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.

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.

An Igloo Adventure

When I heard that we were going to get to have lunch in an igloo for our trip to Switzerland, I was pretty excited. That’s like a bucket list thing to do, right?? The husband was more excited about the fact that it was in Davos, which is apparently where all the movers and shakers of the world get together once a year, and going snowboarding, but not me.

Years ago, when Seal proposed to Heidi Klum in an igloo, I thought how cool is that?! Ever since then, I have had it in my mind that visiting an igloo would be this life-changing, amazing experience. Basically I could not wait.

The igloo village was in the Alps, at the top near the ski lodge. I had visions of walking up to the igloo village and strolling around with Esmé in hand. They were promptly shattered almost as soon as we got to the ski lodge, and saw what we were dealing with.

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In the photo above, (which I got from their website) you see what appear to be flat-ish snow hills in the middle of the picture? That’s the igloo village. And those tiny dots that are next to them? Those are people. Skiers to be exact. Skiers who are skiing past on the ski slope to be super exact.

My sister-in-law, Rene, and I stood in the exact same spot as this photographer, atop this hill, wondering how the hell we were supposed to get down there without actually skiing. We had a toddler. We could not ski. Therefore it seemed impossible that we were going to get to check this thing off my bucket list.

We decided to call it off after someone skied over to us, and pointed out that standing on a ski slope without skis is very dangerous, and we should move. So we trudged back up the small bit of hill we had hiked down, back into the lodge to come up with a plan.

First we tried calling the the restaurant in the igloo, where nobody answered. We had no choice but to call our better halves, who were out skiing and snowboarding, to let them know that we couldn’t go. They were just finishing their run anyway, so were headed back to meet up with us.

While we stood in the hall waiting for them, an employee (who spoke excellent English!!) happened to walk past. He took Rene outside and showed her exactly where we needed to walk to get to the igloo village. By the time she returned, husband and his sister were back, so we were back in the game, and ready for our adventure!

Essentially we had to start up at the top of the hill where you see in the picture, but we went in a wider, more roundabout way. (Note: it was not necessarily an easier route, it was just people-without-skiis/snowboard friendly.) We had to walk on part of the ski run, twice actually, and there was a monster hill we had to walk down to get there, but we made it!

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Was it every bit as amazing as I thought it would be?

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Heck yes!! Esmé, as you can see, was not the biggest fan, but I was blown away. The walls literally sparkled. Each room had it’s own artwork carved into the walls. In the picture above, we were sitting on one of the beds that they have for guests who stay overnight.

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The room numbers for the bedrooms were carved ice, lit up at the back so it glowed bright blue.

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As for lunch? You just can’t go wrong with a melted pot of cheese, bread, and wine. It was absolute heaven. At least until little E decided she had had enough. We trudged back across the ski slope to the monster hill, screaming toddler in tow, and began the hectic hike back up to the lodge.

About halfway up the hill, the Swiss Aunties and I noticed that it got very quiet all of a sudden. We turned around to see that Papa had shifted his hold on the little monkey and she had passed out in his arms. Ha! So from then on Emile and I took turns carrying her, like you would carry a baby (only she’s not a baby, she’s a 27 lb toddler)…

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allllllll the way back up to the lodge. You can see me in the photo above, literally grinning and bearing it, as my arms were about to fall off. I don’t know how Heidi and Seal got to/ from their igloo, but I feel like it was probably a lot less schlepping.

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It’s funny because all of us on the way to the igloo and on the way back from the igloo were saying, ‘No way. This is not worth the effort.’ But now looking back on it? I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The almost getting run over by skiers and snowboarders, the hiking up and down steep, slippery, snowy slopes whilst holding a toddler, the carrying a passed out munchky until I collapsed on the cafeteria bench, it was all worth the adventure that we got to have together as a family.

 

Reflections

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As a parent you get to experience two different time phenomena, often times simultaneously. One is where time seems to be moving so slowly you’d swear it was actually going backwards. The other is when it zooms past so quickly, if you blink, you’ll miss it.

So I find myself facing a new year, fully aware of how much we packed into it, but still wondering where the time went.

