Fitting It All In

With only one full day in London, we had a lot of ground to cover. But this being day 10, we were pretty tired, so we did one big attraction (the Tower of London) and then wandered around just looking at the classic sites: Big Ben, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace. Then we dragged our sorry asses back to the hotel for a nice long nap.

It’s been an awesome trip, and I’ve loved opening my kids’ eyes to the world beyond North America, but we’re all ready to go home tomorrow. (Going back to work is another story…)

Crossing Under the Channel

I gotta say, it felt good to get out of Paris. We were nowhere near the protests last night, but the disruptions (and the mountains of garbage piled on the streets) were unpleasant, to say the least. And I’m still bummed that we couldn’t get to Versailles…but c’est la vie.

So today we zipped through the Chunnel on the Eurostar train. It’s so cool to be able to go from the centre of Paris to the centre of London in just over two hours (as opposed to a full day’s journey when you go via ferry, as I did many many years ago.) I’m not known for my navigation skills, but I’m familiar enough with London that I managed to get us from the train station to the hotel without ever looking at a map. Ha!

We had some great fish n chips at a local pub and Brayden and I even shared a cider. Last day to explore tomorrow—cheers!

On the Eurostar
Our very quaint hotel

The Best-Laid Plans…

Our day trip out to Versailles got nixed due to yet another national strike (sigh) so we decided to avoid public transport and see where our feet could take us. Our hotel is super close to the Arc de Triomphe, so we began by strolling and shopping the Champs Elysees. We browsed but didn’t buy—Brayden had some gift cash to spend but quickly realized he could barely afford a bottle of water, so we pushed on.

Eventually we came to the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris. The 3,300-year-old Egyptian obelisk in the centre of the square marks the spot where the guillotine stood. Thousands of people, including Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette, lost their heads there.

By that point the other three wanted to turn around and head back, but I convinced them to keep walking through the Tuileries Garden until we came to the Louvre. We weren’t interested in going inside, which was good because it’s closed on Tuesdays (and it undoubtedly would’ve been closed due to the strike anyway). So we got some photos, had a quick lunch, and walked all the way back. The whole journey was only about 9 km, but it felt like more.

To London tomorrow!

The Apple store…yes, we went in
Walking the Champs Elysees
Playing a free video game in one of the stores
At the Place de la Concorde
In front of the Louvre

Walking Through WWII

We thoroughly enjoyed our small-group tour of the D-day sites in Normandy. For one thing, it was nice to get out of the big city and see more of the “real” France. Plus it was just us, the (young) guide, and another family from New York who happened to have kids not much older than ours, so everyone got to meet some people closer to their own age.

We saw a ton of stuff: some German bunkers along the Atlantic Wall, the American Cemetery, the Operation Overlord Museum, the cliffs scaled by the Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, and the memorial at Omaha Beach. The guide shared lots of information in a way that kept everyone engaged—no easy feat with teenagers in the group!

The tour even included a cider tasting at a family farm, which Brayden was super stoked about. (Here, it’s legal for kids of any age to drink as long as they’re supervised by a parent.) There was a basketball hoop set up in the farm’s courtyard, so when the tasting was over our boys played a quick game of 2-on-2 against our guide and the other dad from our group. That was neat to see.

Such a cool experience!

In a German bunker
Cliffs at Pointe du Hoc
Omaha Beach

Highlights of Paris

While wandering around killing time before our slot at the catacombs this morning, we stumbled upon the Montparnasse cemetery, which we knew nothing about. It was full of super elaborate tombs and memorials, some of them dating all the way back to 1786. We learned later that a number of famous people are buried there, including Samuel Beckett. Huh. We just thought the place looked cool.

But today’s main attraction was the catacombs. They’re not as ancient as you might think: they were only created in the late 18th century. In an attempt to solve the problem of overcrowded and unhygienic medieval cemeteries, the skeletal remains of millions of long-dead Parisians were exhumed, moved to underground quarries, and (eventually) artfully arranged. We found the whole “empire of death” thing both spooky and fascinating. 

And yes, we went up the Eiffel Tower. Worth the hassle? Not really. The view from the elevator was kind of cool, but the experience was more of a “now you can say you’ve done it” kind of thing. It did save us from going all the way to Notre Dame, since we saw the cathedral from up above and that was enough for the boys.

D-day beaches tomorrow…

At Montparnasse cemetery

The City of Lights

The current turmoil in France messed us up a bit—our flight from Rome to Paris was delayed due to strike action somewhere in the aviation pipeline, and the tour we booked for Tuesday got cancelled, but those are just minor bumps in the road. Our hotel is lovely, we had a great French dinner (love that croque monsieur!), and then the boys and I climbed 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe for a brilliant view of the Paris lights. Can’t wait to explore tomorrow!

