Sweet Brussels

Monday night, Hubs was sitting on the couch and asked me, “Would you go to Brussels again?”

“Well, I had been there before we went, and we all had a great time there, but I’m not sure I would need to go again.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I’m thinking more about the fact that it’s become a hotbed of terrorism. The arrest of the guy connected to Paris a few days ago. So much coming out of Belgium regarding terrorism. If we were planning the trip again, would you go there?”

This was Monday night. Tuesday morning, I woke up to a WhatsApp message from a friend in London – “Bombing in Brussels. Not sure how I feel about going there this weekend.”

My heart broke.

We left Paris exactly two weeks before the terrorist attacks. We didn’t tell the kids about what had happened until a few weeks later when Missa B saw a soccer team on TV wearing “Pray for Paris” shirts. It just seemed too fresh to tell them right away.

Hubs and I have had so many conversations about what would have happened if we had been in Paris two weeks later. Our general consensus is that our reflections on the trip would be completely different. We would have ended on such a different note that it may have tainted the way we saw the trip. Instead of coming home with all of us saying that we were glad to be home, but we could have stayed longer, we probably would have been desperate to get home. And sad. Even sadder than we already are knowing what happened to the city we enjoyed so much, to the people who were so kind to us, and who made us feel at home in Paris.

And now it’s happened again.

I hate the fact that I don’t find time to write until something so horrible, something so soul-shaking happens. Until Hubs and I both grab our phones AGAIN to figure out how close we were to the bombings. Until the kids are asking if we had been to the airport, and we tell them yes — it’s where we picked up our rental car, and they try to remember what it looks like. And we pray that they keep those pictures in their heads, that they aren’t replaced with the ones of blown out windows and floors filled with ceiling tiles that we, as adults, keep seeing all over the media.

We loved Brussels. We loved the fact that every other store was a chocolate store. That the Mannequin Pis was 3 blocks from our apartment.

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The kids could not get over how small the Mannequin Pis is!

We loved that we came to Brussels during the month the Palace was open to the public. And for free! We looked at the pictures of the Royal Family and talked about what it would be like to be a child living in the Palace. We marveled over the fact that one of the ceilings is made out of beetles. Doesn’t seem very Royal-like.

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We walked from our apartment to the Grand Place and back so many times that we lost count. We researched the different buildings so we could figure out what we were seeing. We took the Metro out to the Atomium (which we never learned to pronounce), and we spent hours at Mini-Europe delighted to see miniature versions of places we visited and excited to glimpse those we knew we would be seeing in the coming months.

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Our biggest fear as we took the Metro? Figuring out how to get home when the machine refused to take our credit card, the ticket booth was closed, and we didn’t have enough change to get through the gate. And, as usual, the kindness of strangers came through for us as a group pooled together their change to make sure we got home safely. Because safely at that time didn’t include walking down Metro tracks in a tunnel filled with smoke and bodies.

Would we go back to Brussels? Monday night, I pretty much said no. Tuesday morning, I had to say yes. We would go back to support the city, the country, and the people. To not let others rule our travels because they want us to live in fear.

We would go back for chocolate, fries, a peeing statue, and the chance to say, “We won’t let you win.”

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Top 15 Things We Learned in Southern France

Once we had finally arrived safely at our B&B in Antibes and had a good night’s sleep, we were ready to spend the next 10 days exploring southern France. In addition to Antibes, we spent time driving the Moyenne Corniche through Nice, stopping in Eze, and oohing and aahing over Monte Carlo. We then spent time a little further north in Avignon before heading down and over to Montpellier (where I lived over 20 years ago), Carcassone and finally Sarlat.

So, what did we learn during this part of our adventure? Here are 15 of our top findings traveling with kids in southern France:

1. Kids find figuring out SIM cards and cell phone plans boring.

Especially when Mom and Dad drag them to 3 different stores. Which takes an entire day since everything closes for a few hours at lunchtime. Orange, however, became the clear winner as they had the coolest games.                                                                                                                              20150804_154212

2. It is HOT in southern France. Really, really HOT.

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If there was water…
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we stopped for it (even though we had water bottles).

 

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This became a common sight at the end of the long, hot days.

3. If you really want to beat the heat, find a friend with a boat.

Fortunately, our B&B owners had a boat, and they took us out on the water for the day, complete with a picnic on a small island. Definitely a highlight of our trip.

