Ma Ma Ma My Matera

From Amalfi, we were on the road towards Puglia.  Puglia is on the opposite coast of Italy along the Adriatic.  It’s the heel of the boot!  Our trusty driver Chiro, was taking us to our next destination in Savalletri, but first we were scheduled to make a stop in the town of Matera.  These arrangements were made by our Travel Agent, so we didn’t really think much about it until it was happening.  Sure, we’ll stop in this town called Matera for lunch and take a tour.  Why not?  We didn’t do any research and had no idea what was in store for us.

Our first stop in Matera is a little restaurant.  Now its Sunday, and in Europe most towns outside of the touristic areas are pretty much shut down, so arriving at the restaurant we felt like Chiro was dropping us off in some random place.  We were pretty tired of eating restaurant food and even talked about trying to find a small take out place for pizza or something instead.  Nope.  Not today.  Our lunch came with a reservation and the owner was already excitedly meeting and greeting us and showing us to our table.  If you recall back in Rome we accidentally crashed our first First Communion, well now we were about to crash our second.

We were taken to the back room where a large U shaped table had been set for a big family lunch to celebrate the First Communion Kid.  We felt a bit sheepish as we were sat in the party room.  “Let’s just eat and go.” says Monsieur.  No problem here.  We open the menus and recognize that the restaurant serves only local delicacies.  There is only one thing that anyone in our family will eat and it wasn’t the horse steak.  We ordered four orichiette pastas with pomodoro sauce and a tomato salad and crossed our fingers.

The Little Kid with a view of the party action

Pretty soon after the First Communion partiers were staring to arrive and we were most definitely under-dressed.  The invitation must have indicated semi-formal because there were suits and sequins and we were in shorts and sundresses.  Eat quick my family, eat quick.  As the guests arrived to claim seats at the fancy table they all took one look at us with sheer bewilderment and tried to figure out who we were related to.  Guess who?  NO ONE!  We need to get out of here.

Set up in the corner was a chef hard at work.  We learned that as a special event for the party he was making fresh made mozzerella.  When our tomato salad arrived, I stepped in it and asked if the mozzerella was made by the hard at work chef.  The owner swooned, OH NO it wasn’t and now I was going to impose myself further on this poor kid’s First Communion and have to steal some of his fresh made mozza.  Who were these Canadian asses!  To make matters EVEN worse, the owner made us sit and wait for the mozzarella to be ready further ingratiating ourselves to this family.  Finally he came over with a very large braid of this fresh made cheese, which we now all had to eat so as not to further offend.  It was A LOT of cheese.  Wowzers.  We Canadians know how to make an impression.

FINALLY, we were fed.  Bill paid.  And we were free to depart leaving the lovely family to celebrate in peace.  Outside we met our guide, who also was welcomed by the family with a glass of Prosecco.  To be fair though, he is from Matera and he went to school with a guy who was related to the woman who was the mother of the friend of the kid who was having their First Communion (or something like that).

Our Guide was a sweet Materan (Materite?  Materian?  Guy from Matera?) and we had to break it to him gently that we were all a bit tired and maybe not up for the full three hour tour he had planned.  Expecting to see yet another old town and some Basilicas, we thought it might be good to end a little early so we could get to Puglia sooner.  Well, the Guide looked a bit sheepish.  “I’ll try.” he said.  Great, we’re really on a roll today.

On we walked with our guide as he explained that Matera is one of the oldest continually habited settlements in the world with people living in this place since about 10,000 BC. Wait, what?  And just a minute later, we had crossed the square in front of the Church and came to a viewpoint above The Sassi. It took our breath away.

The Sassi is a massive settlement of cave dwellings that is now spread 180 degrees in front of us.  Beyond it is a gorge and on the far side of the gorge more ancient caves.  It’s breathtaking in its scale and historical significance.  The Sassi caves have been built up in the front to create more space and a modern facade/ entryway.  They are stacked above one another, a maze of Escher-like lanes and staircases winding through the settlement.  We were stunned and realized that we were asses for telling our guide to rush us through this.

Explaining that in the early 1950’s, The Sassi was considered an embarrassment to the Italian government in this relatively poor part of Italy due to the poor living conditions.  So they moved all the inhabitants out into new and modern apartment buildings, destroying the vibrant and collaborative communities that existed here.  Now, many people are moving back to the Sassi.  Modernizing the caves and opening restaurants and hotels among the neighbourhoods.

The Sassi in Matera is a living film set.  It was featured in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.  It also stood in for ancient Jerusalem in the Passion of the Christ.  

The caves are amazing dwellings.  We toured an historical museum in a cave which showed the stable and manger that sat inside next to the family’s kitchen and bedroom.  Because of the density here, the animals lived in the caves with their families. Talk about family closeness, we get uptight when we have to share a single hotel room with only one bathroom.  This was a whole other level of compact living.

Inside a Sassi cave that was home to a family, their livestock and their milling business

We visited Santa Lucia alle Maeve, an ancient cave church with some of the frescoes dating back over 800 years, still intact even though the church was converted to a home so the previous owners remodeled a bit and did some damage (no photos allowed).  This is the medieval version of laying shag carpet over original hardwood I guess.

After about 2 hours, our guide felt satisfied that we had seen and learned enough and sent us on our way.  Not before we picked up some gelato for the road.  We were grateful for his persistence and for sharing his amazing city with us.  We were thankful for our travel agents for booking this stop for us.  We were happy with ourselves that we didn’t bail on the whole thing after the whole lunch fiasco.  We learned a lot today and we have nothing but appreciation for all the kindness we faced.  We were square pegs today but after a while, it all fit together quite nicely.

Back in the van we climbed.  Chiro ready to take us on the last leg of our journey.  Pretty soon we would discover beautiful Puglia.

Four much more culturally aware Canadians after a tour of Matera and The Sassi

When Life Gives You Lemons

When we last left our intrepid travellers, they were speeding their way across the Bay of Naples towards the Amalfi Coast. Their trusty skipper, Antonio deftly avoiding any big waves and offering plenty of information about the looming Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast with its many defensive towers. At this point, our heroes were starving and like a finely tuned Swiss clock, Antonio turned towards the shore to a small seaside restaurant in the tiny Marina del Cantone. Within minutes of dropping anchor, a restaurant staffer in a small power boat pulled up alongside and picked us all up. With recommendations to try the Nerano pasta, we were spirited away to the dock at Lo Scoglio.

Set on a pier over the water, the restaurant was a sort of a dream. Everyone dressed in bathing suit cover ups and flip flops having come up from the beach or off a boat, were now dining on fresh lobster and scampi from the tank and glasses of sparkling Franciacorta (delicious Italian champagne). We would have felt underdressed for such a place if everyone else wasn’t exactly the same. Salty hair, don’t care. First stop of course after being on the boat was la toilette, on the way there we passed two sleeping pups in the shade and remembered we were definitely in Italy where the WHOLE family works in the restaurant.

Not wanting to let Antonio down, I had the Nerano pasta. Kind of a cacio e pepe with zucchini. Pretty delicious. Monsieur took one for the team and ordered some Mediterranean shrimps.

Before long we were itching to get back on the boat. Back down to the dockside, where we were spirited back to Antonio and our boat (1+1=3 was its name, I forgot to mention that earlier). How the restaurant staff knew where to drop us was beyond me as there were loads of boats waiting in the harbour, but he did and we were back on board.