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There were many firsts: Esmé meeting family and friends for the first time; Esmé riding on a plane, train, bus, and boat for the first time; Esmé’s first birthday; Esmé’s first Valentine’s Day, and Easter; Esmé’s first baseball game; Esmé’s first time getting sick; Our first time seeing Europe!

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There was much travel: We got to visit 6 different states, and 6 different countries this year. We saw beaches, mountains, rivers, and lakes. There were castles, cathedrals, ancient ruins, and tiny villages tucked away in the hillsides.

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It was filled with family and friends: We got to spend some serious quality time with so many family and friends: Most of my family flew in for Esme’s first birthday; Esmé got to meet almost all of my husband’s family when we were abroad; and then when we came home, we got to see my family and friends again.

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It was also a year of learning lessons the hard way: Learning what our limits are as a family; learning my limits as a mother; learning Esmé’s limits as a growing toddler; learning that I’m stronger than I thought I was, both as an individual, and as a family; learning that even though change is hard and frustrating, you adapt quicker than you think you could; learning to be present in the moment.

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As I reflect back on everything that happened this year, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude.  I have so very much to be grateful for… For the amazing moments, the boring ones, the happy ones, but also the moments when I wanted to pull my hair out, scream at the top of my lungs, and then curl in a ball and cry.

With so much to be thankful for this year, I find that I am a little reluctant to let it go. I find myself questioning what if next year isn’t as good as this one was?

When I really sit down and think about it though, the things that I loved most about this year were not the big things that happened to us- the number of trips we got to take, or fancy places we got to see. It was the connections I had with those near and dear to me that I loved most. It was the moments that made me laugh, or cry, or made me feel like I mattered.

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It was staying up until 1:00 in the morning with my sisters-in-law drinking wine and laughing until my face hurt.

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It was spending a quiet evening outside with my husband after putting the baby down, listening to the sounds of the night in the countryside.

It was spending a rainy day cooped up in a hotel room with my sick daughter, my body half curled around hers on the bed while she slept.

That is what I have to remind myself as I face the New Year. I have to remind myself that even though my heart aches a little to say good-bye to another year, there are a great many more memories to be made, more time with family and friends to be cherished.

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Happy New Year everyone! May you find health, happiness, and a full heart in 2016.

 

 

Sunset Magic

October is one of my favorite months of the year because it is the start of the holiday season (for me), and it’s a time for believing in magic. Whether you love the magic of multiple aisles of candy at the stores, costumes from fantasy worlds afar, or the every day magic of the changing season, it’s a time of year that everyone can enjoy.

To celebrate, I thought I would share with you not only our favorite memory from our recent trip to Portland, but our own glimpse of magic… the perfect sunset!

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We had decided to take our first Saturday in Portland and drive out to Cannon Beach. The drive itself was unbelievable. Leaving Portland, it starts out with open meadows, and farmland nestled in between tree-clad hillsides. The contrast in colors of the straw-yellow, harvested fields, to the bright red barns, to the dark evergreen of the pines was gorgeous. Then of course you’ll also see hidden gems of golds and ruby reds peaking out from behind the giant evergreens. I literally spent the whole of the drive on the very edge of my seat, craning my neck all around trying to see it all.

As we got closer to the coast, we saw less open areas, and less deciduous trees of color, but much more coniferous. Indeed it felt very much like we were driving deep into a dense, dark, haunted forest. And we were! Until all of a sudden the coastline appears before you. I was completely taken by surprise.

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Here in North Carolina the landscape tends to get more sparse as you head towards the coast. The trees get shorter, are farther apart, and things look more, well, beachy. In Oregon the forest backs right up to the sea. It is the most amazing thing in the world. If you stand with your side towards the ocean, you can look straight down the beach and see mountains on one side, and ocean on the other.

By the time we had finished exploring Cannon Beach, and a little ways south down the coast, I told Emile that it looked like we might be able to see the sunset on the beach. He argued that the view would be better from atop a hill. I said no I think it would be much better to be at sea level, and he still insisted otherwise. I acquiesced.