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Whether we were on the boat, or swimming in the Mediterranean, we loved it!

4. French highway reststops are fun.

Especially in the summer when there are free “animations.” A man walked up to JJ at the playground and handed him two sunhats, CDs, card games and sunglasses for him and Missa B. Because that’s just what they do there.

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5. Souvenir coins are destined to follow us everywhere we go.

For 2 Euros each, they are actually a great to way to find a small souvenir at every destination. And, they are prolific in France. I am still unpacking them from boxes and pockets 4 months later.

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6. The Pont du Gard is beautiful.

It is as spectacular as I remember it from 20+ years ago. However, it is also now extremely commercialized. Entrance fees, cafés, and souvenir shops were some of the shocking things that greeted my eyes. But we did appreciate the museum which gave us a ton of information on the importance of the aquaduct.

I had never taken advantage of swimming under the Pont du Gard as I didn’t really know about that on past trips. It was an amazing way to beat the 99+ degree heat. Missa B., being the daredevil she has been from the time she was born, took to jumping off the rocks immediately.

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A nice climb led us to this gorgeous viewpoint.
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That woman in the water below Missa B? Yep, that would be Mama Bear.

7. Old friends just get better with time.

Cathy was 16 when I last saw her. She is now a mom of two awesome boys and an English teacher.

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Can you spot the kiddo who didn’t really want to be in the picture?

8. New friends can teach us so much.

Meeting Franck and Isabelle was a delight. And when “grandmère” brought over her homemade soup for us to try and insisted we eat the tomatoes from her garden, we fell in love with her.

The stories we heard of how Isabelle’s parents had to house Nazi soldiers on their property when the troops came into Antibes brought WWII to life for all of us. She thanked us, as Americans, for allowing her family to regain their property.

This was a place we  found hard to leave.

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9. We can do cobblestones!

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Every kid for him(her)self.

10. It’s worth staying up late for views like this.

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Carcassonne, France

11. Clapping on someone’s birthday is universal.

And this girl LOVED having an entire restaurant sing “Joyeux Anniversaire!”

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12. There are substations all over the world.

And Hubs insists on stopping to take pictures of them.

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13. If you can afford the TGV first class, it’s worth it.

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14. Street performers are fun.

Sarlat was full of street performers, and the kids loved going into the pedestrian area at night.

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15. Pillow walls may not be effective.

And Missa B. may not have been exaggerating when she said it was difficult to share a bed with JJ.

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Traveling with the Kids in Ireland — Part II

We had a total of almost three weeks in Ireland which was enough to merit multiple posts. I concluded my last Ireland blog post at Limerick where we spent a weekend with strangers (to us) who quickly became friends. From there, we headed out to the glorious Ring of Kerry. I know you’ll be surprised to learn that we took Rick Steves’ advice and started on the road early, heading in the opposite direction from the tour buses.

Which meant that we hit our first beach early — probably around 9 am. It was chilly, and our plan was to stop for 5 minutes. “Don’t get wet,” we warned the kids as we had all our luggage crammed into the back of an extremely small car with no real knowledge of where to find extra clothes if needed. Besides, we figured they would never get into the freezing water that early in the morning.

We were wrong.

It all started innocently enough...
It all started innocently enough…
He makes it look like it wasn't intentional...
He makes it look like it wasn’t intentional…
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She doesn’t even try to fake innocence.

 

What was supposed to be a 10-minute stop turned into an hour, followed by trying to find dry clothes for 2 freezing kiddos, and then convincing them to change in the parking lot as no one would see them as nobody else would go into the water at 9 am (or probably at any hour given the temperature).

Once we had semi-dry kids, we continued on our route. We made multiple stops along the way to hop out and enjoy the view, stop at interesting sites, and eat chocolate.

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A fun, quick stop with delicious samples!
A fun, quick stop at a chocolate factory with delicious samples!

 

The end of our Ring of Kerry route was Dingle, Ireland where we stayed in a youth hostel. I haven’t stayed in youth hostels in over 25 years, so staying at them in Ireland has been a real treat. We had a private room with a double bed and bunk beds, and our own bathroom (that is a change from 25 years ago!)  What surprised me the most is that the majority of the travelers were older — families and couples as opposed to college-aged backpackers. The hostel was clean and quiet…and the price was right.

