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Discovering the World with a Baby on Board

Month: September 2014

Oktoberfest…with Kids

Oktoberfest 2014

Now, there are two types of Oktoberfest experiences: with kids and without. I’m not gonna lie – without kids is a lot more fun. But, I’m here to confirm that it can still be enjoyed with the kiddos, especially if you don’t mind bringing them to what is a bit like Six Flags in the middle of New Orleans’ Bourbon street (minus the strippers, but some of the Dirndl get-ups I have seen come pretty close).

NOT what Dirndls look like at Oktoberfest.

NOT what Dirndls look like at Oktoberfest.

That being said, this is Germany, which means even the world’s biggest funfest is safe, organized, and well-monitored.

It might make you feel better about bringing kids to know that the first Oktoberfest in 1810 was actually a family-friendly wedding celebration between King Ludwig I and Crown Princess Therese von Saxe-Hildburghausen (gotta love those succinct Germanic names), and actually didn’t involve beer at all. Considering almost 7 million liters of beer are now drunk during this two-week event every year, it is safe to say that times have changed. However, it can still be a kid-friendly event, just like in the good old days, if you follow a few rules.

Here are Ten Tips to enjoy Oktoberfest as a family:

1. Go on Family Day

Tuesdays during Oktoberfest are family days, which means rides and games cost less. This doesn’t mean that the beer-loving crowd won’t be there, but it does mean there will be tons of other kids there as well (so you won’t feel so guilty bringing your own) and you won’t spend as much keeping the kiddos entertained as on the other days. If you can’t make it on Tuesday…

My man at Oktoberfest. He’s diggin’ it.

2. Go during the day and preferably during the week

Night is when it really gets crazy and unless your kids are older, I wouldn’t recommend bringing them in the evening. During the day, the crowd is a little tamer (there is only so much beer you can drink by 11 a.m.) and the tents are emptier. We went on a Sunday afternoon and found an empty table at the back of the wine tent (not as nuts as the beer tents), where we enjoyed the music and the atmosphere without the fear of someone passing out next to us.

3. Attend the Parade

Maybe I’m getting old, but for me the parade is the best part of Oktoberfest. You get to hear music and see Tracht from all regions of Bavaria, as well as watch the owners of each big beer tent cart their merchandise in a horse-drawn carriage down the street. There are two parades: on the first day of Wiesn (German name for Oktoberfest), where the beer is officially brought to the festival grounds, and one on the second day, which takes place downtown. There, you can see beautiful Tracht from the region and hear traditional music.  We went to the second day and my baby loved it!

Parade

4. Enjoy life outside the beer tents

The best part of Oktoberfest for kids are the games and rides. There are rides for kids of all ages and they are amusement park worthy, so they won’t get bored. Nothing is cheap here though, so mix it up by walking around and looking at some of the entertainment between rides.

5. Try a Radler

When you order a beer at Oktoberfest, you’ll get a Maß, which is ONE LITER. If you have kids, you are probably not quite as alcohol-tolerant as you once were. So, to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of your impressionable little ones, you can order a Radler, which is half beer and half sprite. Don’t worry, no one can tell the difference and this is not a ‘girlie’ drink; plenty of guys who want to enjoy the festival but still make it to work the next day will join you in ordering this lighter version of German beer.

6. Lighten the load

If you have a stroller with you, then by all means stock it with anything you might need. But, if you are traveling with older kids, avoid bringing too much to the Oktoberfest grounds. It is an expansive area and finding places to sit are not easy, so try to bring as little as possible to avoid getting tired. That being said…

There is no bad weather, just bad preparation

– German saying (or so I’ve been told)

7. Come prepared

This is Germany, not Miami, so chances are it will rain or get cold while you are at the festival. To avoid sniffles and colds the next day, bring a good rain jacket, an extra sweater, and pair of socks just in case.

Kids (not mine) in Tracht

8. Dress the part

Nothing is cuter than kiddos in Tracht. This might be the only time you can dress the whole family in a ‘costume’ that actually looks good on everyone. So, head to some of the cheaper souvenir shops, buy little Dirndls for the girls (mom included – trust me, it will do wonders for your figure) and Lederhosen for the boys. You’ll come home with tons of wonderful photos that will always remind you of the time you took your kids to the world’s biggest bar.

9. Check out Oide Wiesn

Unfortunately, this wonderful ‘old world’ Oktoberfest tent isn’t set up every year. But, when it is, it is definitely worth going to. You’ll find the crowd a bit tamer and get a taste of what Oktoberfest felt like before it became overrun with tourists. Plus, here you really experience some Bavarian culture through traditional music and dances.

10. Visit Bavaria

I know, you are thinking ‘wait, we are IN Bavaria already!’ But, I don’t mean the state of Bavaria (for non-Germany geography experts, Munich is a city in Bavaria), but the statue Bavaria. It crowns the Oktoberfest grounds and offers a wonderful vantage point of the famed festival. Usually, you can also climb to the top and look out through Bavaria’s eyes, but Oktoberfest might not be the best time to try that. Still, standing at the base of the statue and looking at the festival before marveling at this huge bronze sculpture that was unveiled at Oktoberfest in 1890 is a wonderful tribute to this fun-filled Bavarian tradition.

 Additional Tips:

  • Check out the official Oktoberfest site for times and events.
  • Oktoberfest is actually mainly in September, finishing off in the first few days in October. Good to know before booking your tickets.
  • For additional tips for non kid-toting revelers, check out my friend Cara’s blog on preparing for the festival.

