In addition to our time near the D-Day beaches, which was mostly requested and even planned by Peter, we also did some short trips to two of the other beautiful key sites in Normandy: Mont Saint-Michel and Giverny.
We decided to detour to Mont Saint-Michel in between our stay in the treehouse and the D-Day beaches. This abbey on a rock out past the tides is visually stunning from a mile away and we were lucky enough to come on a beautiful clear day.
There’s an easy shuttle from the parking lot that takes you right to the base of the mountain, where the driver literally hops out, walks to the other end, and drives back. The walk up to the abbey wasn’t too difficult, but it was really crowded even in April and we saw a few people struggling to push strollers up the streets (why though?!). I don’t think strollers are allowed inside, so we were grateful for a baby carrier, even if Julia was less excited about it. She was in a toddler mood that afternoon and really didn’t want to spend much time inside, but luckily it’s not absurdly expensive to go in the abbey and there are are outdoor spaces to run around towards the end of the visit, as well as viewpoints along the way where she could use her outdoor voice. It was also busy enough that her noise wasn’t atrocious.
On the way down, we stopped for ice cream and an apple tart at one of several shops. The ice cream was really and truly terrible (strawberry soft serve that tasted like a bad 7-11 icee), but Peter liked the apple tart. We visited the Skelligs in Ireland for our 1st anniversary years ago, and I kept expecting a similar other worldly experience since this is also an extremely challenging feat of religiously-oriented engineering, but it just didn’t hit me the same way. If I had to do it all over again, I might have spent more time at the beach and less time with the hordes of other tourists. That said, they really do make it easy for you to visit, so if you’re in the area, I would at least recommend driving by (the parking lot has a much lower rate for less than 2 hours, which would be impossible to do for a real visit, but would be useful for a quick one).
Giverny was a really picturesque village and I wish we had more time there just to relax around the beautiful springtime blooms. We stayed at a lovely little B&B called the Forest Farm, which I found on Booking.com. It’s technically in Bois Jérôme Saint-Ouen, but it’s a 10-15 minute drive to Giverny, so it’s much easier than crossing over into Vernon (which is where your train would arrive if that was your travel mode). There was a little playhouse out on a lawn, and our large triple room with a private bathroom was the only place we stayed with a bathtub, which Julia appreciated since she’d been forced to shower with me in a tiny European shower everywhere else.
We arrived on a Sunday evening and our B&B owner recommended the restaurant at the Hotel Baudyfor dinner since most places are closed on Sunday. It had a lovely and bustling terrace and Julia even got to play in the gravel with another little boy her age and order fish off the kids’ menu. My Normandy salad and lamb skewers were delicious, and Peter like the goat cheese terrine and duck confit.
The next morning, we ate breakfast on the early side and tried to get to Monet’s House as soon as possible. We over-achieved and arrived before they opened, so I asked if there was a bakery nearby to pick up sandwiches for a picnic later. It was a lovely example of how sweet French people are when asked for help – the bakery didn’t technically have sandwiches until much later, but they saw Julia and offered to make a coupe of the more simple ones for us. Unfortunately, the bakery was further from Monet’s House than expected so we got back a bit late and were stuck at the pre-booked ticket entrance behind several tour groups (might have been faster at the main entrance, but you just never know). However, the sweet employee remembered our little family and waved us to a spot in between groups so we could get in (do people who don’t want to travel with kids know how many awesome perks they’re missing out on?). The gardens don’t open until 9, so you can forget your dreams of seeing them in the early morning light, and we probably would have had fewer tour groups in the late afternoon, but we had to return the car in Paris by 1, so we leveraged Julia’s cuteness to squeeze by the groups. She is obsessed with bridges right now and there were plenty of them (including the iconic bridge from Linnea in Monet’s Garden) to race across.
I felt like the spring timing of our visit to the gardens was perfect. Roses won’t come along for awhile yet, but who cares when you have yards of tulips, my favorite flower? The house was beautiful and full of art, but also difficult to pause and enjoy because of all the people. Luckily, there was no one in the large kitchen, so we got to stop and admire it for a bit before a few last glimpses at the gardens and the gift shop.
