Madrid

A couple weeks ago we flew to Spain to do a road trip through parts of Portugal, and the south of Spain. I thought it would be fun to share our journey with you in the order we saw it, so that you get to travel along with us!

We kicked off our trip in Madrid, a city we never got to see when we were living in Barcelona. So, in spite of the jet lag, we were eager to get out and explore what the city had to offer…

The first thing we got to see while we were there was El Retiro Park, and it completely blew us away. I don’t know if it was the time of day that we visited, or the time of year, but the light in this place was incredible. It was literally golden. It peeked through trees starting to change color, and turned fountains into shimmering displays of light. All we could say as we walked around was ‘Wow!’ I wish we could have spent an entire day there.

Esmé also loved this park. Besides the fact that they had too many playgrounds to choose from, there were people and kids everywhere doing all sorts of amazing things. Some of them were skateboarding, some were rowing in boats on a lake, some were bicycling around, but her favorite were the rollerbladers. We actually sat down on a bench for awhile just so that she could watch them. Then she got up and started ‘skating’ around in her crocs in the dirt along with them.

The Palacio de Cristal, or Glass Palace, has to be one of the coolest treasures tucked away in this park.

I mean just look at this beautiful building! This park had all the beauty of the gardens in Paris or Versailles, the character of Central Park, but with a history and charisma that is all its own. Hands down best park we have ever visited. Ever.

On our second day in Madrid we went to see the Royal Palace. We made the mistake of assuming that the house was attached to the gardens, like in Versailles, and ended up paying to see something that wasn’t the main thing we wanted to see. As such we were tired by the time we finished the tour of the house and didn’t want to go and walk through the garden once we were done.

The Palace itself was spectacular, nonetheless. They only allowed photos in the entryway, but you can still get an idea of how beautiful the rest of it was.

This was the ceiling above where you walk up the stairs to start the tour. Just beautiful. Whenever you’re in old palaces, churches, or buildings in Europe, you have to look up. There are incredible ceilings everywhere! I never get tired of looking at them.

Our next stop in the day was something we promised to Essie for her good behavior inside the Palace. And honestly, if you know me at all, it was really a stop for the both of us.

Dessert!!! Specifically, hot chocolate and churros. Let me also clarify that in Spain, if you order hot chocolate, it is not what you will get here in the states. Not that it isn’t good here, it’s just that it’s a whole other level over there. The hot chocolate is more like a melted brownie. It is very thick, almost like a pudding in texture, and very rich in flavor without being overly sweet. The churros were perfectly crisp on the outside, with a soft moist center to soak up all the chocolate-y goodness. And now I’m starving. Seriously, so so good! Both Esmé and I were very happy campers after this pit stop.

After that we decided to walk back to our hotel, exploring as we went. We stopped at the Plaza Mayor to enjoy a calamari sandwich (my husband’s version of dream food), then continued wandering until we got to Gran Via.

I have to say that the street itself, although very grand and bustling, did not impress me as much as I thought it would.

I was much more impressed with all the buildings we saw walking there and back. Look at the movie theater! How cool a building is that? Esmé loved the giant spider.

Again, I’m always looking up, to see what treasures I can find. It was such a pretty city to explore. We made one more stop at El Retiro Park before calling it a day, and that was Madrid.

The next day we had to leave early to go and pick up our rental car to start our road trip. But before we started our drive to Portugal, we decided to make a stop in Segovia as I had heard about some pretty cool things that were there.

 

The first of which was the Aqueduct of Segovia, which alone made me glad that we went out of our way to this city. It was absolutely incredible. The stones are massive, and it is unfathomable to think about how it was constructed during 112 AD.

I could have sat and stared at this thing all day. It makes you ask all kinds of questions that you will never know the answers to. Like how did they move all those stones in an age where there was no machinery? Where did they get the stones from? How many people died because they didn’t have the safety measures that we do today? It’s the thing I love most about traveling to old places…thinking about the people who inhabited them and what their lives were like while they lived/worked there.

There was also an amazing castle there. We tried to drive up to see it, but the only parking was down at the bottom of the village in front of it. That’s the thing about travel. It’s impossible to see everything you want to see. You make a list with your top choices, pick the one you want to do the most, then hope for the best with the rest, especially with kids. It never ends well if  you rush through just to squeeze in everything that’s on your list. Believe me, we’ve tried.

So we waved hello and goodbye to the castle from afar as we got in the car to head to our next stop, Portugal!

 

 

 

 

Esmé’s First Camp Trip

I love camping. It is such a source of nostalgia for me. I have memories from when I was young, and we went camping with family at the Grand Canyon. We weren’t all that interested in the scenery around us, but I distinctly recall setting up the inside of our tent to look like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle from ‘I Dream Of Jeannie.’ It was such fun pretending to be magic genies with my cousins.

After my husband and I were married, we ended up camping a lot. It was how we did all of our exploring around here…at the Outerbanks, in the mountains, and even river rafting in West Virginia.

My favorite was when we decided to go up to the mountains near Mount Mitchell, and hadn’t made a reservation because we thought that there would be a site available for us. Lo and behold there was not. But they did tell us that if we drove up the road a little bit farther, there were some spots off the road you could pitch a tent. So that’s what we did. There were quite a few more bugs than usual because we were right next to a creek, but it was so much more peaceful and relaxing because there were no other campers around. I sat and read my books, while Emile did lots of fishing, but the best part was at night. It was the beginning of summer, so the fireflies were out. Because we had camped where there was no one else around, there were hundreds of them! The only way I can describe it is if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Avatar.’ How the jungle lights up at night with all those magical lights? That’s what it looked like. It was incredible.

