See you in Scotland, Part 3

Previous posts about our trip: Part 1 and Part 2.

Whitebridge

We set out Wednesday morning, waving goodbye to Oban and hoping beyond hope that we could avoid car sickness as we drove to our next AirBnB in Whitebridge. I spent a lot of time mapping out our drive and searching for the perfect place to stop that would allow Abby to eat and play before returning to the car. William is a rock star in the car at the moment so it was all about Abby. The first part of our drive was beautiful and easy, and we stopped for lunch in Fort William at a place called Crofter’s Pub. Then my mom and I took the kids to the Nevis Center (think a big community rec center) that had a huge indoor play space. Our girl was in heaven. JR initially balked at the idea of spending our limited vacation time at a play place, but he knew Abby needed to have fun too and frankly, she wasn’t all that impressed with the rainy Highlands so far.

JR explored Fort William while we played and played. It was exhausting but exactly what we wanted for her before we drove the remaining hour to our cottage. Or so we thought. Shortly into our drive, our GPS told us to go left over Spean Bridge. Unfortunately, there was some type of accident so they had placed “Diversion” signs and had a few workers standing there telling us we could not go left. We didn’t have an alternate route planned, so we asked one of the men if staying right/straight would lead to Fort Augustus (we named this larger town because Whitebridge is so small) and he said “yep”. We didn’t have much choice so we stayed on the road. I looked down at GoogleMaps on my phone and started panicking. There appeared to be no other roads to turn left on anytime soon. I also knew, from hours of research and planning this trip, that based on the route we would take from Whitebridge to Edinburgh when we left in a few days, there may not be any other route for us.

The bottom left is Fort William, where we began. Spean Bridge is circled in blue, and that’s where we faced our detour. Instead of continuing about 40 minutes straight up to Whitebridge, we had to follow the route lined in red. It was a 2.5 hour detour. TWO AND A HALF EXTRA HOURS IN THE CAR WITH A BABY AND A TODDLER PRONE TO VOMITING. I was displeased.

Amazingly both kids did great in the car, and as we finally approached Whitebridge it started to sprinkle even though the sun was brightly shining. I turned to look out the window and saw this incredible double rainbow. I took it as a good sign that we were almost there!

We made it to our little cottage in the middle of nowhere, and I cannot say enough about this place. It was exactly what I pictured and hoped for when we planned our trip. The property was lovely and there was a creek perfect for throwing rocks just a few steps away.

 

The next morning we set out for Fort William to take a boat cruise on Loch Ness. The tour was an hour long and made all the more enjoyable by Abby calling over the side of the boat, “Nessie, Nessie, where are you?!” I asked where Nessie could be and Abby wisely guessed the grocery store.  Loch Ness was much larger than I imagined and very cool to see. Although we didn’t actually see Nessie, I’m confident she was lurking nearby.

  

We had lunch in town and then my mom took Abby to a small ceramics place to let her paint.

We dropped JR and Abby off at the cottage for naps while my mom and I drove to Inverness with William. Really she just wanted to try out driving, so we made a few loops through the city before returning home. I can’t say enough how beautiful it was just driving through the countryside. We were constantly stopping to take it all in.

  

Once we had the whole group together again my mom suggested we take a short drive to a nearby waterfall, the Falls of Foyers. I was led to believe we would park our car and voila, the waterfall would be right there. In reality there was bit more walking/hiking/stair climbing involved, which would not have been so bad except for the 17 pound baby strapped to my chest. Still, it was beautiful and well worth the effort!

 

The next day we drove around to the other side of Loch Ness to visit Urquhart Castle. The castle is set right beside the Loch and though mostly ruins now, we had fun exploring some of the towers and walls that remained.

Abby was still calling out for “Nessie” even at the castle. My mom and I made sure to get a picture for our local paper in Ohio, the Orrviews!

JR and I had a date night in Inverness and stopped in the small town of Dores on the way home to visit this little beach area. Once again, it started sprinkle just a bit but the sky remained clear and beautiful.

Back at the cottage Mom and Abby made use of her extra suitcase weight with craft time and a little kite flying.

