Almost a year ago I realized that I needed to spend more quality time with my family. To accomplish this goal I came up with actionable items. I have been consciously taking these actions and I feel much better about the time I spend with the people who are most important in my life. Here are some of the things I have been doing:
* Not doing work once I get home unless there is an emergency
* Planning more weekend activities. Taking day trips, coming up with projects to work on with my kids.
* Being present when we are together. Removing distractions (phone, computer are put away)
But most importantly I took a month off this year and spent incredible time with my family. The company I work for allows its employees to take a month off after 5 years of working there. This was a great opportunity for me to spend quality time with my family and recover from working pretty intensely for the last 6 years. Despite the fact that we have two little kids my wife and I decided to take a trip to Italy and Turkey in late June. I took short notes as we traveled in Italy and Turkey. I hope you enjoy the travel tips and the photos.
We took the red-eye from Newark to London. We had a 4 hour layover at Heathrow, London. If you have small kids and you are going to be stuck in Heathrow Airport you need to find the play gym next to gate A7. Our kids’ mood changed from whiny, I want to go home, to yay let’s play!
What a great idea to have a play gym at the airport. Every airport should have a play gym. Maybe even one for adults. How great would it be to go stretch at a gym after sitting down and staying still for 7 hours.
We arrived in Bologna and found out our most valuable asset, our double stroller, was stuck in London. Thanks British Airlines. We didn’t want to spend the whole day waiting for our stroller in Bologna since that would mean missing out on seeing Venice. Fortunately our hotel was near the Aerobus route so I decided to go back and get the stroller myself in the morning. It would be a sleepless night. Tip: If you need to get to and from the airport in Bologna you need to take the Aerobus. There is no train and taxis are pricy if you’re thinking in dollars.
That night we CARRIED our kids to our hotel and arrived at around 6pm. The guy at the desk recommend a nearby place called Il Pirata for Bolognese tortellini. The place was full of locals. For an appetizer we got the prosciutto and melon which was excellent. Then we ate the most delicious wine and pasta I’d ever had. We got the red house wine (vino rosso della casa). The kids had margarita pizza which was really good as well.
The next morning I took the Aerobus to the airport to pick up our stroller and ran back to the hotel so we could catch our train to Venice. When we got to the train station a transit worker saw us looking for our track and actually jumped across the tracks to make sure we had tickets with us. We didn’t. We’d bought the tickets online, but we hadn’t downloaded the ticket, and our SIM card wasn’t active yet. Without wireless internet we couldn’t get the ticket.
Tip: The email confirmation is not enough guys! You have to click the link! Luckily you don’t have to print. Anyway, thanks to that helpful worker we were able to talk to Trenitalia’s customer service and fix things before our train took off.
Tip: If you want to get the best deal for train tickets in Italy, you have to buy your tickets online. Trenitalia gives big online discounts, and we could even get Bimbo Gratis tickets so our son, who is over 5, could travel free with us. Our 3 year-old daughter was already free.
The Frecciargento train ride was pretty comfortable and we made it to Venice in 1 hour and 30 minutes. As soon as we walked out of the train station we saw the beautiful Grand Canal right in front of us and it was all worth it. Unfortunately to get over the Grand Canal you have to climb up and down a lot of steps. All the bridges in Venice have lots of stairs. We ended up hauling our luggage, stroller and kids up and down lots of steps to get to our nearbye hotel, rather than pay 100 Euro for a water-cab ride. The Grand Canal water bus would’ve allowed us to avoid climbing the massive bridge over the Grand Canal but we didn’t know about it then and we probably wouldn’t have been able to find our hotel from the bus stop. There are plenty of people around who will haul your luggage over the bridges for a tip but we did it ourselves and we were fine.
Tip: Know the nearest Vaporetto 1 bus stop near your hotel and get GOOD directions from there. It is easy to get lost. Also, obviously a stroller is not so useful in Venice. We wished we had the Ergo Baby Carrier.
I really liked Venice. Despite the fact that it is packed with tourists it is the most interesting city I’ve ever been too. The canals are really neat and the buildings seems quite untouched. There are many many shops selling high end/low end gifts and they all have incredible windows.
We walked to the Rialto and Saint Mark’s square with the kids and no stroller but since we stopped often for gelato they were agreeable and full of energy and we didn’t have to carry them much. The entire walk to the square was packed with tourists. There was a really long line for the cathedral but it moved pretty quickly and it was worth it to see the inside. Tip: Make sure you cover your shoulders and your knees if you want to get in! They hand out shawls if you forget.
After Saint Mark’s we walked around Venice and had dinner by the Grand Canal where we could catch a nice breeze. After that we caught Vaporetto 1, the Grand Canal water bus, and that’s how we got our exhausted kids back to our hotel without a stroller. Thank goodness for that water bus!