Needless to say, we have been wanting to take Esmé for some time now. Last weekend we finally got the chance to take her and she LOVED it.

The second we let her out of the car she was off and running. She immediately started picking up as many acorns as she could find, set them on the table and was off to find more.

She was more than happy to “help” set up the tent. Though I’m pretty sure my husband would have rather she not. She kept trying to go inside before it was all the way up, and laughed like crazy when it would float back down on her head.

I will say that we had quite the upgrade in our camping situation from when Emile and I used to go camping. We used to be in a very small tent, on very uncomfortable small camping pads. We knew that we needed a bigger tent since the monkey had to sleep with us, so we got a 6 person tent. We also brought along a nice air mattress for us, and Esmé’s travel mattress (which is basically like a kid-sized air mattress). Man oh man. Let me just say, that is the way to camp! We were so comfortable and cozy in our new camping arrangements.

We also did a fair amount of exploring with her. We were right next to this trail that was about a mile walk to a lake, and it was gorgeous.

The weather was perfect, and the water was so clear. The leaves were even starting to change color, which Esmé really enjoyed. She’s seen the leaves change color before, but I don’t think she remembers it. She just loved that there were trees dropping red leaves all over for her to collect.

We even got to see a waterfall while we were there. The water was super cold, but she did not care in the slightest. She probably would have stayed all day if we’d let her. She loves water, and she loves rocks, so this was a very happy marriage of both. There was lots of splashing. There was throwing of rocks to make even more splashes. Basically she was living her best life.

As much as she loved everything else, her absolute favorite was the hammock, (also new addition to our gear!). Probably because she thought it was a swing, thus tried swinging Emile and I (not at the same time) as fast and as high as it would go. Yes, we both got very nauseous/dizzy. Esmé did not. In fact, the higher/ faster you pushed her, the happier she was. She pulled up the sides over her face to cover her whole body in there, like a little bat, and there she’d rock. Back and forth. Back and forth. All the while with her thumb in her mouth.

Truth be told it wasn’t all perfect. Esmé fell six times at our campsite alone, and every single time it was a Broadway production. People two towns over could probably hear her wailing, and she had huge tears to go with. Her poor little knees, legs, and hands took quite the beating from that. We also forgot a couple of things like towels, and cooking tongs, but that was it. Everything else was a breeze.

I know that camping isn’t for everyone. There are bugs involved, and sometimes manual labor is required. You also have to be ok with being kind of dirty for a couple days. But for me, it’s like a reset button. There’s no phone service. It’s peaceful and quiet (Esmé’s meltdowns excluded). You have gorgeous scenery everywhere you look. You’re completely free to relax and enjoy your family.

I kicked back with a good book. I got lost daydreaming in the sites and sounds around me. I got to watch my girl’s face as she experienced the magic of it all on her own. It’s just the best.

D.C. For The Fourth

I just want to preface this post by saying we have been to Washington D.C. a few times before, so this trip wasn’t about seeing all the sites. It was more of a take time off to hang out as a family sort of trip, since my husband has been super busy with work lately. With that said, here’s a little bit about what we did while we were there:

 

The first place we stayed was actually a little bit south of DC and was right by the National Harbor. It would have been an amazing place to sit outside and people watch, but it was soooooo hot. We seem to have a knack for picking the hottest, most humid environments to spend the 4th of July holiday (last year we were here).

We ended up spending the majority of our time at the hotel, either running around their big grassy lawn, or swimming at the pool. It was so cool because they had a giant movie screen by the pool, and fountains for you to splash and run around in. But the best part was the whole back side of the hotel that faced the water was covered with glass windows.

At the end of the day, we got to sit on our balcony, drink some wine, and enjoy this view of the harbor. It was pretty incredible.

The next two nights we spent in D.C. in a hotel that was actually very close to Chinatown. It made me all nostalgic because the very first time we ever saw D.C. was a month and a half after we were married back in 2008.

Look at those two youngins, so obviously, madly in love! We actually found Chinatown by accident. We had walked who knows how many miles after seeing ALL of the monuments, and were looking for food. I was dead tired and super hangry with the husband, when all of a sudden we turned a corner and there was Chinatown! Not just Chinatown, but a Nando’s in Chinatown!! For those of you who don’t know, Nando’s is a South African restaurant. At that time it was the only one in the States, so my husband, who had just moved from his home country of South Africa, pretty much felt like we won the lottery. We make a point of eating there every time we visit.

Back to the story at hand! We were also next to the cutest little outdoor shopping mall. Seriously. Beach balls and fairy lights for decorations? So fun.

Essie and I were up to our usual shenanigans of dancing and running around. They even had fountains for kids to play in next to these cool pieces of art, which we were told explicitly not to climb on.

We also got to see Georgetown while we were there, which is one of my favorite things about D.C. I love the shops.

I love all the charming little houses that have secret gardens tucked away next to them. But most importantly I love the food. You guys. We had our minds blown by the best burger I have ever had in my entire life. I wish I had taken a picture. We got it to go, and it was so amazing we inhaled it before I even thought to take one. If you ever visit you have to go to Good Stuff Eatery and get the Prez Obama Burger. Seriously. Best. Burger. Ever.

The real reason we decided to brave the crowds, heat, and humidity was for the fireworks show that you can watch from the National Mall. We went once, back in 2013 and loved it so much we vowed to go back. Well the next year we had a very tiny baby with us, so we didn’t go then. The year after that we were in another country, so couldn’t go then. Then last year my in-laws came to visit, and we wanted to take them someplace new (they had seen D.C. already), so we didn’t go last year either.