 

Baby Monitor on the Go

As a nomadic family, we do our best to limit how many devices, toys, distractions that we have to cart around. That is why I was THRILLED to discover there are baby monitor apps!

Not only do typical video baby monitors cost around 200 bucks, but they are extra devices that you have to remember to pack, buy adapters for if traveling internationally, and are simply one more thing that you might lose on the road. We had been debating on whether to buy one for a few weeks (since we co-sleep it hasn’t been necessary) and almost did before I found out that there are a few apps out there that are cheap and do an amazing job of creating your own little digital baby monitor wherever you are. We have so far used it at home, but will obviously use it whenever we travel or if the little one stays with family members at another house.

Baby Cloud Screensaver

We are currently using cloud baby monitor, which works wonderfully. For 7 dollars, I bought the app on my Mac, downloaded it also on my iPhone, and it worked immediately. You can also use an iPad as one of the units. I set the computer as the ‘child unit’ and face it toward my sleeping angel. I set my iPhone as the ‘parent unit’ and carry it with me around the house. It can work on multiple Apple devices and there is even a function to watch more than one child. The only hitch is you need an internet connection (3G, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc) on both devices, which isn’t always available when traveling abroad. Some of the features the app includes are preset lullabies that you can play remotely (you can also add your own songs to the list), a button that allows you to talk to the baby, a screensaver with moon and stars to set on the ‘child unit’, and a nightlight button. Considering this is 20 to 30 times cheaper than a normal video baby monitor, it is essentially risk-free to try.

There is also a newer app out called Baby Monitor 3G, which has similar functions. I would have happily tried this one, but because I didn’t see any reviews yet, I opted for cloud baby. Additionally, there are similar baby monitor apps like Dormi and Baby Monitor.

So, before you invest a bunch of money in yet another device, try these out and get more out of the devices you already have. Plus, you can put the money you save towards another trip!

 

5 Great Aperitivo Places in Rome

As I have mentioned in previous posts, discovering Italy’s aperitivo scene is a little bit like discovering El Dorado. All of a sudden your dinners aren’t limited to pasta and pizza (living in Italy spoils you a bit, where these otherwise delicious foods become a chore to eat) and you’re opened up to a whole new world of food variety without having to commit to one dish. Plus, it can be much cheaper and you can eat earlier, yet still be part of the ‘scene’ instead of going to a non-aperitivo restaurant and sitting alone with the few other pale tourists who aren’t used to Italy’s late dinner hour.

Now the deal with most aperitivi places is you only pay for your drinks and then a buffet is included. Some places (as we found out only after a large bill) also charge per dish at the buffet so just check ahead of time. Also, I am only listing places that are baby-friendly. There are much trendier spots in Rome to see and be seen, but are too crowded and loud for a child (or children).

That being said, here are some of my favorite aperitivi spots in Rome.

Fancy Schmancy

La.Vi. : We happened upon this place right off Rome’s famed Via Condotti after I made my mom visit the ‘Church of Souls in Limbo.’ (NOT recommended. It is a room with a few books and those books have hand prints on them. But I digress…)

Now, being somewhat of a budget traveler, meaning I would only pay a lot for a meal if it really offers an incredible experience, I would not go here for regular dinner. It is expensive. It also isn’t the cheapest aperitivo joint, but the food is good, the wine is amazing (at least my mom liked it) and the fruit drink they put together for me was delish (tons of fresh fruit that I requested all blended together into a creamy heaven). The drinks are straight up 15 Euro each and they come with a free all you can eat buffet.  The great part is that because this is usually a pricey restaurant, the food is actually really good and much better than some of the other buffets. From quiche to broccoli to pasta and fish, it is a great spread and will fill you up. So, for 15 Euro (assuming you have only one drink here), you get a great meal in a beautiful ambiance. Plus, you might meet some interesting people.

Cheap and Juicy

Baylon Cafe: Though we lived in Trastevere for more than a month, we only discovered this place in the last two weeks. But, boy did we become regulars. One reason is (when the juicer is working) they have delicious fresh juices (i.e. lots of greens with a little apple, etc). Also, their buffet is pretty varied, so you can enjoy a variety of vegetables, traditional dishes like eggplant parmigiana, protein-packed goodies like chick peas, and some fresh options like salad. Plus, the price is great. As with many places, you pay for your drink and the buffet is free, but the drinks here are affordable and delicious. The minimum is 7 Euro per person, so opt for the more expensive glass of wine since you will be paying for it anyway. Cocktails cost a bit more but this place is SO hipster that they won’t disappoint you with their cocktail making skills. If you google aperitivo spots in Trastevere, you will see countless sites toting Freni e Frenzioni. It is the oldest aperitivo spot in town and gets very crowded, but there are only a few tables and it mostly caters to teens who don’t mind sitting on the concrete in the sun to eat some cheap food.

Food With a View

Vivi Bistrot: My mom loves to spend time in the most scenic spots in Rome (scenic = expensive). I love to eat cheaply. Vivi Bistrot fits the bill for both. This restaurant is built into Palazzo Braschi, a restored palace and museum, and the tables look out onto Piazza Navona. The cost of a drink is about 10 Euro and includes the buffet, which has hummus, ricotta cheese, little sandwiches, pasta salad, and some fresh veggies. Here, they also make non-alcoholic cocktails, but for those who want a little fizz, they have fruit-laden prosecco spritz cocktails, which are tasty and refreshing. Compared to what you will pay at any of the restaurants in Piazza Navona, this is a much cheaper way to enjoy the view without forking out a lot of money for mediocre food.