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Esmé was happy because she got to run around in the grass. Mama and Papa were happy that it wasn’t the beach, where she would be eating, throwing, and smearing sand everywhere. She tried her darndest to channel Taylor Swift, but I told her no one was going to remember her staring at the sunset because she wasn’t standing. The song says nothing about running, it’s standing. Sheesh. Well I guess she wasn’t wearing a nice dress either. I digress.

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The evening looked promising. There was just enough cloud cover to display an array of colors, but not so much that it would block out the sun completely.

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Then the sun got lower, and more clouds rolled in. Now there was only a tiny gap in the clouds. We waited and waited, until I was sure that we had missed it because the sun had already missed the gap.

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All of a sudden the gap began to glow with a pale yellow light.

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It got brighter and brighter…

IMG_5419until the sun burst through the clouds in golden brilliance. I screamed over my shoulder ‘Husband! Husband! It’s here! We didn’t miss it!!’ and then just continued to say ‘wow’ over and over again, while taking as many pictures and snapchats as I could. I honestly have never witnessed a more spectacular sunset. Just behind those trees was a cliff that led down to the sea. The gap between those trees closer to us, and those farther away to the left was filled with mist from the waves rolling in, and the sunset actually lit the mist up in this soft orange glow, making it look like there was a fire.

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It illuminated the entire landscape with a rosy glow, so the grass looked greener, the mountains looked more purple, and Esmé looked like a magical fairy stuffed in a fleece jacket.

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Ok, ok. I know she doesn’t look that magical in this picture, but she did when she was running around, and the sunlight turned her hair into spun rose-gold curls. Emile caught a little bit of it on video here.

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Just as suddenly as the sun appeared, it tucked itself back into the clouds once more and disappeared for the evening, leaving the mountains (and us) to be enveloped by the evening mist. A truly magical, very October-ish, end to our perfect day.

Enchanté France

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Our first trip to France was a last minute decision to take a weekend and drive north. We decided to stay at a hotel in a tiny town called Bélesta, for Saturday night, and then we would spend Sunday exploring a medieval city nearby. It ended up being one of my favorite trips out of everything we saw in Europe.

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When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted so enthusiastically. They brought out an ice-cold fancy bottle of french water, escorted us to our room, provided us with complimentary wine and treats, then let us know someone would be by shortly to set up the baby cot (it’s what they call a crib in Europe). I was flabbergasted.

Since my husband and I eloped to Las Vegas, we never really went on an actual honeymoon, but I told him that this must be what it’s like for people who actually do. Well, minus the someone setting up your baby cot part.

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Once we got ourselves settled in, we decided to go for a walk in the little town, before the sun set. It was the most enchanting little scene. The majority of the village is made up of these ancient cobble stone buildings and walls. The streets are all paved with little square stone tiles.  It was so peaceful and quiet that the only sound to be heard, besides the squeak of our stroller, and our footsteps on the paths, was that of the wind whistling up from the vineyards and through the old cobblestone buildings. We only saw a handful of people on our walk, so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves to explore.

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Once Esmé was all tucked in her little bed, we went and sat outside to enjoy our spoils in the fading evening light. Our room had a little patio that faced the town church, so we got to hear the church bells chiming the time, and see the neighborhood cat scale the building on his nightly prowl.

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Before we packed up and headed off on our drive to our medieval castle adventure, we had a spectacular breakfast overlooking the vineyards in the morning sunshine.

IMG_4827The drive up to the city of Carcassonne was the second best part of our weekend adventure. We wound our way in and out of vineyards that led to narrow mountain roads for what felt like forever. All of a sudden the view would open up, and there would be a little village tucked away in the hills. As we drove through I was amazed at all the golden yellows, pinks, and orange colored buildings with their sun-baked, red-tile roofs.

I so wished that we had more time to explore these tiny gems, and I did try, multiple times, to get my husband to stop the car so we could get out and take pictures. Alas, we were on a tight time schedule, and he did not give in to my pleas. Before I knew it we were lost in the woodsy mountain roads again.

As we got closer to the medieval city, we saw less mountains and sunny villages, more tree-lined roads bordering vineyards and fields of sunflowers. We were starting to wonder if we were ever going to get there when all of a sudden this sprawling castle-walled-city appeared before us as we crested a hill. I may or may not have let out a shriek of excitement in the car and woken up our sleeping child.

