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Category: Top Ten Tips

7 Tips for Traveling in Spain

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

Spain has much to offer: incredible museums, jaw-dropping architecture, inspiring music, warm and hospitable people, beautiful weather, and an excellent public transportation system. This makes it one of my top recommendations in Europe. Their updated high-speed rail system now makes it incredibly fast and easy to zip from one major city to another, which makes it a great destination for a one to two-week (or more) vacation.

Now that my son is a major crawler, I was a little worried about traveling with him, knowing that he would be itching to move around and not be as willing to sit in his stroller for long stretches of time. And, I was partially right. It was easier to tour around all day when he was five months and perfectly happy to hang out in the Ergobaby while we traversed Italy. But, luckily, it wasn’t that difficult in Spain. We made a few more pit stops so he could stretch his muscles and we built in some siestas so he could explore our hotel room, but all in all he ended up being a very good travel toddler and made me excited about continuing our nomadic lifestyle in the coming months and years.

In future posts, I will highlight each of the cities we visited and give recommendations on what to do in a short amount of time. But, first I wanted to give a few general tips for traveling through Spain (with or without kids).

1. Travel off-season

This is often a tip for travelers going to popular countries, but it applies especially to Spain. We went in February and while it wasn’t the super sunny and warm Spain we know and love, it actually turned out to be the perfect time of year for us to explore the cities and avoid hordes of tourists and excessive heat. The temperature was about 50 degrees most of the time we were there, getting warmer in the afternoon sun and a bit cooler in the early morning. But, we saved a ton of money on comfy hotels in great locations, never waited in line for museums or major sights (the only thing we had to book in advance was our visit to Alhambra in Granada), and essentially enjoyed the country with its citizens rather than tourists. I can’t recommend this enough. Since most of the US and Europe is cold in the winter anyway, it helps make the season bearable when touring interesting cities, visiting beautiful museums, and basking in some not too intense sunshine in majestic piazzas.

2. Hostals are not your typical hostels

We stayed in a couple of hostals (Spanish for hostel), which are hostels in the sense that you can have multiple beds in a room, but most of them are private rooms, with private bathrooms, cleaning service, and all the amenities you would normally get in a hotel room. The only difference between a hostal and hotel is that some of them do not have restaurants attached, so you can’t eat breakfast there, and there won’t be the luxury additions like a spa or pool. But, if you are traveling with kids and want a more spacious room with more beds without having to pay hotel prices, these are a great choice. One night we stayed in five star hotel and though the bed was more comfortable, we actually had way less space than in our beloved hostals, which were located in the best spots in each city. So, check out tripadvisor for reviews and don’t be afraid to book a hostal in Spain.

3. Get the Renfe Spain pass

Most travelers in Europe have heard of the Eurail pass that allows you to hop on and off trains for a limited amount of time in select countries at a set price. However, the Renfe Spain Pass is the best bet when doing Spain. You can buy it at the train station or online (though the train station might be optimal so you can also book your reservations for where you want to go on your trip). A normal adult pass is 169 and it lets you take 4 trips (e.g., Barcelona — Madrid — Granada — Seville — Madrid). Most of these trains are super high speed, going 300 KM per hour, which means you can zip across the country must faster than with a car and avoid the hassle of finding parking in the city. We bought our passes at the Barcelona train station and booked our reservations (reservations can be cancelled up to 15 minutes before the train leaves and the credit will go back on your pass, so it doesn’t hurt to book ahead of time to make sure you get the train you want). Children under 4 travel for free, and older children have a discount. You can also get a pass that allows for 6, 8, 10, or 12 train rides (note that if you have to change trains, each ride counts as 1). The only hitch is you have to make your reservations for the trains at the train station, so I would just make them all in one go and change if needed. Also, even though babies travel for free, you also need to make reservations for them, so don’t forget to mention that when you are booking. Plus, don’t forget to take a picture of your Spain Pass in case it gets stolen or lost! With the number, they can easily replace the pass for you.

Note: I would use the pass only for long, more expensive trips. I wouldn’t use one of the journeys to go from Madrid to Toledo which is only about 30 roundtrip.

4.  Do more day-tripping than hotel-hopping

My rule of thumb is usually a minimum of two nights at one hotel, but I prefer three. In cities like Barcelona or Madrid, you can easily take day trips to see other parts of Spain (Toledo is only 30 mins by train from Madrid), and avoid having to lug your suitcases from city to city. Plus, the big cities have so much to offer that one day doesn’t do them justice. Less is more here… so instead of trying to make a new city each day, get to know the country better by spending more time in each place and saving something for another trip!

5.  Make lunch your big meal

Spanish restaurants have some pretty amazing lunch deals where you will get a first, second, dessert, and drink for 9-10. The portions are generous and filling and since Spaniards offer lunch until 4 p.m., you can easily do a later lunch, make it your big meal of the day and just enjoy a few tapas for ‘dinner’ instead of waiting to eat at the official dinner time of 9 p.m. (most restaurants don’t even open until 8 p.m). Tapas bars offer food from 5 or 6 p.m., so you can join Spaniards in their ‘appetizer’ phase, try a few small dishes, and get to bed at a decent hour.