 Quality and Wifi

Compagnia del Pane: Let’s be honest: sometimes you just want some tasty food and free wifi. We are back in Trastevere with this restaurant and I should say first: what it lacks in ambiance (kind of like a Panera Bread but not as big), it makes up for in freshness and quality. Certain nights of the week, the restaurant lays out a spread of bruschetta, cheeses, breads, and meats. For around 10 Euros, you can fill up and enjoy a great glass of wine. CdP boasts quality ingredients and specially sourced spreads. Having enjoyed many a lunch here, I can attest to it also being a delicious pit stop throughout the day. The only catch is they don’t offer the aperitivo buffet every day, so you might want to check ahead of time.

A Holy Snack

IMG_1435

Cajo e Gajo: Again, in Trastevere, and not an aperitivo buffet like the others. Here, you pay for a drink (a glass of wine costs about 4 Euros) and they bring out a spread of little pizza bites, french fries, chips, olives, and crackers. So, it isn’t exactly dinner fare, but for a cheap snack, it is a great place to visit. The added bonus, and one of the main reasons it made it on this list, is it sits in a square that hosts a building owned by the Vatican. That also means that sometimes the pope swings by, as happened one day when we were sitting there. So not only do you get an inexpensive drink with snacks in a beautiful square, but you might get a chance to see Pope Francis himself!

 

 

 

 

The Appian Way to a Perfect Family Day – Rome

Baths of Caracalla, a 2,500 year-old road, magnificent villas, and a picnic to boot.. here is our itinerary for the Appian Way day.

Despite having to been to Rome probably a dozen times in my life, I had never visited the Appian Way – probably because it is out of the way. But, I am happy to report that this 2,500 year-old ‘Queen of the Long Roads’ is not only worth discovering, but it is a must-see. And, with a little planning, we found that we could create the perfect day on the Appian Way (no, I never tire of the rhyme).

Now, first off, a little history. This road isn’t just any old road.. it is the beginning of ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ Built in 312 B.C. by Appius Claudius, it is the first long road that allowed Roman troops to really start conquering all of the lands around them. Extended over the centuries, it witnessed the incredible rise and fall of the Roman Empire, as well as served as more than just an avenue for transport. In 71 B.C., after the slave revolt led by Spartacus, 6,000 slaves were crucified and the crosses carrying their bodies lined the road for miles. Sorry, a little gruesome, but not at all an unusual punishment back in the day.

But, you don’t have to picture that particular scene when you head to the Appian Way. We mainly marveled at the villas, imagined ourselves marching down this road thousands of years earlier (not to our demise), and relished in the undiluted history that graciously embraced us as we went back in time.

appianway1

Morning: Rise and shine! We woke up fairly early to avoid spending too much time in the afternoon heat and headed out the door, baby strapped to my body. We caught the bus from our apartment in Trastevere to the Circus Maximus, where we glimpsed a view of the imperial palace atop Palatine Hill before making our way to the Baths of Caracalla. The baths are amazing for a couple of reasons: almost nobody goes there, so you can really walk among the ruins and let your imagination run wild;  it is included in the combo ticket that also allows you to see two villas on the Appian Way (we will get to those next); it is an incredible structure and once served 6,000 bathing Romans a day, who also did their exercise there, engaged in political discussion, plotted against their enemies, and so on.

appianway4

Mid-Morning: After seeing some of the beautifully preserved mosaics and the enormous walls at the Baths of Caracalla, we caught a taxi (about 10 Euros) to the old part of the Appian Way (Via Appia antica). There are many ancient buildings you can see along the road, which extends for miles, but since we had a baby and I am a firm believer in less is more while traveling, we limited ourselves to a couple of sights and opted for a more relaxing experience. The ticket for the Baths of Caracalla include entrance to the tomb of Cecilia Matella and Villa dei Quintili, and our plan was to do both of these, but because of Italy’s belief in very long lunch breaks and the heat, we ended up doing just Cecilia Matella, which was beautiful. The truth is, you can see most of the villas and tombs from the road, and there really isn’t a need to buy entrance tickets to any, unless you are dead set on looking at more mosaics.

appianway5appianway3

Noon: Along the road, there is a little restaurant that also has sandwiches and salads to go. We picked up a couple of sandwiches, bottles of water, and fruit cups, and wandered until we found a good place to picnic. Now, what we ended up doing is not officially allowed, but again, this is Italy. We saw a beautifully manicured lawn filled with statues, benches, and a small villa, and decided to hunker down there for our little picnic. Innocently spreading out our blanket and food, we played with the baby, took pictures, and happily ate before the groundskeeper came and informed us that this wasn’t actually a public space for picnics. It ended up being the grounds to a museum and the Appian way information center, which turned out to be quite convenient. But, what I love about Italy is the groundskeeper waited until we had finished our picnic and even spent time playing with the tot before asking us to pack up. No doubt he saw us earlier, but who can resist a cute little family enjoying some quality time outdoors? Certainly, not Italians. In case you don’t want to kicked out, a little further down the road there is a park, where you can legally picnic and play.

appianway2

Afternoon: We leisurely walked down the road, took in some of the sights, and then randomly hopped on a bus (there is only one out there) that took us to an even more random road from which we found a taxi and headed back home.

