Crete-We want to go back!!

CRETE-We want to go back!

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We all LOVED Crete and agreed that we could definitely come back here again. It is a much larger island than Mykonos. We immediately picked up our rental car and drove the 2 hours to Chania (pronounced Hania). Our host met us around 10:00 pm and we were all ready for bed after our day of travels.

The next morning we took advantage of our great location in the town to walk around the quaint town of Chania. We were only 10 minutes away to a wonderful breakfast overlooking the water. Olivia tried Greek coffee and said it tasted like dirt. Back to safe cappuccino’s…… After breakfast, we walked to the port area and the lighthouse, then into the town. There were hundreds of small restaurants that not only surrounded the water but were on every street, alley, and corner. So many of them were decorated so cute and the menus looked awesome. It would be fun to just come here and try as many restaurants as possible! We did a little shopping and then grabbed a take-away gyro, which was excellent and only cost 2.50 Euros. The prices are much better in Crete than Mykonos! We had a lovely day walking around the town, but that evening we realized that rain was forecasted for the next 4-5 days! Note to self- always check the weather right before you land so you can make the most of each day.

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The next day was sunny enough for us to drive to Elafonissi Beach. It was about 1 ½ hour drive and was worth it. The roads are not too bad as we took the road that cuts through the mountain area and not the “scenic” route. This beach is known for pink sand, but there isn’t a ton of it left. However, it was easy to find the pink sand if you looked for it.

IMG_1164The best part of this beach was that it was giant and had water on 2 sides. It was the most gorgeous blue waters and on one side the water was only ankle to shin deep for 75-100 yards. The colors of the water were breathtaking. We planned on spending the day there so we splurged on an umbrella and 4 chairs. This cost us about 12 Euros. There was a snack bar there, but we packed our lunch for the day.

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We had read some trip advisor reviews from the previous week with people complaining about how crowded this beach was. Don’t believe them. This has to be one of the largest beaches I have ever visited so there was room for all. Do not miss this beach when on Crete!IMG_1214

The next day was supposed to be the last day of sunshine and we wanted to try a close beach and then possibly a snorkeling/ boat ride in the afternoon. We drove over to Stavros Beach. There was an old Venetian Limestone Quarry located on the point that was fun to climb on. We were surprised at how empty it was and later we learned it was because we were on the smaller beach that was 800 m from the main beach. Off the beach there was one small place to enter without rocks and the sand was soft. There was a small café and beach chairs and umbrellas to rent. We were blessed with sunshine and took advantage of it for a couple of hours.

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We ate our lunch and then headed back to the marina area to hopefully grab a boat before the rain. The boat captains are all friendly and willing to cut a deal to get you on their boat. Our initial plan was to take the three-hour tour to snorkel by the sunken German plane. Unfortunately with the impending storm, they were only offering one-hour boat rides to a nearby small island.

We jumped on for 25.00 Euros for our whole family (the original price was much higher). We had a fifteen-minute ride over to the island. You were then given 30 minutes to swim over to the beach, snorkel, or just swim in the water and then you had a 15 minute ride back. If you don’t have your swimsuit on, then you just sit on the boat. Our boat guide threw some bread in to make the fish come up next to the girls while they floated and close to Michael while he snorkeled. Snorkeling rating from Michael for this was a 1 out of 5. The girls enjoyed floating on the inner tubes though. After swimming, everyone was offered a beautiful platter of fresh fruits and of course Raki (basically a Greek shot of alcohol).   It was a “cute” ride for 5.00 Euros per person, but I wouldn’t want to pay more than that.

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Today was Michael’s 50th birthday and we were determined to take him out to a nice restaurant to celebrate. All the restaurants near the water hawk their food trying to reel you into their restaurant. Earlier that day, we had stopped to talk to one of the restaurant guys. He learned our names and asked us to come back at dinner. When it was time for dinner, after much disagreement, we finally opted for the restaurant right on the water of the guy who had learned our names. When we arrived he came up and remembered everyone’s names- quite impressive. This was one of those days when things just didn’t go as smoothly as you would want and the night broke down into unhappy, hungry people who just wanted dinner to be over with so we could get home. Traveling with your family can be great, but 24/7 with anyone can get old.

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In the end, we celebrated Michael’s birthday with a dessert and a candle.  Best looking 50 year old that I know!

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Friday was wine tasting at Manousakis Winery. It was not too far from Chania at all and this was a great thing to do since it was raining today. For 22.00 Euro, we had the light lunch, toured their wine making facility, and had five tastes plus 2 glasses of wine. Emma and Sydney were only 12 Euros because they did not do the wine tasting. The traditional food was fantastic and it was the best Apaki (Cretan smoked pork) that I have had in all of Greece. You do have to book your tour ahead of time if you want to eat there. Before we drove home, we stopped off at a nearby farm and looked at the Ancient Olive Tree.  It is over 2000 years old and is still producing olives!

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Today it was forecasted to rain, so we decided to visit the Agia Sophia Cave of Topolia and the Topolia Gorge that we had seen on our way to Elafonissi Beach. There were 250 steps to get up to the high cave and we were surprised at how large the cave was. There were huge stalagmites and stalactites to see as well as a small church inside. The view of the gorge that we were about to hike was quite impressive. We were not charged anything to go in.

After the cave, we drove to find the Topolia Gorge. The sign for the road to go down was quite hidden and very steep. It might be best to park on the street in town and then walk down. The gorge hike was not too hard, very peaceful, and there were not too many people. We saw many goats on the hills. Michael was starting to not feel well so he and Emma did about an hour of the hike and then turned back. Olivia, Sydney and I ended up going another ½ hour into the gorge. The trail was nicely laid out and the scenery was pleasant. Michael again did a superb job going down and finding a place to park, but getting off of this super steep hill onto a 120 degree blind curve in a manual car caused all of us to sweat a lot! This is not for the faint of heart.

