trattoria d’i Borgo. Once again, we enjoyed delicious food and great service. The weather was cool but not too chilly so we sat outside and relaxed as much as one can when dining with small children.

While we were having a low-key day, JR and his dad did a Walks of Italy tour of the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill. Their tour guide was excellent and they both highly recommend it. For lodgings while in Rome they stayed in a hotel near Piazza Navona, which is right where we stayed when we took our family trip in 2015. JR sent me several pictures from our favorite spots and I was pretty jealous to miss out.


This picture is notable for a few reasons. JR’s dad doesn’t drink – at all. He posed with this glass of wine sitting at our favorite spot in front of the Pantheon so JR could freak out his siblings!

Thankfully my sister woke up feeling better on Tuesday, so we loaded up the kids and drove to Pistoia, about an hour away, to check out their zoo. The drive was kind of boring because it was a fair amount of highway driving, but William slept the whole way so I would have gladly kept going. The zoo was fantastic. It was medium-sized, nicely laid out and had an awesome playground. When we visited the lion enclosure, the female lion was resting right near the glass and the male lion was pacing angrily beside her. He kept jumping up and growling at the glass, and I had some serious questions about Italian zoo safety standards compared to American ones. I didn’t want to test my suspicions, so I kept us moving along.  Later in the reptile house, they had an alligator in a raised enclosure with an open top that I definitely could have reached in to touch. Apparently two small illustrated signs showing a hand being bitten was supposed to be sufficient to prevent any incidents.

  

I was pretty tired when we returned to Greve that afternoon, but realized it was already Tuesday and we hadn’t been to a winery yet. My sister and I set off to remedy that while my Mom took care of the kids. First we stopped at Vicchio Maggio. The women working there were super fun, the place has a fantastic view, and the wine was awesome. One of my favorite stops.  They offered a separate tour of their nearby winery, but we were quite content with tasting. We also did a quick stop at Castello Verrazzano.  Just like the first place, they offered a full tour at their winery nearby, but we opted for the tasting only. Eating fresh bread dipped in olive oil while sampling wines and taking in the scenery was basically my vision for this trip.

On our way back we planned to stop at Coop, the small grocery store in town. We arrived during their afternoon break (closed every day 1-4pm!!) so we were forced to eat gelato nearby while we waited. In the store we bought food to make dinner at home, and Jamie prepared rosemary chicken, green beans and smashed potatoes while I ran back into town to pick up JR and his Dad (they’d taken the train back from Rome to Florence and then a bus to Greve).

We enjoyed dinner together while they filled us in our their trip. They were able to take a guided tour to the Necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica where the Apostle Peter and over a 100 Popes are buried. This Scavi (Excavation in Italian) tour is open to the public but is extremely difficult to get because the few spots available per day fill up quickly (JR had to book it 6 months in advance! http://www.scavi.va/content/scavi/en/ufficio-scavi.html). JR and his Dad said this was an amazing tour and a highlight of their trip.  JR has tried to book the tour on previous trips to Rome and we were unable to when we visited in 2015. He said the wait was well worth it.

You might think we spent Wednesday reunited as a big group, but my mom and sister still wanted to see Rome. And since JR and his Dad were back, there was no reason for Abby and ME not to join them! We set off Wednesday morning for a girls’ trip.  Arriving in Florence in morning rush hour and attempting to park to get to the train station was not ideal. At one point my mom said “I just keep going straight here”, but I pointed out the various signs and flashing red lights that clearly meant do not enter. She shrugged and said “that’s the way I went on Monday”. We are waiting for a few traffic tickets to arrive in the mail any day now.

We parked under the central market and walked to the train station. It was a quick 1 hour and 20 minute fast-train to Rome. When we arrived we purchased tickets for one of the Big Bus tours. This wasn’t my preferred way to see the city, but we only had one day and Abby was thrilled about being on a double-decker bus.  We stayed on board for a few stops before getting off at Castel Sant’Angelo. We walked in the opposite direction to Piazza Navona. It was really cool to return to a place I’d visited with Abby just a few years ago. We made it a point to have gelato at the same place we had our very first gelato back in 2015. We kept a slow pace and walked to see the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Both of those sights were closed during my last visit and I was glad to finally see  them, especially the fountain. It’s even larger than I expected and we took some fun pictures.