In a nutshell: The Appian Way is magnificent and if the weather is cooler, you can spend even more time out there than we did. The Villa dei Quintili looks incredible, as do so many of the other sights. So, come with good walking shoes and get ready to explore, wander, and get lost in time. The road is very bumpy (made of big rocks) so I would not recommend a stroller. Baby carriers are the best!

 

 

 

 

The Beauty of the Antipasto(ish) Platter

Antipasto platters are wonderful. You get a little taste of many delicious foods without feeling bloated from too much pasta or pizza or any of the other tasty carb-laden delights Italy has on offer. When we were in Rome, we started making our version of an antipasto platter every day, mainly because we knew we would eat out for dinner and we wanted lunch to be a little lighter. But, even now we love to make these as an afternoon treat. Sitting outside with a chilled glass of wine and a delicious platter of these finger foods, you can almost transport yourself to the Tuscan countryside, lovingly embraced by the warmth of the Italian sun.

Since we’re vegetarian, the antipasto plate we put together on a daily basis didn’t include Italy’s famous prosciutto and the like, but obviously you can include whatever your little heart desires. When we had Italian guests over, they also made up some quick platters (including meat) and suddenly, within 10 minutes we had a delicious meal on our table for all to enjoy.

So here is an idea for a yummy, easy antipasto(ish) platter. Normal antipasto platters that you buy at a restaurant will include grilled vegetables, along with some meat, and cheese. But, here is our light version. The main rule is : decide on whatever sounds good to you, put little portions of it around the plate, and sit back and enjoy.

  • Fresh olives (preferably from the supermarket’s olive bar) but you can use jarred olives if that is what you have
  • Sharp Parmesan cheese nibs or another cheese that you love cut into bite sized pieces. Alternatively, you can put a burrata cheese ball in the middle.
  • Fresh strawberries (or, as my husband prefers for some reason, cut up raw red pepper)
  • A handful of pistachios or walnuts, whichever nuts you love the most
  • Some crackers

antipasto2

Here are some alternative platters. With almost no work, you can create a delicious presentation and eat a great meal. If you are traveling, pick up seasonal, fresh foods from the local market and try this out. If you are back home, this is a great way to relive your wonderful vacation!

Left: Prosciutto straight from the deli on a bed of rucola (rocket lettuce)

Middle: Three types of Italian cheeses (also from the deli) with rucola in the middle, covered in yummy olives

Right: A delicious Caprese – buffalo mozzarella cheese (ideally packed in their juices when bought) sliced up with the sweetest tomatoes you can find (datterini in Italy), tons of fresh basil, and topped off with olive oil and a smattering of salt.

These are simple, easy to make platters that you can have anywhere, even while traveling since no cooking is required. They are also great appetizers for guests. With so many different foods on offer, everyone is bound to taste something they love. And, remember, these platters are basically an ensemble of whatever delicious foods you find that are fresh and easy to prepare!

Like a Virgin – in Tivoli

Entering Tivoli is like entering a more magical and peaceful world, especially if you are taking a day trip from the hustle and bustle of Rome. I am not even sure a day does it justice, especially if you are traveling with kids, since there is so much to see. This would even be a great two-day trip from Rome, so you can relax and really enjoy all of Tivoli’s beautiful sights.

Tivoli

Like a virgin, you ask? Well, in beautiful Tivoli, you can experience what only the nobles once experienced on their grand tour through Europe : dining in the shade of an ancient (2,000 years old) Temple of the Vestal Virgins. But, don’t worry, here you don’t have to take any vows of chastity (Vestal Virgins who broke their vows were buried alive, but no need to think about that during lunch).

The train to Tivoli from Rome takes about one hour. When you arrive, trust me, it is easier to just walk into town (we attempted waiting for a bus and got caught up in a senior citizen row as they tried to find a bus driver willing to transport us all – apparently the drivers were all private hires and not for the general public). If you arrive around noon like we did, then I suggest first treating yourself to a scrumptious meal at Sibilla, an almost 300 year-old restaurant that has served everyone from dukes to princes to authors, and countless other luminaries from the past. Though not budget, the restaurant surprisingly isn’t that pricey compared to Roman restaurants and delivers an ambiance like no other. We ordered their special ‘tapas’ platter (just many small dishes to try) and two glasses of wine, and felt more than satisfied as we climbed into the temple and took pictures (the entrance was blocked, but we just moved the rope and, of course, nobody stopped us).

tivoli10 Sibilla

Villa D’Este: From there, we walked to the famous Villa D’Este and its magnificent gardens and waterfalls (a UNESCO world heritage sight). There are many steps, so I wouldn’t even bother bringing a stroller here (as many places in Italy, where the cities are all on a hill). I strapped the baby to my chest and we descended into the gardens, where we enjoyed incredible views, and relaxed in the shade.

Villa D'Este

Villa Adriano: Hadrian’s Villa is another top sight in Tivoli, though you will have to take a bus to get there. This 1,900 year-old villa was a country escape for Emperor Hadrian (who knows what went on inside, but feel free to let your imagination go wild.. it probably will still be tamer than reality). Emperor Hadrian was one of the Five Good Emperors and left a lasting mark on Rome, perhaps most notably with the rebuilding of the iconic Pantheon. Check out my Perfect Day in Rome with Trajan and Hadrian for another itinerary idea.

Hadrian_villa_ruins

Villa Gregoriana: Unfortunately, with a baby on me and after an already long day of sightseeing, we didn’t get a chance to visit this park. But, it looks beautiful from the photos and I will definitely go when I return. Probably all three of these would be too much in one day (especially with a kid), but this would be a great inclusion in a two-day trip.