This was the year. We chose to sit  next to the Washington Monument instead of behind it, nearer to the Capitol like we had previously, and it was the perfect spot.

Esmé was completely enthralled, and didn’t take her eyes off the show for one second.

I have to be honest and say that this trip was a bit of a mission. Driving four hours to go wander around in 90+ degrees with 90% humidity, while pushing through crowds with toddler in tow was not ideal. But getting to watch her little face with eyes lit up brighter than the sky, made it more than worth the effort.

Traveling Truths: Paris

I’m going to tell you something. I get serious travel envy. It often happens as soon as we get back from a trip, or worse yet, while we are actually on vacation. It really doesn’t take much. I see someone else’s Instagram post about some beautiful far off place, and immediately I need to see it too. They make it look so perfect, and fun, and fabulous! I think that’s actually part of the problem. We only share the best snippets of our journey.

I want to know the whole story. I want to know the mishaps, or crazy stories that got them there. Mostly I want to know we’re not the only ones stumbling through, trying to make it look like we know what we’re doing.

So in pursuit of honesty, I thought that I would share with you guys some of our traveling truths (failures) from our last trip. Because as much as I loved Paris, it was far from perfect.

Truth #1:

Esmé got very sick while we were there. She got Pink Eye, and some sort of cold virus as well. The first day she had it just in the left eye, and it wasn’t too bad, so we were going to wait it out and see what happened. We went to a pharmacy, got an antiseptic eyewash (that she hated), and waited to see what the next day looked like. The next morning she looked better, but, as the day wore on, the right eye started producing gunk, and her left eye got worse. By day three she looked TERRIBLE. The problem was by the time that we were able to speak to our pediatrician (thank you time delay), it was already too late in the day to get her in to see a doctor. On day four we were finally able to get her in to a doctor thanks to our wonderful hotel concierge. We got antibiotic eye drops, and she was 100% improved within a day.

How did this affect our trip? For starters, we had to have her wear her sunglasses everywhere. We didn’t want her spreading it to anyone, but we also didn’t want people thinking we were child abusers. Her eyes were red and swollen all the way down to her little cheeks. I literally had a pain in my chest having to look at her, because I knew she had to be so uncomfortable.

We also had to go back to the hotel at 4 hour intervals to give her drops. This was the hardest. It was a wrestling match every time to hold her down, and she screamed like she was dying. I’m sure we made our neighboring guests super happy.

Truth #2:

We brought one too many suitcases. I’m pretty sure this took two years off my husband’s life. Every other time that we have visited Europe we’ve either had a rental car, or have stayed with family who had a car. Basically, we’ve never had to walk all our stuff to and from the airport/hotel. So I packed just like we did for all the others…one suitcase for each of us. Huuuuuuuuge mistake.

The problem was that we had a toddler with us. One of us had to push the stroller with one hand while pulling along a suitcase and the other person pushed/pulled two suitcases; OR one person pushed all three while the other person pushed the stroller (I know this option seems ludicrous, but my husband actually attempted to push all three suitcases at once because it was such a mission doing the stroller and a suitcase).

There were heated discussions about a certain someone (me) not packing everything into two suitcases at least three different times during our trip. Lesson learned.

Also we stayed at two different places while we were there. It was so much fun moving all our stuff again.

Truth #3:

Versailles was almost a total disaster. I say almost, because we managed to keep it together while we were inside the palace. The best part about this truth is that I have a photo of the exact moment that it fell apart! This picture right here, when I was taking a picture of Emile taking a picture of Esmé frolicking in the gardens. She tripped and totally ate it immediately after our picture.

She had an epic meltdown afterward. It was so loud that other people who were there with their own crying children were giving us the stink eye. We didn’t know how sick she was yet because this was day 3 of her sickness. It was past nap time. Then she got a dent in her head from falling on her face with her sunglasses on. Rough day.

I had this vision of how our trip was going be, with lots of things to see and do, and all the pictures I wanted to take. Then life happened. We had to change plans almost daily, depending on how Esmé was feeling, but we made it work. Traveling with kids is never easy, but it is certainly one heck of an adventure.

Besides, in ten years time you’re not going to remember all the bad stuff that drove you crazy, (unless you’re my husband…then you will never ever let your wife forget the suitcase incident as long as either of you lives). It’s the good stuff, like kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower while it sparkles, that you take with you. That is what drives you to go out and do it all over again somewhere new.

Paris Je T’aime

 

Last week was all about the tourist attractions we saw in Paris, which were pretty amazing, but this post is the one I have been most excited to share with you. This week it’s all about my personal favorites, starting with…

STREET LIFE

The people there were so quintessentially French. The patrons of cafés and patisseries sat at dainty tables while sipping espresso, or dining with friends.

The other thing I found fascinating was how the crowd would change depending upon the time of day. The morning was a quiet, subdued crowd who came to drink coffee or have a small breakfast before rushing off to work. The afternoon was bustling with gatherings of friends and workers enjoying a lunch out doors. The busiest time of all was happy hour, or early dinner time.

It was like people went out to celebrate and enjoy life as if it were a Friday, even though it was Monday or Tuesday evening. I found it so refreshing! I think they should call it the golden hour, because it happens right as the sun is setting. The whole city is bathed in golden light, and there are throngs of people sitting out at cafe tables and bars, just living their best lives.

WANDERINGS

I also loved just wandering around the city. If you’ve read any of my other posts on places we’ve traveled to, you already know that this is one of my favorite things to do. Paris did not disappoint. We found adorable little boutique hotels.

We found the cutest neighborhood ever next to Notre-Dame (Île De La Cité), where we also found the best ice cream we’ve ever had.