We had a little over an hour in the gardens before we left to eat our sandwiches in the courtyard at the Impressionist Museum and drive to Paris to return our rental car.
These were both totally unique day trips that made our tour through Normandy more diverse and definitely kept my interest up (you just can only see so many WWII museums with a toddler…).
I’m glad we visited Mont Saint-Michel since it’s been on my bucket list for a long time, but it was really most beautiful from the bottom looking up, so we could have enjoyed a trip to the beach with the same views (and better ice cream).
I could have spent another day or two in the Giverny area, however. The whole village was full of beautiful gardens (are the homeowners part of some crazy Southern California-type HOA?) and there are a couple of other art museums and galleries that I would have loved to explore, and it would have been fun to come back to Monet’s House in the late afternoon after the buses of tour groups left. I also would have loved to rent bikes to get around since the town has really terrible car access and winding streets that would be lovely on a bike. We’ll just have to go back!
Do you plan day trips from your central location on vacation? What has been your favorite day trip so far?
Peter and I have been married long enough now that I can usually plan things on a trip that he’ll enjoy, but I still try to ask whether there’s anything he’s particularly dying to do. On this trip, he asked if we could go see some World War II sights. I’d always wanted to see Mont Saint Michel and Giverny, so it was a good area to combine our mutual interests. Most of the things we did around the D-Day beaches were more for Peter’s education and enjoyment, and Julia and I were there as willing supporters, so I’ll list things we did more succinctly with some more brief commentary than normal.
Where We Stayed
We found the B&B Ferme de la Tourelle on Booking.com (use the link and get $20 towards your stay) and it had great ratings, plus it seemed like it would be nice to have a space further out from a town where Julia could run. Delphine, our host, was very warm and welcoming and we enjoyed getting to chat with other guests over breakfast in the morning. There was a little mix-up with our room – I had reserved a triple room (double bed + single bed) and Delphine needed the triple room for another family and thought she had e-mailed through Booking to ask if we would be alright with a double and a pack and play. I never got the e-mail, but Julia slept fine in the pack and play and we paid slightly less for the room. We really loved our stay, but in hindsight I might have chosen to book somewhere in Bayeux center since we mostly ate and explored there after sightseeing and it might have been nice to walk, but it was only a 15 minute drive.
What We Did And Where We Ate
Sainte-Mère-Eglise: little village where a paratrooper most famously parachuted in and landed on the church steeple before being captured. The church was really beautiful (a touching Our Lady of Peace stands guard) and the Airborne Museum was very well done (especially the Operation Neptune building with an exhibit that makes you feel like you’re jumping out of the plane). We ate sandwiches in the square from a bakery before heading to…
Utah Beach: The Utah Beach Landing Museumwas also well done, but less accessible for a toddler (more things to read, less things to see). Luckily, the beach is literally just outside and it’s quite lovely. Julia and I played on the beach for close to an hour while we waited for Peter – the water was a perfect temperature and there were plenty of shells to use as makeshift shovels and buckets. We had a muslin blanket to use as a towel and I dragged our lightweight stroller onto the sand without much difficulty.
Bayeux: We tried to go to the Tapestry Museum, but had the only experience in France with an unfriendly person. We were confused by the odd parking situation (there are these funny disks you can buy at tobacco stores, but it’s only loosely marked) and it felt like we were pulling teeth to try to get information about the options. We wanted to buy tickets and have Peter re-park the car, but the employee told us they were closing soon (it was 10 minutes to 5 and they don’t close till 6:30) and that we should probably just come back another day because we could “only” see the tapestry (we realized later that the museum was also open, so we would only potentially have missed a short film that we didn’t care about anyway). We moved the car and decided to walk around, visiting the beautiful cathedral and its crypt, and playing near the ducks at the Parc Michel Ornano. We ate dinner at Le Petit Normand, which is rated well on TripAdvisor. Julia loved my paté and Peter’s French onion soup, but neither Peter nor I were particularly enamored with the food. They did have a high chair, however, which made feeding Julia easy.