We enjoyed wandering around a comparatively quiet Venice that evening, with all the day-trippers gone. The huge piazza with all of the hostels was quite lively but otherwise in and around Dorsoduro we had the sidewalks pretty much to ourselves and only the outdoor tables at the cafes were taken. I got up early the next morning when people were heading to work and the city was still very quiet. It was so different from the hectic St. Mark’s square I’d experienced the day before – much more enjoyable. I took some pictures in the beautiful morning light and enjoyed fresh pastry with cappuccino from a nearby bake shop.
We took the 10:25 Frecciargento train from Venice to Rome. The train ride was not bad at all. The kids befriended a beautiful 1-year old Italian girl and her mom translated an Italian storybook for them. It was about Pimpa the dog and how he made friends with the moon. I also found a friendly Egyptian Woman to talk to. Tip: If you talk to locals while in Italy, don’t forget to ask them what you should eat! It changes depending on the city and the season.
At Roma Termini station would took subway line A and got off the train after 3 stops next to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps were not much to look at but there were a lot of people standing there looking a them. We called our AirBnB host and met with him at the apartment without trouble. He helped us carry our luggage up 4 stories :). Tip: Third floor means fourth floor in Italy. When you do AirBnB you can get a nice spacious place and a laundry machine. When you’re traveling with little kids that’s important.
As soon as we stepped outside of our apartment I loved Rome. It seemed like every street had personality. There were narrow cobblestone streets, terraces overflowing with flowers, Medieval buildings, piazzas with beautiful fountains and springs with potable water. I could not believe how many scooters were on the street. There are more scooters than cars and most of them have very fashionable female riders. The same thing goes for bicycles.
The first day we went to the Pantheon and a famous old gelato place called Giotto’s. The gelato place wasn’t really worth it. The gelato was just as good if not better elsewhere and it was really hectic being squished like that and standing on those long lines. The Pantheon (a church) was majestic inside and out and the surrounding piazza and neighborhood were lovely and very old. A choir played as we wandered around inside the church, looking at the beautiful art. We got in for free and there were no lines or hectic crowds.
We spent the evening at Piazza Navona with Palazzo Pamphili and all those impressive fountains. Piazza Navona once was a chariot racetrack so it is really long and there is always lots going on, including live artists and live music for the kids to dance to. We would return again for our third evening in Rome.
The next morning we had fresh pastries from a nearby bakery – delicious savory little rolls with olive oily tomato paste, and croissants. We left the apartment to go to nearby Piazza del Popolo where Rome’s gates once were. It’s dark in Santa Maria del Popolo church and you have to turn on the lights in all the chapels one by one to see anything. They’ve even got an impressive Caravaggio painting which you have to pay 1 Euro to light up temporarily which is kind of annoying. Before we were finished with all the chapels they kicked us out for a funeral service. After that we locked up our stroller and hiked up into Villa Borghese Park to see Rome from the top of Pincian Hill. We were told there were bike rides and souvenirs at the top but I guess we got there too early. We were trying to beat the storm which we knew was coming. The view was well worth it as you could see Capitoline Hill including the monument of Victor Emanuel II with horses and chariots on top. If you looked across Piazza del Popolo you could see St. Peter’s Basilica across the Tiber. The kids ran around a bit as we took some pics with the view. It was nice because we could enjoy the view all by ourselves without hectic crowds and we didn’t have to stand on any lines like you do if you want to climb up the cathedral domes and towers.
On our way to the Vatican after lunch we got caught in the thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that we all got soaked despite the fact that we all had umbrellas. My son was screaming and crying about the thunder and lightning while other kids walked happily by in their plastic ponchos. Everyone we talked to said don’t worry about the rain, just keep walking, a taxi is too much!
Tip: Do make reservations so you don’t have to stand in line all day when you’re going to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, but don’t take the scenic route if the forecast is for thunderstorms. Find a bus or take the shortest route! A reservation means you can’t wait around in a pizza place for the rain to slow.
After that eventful walk we happily skipped the long line at the Vatican and took the long walk through the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel. Bringing the stroller into the Vatican Museum was not fun. There were lots of narrow crowded staircases going up and down and doorways with actual doors that people were squishing through. Nobody cared to give us the space to get through with the stroller. Still, we had to bring the stroller because we didn’t want to go back to the entrance to pick it up later. In the end it was totally worth it to see Michelangelo’s ceiling, and we actually saw some nice paintings and medieval art at the Vatican Museums by taking a right at the top of the entrance stairs instead of heading left to go straight to the Sistine Chapel.