Today we left rainy Chania to drive over an hour to Balos Beach. It was worth every minute of the drive, even the rough gravel dirt road that had scary cliff drop offs on the side. We parked in the dirt lot at the top and then you have a twenty-minute hike down the side of the hill. About 10-12 minutes into the hike, you are surprised by the most stunning view of Balos Beach. Of course, we stopped to take pictures before finishing the hike. There were mule taxis for hire if you wanted them to take you down or back up. Once down on the beach we were hit with massive winds. We camped out behind a small sand dune to cut the wind down and then it was tolerable. Truly this is one of the most beautiful beaches in Crete. A must see if you come here!

Our last full day in Crete, we decide to take on one of the most recommended things to do here, the 16 km hike through Samaria Gorge ending at Agia Roumeli Beach. This is the longest gorge in Europe! Michael is not feeling well at all, but he decided to push through anyway. Instead of taking the public bus from Chania, we read reviews that informed us we can actually drive there. It saved us a decent amount of money and the timing is about the same. We left our apartment around 7:45 and arrive at 8:45 in the parking lot right in front of several tour busses. We grabbed our 5 Euro tickets into this National park (ticket booth is before the parking lot). I highly recommend a jacket for the first 30 minutes of the hike as it was so cold at the top. We began our descent into this striking gorge around 9:15. Sydney did this completely downhill hike in about 4 1/2 hours. Olivia was not too far behind her and the rest of us finished in about 5 hours. There was a good amount of shade on the hike, so it was not too hot. There were only a few flat path-like sections going down. There are mainly rocks and boulders so I recommend thick-soled tennis shoes or something even better like hiking boots.

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My tennis shoes were pretty thin and I could definitely feel the rocks through them.   I saw a few people slip and fall including Emma. Michael will probably lose a toenail from this hike. It is all downhill, but fairly strenuous and long. You are rewarded with a black sand beach and the refreshing Libyan Sea to jump into at the end of this hike.

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After resting on the beach for a while, we grabbed an early dinner overlooking the water before catching our 5 pm ferry to the town of Sougia. Once at Sougia, we caught a forty-five minute van ride back to the beginning of the gorge at Omalos. Then we had our hour drive back to the apartment. This was a twelve hour day no matter how you go, but a day that we accomplished hiking the longest gorge in Europe!

We drove to the town of Rythymno the next day and explored the Venetian harbor and looked up at the mighty Fortress (built in 1573) on the hill. We also had one of the best meals in Crete at To Pigadi. Everyone loved this restaurant- highly recommend!

Crete was sooooo awesome.  The whole family loved it and we only explored one corner.  We would all love to come back again!

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After exploring the shops in Rythymno, we headed back to Herkalion where we will be catching a late flight to Athens. Acropolis, here we come!

 

 

Mykonos-Greece

Mykonos, Greece- Part 1

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Getting to Greece from Amalfi was another planes, trains and automobiles type of day. Caught the 9:00 am bus to Sorrento, caught the 10:45 train to Naples, caught the Alibus to the Naples airport, caught the 2:00 plane to Athens and then caught the 7:00 plane to Mykonos. We landed at 7:45, grabbed our rental car, grabbed some groceries and met our Airbnb host so we could follow her to her home. WOW! Truly planes, trains, and automobiles!!!!!!!

We are so glad our host met us, as the roads are very small, not much street lighting and not many signs. As we drove up the tiny road to her home it was almost pitch black. Of course, when we arrived, the pool was lit up and we could see the lights of the city. It was already awesome and we hadn’t even seen it in daytime yet. By far, the most stunning place we have stayed in and our host was a nice as she could be.

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The next morning, we got to appreciate our most stunning view of any AirBNB place that we have rented so far. We paid more for this place, but boy was it worth this view! Our first day, we just stayed at our place enjoying the view and relaxing by the pool.

Mykonos is known as the party island and many people rent ATV’s to drive around the island. It is a fairly small island and if we only had 2 people, the ATV would be really fun to use and easy to park. As a family of 5, it was more economical to rent a car.  It is also one of the more expensive islands in Greece.  We packed our lunch every day and cooked dinner almost every night.  We ate some of the best pita bread and hummus here!

The rest of the week, we explored many of the beaches that Mykonos has to offer. Michael will do a special blog on each beach and what we like and didn’t like about them.IMG_6587

Mykonos town was one of the cutest towns I have seen on our travels. I loved the pattern on the streets through the town, the colorful homes, quaint shops, and even the windmills.  There were bright flowers, cute alleys, and bright gates which made for great photos.

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We stopped at a local bakery, Giora’s Wood Medieval Bakery, to grab homemade baklava and coffee one of the days while in town.

There were cats everywhere in Mykonos and of course we had to stop and pet most of them.  They even just wandered into our pics.

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I hiked twice to this beautiful lighthouse that was about 30 minutes from our house.  This is where I witnessed one of the most fabulous sunsets ever!  You can see a little bit of it in the lighthouse picture below.

 

More to come on Mykonos……..

Amalfi Coast- Stunning

The Amalfi Coast

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The Amalfi Coast

Getting there was not difficult, but not easy either. We caught the early train from Rome to Sorrento, which lasted several hours. Then we took a different the Circumvensivia “express” train line to Sorrento for 8 Euros per person. 6 and under are free and the ticket guy insisted that Emma was 6 and didn’t sell us a ticket for her. J This train ride was about 1 hour. Then we caught the SITA bus to Nerano. All of these sound quite easy, but you must take into consideration the craziness of the stations, the lack of people to ask questions, the train platforms changing, changing train lines completely, the 100’s of people in line for Amalfi buses and no one quite knowing what to do, many busses coming and going, no clear signage, and Italian ticket sellers not being super clear about where to stand to catch your bus, etc.

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The busses were packed- here is Olivia making a friend as we rode for 2 hours.

We stood on one side of the street (where we were told to stand) for about 15 minutes and finally met one other “tourist” that was also going to Nerano. Nerano is a very small village that very few tourists stay in. We finally asked some teenagers who lived there if we were getting on the right bus to confirm what we were guessing. If we wouldn’t have been proactive, we would have totally missed the bus by standing where he told us to stand. One thing we have learned is to “just go ask”. It is ok to look a little dumb and not miss a bus, train, or plane!