Volcanoes and Body Casts

When Mt. Vesuvius blew its top in 79 AD, it buried the nearby city of Pompeii in 20 metres of ash. Archeologists have since unearthed buildings, streets, and even people that were essentially frozen in time.  We saw the gladiator barracks, several bakeries and fast food shops, and even a wealthy family home with original frescoes and flooring. Then there were the plaster molds of the people who died—there are over a thousand such body casts, though only three are on display. All in all, it was pretty cool.

After feasting on bread with olive oil, caprese salad, and pizza, we set out to climb Vesuvius itself. The hike was steeper than we’d been led to believe, and we were huffing by the time we reached the rim of the caldera, but the views were incredible. It’s not every day you get to stare into the cone of an active volcano.

To Paris tomorrow!

In the gladiator barracks
This theatre has its original floor
A welcoming mosaic in the entryway of a home
A takeaway eatery
Stones used to mill flour
Original frescoes in an upper class home
One home’s private garden
The body casts were fascinating
In the main square, with Vesuvius in the background
Hiking the volcano
Looking down into the cone
We made it!

The Greatest Church in Christendom

I was genuinely surprised at how much the boys enjoyed going to the Vatican today. We aren’t Catholic or anything close to it, and while I thought they might get a kick out of stepping into the world’s smallest country, I wasn’t sure a church would really hold their attention. But the instant we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, they were both captivated.

The basilica is, of course, absolutely stunning. Built over the tomb of the first pope, St. Peter, the place is full of gold, marble, mosaics, and exquisite sculptures. It’s also incomprehensibly huge: the building covers six acres and holds up to 60,000 worshippers. The nave is two football fields long and the main altar is seven storeys high. Michelangelo’s famous dome is 430 feet from top to bottom. Unreal.

I’d had everyone download an audio guide that explained what we were looking at, but the kids had no patience for that. I was afraid they’d be bored, but the most incredible thing happened: they wandered around on their own, reading plaques and taking photos. I’d been here a couple times before, but I didn’t know about a staircase Brayden found that led down to an area filled with the tombs of past popes. The beauty of independent discovery.

It was amazing. Or as Brayden put it, “This place is dope as ****.”

In the Footsteps of Gladiators

The number one thing Brayden was looking forward to on this trip was our tour of the Colosseum, and it didn’t disappoint. We started by going deep underground and exploring the complex labyrinth of cages, tunnels, and mechanical elevators under the arena floor. Our guide told us about the different types of spectacles that took place and showed us how animals and gladiators were held below and then raised into the arena to entertain the masses. (Interesting origin story: the word “arena” is Latin for “sand;” the modern definition comes from the fact that sand was used in the Colosseum as a flooring material to soak up the blood.)

We also stood on the arena floor and even climbed up another level for a bird’s-eye view of the entire structure. It was a much more interesting and informative experience than the one Chris and I had 20 years ago, when we just walked around the main level on a self-guided audio tour.

The tour also took us to the Palatine Hill, where the richest Romans once had their palaces, and the Roman Forum, which was the commercial and political centre of ancient Rome. We were pretty tired by that point, but the kids did perk up a bit when the guide pointed out the original Senate house and the temple that holds Julius Caesar’s ashes.

Afterwards, we wandered down a side street and found a taverna for lunch. This place did not cater to tourists (meaning no spaghetti and meatballs…Romans NEVER serve those together) so it was more of an authentic experience. We all loved it!

Stoked to start the tour!
Just inside the arches
In an underground tunnel
Narrow passageways
Looking down on the half-reconstructed arena floor
An epic family photo
Ruins of the Forum from above
Authentic Italian meatballs!
Justin and I wandered down to see the Colosseum all lit up last night

Crossing the Pond

I wouldn’t have believed it could be so easy to a) get to Rome from Kelowna and b) conquer jet lag. Our flight schedule gave us only one hour to connect in Toronto, but everything went like clockwork and we basically walked off of one flight and onto the other. Amazing!

The next miracle was how we all got some sleep on the flight and managed to convince our bodies that an eight-hour time change was no big deal. We landed in the morning, had a quick nap at the hotel, and headed out to explore the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. I really feel like we’ve adjusted, but I guess time will tell.

We’ve been trying to get the kids to Europe for the past three years—so thankful we finally made it!

Serious touring starts tomorrow…

Brayden’s first taste of real Italian pizza
The hotel had bunk beds for the boys
The Pantheon, the best-preserved ancient monument in Rome
At the Pantheon
The oculus in the dome is the only light source
Brayden seemed to enjoy the history
We didn’t actually throw any coins into Trevi…does that mean we’ll never come back?