Antonio carried along the Coast heading eastbound towards the town of Amalfi which is at about the half way point. We saw Positano from the sea and it was lovely. We found a charming little cove to jump in for a swim. I bravely jumped from the back of the boat, shocked by the cold water must’ve opened my mouth and took a gulp of the Mediterranean. Euw, it was pretty gross. Sputtering, I quickly got used to the temperature and was grateful for the chance to cool off. Monsieur even swam to the beach (not a short distance) just to try and read a sign for GG. Unfortunately, time and weather made the sign illegible. No matter, he was glad for the chance to get in a bit of a proper swim.

Four salty noodle lovers in the sea

Eventually we made it to the cove which is home to the Santa Caterina Hotel. Antonio turned immediately serious as the boat traffic and late afternoon winds had turned the sea pretty choppy and he needed to back the beast of a boat up to the dock. After lots of yelling and a few attempts, he finally got close enough for us to walk the plank and jump. Fortunately if we timed it right, we’d land on the dock and not in the drink. After successfully unloading all of us, Antonio and the hotel staff decided it wasn’t safe to offload our luggage. So off he sailed with all of our suitcases. Luckily, he was just sailing to the protected Marina in Amalfi where a hotel bellman would meet him and pick up our bags which arrived in our rooms under an hour later. See… trust!

The G walks the plank and makes the jump onto the Amalfi Coast

We arrived on the dock with a great commotion and plenty of noise, all to a waiting throng of relaxing suntanners on sunbeds trying to catch a late afternoon nap in the breeze. What a way to make an entrance! We would later realize that nearly everyone either arrives or departs the Santa Caterina this way, so we weren’t such a disruption after all.

The Santa Caterina is an amazing feat of engineering. A vertiginous structure clinging to the cliffside. Arriving at the dock, our first glimpse was the pool deck and sunbeds at the seaside. No beach, just a jump into the sea. After passing their casual restaurant Al Mare (with its trademark lemon pasta that is one of the yummiest things I ate while in Italy) we took the elevator up to the main building of the hotel. Pretty spectacular.

The view from the main building of our hotel in Amalfi with the boat dock below

Our travel agents love Amalfi. Its their favourite place, so they took the liberty of making us dinner reservations for each of the three nights we were there. I for one was super grateful that I didn’t have to research our options and hope for the best. The most memorable was our evening in the town of Ravello. Set high above Amalfi, Ravello is a very sweet and charming Italian hilltown. We arrived in the town about 90 minutes before our reservation so we could explore a bit. This quickly spiraled into a bit of a mess as the omnious sky started to crack with thunder and lightning and eventually pour with rain. Like the rest of the masses visiting Ravello, we were all running for cover. After everyone lost their cool in the pouring rain, we decided to just head to the restaurant to see if they could take us early and luckily they did. Trattoria Da Cumpa Cosimo is a small, unassuming little place. You would walk straight past it if you didn’t know. Its also one of those ”if you know, you know” places. The owner, Netta runs the place with her son as Maitre ’D. He seated us and explained that we could look at the menu but Netta would tell us what to have. When Netta arrived I was genuinely terrified. The menus on Amalfi are seafood heavy and my family is NOT a fan. She first asked about the wine. What do you recommend I said? She replied ”The house wine.” Like how could I possibly order anything else without completely insulting her. She chose the house wine so it must be good, right? ”Sure, lets have the house wine.” A few minutes later an overflowing litre carafe of wine hit the table. With nerves frayed, hair wet and thunder claps still ringing in the air we tucked in. And it was good! Now to order food. Netta said “I’ll give you some pasta, different kinds. You can share. There will be enough.”

Monsieur spoke up ”Could we also have a salad?”

Netta replied ”No, thats too much.”

Here Monsieur insisted, ”Thats ok, could we please have the salad?”

”Fine,” she answered ”but it will be too much.” And with that she shrugged her shoulders and walked away.

Not sure what to expect or what to do next, we kept drinking Netta’s wine. Eventually a large platter of pasta hit the table and the six of us barely polished it off. I can’t even remember all the different flavors, there was bolognese and meatballs and a pomodoro and well I don’t know. By the end of the meal, the Big Kid was struggling and not feeling the pasta. Netta came back, saw her full plate and insisted that she make her something else. ”Some chicken,” she said ”I’m gonna make you some chicken.” And off she went. Not long after this the salad arrived. And guess what, we were too full to eat it. ”See, I told you. Too much!”

As we finished off the wine and the Big Kid their chicken, Netta’s son dropped off a bag of fresh cherries from their garden and we were in love with Netta. We gave her hugs and kisses and promised to return one day soon. I actually got choked up, like she was a long lost relative. I don’t know. But if you’re ever in Ravello, go see Netta at her Trattoria and like so many other things in Italy, just trust.

Once we got back to the hotel after dinner, we deposited the kids in the room so they could be reunited with their iPads and Monsieur and I joined GG and Pops in the hotel bar for a lovely cup of fresh mint tea with lemon (an Amalfi favorite). While we were sitting and gabbing all of a sudden a massive fireworks display was launched from a small barge down in the cove of the hotel. Obviously for a wedding or some event taking place in Al Mare, we were grateful to have a front row seat to the show. One of those right place at the right time traveling moments.

Right place at the right time fireworks

We didn’t have a rental car in Amalfi. Mostly because we had heard all about the road(s) and didn’t want to brave them without an experienced driver. Luckily there are taxis and buses (who have the funniest sounding little horns that they blast coming around corners to let oncoming traffic know) and its pretty easy to get around.

The next stop on our trip was Puglia, on the opposite coast of Italy. To travel there from Amalfi, the easiest option was to drive. Chiro picked us up early in the morning and drove us eastward into the heart of Italy, not before showing us some of the cutest and coolest towns on the Amalfi Coast along the way. The towns of Minori and Maiori definitely warrant further exploration. All the terraced farms, gardens and lemon groves along the roadside were so pretty. Nearing the end of the coast just before the city of Salerno, we stopped for a quick break in Vietri Sul Mare (the road is windy and we were green). Known for ceramics, it was great to see the ceramic fish decorating the walls along with a very cute mermaid.

Sometimes when you feel car sick, mermaids can help. In Vietri Sul Mare

And finally, we said ”Arrivederci” to the beautiful Amalfi Coast onto another Italian adventure waiting us on the opposite side of ”the boot”.

That’s Amore

Rome was a whirlwind and I can’t say we were very sad to leave. It was very busy and we were touring like it was our job. So after 2 full days in the Eternal City, we re-packed our bags and hopped a train to Naples.

Just over an hour later we arrived at Napoli Centrale. We decided that since timing was tight and our sightseeing needs were great, to arrange to have someone pick us up from the station and take us straight to Pompeii for a guided tour. Antonio picked up all 6 of us (GG & Pops were still along for the ride having changed their plans to stick with us for one more week) and off we went to Pompeii. There we met our guide and straight into Pompeii.

First things first. Do not attempt to visit Pompeii without a guide. Its massive. I couldn’t quite believe how vast this site is. Secondly, bring water and a hat. Its hot and there’s no gift shop inside. Lastly, pee before you go in. There’s no toilet or coffee shop either.

We were very grateful for our guide who over two hours took us through the ”greatest hits” of Pompeii and showed us the most important locations. She also expertly explained how the volcanic eruption froze the city of Pompeii in time (briefly – it was first buried in several metres of ash/ pumice followed by a lahar mud flow) and then explained the years of excavation to dig it out. Its still under excavation today and only a fraction of this important ancient city has been excavated.