After a 40- minute bus drive through curvy scenic roads with unbelievable ocean views, we arrived in our tiny village to our super cute apartment. It was so tastefully decorated in blue and white ocean/ beach themes. Within the first few minutes, the girls were asking for the wifi password- uh oh- Not seeing it or even a router in the apartment. This was the beginning of the most frustrating airbnb experience we have had. I had specifically emailed before booking to make sure we would have wifi as Michael needed to work and it is our primary way of keeping in contact with family and friends while abroad. Long story short, they owners brought up an ipad air with unlimited data to create a hot spot for us which would only work if we were all huddled upstairs within 2 feet of each other and if only 1-2 people were connected at a time. This also made it difficult for us to book our next leg of the trip.

Nerano itself is a tiny village that is not touristy at all. I actually liked it a lot. There are some tourists, but not many. We had 2 tiny markets within 15 yards of our front door and it was about a 20 minute downhill walk to the rocky beach with nice restaurants over the water. Also, the entrance to our favorite experience was only 30 yards from our front door. The first afternoon, we walked to the beach and grabbed a late lunch in a cute snack bar over the water. I had a wonderful caprese salad and everyone else enjoyed their meal as well. Then, we rented 3 beach chairs for 10 Euros. The small bay was beautiful and picturesque. The next day we found the awesome hike that was right by our apartment. It was a 40 minute walk/hike along the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We arrived on the other side right onto our favorite tiny beach located in a marine preserve.

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Our favorite “secret” beach in Nerano

It was almost a private beach for about an hour and then more and more people showed up. The girls decided to take a kayak tour with a marine biologist and were able to see a blue grotto while they kayaked. This was one of our favorite days on the coast.

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Private kayaking tour with a marine biologist

The following 2 days we visited Poisitano and the town of Amalfi. First, we went to Poisitano. Unfortunately, to get there, we had to go all the way back to the town of Sorrento first and then grab another bus to get to Poisitano. Not sure I would have booked 4 nights in Nerano if I would have known that, but we just had to deal with it.   I had heard wonderful things about this town and it was bustling with many tourists and shops. We shopped and walked around for a while.

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Beach in the town of Amalfi
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View in the town of Amalfi

The following day was the town of Amalfi. It took us almost 2 hours with the 2 different busses. The roads are amazingly and shockingly curvy and it is a true wonder how these bus drivers manage these tiny roads and 90 degree curves. The coast is stunning and I am so glad that Michael did not drive here. The roads and drivers are crazy and he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the view. Surprisingly, Amalfi town was my least favorite thing we did on the Amalfi Coast. The town wasn’t as cute as Poisitano and since we weren’t hiking, the only thing for us to do was hang out on the beach or shop- which we did both. It was nice to be on the beach, but we could have done that in Nerano. It took us over 2 ½ hours to get home because we had several delays on the road back. We had one 20-minute stand off between our bus and another bus headed the opposite direction. We came to an impasse where neither of us could back up and we could not pass each other. We were literally stuck. There was some yelling in Italian as they were trying to get others to back up. Finally, after 15 minutes, enough cars moved that the two busses eeked by each other within centimenters- CENTIMETERS! I believe these bus drivers have a very hard job! I hope they pay them well!

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View from the bus as it tries to pass another truck- not enough room!

Our last night in Nerano, we decided to visit one of the nicer restaurants over the water. White tablecloths and spectacular views with the water lapping gently was the atmosphere here. One of the priciest places we have eaten since we left home. I ordered the mixed fried fish plate. How could this Louisiana girl go wrong? Well, in Italy, very wrong! I was served a plate of lightly fried whole shrimp (as in you can still see the whole shrimp fried- shells, eyes, antennas, legs, everything), fried calamari (I think), AND fried tiny whole fish. I cannot eat any fish that even has a hint of fishiness. I look at the tiny fish and called the waiter over and asked, “What are these?” The waiter replies, “These are little fishies.” “Umm, are these anchovies? Because, I do not like anchovies.” The waiter replies, “I don’t know what you are saying, these are the little fishies that we serve.” Ugh- ok. I know I am not going to like these, but Michael encourages me to at least try them. Okay….. so I pop a whole “fishy” into my mouth and immediately pop the whole FISHY FISH right back out- Nope- I cannot eat these “little fishy fish”. I called the owner over and explain. She brings me out a nice fillet of sea bass and proceeds to charge me for both plates. Yep- now it’s really the most expensive meal this trip. Oh well…..

Overall, Nerano was a nice experience and a wonderful place to visit for a night or two. I would not make it a home base to see the bigger towns on the Amalfi Coast though.

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Nerano at night

Next time, I would do Pompeii on the way into town and I would stay in Sorrento or Poistano. The Amalfi Coast was beautiful and I would come back again for sure!

We had some great music on the train as we left the coast……..

 

Rome- “My Favorite City”

Rome: “My Favorite City”-OliviaIMG_0663

Olivia said, “So far, this is my favorite city!” There is so much to do and see in Rome. We allotted 3 nights, 2 ½ days and we were able to hit some of the highlights, but we easily could have spent another 2-3 days seeing some more sights in this city. Everywhere you turn there are statues, monuments, marble, 2000 year old ruins, churches with gold, mosaics, frescos and more. These are things that you just cannot see in America. THE HISTORY…

We arrived by train around noon and grabbed a quick lunch in the train station cafeteria. After we got our food, we noticed everyone’s trays were full of at least 3 dishes. We discovered, too late, that they had a special of 3 dishes for 11.90. Oh well…we should probably learn to read Italian!

There was a bus strike going on until 2 pm. We had already determined to take a taxi to our hotel- good thing since no buses were running. This seems to be a common occurrence since on the day we left Rome; there was another bus strike.

We finally were able to use some Marriott points in Rome, but the negative was we were 45 minutes outside of Rome. So, we just had to plan our days around that.