We also found the bakery where Ina Garten buys her bread when she’s in Paris, (hey, I will gladly take any excuse to consume more carbs while traveling). We bought a loaf, took it back to our hotel, and ate it as is. OK, we also snacked on it on our way back to the hotel. It was so so good.

We found a chef having an intriguing conversation in front of a pink building. I actually don’t know if it was intriguing or not. They might have been talking about something boring like ear wax, or oil changes, but it looked like it was, therefore I took their picture.

After visiting the Luxembourg gardens, on a whim, we decided to walk back to our hotel instead of taking the metro. In the picture above you can see we were walking past the Sainte-Chapelle amongst all these grand buildings when something caught our eye.

Technically two things caught our eye. First was this beautiful metro sign. Don’t you just love that? How amazing would it be if the subway signs in NYC, or Barcelona were that fancy! It just makes it look so much more inviting. In any case, because we saw this really cool metro sign, it drew us to the market behind it that turned out to be…

the most gorgeous flower market! There were tons and tons of blossoms of all types, spilling out of their containers.

It was such a treasure to find tucked in between all these massive, stately buildings. We never would have found it though, if we’d taken the fast way home on the metro.

FOOD

We only got to eat out at restaurants a few different times because we had a toddler with us, but you know what? It honestly didn’t matter because the best food we found were pastries found in these little shops, or carts that are hidden in alleyways all over the city. Our particular favorite were the crepes. Oh my goodness, if only I could have one of those right now.

They really have it down to an art form. It’s mesmerizing to watch them. When they make them, they pour out such a small amount of batter onto the hot plate that you think it can’t possibly be enough to make a crepe. But they just swirl it around, and around, and around, and around with this little batter pusher until it’s right up to the edge of the circle. It ends up being impossibly thin, but they flip it over without a hitch, fill it, fold it up, and hand it to you wrapped in paper. Seriously my biggest regret was not eating more of them.

MONTMARTRE

If you go to Paris and you only have time to visit one neighborhood, you HAVE to go to Montmartre. Absolutely the best neighborhood to wander through. You will not be able to put down your camera. I promise. We actually walked over from the Moulin Rouge, so it starts out with all these very beautiful buildings that look like they belong on top of a wedding cake.

Then as you start walking closer to the Sacré-Coeur, it morphs into the most enchanting little buildings you have ever seen in your life. All I could hear in my head as I was walked along the cobbled streets was ‘La Vie En Rose.’ All the buildings are soft, warm shades of pastels covered in ivy.

There was also music everywhere. We found a guitar player who was playing right next to someone who had strung up a tight rope to walk on, and the one above was situated, happily, next to a Christmas shop! Talk about serendipitous (not because it’s the season, just because I’m obsessed with all things Christmas).

We timed our walk to the Sacré-Coeur perfectly because we got there right as the sun was setting.

We sat down and did a little people watching before we walked down alllll the steps to the bottom, so that Esmé could play where it was a lot less crowded.

THE PEOPLE

The last thing I want to share, is actually what impressed me the most. The first time that I went to France, I was nervous because I had heard that French people are a little bit stuck-up or snobbish. At the time we were living in Barcelona, and hadn’t exactly received the warmest welcome from the people there, so we were really looking for a break.

As it turned out we were blown away at how friendly and helpful everyone was. We went a few more times and it was always the same. So when I would talk to people about our trips I would always say that I loved the French, because I’d never met anyone who had lived up to that bad rumor I heard. They would in turn say, well it might be different when you visit Paris.

Because of that, I, again, was a little apprehensive and had low expectations. Guess what? The people we met while we were in Paris were possibly the nicest, most helpful yet. Our uber driver had dropped us one street too far, so we were looking at Google maps trying to orientate ourselves when a complete stranger comes up to us. We hadn’t flagged her down, or asked for her help in any way. She just saw us standing there on the street with our luggage and tried to help us. She couldn’t speak English, so she walked away, went to find someone who did speak English and had him help us. The man then said “And once you’re at your hotel, if you need to do washing, you can come here to my laundromat!”

There were complete strangers who helped us every day getting on and off the subway, or on and off of buses. It wasn’t just us that people were helping either. People give up their seats for the elderly. We saw a handful of people help an older woman struggling to walk get off of the bus. Still more people were there to help anyone struggling with luggage.

It may just be that there isn’t that much news coverage of people doing small kindnesses, but I was amazed at the kindness and generosity shown to us and to others while we were there.

I loved Paris. Plain and simple.

 

An American Family In Paris

First of all, I know that this is long overdue. I have been putting off writing about Paris because I knew that as soon as I started going through all my pictures I would start getting homesick. Yes homesick. I can feel you rolling your eyes at me, but I’m telling you. It’s very much possible to have that achy, heart-longing feeling for a place that you do not actually live in. It’s a thing and it happened to me.

Second, we saw so much when we were there that I decided to divide it into two posts. This first one is all the touristy things that we got to see while we were there. First up, Notre-Dame Cathedral…

We actually visited Notre-Dame twice. The first time we were exploring the city with family, so we just walked around the grounds and admired the cathedral from the outside.

It was quite a rainy, gloomy day our first trip there, which made for a very moody experience. What with all the stone gargoyles glowering down at you and skeletal spires towering overhead.

Another cool thing we discovered was that in the back of the cathedral there was this beautiful little garden. (Esmé is pouting in the picture because there was a swing that was there, and there was also someone on said swing therefore preventing her from reaching full joy potential. Don’t worry though because about 5 minutes after we made her take a picture, the person got off, and she got to swing to her hearts content)

The second time we went we explored the interior, and the inside of the cathedral was just as impressive, if not more so, than the outside.