We were worried it might be creepy for the kids, but it actually was very interesting. I expected to see more of the bodies that you see in National Geographic, but its actually not all that different than the Roman Forum.

All of us inside Casa del Mendrando, a well preserved villa inside Pompeii (ps they replanted the garden later, the first one didn’t make it)

From there, Antonio shepherded us to a pizza place in the modern town of Pompeii. This would be the beginning of our weeks long pizza eating contest. While we weren’t right in Naples, the restaurant claimed to have the best Neopolitan Pizza. It wasn’t bad at all.

Six people, six pizzas. I ordered the aptly titled Vesuvius. Don’t ask me the name of the restaurant, I forget

From Pompeii, we made the mad dash back to the Port of Naples to catch the hydroplane ferry over to Capri. Antonio was the boss of us and he was bound and determined to get us to the 4:30pm ferry. Arriving at the Port we met a woman who instructed two porters to take all of our bags to the boat. No tags, no instructions for us. Then she speed walked us to the dock and deposited us on the ferry.

This was the beginning of my learning to trust that people were taking care of us.

A few minutes later, our bags were piled on the back of the boat and we were off. Forty five minutes later, we weaved around all the anchored super yachts and pulled into the Capri Marina. Chaos ensued, but we went with the flow. On the dock, we explained to the new woman taking care of us which bags went to which hotel (GG and Pops had to stay in a different place since our hotel was sold out). She then walked us up to the street and pointed to one of the many absolutely unique Capri taxis. A sort of convertible station wagon with no trunk and two rows of seats in the back. We crammed in.

Heading up the hill towards Capri town, we dropped GG and Pops on the side of the road just above the Marina. A lovely little hotel overlooking the Marina. Our driver then carried on the winding climb up the hill. The street is only wide enough for one vehicle, for two to pass there’s a clearance of only centimetres. Add into this scooters and e-bikes and the odd bananas tourists that are trying to walk. After a few gasps, we hit the end of the road at the main Piazzetta of Capri. The driver explains that we need to continue our journey on foot, he can’t go any further. Its only another 5 or maybe 15 minutes walk from here. ”Just go up there and turn right at the bell tower and then you go left and then you will be there.”

Um ok.

Me and the Little Kid continuing our journey on foot

So there we are. At the top of Capri. With our backpacks and our other bags somewhere on the dock with some guy. Walking aimlessly through the alleyways of Capri Town navigating our way to our hotel. We walk for what seems like ages and ages. We turn a corner on what appears to be the Rodeo Drive of the Island. At least it wasn’t the rough part! Dodging piles of tourists and the tiny scooter trucks onward we walk until we find (with the help of Google Maps) our little hotel nestled into the hillside. ”Buongiorno” says Luigi, our front desk man/ concierge as he welcomes us in with open arms like we’re old long lost friends. Within 30 minutes our bags arrived in our room like magic. See, in Italy, they’ve got you covered.

GG and Pops were pooped and decided not to make the trip up the crazy Island roads to meet us in town so the four of us had dinner on our own. Luigi recommended Villa Verde. ”You will love it!” He said. We found our way back through the maze of tiny alleyways and found the restaurant. As we walked in the walls were lined with photographs of Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, you name it. The Little Kid says ”Well, it MUST be good if J. Lo ate here.” We’ll see kid, we’ll see. Villa Verde makes up for their land locked location on the island (aka No View) with great food and great service. Every 40 minutes or so, the playlist turns to ”That’s Amore” and from the first chords and the lyric ”In Napoli…” everyone stops and sings along. Like its church. It was hilarious. We liked this place so much, we brought GG and Pops back two nights later.

With 4 plates of pasta and a couple of tiramisus in our bellies, we were starting to fall in love with Capri. Its like a movie set. A 1950’s movie sure, but a movie set nonetheless. The yachts lit up on the water below us in the Piccolo Marina (on the southern shore of Capri), bobbing on the water. The moon shining. The bright fuchsia bougainvillea dripping from every wall. The warm wind. It was enchanting.

We spent the next couple of days enjoying time by the pool and wandering around the town of Capri. Not wanting to brave another taxi ride, we never made it to the other town on the island, Anacapri. I did manage to follow tradition and have a pair of sandals custom made in one of the many sandal shops (I skipped Jackie O’s favourite Canfora because they were a little pricier and I found some I liked better a few doors down). This experience is much less custom than it sounds. The women pull out a pair of pre-made soles in your size and just add the straps in the colour and design you choose. However, I now own a pretty pair of sandals that are best suited under the table than on a long walk, but they do have my initials engraved in the sole.

Felt cute, might delete later… still like the sandals though…

After a few days filled with sunshine and lemon risotto it was time for us to bid farewell to Capri. We decided to do it in style, so we chartered a boat to take us on a tour circumnavigating the island and over to our hotel in Amalfi. It was worth every penny. Mostly because our kids were glad to finally be on an excursion that wasn’t about history and monuments. Joke’s on them though, our skipper Antonio (yep, his name was also Antonio) gave us plenty of history lessons about the area with the Saracen pirates and Emperor Tiberius’ villas around the island.

First stop on our three hour tour (it was probably more like 5 but you know…) was the infamous Blue Grotto. The sea was extremely calm, but the closer we got to the entrance of the Grotto we had visions of Venice with boats zooming in and out of the cove and the boat rocking on the wake. The deal with the Blue Grotto when you arrive by boat is that the skipper gets in a sort of queue. Then some attendants come over and pick you up in a row boat. Then they take you to the queue on the shore to buy the tickets. Then you queue up for another row boat who takes you into the Grotto and then back to your boat. This whole process was looking like it could be close to an hour just for the first row boat The Blue Grotto was looking more like the Green Grotto as we all were feeling a little queasy on the rough seas. Luckily, Capri is lousy with Grottos and our skipper was happy to take us to see the others that are only accessible from the water. Including the actual Green Grotto so aptly named for the colour of the walls and water inside the cave than for the seasickness. We also got to boat through the famous Arch of Love on the south shore.

After a full circumnavigation of Capri, we decided it was time to cross the Bay of Naples to our next destination; The Amalfi Coast.

Roman Holiday

After our teary departure from Il Borghetto, we drove back to Florence to catch the Italo train to Roma. To be honest, Rome was kind of an after thought in our plans. Having visited in 2005, it wasn’t high on our list of places to get to as we were focusing on new-for-us destinations. However, we realized that was pretty selfish since our kids have never been to Rome and well, its freaking ROME!!!

Spanish Steps and the hordes. Those people sitting won’t last long before the Carbinieri send them packing.

If Florence is an outdoor museum then I guess Rome is a living archaeological site. Every where you look is a remnant of Ancient Roman civilization with the modern city just built on top of it. Layers of architecture all compounded together.

It was clear that the recent lifting of all Covid restrictions here in Italy has taken the shackles off of this city. It was alive and very busy! Masses gathered on the Spanish Steps with the Carbinieri ready to shoo off anyone who dared to take a seat. Line-ups out the door at the gelato shops. Dinner reservations impossible to get. Pantheon tickets oversold for the day.

Since Rome was an after thought, we only had two full days so we became super travellers and decided to cram in as much as we possibly could.

Day one we chose a tour that seemed a little unconventional with a walking tour of the Trastevere neighbourhood. Across the Tiber from the historical centre, Trastevere is a gentrifying area of cool restaurants and unique shops. Our guide was a laugh and very knowledgable. An archaeologist, she showed us some very cool things we would never have noticed on our own.