After we checked into our hotel room, we headed out via the hotel shuttle to the city. We were dropped off close to the Castel D’Angelo and walked straight across the river to Piazza Navona. This Piazza was busy with tourists now, but in the past has been a stadium, palace, and a home. It is enormous and has 3 huge fountains in the square. Unfortunately for us, only the center one was running. We seem to be striking out on the fountains this trip!   The center one is called the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and was an amazing fountain. Each side of the circular fountain represented the 4 major rivers that were recognized at the time; the Ganges in Asia, the Rio de la Plata in America, the Danube in Europe, and the Nile in Africa. We walked completely around to see all the different sides, as it was quite fascinating.IMG_2706

Next, we headed to the Pantheon. You have to understand that this building was built in 27 BC!!!!!! When you know that, it has to be one of the most impressive things you see here. Stand in the center and look in amazement at how beautiful and incredible this structure is at 2040 years old. Unbelievable!IMG_6457

We continued our walk toward the Trevi Fountain. We arrived after a short walk to barricades all the way around and guards standing there to prevent people from getting close. They were not allowing anyone down close to the water at all AND not all of the water was flowing from the fountain either. We still took some pictures and the girls all threw in some money so that they can return to the “eternal city”.Now it was time for some more Italian food. We needed to find it quickly as Sydney and Michael had soccer tickets to see Rome versus Milan. We ended up grabbing some food near the Piazza Navano and it was quite good. Sydney had her first cappuccino ever and loved it. No one could believe that this coffee shop loving girl had never had a cappuccino, but she hadn’t.IMG_6437

Michael and Sydney grabbed a super expensive Uber (70 Euros) to get to the game on time and Olivia, Emma, and I relaxed at our table until it was time to grab our hotel shuttle at 9 pm. Unfortunately, Emma has been fighting a cold for a few days and it has now turned into a full-blown fever and her not feeling well at all. Tomorrow is not looking so good for Emma to do anything.

Michael and Sydney got home around midnight from the game. The score was 0-0, so not a lot of excitement. Sydney enjoyed seeing the game though and they both said they had “the best gelato they have ever had” after the game as they waited for the Uber prices to drop.

We all slept later the next day and Emma was too sick to go anywhere. Michael volunteered to stay with her and the girls and I took a taxi at 11:00 to tour the Castel. This is the amazing circular building that is near Vatican City and was originally built as the tomb of the Roman emperor Hadrian between 134-137 AD.  Later it was a military fortress, a castle, a prison, and a place for the Pope to escape to during sieges. Fantastic views were to be had from the rooftop. I highly recommend a stop in here. Plan on at least 2-3 hours here because it is huge.IMG_0972

 

We had 3:00 tickets to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. There is so much art on the ceiling walking to the Sistine Chapel, it is actually sensory overload.  We also walked down several other halls with statues and busts that were anywhere from 200-1000 years old. There was also a whole room dedicated to their Egyptian artifacts that the Vatican owns. Mummies, statues, jewelry and more. The tapestries are always some of my favorite things to see. Again, the history…..IMG_6434

 

After the Sistine Chapel, we wanted to walk into St. Peter’s Basilica. When leaving the Sistine Chapel, the easiest way is to go out to the right. We accidentally exited left which began to take us all the way back through the Vatican Museum- noooo! Well, the guard let us back in so we didn’t have to walk all the way around the outer Vatican wall. We literally walked/ran back through the whole Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel just so we could exit to the right. So, the girls can now say that they have been to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel twice. We rushed to the entrance of St. Peters (we thought it was closing in 5 minutes), just to be caught by the guard at the entrance telling Olivia and Sydney that they could not go in the church with shorts on. Fortunately before we left, Michael warned the girls about this and they each had packed leggings in their backpack. So, we stood right outside the doors while each of the girls slipped on leggings over what they had on. The guard smiled at the girls as Olivia also put on a jacket and he told them that their “upstairs” was fine, they just needed to fix the downstairs. Haha! It was funny and not too comfortable, but it allowed them to go in. We saw several people turned away who did not have back up clothes and some very creative people putting on sweatshirts upside down to make a “skirt”.

We arrived right at 5:30 when they were having a service at the very front. The singing was very beautiful as it echoed throughout the magnificent building. We sat in some chairs to rest our feet and to reverently listen to the singing. St. Peters is one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. It truly is breath taking and awe-inspiring.

When we returned from our day, Emma was still not feeling great and it was looking like it would be my turn to stay home the next day. Emma was so bummed to not be able to explore Rome because she loves history so much.

The next morning, Emma woke up and was determined to go. She ate a good breakfast, took some ibuprofen, and headed out with the family. She did NOT want to miss the Coliseum!! Our plan for today was the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum. We decided to do the Coliseum first and as we were picking up our tickets, I asked if they happen to have any underground tours available (I had tried for weeks to get these, but they were all sold out). Surprisingly, he said YES! Yay! That was one of my top 3 things I wanted to do on our travels. We needed to come back at noon, so off we went to tour the Forum and Palatine Hill. We only had about 1 hour and 45 minutes, which for the McFadden family, wasn’t enough time to see it all. We paid for the audio tour here and it was truly a waste of money. Many things didn’t have a number and several of the things we listened to were completely outdated. Definitely save your money and don’t purchase the audio tour for the forum. Take the money saved and use it for the underground tour at the Coliseum. We met our guide, a enthusiastic archeologist, at noon for a fabulous tour of the Coliseum floor (newly built), the underground area where they would keep the animals and elevators for the animals, and up top to see from above. The underground tour was so informative and worth every penny. When we first walked through the arches onto the floor of the Coliseum, my heart dropped and my stomach flipped. Looking up at the huge stands, trying to imagine the 50,000-70,000 people, what it may have felt like to be a gladiator that was about to fight for my life, where the crowds may determine whether I lived or died that day, was crazy and scary to think about. I truly can’t imagine, but I tried.

Everyone agreed that the Coliseum was our favorite thing we did in Rome- hands down!

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After the Coliseum, we stopped at a “fancy” restaurant with white tablecloths to grab some lunch. We had pizza and lasagna- we really do love Italian food! Afterwards, we walked to the Spanish Steps to see them and the “sinking boat” fountain. We met a friendly restaurant owner and he wanted us to come to dinner at his restaurant. He said that it is very difficult to find true authentic food in Rome, but his restaurant had it. He was such a delightful man; too bad we had to catch an earlier shuttle back or we would have eaten there. We decided to grab some gelato near the Spanish Steps and it was actually the worst gelato that we have had in all of our travels. It was freezer burnt, so obviously not fresh- too bad. We headed back to the hotel for an early dinner and to pack to leave tomorrow for the Amalfi Coast.IMG_6448

Rome was fast and furious, but oh so good. One day, I am sure we will be back.