Grand Waterfall

In a nutshell: Tivoli is a must-see. With the incredible gardens, majestic waterfalls, and unforgettable dining experiences, you will be able to understand why the emperors and popes chose this area as an escape from everyday life.

Rome: A Family Day with Trajan and Hadrian

Trajan’s Forum, the temple of Venus and Roma, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon – spend a day with Emperors Hadrian and Trajan as you discover Rome.

I love themes. I feel like they add structure to an otherwise chaotic sightseeing day. So, depending on how much time you have in Rome, you can use this as a one day guide or do it easily in half a day, following another perfect day itinerary in the other half. With a baby in tow, I decided to make this a one day tour, leisurely making my way from one sight to the next and taking ample coffee and water breaks in between.

Trajan and Hadrian are part of what is known as the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ but that certainly doesn’t mean they were sweethearts during their reign (i.e., Hadrian had his chief architect killed because he disagreed with Hadrian’s design for a new temple). But, compared to their predecessors, they emerged with a better reputation. Plus, they were great conquerors as well as helped take care of the poorer Romans, so we will accept them for what they were.

trajan2 hadrian

Morning(ish): Hearing that the museum at Trajan’s Forum wasn’t very crowded, we took our time before heading out, since we didn’t fear long lines. And, we came to discover there were NO lines, because most people head to the Roman forum and forgo this archeological treasure. The best part of the museum is that it is built within the markets, so at every point you can walk out amongst the ruins virtually alone and take wonderful photos of Rome. Almost every emperor wanted to build their own little forum and this was Trajan’s, majestically capped with Trajan’s column, which depicts famous battle scenes from his epic triumph over the Dacians (modern day Romania) as it towers almost a hundred feet above ground. We wandered through the stalls, where ancient businessmen would sell their wares, climbed up through the various layers, and took panoramic shots over the market and Rome.

trajan's forumphoto 1-1

 

Mid-Morning: After the leaving the museum, we wandered across Via Fori Imperiali (the main road) and gazed upon the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Roma (across from the Colosseum, towering above the Roman Forum). No need to go inside the forum for this, we just took a look and tried to imagine it when it was built: the front of two temples back to back, Venus facing the Colosseum and Roma facing the forum. This was Emperor Hadrian’s vision, as he was also an architect, and also the building that led to his architect Appolodorus‘ death (note to self – never disagree on building designs with an emperor, ‘good’ or not).

Tempel der Venus und der Roma und Turm von Santa Francesca Romana

Noon: As I was sightseeing with my very Italian mother, this was about the time I was forced to sit and enjoy a coffee break. Relaxing and people-watching are as important to experiencing the Italian way of life as wandering through ruins, and why not do it with a real view? Though they are pricier than other coffee shops, we sat outside one of the restaurants directly across from the Victory monument, and looked at this more modern-day, gleaming white, Roman style structure while sipping some cool drinks and taking the baby out to play. Drinks usually come with a few snacks, so we also packed in a few carbs before heading on our merry way.

photo 2-1

Afternoon: I could never, ever, ever get tired of looking at the Pantheon. The most perfect building in the world, one which has inspired architects through the ages, it is also the most preserved of any ancient building still in existence. Initially commissioned by the great General Marcus Agrippa under the reign of Augustus, it was actually rebuilt by Hadrian after one of the several fires of Rome destroyed it. So, you are gazing upon the newer version, but don’t worry – it is still almost 2,000 years old. We walked in, enjoyed the cool air and the perfect symmetry, before heading over to another carb-lovers delight: gelato at the world famous Giolitti gelateria. (Ok, you need to know what my husband has now dubbed ‘the giolitti’ or ‘pulling a giolitti.’ You will find here that many Italians do not obey lines.. so go ahead and try to stand in line for your gelato with the Germans and the Swedes, while you watch hordes of families walk right to the front. Then, learn quickly and ‘pull a Giolitti’ yourself to really get the Italian experience. It’s wrong, I know, but feels oh so right).

pantheon

If you like Nutella, try the gelato version of it, and then basically don’t eat for the rest of the month because God only knows how many calories that puppy has in it. Oh, and definitely ask for the panna (whipped cream) – even as a non-lover of panna, I find it tastes amazing.

Mid-Afternoon: After a good gelato cool down, make your way to Castel Sant’Angelo (a bit further away, so you may want to take a bus or cab). This was also designed by Hadrian and finished by his successor to hold the ashes of the late, great Hadrian. It was later usurped by the Catholic Church (as was the Pantheon, hence why it was preserved). If you are tired, just take a look from the outside. If not, enter, climb the stairs and enjoy a nice view of St. Peter’s Basilica.

RomaCastelSantAngelo-2

 

 

Top Ten Tips: Traveling on the Cheap

More travel is always a good thing, so if you have a budget but want to see as much of the world as possible, check out some of these tips and save some dough! This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to share your own tips in the comments section!

Look Local

Trains:

There are a lot of US-based websites through which you can book transportation, but you probably aren’t going to get the best deals. In fact, I have seen some serious rip-offs. So, before buying all of your train tickets through an online agent, check out the local train websites in each country you will be visiting. Sometimes, you can’t book out of the country, but if you are adventurous enough, you can book when you get there. This works for some places, others not. Germany’s trains are usually much cheaper if you book ahead of time. In Italy, it doesn’t really matter, but their website often has two for one deals, discount trips, etc. When we went to Slovakia, we found trains to Budapest for 14 Euros. We would have paid much more had we booked it through the German train system. So, if you don’t mind some surprises, it can pay to wait. Additionally, there are some car-sharing websites  where you can hitch a ride with someone for a fraction of the train ticket cost. Again, this is for the more adventurous and probably not for parents traveling with children.