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My husband said that this place is like Disneyland, but better, because it’s the real deal, and he’s right! As you walk in through the entrance, you are immediately funneled into these tiny, cobble-stoned streets that are lined with shops so full of goodies, that their merchandise spills out onto the streets. I imagine that it’s probably what it’s like to go shopping in Diagon Alley.

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There is also a castle within the castle, if that makes any sense at all. It’s inside here that you can learn all about the history of this city and the fortress it once was.

IMG_3747You also get treated to some pretty phenomenal views of the grounds from the upstairs windows inside the castle, as you can see from the picture above.

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This was seriously one of the coolest experiences ever. It wasn’t castle ruins, or a tour of a gutted, nearly crumbling old building, it was a living, thriving, still in tact medieval village.

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We got to take a walk back in time through a castle with our daughter, and we found hidden treasures in the charming villages tucked away in the hills.

I’ve already told my husband that we have to go back. Even if it’s many, many years from now, I have to go back, and soak it in all over again.

When Traveling With A Toddler Works, And When It Doesn’t

Traveling with a toddler is always a bit of a schlep, but we tend to think that it’s worth it. We love getting to show Esmé new places, and having her try new things. It can also be a risk. It’s easy to look at all the nice photos on Instagram and think that it’s all picture perfect. The truth is that sometimes it works out, and everyone has an amazing time. Other times you question your sanity for trying to satisfy your sense of wanderlust with a child in tow.

Generally we land somewhere in the middle, but in the past couple weeks, we experienced two situations that were so polar opposite of each other, I thought I would share. That way you can get an idea of what’s really going on behind those photos. Let’s start with Monaco:

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Monaco was a destination that my husband had been particularly excited to see. He loves Formula 1 racing, and was intrigued about all the hype of it being the world’s wealthy playground. I had a few reservations because I knew that it was a smaller place that a lot of people come to visit, and I’m not crazy about crowded cramped areas. However, I also was curious about this glamorous place I had always seen in movies.

The first hurdle was traffic. We were staying only a half an hour away in Saint-Paul, so we thought we would just make a morning of it, but what should have only taken a half an hour, ended up tripling due to traffic. We weren’t off to a great start because it was late morning, almost afternoon by the time we arrived.

Our moods improved once we found parking, and walked out to take in the views near the harbor. We were in a beautiful, new city, and we were excited to go explore!

IMG_4548Our next hurdle was finding a place to sit and eat, and a bathroom. The unexpected traffic made for very full bladders, and very empty tummies. We had brought our lunch with us, we just needed to find a place that was somewhat child friendly.

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This was a very fancy place and I was wary of letting loose our little monkey too near the nice shops and cars that were parked in front of the Monte Carlo Casino.

I tried asking a couple of people where the nearest bathroom was. The first man actually rolled his eyes at me, then looked away when he responded with mumbled directions (that weren’t correct). Obviously I was a serious waste of his time.

We split up then, so that my husband could get us settled in a park that we found, while I continued my hunt for a bathroom. The second man I asked worked at a very fancy jewelry store, and didn’t speak English, so I said ‘WC?’ ( which is what bathrooms are referred to quite a bit over here). He said ‘Ah, oi!’ and happily moved me to a window where there were very beautiful watches of a brand called IWC. I shook my head no, and then guessed ‘toilettes?’ to which he then pointed me, nicely, in the right direction.

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The park was actually a lovely reprieve from the crowds and craziness that is in Casino Square. Esmé toddled all around chasing after birds, only stopping to come back for a bite or two of food. Once we were all fed and had used the facilities, I wanted to take her on the LaDuree carousel. It’s a gorgeous white one that is right behind the casino. She had also really enjoyed the last one she went on, so I was eager to take her on another.

Third hurdle…getting on the darned carousel. There didn’t appear to be anyone manning the carousel, so I tried to flag down the waitress who was working at the cafe right next to it. She was very good at ignoring me, so I actually had to chase her down, get right next to her and ask if we could ride the carousel. She told us ‘It is for customers only,’ and hurried away to her two tables, out of 20 or so, that had customers.