Cinque Terra and the Police-Again!

Cinque Terra…Beaches, Rain, and the Police-AGAIN

We spent a mere 2 days in Cinque Terra, mainly because we heard all of the wonderful things about the area and because we had carved out an extra two days in Italy. Cinque Terra is an area of towns, all built centuries ago into the mountain ranges that border beautiful beaches interspersed with rocky coastlines and mountain ranges. Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands, comprise the five small coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Given time, I suppose you could hike from town to town for weeks.

We stayed in La Spezia, the largest of the towns on the edge of Cinque Terra and the one that the train stops in from Rome. Our accommodation was great and our Airbnb host couldn’t have been better. The town itself reminds me of any small American town eclipsed by progress and Wal-Mart. Downtown has remnants of yester-year, although there are several restaurants and a bustling evening crowd bent on exploring and socializing to pass the time. It is quaint and a good town to walk through the streets and to the harbor.IMG_0412

Our first night, we explored Riomaggiore, a town built for commerce, but now surviving solely on tourists. The ambience is like most 100% tourist towns. The locals hate the tourists invading their towns and are rude and short with all customers. It is interesting, as these towns disappear without these same tourists. I asked several of the locals who we purchased services from, “Do you hate/are sick of all the tourists?” All, without hesitation, said “yes.” And their attitudes show it. So, be prepared on visits to Venice, Florence (to some degree) and Cinque Terra to be treated as a “tourist”. We were pelted with rain for hours while there, but nevertheless explored the walking paths and ending up finding a pizza joint in a downpour for dinner. Like a lot of their restaurants this one had 1 table, so we stood while enjoying a pizza and sandwich.IMG_0416

The next day, God blessed us with perfect weather…sun and pleasant temps, so we trained to Monterosso for a great beach day. There is a very nice public beach carved from fantastic mountains and rock formations. While crowded and rocky, the water was refreshingly cool and very salty. We needed a day to beach, rest our feet and minds. If you choose to come to the mid-country beaches, this one is a good one for swimming and lounging.IMG_0446.JPG

That night I returned early to our apartment to make a call and the girls enjoyed a local restaurant with some very interesting and tasty pizza. Halfway through my call, I was interrupted with breathless girls running in the apartment, locking the door, and staring wide-eyed at me. Turns out that 3 men had slinked their way into the apartment building just as the door was closing. All of the girls “knew” that something wasn’t right by their body language and were all thinking the same thing without even saying a word.  God’s angels were with us, for an old lady had walked in right before them and was taking her time getting into the tiny elevator. The men were awkwardly standing in the foyer, apparently waiting for something. As the older lady slowly got into the elevator, the girls all ran up the stairs as fast as they could to gain some ground on the hoodlums and arrive safely into the apartment. Otherwise, I would have had to throw my Cajun Kung-Fu Survivalist Knife wielding craziness on them! We could hear them outside the apartment and on the stairs. They stayed outside the apartment covering the eyehole, and menacingly pointing a laser pointer into the eyehole while they figured out how to penetrate the apartment. I rehearsed the conversation that I soon was to have with the police behind the door but loud enough for them to hear, and heard them flee, dropping a pipe or some metal object (which was certainly meant for no good) and running out the door as they heard my “Polizzi” discussion. This fake call was followed by a real call to the actual polizzi, which we were fortunate to meet and share our experience minutes later. I must say it was un-nerving to not know whether bad guys were standing outside the apartment to jump me when I exited to let the police in, but we all faced our fear and just flung open the door and ran to the police when they arrived. I am proud of Olivia – she stood ready with kitchen knives in each hand to take on any intruder. It probably wouldn’t have ended well if she had had to use them, but she wasn’t going down without a fight. We conversed through iPhone Google translate to give a description of the bad guys and the police left, knowing that nothing would come from their stop.IMG_1281

Perhaps I’m jaded from a lot of travel, but I left unimpressed with Cinque Terra. The towns were old and shabby vs. old and picturesque, the views less than stellar, and the food left something to be desired. However, all the girls loved La Spezia town and they also really enjoyed Cinque Terra. Sherri commented that she would have liked to stay another day to actually do a hike that they are famous for. I don’t think it would be a place I personally would visit again. There are too many other, better places to travel to. The positives are there are some nice beaches and good cliff views as you hike the walking paths, but there are thousands of these places across Europe. So, we leave Cinque Terre with rain, beaches, and police (again), and a few memories and pictures to carry with us. On to RomeIMG_0584.JPG

Michael

Florence- the beautiful, small city

Florence- the beautiful, small cityIMG_2538

We had a warm welcome by our hosts and were ready to start our day in this wonderful city.  Our Airbnb was in Santo Spirito, just across the river from the main square.  It was a super convenient and safe area, highly recommended for those wanting to visit the city. Right outside our door was the huge church and a busy square with plenty of restaurants and bars.  The nighttime was quite active every evening, which was fun until we were ready for bed and the noise, stayed quite loud… sometimes until 3 am! It is tradition for everyone in Florence to visit in the square after work, and then join each other eating, drinking, and socializing for hours. The Italians are quite the social people. We noticed few were tethered to their mobile devices, but all were very engaged with their friends!

Everyone decided to do another free walking tour to get acquainted with the city and learn some history.  This tour guide was nice, but he seemed bored and the tour was adequate, but not awesome.  We were able to learn some interesting facts about Florence, the Medici family, and get our bearings for the city.  Talk about legacy, the Medici family has it. From leaders in the business community, national and local politicians, to 2 Popes, this family built centuries long empire that spanned many generations, and impacted Italy as no other family has.