Buses:

More and more, long haul buses are popping up in European cities as competition to the train monopoly. And, they are much cheaper. For example, if I book a last minute ticket from Munich to Berlin , it will cost around 121 Euros. If I take the bus, which is about 2 hours longer, it costs around 30. And, they go to tons of cities around Europe. This is probably not ideal if you are traveling with a baby (we did it once and it sucked) but the buses themselves are clean, comfortable, and efficient modes of transportation. Plus, some have wifi.

This also applies to ‘deal’ websites. In Germany, check on LTur for last minute trains or travel deals. Many countries will have websites like these with some great deals, so if you do some digging, you can strike gold (or at least a budget hotel room).

Go offline (gasp!)

Just to be clear: I am a major proponent of booking almost everything online. However, these bricks and mortar travel agencies sometimes just have better deals. For instance, when I lived in Singapore, it would have cost my dad more than a thousand dollars to book a flight from Singapore to Thailand plus a hotel from a US website. In Singapore, we just popped into an agency and got a 7-day great vacation for a couple of hundred bucks. Most cities in Europe still have travel agencies all over the place, with great deals advertised in the windows. Believe it or not, every hotel in the world is not that internet savvy yet, so sometimes the best deals can still be found offline. Sometimes.

Negotiate on Airbnb and the like

Some of these airbnb hosts are getting a little ahead of themselves with the prices they are trying to charge. I always, always try to negotiate and have succeeded almost 100 percent of the time. Sometimes, I am almost offensive about it, requesting a 50 percent discount from their published price. Usually, we meet somewhere in the middle. Remember, a booked room is a booked room and if demand isn’t that high, it is a renter’s market.

Learn to love Hotwire

I’ll admit it – I get an adrenaline rush from ‘blind booking.’ As I enter my credit card details and wait for the booking to process, I can feel my heart race as I wonder which wonderful or not-so-wonderful hotel will be awaiting me at my next destination. And, it isn’t always a crapshoot. On Hotwire, they tell you the number of stars a hotel has and its general vicinity. A little googling and you can probably narrow down which hotel you are going to get. In the US, this also works for rental cars (I think I once hotwired a rental car in Cali for a week.. cost me about a hundred bucks). I have never tried flights.. I would much rather pay extra for a flight that won’t make me miserable than get a ‘sweet deal’ and end up sleeping in airports.

Budget airlines aren’t always budget

Budget airlines are great as long as you carry no luggage with you and maybe have someone available to pick you up at podunk, no name airport in the middle of the field. Usually, they take you to different airports, where the only available transportation is their own bus, which is another fee. And, bringing luggage costs a pretty penny too. Sometimes it is totally worth it when airlines like Ryan Air charge 5 Euros to go somewhere. But, a lot of times the prices aren’t that much cheaper, so just check first that it takes you to a convenient airport, where you won’t have to buy another expensive ticket to get into town. Also, if you do go with budget, always buy the luggage allowance when you are booking, because it is much more expensive if you wait to pay at the airport. That being said…

Always check budget airlines

Sometimes, like the aforementioned Ryan Air example, you can get GREAT deals. When that happens, snatch it up, because who cares if you are basically living through a nightmare in-flight advertisement if the flight is only two hours? Additionally, some airlines, like German Wings, have these blind booking deals (my heart swoons just mentioning it), where you can get a cheap round trip flight to one of several cities (price goes up as you eliminate destinations you don’t want to go to). I did this and ended up in Maastricht, which was beautiful! Plus, some budget airlines also have budget car rentals, which can be cheaper, so they are worth a look.

House sit, house swap, or couch surf

Two are family-friendly, the other probably isn’t. But, there are great websites where you can apply to house sit for someone if you agree to walk their dogs for a a few days (or months). They have a membership fee, but if you get a placement, it will save you tons in hotels. Also, I have a lot of friends who house swap and absolutely love it. Various websites like home exchange are set up so people wanting to visit your town can stay at your home and you can stay at theirs (you never even have to meet). Unless you live in Sucksville, Nowhere, there is a good chance you can find a swapper.  Finally, couch surfing is an option for the more adventurous. I have made some friends through couchsurfing – it is basically a free way to explore a new city and meet new people along the way. Sometimes, you can get a nice bedroom all to yourself, sometimes an air mattress on the floor, so just be sure to get all the details first.

Find happy hour deals and lunch specials

Whether you are in the US or in Europe,  happy hour is a wonderful invention for people who want to eat cheaply. In Italy it is called ‘aperitivo’ and for the price of a drink, you can often get a buffet of delicious food for free. After gorging ourselves with pasta for several weeks, we came to find these aperitivi a wonderful alternative. Some restaurants even serve fresh juices if you don’t want a cocktail (breastfeeding mama here). Also, as we aren’t big on eating at 9 p.m., the earlier ‘dinner’ time worked out perfectly for us. If you prefer eating big in the afternoon, in most countries you can find some great deals on lunch and then maybe just have a light dinner (or grab a sandwich at one of the million bakeries and eat in a pretty square).