The next morning we said goodbye to our little place and started the trek back to Edinburgh, stopping at Blair Castle along the way. We used our break to explore the grounds (we skipped the actual castle because we mostly wanted to be outside stretching our legs) which had deer, horses, a playground, a great little cafe, and tons of space to run around.

 

Back in Edinburgh, we were less than thrilled to realize our last apartment was up 3 sets of super steep, very warped stairs. JR deserves a medal because he carried most of the luggage up (and back down the next day) all by himself. The apartment was the most modern and maybe the largest we stayed in, and I wish we had more time there because it was set up really well for us. But it was our last night in Edinburgh so we set out quickly to walk around and eat dinner. The plan was to finish eating then take my mom and the kids back to the apartment, help them get settled, and then JR and I were going back out. I hadn’t had much time to myself during the trip so after dinner I asked if they wouldn’t mind doing that part without me and JR could just meet me at a bar later. Because my husband and mom are both really great people, they agreed and I set off on my own for a bit.

JR met me at The Dome and we had drinks before moving on to another place I’d read about called Voodoo Bar. Meh. It was trendy and youthful and I’m not really either of those things. As we were walking away, I saw another bar that was featuring live music. I LOVE live music and I love a good cover band, so I wanted to check it out. While we ordered our drinks the guy on stage began playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and I was sold. We stayed there the rest of the evening and I pretended I was back at the Lodge Bar in Columbus. We sang along to “500 Miles”, “The Gambler”,  and “Mr. Brightside.” I got a little too excited when I heard him start singing “Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.” The crazy thing is the entire bar was singing along and going nuts for John Denver. It was an unexpected and fantastic way to cap off our night.

The next morning my mom flew back to Ohio and we made our way back to Tbilisi. Abby would not sleep on the first flight and she was completely exhausted by the time we landed in Istanbul. She passed out in her stroller and I started worrying about how she’d do on her next flight home. I asked the gate agent if there were any empty seats and maybe we could switch so that Abby had a window seat (my logic is she has more space/can sleep better up against a window, but when we sit in a row of 3, William’s car seat has to be the window seat). The most amazing airline employee ever gave us two (TWO!) full rows to ourselves in the back of the plane.

If I were planning the same trip again, I would have either added one day at each spot, or removed Oban from our itinerary to save on some of the packing/unpacking all the time. But if the weather were nicer and we were able to go on our planned island boat tour, it could have been the highlight of our trip. Who knows? We would also love to visit other parts of the country because it seems like we barely scratched the surface of what Scotland has to offer. We had an incredible time, and one more huge thank you to my Mom for coming with us and helping us make so many great memories!

 

 

See you in Scotland!

That’s how we ended our last video chat session with my Mom before we both made our way to Scotland from Ohio and Georgia, respectively. Deciding on our second R&R plans was not an easy task. We’ve barely settled back into life here after our med-evac to Ohio, and we now have a 4-month old and a toddler. Not the most ideal time to take a vacation, but we charged ahead. Visiting Scotland was a bucket list trip for JR and I, particularly a road trip to see as much of the country as possible. We’re not out to win any parenting medals so we quickly realized the only way we could have the trip we wanted and enjoy ourselves would be to bring someone else along – enter my wonderful mother!

We were able to spend 9 fun and busy days in Scotland last week all together and it really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Possibly because I’d never again want to take a Scottish road trip with my two young children. It was challenging and often exhausting, but also full of laughter and great memories.

Edinburgh

We met my mom at the Edinburgh Airport Saturday morning. Abby was calling out “Nana, Nana” as I pushed the stroller through the airport. William, life of the party as always, was passed out. The kids did really, really well on both flights. Because we were flying Turkish and we connected in Istanbul, we were subject to the new electronics ban which prohibits any electronics larger than a smart phone in your carry-on bag. Our default entertainment plan while flying is to let Abby have free reign of the iPad or Kindle Fire, so we were less than thrilled to learn of the new policy. It all worked out fine, first because we loaded up our iPhones with some of her favorite shows and also because Turkish is quite kid-friendly and helpful, and they had in-flight entertainment available on both segments of our trip.