Our walking tour ended by one of the many churches and close to a very popular Panini shop, All’ Antico Vianio. We stood in a line that was about 50 people deep on both sides of the street to get a super fresh, homemade focaccia bread sandwich, with fresh tomatoes, cheese, and wonderful selections on meat! Most of the sandwiches were $5 euro, which explained the lines! The owners of this business know panini, speed, and exceptional quality food. There were hundreds of people moving in and out of the restaurant (there are only about 20 seats), sitting on the sidewalk for about a block, eating these sandwiches.  We all got our own, but they were huge and we could have easily feasted on half.  It’s a stop that any visitor should make.IMG_6339

Highlights of our visit…

The Duomo in central Florence is mobbed by tourists from morning until night…for good reason. It provides stunning 360-degree views of the city, as well as one of the best frescos in Florence. The Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, “Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower“) is a marvel of ancient engineering, as it was the first dome structure completed (in 1436) and based on technology that no one at time believed was possible. The dome is made of two domes with thousands of bricks held together by engineering alone…no nails or stucco. Amazingly, it was built by the design of Arnolfo di Cambio and engineered by Brunelleschi, with a façade designed by 19th-century by Emilio De Fabris. Truly striking and something you can see nowhere else. A must see and the story within the fresco is a captivating story of heaven and of hell, painted for two years before it’s completion.

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View from the top of the Duomo
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The tower next to the Duomo

Eat local. There are so many tourist traps in Florence, but there are many great local places. Find one. Go hungry. Eat a lot. One of our favorites, La Trattoria, served up freshly made pasta, vegetables, lasagna, tomato caprese, and more by chefs that have been doing this for decades. I saw them, and they have been there for decades. This is one of many, and it is worth the hunt for great. Sherri, Olivia, and Sydney had a wine tasting lunch, in which the food rivaled the wine. We learned quickly to enjoy our cappuccino and coffee standing, as there is a limit of $1.75 on coffee standing, but sitting fees can be anything. Needless to say, we enjoyed a lot of standing coffees!

Accademia. The David by Michelangelo is worth the visit. As the lines are long and often the museum is sold out, go across the street for extra priced tickets to see it “same day”. While there are amazing works of art throughout the museum, The David takes the prize. Captivating.

The Uffizi. Included are works by great Italian artists such as Botticelli, Giotto, Cimabue, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello, just to name a few of the most famous. Its enormous collection has works from all centuries but a large part dates to the periods between the 12th and 17th centuries. There was something impressive to everyone in our family, even those who aren’t history and art lovers. We allocated about 2 hours for the walk through, but needed an additional hour for the long lines to go in. It’s a top 5 for Florence.

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The ceilings are always amazing!  You can’t forget to look up.  And the Statues….. wow

Wandering through the city to enjoy centuries old architecture and some of the most exquisite doors that you will see anywhere. All are unique and sport an incredible breadth of wood, styles, door knockers, and metal, wood, and ornamental trim. As most of the housing is in the city, we ran out of time before we ran out of doors.

Gelato- had it almost every day!

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One of the friendliest gelato places- 1 block from Duomo

 

Michelangelo’s hill. Worth a short hike to climb, the hill provides a view of the old Roman walls used to protect legions stationed in Florence centuries ago, and the city of Florence. Sydney and Sherri walked up there one evening. They just missed the sun set, but it was beautiful and there were still enough lights to see the city. It was also dark enough to see everything as it began to light up. Sherri highly recommends this short hike. There is a working monastery there, but it wasn’t much to see.

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View from Michelangelo’s Hill- see the Duomo in the far right corner

Florence is a wonderful city- one of my favorites!

Michael

Planes, Buses, and Water Taxi’s-Venice

Planes, Buses, and Water Taxi’s-Venice

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So after our plane flight, we had to ride a bus for about 1 hour, and then grab the public water taxi. Getting to Venice was quite an ordeal and rather expensive. The town on the water is so cute and different because there are no other cities directly on the water. The water taxi was very slow let me tell you, and stops very often. The boat is also very crowded and smells like BO. Awesome…. Anyways, once we got off at San Marco square, we decided to grab something to eat. When we got off we walked past the big beautiful church, Basilica San Marco, that is central Venice I would say. We walked to the left of the church down an alleyway and picked the second restaurant in. They told us we could sit right away, but then accidentally had someone in front of us, so they popped open a bottle of Prossecco. I didn’t mind! It was delicious and we got to sit like 7 min later, so it wasn’t a big deal. The food was really good and the bread was fresh. Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese – mmmmh my favorite mix. After we ate, we decided to head to the JW Marriott hotel. It was on an island and took about 20 minutes by water taxi to get to. It was an absolutely stunning hotel and one of the nicest I have ever been in. They upgraded us to suites with our own private balconies-thanks Dad for the perks!IMG_0877

It felt so clean and nice… we decided to hit the pool because it was so hot outside and we all wanted to rest. You don’t realize how tiring traveling is. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it does get tiring. We ended up just chilling there until we got dinner. We headed back over to main Venice and decided to pick a random restaurant because we thought they were all closing. Bad idea… Emma and I enjoyed our pasta, but no one else liked his or her food very much. And they ended up charging us for extra pasta, although Emma and I had asked to share. We also ordered a bottle of wine, and they brought us out the wrong, cheaper bottle and tried to pretend that was the bottle we ordered. We weren’t very happy and he kept trying to tell us that this is what we ordered, until he finally said they were out of that bottle… Didn’t think that was hard to say. Anyways, I would not recommend coming here. (Although I cant remember what it was called. Ha-ha not very helpful, but I believe it had a red covering with two tables underneath it. Than as people came they added tables down the alleyway.)

We headed home because we were all tired and ready for bed. We woke up leisurely the next morning, had a phenomenal buffet breakfast at the hotel and then headed over to Venice again. We walked around the city a bit. Honestly there wasn’t that much there, or at least where we were. It was just a bunch of empty buildings once we got out of the touristy part.

