We just got back from our trip trip to Northern Italy and France. Hands down, it was one of the most fun experiences in my lifetime. It was the kids that made it so fun. To watch all that we saw through the filter of their eyes was, for lack of a better word, awesome. The trip itself was far from perfect. It turns out that it did rain a lot while we were there. Two of us got sick. And there was a 6.0 earthquake that disrupted train service for a few days. But those temporary setbacks couldn’t even begin to dampen the joy we felt as we experienced new things as a family.
The excitement for the kids started when we stepped onto the Lufthansa flight in Denver. They were thrilled to discover that they each got their own blanket, pillow, headphones, TV, cupholder. We had warned them that once dinner was over and the lights went down, they would need to go to sleep for the night. I was amazed at how easily they put on their neck pillows and passed out. Flying was great, and except for the youngest getting flagged at security in Frankfurt, the trip was smooth and went by quickly.
Arriving in Bergamo, Italy, it was immediately evident that Italians love children. People were excessively kind to us, and patient with our horrible Italian speaking abilities. The last time I was in Italy, I don’t remember people being so friendly, so I can only attribute their friendliness to the kids. We made sure they knew how to say hello, please and thank you, and each time they tried to utter these phrases, they were rewarded with huge smiles. They were little ice breakers.
On the first night in Bergamo, as we walked down a steep hill of the citte alta (old city), our youngest tripped on the cobblestone street and fell hard on her face, giving herself a wicked bloody nose. As we kneeled down and tried to stop the bleeding (good parents that we are, the first aid kit was back in the hotel room), a grandmotherly looking woman’s head popped up in the window of the ground level apartment right next to us. I couldn’t understand what she was saying to us, but next thing we knew she was standing in front of us with gauze pads to help catch the blood. She spoke not a lick of English and we hardly spoke Italian, but it didn’t matter. She just kept cooing, ah bella bambina, bella, bella! And she sent us on our way with candy, smiling and waving as we left.
We also noticed right away how happy everyone seemed in Italy. Actually it was the kids who noticed it first. And what’s not to be happy about? Gelato. Cappucino. Pizza. Homemade pasta. Siesta. Vino. History and beauty everywhere you look.
And from the outside…
After Bergamo, we explored Lago di Como, or Lake Como. It was quiet, warm and tropical, with majestic peaks as a backdrop. Imagine Telluride, with an enormous lake and lush, tropical vegetation. Palm Trees. That’s Lake Como. Stunning.
After a few more stops, we ended up in Venice. Venice is thrilling and around every corner there is something to marvel at. Even as an adult arriving in Venice for the second time in my life, I felt the surge of excitement the second we stepped off the train, despite having arrived in a torrential rainstorm. We stood there waiting for our vaporetto (water bus) with our umbrellas, watching a machine drive around and suck up puddles of water. It kept the kids entertained and they didn’t care about all the rain. We met our landlady at our water stop, and as she led us through a maze of tiny alleys and grand campos, the kids kept lagging behind yelling, look at this! That tower is crooked! Look, a river! High excitement.
Venice was one of the highlights during our trip, and I think a big part of the fun was that we rented an apartment there for three nights, giving us a home away from home. Up until that point in our trip, we had been traveling from town to town staying somewhere different every night or two, and the kids were getting a little tired. Also, nearly everything we had was dirty and wet, and the kids needed some downtime. The kids gleefully ran from room to room and explored the modern IKEA-decorated apartment. That afternoon we did laundry, ran out to get some vino and snacks, and we spent the rest of that afternoon relaxing and watching Italian TV and the rain come down.
The days that followed entailed exploring, glass blowing, gelato, insane amounts of walking and eating, museums, waiters who teased the girls, and shopping. Everywhere you look in Venice there are shops. The girls had earned chore money prior to the trip, so they had a lot of fun scoping out treasures to bring home.
Another highlight was the Gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, we payed too much for the experience because our haggling skills are lame. But it was fantastic and the girls ate it up. Fabio, our guide even sang for us as we drifted through the canals in the early evening. I wonder if his name was truly Fabio. When he introduced himself I almost laughed.
One thing that surprised me about Piazza San Marco is that there weren’t that many pigeons. I read or heard somewhere that the city of Venice is taking steps to get a handle on the enormous pigeon population and whatever they’re doing must be working. See below – there are some pigeons, but nowhere near as many as there used to be.
When our Venice time was up, we flew from Venice to Paris. Because our plane left on the early side of the day, taking the vaporetto, or the public transportation system wouldn’t get us to the airport in time. We had to hire a private water taxi and by far, it was the best shuttle to any airport that I’ve ever taken. The water taxi turned out to be a sleek boat that picked us up from our boat stop at 6:50AM. After winding through the still sleeping canals of Venice, we make it out to the lagoon where he opened it up and raced across the water. We watched the sun rise and were all smiles when we arrived at the airport.
We rented another apartment in Paris for a week in the historic Marais district. The apartment itself was nice, but it was situated directly above not one bar, but two. Let’s just say this: the French can party. It astounds me how much energy they had at 2AM. It was hard for the kids to sleep at night with the noise, and it was so hot while we were there that we had to have the windows open. But, that’s city life. It was an experience for the kids to see what it’s really like to live in a city. Also, le Marais is a gorgeous residential neighborhood and we got to see lots of kids trekking to and from school and locals going about their business.