Snuggling on the plane

After a few hugs and hellos, we made our way to our driver and vehicle. We hired Sun Transfers and we had no complaints about the service we received picking us up (our return trip was another story). Although we were initially told our AirBnB would not be available for early check-in, the cleaning service advised us they were nearly finished with the apartment. That was great news and allowed us to unload our stuff before walking to Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar for lunch. Everyone was in need of a nap so we made quick work of the food and then returned to our apartment. The location was fantastic, just a few blocks south of the Royal Mile, which was our first stop after naps.

 

We were in Scotland, so we expected a lot of rain, but we really lucked out, especially that first day. It was sunny and beautiful.  We walked along the Royal Mile, visiting shops, watching street performers, listening to bagpipe players, and of course JR stopped for his first pint in Scotland. It started to get a bit late and we needed dinner, so we made our way back towards our apartment with plans to find either a quick place to eat or carry out. There was a Pizza Express nearby and it looked very family/kid friendly, so we decided to eat in. Probably a mistake. William woke up from his nap and was just not having all the noise, they brought Abby a huge glass of milk that she promptly spilled everywhere, and it took forever for them to take our order. It was also pretty expensive for a meal that I’d call just decent, but pizza and pasta are about the only two things Abby is sure to eat for dinner right now so it worked for us.

 

We spent the next morning at the Edinburgh Castle. We took a wrong turn as we walked towards it and wound up having to climb what felt like hundreds of steps, but the views were worth it.

 

  

William was asleep in his carrier and my mom went off chasing after Abby while JR and I did the free guided tour. The tour just walks around the outside of the main buildings and only lasted about 45 minutes, but it was informative. JR wanted to visit longer, so my mom and I took the kids to the Princes Street Garden to find a playground. The walk there was so nice, although the hill was a bit steep, but it weaved back and forth through these bright yellow flowers. The park and playground were the perfect end to our morning.

 

In the afternoon we visited the National Museum of Scotland. It was fantastic for kids – so much to see and do, Abby really loved it.

We went to the Whiski Rooms for dinner, and while they did a double take when we tried to enter with our huge double stroller, we found section in the back that could fit all of us and our stuff, and we enjoyed possibly my favorite meal of the trip! My fish and chips was delicious and JR sampled haggis for the first (and last) time. Let me save you the Googling: Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. All together now: Yum!

To be continued.

When in Rome – Part 1

We just came back from an awesome week-long trip to Rome.  It was my first visit (and Abby’s!) but JR has been a few times before and loves the city.

Traveling with a full-blown toddler was…rather challenging.   This was our first time flying with Abby as a lap-infant and well, she’s not an infant anymore.  We had two flights of about 2 hours each, plus a 2 hour layover in Istanbul.  When we checked in online, we saw that there were quite a few empty seats and decided to take a slight risk and select one window seat and one aisle seat in hopes that no one would pick the middle seat and we would have the whole row to ourselves.  Worst case, if someone did take the seat, we planned to ask them to switch and we’d deal with Abby between us.  Luckily, it worked out for all 4 flights and we were really grateful for the extra space.

flight
She’s a fan of Skymall!

But even with the extra room, there is nothing quite like having a child literally strapped to you – using the infant seat-belt extender thingamajig – and throwing a fit.  She had to be belted to one of us during take-off and landing.  Let’s just say it was not the highlight of the trip.

We debated on whether to bring the City Mini GT or our umbrella stroller for our trip and figured since we’d likely be carrying the stroller frequently, the lighter weight and the carrying strap-on for the umbrella stroller made much more sense.  It was a great choice and we were really happy with it, even on the rough cobblestones.  We used the Summer Infant 3d Lite Stroller.  I also wanted a new bag for the trip (shocking, I know).  I’m so over both of our diaper bags at this point and I thought a backpack would be much more convenient for walking around.  Who knew backpacks were so expensive though?  We didn’t need anything specifically designed like a diaper bag, and I wanted decent quality, but again, not spending $100 on that.  We picked the High Sierra Loop Backpack and it was perfect and affordable.

Bag
It’s about time she starting carrying luggage.  Also, don’t you wish you could travel in your pajamas?

Day 1
We left our house at 5am and drove ourselves the airport.  It was much more convenient to take our own car so we could have Abby’s car seat with us, and we learned that our diplomatic plates meant free parking at the airport.  Score!  We arrived in Rome at 2pm local time (2 hours behind Tbilisi) where we were quickly greeted by our driver.  I highly recommend Rome Chauffeur.  We booked them online and it was totally worth it to have a driver waiting for us when we arrived, complete with an installed car seat in the van.