Arromanche-Les-Bains: We loved seeing the remains of the artificial port. The fact that it’s largely still there really brings it to life. Peter enjoyed the model in the Landing Museum (it has moving “water” – impressive) and there was a good slide show and movie that Julia made it through, but then we headed out to watch the carousel and the beach. The restroom at the museum, by the way, is very tiny and would be impossible to change a diaper in, so don’t do that to yourself.
Longues-Sur-Mer: This was a quick stop to see the German gun battery. Julia and I mostly picked dandelions while Peter walked around, but it was a great spot to run around for her.
American Cemetery: The cemetery is really beautiful and touching. Respecting the dead is really important here, so Julia and I had several conversations about what that meant (no running, no climbing, etc) that she did a good job of listening to. If we had felt up to it, it would have also been nice to see the German cemetery to compare and contrast.
Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc: Julia fell asleep soon after leaving the cemetery and I felt really tired, so Peter drove the long way back to Bayeux past Omaha Beach and got out at Pointe du Hoc to walk around a bit.
Maisy Battery: Julia luckily woke up just in time so that I could join Peter with her in the toddler carrier. The Germans hid a gun battery that was only fairly recently uncovered (2006) after being an odd secret after the war. I really wanted to like this site given its interesting back story, but without more information (a guided tour would have been cool), most of the areas looked similar. I’m still glad we went, but am glad the entrance fee (6 EUR/adult) wasn’t atrocious.
Back to Bayeux: We finally made it to the Tapestry Museum! We definitely could have seen it the day prior, but the front desk and other staff were really friendly and helpful, so I’m not sorry we waited. Contrasting to the other things we saw, this was my chosen activity for the area (we studied the tapestry back in my AP Art History class in high school), so Peter took charge of making sure Julia didn’t ruin any millennia old artifacts. They had handheld audio tours (including one for kids, which Julia didn’t listen to, but loved holding) that played automatically as you walked by the tapestry, which is remarkably beautiful and intact. There’s also a small museum on the next floor that gives more information about the tapestry’s history, making and life at the time. It was a really hot day, so we got ice cream, bought Julia a new dress and walked around town before heading to dinner at Moulin de La Galette. The TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews were mostly good, but mixed. We loved the galettes (savory crepes made with buckwheat flour) and the price of our dinner on a beautiful terrace at sunset with a bottle of cider, side salad and fries was significantly less than we had paid elsewhere, so we were ecstatic. We got back to our B&B just as a giant and beautiful thunderstorm broke, so we got to watch it from the common area while we planned for the following day.
Day 3 (last day)
We decided to putter around the Normandy area a bit before heading to Giverny, so we stopped near Juno beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer. Their extremely friendly and helpful tourist office (even open on Sundays) pointed us down the road to Chippie Plage, a tiny little hole in the wall stand that rented bikes. For 2 hours, our two bikes with a baby seat and a helmet for Julia (they didn’t have adult helmets) and extra smiles from the owners was only 9.50 EUR. They weren’t the best bikes in the world, and Julia (who was a little sleepy) didn’t love the fact that her head kept hitting Peter’s back, so we stopped by the beach and ate lunch. Julia and I went down to the beach to play while Peter continued on. She was so excited because there’s a horse riding school nearby and ponies and horses kept walking down the ramp near where we were playing. It was a beautiful day for being outside, and Julia liked the bike ride more on our way back when she was more awake. After our little activity, we stopped for ice cream before driving off towards Giverny!
Do you and your partner take turns switching off with activities and child occupying on vacation? How do you divide and conquer?
When we were originally scheduling our trip, it turned out that buying flights from Rome to Paris was significantly less expensive (about 120-150 EUR) on Wednesday than Thursday. Also, I had always wanted to stay in a treehouse in France, but when I lived there I didn’t have a car or enough time off to get to one. So when I looked at a map and saw that there were several national park areas in between Orly and our B&B in Normandy, we decided to book the earlier tickets and spend a night in a treehouse in the Perche area at the Chateau de La Grande Noë.
The Chateau has 6 treehouses on the property and all of them looked amazing, but I wrote to the manager, Agnès, to ask her which one would be best for our family (a 2 year old and a very tall husband). While she said La Fermette would be lovely, L’Echaugette (the Watch Tower) had a larger bed, so that made it my first choice.