All the gondolas were running and how can you go to Venice and not ride one. We saw a sign for a decent price for all of us (80 Euros) and walked over to the first driver we saw and asked if he could take us for that price. He quoted a price almost double and we said we saw a sign for cheaper. He quickly threw up his hand and waved it at us saying “Whatever, we give the best rides, go away…” umm obviously you don’t. So rude! We found a very nice driver who gave us a way better ride for the good price. We really enjoyed the ride, as it was so peaceful and gave a totally different perspective of Venice.IMG_0873

On the note of rudeness versus friendliness- we have been quite surprised at how rude many Italians have been. It has been about 40-50% of everyone we have interacted with. It is quite surprising how many Italians are so irritated with the tourists, but it is what gives many of them jobs in the touristy areas. So far, out of Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, and Italy, Ireland has been by far the friendliest.

Generally overall, Venice was cool to visit at least once in your life. There truly is no other city like it. However, I would not recommend spending a lot of time there and I would recommend planting in Florence and just training over for the day. It would be a lot cheaper to do that instead of the way we did it. One night and one day were just right for our family. We took the late train out to Florence and arrived around 9 pm. We checked into our next Airbnb and met with our super friendly hosts who were very helpful and informative. This place was quite spacious and even had a small pool table. Tomorrow- we’ll explore all that Florence has to offer and maybe learn how to play pool!

Olivia and Sherri

PickPockets…Watch Out!

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Backpack with lock on it

Many, many places we have visited have had signs to watch out for pickpockets. They love to prey upon the tourists. I am sure because they are extremely easy targets. We saw signs in Paris, Venice, and Florence: any busy place that tourists like to go, places to take pictures, or crowded areas. There are even signs at the bus/train stations- they’ll pick your pockets while you are busy trying to purchase your tickets. We walked around a lot with our backpacks on in front and even resorted to locking our backpacks as well.

Around the Eiffel Tower, there were of course signs to watch out for pickpockets and it is the perfect place for them around and near the Eiffel Tower. Wow, super crowded, people bumping into each other, and jam-packed with tourists. A young nicely dressed guy got really close to me and Michael saw him (I didn’t). Michael got really close to him and he scooted away. We stopped and watched him pretending to take selfies with his selfie-stick.   We pointed him out to the girls and Michael told them, “Girls, if he is here when we get down from the Eiffel Tower, we will know for sure that he is a pick-pocket.” Sure enough, over an hour later, there he was, right out front, still taking selfies. We stared him down enough that he got nervous and crossed the street. Pickpocket attempt #1

The next day, Sydney and Olivia were in McDonalds grabbing something and Sydney heard her zipper on her bag unzip. She turned around quickly and 2 ladies were behind her and acted very strangely- (pick pocket #2 attempt foiled). The last night, we were walking to the metro station and a guy told Michael, “Your bag is unzipped.” Nothing was missing, so we can only assume that Michael must have turned while someone was trying to unzip his bag. (Pick pocket #3 attempt foiled). Good lessons for us all that when you look like a tourist- (not speaking the language, backpacks, trying to figure out subway/bus stations, asking for directions, etc.) that you will be a target and you must take extra precautions. From then on, we have been locking our backpacks and many times putting them on in the front.

 

In Venice, again, warnings about pickpockets were everywhere. Another great place to do this was in San Marco Square. This is the main square and a hub for all the water taxis. The first night we were there, there was a lot of people milling around the square with tables outside and nice music being played. All of a sudden, there was a loud commotion and about 10 young black men all started running through the crowd in all different directions at the exact same time. The one that ran through us pushed on my backpack and grabbed at Michael’s wrist (which was in his pocket, hand on his wallet). It was so fast; that I am sure they stole from several people at that moment. I checked my bag and all was there. (Pick pocket attempt #4 foiled).

In the places we have been so far, it seems that Paris, Venice, and Florence have higher rates of pickpockets with Paris being the worst. So if traveling in these countries, be very, very aware of who is around you and take care to keep your important stuff locked and/or touching your hand at all times.

Sherri

3 Days in Paris

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The Arc in Paris

We took the chunnel Train from London to Paris leaving around 8:30 am and arriving at 11:00. It was a very comfortable ride and we enjoyed sitting at a table facing each other. Emma tried to do some school, but was just too exhausted from our busy week in London, 18 straight late nights, and an early morning. She ended up sleeping most of the ride there.

After arriving, I tried to find the beautiful old train station that was a restaurant, but failed. So, we grabbed a taxi to our place where we were able to drop our bags and head to the Arc De Triomphe. It was much larger than pictures and was worth the 12 Euros to go up. Sydney and Emma were free. There are a ton of steps and my legs were burning and my heart was pumping by the time we got to the top. Good thing I had been working out before I left on my trip- Thanks Faraz!! The view was spectacular and a great place to start our tour of Paris. We had fun looking at the 360-degree view of the city as well as getting some pics in front of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

 

We spent around 45 minutes looking around and then headed toward our next stop of the Eiffel Tower.

We walked for a while and then grabbed a taxi for the last mile. We were all a little hungry, so we grabbed freshly made crepes from a street vendor. Emma and I shared the nutella/coconut one and Sydney and Olivia shared a cheese, mushroom, and ham. We sat in the shade underneath the Eiffel Tower eating our hot off –the griddle crepes.IMG_6282

The Eiffel Tower- Impressive and amazing are two words to describe it. This building was so awesome to see from the ground AND from the top. It is so huge and an unbelievable structure. I am so glad that we purchased the tickets to the summit ahead of time. It was very, very high and a little scary, but so worth it. I can see why it is one of the most visited sites in the world. I can also understand why it has to be one of the most protected. So far out of everything we have seen, it had THE MOST security around it. First, there is a large fence surrounding the base if the tower, then, we had our bags manually checked to get in. After that, our bags went through x-ray as well as we went though a metal detector. Our tickets were checked several times and there were tons of armed soldiers dressed in full camouflage with very intimidating weapons.

At the summit, we walked all around the top and of course took many pictures. It was fairly breezy so we only lasted about 20 minutes at the top.

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The View from the top of the Eiffel Tower- We are so high!

After descending down to the ground, we walked to the park behind the tower to of course take a few more pictures. Sydney said this was her favorite thing that we have done and was on her life long bucket list.

Day 2- The Versailles- this was one of my personal top things that I wanted to do on our travels. I remember reading about this and teaching it to the girls.