Chaffeur

It took about 45 minutes to get to our apartment near Piazza Navona.  Once again we used AirBnb instead of a hotel.  We like having a kitchen (although this one didn’t have a lot of basics like paper towels, salt and pepper, or a skillet) and more space.  The apartment itself was great and the location was awesome.  It did require a significant amount of babyproofing, though.  As soon as the owner left we had to quickly rearrange some things to keep all her knickknacks out of Abby’s hands.

Although we were pretty tired, Abby was not the least bit interested in taking a nap, so we set out to explore the neighborhood.  There were restaurants and cafes everywhere, and tons of small streets and alleyways.

piazza navona
Piazza Navona

We stopped at a random restaurant with the best bruschetta ever.  Literally.  We were also super early for dinner because of the 2 hour time difference and the toddler but oh well, like I said we were exhausted and didn’t care at that point.   We made a quick stop at Carrefour Express – they crammed so many essentials into a very tiny space!  We were able to buy diapers, fruit (blueberries and strawberries!!!), and milk among other things, and then we headed home for the night.

Day 2
We woke up early Saturday morning and made breakfast at the apartment (scrambled eggs in a sauce pot – do not recommend).  The forecast called for rain all day, so a few days earlier we had changed plans and moved our Colosseum tour from Saturday to Tuesday.  The forecast for the whole week didn’t look promising, but we were hoping it would change (and it did!).  We set out for the Pantheon with our stroller and this rain cover plastic thing that Abby HATED.

rain

Just a few minutes into our stroll and I knew we would be in for a tough day.   The Pantheon was uncrowded and we were able to take our time walking around.  It’s really kind of amazing to just stroll down a small street and then boom, it’s there to your right.  We walked to Campo de’ Fiori and checked out the various fruits, veggies and other goods for sale at the market they set up every day in the piazza.  Abby was completely over the stroller by that point so we went back our place for a long nap.  It was a good time to head indoors because it was pouring while she (and we) slept.

DSC_7119DSC_7134
Abby at the Pantheon

DSC_7146
Campo de’Fiori

We ventured back out later in the day to walk along the Tiber and then we went to the Trevi Fountain, which was unfortunately closed and there wasn’t much to see there.  It was a disappointment, and as we walked back towards our apartment it started raining again.  I suggested that we stop for wine – and animal crackers for Abby – and wait out the rain while enjoying the people watching and view of the Pantheon.  The restaurant was called Hostaria Pantheon and we both enjoyed it so much that we went back 2 more times.  We even had the same table each time, and it was a highlight of our trip!
DSC_7228DSC_7249
Waiting out the rain at Hostaria Pantheon
Day 3
We woke up to a sun-filled morning, thank goodness!  We walked to the Carrefour to pick up some lunch stuff  and then slowly made our way to Villa Borghese.  It’s most famous for the museum, which you need to purchase tickets in advance for, but we went for the grounds.  We wanted some space for Abby to play and enjoy the nice weather.  It was a great way to spend the morning, and we had a picnic for lunch. I had hoped to rent a golf car there, but neither of us remembered to take our driver’s license with us.  Instead we rented this little family bike cart and drove it all over.  We had hoped to make it back our place for Abby’s nap, but she passed out in the stroller right we as left.  On to plan B:  Immediately find a place for wine and appetizers and take full advantage of her stroller nap.
DSC_7292
View from Villa Borghese
DSC_7340DSC_7346
DSC_7368DSC_7372
Playing, picnic, and bike ride in the park.
That night we had our very own date night in Rome.  A few weeks ago, we reached out the Community Liaison Office (CLO) at the Embassy in Rome and asked if they had a list of recommended babysitters affiliated with the Embassy.  I exchanged a few emails with one woman from the list, Helen, and after checking her references we asked her to babysit for us a few times during our visit.  I was nervous the first night, but she was wonderful and Abby did great.  Helen sent me a few pictures while JR and I enjoyed a relaxing dinner nearby.  Can’t beat that!
DSC_7493

to be continued.