We had the GPS navigate us to the property and it was a pretty easy and lovely drive. We arrived a little before 4 p.m. and Agnès met us with a map and gave us a little rucksack with water and flashlights and a rundown of the key features of the property before letting us loose. I think our treehouse might have been the shortest walk from the welcome area, but it still felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (in a good way).
Julia loved climbing up all those stairs, and I loved that they felt sturdy and had solid handrails (and a gate at the top to prevent accidental exits). Julia played with the box of toys that had kindly been left for her while we explored the interior. It is honestly the most beautiful space – a fairly large bed (probably an American queen) underneath a loft area that had two single beds, with a day bed across from the door. There was a small table indoors, a sawdust toilet, and a large deck with a table that seats 4 outside.
Peter felt tired after the flight and the 2 hour drive (EasyJet had utterly failed us and the ground crew didn’t push our stroller all the way through onto the oversize baggage conveyor, so we spent an extra hour trying to get it back since everyone was at lunch), so I took Julia out to see the farm. There are a couple of horses, guinea pigs and rabbits, a pony, goats, and chickens, as well as a parcours course for kids over 5 (Julia was too small to even try it), some yard toys, bicycles, and a kids tricycle. It would really be such a paradise to grow up there if you were a kid.
A dinner aside: While we were sitting on the shaded grass and talking to the pony and goats, I did some quick research on places we might eat (no WiFi, so plan on having a French SIM card and some data) and came up with Les Pieds dans l’Eau (translates to Feet In The Water). We made a reservation for when they open at 7:30 (might not have needed it, but always a safe bet since some places were closed out of high season) and drove about 20-30 minutes to get there. The restaurant was in the most beautiful location – the sun was starting to set on a gorgeous day and the restaurant is located on a pond in what looks like an old house with a beautiful terrace out front that has rocks and flowers. Even more magical – we started down the stairs and another toddler girl waved to us saying “Coucou” (French familiar for “hello!”). Julia was so excited to see another child that she ran right up and said “Hi!” and waved. She had been shy around other kids for a large part of our stay in Rome, and is generally cautious, so this melted my little mother’s heart. The little girl was named Juliette and she’s the owners’ 20 month old daughter. What?! This place was perfect! The girls loved playing together (although sharing Julia’s toys was hard for both of them) and it gave Peter and me a chance to sip an apéritif with pear liqueur that the owner recommended, which was the perfect recipe for relaxation.
I told Julia that my foie gras appetizer was special butter and she ate it with relish, and enjoyed Peter’s sweetbreads (fun fact that I had completely forgotten: riz de veau has nothing to do with rice). She got a little antsy in between appetizers and dinner, so we took turns hanging out with her while she threw rocks in the pond and the other person sipped wine. For dinner, they very sweetly made her a child-sized portion of brandade (like a fish purée) that was beautifully presented even for a toddler, because this was France. I had a crab parmentier and Peter had a steak with a delicious wine sauce. Dessert was a large macaron with a chocolate filling and a quadruplet of strawberry/pineapple mini items. We loved the ambiance here so much and it was everything I imagined eating in the French countryside to be.
Back to the treehouse: we arrived back and Julia wanted to sleep in the loft, so I did her whole bedtime routine up there, but then when I climbed down, she was really upset. We tried putting her down on the day bed, but she changed her mind again (#toddlers) and wanted back in the loft, where she tucked herself in and promptly went to sleep for her first night in a big girl bed. Peter and I sat on the deck for an hour, chatting and sipping cider while we planned for the next day. I slept in the other single bed to make sure Julia wouldn’t climb out of the loft and had the best sleep of the whole trip. Most of our other apartments felt hot, but the treehouse was the perfect temperature (since we didn’t turn any heat on and it wasn’t too cold out) and the quiet peacefulness lulled me right to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up just a few minutes before our breakfast arrived on a golf cart, which Agnès hooked to a rope so we could pull it up. Peter and Julia woke up shortly thereafter and we enjoyed fresh coffee, tea and hot chocolate with croissants, baguette, local honey, butter and jam. It was delicious!