For me, churches are one of my favorite things to see when we travel. I think it’s because they are generally hundreds and hundreds of years old and there is so much history behind them.

It always makes me wonder about the kind of people who have come to worship, and what kind of lives they lived in whatever time they happened to be living them.

We got to see The Eiffel Tower!!! It is massive. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It is fabulously French. We went and saw it in the day time and were pretty flabbergasted until we saw it at night time…

Every night as soon as it’s dark, for five minutes, every hour, on the hour, the tower sparkles! We took a river cruise down the Seine and the boat was right next to the tower when it started sparkling. I can not even begin to explain how absolutely beautiful it was. Esmé loved it so much, she got upset any time it went out of sight on the way back. I’m pretty sure that it’s the closest I’ll come to seeing magic happen. It was spectacular.

Speaking of spectacular, we saw the spectacular spectacular! Well, we saw the outside. The reviews for this place were too mixed for me to actually pay to go and see the show, but it was so cool seeing the place that inspired one of my favorite movies.

The gardens in Paris are all so pristine! We actually figured out why while we were visiting the Luxembourg gardens. Do you see how there are chairs lining the lawn in the picture above? Well, those chairs are all around the gardens so that people don’t sit on the grass. They have these signs posted everywhere telling you to keep off of the lawns, and while we were there we actually saw security chase this woman out of the garden! He had a whistle and everything, so they take their garden maintenance very seriously.

When the grounds look this amazing though, I really don’t blame them. I honestly wish that I had taken more photos there because all the tree-lined promenades were so perfectly manicured you had to see it to believe it.

All throughout the garden there were these mini gardens, if you will. You would be walking along and all of a sudden it opened up into another perfect lawn with a sculpture of some sort in the middle, surrounded by beautiful flowers. There was literally perfection hiding in every nook and cranny of this place.

Esmé was happy because she got a chance to stretch her legs a bit and run around, as they had a huuuuge playground inside. Emile and I were happy because there was a little place just outside the playground, that sold the most amazing custard pastries. We all were happy because we ended the trip with a trip to Angelina’s for hot chocolate. It was basically like drinking a hot brownie batter. Heaven. The Luxembourg gardens were a smash hit for the whole family.

Versailles! I literally have to take a breath before I think about describing this place. Versailles is a gilded, very ornate, monster of a palace. It’s absolutely massive and is so over-the-top that it’s very easy to see why there was a revolution. You actually can’t get the whole of it in the picture frame unless you’re standing very, very, very, VERY far away.

You know what? I lied, because you see that building way up at the front there in this picture? That’s the palace. And not all of it is in the frame. Sorry guys. Though this was taken behind the palace in the gardens, so maybe it’s possible if you try from the front?

Here’s part of the back of the palace, and actually the middle floor of the central building is the hall of mirrors.

The inside of which looked like this. Pretty amazing, no? We got the audio guides and tried our hardest to listen to all the history about how magnificent this place was, and what went into making it.

However, Esmé thought it was a race to see who could get through the palace the fastest, so we really only caught snippets here and there. For instance we know that this was King Louis XIV’s chapel, but that’s all I got before I went running off to catch up to my little love.

You know what? That’s OK. Because as beautiful and amazing as the Palace was, the gardens were even better. They were so vast, that even though we must have walked 5 miles, we only saw a small bit of them. In the picture above, they literally stretch all the way to the horizon.

I could have happily spent a week here, wandering around exploring every square inch of the beautiful grounds. Esmé on the other hand could not.

I don’t know if it was the fact that she was sick, or the fact that we were doing this around her nap time, but she had a rough day.

Basically, this was not as big a hit for us as a family. My husband and I loved it, but if you have younger kids who still take a nap, this is a bit of a stretch for them. Totally worth it, mind you, but you will have a serious cranky-pants on your hands at the end of the day.

Last, but definitely not least…the Louvre! I really wish we had done a bit more research on this place because it’s massive. It is actually the world’s largest museum, and it’s impossible to see everything in one trip.

I think the reason why I didn’t bother to research the museum, was that I knew we were going to have our toddler with us, and I wasn’t expecting to see all that much. I know it’s super touristy, and probably reveals my lack of art history/ interest, but all I wanted to see was the Mona Lisa. Anything else that we were able to see would just be icing on top of the cake. So that’s where we headed first!

Everyone always talks about how disappointed they are because the painting is so small, and it’s too crowded, so I had low expectations. However I was pleasantly surprised when we made our way over to the exhibit. I mean, it’s definitely not the biggest painting there is, but I still felt like it was such a treat to see. It also wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be. It was definitely the busiest exhibit we saw while we were there, but it was no where near the horror stories I’d read about online. So so happy that we got to see her!

We actually were able to see a lot more than I had anticipated. We saw Napolean III apartments (above), Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, The Coronation of Napoléon (an enormous canvas!), the French Crown Jewels (serious drooling), and we even got to see the original foundations of the Louvre itself in the Medieval section. Our trip to the Louvre ended up being the perfect way to wrap up our trip to Paris.

Something we learned by accident, because we had a late nap, is that it’s actually a lot better to go at night time, than first thing in the morning (This was also the case for Versailles, because we went early afternoon, around 2, and there was no line). We didn’t have to wait at all to buy tickets, and the line for security had maybe five people in front of us? I think we got there around 6 pm, and it was perfect. That may have also been why it wasn’t so crowded in the Mona Lisa room. Also they allow you to take your stroller inside (something we could not do at the Palace of Versailles)! It’s a bit of a mission going up and down lots of stairs if you’re not close to an elevator, but it was such a help for us.