Always do the free walking tour

First of all, wanting to save some money or not, these are usually the best tours in town. The guides speak great English, they are friendly, and they will answer your questions because they work for tips. I have usually enjoyed the free walking tour offered in most cities much more than the paid ones. And, you may even get more freebies with it (i.e. entrance costs, funicular costs, etc). So google free walking tour and the city you are visiting and make sure you join in the fun.

Download free (and almost free) audio guides:

A friend visiting Rome clued me in on this and I was thrilled to learn Rick Steves (travel guide extraordinaire) offers free audio walking tours through tons of European cities. The app is also free to download. And, they come with lot of extras – an in-app map, pictures, and even interviews with local guides and authors to learn more about what you are seeing. I would just download the tour I wanted through the wifi at my hotel, plug in my headphones, and go on my merry way with the babe strapped to my chest. Free and actually better than a lot of the more costly audio guides at each sight.

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Day With a Baby in Rome – Galleria Borghese

This is the first of my Perfect Day in Rome series, which can also be found under the ‘Perfect Day In’ tab at the top.

There are so many amazing sights in Rome that sometimes it can get overwhelming. Depending on how much time you have, you obviously need to prioritize what you want to visit. However, I strongly recommend putting the Galleria Borghese at the top of your list, as you will find room after room of priceless art, including Caravaggio’s more controversial paintings that were initially commissioned by the Vatican but then not used because of how he depicted certain biblical characters (Caravaggio was famous for using prostitutes and fishermen as models, rather than nobility). That didn’t bother Cardinal Scipio Borghese, however, who filled his magnificent palace with some of the most incredible art the world had ever seen.

Now, it’s on display for you to enjoy.

We found that this private art gallery isn’t as easy to enter as the others, so you will have to do a little work by reserving tickets ahead of time on their website. You can also call to reserve your tickets, which will save you the online service fee, but you will likely get frustrated when nobody answers, which is often the case. So my suggestion is to cough up the extra dough, reserve several days ahead of time, get there a bit early, and make it a perfect start to a perfect day by entering stress free.

Getting to the Galleria Borghese can also be a bit tricky because it isn’t around the major tourist sites. However, you can try your luck with the Roman bus system, ride a bicycle, or cab it. If you are with kids, I suggest a taxi. Riding a bicycle in Rome is a bit like Russian Roulette and you don’t really want your Roman holiday to be your last holiday. Buses function, but don’t count on them being on time and they are often very crowded.

So, with all that being said, here is a rundown of our perfect day in Rome at the Galleria Borghese.

Morning: We reserved our tickets via the gallery’s online booking system for 11 a.m.  I am not a big fan of having to be somewhere early in the morning, especially now that I have a baby. (Check out my ten tips for traveling with a baby to find out why). So, after leisurely waking up at about 8 a.m. and feeding the little one, we headed out to our favorite nearby cafe for a cappuccino and a cornetto. We always sit down to enjoy our breakfast (it usually costs extra), but you can also do as the Italians and enjoy your espresso (simply called cafe in Italy) and sweet treat at the bar to save some money.  Afterward, we stopped by a little grocery store and picked up the necessities: a bottle of screw-top wine, a baguette, some cheese nibs, fresh olives, fruit cups, a bottle of water, and some plastic cups and plates. Since we stopped bringing the stroller around Rome when we realized the elevator in our apartment wouldn’t fit it, we brought a backpack for the food and blanket and the tot traveled in our Ergobaby.

Mid-Morning: Finally, around 10:15 a.m., we grabbed a taxi and made our way to the gallery. Since there are strict reservation times, I didn’t want to chance being late, so we ended up being very early. That was fine though, since some street musicians were around to entertain us and we could gaze out on to the expansive Borghese gardens while waiting. About 15 minutes before our reservation time, we went in, showed them our printed out tickets (there are many internet points where you can pay a small fee to print your ticket or you can use your hotel), and gave our backpack to coat check. We then entered the gallery.

Going Through the Gallery: Carrying a baby was easy, but if you have smaller children who can walk, I would suggest holding their hands the WHOLE time. The statues here are not encased in glass, so better to keep curious little hands occupied. When we entered, we made our way through the gallery with everyone else who reserved in our same time slot. However, afterwards, we realized we could have quickly made our way to the end when entering and then walked back through the gallery to the beginning and been alone the whole time, since the exit is the same as the entrance. When we go back we will probably try that, as it would be amazing to have the gallery rooms to ourselves. Still, they limit the people, so it is never as crowded as the Vatican museums.

Beware of swooning as the palace itself is magnificent. A few of the must-sees include:

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Bernini is the master of Baroque and you will find his creations all over Rome. While his name may not be as familiar to you as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, you will leave with an unforgettable impression of his work.

Afternoon: Upon leaving the Gallery, we noticed a trolley parked outside and hopped in. Of course, we had no idea where it would take us, but eventually the conductor came by to collect 3 Euro per person and took us through the gardens, which are enormous. This is super fun for both kids and adults, and a welcome relief for your feet after the museum tour. The conductor officially makes only a few stops, but remember, this is Italy. You can always make a little request and if you are nice enough, they will usually grant it. I wanted to go near a little lake in the garden where we could rent boats, so he dropped us off nearby and told us we could just hop back on when we were finished.  So, we made our way to the lake, spread out our blanket and food, and enjoyed our lunch under the shade of trees. Afterward, we left the baby with my mom, and my hubby and I enjoyed a romantic little boat ride for only 5 Euros (you get about 20 mins, which is more than enough since the lake – rather pond – is small). On our way out, we noticed there was also a restaurant nearby, so if you don’t feel like a picnic, this is another option. Enjoy the rest of the park – there are statues and temples everywhere. For kids there is also a carousel, gelateria, and playground.