The tour started at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. One of the oldest churches in Rome, she pointed out the many columns throughout the church were not uniform. They had in fact been salvaged from other Roman sites around the city to build this church.

Took one for the team. A quick macchiato at the café bar so that everyone could take a quick pee in Trastevere

From there she took us to San Francesco di Ripa to see the incredible Bernini carved statue of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. This would be the first time we crashed a First Communion on our trip to Italy. We arrived at the Church to see many well dressed folks out on its steps. We thought that perhaps there was a wedding taking place. In fact it was a class of eight year olds all dressed in white; the girls like little brides and the boys like little monks. Fortunately mass was just ending, so we were able to sneak in the side not before being noticed by the monks playing the recessional hymn. If looks could kill then those monks would be headed straight for hell! The recovering Catholics in our group were already feeling guilty for not genuflecting or packing our rosaries! Luckily, the draw of Bernini’s marble tucked into the chapel next to the sacristy door was too great so we ignored all ingrained childhood guilt and snuck our way to the chapel gate.

Bernini was racy! Its easy to see why this statue was so controversial. Ludovica in ecstasy on her deathbed at the sight of God was more akin to a scene from Bridgerton! This chapel should have an 18+ rating!!! Truthfully, it was an easy trade-off to face the guilty feelings to see this epic masterpiece. Bernini captures light from the single window making the statue seem translucent and aglow. Hard to believe its solid marble and not delicate fabric flowing down her bodice. Stunning.

Bernini’s Ludovica Albertoni

In fact, this is one of my favourite things about Rome. You can happen upon a small humble church and find a masterpiece inside. You can view it without the throngs of tourists clamouring for selfies. We just had to fend of the eight year old First Communion kids and the dirty looks of two Monks.

Following another few blocks, a church and some fun Trastevere anecdotes, our guide dropped us at Da Teo for our lunch. Seated at the back of the restaurant, we loved seeing the many locals come in for their Saturday lunch along with their kids and their dogs (yes, inside the restaurant). We ate many varieties of Roman artichoke dishes. On our way out we noticed a willow-y diner in a hat and sunglasses tucked into the corner. She caught my eye since she was wearing a hat and sunglasses inside. It was none other than Jane Fonda. Of course there is no photo evidence because we’re Canadian. But quite a testament to this humble neighbourhood restaurant that she would shine her star on them.

That evening we decided to head out to see the Trevi Fountain after dark. It is quite magical lit up a night. We also hoped it would be a little less busy. Yeah, it wasn’t less busy. It was the exact opposite. But the brave Monsieur shepherded our kids down to the fountain’s edge so they could each toss a coin over their shoulder to guarantee a return trip to Rome some day down the road.

The following morning after a big breakfast, we left GG and Pops to enjoy the splendours of our hotel and spa. We headed out on the town for a day of total power sightseeing. Setting out on foot we headed straight to the Pantheon (Truth bomb: we may have stopped for a touch of shopping and a cappuccino along the way, much to Monsieur’s chagrin).

The Pantheon and more hordes of tourists

The Pantheon is one of the best preserved Ancient Roman structures. It was built as a temple to all of the Roman gods in around 126 AD. It was eventually turned into a Catholic Church and is now a Museum. A Museum with a big line-up of people who booked their visit in advance and had reservations. Wah wah…. guess who didn’t pre-book? If you guessed us, you win! Seventeen years ago, I remember walking straight into the Rotunda through the massive doors. In 2022, the year of our Covid wave 47, nope.

Ok, time to think fast. Mama Tour Guide, always with a backup plan in her pocket remembered a very cool church around the corner with a statue of Hadrian’s elephant out front and Michaelangelo inside. With the assistance of Google Maps, I realized it was just a few steps away. Off we went and found the statue but the Elephant was much smaller and less impressive than I remembered. And the entrance to the church was locked as tourists were now forced to walk around the back to gain entry. We trudged onward as the mercury climbed and never found the alleyway that contained the elusive back door. Ok, now everyone is a little pissy and there are no gelato shops in sight to try and tame the beast of impatience. I checked my handy Google Maps again and luckily we were just 10 minutes on foot now to the Roman Forum. I knew that they didn’t have a front door that locked! So off we went.

Discovered while on foot Piè di Marmo

The Roman Forum is vast and epic. We started at Trajan’s Column and walked our way along the Via dei Fori Imperiali towards the Coliseum with the Roman ruins stretching as far as the eye can see on either side of the wide boulevard. We wished we had a guide to give us all the local tidbits and gossip about what we were looking at. We were grateful however to run into one of the many hawkers selling bottles of frozen water. By now it was a sweltering 35 degrees celsius and we were starting to wilt. But we forged ahead with the epic Coliseum as our planned destination.

The Via dei Fori Imperiali is LOOOOONG, has little shade and is entirely surrounded by ruins. Our only option was to forge ahead. In the heat. We finally made it to the Coliseum and made the decision to high tail it out of the pedestrian only area and get an Uber tout de suite.

Luckily a lovely air conditioned Uber arrived right away and agreed to take us to St. Peter’s Square. The driver very kindly took us across Ponte Vittoria Emanuele II over the Tiber so we could see Ponte Saint Angelo and Castel Saint Angelo from the comfort of air conditioning – check and check.

At the Vatican, we broke our number one food rule and picked the first restaurant we could find that said Pizzeria. We were grateful for the shade, cold drinks and something to eat. And as if on cue, as soon as the pizzas hit the table, the Little’s nose erupted like Vesuvius. What an opportune moment for a nosebleed. Grabbing every napkin in sight we managed to stop the bleeding with little gore. In fact it took the server two or three passes bringing us the pizzas to even notice that we were in full nose pinch mode. Once recovered, we enjoyed a solid 3 star pizza, a glass of lukewarm sugar water for the Little (that the Mama waitress insisted was necessary for their recovery) and made our way to St. Peter’s Square.

St. Peter’s Square, Basilica and the Vatican itself are quite massive. I suppose built this way to honour God’s majesty and inspire awe in the followers and ”should-be” followers. All I know is that its really big to cross in the searing heat to get in line to enter. As with all major tourist attractions in Europe, the first stop is a security screening but unlike the others, the second stop is a wardrobe check. Anyone showing too much skin is sent packing. Believer, heretic, whoever! Cover it up or no St. Peter’s for you! Luckily we passed muster and were admitted.

For some reason, on this hot and sunny Sunday afternoon in a Rome teeming with tourists, St. Peter’s was relatively empty. We were able to take our time and really get a good look at Michaelangelo’s Pieta (last time we couldn’t even get close) and Bernini’s St. Peter’s Altar and the epic Bronze Baldachin (canopy). It was as we got close to the Altar that we realized that Mass was being said in the Apse beneath the Chair of St. Peter and the ethereal stained glass window depicting the Holy Spirit and capturing the late afternoon light just so. Impressive use of the Baroque tradition to use natural light effectively to generate true theatre in the space (yes, I paid attention to the guide!).