We loved relaxing in Dingle. The boys got haircuts; we learned the town quickly; and we drove the Dingle Peninsula during our 4-day stay. And, of course, we hit the beaches again.

This time we were prepared.
This time we were prepared.

 

The other main thing we did in Dingle was buy GAA (Gaelic Athletic Assocation) trading cards. Hurling and Gaelic football trading cards. Tons of them. And, I mean tons of them. The kids first saw packages at the local grocery store and wanted to buy them. Then they wanted more. And more. And more. I think we probably went back to the store 6 times so they could purchase cards. They started learning positions, players, counties and which teams were the best. To say it became an obsession is an understatement, but more on that later.

After our relaxing stay in Dingle (other than continuous trips to the grocery store), we set out to Nenagh, this time to meet relatives for the first time. We were graciously welcomed into Myron and Ruth’s home as if we had known each other for years.

1000 welcomes greeted us!
100,000 welcomes greeted us!

Ruth is an amazing cook, and we were thoroughly spoiled during our stay. I also have to say that I am completely jealous of a great idea Ruth implemented when they redid their kitchen. One of Ruth’s least favorite household tasks is emptying the dishwasher. So…she put in two dishwashers. With a family of 5, they usually fill the dishwasher daily. So, they run it, and then just use the dishes from it the next day. Put those dirty dishes into the other dishwasher, and by the end of the day, there is very little to unload from the first. And then just repeat the process! Genius!

While I loved the kitchen, the kids loved having a wonderful attic loft to sleep in and Legos galore. They watched Lego movies their cousins made…little did we know that was the start of an activity that would take them through the next several months. We now have an entire Lego movie series they created during the trip!

I already wrote about the trip we made to the family homestead which was definitely a highlight for all of us. We also spent time getting to know each other at beaches, the Cliffs of Moher, and family dinners which allowed us to meet additional relatives as well. And Myron even bought the kids more trading cards, officially making him a hero in their eyes. JJ sobbed when we left as he wanted more time with everyone. We finally appeased him by telling him that we would see them all again when Luke (the oldest son) attends school in Montana this spring. Now we just have to convince them all to come and visit!IMG_6007    IMG_6012

They don't quite understand the telescope concept.
They don’t quite understand the telescope concept.

After Nenagh, we went to Kinsale where we enjoyed some time by the water. And bought more trading cards, of course. We did some definite power touring by doing a guided walking tour of the town, touring Charles Fort, taking a narrated boat trip, and doing a ghost tour all in one day. Although Hubs and JJ didn’t do the ghost tour, as JJ opted to stay home and pull out a tooth instead. Thankfully, the tooth fairy was ready for him! (Our tooth fairy gives books along with money, but somehow she made it to Ireland book in hand.)

Charles Fort
Charles Fort

 

From Kinsale, it was off to Kilkenny, stopping at Rock of Cashel along the way. We had a truly amazing guide there who kept us entertained for over an hour. Kilkenny was a wonderful stop at a fantastic B&B where we filled our bellies at breakfast and our eyes and minds during the day. And Hubs got to fill his glass at a brewery tour that even the kids enjoyed.

(Although we might have enjoyed it more than they did.)
(Although we might have enjoyed it more than they did.)

And then…Dublin. I have to admit I wasn’t really looking forward to Dublin. Several people had advised us to spend as little time as possible in Dublin as it’s just a big city. Well, we loved it!

The day we arrived, Hubs had to return the rental car, so the kids and I walked to Grafton Street. It hadn’t occurred to me that the kids really had no experience with large pedestrian streets or with street performers. They were absolutely mesmerized. They loved watching the dancers, magicians, and flame throwers. I finally had to drag them off the street with the promise that we could return again with Hubs on a different day.

Then…the highlight of Dublin for the kids…a visit to Croke Park stadium. Remember how the kids have become obsessed with hurling and Gaelic football? When I say obsessed, I mean obsessed.

The Gaelic sports are organized by county, and each county has a unique coat-of-arms. The kids made Hubs print out a map of the Ireland counties and a list of all the coat-of-arms so they could figure out where the teams were from and which teams they were missing. Completely on their own, they mastered the geography of Ireland due to the trading cards. They can tell you every county we went to and where it is on the map (and if their hurling team is any good or not). It’s actually been great fun, with many hours of sorting and organizing and negotiating trades as they carry the cards in their backpacks and work on it while we’re waiting for a table at a restaurant or driving.