We had originally planned to leave soon after breakfast to get to Mont Saint Michel as soon as possible, but when Peter went to take a shower and Julia and I were walking to the car with our bags, two of the little girls who live in the caretaker’s house were waiting for us on the path. We couldn’t resist a chance for Julia to play with other kids, so we stayed for another 2 hours while the girls (who were 5 and 8 and mostly only spoke French, so I translated back and forth because my French is about a 1st grade level…) played together. They picked bouquets of dandelions, imitated the chickens and horses, and ran together and I nearly died of the cuteness. We finally went to check out close to 11 a.m. and I felt sorry to leave the beautiful property and the lovely people who manage it.
Have you ever stayed in a treehouse? Would you bring your kids along?
When we were planning our Europe trip for the year, I asked Peter if he had any requests and he just wanted to go to Italy. We toyed with various cities/regions – Venice, the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, but ultimately chose Rome because it’s such a bucket list location. I had already been on a college trip with my family, but this would be Peter and Julia’s first time, so it was important to us to see some of the main touristy sights.
Where We Stayed
I had originally reserved the Repubblica Suite in Rome with Booking.com, but the owner contacted me and offered a discount to reserve directly through the apartment’s website (which I hadn’t been able to find when I did an internet search beforehand). At our option, we pre-paid some of the apartment fee through PayPal to avoid having to use up all the cash we pulled out of the airport ATM. We loved the studio apartment. Our host, Gianluca, went so far as to purchase a completely new pack and play so that our toddler would have somewhere to sleep while we were there. Talk about service! The bed was comfortable, and the studio was large by European standards. The location was also great – it was a little under a 10 minute walk to the main train station, Roma Termini, which meant that we saved a bunch of money by taking the train to/from the airport, and it made our day trip to Tivoli quite easy.
What We Did And Where We Ate
Day 1 We arrived in Rome after an overnight flight when Julia only slept for 4 hours, so we were exhausted, but still managed to get ourselves and our luggage on the Leonardo Express train from the airport to Roma Termini. If you’re planning to take the train, it’s 14 EUR/adult (free for kids under 12, although each kid from 4-12 has to have one paying adult), and it’s a long hike through lots of pedestrian walkways to get from baggage claim to the platform. Don’t forget to validate your ticket at one of the small green machines. Our apartment host’s friend met us and luckily was watching out for us since the address wasn’t marked on the building.
We made our way to Ristorante Alessio after doing some quick Yelp/TripAdvisor research for places nearby and waited about 20-30 minutes for a table on the covered and heated patio. Julia was quite happy to run around in the alley behind the restaurant and climb up and down the stairs while we waited. Our dinner was good, although not amazing (Julia loved the gnochetti with baby shrimp and zucchini blossoms, although the actual shrimp and blossoms were basically invisible), but there was wine, and everyone was very friendly to Julia. They also had a high chair, which was a welcome surprise.
When I initially planned for the trip, I assumed that jet lag would result in all of us waking up and getting a really early start. However, Julia chose to be awake from midnight to 3 a.m. (she was at least happily singing to herself and bouncing in our bed), so we didn’t wake up until close to 8, meaning we didn’t leave the apartment until 9ish, which was much closer to an Italian start to the day anyway. We didn’t want to commit to anything too vigorous, so we walked: we stopped at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps (neither of which was too crowded yet, although there were definitely lots of people), having a little coffee and cornetto pause at a place called Angelina along the way.
Then, we made our way to the Villa Borghese gardens, stopping at a beautiful viewpoint over the city. We rented a bicycle surrey from a little stand in the park that had a mini steering wheel for Julia (at the time of writing, it was 12 EUR/hr in cash and we had to leave a piece of ID, but they luckily accepted the copy of our passports that I had in the diaper bag rather than an original). When I had researched weather for our trip before leaving, there was supposed to be rain and/or thunderstorms for the entire time, but we got extremely fortunate with weather and there were sunny skies and a light breeze almost every day. The warm sun and wind in our hair felt amazing to our jet-lagged selves and Julia loved being able to drive. She didn’t even want to get out at the little playground because she was having so much fun.