St. Peter’s is an incredible museum, housing some of the most spectacular works of art in existence. As we made our way around to the other side of the Basilica we found the Vatican Treasury Museum. Now I started feeling creepy instead of awe-struck. We decided then that we were done ooohing and aaahing at the treasures of the Catholic Church. Their vows of poverty and charity are nothing but completely hollow when you see this obvious display of ornate wealth. Seeing this icon of colonial conquest in the name of ministry, through the lens of the terror and horrors inflicted on First Nations, Métis and Inuit folx at the hands of the Church in Canada (and in so many other places) made me feel sick. There is no excuse for this Church to not offer financial reconciliation as these communities work towards recovery. I realize that this is a heavy statement in my usually lighthearted blog. I don’t want to trivialize the Genocide that’s taken place in Canada and fully acknowledge that I am learning and continuing to learn that we need to do so much more to right this wrong of history and help our First Nations, Métis and Inuit citizens recover from the generations of atrocities inflicted upon them.

Later that evening, after a fresh shower and a tiny lay down to recover from the heat we headed out to dinner. As it was our last night in Rome, we wanted to show the kids Piazza Navona and its incredible 400 year old Fountain of the Four Rivers, again by Bernini. The fountain has four allegories each representing the 4 major rivers known at that time; The Ganges, The Nile, The Rio de la Plata and The Danube.

Not wanting to break our “don’t eat next to tourist attraction” rule twice in one day, we found a spot just a couple of blocks off the square. Ponte e Parrione came with a 4.6 rating. A tiny hole in the wall, we weren’t so sure when we arrived. The waiter sat us in a table next to the espresso machine. All sorts of hustle and bustle ensued and we worried that we may have made a mistake. But then before long, plates of pasta, pizza, tagliata and veal milanese hit the table and our crowd was very satisfied. Deciding to forego the tiramisu so we could track down some fresh gelato, the server returned with a plate of biscotti and bottle of housemade limoncello on the house. If you recall, housemade limoncello is STRONG. Already plied with plenty of great wine, we couldn’t possibly handle a digestivo. Before I knew it I was channeling Cher in Moonstruck, with all apologies and mi dispiaces and arm waving and hands folded in prayer. ”Grazie mille Signore!” It’s true! In Italy, you can’t help but talk with your hands.

A little while later, we were safely tucked into bed in our gratefully air conditioned hotel room. Reeling from days filled with adventure, history, learning and most of all great Italian hospitality. Rome is epic. Dripping with history. We were ready for some quieter days coming up.

More Bernini at Piazza Navona – The Fountain of the Four Rivers

Quanta Basta

Sometimes traveling can feel like home. For us Il Borghetto in San Gimignano definitely feels like home. Seventeen years ago Monsieur and I came here with G and Pops to celebrate respectively our first and their 35th wedding anniversaries (shhh we were child brides). Back then we vowed to come back, it only took seventeen years. What were we waiting for?

The view of the Pergola and the valley beyond from Il Borghetto

Il Borghetto is owned by the Bimbi Family. Sandra and Riccardo are sister and brother and along with their lovely partners (and spouses) Simona and Nicola, they have lovingly restored a 15th century villa on the hillside below San Gimignano in Tuscany. Overlooking vineyards and olive groves, they have created a little slice of heaven. Converted into several self-catered apartments, the Bimbi’s are the consummate hosts. After 17 years, we were welcomed back with open arms, hugs and kisses.

Three nights a week, the matriarch of the Bimbi family Silvana, creates a traditional Tuscan meal for the guests to enjoy. To this day the best meals I’ve ever had were made by Mamma Silvana and served by Simona, Nicola and Sandra under the pergola at Il Borghetto. Lovingly selected Tuscan wines accompany and never disappoint. Everyone is made to feel like a special guest at the Bimbi’s home. Stories and laughs, delicious food and an amazing view make for the most memorable evenings.

Monsieur with a plate of Silvana’s papardelle with ragu
GG and the Godfather on their terrace at Il Borghetto

One of our evenings, the family arranged for a cooking class. As fans of Italian cuisine we were all about learning how to re-create some of these dishes. Patrizia our teacher, brought fresh ingredients from her garden including her own homemade Limoncello (spoiler alert: its boozy!). Paired up with 3 other delightful Canadians, a sweet Brit and charming American we set to work with Patrizia at the helm. We made zeppole with zucchini flowers (a savory doughnut), zucchini stuffed with meat sauce and handmade gnocchi with a tomato, ricotta and basil sauce. For dessert an apple tart with just a hint of limoncello for flavour. Patrizia taught us that Italians only eat what is in season, hence the zucchini heavy menu. The tomatoes for the sauce were from her garden last summer, she canned and preserved them herself. The garlic oil we made was using last season’s garlic from the braids in her cellar as this season’s garlic was still a week away. She taught us that the essence of Italian cooking is really “Quanta Basta”, my new favourite Italian phrase. “How much salt Patrizia?” ”Quanta basta!” she replied. Just enough. Literally a pinch… unless you need more than a pinch, just some. You know, quanta basta!

Patrizia and Team Quanta Basta
Little baby handmade gnocchis

For dinner, our partners and travelling parties joined us for the feast. Enjoying Patrizia’s wine selection, we were all very impressed with ourselves that we MADE all of it. Time will tell whether we can successfully recreate this meal without Patrizia’s watchful eye.

In this part of Central Tuscany, you can’t swing a dead something without hitting a charming hilltown. San Gimignano is perhaps THE most charming of the lot and is just a 10 minute drive from Il Borghetto. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Gimignano is a walled medieval town with about a dozen of its incredible towers still intact and in use. Since we were here 17 years ago its clear that San Gimignano has definitely been added to the map of must sees in Tuscany. It took us 3 tries to actually get here, the first two attempts thwarted by overfull parking lots. Our bad, we kept arriving in time for lunch. We learned that the early bird gets the parking spot and the table for six.

A view of San Gimignano and its towers

Sangi is a cute collection of charming shops selling local ceramics, leather goods and linens as well as wine bars, gelato shops and lovely trattorias. Sandra and Simona sent us to an incredible restaurant called La Mandrogola. Off the beaten path, behind the main street on Via Diacceto (which is only wide enough for a scooter) we were charmed by the sweet terrace and delicious Vernaccia de San Gimignano recommended by our server. Her response when we asked for a recommendation ”Why wouldn’t you drink the wine from here?” Of course, she was absolutely right. I can’t remember what we ate, but I’m sure it was pasta and steak and tomatoes and cheese. All I know is that it was yummy and that we were charmed yet again by boundless Italian hospitality.

Pops and his rental car

Il Borghetto is a fabulous home base to explore Tuscany. Situated half way between Florence and Siena along the A1 Autostrada, its easy to get around in a rental car (you definitely need a rental car here). Just be sure to navigate by town and not highway numbers. In 17 years, the advent of Google Maps meant for far less navigational disputes on our travels. Volterra, Monteriggioni, Barberini Val D’Elsa are all easy jaunts. Pisa, Arezzo, Montalcino and the Tuscan coast are slightly farther afield but still very easy day trips from the Villa.

We decided to stick closer to home this time, pooped after our Paris departure and power sightseeing in Florence, we only chose to visit Siena (totally worth it – the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo are amazing to see). We also found the charming Barberino Val D’Elsa on the recommendation of an Italian waiter in Paris and had great pizza at both the Cafe Bijou and Triocco. The latter has a terrace overlooking the valley, lovely spot.

Piazza del Campo in Siena
The view from Barberino Val D’Elsa plus a cheeky photobomber

We’re grateful for Google reviews this time around. Before we choose a restaurant, we always check the Google review rating. Nothing under 4 stars, the closer to 5 stars the better. We’ve never been disappointed. This rule applies to the coffee shops all the way up to the Ristorantes. We also have a rule never to eat close to the tourist attractions. Walk a block or two off the beaten path and you’ll see the Google ratings jump.