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They even bought books for storing the cards.

So now was their chance to see where the major games are played. The tour itself was awesome. We saw the locker rooms which contained a jersey from each team, the private boxes, the posh dining/pint room, all the back areas, and, of course, the field. We learned a ton and then spent a few hours in the museum after the tour.

Huge replicas of hurling sticks.
Huge replicas of hurling sticks.

 

Ready to report on the game.
Ready to report on the game.

 

In the museum, there were interactive exhibits where you could try your hand at the sports. A HUGE hit!
In the museum, there were interactive exhibits where you could try your hand at the sports. A HUGE hit!

 

Add a Viking duck tour, the National Museum, watching the Gaelic football semi-finals at a pub, and a visit to Kilmainham Gaol (jail) to the mix, and you have an extremely successful 3 days in Dublin.

Ireland was the one country on our trip that was new to me. But now that I’ve been there, I’m hooked.

Traveling With Kids in Europe — The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

 

As we planned this trip, people constantly told me we were crazy.

I heard things like “How do you plan all that?” Or, “Can you really take the kids out of school that long?”

But honestly, those aren’t the questions I asked myself.

My questions were more along the lines of: “Can I really be with the kids 24/7 for that long?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids. A lot. But I am not one of those people who does the Mom thing naturally. And I admit that I get jealous of my amazing friends who do. I look at Facebook and see the posts of the elaborate cakes they made for birthday parties, but I breathe a sigh of relief when my son decides he wants donuts from the grocery store for “something different”. Although, if I attempted to make some of the things I would love to try on Pinterest, he would get “something different” indeed.

Bottom line is – I’m realistic. I wasn’t harboring any fantasies that we were going to jet off to Europe and glide through countries acting like the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver. So I headed into this with a practical, albeit slightly skeptical, eye. Now, 3.5 months into the adventure, I’m learning that traveling this long with kids has some pretty trying moments, and it has absolutely wonderful moments as well.

To read my full account of what’s it been like traveling with kids in Europe, check out my guest post on Jo’s blog.

Traveling in Ireland with the Kids — Part I

Ireland was one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip. It’s the only country I hadn’t been to on our itinerary, and everyone who has been to Ireland has raved about it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

We arrived at Dublin airport, picked up our car, and headed out to find the hostel we were staying at next to Newgrange, an Irish passage tomb dating back to 3200 BC. Our plan was to visit Newgrange the next morning, so we picked a place to stay as close as possible.

On the way to Newgrange, we got completely lost. This should have been our first clue as to what it is like trying to find places in Ireland. The GPS took us all over the place…except to the hostel. We finally saw signs to the Newgrange site which of course did not correspond to the GPS but ultimately got us where we needed to be.

The hostel was great — it appears to have recently changed over so it is not officially listed as a hostel from what we could tell, but the spaces definitely scream hostel. The room was fine, and it was nice to have large lounges to work in later in the evening.

Also, one of the things we had been warned about was to get to the Newgrange site early because you can only visit the sites (Knowth and Newgrange) by tour, and they fill up for the day. So seeing a sign at the hostel/hotel desk saying to come by in the morning to tell them what time you would like a tour was a HUGE bonus! We immediately headed out to dinner and for Hubs to get his first pint in Guinness country.

One happy man.
One happy man.

The next morning, on the way to breakfast, I stopped by the desk, and they called over to Newgrange and booked us a 10:30 am tour. We packed our bags into the car and then walked literally 4 minutes to the site — best lodging location ever!

We got on the shuttle busses to explore Knowth with a wonderful guide who was passionate about the history of these ancient mounds. We all enjoyed listening to her stories, and the kids even enjoyed a brief underground excursion.

Hubs went in as well -- so much for that pair of pants!
Hubs went in as well resulting in some very muddy pants.

From Knowth, we went back to the visitor’s center to catch the next shuttle to Newgrange which was outstanding. The site is known for how light enters through an opening or “roof box” on the winter solstice. You can actually enter a lottery to come on the winter solstice and the few days around it — only 50 people total are selected! The guide simulates the winter solstice, which is good for us since we won’t be back here then, even if we did win the lottery, and it is pretty spectacular.