2015 and 2018 – she looks a little different, but I’m wearing the same jacket!

   

We met up with the bus tour a few stops later and enjoyed the ride while Abby slept. She really crashed hard, and was showing no signs of waking up even when we were ready to get off again. This led to me carrying her down the street towards the Vatican, a stop my mom didn’t want to miss. Abby stayed asleep in my arms at a cafe while they went ahead to look around.


What else am I supposed to do when she’s passed out on my lap?

By then it was almost 5pm. We were hungry, tired, and realizing we had a bit of a journey ahead. The bus tour only runs until about 6pm, so when we tried to board for a return trip to the train station, we were met with a large group of tourists with the same plans. No one wanted to make a nice, polite line, so you had to fend for yourself to actually get on one of the buses. My quick-thinking sister, who was carrying Abby at the time, reenacted the lifeboat scene from Titanic and began yelling “I have a child!” like Billy Zane.

This worked splendidly and we were all able to follow her on to the bus. Finally we made it to the train station, and unwisely purchased tickets for a train departing 20 minutes later. Because of course, immediately after the tickets printed Abby said she needed a bathroom break.

The next 20 minutes were hilarious. My mom and Abby went off in search of a bathroom while my sister and I stood in line to buy dinner for everyone. She bought us some sandwiches from a deli, and then while she waited in line at McDonalds (judge away) for my Mom and Abby, I was trying to figure out which platform we needed to be on. The cashier at McDonalds told Jamie they only had plain cheeseburgers, not hamburgers, and she looked at me to ask what to do since my Mom hates cheese. My watch told me we had 7 minutes left so I yelled “take the hamburgers!” We all met up and asked an employee for help finding out platform. When he pointed it out to us, he kind of shrugged and said you only have 5 minutes. I grabbed the food bags, told my sister to pick up Abby, and we started to run McCallister-family style hauling butt through this train station. With barely a minute to spare we made it and we laughed so hard on the way home about what close call we’d had.

Of course the comedy wasn’t over because we still had to drive home, and we truly could not make our way out of the train station area in Florence. Every other road is restricted from use, or one way, so we just zig-zagged back and forth, up and down these tiny streets making zero progress. At one point we turned a corner and we were staring at the Duomo. While beautiful at night, there was no doubt we were not supposed to be there. I have to give credit to my Mom because she stayed completely relaxed the whole time, convinced it would work out fine, while my sister and I were getting more and more frustrated. As she expected, we eventually figured it out and we made it back to the villa just fine. While this whole trip was memorable, a highlight will be spending a day in Rome with them.


Super sure we were NOT supposed to be driving there. Also realizing me posting this blog might make it harder for my Mom to deny any involvement when the traffic citations show up!

 

La Dolce Vita: Florence and Siena

So as I mentioned, our travel day on Thursday was pretty exhausting. In a real bonehead move on my part, I asked JR to reserve tickets to the Accademia Gallery to see the David at 8:45am Friday morning. In my defense, my internet research said to make reservations in advance and that first thing in the morning was the way to go.  What I failed to really consider was that we’d be traveling most of the day Thursday, probably not sleep well that night, and that our rental house was a 45 minute drive from Florence. And that doesn’t even take parking into account, which we realized would be a big issue. I convinced everyone that it was well worth it to call the 60 euro reservation a loss and plan to sleep in.

We woke up Friday morning with zero plans, but after slowly making breakfast and getting ready, I figured it still made sense to head to Florence and enjoy the nice weather while we had it. After the fiasco the previous day, I refused to drive anywhere until we had phones with data on them. We made a quick stop in town for SIM cards before driving to Florence. Our AirBnB host recommended parking at a hotel that was a 15 minute walk from the main sights, and to our surprise, driving there and parking was quite easy. We stopped for lunch at a fantastic sandwich place, I’ Girone De’ Ghiotti, right off the main walking street. I spent a good amount of time researching and planning for our day in Florence so that we could make the most of our time and eat well, and this place did not disappoint! Just around the corner we made our first (of many) stops for gelato at Perche no!  It was fantastic of course and it was the first gelato experience for JR’s dad, William and my mom.