 

Home Leave

Our first home leave was fun, busy, and expensive, so basically exactly what we predicted.  We were all ready to leave Kosovo (although right now I’d give my right arm for some fresh bread from our little bakery) and our travel home was uneventful.  From the time we set foot in Ohio, we had a pretty crazy and ambitious schedule.  Of course, nothing could stop me from getting a strawberry margarita as soon as possible.  Oh wait – the first time I ordered one the restaurant did not have a liquor license for Sundays, and the second time I tried the server told me they were all out of strawberries.  Soul crushing but I did eventually have one and it was everything I had hoped it would be. kanye

Only a few days after we recovered from our jet lag, it was time for Abigail’s first birthday party (only 2 weeks after her actual birthday)!  We had a family party at my grandparent’s house and it was simple and perfect.  She was totally uninterested in her cake, but I can assure you she has since come around to the idea of sweets!

abby cake DSC_6189

The following week JR, Abby and I set off on a little American road trip.   We figured if we could do the same through Eastern Europe, the U.S. would be a breeze.  Our car (generously loaned to us by JR’s dad) was so ridiculously full I wasn’t sure we would make it out of the driveway.  That’s what happens when you will be on the road for more than two weeks and some of your family members, who have smartly chosen to fly, use you to haul their extra stuff (if you know my mother, you know this included a box fan, because she can’t sleep without one).  We started off with a night in Dayton with JR’s family and to pick up his dad, who rode with us to Gatlinburg where we met the rest of my in-laws.  We rented a large cabin about 20 minutes from the city, and it was perfect for our big group – 11 adults and 8 kids from ages 1-12.   Each of the 3 levels had two large bedrooms and bathrooms, and living/family room space with TVs, pool table, foosball table, and an awesome theater room.

DSC_6538 DSC_6591

JR’s brother and sister-in-law (A & S) live in South Knoxville and love kayaking and rafting, and offered to take the whole family on a white water rafting trip (many thanks to my sister-in-law Joanna who stayed behind with the little ones!).   It was so much fun.  We had perfect weather and such a nice afternoon with everyone.  We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing, making meals together, watching the kids play, and a little bit of time exploring Gatlinburg (it was very crowded over the holiday weekend).

kayak

We had a little scare at the cabin when we saw a copperhead snake laying in the pathway where the kids were chasing each other with water balloons, which led to a scramble to get rid of said snake and the loss of a kitchen knife.   Despite the deadly snake scare, it was hard saying goodbye – JR’s family is big and spread out, and it’s really hard to see everyone, but we always have so much fun when we do and it’s especially fun for all of the cousins to play together. We definitely hope to repeat this trip again in the future!

After Gatlinburg, we spent two nights in Knoxville with A, S, and their daughter Katie, who is 5 months older than Abby.   JR went to college there and was happy to be back, even for a short visit.  We were able to meet up with two of his friends and their son, and we spent the rest of our time watching Abby and Katie play in the pool and run around the yard.  The second night of our stay was the toughest of the whole trip.  Abby woke up around midnight screaming and crying and could not be consoled.  JR handles these moments far better than me, I didn’t know what to do.  I felt terrible because she was waking up the whole house (they also have a one-year old), and it seemed like nothing would settle her down.  I told him we needed to get in the car and drive.  He said, drive where?  I was like, I don’t know, to a hospital?!  Clearly something is wrong!  Obviously nothing was wrong, she was just having an off night and I don’t handle lack of sleep well.  Eventually, he was thankfully able to get her back to sleep.

The rough night meant little sleep for all of us, and a less than ideal start to the next morning.  The biggest problem was that was one of the only days of the entire road trip that we had a really tight schedule.  We had to drive over 5 hours and make it to North Carolina in time to visit with our friends and put Abby down for a nap, all before meeting my Dad and other family for dinner at 5:30 that evening.   Although she did fine for the first part of the drive, the last 2.5 hours were torture.   Ideally we would have been able to stop and take a long break, but we just couldn’t and I felt terrible for her (and us).

road trip

Thankfully, she crashed for a long nap when we made it to our friends’ house and we were able to relax for a bit before we had to leave for dinner.  Our visit with my Dad and family was short, but I’m so glad we were able to see them while we were there.   We also had breakfast with them the next morning before starting our drive to Florida.