Did we have a favorite after seeing and doing all these things? Hands down, all three of us loved the river cruise at night past the Eiffel Tower. It was kid friendly, so I was more relaxed because I didn’t have to worry about keeping her under control. They also had mini bottles of wine to purchase, so we sat, cuddled together (because it was freezing), and drank our wine as Paris floated by. It was magic.

Day Tripping In Switzerland

Switzerland is such a cool place to visit. We’ve been twice before (here and here), and we always see something different. This last time was a little different because I decided to be brave and go adventuring without my husband, who was working in Amsterdam during the week. He generally plans all of our outings whenever we travel, so I was very nervous having to do it without him. However, with the help of my brother-in-law, and my sisters-in-law, we managed to squeeze in two different day trips while we were visiting in February.

Our first trip was to the Chateau de Chillon in Montreux, Switzerland. We got to go with Essie’s Uncle, and his puppy George, so naturally she was thrilled. She made lots of friends on the train ride over, making sure to say ‘hi’ to every single person she passed, (something that was repeated with every trip we made to the bathroom, and back again).

The weather that day was spectacular. I mean, we were there in the middle of winter, and that day we almost didn’t even need our coats. It was so nice that we decided to walk from the train station to the castle instead of taking the bus. It was only a 20-30 minute walk any how, so we didn’t mind in the least. Especially as the walk was this pretty little path that bordered Lake Geneva the whole way there.

I knew that Montreux is considered the French side of Switzerland, but I was still surprised by how much the city reminded me of France. It was still very Swiss…pristine turquoise water, beautiful homes, well-kept, clean streets (there is seriously not a single piece of litter anywhere), but the style and the colors of the homes that we saw were all very French. Even the language had changed! In Zurich, where we were staying, everyone speaks Swiss German. In Montreux, everyone speaks French. It was such an interesting experience because as you are riding on the train, at a certain point, the overhead automated voice literally changes languages from German to French.

Side note- the mountains in the picture above are actually where Evian water comes from! You can look up Evian-les-Bains on Google maps, and see how close we were to them. I thought that was very cool to see.

Not surprisingly, once there Esmé could have cared less about seeing the castle. All she wanted to do was climb on the bike rack and find really cool sticks to play with that were not to share with George, but Georgie ended up stealing anyway.

We didn’t get a chance to go inside as we were short on time, but we still got to see quite a bit of the castle from the outside. Then that was it for our first trip! We walked back to the train station, hopped on our train and headed back to Zurich. All in all it went pretty smoothly, for traveling without the husband. We only had two hangups:

First- I was nearly eaten up by the escalator at the train station. I was standing too close to the stroller going down, and kind of fell backwards on the step behind me. With my backpack on and the stroller right in front of me, almost on top of me, I couldn’t get back up again. Fortunately Emile’s brother was standing behind me, and helped me get out from under the stroller before the escalator ended.

Second- Esmé decided to a back dive onto the cement. In the picture that is second from the top of this post, you can see her sitting next to some pretty flowers. Well, she decided to pick said flowers which happened to grow, very securely, on a sturdy stem. She pulled so hard to pick it that the momentum carried her backwards off the platform, where her head met the sidewalk behind her. Fortunately, the hood of her jacket was very poofy, so it cushioned the blow, and the only thing hurt was her pride.

Our second trip was to Lugano, the Italian side of Switzerland, and it was every bit as beautiful as the French side.

The weather was, obviously, more winter-y than when we were in Montreux, but I actually think we enjoyed this trip a little bit more.

Because the train ride to Lugano wasn’t as long as the one to Montreux, we actually had time to let Esmé run around enjoy herself a bit more.

And run we did… we had races in between the trees, climbed all over statues and benches, and fed the swans half our cereal.

I will say that Italian swans seem to be much nicer than any other that I’ve met. At least from what we’ve experienced, swans are actually very aggressive, mean birds. But these guys were super chill to have a toddler in their midst. Even Esmé seemed to like them a lot more than the others. She actually said as we were leaving “Bye my swans! Bye!” It was quite cute.

What I loved most about Lugano was how close the mountains were to you. Even with all the morning mist covering the tops, I still had this feeling of being so small, surrounded by these great looming giants all crowding around the lake.

After we finished exploring, we sat and had ourselves some pizza by the lake for lunch (when in the Italian side of Switzerland!). Then we headed back home to Zurich, where our cranky, territorial, Swiss German swans awaited us.

Both of these places were so spectacular in their own right that I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. Montreux is the perfect combination of French and Swiss…charming and practically perfect. Lugano is this gorgeous, pastel-colored city that is folded into the hills surrounding the lake. Honestly, I just feel lucky to have seen both while we were there.

We Amsterdam

A few weeks back, we got the opportunity to travel and visit family in Switzerland again. We took advantage of my husband having to work in Amsterdam while we were there, and Esmé and I flew up to stay with him for a long weekend. Friends, Amsterdam is, hands down, one of the coolest places I have had the pleasure of seeing in Europe.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will have to forgive me for sharing some of the same images here, because they are just too pretty not to re-share. But let’s be honest… if you went wandering past all these cute little shops where people just happened to be sitting, admiring them on their bicycles, would you not also take a picture? Then proceed to share that picture as many places as possible? I thought so. Also, if you hadn’t figured this out already, this is going to be a photo-heavy post. Consider yourself warned.

We spent the whole of our first day there just wandering around the city. We had no specific destination or goals in mind, we just wanted to take it all in at our own pace. I feel like that is the best way to see cities in Europe. I mean, it’s always nice seeing the major monuments, or museums that attract people in the first place. But our favorite places we’ve seen have been those that we just happened to find because we took a day to wander around.