This is the entrance to Newgrange. The stones have some of the finest Neolithic art in Europe.
This is the entrance to Newgrange. The stones have some of the finest Neolithic art in Europe. You might just notice in later photos that my earrings look remarkably similar to this art…

After a surprisingly good lunch at the site’s cafeteria, we started off on our supposedly 2 hour, 45 minute drive to Limerick. I won’t go into details of our attempts to locate the home we were staying at as that will show up in a special blog post in about a week, but let it suffice to say it was an adventure. I was later told that directions in Ireland go something like this:

“Go straight past Tom’s house…he doesn’t live there anymore; he died last year you know…and then turn right after the 3rd tree. Not the one that was hit by lightning a few years back, but the one next to it. Then go past the pub and the green house — that’s where Ruth lives, although her daughter doesn’t live there anymore because she just got married — nice man, that Ross — and you’ll see our house just after the blue one with the brand new gate. The old owners didn’t care about the gate, so we’re really glad the new ones do!”

Notice the lack of street names and/or numbers? Yep, that’s about it. Makes a GPS really helpful.

We did eventually make it to Declan and Sarah’s house. They are wonderful friends of my in-laws who offered to house us for the weekend. And what a weekend it was! They have a home full of kids — 6 of their own (although 2 were away in the States) and then a few others added in along the way. At one point, we had 4 different nationalities enjoying dinner.

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Just part of the posse…
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Declan taught Missa B all about gaelic football and hurling. The start of an obsession…

One day during the weekend, we went out touring the area. We started with Craggaunowen, a park where you can explore the traditions and dwellings of the Crannog people who lived over 1000 years ago. It was a pretty quick visit, but we learned quite a bit, and the site itself had a nice walking path that we all enjoyed.

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A traditional hut.
Some of us got a lift walking through the grounds.
Some of us got a lift walking through the grounds.

Afterwards, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park — the castle itself was built in the 1400’s, and the folk park recreates 19th century Ireland. The castle closes before the rest of the park, so you have to be sure to get there on time…which we did. However, it turns out that an air show on Friday gave free passes to Bunratty all weekend, so the place was packed.

As we walked up to the castle, we couldn’t find the entrance. We walked around the side and saw a few people going up some stairs into a small door. I realized this was the back entrance and made the family head back the other direction. There we found a door that opened into a courtyard. We opened it, only to have an employee on the other side tell us that the castle was closed.

“But it doesn’t close for an hour!” I protested.

“Yes, but that line will take at least an hour,” she told me as she slammed the door shut. So much for the friendliness of the Irish.

As the kids realized what had happened, their faces dropped. So, I promptly led the family back to the back entrance where we climbed some wooden steps with about 4 other people. This led us into a narrow hallway and then to a small, spiral staircase. So, we started climbing. Only problem was that this was actually the exit, so there were a lot of people coming down, and it was definitely not a staircase made for 2-way traffic. A few times Hubs asked if we should turn back, but I wasn’t going to let the kids miss the castle, so we persevered. Finally, after climbing multiple flights and smashing ourselves against walls to allow the law-abiding tourists pass, we entered into a large hall. I have to say it felt extremely freeing. We had made it!

We tried to look nonchalant as if we had entered the room the correct way. Suddenly, I saw the woman who had slammed the door on me running toward the back way we had entered. I grabbed Hubs and the kids so she wouldn’t see us. She ran past us on a mission to close down the secret entrance. So, we continued on our way. We ended up only missing one small section as there was no way to get there from where we entered, but other than that, we got to see Bunratty Castle!

Ah...to be royalty!
Ah…to be royalty!

After our wonderful weekend in Limerick and the surrounding areas, we headed out to drive the Ring of Kerry. We had decided to spend the night in Kenmare so we could get an early start driving the Ring of Kerry the following morning. I mean, if Rick Steves says that’s the way to avoid the crowds, you do it, right?

So we drove from Limerick to Kenmare, going through Killarney National Park. We made a stop at Muckross House for lunch, a wander through the gardens, and a tour through the house itself. JJ asked a lot of questions of the volunteers in each room, and one was so pleased with his curiosity that she even brought him over to show him the secret portable loo! Nothing thrills a 7-year-old boy more than toilet talk.

Another quick stop at Torc Waterfall before continuing on to our B&B on the water in Kenmare. We settled into the B&B, went into town for dinner, and then came back to get a good night’s sleep before our long drive the next day.