Even though we wanted to drive 6-7 hours that Friday, JR and I were determined to have a better travel day and let Abby dictate our schedule.  Let me just say, thank you Cracker Barrel!  We stopped there after her morning nap and it was great.   We took turns inside at our table, ordering and waiting for food, while the other person played outside on the porch with Abby.  She waved at everyone, rocked in the tiny rocking chairs, and walked all over.  We were there for at least an hour, and it was well worth it.   She was perfectly content to get back in the car after that and even took a long second nap.   Just outside of Jacksonville, we saw an exit with a few hotels and decided we should stop for the evening.   First we tried the Hampton Inn and Suites – I ran into the lobby to ask if they had suites available, and if I could see one first because it was pretty critical for us to have a room that had a separate place to put her pack n play so we didn’t have to go to sleep at 8pm with her.   It wasn’t until I checked out the third hotel – a Fairfield Inn and Suites – that we found a room set up that would work for us and we called it a night.

Saturday was our final leg of driving and we were so excited to see the beach, my family, and to hand Abby off to another adult.  Ha.  Just outside of Sanibel Island, we stopped at a Publix to stock up on groceries for the week.  Abby was thrilled with her ride.

IMG_0444

We failed to consider just how full our car already was, so the final stretch of our drive was ridiculous as I sat in the back seat covered in groceries.  We seriously could not have fit one more item in our car!  Finally, we were driving over the causeway and onto Sanibel Island.  My parents, brother and sister arrived less than 20 minutes after we did, and we settled into our condos (we rented two ground-floor beachfront condos that were next door to each other).  The set up was perfect and we had the best week.  We rented a canopy for the beach and set up our chairs, along with a small plastic baby pool and toys for Abby, and relaxed every day.

DSC_6826DSC_6828DSC_6890me and abby

 

abby beachDSC_7017

We know how fortunate we are that we were able to spend a week there together, and especially that we had 4 other adults with us who were fighting over Abby gave us a much appreciated break.  Even better, my mom had offered to fly Abby back with them as a lap-infant, saving her (and us) from a long return trip back to Ohio together.

A highlight of the end of our vacation was SUPPOSED to be a a Garth Brooks concert, which you may recall I’ve basically waited all of my life to attend.  Well, Garth’s team failed to consider the Stanley Cup in their venue selection and this led to the concert being completely canceled since Tampa’s hockey team made the finals.  It still hurts to discuss. I sent Garth a strongly worded message on Facebook but he hasn’t replied yet and the whole horrible situation has completely changed my opinion of him.

LC

We finally made it home (no thanks to me – I probably drove a total of 4 hours of our 16+ hour return trip and constantly asked “are we there yet”) and used the next few days to do finish our consumables shopping, which included two separate trips to Wal-Mart and 6 full carts and a trip to The Party Shop in Wooster to pick up JR’s 17 cases of beer.  Not kidding on that one.  We had two of the nicest, slowest older gentleman handling our pack out on this end, and even though it was only consumables and 300lbs of UAB, it took them almost the same amount of time as it took the Kosovo movers to pack up our entire apartment.

beer order

As one last American hurrah before our departure date, JR and I spent a long weekend in German Village, where we lived in Columbus before we moved.  We rented a fantastic apartment on AirBnB and enjoyed eating and drinking at our favorite places and meeting up with our friends for dinner and a comedy show.  It was perfect, but a bit bittersweet for me because I loved our life in Columbus before starting on this crazy foreign service train, and it reminded me of the things I miss.  I’m incredibly grateful for the time we were able to spend at home, reconnecting with everyone, and especially for Abby to have that time with our families, it was worth the busy schedule and extra expenses!

DSC_6799

 

 

 

 

Balkan Road Trip, Part III

In case you missed Part I or Part II.

Day 7:  Belgrade, Serbia

Our night in Timisoara was a bit rough because Abby had a bad cough which kept us up most of the night worrying about her.  Still, since we were already up and on the move, we were able to get on the road to Belgrade early and we arrived by 10:15am using Romania’s awesome highways, which was great after so many long drives.   Much of our drive was two-lane roads, often with lots of curves, so finding a nice highway in the Balkans was a treat!