We did have to take a nap-break after lunch (we ALL needed it), and when we woke up, the sun had come out! We hurried and bundled ourselves back up to go wander around some more.

As charming and beautiful as it was, there was one caveat about exploring the city. It really wasn’t a toddler-friendly thing to do, particularly in winter. It was busy. We were there in the middle of winter and the sidewalks were jam-packed with people walking around. I honestly got a little overwhelmed at times, and was thankful I had my husband there to help navigate us around.

In addition to navigating through the crowds, you also have to watch out for all the bicyclists. There is actually a separate lane for all the cyclists next to the actual road for cars. Trolleys and cable cars also share the road. Basically we decided that it was safest to keep Esmé in her stroller for the majority of the time.

When we did come across an area where cars/bikes/trolleys were not allowed, we let her out to run around a bit. She particularly enjoyed this little sitting area that had these tilted circular tables. She climbed on every single one, and walked around and around on top of them, singing ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ the whole time.

We walked until my feet were numb from the cold. Then we headed back to have dinner in our hotel, and figure out what we wanted to do for the next day. I told Emile that I thought it would be neat to see an old windmill while we were there, because that’s what I think of when I think of something being ‘Dutch’ or from the Netherlands. Well guess what husband did?

He found me a windmill!! Ok several, if we’re being specific, but how cool is that? I told him I wanted him to take my picture as I was doing a cartwheel in front of it on the pier. He said “Yeah definitely do that, because then I can laugh my butt off when you cartwheel off the pier into the water.” Spoilsport. What you see above is the second closest I could come to my interpretation of a windmill.

It was such a fun visit because in addition to all of the windmills there was an old Dutch village to explore.

There were all these tiny little houses that had mini canals in between one another (this was charming initially, but actually turned out to be a serious pain in the a** when a certain munchkin had to go pee, and there were three canals in between us and the potty).

Bathroom debacle aside, Esmé was in heaven. Since it had rained in the morning, there were puddles to jump in about every two feet, and plenty of space to run around.

Matter of fact, she did just that in this little garden where a group of people were trying to make a film of some sort. She completely derailed their efforts by running circles nonstop behind them through the garden.

One of the coolest perks of our little day trip was getting to tour this place where they make wooden shoes. We also got to tour the cheese shop while we were there, but it wasn’t as interesting because you didn’t really get a demonstration of how it’s made. At the shoe place, the guy literally took a block of wood and turned it into shoes! It was absolutely fascinating to watch.

Outside the shop they had yellow wooden clogs of various sizes to try on/ pose for pictures in.

Needless to say, the opportunity was not lost on us. After that we had to head back on our tour bus back to the city.

Esmé didn’t feel like napping when we got back, so we went out for a walk again. This time we decided to see the ‘Iamsterdam’ sign, and it was far and away one of the craziest places I’ve ever been. It was literally crawling with people. Everyone was trying to climb on top of the letters without really worrying where (or who) they were stepping on.

The one good thing about braving the crowds around the ‘Iamsterdam’ sign was we ended up finding a playground! This girl loves her swings. She really does have a knack for finding them wherever we go.

I love love loved this city. I loved the people, who were so friendly and helpful (they also speak English). I loved the row upon row of charming narrow houses all squished together. But mostly I loved the character that this city had.

Amsterdam may not be the most kid-friendly place we’ve been to, but it was certainly one of the craziest, most interesting cities I’ve seen. I would definitely go again in a heartbeat given the opportunity.

 

Cape Town

The vast majority of our South African adventure was spent in Cape Town. We had a whirlwind two weeks jam packed with family activities, so forgive me if this post is a little long.

First on the agenda was our stay with Ouma and Oupa, who, lucky for us, happen to live very near to lots of different wine farms. Score!

We got to see a few while we were there, but my favorite one was this beautiful place where you could have a picnic lunch while sipping their wine. They packed the adult boxes with tasty little jars of meat and cheese spreads, containers of salads, and lovely, crusty loaf of olive bread. They also packed two different desserts in there. Basically it was heaven in a box with wine.

The other cool thing about this place was that it was very kid friendly. They had a playground and a water fountain that kids could swim in, which sort of over-flowed all the way down to a splash-pad. While we lunched, Esmé played her little heart out until she was hungry…

and then they set up a special little picnic spot just for her to eat her lunch! I mean this place seriously was the best. It is so nice to find places that are kid-friendly when you travel, so this was a definite win.

After our stay with Ouma and Oupa we got to see Emile’s brother get married! It was such a beautiful wedding. Table Mountain was the backdrop, and the lush, green garden was the perfect frame for one of the prettiest wedding parties I have ever seen. Seriously all of the guests were so stylish, I felt a little out of place there with my backpack on running around after my toddler.

Said toddler was the only child present at this wedding and she made quite sure that everyone knew she was there. She started out looking pretty and pressed with her new shoes on, but ended the day barefoot, covered in dirt from head-to-toe, with lipstick on her dress from being kissed by others so much. She ran. She jumped. She ate. She laughed. She drank (milk). She threw dirt in the fountain and almost ruined the filter system. She danced. Then we went home and she crashed. It was a very, very good day.

We were so lucky to have such clear days while we were in town for the wedding, because we had spectacular views of the mountains.We spent some time walking around the waterfront, checking out the shops, and also took her for a trip to the aquarium.

The coolest part was their clown fish exhibit. They had this entrance where you duck under to get to this cylindrical viewing area inside the tank. Esmé loved it. There were so many clown fish! She had just watched ‘Finding Dory’ on the flight over, so she was all about the Dory and Marlin fishes.