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If there is a tree, they’ll climb it. This is on the way to Torc Waterfall.
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Definitely worth a stop.

Since Ireland was so full of fun, it’s worth a few posts. More coming soon!

Blogging Guilt — Let It Go

When I wrote my first post (And So It Begins), ironically almost 6 months to the day, I had grand intentions. I was going to be a regular blogger, keeping this site updated for family and friends to follow us on our adventure. I would write every day…ok, maybe I’d skip a day once in awhile, but it would all be documented. Something we could look back on and cherish. Oh, and I’d write in a journal too in order to capture all those details too boring for others to read but that were important for us as a family.

In 87 days on this trip, I have written 33 posts, including this one. Actually, that’s not true. 13 of the posts are from before we departed. So, I have only written 20 posts on the trip, meaning one less than every 4 days. Pathetic.

Don’t get me started on the journaling. I bought a great Shakespeare journal in Stratford-Upon-Avon with dreams of buying a new one in each country. I sent it home in a box from France. Carrying a heavy, blank book was wasting valuable packing space.

So now I have this pull to get things documented. Maybe not the way I planned, but to at least highlight some of the things that have happened during the 67 days when I failed to write. The challenge is how to do this effectively.

So, I’m going by country. And it will be brief. But it will be done. And, even if it doesn’t make for outstanding literature for you, dear readers, it will be a load off my mind. And, if it does amuse you along the way, all the better.

Today, I tackle England.

Actually, England is probably the country I documented the most thus far. I wrote about how we  managed to drive on the other side of the road, told of our tales in Bath, Stratford-Upon-Avon and in Warwick and Ironbridge. And I reminisced about what it was like to spend 10 days with my dear ex-roomie, Lisa.

Some the things I didn’t cover, but meant to:

  • The drive from Ironbridge to York was hellacious. It should have taken 3 hours. But there was traffic. It was 98 degrees, and cars and trucks were overheating. And, there was a detour. There is no good way to detour in England. I kept calling/texting the B&B owner with updates so she knew we weren’t doing a no-show. This was the day I caved and allowed a stop at McDonalds as we were all desperate for a toilet, and we had to get some sort of food into the kids. Good thing as it was another two hours before we found another place to stop.
This actually worked for awhile. Until the pieces became weapons. Then, in addition to caving for McDonald's, I caved for iPads.
This actually worked for awhile. Until the pieces became weapons. Then, in addition to caving for McDonald’s, I caved for iPads.
  • The drive from Arlesley to Windsor was also hellacious, but for different reasons. The fact that we started out on the wrong side of the road should have been my first clue. But, no, I still trusted my beloved spouse to do the right thing. So, when he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a bathroom soon. Let’s just get on the M1 first,” I agreed. Only to get on the M1 and see a sign saying the next rest stop was 45 kilometers away. And then to run into traffic. And then to have it start raining. I swear, if we had a soda bottle in that car, I would have found a way to use it. But instead, I whined and fought back tears for over an hour. Just being honest here. And when Hubs inadvertently passed a toilet without stopping, I said a few words that made me glad the kids were wearing headphones. And made him turn around immediately. Glad the toilet was clean because I may or may not have put down paper like my mother taught me.
  • York was really fun. We loved walking the town walls and visiting the Minster. Going back for Evensong was a special experience for all of us. Listening to the young boys’ clear voices is a spiritual experience no matter what your beliefs.
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We were fortunate in that we had gorgeous weather, a theme that has continued throughout the trip.
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The Undercroft of the Minster was amazing. Filled with information, artifacts and games/activities for the kids, a planned 30 minute visit lasted 1.5 hours.
  • Our one York disappointment was afternoon tea. We chose a spot Rick Steves recommended, and it was the one time he steered us wrong. I’ll let an edited excerpt from my TripAdvisor review do the talking:  We were the only ones in the dining room; it appeared that they were preparing for an event and were severely understaffed. After 25 minutes, the server came with a single pot of tea. (It should have been 2 pots.) Then, after other 30 minutes, she came with the sandwiches and sweets. We NEVER saw her again. In addition, there was an iPod playing in the room. Sometimes the music was lovely and fit the atmosphere. Other times, jarring rock music would play. (I’m in my early 40’s and like rock music, just not in this environment.) Listening to HAIR while having afternoon tea? No thank you.
  • We loved London. Period. We loved the energy, the sights, the history, all of it. And we did London. Walks, tubes, double-decker busses, sightseeing busses, boats…you name it, we did it. London Eye? Check. Tower Hill? Check. Tower Bridge? Check. Churchill War Rooms? Check. British Library? Check. Royal Mews? Check. We missed the British Museum, which gives us reason to come back, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, which does not.
The sightseeing bus came us a good orientation and overview.
The sightseeing bus gave us a good orientation and overview.
I always wonder what goes through these guards' heads as their picture is taken for the 10,000th time.
I always wonder what goes through these guards’ heads as their picture is taken for the 10,000th time. And, looking at this picture, I wonder if they have eyes.
Or these poor people who can't make it through a square without annoying children begging for photos. Yet, they happily oblige.
Or these poor people who can’t make it through a square without annoying children begging for photos. Yet, they happily oblige. They also seem to have eye issues. Maybe it’s a British thing?
"TOWER Bridge, not LONDON Bridge!" JJ reminded anyone who slipped up.
“TOWER Bridge, not LONDON Bridge!” JJ reminded anyone who slipped up.
Notice there is a line for the London Eye. Notice the kids are not in it, but are instead eating lunch. Just call me "Placeholder."
Notice there is a line for the London Eye. Notice the kids are not in it, but are instead eating lunch. Just call me “Placeholder.”
But we did all make it on the London Eye, and it was worth it!
But we did all make it on the London Eye, and it was worth it!
This giant birdcage was a bit hit...for kids...and for their parents. C'mon...tell me you have never thought about it?
This giant birdcage was a bit hit…for kids…and for their parents. C’mon…tell me you have never thought about it?
Surprise Bonus! Seeing Molly in London as they did their house hunting trip! Can't believe they live there now. But it ensures a trip back in the next two years!
Surprise Bonus! Seeing bestie Molly in London as they did their house hunting trip! Can’t believe they live there now.
Total Tube Pros.
Total Tube Pros.
Thank goodness for empty trains as we headed back to Arlesley. Even 9 year olds have their limits.
Thank goodness for empty trains as we headed back to Arlesley. Even 9 year olds have their limits.
  • Windsor was awesome. Our B&B was awesome; the castle was awesome; and it was great to see a Changing of the Guards up close without the crush of the crowds. A friend who is headed to London in December asked me, “Should we do Warwick Castle or Windsor Castle with the kids?” I surveyed Missa B and JJ, certain that they would say Warwick, but they both recommended Windsor!
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JJ enjoyed giving piano recitals in our 15th century timber house B&B.
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He enjoyed their amazing breakfasts too.
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The rain was just enough to drive away the crowds. And then it stopped completely!
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Earlier, the Queen’s flag was flying. But she snuck out while we were visiting.
  • Missa B had one request for her birthday — Legoland. We decided we couldn’t make it to Denmark, but we made it to Legoland Windsor which was a huge hit for all, including Star Wars fans:

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Europe fans:

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And electrical engineering geeks fans:

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  • Another highlight for all of us was Audley End, a “decadent Jacobean mansion house”. Having done a Downton Abbey binge just prior to leaving the States, Hubs and I loved meeting the downstairs Victorian staff who remained in character continuously. So much so that we later learned that Missa B thought the food being prepared was for the true estate owners!
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There were games to play…
Clothes to try...
Clothes to try…
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And, if you hung around too long, chores to do. Turns out Missa B was worried that she, JJ, and our friend, H, were not doing the cooking right and would ruin the owners’ dinner!
  • I already mentioned in an earlier post that Stonehenge was a stop that we all thoroughly enjoyed. Later, however, JJ let his kindergarten teacher (yes, he writes to her even though she was his teacher 2 years ago — she is that awesome) know how ridiculous I was to even consider skipping it.

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Final summary: We loved England. We loved the cities, the towns, and the countryside. We loved the history, the architecture, and the people. And, despite what we often hear, we loved the food and the weather.

We will definitely be back.

Climb Every Mountain

We knew we would be doing a lot of walking this trip, and that’s a good thing. We knew we’d probably climb towers and up into hilltowns, and that’s a good thing too.

But I swear it feels like we are hiking up some rampart, castle tower or belfry every flippin’ day at this point. I have seen more towns from above than I have actually seen at street level.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the views, and I like the exercise. But I feel like we’ve become a family that says, “Climb 300 feet straight up to the top of the tower? Of course we will!”