When planning our trip, I had trouble finding a place in Belgrade that met all of our needs (walking distance to city center, parking, and suites) that stayed under budget.  I turned to Airbnb, which we used for our trip to Paris.  Immediately I found a perfect 2-bedroom apartment that was a ten minute walk to main areas we wanted to visit.  It was only $108 for two nights, so it was a great deal.   We met the owner’s mother outside the building to get the keys and information for our stay, and since Abby seemed up for it we went exploring.

We strolled along Knez Mihailova (the pedestrian street) and enjoyed the great weather.  I was totally surprised and excited to see a Vapiano’s restaurant right near our apartment.  We’ve been to Vapiano’s a few times in DC and I love their food, so we agreed to go there for dinner.  By the time dinner rolled around, Abby was over being out and about, so we just made a quick stop to order food to go.  We waited by the bar and I asked for a sweet white wine.  The bartender said, “would you like wine with bubbles?”  Splendid idea, kind sir.  Bring on the bubbly!

IMG_0585

Day 8:  Belgrade, Serbia

We set out early in the morning with plans to see Kalemegdan Park and the Belgrade Zoo.  I have a lot of feelings about our visit to the Zoo.  Although it’s located within a park, it’s also very much in the city center and portions of the zoo and animal enclosures back up directly to busy streets, which seemed very odd.  It’s not stroller-friendly, there were a ton of steps.  Most concerning were the actual enclosures for the animals – they all seemed too small and nothing like what the animal’s natural habitat would be.  I’m not anti-zoo at all, I love the zoos we’ve visited in Ohio (especially the Columbus Zoo!).   I just felt badly for most of the animals and at times, I also questioned the safety of the animals and visitors because sometimes it seemed like we were a bit too close for comfort.   It didn’t help that we passed by an exhibit with the gate keys still in the lock.  I won’t share many pictures because I think they are mostly sad, but here are a few.

bears hippos lion

By the time we left the zoo and the park, it was 10:30am and we’d already walked 7,600 steps (thank you, Fitbit).  We stopped for a quick lunch and then went off in search of Skadarilja, a small neighborhood with restaurants and bars.  I don’t know what the problem was, but we absolutely could not find this area.  We walked in a full circle TWICE (and these were big laps!) and would occasionally ask for directions, and still we missed it.  When we finally found it, I was so over walking and looking for it that I barely noticed it at all.  The neighborhood had a lot of nice shops and cool cobble stones but at this point Abby and I had enough of sightseeing for the day.  We stopped for a quick drink and then headed back to the apartment. The Fitbit said we hit 16,000 steps around 2pm, so that called for a nice, long nap.  For dinner, JR found a nice local restaurant, Zavicaj, right around the corner from our place.  It was perfect for the last night of our trip!

dinner

Day 9:  Pristina

We were on the road early and made it home by noon.  Back to reality!

A few random thoughts if you’re thinking about a similar trip.  A good stroller (we use the City Mini GT) and carrier (I love the Beco Gemini) are essential.   So many places are not stroller friendly, and it’s so much easier to wear her in the carrier, and we can take turns with it.  Some of our friends recommended the Totseat for a traveling high chair.  This thing is the best and has saved us on many occasions.  It’s easy to use, folds up small, weighs nothing, and is a life-saver when the restaurant doesn’t have a high chair.

Even with the long drives and weather issues, we had a wonderful trip.   It’s always fun for us to see new places, and we hope we can pass along the travel bug to Abby!

 

Travel Tips for Paris

I have no idea how helpful this will wind up being, but I wanted to share some things we discovered (some through research, some through trial and error, and others through dumb luck) that would have been useful to know ahead of time about sightseeing in Paris.

Paris Museum Pass. The pass can be purchased for 2, 4, or 6 consecutive days. It seems like a lot to pay up front. We bought the 4 day pass for 54 Euro each. It includes many of the major sights – Notre Dame (entrance to the church is free but climbing the towers isn’t), Versailles (probably the most expensive sight), the Louvre, the Pantheon and Les Invalides. The Eiffel Tower is not included. To figure out if it made sense for us, I wrote down all the things I knew we wanted to see, and added up their individual cost. That was significantly more than the 54E for the pass. Then I had to try to arrange our itinerary to make sure we could see all of those sights on 4 back-to-back days. This made for a really busy schedule, and a lot of planning and walking. For us though, we felt it was worth it.