We also got to see Santa while we were there!! I was very curious to see if she would like him in person. She loves him in movies, books, and stories, so you’d think she would. Last year when we took her, she screamed bloody murder. Turns out we are still wary of the in-the-flesh Santa. The closer he got to the glass, the farther away she ran. Sorry Santa, maybe next year.

After that, we were down to our last week with family. There was lots of wining and dining, golfing for Papa, swimming at the hotel pool, but I think Esmé’s favorite was a hike we did through the forest in Knysna.

This was actually a 3 kilometer trail that she ended up walking, almost entirely, by herself. I literally only had to carry her for maybe 10 minutes total.

The rest of the 1.5 hour walk she did all by herself. Everyone, myself included, was super impressed with our little adventurer.

We did so much in our three weeks in South Africa: from safaris, to hiking through a beautiful green jungle, to walks by the coast.

After all was said and done, my favorite moments were actually ones where we weren’t doing much of anything at all. They were the times spent sitting outside on Ouma and Oupa’s porch, watching Esmé run and laugh and play in the garden.

Or watching my little love decorate the Christmas tree with her Uncles. Don’t get me wrong, I love new adventures and want to see as much of the world as I can. But the quiet moments where no one was worried about running around, or where we were off to next, and everyone was just hanging out? Those were the ones that made my heart happy.

On Safari

When I first met my husband many, many years ago, and he told me he was from South Africa, I had all sorts of curious questions for him. One of them was “Do you have like zebras, or giraffes that come through your back yard?” In my hometown of Tucson, AZ we saw javelinas, rattlesnakes, scorpions, bobcats, coyotes, etc. in our backyard, or sometimes even the front yard all the time. So when he said he lived in South Africa, it seemed a reasonable assumption on my part that this…

might show up in his backyard. He gave me a look, that he often does, indicating his uncertainty of my sanity, and said ‘no we do not.’

After living in the States for a couple of years, where we had all sorts of wildlife in our own backyard here in NC, he has determined that my question was not as stupid/ insane as he once believed.

This past December we were in South Africa for three weeks, visiting family. While we were there, we decided to do a safari through Kruger National Park. The park is exactly what my younger, more naive self envisioned. It’s an enormous game reserve where wild animals are literally right outside your car window.

Our first day there was chilly, which was quite a rare thing for being the middle of summer. Cooler, cloudy weather meant two things. One- more animals out in the daytime; and two- longer, more frequent car naps from Esmé. It actually made for quite a pleasant car ride.

As soon as we got into the park she was out like a light. Literally, a herd of water buffalo tromped past our car and she didn’t even flinch. She was out cold.

Emile was most excited about seeing a pack of wild dogs. Apparently they are very rare, and we saw the whole pack (if you look closely you can see some of them hiding in the trees in the picture above), which was very cool.

I was most excited to see the elephants. So much so that when one appeared outside my window I actually shrieked from surprise because it snuck up on me. I shouted for Emile to stop and we skidded to a stop, nearly scaring him away. He carried on walking to a mud/water hole, where we were able to get an amazing view of him drinking water. We were soooo close! It was crazy, and a little unnerving because the last time we went to Kruger we were charged by an elephant. As it was, there was another car that got a little too close to him. The elephant started shaking his head at them, so we hurried up and got out of there.

Also of note…twinning with the zebras! And I didn’t even plan it! Emile said I was being ridiculous, but I made him take my picture anyway.

The best part of our first day in Kruger was seeing lion cubs! There were at least four of them that we could see up on this ridge near the road. The mama lions were a little farther down the river bed, but still visible (not in any pictures we took unfortunately). It was such a treat to be able to see these guys in person.

Our second day in Kruger turned out to be a family day for the animals. It started with this family of four impalas. It was so cute because the mom was leading the way and the dad was nudging them along to cross the road from behind.

Then we saw a family of giraffes. This guy actually stood for quite some time right in the middle of the road, before moving to the other side, so that we could get by.

My favorite family viewing was, of course, the elephants. I mean, look at that little guy!! Baby animals are just the best. Esmé was actually awake for most of the day this time around and the elephants ended up being her favorite as well. She kept holding up her Charlotte Bear and saying “Look Shah-lot (Charlotte)! Look! There’s al-a-fants back dere!” After each animal we would see, we would ask her which one she wanted to find next. She always said, “Al-a-fants (elephants)!” It was so fun to see her enjoy them as much as I do.

We also got to follow these guys around for awhile. They started out a little ways off, on the right side of our car but then jogged away. When we turned right on the next road, it turned out that they were going the same way we were! Emile was hoping that they were in pursuit of food, but after awhile they plopped their butts down just to hang out on the side of the road. I thought they were pretty cute little hyenas.

When you go on safari, you aim to try and find what they call the “big five,” which are the lion, a buffalo, an elephant, a leopard, and rhinoceros. We were happy that we’d seen three of the five, but really wanted to find a rhinoceros. Seeing them has actually become harder due to heavy poaching. They are extremely shy of people, and try to avoid the roads.  We actually got to a point in our last day where we decided to head back to Johannesburg, because it was getting late.

As we were leaving the park, my husband was looking around and said “This looks like good rhino territory, I’m going to stop the car and do a scan.” So he put the car in park, got out his binoculars and literally started scanning the surrounding landscape. I was very skeptical because there were miles and miles and miles of land stretched out before us.

You know what? He found one…. A MILE AWAY. Can you believe it? You could barely see it with your naked eye. Honestly when I looked without the binoculars, it looked like a grey dot, no bigger than the tip of a ball-point pen, moving through a mass of green on the hillside. I was seriously so flabbergasted. That was like park ranger skills. Husband man stole my ‘eagle-eye’ title that day.