Well! What was there to do but buy a macaron from the little shop and try again. I even asked the lady inside if we could ride the carousel if I bought a macaron. She was very friendly, and assured me that yes, of course I could. After I bought the macaron, I went, with bag visibly in hand, to stand near the carousel and try to catch the waitress, who still had only 2 tables, attention once more. Again, she was very good at avoiding me, and so after chasing her down, again, I said ‘We bought a macaron, can we ride the carousel now please?’ She responded saying ‘You have to eat here at the tables to get on.’ I plunked our cookie and our things down at the nearest table and then said ‘Now? Can we please ride the carousel now???’ and she finally had the guy let us on.

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At this point in time we were all feeling very disappointed with our trip. Casino Square was very crowded; there weren’t any beaches to check out really; and there were very few child friendly things that we found to do, one of which I had to fight to get my child on. Really, you’d think I was asking her to part with a limb or something. I realize that we are probably not the target clientele for Monte-Carlo, but that’s no excuse for poor manners.

Now let’s look at when we got to stay in a castle in the north of Spain:

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We checked into Castillo de Arteaga on the last night of a road trip back home after spending a week with family. We were on the fence about going out again after checking in to see the northern coast of Spain, because we were all a little tired. Once we arrived, and saw all the steps that led up to the check in area, we heaved a huge sigh before each of us grabbed a side of the stroller to carry her up (something we have to do at least once a day wherever we travel) until a woman came running out and said ‘No! No! No!’

She guided us to the elevator and took up the rest of our bags herself. The concierge showed us up to our rooms and told us that ‘The room you will be seeing is actually a suite. You have been upgraded because we have to think of the baby, and what will be better for you, and also other guests,’ before showing us into our room.

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You guys. This place was a castle. Well obviously it’s a castle, but the room they gave us was quite literally a castle. It was enormous! It was also the fanciest place I think I have ever stayed in my life.

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If you scroll back up a couple pictures to the one where I’m standing in front of the castle our windows were the ones right at the top, underneath the arches, so we also had this magnificent view. Of course once they showed us our room, we knew there would be no trip out to explore the coast. As Esmé would tell you there was far too much exploring of castle grounds to be done…

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Her personal favorite was the bathtub, which was big enough to walk in. She had the best time moving candles from side to side, and fitting the plug into the drain, and then pulling it back out again. They provided us with an actual plastic baby tub to use, but we filled up the big one instead and had ourselves a pool party :).

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A little later in the evening, when we heard our neighbors arrive in their room, we figured out why they let us have the suite. Our neighbors had three children of their own, that we could hear, so I’m pretty sure their strategy was to keep the noise isolated to one area that was farther away from other guests.

I don’t blame them. If I had a hotel that had a restaurant with a Michelin star, I think I would also try to keep the noise level to a minimum to keep my wealthy patrons happy. Even if they hadn’t upgraded us, the staff went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, and that really made the trip for us.

Monaco was a bust for us. I think in order to enjoy your time there you need to be child free and willing to spend some money. Then you can take everything in at your leisure, and go shopping or gambling in between.  Castillo de Arteaga, on the other hand, was beyond anything we could have ever expected; but we never would have gotten such a fancy room if not for Esmé.

Now you see. Sometimes traveling with a toddler doesn’t work out at all like you had hoped. Even though you have a few nice pictures, the trip ends up being a disappointment. Other times it works to your advantage, and the trip ends up being even better than you could have ever dreamed.

Barcelona Beaches

A little while ago a couple from Canada asked me to take their picture at one of the tourist attractions here in Barcelona. Initially she asked using very basic English with lots of hand gestures.

I laughed a bit, because she thought I was from here, and obviously didn’t speak English. I don’t blame her. Not many people here do, so I actually sound like she did most of the time. The only difference is I’m speaking broken Spanish to the people I’m gesturing at.

I told her sure I’d be happy to take their picture, and she carried on with the gesturing of what she wanted, still not realizing that I’d responded to her in English.

After a few sentences, it dawned on her that I was speaking the same language she was, and she started making small talk asking how long we were staying. When she found out that we had in fact been here for a little over a month for work, she wanted to pick our brains for the best things to see and do.