The pass will allow you to avoid a line at some attractions, but not all. It’s also not always clear when that’s permitted and when it’s not, so watch carefully for signs and don’t be afraid to ask around.

Saint Chapelle. We didn’t visit on the day we were scheduled because the line was too long. We went back the next afternoon and saw another couple skip the line with their museum pass. There was NO sign indicating you could do this. So we walked right past everyone in line outside. Once you got past the ticket window, where we just showed our passes, there was yet another long line to get inside the church. Up ahead, we saw a somewhat marked path for museum pass holders, so we were again able to bypass a very long line to get inside. This was a favorite stop for both of us, and it’s not to be missed.

Versailles. We had every intention of being on an 8:15am train to Versailles to beat the crowd. Well, we slept in. Then we got on the wrong train. And then we picked the WORST station to turn around at because it took an hour. So, by the time we got there the line was insane. JR was confident we didn’t need to wait in it, because of our pass, but we were repeatedly told that the long line was for ticket and pass holders. And so we waited. FOREVER. Probably 90 minutes? And the truth is – I feel like this is something you aren’t supposed to admit – it kind of sucked. It was far too crowded to enjoy any of the rooms. We felt like we were cattle being herded from room to room.  With us being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with people moving through the different rooms, there was no time to appreciate it or truly look around. And the crowd around us seemed just as annoyed as us. My advice would be either MAKE SURE you can get there by say, 8:30am (doors open at 9), or a later time in the day to skip the crowds.

Notre Dame. We stayed on the island right beside Notre Dame on the River Seine, Ile St. Louis, so we walked past it almost every morning. The first morning we did our visit there. The church opens at 8am and the towers at 10. There was hardly anyone at the church when we arrived at 8:30, and we didn’t ever see a line that early in the morning. We spent an hour in the church, and it was nice because it was not crowded at all. Around 9:30, we walked outside and got in line for the towers. That line probably had 25 people in it, although it started to grow steadily after we joined. By the time we made our way up the tower and looked down at the entrance to the church, there was a pretty long line just to get in. So go early!

Where to stay. A friend recommended that we try to stay on the Ile St. Louis in the center of the city near Notre Dame. A quick search of hotels showed it to be a very pricey location. JR suggested that we try to rent an apartment since we’d be staying for a whole week. We reasoned that an apartment would give us more space, allow us to possibly eat-in a few meals, and hopefully would be more affordable than a hotel. We used airbnb.com and found the perfect place. Well, minus the fact that it was on the 4th floor with no elevator, which really kills your legs after a full day of walking around the city. But we loved the apartment and felt like we picked a perfect spot.

Rick Steves’ Audio Tours. Another friend suggested that we download Rick Steves’ Audio Tours for our iPhones. We downloaded his app first (which is free) and then downloaded his Historic Paris Walking Tour, the Louvre, and Versailles. We really enjoyed having these to listen to while we explored the city. It saved money on getting the audio guides, and it gave us some interesting tidbits that we wouldn’t have known. I highly recommend checking out his website to see what other locations he has available.

Vaux le Vicomte If you are interested in visiting Vaux, there are some tours that leave directly from Paris or you can travel there on your own. We took a 25 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon to Melun, and then we were able to get a taxi right outside the Melun train station. It was a ten minute (and to JR’s chagrin, 20 Euro) cab ride to Vaux from the station. The staff at Vaux called for a cab pick up when we were done with our visit.

In general, we had difficulty using our credit card at the train station and metro stops. It was very hit or miss. Those machines would accept cash, but only coin. This was fine for the 1.70 Euro metro ticket (a great deal) but for longer trips, we needed the ticket window to be open to use our credit card. It caused us to miss a train because we couldn’t get our ticket purchased in time. We found the city to be quite walkable, we’d either walk all day, or take the metro to one destination and walk everywhere from there. The only time we took a cab was in Melun.

Also, eat as many crepes as you can from the street vendors. You can’t go wrong with a nutella and banana crepe!

IMG_2669

IMG_2879

IMG_3078