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Late Afternoon: ahh… we were gloriously tired, so we took a taxi back to our apartment to enjoy a long nap and read up on some of the amazing art we had just had the pleasure of viewing.

Evening: Relaxed from our nap, we freshened up and headed out for dinner. After being in Rome for several weeks, we discovered our favorite ‘dinner’ was actually an aperitivo. Many restaurants offer an aperitivo, which is usually a free buffet with the cost of a drink, and you can taste a variety of food on the cheap. Another plus for families with children – this starts at 6, so you can eat early, eat a lot, and enjoy a lively atmosphere with the locals. Afterward, we went to one of our favorite gelaterias, Flor, which is on Campo di Fiori, and then made our way to Piazza Navona, where we gazed upon another Bernini masterpiece, the Fountain of the Four Rivers. While devouring our gelato, we quizzed each other one which rivers each of the statues represented and then later Wikipedia’d it to find out who was right (I’m pretty sure it was me).

Top Ten Tips – Traveling Solo

You can also see the top ten tips for several categories in the bar at the top of the page.

Make a Friend.

I absolutely love to travel alone and one of the main reasons is I almost always meet someone interesting along the way. It can happen through striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane or buddying up with other solo travelers at your hotel or hostel, or even making conversation with the person sitting next to you in a restaurant. When people are traveling, they are more open to meeting new people and sharing experiences, so give it a go! Some of the best memories I have when traveling solo are with the people I met along the way.

Stay at a hostel or a bed and breakfast

Obviously, this isn’t for everyone and the quality of these ‘communal’ reposes are entirely dependent on what city you’re visiting. But with airbnb as an alternative to hostels, you can still book a room in a house and have the advantage of meeting other people. This is a great way to accomplish the aforementioned goal of making friends. And, when it comes to hostels, in some countries those are the best places to stay no matter what your budget. Who wants to go to Beijing and stay in some anonymous hotel when you can experience a Hutong, meet other professionals who are traveling, and participate in the group activities that most hostel Hutongs host? This is the case in many cities, so do your research first on the hostel scene before ruling it out (they are not all only for high school backpackers). Personally, if I decide on a hostel, I usually pay the full price for a 2-person room and enjoy my privacy while still getting the social experience.

Plan perfect days

I know, I’m obsessed with the perfect day theme, but in this case it is a must. After all, what is the best part about traveling solo? You can do whatever you want! So, don’t do what you should do, do what you want to do. Instead of just following a guidebook and wandering aimlessly, put some thought into what a perfect day would be for you. Is there a certain type of food you love, but none of your friends ever want to partake in? Are you a morning person, who likes to get out the door at the crack of dawn? Or, the opposite? If you put just a little thought and planning into your days of solo travel, while leaving some room for the unexpected, you will come home satisfied that you made the most of your vacation.

Be adventurous

When you are alone, there is no limit to what you can do. So, make the most of it and get rid of any voices in your head that tell you otherwise. Like to ride motor scooters? Go for it! Always wanted to skydive? Now, is your chance. Obviously, keep your wits about you, but you’re an adult, so have fun with your freedom and you’ll have plenty of stories to regale your friends with when you get home.

Read about the city or country while there

I’m not just talking about guidebooks. There are tons of historical novels out there that will bring the city alive for you. While I was living in Rome, I engrossed myself in Steven Saylor’s ‘Roma.’ The book brought so much to life for me and made me feel like I was surrounded by friends, even when I was alone. It may not work for every destination, but it is a great way to really live the city.

Don’t selfie the whole time

Seriously. You’ll thank me for this when you get home. Sure, a selfie here and there is fun, but honestly you’ll want some pictures of you in front of monuments that can actually be seen in the photo. So, don’t be afraid to ask someone to take a photo or two for you. Oh, yeah and be sure to tell them to keep their finger off the flash.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner

Have you ever noticed that singles often get relegated to the back corner table in a restaurant? Sometimes even facing the wall? I don’t know about you, but I go to a restaurant for some atmosphere and I am sure not going to meet anyone in the corner table by the bathroom. So, if you see the waiter leading you to the loner’s section, politely tell them you would prefer to sit in the middle somewhere (preferably next to the hottie who has an empty chair next to him/her).

Join a tour

In most frequently visited cities, you’ll find a free walking tour (easy to find on google).  This is a great way to meet other travelers and get an overview of the city with an English speaking guide who really puts on a show because their pay is based on tips. But, join other tours too. Whether it’s a small group heading to a nearby town or an adventure tour, this will be a great way to socialize without committing to lifelong friendship. Another advantage is you will get some willing photographers for all those non-selfie shots you are going to pose for.

Facebook it

Sure, you should turn technology off when traveling and live in the moment. Which you will. But, let’s be honest, if you can share snippets of your trip on Facebook along the way, you will feel like your friends are with you through their comments and likes. Kind of. Plus, it will make you more adventurous in order to get good Facebook photos. So upload!

Be a party animal

No need to just go back to the hotel after dinner because you didn’t listen to number one and didn’t make any friends to go out with. Go out yourself! Go dancing or go to a bar and sing songs with the drunk locals. Who cares if you can’t sing or dance? You’ll never see these people again – so live it up. No one needs to know (unless you post it on Facebook).

 

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