The luxuries of Il Borghetto are not found in daily room service or a Michelin star. They are found in the warm welcome of the Bimbi Family. The genuine and heartfelt hospitality is unmatched in any other place we’ve stayed. Saying goodbye we couldn’t help but feel sad and a little teary. Like long lost friends, our only lament is that we waited too long to return to Il Borghetto, next time we won’t wait so long. To quote Patrizia, Il Borghetto is for us Quanta Basta – just enough and so much more.

A teary farewell to the Bimbi’s at Il Borghetto

Aunt Flo

(Editor’s Note: For those following along, our stops in Carcassone and Les Baux de Provence actually took place before we left Paris. Italy is the beginning of our ”hard travel” period of 3 months on the move every few days to a week. Just in case anyone is confused by the chronology. I know I am!)

It was finally time to say Au Revoir to Paris and Buongiorno to Italy! Hard to believe that we were already bidding farewell to our home away from home in the 2nd Arrondissement and heading out to begin three months of heavy traveling.

In 2005 we traveled to Italy to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We fell in love and vowed to return. Back then we started cooking up our plan of an extended stay in Europe and hoped that one day we could realize that dream. So it made sense that the next country where we would spend the most time would naturally be Italy. Craving La Dolce Vita, we have booked a month in Italia and the first stop is Florence.

Santa Maria della Fiore (aka The Duomo) in Florence

After experiencing Florence for the first time in 2005 on an afternoon trip fighting the hordes of tourists on bus trips, we knew we needed to come back and spend a few days. With such a short stay here (and in most cities) we’ve taken to booking tours so we can try and capitalize on the time and soak up the local sites/ sights (which is it?). For Florence we booked a tour called ”Walking in the Footsteps of the Medici”. The Medici were the Godfathers of the Renaissance. By creating a positive and open society, Cosimo I was a patron of artists and architects like Donatello and Brunelleschi. Our tour started at Palazzo Vecchio and the epic Piazzo della Signoria with its many statues and most famously the replica of Michaelangelo’s David (the original has been moved indoors for safe keeping at the Accademia Gallery). Along the way our guide pointed out the many towers of Florence, with the most famous and perhaps the tallest here at the Palazzo Vecchio, but in fact there are lots around Florence of varying heights. She also pointed out the many bridges between the buildings that are common here and in other Tuscan towns, built for the nobility to walk from house to house without having to brave the dirty, smelly and plague ridden streets below. The concept of ”never burning a bridge” comes from these passages as warring families would burn bridges between their homes and towers when they fell out with each other. Pretty interesting.

Fountain of Neptune in the image of Cosimo de’ Medici I at Piazza della Signoria

Along our tour we did a speed visit to the Uffizi Gallery. While not as big as the Louvre or Musée D’Orsay, the Uffizi is sizeable and has many important works by the Italian masters. Most people come here to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus but my favourite was his Spring. We were happy for the guide who snuck us around line-ups and fast-tracked us through the boring parts. Lets face it, no matter how much of an art-lover you are all museums have boring parts!

We ended the tour at the Medici Chapels. Built as a Mausoleum and memorial to the Medici Dynasty, the family is all buried in these epic Chapels. Michaelangelo’s Sacristy with many unfinished works is worth the price of admission and the Chapel of the Princes is equally amazing. The Medici held much power here in Tuscany and in fact across Europe as preeminent bankers and within the Catholic Church with Princes, Queens and Popes counted in their number.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi
Look up in the Chapel of Princes at the Medici Chapels

We were very lucky to connect with Monsieur’s cousin D, who hosted us at the Westin Excelsior Hotel’s incredible rooftop bar with a 360 degree view of the city. Florence is breathtaking and the vantage point from here is amazing. Its worth the €20+ price for cocktails just to be able to take in this view and see all the sites (seriously… sites or sights? Both work!) from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio and the Tuscan villas beyond.

What a view towards the Pitti Palace! From the rooftop of the Westin Excelsior

D was our food guide, arranging for us to have dinner at Cantinetta Antinori. Inside the Villa of the Antinori wine family (a name that’s been in the wine business here in Tuscany since 1184), we had a great dinner in the courtyard. If you’re heading to Florence, make a reservation now! You won’t be disappointed. This is where our month long pasta eating contest started. There will be no Atkins diets here in Italy my friends!

At Cantinetta Antinori, its all about the wine of course and kids drink free!

This early June trip is coinciding with a heatwave and drought. While Italy is hot in the summer, we arrived to temperatures well over 30 degrees. This makes it a bit tough trying to get out and wander for sure. We tried to walk to the Pitti Palace (another Medici masterpiece) to enjoy the Boboli Gardens, but we quickly realized that our arrival at the gates of the Palace was nowhere near the entry to the Gardens. The thought of walking for another 20 minutes in the opposite direction of our hotel just to find shade was too daunting. So we called an Uber and headed back across the river to the air conditioning.

The Little Kid was very keen to see Galileo’s Finger at the Museo Galileo. The rest of the crowd wasn’t as interested, so Monsieur and I did not want to disappoint and off we went. You’ll be shocked to learn that there was no line up to enter this museum and we were able to breeze through in about 30 minutes. Lots of globes, lots of telescopes, some interesting models of the various baby birthing positions (“Euw GROSS!” said the Little) and finally Galileo’s finger. A bizarre relic to be sure, but how could we miss it?

Galileo’s Finger

Florence is truly an outdoor museum. Everything is breathtaking. The sounds of the bell ringing from the tower at Santa Maria della Fiore just makes me happy (as a matter of fact, I always get a little thrill when I hear the church bells here in Italy – they are so pretty).

Here in Florence we start the busiest part of our European tour. We’re on the move a lot (more on the logistics later) so we’re all feeling ready for a day or two off. Next stop: The Tuscan countryside!

A Week in Provence

Following our stay in Carcassonne, we wanted to add another stop and Provence seemed like the best idea. Just 2.5 hours by car from the fortress town, we set up camp at the Western edge of Provence at Les Baux de Provence. Another incredible fortification town, we stayed at the sweet Baumanière at the base of the hill. If the Visigoths were going to invade, we’d be the first line of defence. Armed with the stinkiest of cheese and the palest of rosés, I’m sure we could distract them from their conquering ways.

Beautiful Baumanière with Les Baux in the distance

Les Baux is a lovely home base from which to explore Provence. Just 40 minutes from Avignon, 20 minutes from Arles and only an hour from Aix-en-Provence, this area also is where our favourite french town is located. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is home to just under 10,000 residents and is a charming place with lovely restaurants, shops and a fabulous (and vast) market on Wednesday mornings that literally fills the streets of the old town.

We had been on the go pretty much non-stop since Venice, so we were very happy to arrive in a place where the pace was decidedly less hectic than Paris. With summer arriving early in Europe, we were also happy to enjoy some warm, sunny afternoons by the pool. The only trouble were the uninvited guests…

Provence is home to some of the most voracious mosquitoes we’ve ever seen including the Tiger mosquito. These things are seemingly active all day and night and aren’t satisfied after one bite. They are hungry little suckers and they will bite you over and over again. Monsieur and the Little are very prone to very itchy reactions so we didn’t make a move around Provence without locally acquired bug spray (we liked the Cinq sur Cinq brand) and anti-itch cream. We put the Little to bed with a dose a Benadryl to help ease the itchy swelling.