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Olivia in one of the many halls of the Versailles

It has to be one of the most opulent, magnificent palaces I have ever seen in my life or ever built. Every room was decorated and gilded with gold. King Louis 1V had a vision for his palace and his country- Wow! The hall of mirrors was everything and more that I thought it would be, but the hall that held all of the military paintings was indescribable. After the palace, we entered the gardens with all of the fountains, the many, many fountains. Some of them were flowing and they had musical fountains going as well. Unfortunately, many of the fountains were not flowing due to water restriction. They ones on the north side would not be turned on until after 4 pm. If I had to go again, I would wait and go later in the afternoon and stay for the later fountains and the night show. Even without many fountains flowing, the gardens were spectacular! If you go to Paris, do not miss the Versailles.

 

Day 3- attempted to go to the Musee D’Orsay but made a rookie mistake and forgot to check the days it was open.

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In front of the Musee D’Orsay

It was closed, but lucky for us the #1 most visited museum in the world (the Louvre) was just across the street. Olivia and Sydney decided to shop, so Michael, Emma, and I went into the Louvre. We only spent 2 hours there, but could have easily spent another 2-3. We entered into the Egyptian section first and were amazed at all they had. We paid extra for the audio tour, but it was actually quite annoying and didn’t talk about enough things. What was on there was good, but there just wasn’t enough information for me and there were so many things that I would have loved to hear more about. Most of the signs were in French, so I just had to wonder. Since this museum has anywhere from 7-8 million visitors a year, I was pretty surprised at the lack of information available on the audio tour. If I came back to Paris, I would go back to the Louvre and allot more time.

After the Louvre, the girls wanted to shop a little more. Michael, Emma, and I wanted to rest our feet, so we found a little café and stopped in for a Cappuccino. This is where we witnessed the shop owner chase a man down and beat him up on the street. Soon after, the police came to investigate. Fortunately, we were not involved in this dispute and didn’t have any interaction with the police. We just watched from afar. That was an exciting coffee break.

We found a great looking noodle place on Yelp that was only a 15-minute walk away. Walked all the way over and ….. It was being remodeled!!!! Talked with the owner and he recommended a Thai place a few doors down. He didn’t steer us wrong. Great food! Our last night in Paris ended with great food and a flashing Eiffel Tower from our balcony.

Lost in London

IMG_9422One of my favorite days in London! On this morning, we split up and went separate ways, mostly out of necessity. Olivia needed to get her hair done and her appointment was 1 hour away, I needed to get my phone looked at AGAIN at the Apple store, and Emma really wanted to see the Changing of the Horse Guards. So, Michael, Sydney, and Emma left around 9:30 to head toward the horses, and Olivia and I left around 9:45. At the corner, Olivia turned left to find her bus stop and I turned right to go to mine.

Olivia and Michael both have a sim card with data, minutes, and texts available to them. I was going “old school”- I did not have a working phone and had to get my directions ahead of time. I actually did great and managed the bus and two tube (subway) transfers to get to the Apple store uneventfully. After about 45 minutes there, we think we have the problem fixed and I should now be able to get wi-fi. There was slight miscommunication with the family on our meeting spot (on my part) and I ended up waiting by the Horse Guards for about 45 minutes. I did get to see them change the guards while I waited. It is interesting the traditions that they keep. After about 45 minutes of waiting, I decided to hit the McDonald’s to get some free wi-fi and try to connect with Michael. No luck- I needed data or minutes for that. In McDonald’s, I sat by a Scottish military man and we began to talk for about 20 minutes. Mostly about America and Trump. It is so fascinating to me to see how the world is fascinated with Trump and how they do not like him. This nice Scottish man also let me text Michael from his phone and they told me they were at the British Museum- the #1 thing to do in London. I told them that I would head over to the British museum to meet them.

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Typical London Street- the kind you might get lost on.

Since I hadn’t eaten lunch, I actually grabbed McDonalds chicken strips, fries, and a coke. Believe it or not, it was actually excellent, or maybe I was really hungry. Then, I set off to find the British museum. I was told it was just up the road… well, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. You see, it had been raining for over an hour and it was quite chilly too. It was not a comfortable or casual stroll to find the museum. I walked about 5 minutes in the pouring rain and hit Trafalgar Square. Made a wrong turn and finally stopped in a store to get directions and grab a map. She informed me that it was only about 15 minutes walk away. Ok, no problem I told myself. It is not raining too hard. Well 35 minutes later, it has not stopped raining, I am pretty wet and I am still not there. Oh, and did I mention I am also carrying my laptop, regular camera, and shoulder bag. However, I was not miserable at all. I was thoroughly enjoying the city, sights, and sounds as I strolled along the London streets in the rain. I popped into a Starbucks again to grab some wi-fi and realized I had passed up my turn. I started off again and remembered that I could also now purchase a sim card (since my phone was fixed) and then call Michael to let him know I was ok and still on my way. Boy did I get an ear full. I learned that the whole family was quite upset and had been searching for me for over 1 hour. They were not pleased with me at all. However, I was in such a great mood from being lost in London, they couldn’t be too mad at me.

I picked up Olivia and Sydney and we headed to Twinings Tea Store that was opened in 1706. We stopped in and tried a few of their teas.IMG_6224

Then we met Michael and Emma over at Bea’s on Bloomsbury Tea house and we were not disappointed. The tea was fabulous! Emma had delicious berry, Sydney had the chamomile, Olivia had the vanilla, and I had the Jasmine. We all agreed it was some of the best tea we have ever had! The girls enjoyed a small cake and cupcake and we all rested ourselves for about an hour.

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Taking a break at Bea’s Tea House

Afterwards, we met our new friends we had met from the Sandeman Walking tour at the Mint Leaf Indian Restaurant. We truly enjoyed getting to know them and their two sons and the food was the best Indian food I have ever had.

We headed home back through Trafalgar Square and got a few pics with some great lighting.

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One of the 4 huge lions at the base of the statue!

So, all in all, it was a great day in London, even though I was “Lost”.

**Lesson- if you go old school, you may get lost, but you just might have a wonderful day!