Sunday Stroll in Bologna

The weather was great on a recent Sunday in Bologna. I had a great time poking in and out of corners and taking it all in.

A gorgeous flower shop… and some of the towers Bologna is famous for

and some famous Bolognese foods!

One of the city’s lovely porticoes

Sorry I’ve been scarce lately. Between travel and working on my novel, it’s been tough to make time to post, but I have lots to share. See you back here soon.

8 Tips for Traveling with Little Ones in Europe

Tip Number 1: Leave them at home!

For real. Unless you have a few weeks on your hands, think about it. Do you really want to drag a jet-lagged toddler to the hours-long line at the museum you’ve always dreamed of visiting? 

But you have your reasons, you say, and so do we. Since we’re living here in Europe for awhile, when we go on vacation, it’s usually on this continent. And it’s been great fun to explore  as a family, although a bit different from how we’d do it as a couple.

On to the real tips. These are a few things we’ve learned to help maximize the fun and minimize the stress. Maybe these ideas will help you.

1) Consider the countryside or small towns over big cities

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not avoiding the biggest cities altogether, but in general we find it’s much easier to navigate smaller towns with small kids. The pace of life is a bit slower, and people seem more understanding of children. It’s easier to find your way around, which makes everything else a little less stressful. And of course, there are fewer crowds.

2) Rent an apartment, or look ahead for family rooms or suites

Can you sleep in the same room with your darlings? Well, lucky you. We can’t. Luckily, there are options for light sleepers like us. We’ve done a lot of house/ cottage/ apartment rentals. These allow more space for sleeping as well as cooking facilities and often laundry facilities, too. This is usually more affordable than staying in hotels, too.

It does take more work to find a rental than to find a well-known hotel. For me, the benefits are worth it. We have had success with the following websites:

Home Away

This by far my favorite website when it comes to finding rentals because it’s well-designed, easy to use, and infinitely searchable. Covers every country all across the globe. In most cases, you rent directly from the owner.

National Gite Registry

This site used to have an English version, but currently I can’t find it to save my life—maybe it was removed? If you’re looking to rent in France, especially on a farm or vineyard, this site has everything. Google translate, if not completely fluent, is your friend.

Rent-a-Villa in Tuscany

This site/ agency is easy to use and designed for the English-speaking traveler in mind. An added bonus: you can order meals to be cooked in your villa—-so convenient with the kids.

I also hear good things about interchalet.co.uk. It’s another well-designed site, but I haven’t rented through it personally.

Rental options are often but not always limited to rental by the week. If you can’t find an option for a shorter stay, or you don’t need separate rooms, or you want a more full-service experience, look for “family rooms.” Hotels usually have limited numbers of these, so it helps to think ahead.

3) Book a fun place to hang out

Traveling with small children usually means you’ll spend some time sitting around while your kids sleep, whether for naps or at bedtime. We’ve found we feel a lot less trapped if we book a place that isn’t just a crash pad. If we can enjoy a view or sit on a pretty porch or balcony, we don’t mind (so much) having to settle in early for the night. Add a glass of wine and good book and you’re all set.

4) Plan ahead

We’ve found in general here that you’re expected to book anything (hotels, restaurants, museums) well in advance, and you might miss out if you don’t. This is not the land of the last minute. We recently booked a place two months in advance and were told it was a “last-minute” reservation. You’ll have a LOT better luck with restaurants if you make reservations a day or more ahead. Also, many popular attractions have a book-ahead option. You can reserve a time slot and save hours of line-waiting. Totally worth it.

While you’re thinking ahead, try getting the kids interested in the history or artwork of a place before your travel. It goes a long way in keeping their attention. Look for children’s books related to the city or country you’re visiting.

5) Beware safety issues

As an American, I was used to having lots of rules telling me where I could and couldn’t take my kids. You don’t find that much here. Often it’s nice, because you can make up your own mind. However, there have been times when we took our littlest one on an adventure that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best idea for him (i.e. high places with little in the way of railing). So, check things out before you climb because chances are, no one is going to stop you from doing something risky.

6) Research the local restaurant culture

Every country seems to be different on the whole restaurant scene, and it helps to know what to expect. In our year in Europe, we’ve found only one restaurant that provides crayons and a coloring page. Definitely bring your own. Some restaurants will have a children’s menu, but many don’t. We’ve gotten good at figuring out how to adapt a menu for children. Most restaurants will work with you on that.

While we’ve found establishments to be pretty tolerant of children, many just aren’t adapted for the under five set. In France and Italy, for instance, we found no restaurants that opened for dinner before 7:30 p.m., and a lot opened even later.

Also in France, you are expected, almost required (by the way the menu is set up) to order four or more courses. It’s fabulous, but it’s a long time to entertain your little ones while you try to enjoy the food. On our vacations we’ve done a lot of eating out for lunch and then making a light supper at our apartment.

Always make reservations. The best places get filled up quickly, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stroll in and find a table. Unlike American restaurants, European ones often only take one seating per table per night, so once they’re all reserved, that’s the end of them. The nice part is that once you have a table, you can take as long as you like.

In addition to restaurants, make sure to visit the produce markets, which are a wonderful way to enjoy the local food with the kids along.

7) Together, learn (at least) the politeness words in the language of your host country

Not only is it fun, and, you know, polite, but words like “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “please” go a long way when your kids are laughing too loudly or diving under the table at a nice restaurant.

8 ) Think outside the tourist attraction

That museum you’ve always wanted to see? It may be a little hard to do with your little ones. Maybe you’ll want to swap off kid-duty with your spouse. Or maybe you’ll want to try what we do, which is to look for attractions that have an interesting outside component. This doesn’t mean limiting yourself to playgrounds and amusement parks, though those can be fun, too.

Many historic sights and even museums have outside grounds that are just as fabulous as the inside, if not more. Having a little space to run around can make all the difference between a great time or a stressful day.

Have fun planning your trip! If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read other posts about places we’ve enjoyed as a family in Europe:

Germany:

Hamburg, Celle, Mosel Valley, North Sea, Bueckeburg Castle

The Netherlands:

In and Around Amsterdam

Italy:  Siena, Pisa, Volterra

Lady Madonna, Baby at Your Breast

 

Madonna del’latte, Ambrogio Lorenzetti c. 1330
 

I really enjoyed the museums in Siena in part because they were small enough to manage with children, and not so packed. But the best part was their troves of early Renaissance art. I like the early stuff because it’s not so all-fired perfect like the late Renaissance art. During the early period, artists had figured out a few things about perspective, but they hadn’t yet cracked the whole code. 

The art from the early period also seems brighter and more colorful than the later Renaissance. I find myself relating to it because it’s more like what I’d want to create myself. Perfection in artwork doesn’t really interest me that much, probably because I’m living after the invention of photography. So the beautiful but imperfect early Renaissance paintings (as well as pre-Renaissance works) have an almost modern feel to me.

Disclaimer: this isn’t an all that scholarly perspective, so bear that in mind.

St. Bernardino Preaching, by Sano di Pietro (above)—This scene takes place in the same Piazza del Campo from my previous post. I couldn’t find a better image of it, but in real life the colors are much brighter. The building behind St. Bernardino is the color of papaya flesh. 

Datei:Simone Martini 018.jpg

(detail from The Siege of the Castle of Montemassi, by Simone Martini)

The image above is just a tiny bit of a beautiful and famous painting. You can see the artist has made an attempt to show the dimensionality of the castle, but it’s still a bit flat, with an almost cubist feeling. I love it.

Our favorite pieces in the museum were the nursing Madonnas. I had never seen anything like them and was so moved by their tenderness. Whoever thought of Mary breastfeeding Jesus? Evidently plenty of artists have, but I hadn’t. I found the images so intimate, so human. So different from some other Madonnas where she’s looking away from baby Jesus, holding him like she’s not sure whose kid this is but would someone please take him?

Evidently there are a lot of these lactating Madonnas from 14th century Tuscany. According to Wikipedia,  they were “something of a visual revolution for the theology of the time, compared to the Queen of Heaven depictions.”

Madonna del latte, Paolo di Giovanni Fei

“During the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, a decree against nudity was issued, and the use of the Madonna Lactans iconography began to fade away.”

Sigh. At least they didn’t burn them.

The coolest thing about seeing these paintings was how much my small children responded to them. I think the idea of baby Jesus being so like themselves, so like other babies they know, excited them.

The images above came from wikipedia and wikimedia. They are in the public domain, and the paintings themselves all reside in Siena.

p.s. My post about Pisa was featured on Freshly Pressed (the wordpress front page roundup) this week, so this little blog got a lot of new traffic. Welcome, new subscribers!

People-Watching in Siena

At the heart of Siena lies the famous Piazza del Campo*, flanked by restaurants and historic buildings. During our few days in Siena we  crossed through the piazza again and again. We enjoyed eating pizza at the edge of it while watching people come and go.

Wow, Italians are sharp dressers. We played at being The Sartorialist, looking for classily-dressed locals we’d award for their fashion sense. The older gentlemen really know how to do it up—a common theme: thin (cashmere?) sweater, button-up shirt, blazer/ jacket, pants, nice leather shoes. Always nice shoes. It is Italy.

Though Siena is popular with tourists, we didn’t find it jam-packed or difficult to navigate. People are friendly, and the restaurants are great. The architecture and general ambiance are charming. Like most of the Italian towns we visited, you’re not allowed to drive in the city center unless you’re a local. The ancient narrow streets just aren’t built for car traffic. You begin to see why motorcycles and mopeds are popular here.

At every single restaurant (was it a rule?) we were given brown paper placemats. It looked like drawing paper, so I couldn’t resist sketching. The kids had their colored pencils along, so we were all set.

The food came before I could finish anything (terrible problem, I know).

I was excited to eat at an official Slow Food member restaurant, Hosteria il Carroccio.

Our other favorite restaurant was La Sosta Di Violante. We ate there twice it was so good, and the staff was very friendly.

One more Italy post and then it’s back to regularly scheduled programming.

*It’s also the scene of Siena’s famed twice-yearly horse race, Palio di Siena.

Secret Messages in Pisa

Maybe it’s all the cameos in spaghetti sauce commercials and movies  (was it Superman II where he straightens it?) but Pisa’s famous tower struck me as surreal, like we’d stepped into a fantasy world. The white stone buildings of the piazza, which we’re guessing had been cleaned recently, really glowed on the day we visited.

The kids called it the “Bendy Tower,” which is actually pretty accurate, since during its construction, the builders tried to correct for the leaning (already apparent) by centering the higher layers on top of the original foundation. Sounds like something I would do with one of my craft projects. So it really does bend. I kept thinking of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

No kids under 8 are allowed to go inside the staircase, which disappointed the kids but was fine by me. I often enjoy the outsides of buildings more than the insides anyway.

It’s a little surprising there’s a rule—-most sights in Europe have no restrictions about children, leaving you to make up your own mind. I understand this and appreciate it, but coming from  the super-litigious culture of the U.S., I’ve gotten used to someone else making those decisions for me. At times we’ve been a little confused as to what was really appropriate for the kids.

While the tower was mesmerizing, my favorite thing in Pisa was the exterior of the cathedral next door. The tower is the bell tower for this cathedral. The stones that make up the cathedral are all different sizes and materials, which I found kind of crazy and awesome. Some of them are recycled from other buildings. You can see writing and designs that are now upside down and cut off:

From my reading, I understand the upside-down stuff to be recycled Roman stonework.

Here’s some other writing that must’ve been added after construction, but its placement seems kind of random:

And then there’s the graffiti (another word in my oh-so-extensive Italian vocabulary) scattered around. I guess in the olden days if you wanted to be a graffiti artist, you had to carry around a knife or a chisel or something. If you really wanted to have a lasting impact:

It seemed like these were little hidden messages waiting to be discovered. For someone interested in recycling, patchwork, writing, and printing, it was really cool.

I haven’t had a chance to do much research on the writing and recycled stone, so if you know of articles about it, let me know.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to take a look at my posts about Volterra and two about Siena: here and here.

Bumping into Vampires in Volterra

Spaghetti! Buongiorno! Ragu! Fresca! This is about the extent of my Italian skills. Thank goodness for American convenience foods, eh?

Italy is what I dreamed of during our long gray period this winter in Germany. Like the London women in Enchanted April—-did you ever see it? See the trailer here. The women band together to rent an Italian villa, where they escape a rainy, dreary existence, and all their problems get solved.

Our vacation was exactly like that. Haha!

I didn’t realize I had booked a villa near a town that’s home to characters from a certain very popular YA series. I don’t know, something about good-looking vampires? Maybe you’ve heard of it?

In addition to being featured in New Moon, Volterra is a charming town, fairly small, not too touristy, with a lovely cathedral. I loved its bumpy old streets and funky shops and restaurants.

Also had some fabulous gelato, my number 2 pick in Italy:

We ate gelato every day, so number 2 is a very high ranking.

More Italy posts to come…