Our hotel is home to a famous three Michelin starred restaurant called Restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière, which certainly looks lovely. But as you’ve probably gathered, we’re into more simple cuisines. Instead our favourite spot in the area is Bistro Pieds Dans L’Eau. Yes, you got that right. We’d rather eat at a place called Bistro Feet in the Water instead of a three Michelin star restaurant. Pieds is a charming place located at the main gate of the town, with a large patio which in the heat of summer offers tables in the fountain where you can literally cool your heels over lunch. Pieds is a crowd-pleaser for our gang. Offering a simple family-style service, we loved the whole roast chicken and lasagna. No one complained and the only reason any food was left on the table was because of the hefty portions. If you do come here, be sure to save room for their house made desserts. The Little ordered the Rum Baba which arrived with an extra shot of rum on the side just in case it wasn’t rummy enough already.

No time to take pictures of our plates until after we’ve eaten. The food is that good at Bistro Pieds Dans L’Eau. PS we kept our shoes on this time….

The market in Saint-Rémy is a common occurrence in many (all?) cities and towns across France and Italy as far as I know. The produce, the cheese, the bread, the salami, the local herbs and salt, the leather sandals, the knives, the olives, the olive oil, the preserves, the sundresses… you name it, someone has set up a stall and is selling it. Its worth planning a visit to a town for market day. Parking is a challenge, but lunch will be a treat.

In addition to being a charming little town, Saint-Rémy has some interesting history. It’s origins are traced back to Roman times and the nearby ancient ruins of Glanum, eventually leading to the development of the settlement of Saint-Rémy. The birthplace of Nostradamus, the town was also home to Van Gogh for a time while he was a patient at the local Saint-Paul Asylum. Here he painted the very famous Starry Night and Lilacs to name just a few.

Speaking of Van Gogh, we also took a ride down to Arles to see its well preserved Roman Coliseum and Amphitheatre. Van Gogh lived here for a couple of years and painted his famous Cafe at Night. The cafe is still there, painted yellow and now serving some pretty mediocre fare for slightly higher prices than its neighbours on the square. We ”took one for the team” and had lunch on the Terrasse. Luckily a fellow traveller warned us that they only accept cash so we were able to cobble together enough Euros to pay the bill.

The café in Arles made famous by Van Gogh, still with its yellow awning. Not sure if the burger is as good as it was back then.

In our effort to avoid the Michelin stars, we ventured out for some dinners. Trying to stay close, we enjoyed a pile of pizzas at Pizza Brun in Maussane-les-Alpilles. A tiny little take-out restaurant with a collection of patio tables on the sidewalk outside, everyone was happy with their thin crust pies. We also discovered Chateau d’Estoublon just 10 minutes down the road from our hotel. A beautiful Chateau, d’Estoublon is a winery and olive farm and home to a great restaurant with a creatively named restaurant, Table. We had a lovely dinner on the terrace overlooking their beautiful gardens.

Provence is idyllic. Sunny and warm, with beautiful vistas and delicious wine and food. The olive groves are plentiful so be sure to bring home some delicious olive oil. We were too early for the lavender and sunflower fields but have seen them in the past, they are incredible to see. We marvelled at the massive rosemary plants worked into the gardens at Baumanière. We enjoyed the tranquility and our kids enjoyed the swimming pools.

Monsieur and the Pops hoofing it up through the town of Les Baux

Battle Royale

For their eleventh birthday, the Little Kid (who is now much less little) requested that we all go to Carcassonne.  GG & Pops have now joined us so we were a tidy little group of six.

Nothing makes an ancient castle more luxurious than an inground swimming pool!

Carcassonne is located in the Occitanie region of southern France about halfway between Toulouse and the Med.  We decided that it might be simpler to fly to Toulouse from Paris as the train wasn’t direct and required a change in Bordeaux.  Well, after the hour long car ride to CDG and an almost 2 hour delay departing Paris the train looked way more appealing than what was supposed to be a short flight.  Anyways… we finally made it to Toulouse, picked up our rental cars and made our way the hour long drive to the medieval city of Carcassonne.  

This was our second time to Carcassonne, the first time was 3 years ago when we stopped for an hour on our way from Provence to our friend’s wedding in Auch.  We were so amazed, we vowed to return for a few days so we could really experience the town and the Little decided that it should be their birthday trip.

It worked well that we could line the trip up with the arrival of the Grandparents as we knew that the Pops would love this place.  And at last we were back.

Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to Gallo-Roman times around 100 BC.  It was a stronghold for the Visigoths and the Cathars before falling into the hands of France.  An important battlement built to protect the crucia trade routes from the Mediterranean and all countries to the south through to Northern Europe and the Atlantic coast.  Now it’s THE place to buy arms for your kids!

The birthday kid sporting the latest in medieval armoury for children

Seriously! Every piece of medieval weaponry, with the exception of perhaps a full size trebuchet, are available in kid-sized replicas in every other shop within the city walls.  Battle axes, cross bows, swords, helmets, shields, you name it.  Everything your little Chevalier in training might need to be able to learn the ways of medieval warfare.

Our Little picked up a Battleaxe last time that never really recovered after we had to dismantle it for the flight home.  This time, they opted for a wooden crossbow complete with suction cup arrows.  The crossbow lasted about a day and a half before the trigger broke off.  Not exactly medieval quality.  We certainly would have lost the town in a siege had we been left to defend it with these subpar weapons!  We don’t even need to mention how gullible we were to drop almost €40 on this piece of crap!

Armed to the teeth for an awesome birthday

We decided to have the full Carcassonne experience and chose to stay at the Hotel de la Cité within the walls of the fortress.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but in fact what we found inside was an utterly charming and comfortable respite from the hordes of tourists outside our window.  A beautiful courtyard, filled with songbirds and a swimming pool.  Plus there was champagne and chocolate mousse cake to celebrate the birthday!

Nutella crepes for the birthday breakfast

The highlight of the trip was our tour guide Remi, who steered us around the fortress showing us how the architecture was as important as the army defending it.  The amazing loopholes built into the walls for archers to aim their arrows, the death holes inside the massive gates where they could drop rocks on unsuspecting invaders below, the crooked drawbridge that defended against battering rams and advancing cavalries.

At the gate to the city

I asked the Little Kid mid-tour how they were liking their birthday trip so far.  “Oh my GOD” they said.  “I had no idea that this whole place is just about DEATH.”

How right they were.  Neither did I.  Perhaps not the ideal spot to celebrate an eleven year old’s birthday but nevertheless, here we were.  At least the hotel served some mean Nutella crepes for breakfast!

Carcassone is impressive.  You can see how Walt Disney used it as visual inspiration for his recreations of fairy tales.  Definitely worth a stop if you’re in this part of Europe.

Lady Carcas at the gates to the city

A Free Woman in Paris – Part Deux

I’m sitting in our Parisien apartment, suitcases packed up and ready to head out in the morning to start the rest of our adventure. Our last day in Paris wasn’t spent in a spectacular fashion. Just a cafe lunch at the same place we visited the day we arrived and some errands. Walking back from the drycleaners, I tried my best to drink it all in.

