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!

 

When in Rome – Part 2

Catch up on the first part of our trip here.

Day 4
We were very excited about the first tour we booked – a visit to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s.  We used our credit card rewards (plug for Chase Sapphire -we love that card!) to book the tour and it didn’t reveal the name of the company.   Normally we would prefer to do a fair amount of research and check reviews before deciding on a tour company, and in hindsight, there’s a reason we do that.  City Lights ran this one and it just wasn’t the best fit for us.  We had to be at their office at 8:00am, and they offered some pastries and coffee before we walked a short distance to the Vatican Museum entrance.  Our tour included early entrance, and while we didn’t really wait in line, there were a ton of people standing around and our tour guide often looked frazzled and confused.  They gave us headphones but unfortunately we could not hear her well and it was hard to follow along.
By the time we finally started the tour, Abby was no longer interested in sitting in her stroller or being held.  You can’t exactly let a toddler run free in a museum, so we tried to contain her as much as we could.  When we realized the guide intended to describe EVERY.SINGLE.PIECE of art in each room, we skipped ahead and waited for the group at the Sistine Chapel.  It was wall-to-wall people in there, but we found a small corner in the back where we could let Abby walk around.  By the time the group caught up with us I was kind of over it.  We were on our way to the final stop,  St. Peter’s, and just before we went inside the guide informed us that strollers weren’t permitted. She pointed out an area that we could go to and check our stroller (its worth noting this was a spot we had already passed and it would have been nice if she’d mentioned it at the time).  It seemed like more of a hassle so JR and I took turns going inside while the other one stayed outside with the stroller and Abby.  The church did not disappoint – truly beautiful.  Then it was a race against the clock to find lunch and return home so Abby would hopefully take a long nap for us.  We stopped at Likeat for sandwiches to-go and they were AM-AZING.  Highly, highly recommend eating there.  Super cheap too.
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Inside St. Peters, and Abby is over it.

We had spent so much time near Piazza Navona so that night we ventured over to the Trastevere neighborhood for dinner.  We stopped for wine first (of course) and miraculously, the server offered us a high chair for Abby!  We traveled with our TotSeat, but she is just so wiggly and into being down right now that a legit high chair made a huge difference for us.  We went to Dar Poeta for dinner, which came highly recommended.  It was perfectly good pizza, and affordable, but I wouldn’t say it was the best ever.

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When your parents forget to pack crayons, you get to play with a pen at dinner.
Day 5
When looking at the weather report for Saturday which said 100% chance of rain all day, we rescheduled our Colosseum tour for Tuesday morning hoping for no rain.  We contacted the tour company, Walks of Italy, in advance to ask whether or not the stroller would be useful there, and they advised against bringing it.  Since we then planned to just take our Beco Gemini, we took a cab to the Colosseum to save some energy.  The tour was great, and Abby was mostly okay with being held, although we let her run around when we had the chance.  Eventually she passed out while we were walking around the Forum.  The whole morning was very cool.  The sights definitely lived up to my expectations and I thought our tour guide was fantastic.
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Colosseum fun
That evening Helen came back to babysit and JR and I returned to Hostaria Pantheon for my favorite table and view in Rome!  Look familar?
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Date night
Day 6
JR really wanted to visit the Capuchin Crypt so we made our way there.  It was not my favorite thing.  Bones of deceased monks arranged in patterns and designs, like chandeliers.  Weird.  Abby wasn’t into it either, so we made a speedy exit and let JR take his time checking it out. It took a while to walk there from Piazza Navona, so on our way back home we decided to grab sandwiches from Likeat again. Seriously, excellent food!  For dinner we ate at a well-reviewed restaurant near our place, Mastro Ciccia.  I ordered the four cheese gnocchi and it was good, but JR didn’t care for his meal and overall it took way too long to get our food.  I wouldn’t recommend it.
Day 7
Since our Vatican tour was less than ideal and we raced back to the apartment afterwards for Abby’s nap, we decided to go back and spend a leisurely morning in the square in front of St. Peters.  We bought picnic supplies at the market and then walked to the square to people-watch and relax.  The weather was gorgeous and Abby had so much fun running around.  We had high hopes to get a good nap our of her that afternoon, but she refused to play along.  I knew if we put her back in the stroller she would pass out, so JR and I went back for a third time to Hostaria Pantheon (we are creatures of habit!) and enjoyed some wine while she slept.
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Hanging out in front of St. Peter’s
Thursday was our final night with Helen babysitting, but when she arrived Abby was very upset and didn’t want us to go. It was really hard to leave and we didn’t make it very far.  We walked about 50 yards to a nearby bar so that I could go back and occasionally listen outside the door for her, and text Helen constantly to see how she was doing.  Once we knew she was settled, we went to Campo de’ Fiori.  We didn’t have a specific restaurant in mind, but in the touristy areas there are always restaurant workers standing outside cajoling you into eating at their place. This one particular guy was hilarious.  He walked right up to us, and as we tried to dodge him he was like, “Guys listen, I know this sucks.  I HATE my job.  I really do. But could you just look at our menu and let me talk to you about it for a minute?”  We went along with it but we were still planning to walk away when he said he’d throw in free champagne if we sat down.  Sold.  It was actually a great meal and there were a few musicians playing in the square in front of us, so we were happy with our choice.
Day 8 
We visited Basilica San Clemente and enjoyed one last view of the Colosseum on our way there.  JR wanted to see it since the present Basilica was built before the year 1100 and beneath it is another 4th century basilica that had been converted out of a Roman nobleman’s home.  There were even earlier layers so you could literally go back over two thousand years in time depending on how far down you went!  Afterwards, we had every intention of getting Abby home for her nap but that little trickster passed out in her stroller at like 11:30am.  It just so happened that we were steps away from an Irish pub, so we forced ourselves to have drinks and an early lunch while she slept.  On our way home we passed through a square where a woman was feeding pigeons.  She offered Abby and I some food so that we could play along, and we enjoyed the bird watching for a bit.
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For our last dinner we went back to Trastevere with no set destination in mind.  Anytime we saw a relatively open square with space for Abby to run while we could be close by with drinks, we didn’t pass up the opportunity.  There were street performers making huge bubbles and it was a big hit with Abby.  A great night to cap off a wonderful week in Rome!
Our return trip/flight was relatively smooth.  I mentally broke the day down into 4 2-hour parts (waiting to board in Rome, flight to Istanbul, layover in Istanbul, flight home) and that helped me relax.   It’s worth noting that the Rome airport was very disappointing considering the great reputation of Rome itself.  There was one small snack place before you went downstairs to our gate.  It was incredibly busy with people everywhere and a grand total of 16 seats for people to sit in while waiting for boarding.  In contrast, the Istanbul airport has been majorly upgraded since we last passed through and our layover there was quick and easy.
Side note – on our way to Rome we also stopped in Istanbul.  I walked into the restroom and the only one open was the very last stall.  I looked inside and actually said out loud “Oh. Only Turkish toilets.”  Which, I mean that makes sense since we were in Turkey, so what can you do?  OF COURSE, on my way out several other stalls were open and I saw they all had regular toilets.
Traveling with a toddler proved to be challegning at times but we wouldn’t change our experience for anything.  We loved Rome and will definitely go back some day.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Abby at the Pantheon

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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!
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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.
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View from Villa Borghese
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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!
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to be continued.