Tip:From the Sistine Chapel we took the exit door on the right to go straight down into St. Peter’s Basilica grounds. This door is meant to be only for tours but nobody stopped us. So we didn’t have to take the long walk back north to the entrance of the museum, or stand in the long line all day in the sun to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. Honestly, even if we hadn’t already walked through a thunderstorm with 2 screaming children all of that would’ve seemed like torture and we wouldn’t have done it. By taking the exit door on the right from the Sistine Chapel, we got to see the inside of the massive St. Peter’s cathedral, and Michelangelo’s Pieta without all of the stress. Then with the rain stopped we walked leisurely across the Ponte Sant’Angelo enjoying all the beautiful statues and heading home for the evening.
We stayed near Piazza Borghese which was a nice location. We could walk to most of the places we wanted to go. When you’re traveling with 2 small children and a stroller, mass transit can be difficult. Staying a bit further south near the Pantheon or Piazza Navona probably would’ve been even better.
Tip: If you don’t want the stress of dealing with the Vatican Museum crowds with your stroller you can always go to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum at night when it is less crowded. Since the Sistine Chapel has no windows, it is not really necessary to see it during the day. If you’re coming straight from the US you will be staying up late anyway because of the different time zone. However, you can’t take the right exit door from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s at night because St. Peter’s is closed at night.
The next day we took the bus to the Colosseum, which was really quite convenient from our apartment near the Tiber. The Galleria Nazionale looked so impressive from the bus that we walked down there in the heat of the sun to gawk at all the statues and torches on the entrance stairs. Then we headed to the Church of San Clemente in the neighborhood behind the Colosseum. With 3 underground levels of once-buried ancient history, beautiful art, and mosaics like nothing you’ve ever seen, San Clemente is really a must-see. Unfortunately we had to squish it all in before they closed for lunch. They said we couldn’t come back after lunch with the same ticket. Afterwards we got some lunch in that neighborhood and skipped a giant line to get into the Colosseum.
Tip: Do buy skip -the-line tickets online for the Colosseum in the summer. The line would not have been worth it. The Colosseum was fun to walk around but you really should follow the arrows which tell you to start on the second floor because there are a lot of good informative displays there which will color the rest of the tour for you.
After the Colosseum we wandered over to the beautiful Arch of Constantine and went up Palatine Hill. The ruins there were not that impressive compared to some other ones we’ve seen but we got to take some nice shots of the Colosseum from the hill. On the crowded trip home on bus line 87 everybody was trying to give us safe spots for our kids, helping us pay (no functione! no functione!) and making sure we knew where to hit the button for our stop. The Italian language is so effervescent we didn’t care that we couldn’t understand what anybody was saying! In fact, the Italian language was really one of the highlights of our trip.
We took the Frecciargento train in the morning to go to Florence. On the way all of the handles came off of our suitcase. No problem, we bought a new one near the train station. We stayed near the train station too, at Hotel Tourist house, but it was a pretty quiet spot just at the corner of Piazza Santa Maria Novella. It was a great place to stay with kids. The piazza had grass and children and yummy gelato. Our quadruple room had high ceilings and lavish decoration and our hosts were very friendly and helpful. We ate at nearby Trattoria da Giorgio, a family-run restaurant which we also highly recommend. Don’t forget to stop by the historical pharmacy on Via della Scala near the train station – it is still in business. The church of Santa Maria Novella also has a lot to see, so set aside some time for that. It was an easy walk to the Duomo, the Uffizi, and all of the other famous attractions from our hotel too.
Tip: Most of the attractions in Florence have skip-the-line online tickets. For us the online tickets were worth it not because there were long lines but because there was no place to buy tickets near the Duomo on a Sunday morning. Also, I didn’t see long lines at the Uffizi but I’m told it’s hard to get in unless you’ve bought tickets online.
The first night we took the #7 bus from Piazza San Marco to a town in the mountains called Fiesole, where we hiked up a narrow cobble-stone street to see a gorgeous view of Florence. The kids really enjoyed it.
Leaving Italy was sad but we were thrilled to experience a beautiful country, lovely people and delicious food. I know we need to go back to Italy some time in the future.
Our plan for Turkey was to spend a week in Candarli with my parents, by the northern Agean, then go to Busra Pansiyon in Selimiye on the southern Agean. Selimiye and the surrounding area is breathtakingly beautiful and this pansiyon is heaven for families with small children. There’s a yard to play in, lots of kids, delicious food, and rooms right by the water. It’s a small place so it is not crowded or hectic and you get lots of friendly personal attention. You do need to bring your water shoes because the shore is rocky.
As always our stay in Turkey was magical. Enjoy some of the pictures I took during our stay in Turkey: