Train Odyssey Day 13: A Kid’s Day Off in Bruges

After some serious train travel on Day 12, the Younger Fives really needed a day off. So, it was perfect that we had an entire day to spend in Bruges, Belgium where they could take the lead. As soon as we stepped outside of our hotel on a very sunny Sunday they were in charge of picking what we should see and do in this lovely canal lined city.

The kids were immediately enamored by the green spaces all along the perimeter of the city, and so we walked along the canal enjoying the towering trees, green grass, and open spaces to run free. The first half of the day was all about playgrounds. The kids were super excited to find two American playmates on one of the larger playgrounds (they were visiting Bruges from Germany, where their father is stationed with the military).

From there we had a special surprise in store for High Five. When we visited Venice, Italy this past December he was very disappointed that we didn’t take a gondola ride. After reading about the open-air (and reasonably priced) boat tours of Bruges’ canals we knew that this would be the perfect chance to make it up to him. The boat tour lasted about 30 minutes (perfect for little kids) and it cost the whole family less than 25 Euros. High Five had a blast leaning over the railing of the boat and trying to pet the passing ducks and swans. While a bit chilly on the water it was a great way to see the gorgeous buildings of Bruges, and it seemed to more than make up for the missed gondola ride.

Next the kids headed towards the four remaining windmills on the eastern edge of the city (there used to be more circling Bruges). These windmills date back to the 18th Century, although some have been refurbished since. While the kids have seen plenty of modern day wind turbines, these beautiful wooden windmills were really fun to check out. The area around them is all park and we were joined by many people out enjoying the gorgeous afternoon.

Finally it was time to eat. While finding vegan food while traveling is not always so easy our relaxed day carried over to our shopping trip to the local grocery store. The kids helped us scan through the many chocolate offerings to find more vegan treats, and since we didn’t partake in any of Bruge’s famous double fried french fries we picked up a few bags of local potato chips to round off our falafel sandwiches. Since our hotel room is super small (think college dorm room) we soaked up the last of the sun while picnicking outside near the train station. With no mess to clean-up and lots of yummy chocolate in our bellies everyone declared the day a huge success.

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Train Odyssey Day 11: Austria’s Awesome Alps

If you want to experience train travel at its best, then Austria is the place for you. Nowhere else on our Train Odyssey has even come close to the breathtaking scenery and overall comfort of our trip from Salzburg to Innsbruck by rail. We were told that for the best views of the Alps, skip the direct train between the cities and instead break the trip into two parts going through the town of Zell Am See. This is some of the best advice we’ve ever taken 🙂 From stunning peaks, towering churches, and snowy castles to ski resorts, hot air balloons, and hang gliders, the view had us whipping our heads around from window to window during the 90 minute journey to Zell Am See.

Then much to our amazement, things only got better on the train from Zell Am See to Innsbruck. One of the perks of the Eurail pass is that it includes first class seating, and the train to Zurich we happened to catch had a first-class car that was pure luxury. We have never had seating anywhere as nice (huge picture windows, complementary snacks, plenty of leg room), and we kept expecting the conductor to realize we didn’t belong and politely suggest we would be more comfortable in 2nd class. Needless to say, we were quite tempted to skip Innsbruck all together and continue to the end of the line in Zurich.

We didn’t have much of a plan when we checked our bags to explore Innsbruck, but serendipity took care of everything. We discovered a lovely park a few blocks from the train station with some impressive playgrounds, had an impromptu snowball fight with some local boys (for the record, they threw the first snowball), and were gifted with Austrain stuffed animals by a friendly store clerk as we shopped for groceries. As we left the town, we even spotted the famous ski jump from the 1976 Olympics.

We can’t come up with enough superlatives to describes Austria’s Alps region and the beauty of seeing it by train 🙂 All we know is that it doesn’t get much better than this.

A Week in Rome with Kids

To be honest we were really very nervous about taking our three children to Rome. They have been begging to see this amazing city for about two years (one home school until on Ancient Rome and they were hooked), and we didn’t want our visit to fall short of their expectations. From the ruins to the many gelatarias they were envisioning a DisneyWorld-esque adventure. We didn’t want to burst their bubble, but at the same time we knew that we had a lot to see in a very short period of time, and that the reality of getting from Point A to Point B would be challenging for little legs. So, we started preparing for our trip months in advance hammering out our itinerary, researching transportation options, and finding a great place to stay. Below we have included our itinerary for the week as well as our tips for a successful trip to “The Eternal City” with children.

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Exploring Rome with Children: A Seven Day Itinerary

Day 1:
– Arrive at the airport and take a car service to your accommodations
– After unpacking venture out for a pizza dinner.

Day 2:
– Sleep in and try to recover from yesterday’s busy travel day
– Visit  the Basilica of San Clemente (our kids loved exploring the lowest level)
– View the obelisk at Piazza di San Giovanni
– Find a gelataria and start trying some of the numerous flavors. You only have a week to fit them all in 🙂

Day 3:
-Day trip to Ostia Antica (pack a picnic lunch to take with you, as well as kid friendly distractions for the train ride).
-Take the train back into the city for pizza and gelato

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Day 4:
– Visit the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary
– Walk through Piazza Navona
– Stop for lunch at a cafe or pizzaria (make sure it has a bathroom first)
– Tour the Pantheon
– Stroll by Trevia Fountain while enjoying a scoop from one of the many surrounding gelatarias
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Day 5:
– Spend the day at Castel Sant’Angelo
– Plan time for the playground and the pedestrian friendly Ponte Sant’Angelo over the Tiber River
– End the day with Rome’s best pizza from Pizzarium (a short trip away via the metro)
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Day 6:
– Follow the locals to the Park of the Aqueducts to enjoy the playgrounds, and marvel at the remains of Ancient Rome’s engineering wonders
– After lunch and a rest explore as much or little of the Appian Way as your group is up to (we skipped the catacombs, and instead walked the area near the Mausoleo di Cecilia Metella)
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Day 7:
– Begin you day with a brief tour of the Roman Forum
– Head to Palatine Hill for a picnic lunch with incredible views
– Spend your last night in Rome with a meal at your favorite restaurant or pizzaria. Followed of course with just one last scoop of gelato 🙂
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The Kid’s Top Favorites:
1. Ostia Antica
2. Castel Sant’Angelo
3. The Park of the Aqueducts
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The Five’s 5 tips for a successful week:
1. Arrange a car service from the airport to your accommodation. After a long flight it is worth the money not to have to juggle luggage and kids as you try and secure a taxi or navigate public transportation. We used Bob’s Limousines but Rome Cabs was highly recommended as well.
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2. Consider a rental apartment instead of a hotel. Having a kitchen with fridge as well as a washing machine can really make the difference in making a busy week go a lot smoother. We used airbnb.com and found a lovely apartment for way less than we would have paid at a hotel.
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3. Think about getting around the city from your child’s point of view. Walking through Rome is a great experience. Around every corner there is a new amazing building or view to take in. However, little legs get tired easily and the crumbling ruins of Ancient Rome don’t seem so interesting to children after a while. While the bus service in Rome is extensive we opted to use the metro as much as possible. It is super fast and it gave the kids a chance to get off their feet. Kids ride for free and a seven day pass for us adults was very affordable. Our rental apartment was less than a 5-minute walk from a metro stop which made all of the difference after a long day of sightseeing. Just be sure to avoid the metro during rush hour from about 4:30pm-6:30pm. It isn’t worth the pushing and shoving to get into a car, especially with young children in tow.
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4. Plan ahead for restroom facilities. With three young children we always had someone in our group who had to go. Restrooms were easy to find at the ticketed sights such as the Colosseum and Castle Sant’Angelo, but were sparse in many other areas. Near Piazza Navona we ended up spending money at a cafe just so that we could use their restroom. Of course after the fact we found this great map that some wonderful person put together of “free restroom facilities” in Rome. This would have come in handy!
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5. Stop for pizza and gelato often! Honestly the kids were mostly looking forward to eating a lot of gelato and pizza while in Rome. It really helped that most every gelataria offers some vegan flavors and those like Il Gelatone have several on hand everyday. Having a treat of gelato to look forward to everyday made their little legs work harder and helped keep their attention through some of the more “boring” sights that the adults wanted to check out. We usually try to limit sweets, but on this trip our adage was “when in Rome, eat gelato”.
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What Are We Doing Here?

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We departed San Cristóbal de las Casas early yesterday morning and in truth we were all really glad to be leaving. Honestly I think that as a family we murmured, thought, and even yelled the phrase “What are we doing here?” more often this past month than we ever have before. So, why did we decide to live in this area of Mexico  for a month in the first place? We really wanted to experience the region of Chiapas and get to know a different way of life from what we experienced this past winter in Baja California. We intentionally picked a Mexican city that has less of an expat community and chose a rental that was removed from the tourist areas.

Unfortunately in doing so we neglected to research how family friendly the city would be. A mistake that we will be sure not to make in the future! While San Cristóbal de las Casas offers so much in terms of super friendly people, wonderful culture, and a great night-life (for the older crowd), we found that it falls very short as an enjoyable city to experience with children.

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There were very few places for the Younger Fives to get out and play. The only functioning playground that we did find was a good distance from our house. The streets surrounding our rental, while safe, were littered with garbage and a never ending supply of dog excrement making it impossible for the kids to play on the block. There was a field behind our rental apartment where the kids really enjoyed spending time. However, 9 times out of 10 times the gate would be locked, which just added to everyone’s frustration. In addition the sidewalks of San Cristóbal de las Casas are very narrow and the streets always full of cars. This made walks through the city unenjoyable for us all as the car fumes made the kids sick, and we were a bundle of nerves trying to keep the kids out of the path of cars.

So, needless to say after living in San Cristóbal de las Casas for just a week we were all pretty much ready to throw in the towel. However, with a fully paid month-long rental this just wasn’t an option. So, instead we sat down together as a family and brainstormed how we could make things better. And in the end the process of sticking-it-out and working together as a family to come up with fun things to do ended up being a great experience for our family. While we probably spent more time inside this past month then we have since the kids were very young, it was fun to divert our attention with board games and World Cup soccer as a change.

Most importantly our time in San Cristóbal de las Casas made us appreciate what it means to live in an area with a lot of green space and very little pollution. We all came to fully realize how spoiled we have been living so close to nature in many of our past rentals. This past month again reminded us of how much we have to be thankful for as a family. Part of this adventure is finding out how other people in this world live and experiencing new areas of the world for ourselves. While everyone was excited to move-on from San Cristóbal de las Casas, we will all take with us the many lessons that we learned this past month.

Playground Paradise

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Our experience in Las Vegas so far hasn’t been the most typical one. Far from the glitz of the Strip, we have been spending our time pairing down on clothing, cookware, and camping gear in preparation to live without a car in the coming weeks. In between our walks to the grocery store and combing second-hand stores to find a few final items for our suitcases, there has been one constant: playgrounds.

While we can’t vouch for all of Las Vegas, we have found two pretty impressive (and free) playgrounds in North Las Vegas at Centennial and Aliante Parks. From modern, to old-school, to pre-historic, these playgrounds have it all, and we have been having a blast as a family chasing, sliding, and climbing. Here’s a glimpse at our own version of “letting it ride:”

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