6. Look for tapas deals

Tapas used to be offered for free with the purchase of a drink and some places, especially in Granada, still adhere to this old tradition. We actually didn’t know this and one evening in Granada we popped into a tapas bar, ordered two bottles of water and two tapas, which were actually dinner sized portions, and walked away with a bill of 3 . Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised. You can check online for tapas bars that still offer these deals. Otherwise, a tapa will cost between 1 and 5 (depending on the place and size) and a drink about 2. Still, a pretty cheap dinner with quality food.

7. Learn Spanish!

Unlike many other countries in Europe, English has not become the de-facto official language in Spain. Many people do speak English (especially at the hotels and at more touristy restaurants), but it is not as ubiquitous as in other European countries. So, brush up on your Spanish, download a translator app, and be prepared to challenge yourself a bit with some new phrases. I, shamefully, do not yet speak Spanish but I was lucky enough to get by with Italian wherever I ran into people who didn’t speak English. So, if you speak Italian or Portuguese, that will also help!

 

Orvieto – An Unforgettable Day

A stunning 14th-century cathedral, Etruscan caves, world-famous wine, and a town surrounded by Tufa rock, towering above the Italian countryside.

If you haven’t been to Orvieto yet, go. One of the most picturesque towns in Italy (and there is stiff competition), this beautiful city has enough sights and experiences to make it well worth a full-day or even two-day visit.

We only went for one day this time, so the following will be an itinerary if you don’t want to do an overnight. However, for an unforgettable overnight experience, I recommend booking a room at La Badia, the 12th-century Abby turned hotel that lies amidst acres of countryside at the bottom of the hill. This 4-star abode has been frequented by celebrities from across the world, but inside you will feel like you personally discovered your own peaceful, rustic, romantic getaway in one of Italy’s most visited small towns.

11 a.m: We arrived by train (about an hour from Rome) in the late morning and took the Funicular that is right across the street from the station to the top of the hill, into the old town of Orvieto. Surrounded by walls, the town is emblematic of the Etruscans, who always built their cities high up and surrounded like a fortress to protect from evil invaders (like the Romans). The Etruscans were also known for their development underground. Caves and passageways have been found throughout the area, where Etruscans would store wine, weapons, statuary, and build rooms for the dead. If you are interested in seeing some of these tombs, you can visit the largest Etruscan Necropolis near Civitivecchia and outside of Tarquinia.

At the funicular, we had a taxi take us to Orvieto’s majestic church that crowns the town and glistens in the sunshine as if made with fine gems and paved with gold. Sitting on one of the stone benches in front gazing at the masterpiecesof it, we craned our necks to take in its majestic glory. It is truly one of the most beautiful churches in the world, and alone is worth the visit to Orvieto. We then went inside and paid a nominal fee to see the masterpieces, among them The Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli. It is a different experience to see these paintings in situ, as they were meant to be shown rather than in a museum, and you can create several wonderful church tours in Italy that will be better than visiting some of the most famous museums.

 Yy<<<y baby typing

^was left there on purpose. While I was writing the draft for this, my little one crawled up and started typing on the keyboard, which I couldn’t bring myself to erase.

1 p.m: Small towns in Italy shut down during the hot afternoon hours, when workers go home to eat delicious lunches and then rest for a bit before returning to work, so take advantage of the quiet and do the same. We ended up at a touristy spot, where the prices are inflated and the food mediocre. However, we enjoyed a delicious glass of Orvieto Classico wine. This wine is famous world-over and the restaurants here usually have the best years on hand. Another famous Orvieto wine is Est! Est! Est!. The story behind the name derives from a German bishop’s quest for the best wine as he was making the long journey to see the pope. He sent a prelate ahead of him to search and received a message when the servant reached a nearby commune called Montefiascone and the message read Est! Est! Est! (here it is, here it is, here it is!).

Street in Orvieto

3 pm: I wanted to see the Etruscan caves in Orvieto and there are a couple of ways to do this. There is the official cave tour, which lasts about 45 minutes and you can buy tickets for it at the cave tour center right across from the church. However, because they are long winding tunnels, I wasn’t comfortable carrying my baby down there, so I skipped it (my husband went though and really enjoyed it, as they explained how the caves have been used throughout the centuries after the Etruscans). However, I did enjoy the second option, which was a tour of a private Etruscan cave. The owners of the restaurant La Buca di Bacco discovered Etruscan caves underneath their property during an archeological dig and Etruscan cavethey invested a lot of money into making them tourable and beautiful. Carving Etruscan statuary inside and showcasing some of the relics found there, they have turned this into a must-see for tourists in Orvieto. There is a fee to participate in the tour, but it is worth it. They also used to serve several course meals down in the caves for certain tour groups (my mom runs a tour company and we enjoyed many a meal down there, with candles flickering everywhere and wine flowing). Now, they only serve tour Inside Etruscan cavegroups upstairs, but you can still participate in the cave tour if you call ahead or stop by the shop and talk your way in.