 
Lunch at I’ Gerone De’ Ghiotti

    
Gelato stop and walking with a monkey on my back.


We saw the Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signora, the Duomo, the San Lorenzo Market and Ponte Vecchio. In between the sightseeing, we found time to stop for wine, espresso, and the Disney store. You know, typical Italian things. My mom and sister took Abby in and returned with a princess outfit complete with shoes and a crown. Our girl was truly in her element there.

It was a wonderful day but quite long, and poor William was overtired and couldn’t fall asleep on the way back to Greve. Everyone wanted to go out to dinner but we didn’t want to risk the inevitable meltdown, so JR stayed behind while the rest of us went to La Cantina, a wonderful local restaurant in Greve. We loved this place from the moment we walked in the door. Alessandro, the owner/manager/concierge/I don’t know what, greeted us with fist bumps and a smile. As we sat down the servers brought over glasses of prosecco. And since neither my mom nor JR’s Dad drink, my sister and I were treated to two glasses each! They had a large menu and delicious food, and treated us to dessert wine and a plate of sweets when we were finished. When we left, we assured Alessandro that we’d return (and we certainly kept that promise).

That night, part of a sweet little annual tradition between Abby and my mom, they colored Easter eggs together. My mom packed all the supplies, just like she did last year in Scotland!

Greve has a big market in their square on Saturday mornings so we started the next day there. Lunch was at Antica Macelleria Falorni, the oldest butcher shop in Greve, founded in 1806. William fell asleep in the stroller, so my mom took Abby to a playground while the rest of us enjoyed an early afternoon wine stop. Many of the restaurants we visited included a 2 euro “cover charge” for water, bread, and basically just for sitting down. So stopping for wine usually included a light snack – no complaints from me.

We all met at the playground and enjoyed some downtime watching the kids play.

I started looking up dinner options and was surprised to discover that many recommended restaurants closed between lunch and dinner, and that meant they didn’t reopen until 6:30/7pm, or later in some cases. Not ideal for our kids who usually eat dinner at 5:45 pm. Or me, let’s be honest. And so that’s how we justified returning to La Cantina for the second night in a row.

On Sunday we spent the morning exploring the property around our house.

We ate lunch at home and then drove about an hour to Siena, one of the most famous cities in Tuscany. The drive was beautiful and easy – it helped that William slept the whole way. We parked at Il Campo and there were clear signs for it including some that updated with the number of free parking spots on each level. It was just a ten minute walk to the main square, Piazza del Campo.

Siena was beautiful and Piazza del Campo was unforgettable. It was a bit windy, but otherwise I could have spent hours people watching and wandering the streets. Twice a year Piazza del Campo is transformed into a horse track where the 17 neighborhoods of Siena challenge each other in a famous horse race called “Palio.”

 

We stopped for gelato at Grom (highly rated but just okay to me, I quickly became a gelato expert). On our way to the Duomo, Abby passed out in the stroller. We kept William moving with the promise of blueberries, and it was so funny watching him wobble down the streets. JR, his dad, my sister and I did a quick visit inside the cathedral. It was really impressive and well worth it.

We returned to Piazza del Campo and I had the genius idea that JR and I should climb the 400 steps up the Torre del Mange, a tower over looking the square. I regretted the idea around the 50th step, but we made it to the top!


400 steps! 

I had hoped we could spend more time in the town, but the weather was cooling quickly. Abby was still sound asleep in the stroller and we knew William was more than ready for a nap, so we made our way back to Greve. Huge thanks to my sister for wearing William (no small feat since he’s over 25lbs now) while Abby hogged the stroller. And thanks to all three of our traveling companions for staying with the kids so JR and I could enjoy a date night that evening!

To be continued.