Prior to leaving for our trip, I had mapped out and organized the parts of Paris into day trips, lumping sites together by location. Our oldest daughter got some sort of wicked flu the day we arrived in Paris that lasted for nearly the entire time we were there. At first we thought she might have gotten heat stroke (did I say how hot it was?), but it quickly became evident that we were going to have to do Paris a little differently than we had originally planned. Our days in Paris were like this: Wait around until about 10 and see how she looked. If she was doing ok and wanted to go see something, we would give her some meds to bring her fever down, and we would rush out to brave a trip to a site like the Eiffel Tower. Then we’d come home, let her crash for a while and if she was up to it later in the day, we’d try for another brief excursion in the late afternoon.
During her worst days, my husband and I would take turns taking the youngest out and about the city while the oldest slept. It was in this manner, when our carefully planned itinerary was thrown out the window, that we found and fell in love with the playground at le Jardin du Luxembourg. There is a fantastic zipline, slides, climbing, sandpit – just a huge amount of fun packed into this lovely park. And the best part was that tourists and locals both flock to this playground, so it made for great people watching.
The playgrounds we visited seemed different than ours. A lot of the equipment, while generally safe, doesn’t adhere to the same sort of safety standards that we are used to here. Example – on a wooden bridge connecting to play houses, we saw a boy fall through the too-wide gaps and dangle high up in the air before he fell through and landed on his face. The Merry Go Round was so fast and slick with so little to hang onto, that kids would go flying off of it at an alarming speed. And I think that this sort of danger is what makes it all the more fun to the kids. We dubbed this playground the Royal Playground. Napoleon would likely be unhappy to know that what actually was his royal garden is now a public park. We went back several times during our week, which in the end, turned out to be something the kids loved the most. If we’d been able to stick with our original itinerary, the kids would have been museum’d out by the second day.
Another great thing about the Luxembourg gardens is that it is huge – there are tennis courts, reading spots, chess tournaments, nooks, crannies, and a huge variety of things going on at any given moment. There is also a nice cafe under some shade trees that we spent an entire afternoon at one day. Here is the center of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where you can rent and sail boats.
We didn’t make it to see the Mona Lisa, but we did see L’Orangerie museum, a beautiful small museum located near the Tuileries Garden. They have large Monet panoramas there, as well as Van Gogh’s, Picasso, and other treasures. The kids appreciated these works of art for a few minutes but after the fact, it’s the Royal Playground they keep talking about. Here are some other sites in Paris:
Paris is wonderful and of course has many, many amazing and beautiful things to see. But I think that overall, Paris was more stressful for us mostly because we were worried the entire time about our daughter being sick. It is stressful when your limited French fails you, and you try to communicate with a pharmacist that doesn’t speak any English that you need Children’s Acetaminophen, and that you already have Children’s Ibuprofen and don’t want to buy anymore. (For the record: Ibuprofen is ibuprofen, but Acetominophen is called Paracetamol.) Also, Paris is an enormous city and when you compare it to the smaller places we visited in Italy, it makes sense that we were more comfortable in the smaller towns because we are at ease in the country. If we were to take a trip like this again, I would change the itinerary to see the city, but limit it to 2-3 days and spend the rest of the time roaming around the small towns in the countryside. My wise sister warned me about this when we were planning our trip, but I ignored her. (You were right, sis.)
After another long trip home which included a sprint through Frankfurt to make our connection to Denver, we made it home safely. The details of the trip are already fading but in hindsight, I am amazed at how well the kids handled it all. They were so resilient and for most of the trip, they were fun and curious little travelers. Of course, as I said, it wasn’t perfect. I do recall threatening to give the youngest a time out as we climbed the stairs of the Eiffel Tower, and there was one day in Italy where we withheld gelato because it was the only thing that forced them to stop tormenting each other.
We wanted to scramble their brains up a bit and give them some perspective, and I think it worked. I believe that they understand a little more about how big our world is, and how small we all are in it. They see that even though people speak different languages and have different customs, that we are all more or less the same. Grandmothers are kind no matter what language they speak. Chocolate tastes good everywhere. Even if the kids eventually forget everything they saw, hopefully they will at least remember that it was fun to have an adventure with their mom and dad.
SJPmama is the schemer, founder, and the editor at San Juan Parent. She created San Juan Parent because she wanted to find fun activities for families that would tire her kids out and make them go to bed at a decent hour. She has been banging away on computers for longer than she can remember and freelances at various tech jobs. She considers herself extremely lucky to have such awesome friends and family who are willing to let SJP feature their stories on the interwebs.
SJPmama is the schemer, founder, and the editor at San Juan Parent. She created San Juan Parent because she wanted to find fun activities for families in the San Juan Mountain Region that would tire her kids out and make them go to bed at a decent hour. She has been banging away on computers for longer than she can remember and freelances at various tech jobs. She considers herself extremely lucky to have such awesome friends and family who are willing to let SJP feature their stories on the interwebs.