And it’s all done by a series of ladders? Awesome! Or by little, tiny, narrow spiral staircases where you have to smash up against the wall if someone is coming the other way or even go back UP to get to a tiny landing to let them pass? Even better!

And we PAY to do these things!

But even I will admit that, asthma inhaler in hand, the climbs are a blast, and the views make it worthwhile.

At Warwick Castle, it’s quite easy to do a portion of the castle walls and towers. If you’d like to tackle Guy’s Tower which is 39 meters tall, you can take a look at each of the five stories as you climb. Or perhaps you’d prefer Caesar’s Tower which is 500 steps straight up to the top?

Or maybe you’re like us, so you do both towers, plus every single castle wall and tower in between.

We have many shots where Hubs stays behind and takes photos of us up ahead. He eventually catches up to us.
We have many shots where Hubs stays behind and takes photos of us up ahead. He eventually catches up to us.

Or maybe you want to visit York and walk a portion of the city walls to enjoy the view. Or walk all 2.5 miles of them, which doesn’t include the portions that are no longer walled in, so you have to detour. Or you get lost and take a LONG detour. Fortunately, the York City Walls have lots of bars. Unfortunately, bars is what the gatehouses are called so no drinks are served. If only that had been explained to me BEFORE I agreed to this outing!

They always stand a little too close to the edge for my liking.
They always stand a little too close to the edge for my liking.

If we go too long without a climb, the kids will find one. It’s as if the fact that they haven’t been viewing life from a perch for a few days is too much for them. So they look for ways to gain a higher perspective.

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When we got to Ireland, we found lots of great places to climb along the Ring of Kerry. We hiked up hills to get to beautiful viewpoints. And had to pay for that too — just to park! I would have gladly paid if it had meant someone would shuttle my rear end to the top!

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And we loved the circle forts which gave us lots of places to climb and play.

Going up is always easier than coming down.
Going up is always easier than coming down.

We even found an abandoned castle that wasn’t in any guidebook thanks to a family we met at one of the forts. This was probably one of our best exploration climbs. And it would have NEVER happened in the States as it has injury lawsuit written all over it.

That's Missa B up there although we all made it up to the top.
That’s Missa B up there although we all made it up to the top.

Also in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher was definitely one of our favorite views. Absolutely spectacular, and the rain held off for us!

This doesn't even begin to do it justice.
This doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
We do need to work on our sign reading.
We do need to work on our sign reading.

Sometimes we’ve found that just walking on walls gets a bit mundane, so we mix it up a bit like Missa B did here at Charles Fort in Kinsale, Ireland.

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And in Kilkenny, Ireland, we HAD to climb the St .Canice’s Cathedral round tower — it’s one of only two round towers that people can climb in all of Ireland! Who can say no to that? Well, actually, I could have, but my family didn’t give me a choice. It’s climbed by a series of internal ladders going straight up. Don’t get me started about what it’s like when people are coming the other way. And, we even had to get special permission for the kids because you have to be 12 years old to climb it. Somehow our 7 and 10 year old convinced the people there that they could do it, and so they did.

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Sometimes, it’s not towers we’re climbing, but into hilltowns. As in, park your car at the bottom and hoof it. This is the view we had when we finally made it to the top of Eze, a gorgeous town along the French Riviera. Except you hike straight up to the top of the town. Did I mention that it was 97 degrees that day? And for some insane reason we left our water bottles in the car? Missa B was ecstatic when we found a place to get a drink.

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And of course, Carcassonne’s ramparts beg to be walked. A city that glows in the evening when viewed from afar. The problem is that if you’re staying inside the walls, then you have to climb back up after taking in the view. Although our car was in the car park at the bottom, and I almost considered staying there for the night.

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And even in Brugges, Belgium which is flat, we found a place to climb. The belfry, standing 82 meters, offered us an amazing view of the city. And, we timed to be at the top when the bells rung which was well worth it.

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Another one of those shots that Hubs stayed behind to take.
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This picture was at the bottom before you bought your tickets, along with a lot of warning signs about the climb. Not exactly a good sales technique…

There have been a lot of other climbs along the way, but these are some of our favorites.  At this rate, the Duomo in Florence and the Eiffel Tower should be a breeze!

If we don’t collapse first.