I was so excited! We were actually helping tourists, because we were (kind of) locals! We were able to give them a ton of tips until they asked about where the best spots were for nightlife. Uh…bars? Clubs? Dancing? What are these things you speak of? We have a toddling tyrant who requires us to be home in the evenings. Therefore we are completely useless in that category.

The one thing that they were most interested in were the best beaches to see. I figured since I have also had requests from friends, who will be visiting in the near future, on where to go and what to see, that I should do a beach roundup of our favorites. Here is my inordinately detailed list of the best beaches in and around Barcelona:

Barcelona

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If you are looking for a beach with all the action, Barcelona is the place to be. There are literally stretches of semicircle beaches as far as the eye can see, jam-packed with people looking to have some fun. There’s beach volleyball, soccer, tons of restaurants and bars (huge plus for Americans like us, who generally bring coolers with our own libations to enjoy), and, if you’re brave enough, there are nude beaches for those hoping to get rid of tan lines. Or maybe they just like to strut their stuff? Flaunt it if you’ve got it? I don’t know. I’m certainly not that brave. Working in a dermatology office makes you afraid of the sun.

These beaches are also very easy to get to if you’re only staying in Barcelona for a short while and don’t have the time to drive an hour away to the other beaches listed here. You can also rent umbrellas and lounge chairs, which is handy as I don’t think many people travel with one.

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The beaches in Barcelona are also very kid-friendly. People who have strollers to worry about needn’t worry too much because there is a wide, paved area for pedestrians and bicyclists the whole way down the beach. The sand is also a little bit finer, similar to that on the coasts in the States, so if your toddler is into eating sand/dirt and sand immersion (see above), it’s easier to digest than beaches I’ll talk about in a moment.

The thing that we didn’t like about the beaches here were that they were very crowded. It kind of feels like people soup when you go to take a dip in the ocean, and the water is a little murky because there are so many people there kicking up the sand. We like to have a little bit of breathing room, particularly when swimming with our little one.

Sitges

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I love love love this city! I think it may partly be due to the fact that it was the first smaller ‘Europeanish’ town that I saw, but I absolutely fell in love with it. This place is a little over half an hour away south from Barcelona, and the drive can be quite lovely if you take the highway near the coast. The beaches here are still busy, but the one we saw was smaller, so it wasn’t the huge crowds that you would see in Barcelona.

The thing that I love most is that there are all these white-washed homes with bright colored doors and windows that lead up to the beach. I haven’t been to Greece yet, but that’s kind of the feeling I got. Lots of narrow, winding streets, where you’ll turn a corner and be completely surprised by some new charming detail.

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This is also a very good place to go if you are looking to do some shopping. While Barcelona does have limitless opportunities for shopping, it is still a little expensive, particularly if you are visiting when they aren’t having sales. Sitges offers numerous little shops tucked away in between restaurants and homes that are much more affordable. So if you’re going for a beach day, be sure and check out the shops while you’re there, as you’re bound to find something you’ll love.

Lloret De Mar

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The beaches here are an hours drive north from Barcelona. They are near the beginning of Costa Brava, as such is quite a sight to see. It’s a rocky coastline that has several beach areas to choose from. If you bring your snorkeling gear you can swim out among the rocks shown above to see the brilliant colors of the water. We did a beach day here and my husband did just that, and he absolutely loved it.

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If you decide to make this location your destination for a beach day, you have to check out the ‘Jardins De Santa Clotilde.’ Even if you are not a beach person and you’re visiting Barcelona, it’s worth the drive just to see the gardens. The fact that it is #2 on Tripadvisor of things to do in this city should tell you something.

Finding the gardens was a little tricky for us because if you search for it on google maps, it will route you to an Oficine de Turisme, which is not close to where the gardens are. I would use Apple maps if you have it( it took us to the right place), or look for Avinguda Santa Clotilde, which will become Passeig Jardins. The entrance to the gardens is at the front of the traffic circle, where Av. Santa Clotilde becomes Passeig Jardins, and there are signs that show you where to go.

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We also thought that you could get to the gardens from the beach, or vice versa, because some of the photos on Tripadvisor appear as though it leads out to the sea, but it does not. It does offer you amazing views of the sea, and you can see a smaller beach that’s tucked away behind the gardens (in picture above), which was the beach we chose for our beach day!