4 pm: There is an archeological museum right next door to the church – it’s not going to blow your mind away, but it is a nice, small museum with some Etruscan treasures. They also have rooms with Etruscan paintings on the walls, which look just like the tombs. It won’t take you very long to go through here and when you leave head left for a stunning view of the countryside and the aforementioned La Badia hotel.

La Badia nestled in the countryside

La Badia nestled in the countryside

Orvieto is also famous for its hand-painted pottery and there are also beautiful stores along the old streets, so take some time to shop and just enjoy the atmosphere of this ancient town before heading back to Rome!

 

 

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!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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).

 

Top Ten Tips – Traveling With a Baby

All top ten tip posts you will also be able to find in the top ten page at the top of the blog for easier access.

Plan out your perfect travel day. Now, cut it in half.

I know when you are visiting someplace new, you want to cram in as much as possible and see every single sight recommended by your guidebook. Let me tell you right now, with a kid, that’s not going to happen. Everything with a baby takes longer; it’s a fact of life. So, write down all of the things you would see in a day if you were alone, and then cut out half of them. This will give you a realistic sightseeing goal.

A baby carrier is your best friend. Don’t leave the hotel without it.

Depending on which country you are in, you may not even want to bring the stroller with you. Many sights in a place like Rome are inaccessible with a set of wheels, so a baby carrier will be your best bet. Even if you do bring the stroller out, there may be sights with many stairs or tiny elevators. I have found most restaurants or hotels will allow you to leave your carriage there for a couple of hours so you can just strap the baby to your belly and be on your merry way. This brings us to #3…

Don’t be afraid to play the haggard parent card.

I know, who wants to be that annoying person who goes straight to the front of the line? Or, who has to ask a restaurant to please watch your carriage? Or, who asks for assistance in getting a stroller up the stairs? But, just get rid of that inhibition and you will find traveling is much more fun when you don’t have to do all of the grunt work yourself. So, flash the haggard parent look of misery, march to the front, and take advantage of the few perks that come with the job.

Build in naps.

Everyone is happier when they are rested. That includes babies. Sleeping in the stroller isn’t quite the same as sleeping in their beds, so if possible, build your day around breaks. Get out of the midday sun, take a rest after a long lunch, and get refreshed to enjoy some sightseeing when its cooler and the streets are less crowded.

Avoid tour groups.

Find out when tour groups are out and stay in. Usually around 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. are the busiest tour group times. Now, obviously you won’t be inside the whole time, but schedule your naps within this time period and go enjoy lunch or some obscure site until the crowd thins. This makes getting into top sights much easier and much more enjoyable. Sunset is actually a beautiful time to see sights and it won’t be as hectic as peak tour hours.

Download audio guides.

Unless your baby does really well with tours, I would avoid having to move at a group’s pace to get information on various sites. There are some great audio guides out there (Rick Steves produces many on Europe that you can download for FREE) that will allow you to learn, while not having to worry about needing to stop and feed or change a baby in the middle of the tour. Just connect to wifi at your hotel or apartment rental, download the audio guide you want for that day on your phone, and bring your headphones!

Let your baby participate.

I don’t believe in waiting for your baby to get fussy before taking him out of the stroller and comforting him. So, when you head out to dinner or lunch, bring your baby out immediately and let him look around, engage with other diners, and play with you. This will help him avoid getting frustrated or feeling left out and you may even find it a great icebreaker to meet the locals and engage in some cross-cultural banter.

Plan some picnics.

A nice dinner is always enjoyable (but let’s be honest, a little less enjoyable when breastfeeding a baby and trying to cut your food with one hand). So, planning a picnic for some days can be very freeing. Now, when I say picnic, I don’t mean spend your whole morning preparing and packing up food. You are on vacation, so relax. But, throwing a blanket or towel under the baby carriage and picking up a couple of sandwiches at a bakery and a bottle of screw-top wine with some plastic cups at the grocery store is completely doable and cheap. Then, find a pretty area, let the baby roll around and play, and enjoy some nice local food without worrying about spit-up, diaper changes, or breastfeeding. You can do anything you want in the privacy of your picnic.

Always bring your diaper bag and changing pad. Always.

I know, this is basically a given. But, just in case you were thinking of running out with just a couple of diapers and wipes in your purse, turn back. Many places are not baby changing friendly, meaning you will be hard pressed to find changing tables in most touristy cities. We have changed our baby in the Roman forum, in front of the Vatican, on park benches – you name it. A changing pad makes it all possible, as do those extra onesies you packed in case of an explosion.

Churches (and the like) are your friends.

Church is a great refuge, not just for souls but also for haggard parents. Whether you need to escape the heat, find a quiet place to feed the baby, or change a diaper – churches are great to go to and Europe is abundant with them. Now, I wouldn’t recommend changing a diaper during mass, but you will find many nearly empty churches when traveling through most European cities, so take advantage and enjoy some beautiful artwork while keeping the little one happy.

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