Living in Paris for the past three months, I’ve enjoyed the sparkly Eiffel Tower moments and incredible Louvre-y art moments and fascinating historical site moments. But the things I enjoyed most of all were the mundane, normal, every day moments. The way the waiters all wear down vests when its cool. The smell of exhaust from the scooters when the light changes green and they all take off from their pole positions. The fact that you need to package and weigh your produce before you hit the check out in the grocery store. The thoughtfulness of women who always carry a tote bag for their shopping so they don’t need to ask for a plastic bag. The sight of the searchlight atop the Eiffel Tower swings over our apartment every few minutes every night. The reality that people greet one another with a Bonjour before they start any conversation or transaction. The feeling when you fumble through a restaurant order in French and the waiter is just so proud of you for trying. The clinking of wine bottles being dumped into the recycling bin outside the restaurant back door across our courtyard. The cool breeze that hits you the minute you get close to the Seine or the feeling of the gale force wind whipping all the way from La Defense, through the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysees, up the Jardin des Tuileries and into the Cour Napoleon at the Louvre whipping up the dusty pea gravel.

GG and the Little mastering the art of crossing the street in Paris – you have to give them the hand or they won’t stop!

If anyone wondered what my goal was living in Paris for this time, it was all of this. To experience Paris with all its ups and downs and marvel at all its incredible beauty.

Tomorrow, we’ll head out and won’t be back in France again on this trip. We will of course be back sooner rather than later, but I will always appreciate this time here to try to feel like a local. To have someone ask me for directions and be able to give them, in French. To have mastered enough of the French language to be able to crack a joke with the taxi driver or the waiter. To know shortcuts to get places. To ”have a guy” where we get our roast chicken/ bread/ berries/ flowers. To know which streets have the best trees to walk along on a hot day. To know which cafes will have a table for you on a sunny day.

I loved our days walking up and down Rue Montorgueil or Rue des Martyrs picking up things for dinner. I loved the fleeting moments when I got lost, only to walk a little further and know exactly where I am. I loved stumbling upon awesome things like Porte Saint Martin or the amazing Village of Saint Paul in the Marais (sign me up for any tour that starts with ”The Secrets Of…”).

Kids on the Seine

Living in a big, bustling metropolis was a lot for us Vancouverites. But we figured out how to manage on foot, to buy only enough groceries that we could carry, to find the best and closest dry cleaners etc etc. We coped with living on the 4th floor (aka 5th floor in North America) with only a phone booth sized elevator which is now currently broken – wish us luck with the suitcases tomorrow! We survived French plumbing and electrical. We learned to live with the smells and sounds of a city full of life. The constant sirens – one guide reminded us that they just turn them on to show off.

We’ve packed up our winter clothes and school supplies and sent them home to Vancouver. We’ve cut ourselves down to two suitcases and four rolling carry-ons. We’ll see how we manage! But European rental cars are not forgiving on space and schlepping on and off trains can be daunting with more than one bag each.

The bags are packed to head to home

Monsieur and I have travelled a lot in our lives and we love it. But even with the experience of travel and for me being on tour, we forgot that while its exhilarating and amazing it can be equally exhausting and stressful. Moving around a lot means new beds every few days and it means packing and repacking bags. It means not quite eating the way you’re used to. It means being able to go with the flow when things don’t go as planned or as expected. It means missing home and routine more than you ever imagined. Every day we feel grateful for this opportunity and try and roll with the punches when it gets a little rough.

For now we say “À bientôt” to our Parisian home and look forward to all the new experiences and adventures awaiting us on the road.

An-“twerkin’”

I was doing a little research to see which artists might be playing Paris while we were here. One of our family faves, Dua Lipa was scheduled to play on the Little’s Birthday but alas we had already booked a trip out of the city for that day. However, we saw that Miss Lipa would be playing in nearby Antwerp, just a short 2 hour Thalys train ride away. We thought, why not? We could check Belgium and Dua off our list.

Miss Lipa is about to hit the stage in Antwerp

We decided to just make it a quick overnight. The Thalys train is easy and fast. Within 2 hours, we were on the platform at Antwerp Centraal trying to figure out how to escape the behemoth station. We found our way out, completely missing the beautiful station above. After an almost disastrous run in with a chain of bicycles (watch out, they do not stop) we managed to hail a taxi and head for our hotel.

Antwerp Centraal and apparently a Russell Crowe look alike

Antwerp is a mix of old and new together. Driving to the hotel, we were amazed at the new and old architecture intermingled. Our hotel was located conveniently in the old town. We dropped our bags and headed out on foot to check out the city. We arrived just in time for the Leather Fetish Festival! It was great to see such a liberal and LGBTQIA+ Positive city.

Old Town Antwerp is a lovely maze of cobbled streets and sidewalk cafes. No one was interested in the Moules, but we did jump in with both feet and enjoyed the Frites! We were completely flummoxed language-wise. Flemish, Dutch, French – all blended. Antwerp’s proximity to the Netherlands made it more Dutch-y… not the Tim Horton’s doughnut. We remembered our Danke’s and did our best. The only real trouble we had was back in Paris at Gare du Nord. We were trying to find our departure platform on the board, but it seemed that the two Thalys trains listed didn’t stop in Antwerp, but they did stop in Anvers. Guess what… Anvers = Antwerp in French. And don’t forget the other name, Antwerpen. Well, there was our first foray into Belgium’s multi-faceted languages.

Antwerp/ Antwerpen/ Anvers is lovely and charming

We wound our way to the riverside and realized that in addition to being the centre of the Diamond industry, Antwerp is Europe’s second largest seaport and has a long naval history. The medieval fortress of Het Steen still standing on the shore of the Scheldt River was very impressive. Interesting to see the many new apartment buildings overlooking it as well as the statue of Lange Wapper, a local legend. Without knowing the story, it does look like a giant with two dudes looking up his skirt.

I gather Lange Wapper didn’t wear underwear?

Before the concert, we needed to grab a quick dinner. With the help of Google and their reviews (our rule is to never eat anywhere without 4 stars on Google), we found a lovely Greek restaurant called Mandraki at Kaasrui 13, around the corner from the imposing Cathedral of Our Lady. The food was great and the service was fun. We even managed some light conversation with some locals who were very friendly and welcoming.

Dua was playing the second of two shows at the Sportpaleis, Antwerp’s big arena. She was fantastic and the audience was one of the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen. Maybe its Antwerp, maybe its Dua, maybe its because people have been starved of live music for two years. I’m not sure, but it was a riot. People danced and sang along to every song from the minute she hit the stage. To be fair, Dua’s got plenty of hits so there was no need to dig into any deep album cuts to fill time. At the 90 minute mark, Dua took her encore and we made a quick escape to try and get a taxi. We had luck and 15 minutes later we were all happily tucked into bed in Antwerp.

A seemingly happy Dua Lipa fan

The next morning, we had a few hours before our return train to Paris so we headed out on foot for a bit of breakfast. We found a tiny cafe called Love at First Bite, run by two lovely women and were treated to an outstanding breakfast including Belgian waffles of course! After breakfast we decided to just wander a bit and get lost. We stumbled on a fabulous market of arts and crafts in Grote Markt (Great Market Square) in front of the gorgeous Antwerp Town Hall, a stately and stunning Renaissance building. The market was great fun to explore, with unique and cool finds. We loved the beer garden area complete with a hot dog vendor and a live DJ. What a way to spend a sunny Sunday morning.

Lucky stumble upon the Swan Market at Grote Markt

Soon, we were back on the train to Paris marvelling at how much we loved lovely Antwerp with promises to return.

The sweet statue of Nello and Patrasche in Antwerp