This beach does not have the fine, Barcelona sand though. Instead it is lots of very small pebbles, so when your toddler tries to eat it, be prepared to hear a much more pronounced crunching sound. There is also little shade available, so if you are sun-phobic, or have a fair-skinned child as I do, you should bring an umbrella, or sun-tent if you plan to be there all day.

This is also the place to be if you are looking for fun-filled night life. Driving around the city we saw countless clubs, bars, and casinos everywhere. You could drink, lay out at the beach day all day (please use sunscreen), walk back to your hotel, have a nice little siesta, and then boom! Ready to party! Again, not really our thing, so can’t recommend specific places, but there were many, many young people wandering around the streets there, so that tells me that’s where the parties at. I can’t believe I just said young people. Now I feel and sound old.

What we didn’t like, again, was the fact that there were so many people in the water with us. If you go to the smaller beach near the gardens like us, there are less people than over on the main beaches, but it does mean that everyone there is squashed into a much smaller area of water. Also for families traveling to this beach, it is a bit of a hike to get to the one behind the gardens, so it is a little cumbersome with all the baby things.

Tossa De Mar

IMG_3842We thought that Lloret De Mar was pretty amazing, until we saw this place. I mean who doesn’t want to see a castle on the beach? Tossa De Mar is only 20 minutes north of Lloret De Mar, so it’s an hour and 20 minutes north from Barcelona. If I had to choose between the two of them I would choose this one. I felt like it was a little less party-central than Lloret De Mar.

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The castle is actually called Vila Vella and the original structure dates all the way back to the 13th century! Inside the walls there is what they call the Old Town, which is a village where all the buildings and streets are cobbled. It is such a charming place to see.

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If you walk all the way up the hill inside Vila Vella, you will not only get gorgeous views of Costa Brava, but also see the remains of a late Gothic church that was built during the 15th century. I think that may be one of the reasons why I prefer this beach to Lloret De Mar. There’s a little more history and personality to this location… lots of places that make you stop and wonder what life was like for people when all of this was built.

History aside, there are also more shops and restaurants to wander around and peruse as opposed to Lloret, which was focused more on bars and clubs. It’s a really great place for families with young children, or anyone looking for a more peaceful retreat.

The only downside was getting around Vila Vella with a stroller. You either need one that is pretty good for off-roading with all the cobblestones, or one that is light enough (like an umbrella stroller) to carry around. Ours was the latter, so Daddy carried around the baby, and Mommy carried the stroller. Totally worth it.

Camino De Ronda- S’Agaro

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If you can only choose one of the places I’ve mentioned so far for your beach day, this is it. It’s only an hour and 15 minutes north from Barcelona and is a must see. I have never in my life been to a place that just keeps unfolding into postcard perfect views. I felt like I was walking through someone’s Pinterest travel board.

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Camino De Ronda is a path that runs right along the coastline of Costa Brava. It offers view, after view of sparkling clear water in rich blues that blend into bright greens. As you walk along the path, you will notice stairs that lead down to the sea nestled in the rocks.

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If you find that you are perspiring from walking too vigorously, fear not! Simply take one of the many paths down to the sea, enjoy a quick dip, carry on with your walk, and repeat as necessary.

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There is also a nice wide stretch of beach towards the end that actually has a little bit of shade! We were very excited. As you can see, even though it was busy, the water is not overcrowded as it was in some of the other beaches, and we were there on a Saturday. You definitely have plenty of room to stretch out and relax.

The only bad thing about this place is that it was a little difficult with a stroller. The worst part was getting down to, and up from the beach. There were many, many stairs. Once you make it to the Camino De Ronda, you’ll find that it alternates between stretches of path and 3-4 stairs up or down; so you definitely need to prepare yourself for carrying the stroller around. It really was a mission, but we are already planning our next trip here because it’s absolutely the prettiest beach that we have ever seen.

 

Switzerland

IMG_3628If Switzerland were a person, upon introduction, she would appear to be perfect in every way. Her hair would be styled tastefully with not a strand out of place. No super-long, boho, beachy, messy waves, just hair that is smooth, shiny, clean, and perfectly cut. Makeup would be applied only to enhance her natural beauty. Her clothes and accessories would exude wealth, but not in the Beverly Hills way of being covered head-to-toe in logos. It would be in the impeccable tailoring and quality fabrics that say: I wear 1500 dollar suits to work every day. She would be confident, educated, well-spoken, reserved, and punctual. She would always follow the rules. For leisure she would enjoy swimming, biking, and running during the warmer months, and of course would also be an excellent skier during the winter months.

In short you would discover that you were wrong about your initial assessment. She doesn’t appear to be perfect, she is perfect. I realize that my analogy may be as bad as Julia Roberts’ analogy of creme brulee and jello in ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding,’ but that is seriously what popped into my head as soon as we saw the city.

IMG_3630For starters, the water there is crystal clear. Even near the docks and bridges, where, at least in the States, it’s a bit muddy or murkier, you can see straight to the bottom. Most of the lakes and rivers, as you can see in the pictures above are also a bright turquoise color. Whenever I saw them in pictures, I always thought that they must have adjusted the colors to make it appear brighter, but the water is truly a vibrant shade of turquoise. It’s absolutely amazing!

FullSizeRender (3)The houses and cafes that line the cobbled streets of Old Town Zurich are all painted in soft pastel colors, with colorful flags that hang cheerfully near the windows.

IMG_3627The streets are spotless. Seriously! There was not a single piece of garbage, or cigarette butt to be found. There are also many, many clocks. Clocks on old buildings (seen above, below, and there were two in the picture that was second from the top), clocks on all the churches…they are everywhere, and they are all beautiful.

IMG_3622As beautiful and pristine a city as Zurich was, I have to say that I still prefer the streets of the Gothic quarter in Barcelona, or the tiny winding streets of Sitges. There are brighter colors, and they just seem to have so much more character than the perfect, polished streets of Zurich.

Having said that, I would happily live in the mountains of Switzerland over any city in the world, any day. I have found, having lived in Barcelona for almost two months now, that I am not a city person. There are a million and one things to do and see, and it is very convenient having all these shops and grocery stores within walking distance, but I miss my open spaces.

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Talk about open spaces! How green is that valley?! That was taken on our way to see Berggasthaus Aescher…

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which as you can see is this wonderful restaurant that is built into the side of a mountain. You can actually hike up there from the bottom, but we have a toddler. She ain’t got time for that. She has places to see, people to meet,

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ok make that animals to meet. She and Mrs. Dairy Cow had themselves a stare down. Obviously Mrs. Dairy Cow won. And yes I’m aware that our child looks like an eccentric refugee, but it was very windy, and very cold, so we made do with what we had.

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We also got to see the Swiss Alps while we were there! We took a tram with our Swiss Aunties and their little doggie up to ‘The Top of Europe,’ where you are able to see the three peaks: Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger.

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It was spectacular. Really, no words, or pictures can do it justice. You just have to see it in person to understand the beauty of this place, and how huge these mountains are. It is blissfully quiet. The air is cool and clean, and you hear the jingling of cow bells, bouncing off of hills from cows that graze all over the valley.

IMG_3636Unfortunately I didn’t get a good close up of the charming houses that are nestled down in the valley, but they are like little gingerbread houses. They are little wooden houses that have flowers spilling out of multiple containers by windows and doors. Some of the houses even had lace curtains that framed all the windows. I bet in the wintertime they look just like a dream.

IMG_3602While my favorite part might have been the mountains and crystal clear lakes. Esmé’s favorite part was spending time with ‘Chuckle,’ her Aunties’ dog. They held hands on the tram ride back down the mountains…

IMG_3554 they took naps together in the car after long days exploring multiple countries…

IMG_3556 and every morning we woke up to the sounds of ‘ah! ah! ah! ah!’ (which is Esmé speak for what a doggie says) because she had found the dog, and was barking at her and waving to her.

Switzerland was such a gorgeous place to see, but for me the best part was being able to see it with family. I think that’s what I will treasure the most when we look back on this trip…coming home after long days packed with activities, to good food, and even better company.