We stopped at another viewpoint before making our way down to the Plaza del Popolo and peeking down alleyways to find a restaurant for lunch.
We found a little place called Edy down an alley and it was so good that we ended up coming back for dinner later in our trip. We shared a bresaola salad and Julia gobbled up more than half of my carbonara (so good, so cheesy, and so peppery!) and had a helping of Peter’s Greek-style pasta (olives, tomato, eggplant, etc). After a hearty lunch, we made our way back to the apartment for a long and much-needed nap.
It’s apparently very common for Romans to have gelato for a late afternoon snack, and we were only too happy to follow their lead. Come Il Latte was only a quarter of a mile or so from our apartment and it was so delicious! They had a variety of dairy free options in addition to the traditional flavors. I shared almond and dark chocolate (the former being dairy-free) with Julia, and Peter got a coconut flavor (also dairy-free) and we perched ourselves on a stoop outside since there was a crowd in the limited seating outside. The almond flavor was fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone, even if you don’t have a dairy dietary restriction (which I don’t). We slowly made our way towards La Campana, a restaurant I’d read about in Eating Rome. I hadn’t been able to get ahold of them on the phone to reserve, but after traipsing past the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, we were able to pop our heads in a half hour before opening to reserve a table. We used the extra time to walk along the Tiber river before returning at 7:30. They also had a high chair for Julia, and our server’s daughter had the Italian version of her name, so they were fast friends. She gobbled up fried zucchini blossoms and I had roasted lamb, while Peter enjoyed an eggplant parmesan. Julia and I shared a Monte Bianco for dessert because I just can’t get enough of chestnut cream, which is rarely available in the US.
Night 2 was the worst from a jet lag perspective. Julia refused to lie down for more than 2 seconds, taking her pajamas off, climbing out of her pack and play (she couldn’t even repeat this the next morning, so I’m pretty convinced that she mutates at night), and yelling. After 3 hours, I managed to get her to sleep by letting her scream till she was worn out and then rocking her in the baby carrier. However, I still couldn’t get to sleep for anther hour or two, so I probably got about 3-4 hours of sleep tops. Needless to say, we were all grumpy the next morning. We had pre-booked tickets for the Colosseum, and when we arrived (skipping coffee in our rush to get there early – what were we thinking?!), we were so grateful for them because the lines were bonkers. On the advice of forum posts and other blogs that I had read, we took Julia in the baby carrier rather than the stroller, and that was great because there were steep stairs and long lines for the elevator. Literally every step was a struggle for the adults, but Julia loved climbing stairs and rocks and jumping off of things. I bought the tickets the week or so before our trip, so the tours were no longer available. That was a shame because there are some parts (like a special view of the underground area, or the 3rd floor) that you can’t get to without a tour. There also isn’t a lot of signage, so you don’t learn much about the building without some kind of guide. That said, I’m not sure that our mental states would have let us process much anyway, so it’s probably for the best.
Tickets to the Colosseum also include entrance to the Roman Forum. We stopped by after our Colosseum visit with the intent to go, but the line to get in was so long, and we just didn’t have it in us. We walked through a park near the Colosseum and let Julia play in more rocks while we just sat there and tried to gear up for the walk home. Then, we took a break at some super touristy spot because we just had to get food into Julia in the easiest way possible. It wasn’t great, but even mediocre food in Rome is pretty good. We napped for over 2 hours and it was the best 2 hours of the whole day. Deciding we could still salvage the remaining hours of daylight, we hightailed it back to the Forum (Peter was also hoping to see the Pantheon, but it closes at 6 and it was almost 5:30 at that point). They close at 7, and the last entry is an hour beforehand, so we skated in at 5:50 and there was no line, nor were there huge crowds. The sun was also starting to set, so it was the most perfect time to be able to wander through the ancient ruins. I mostly played with Julia (more pebbles, more jumping off thousand year old stones, and watching birds) so Peter could quickly move about. We also had to check out Basilica Giulia (the Italian spelling of Julia)!
This visit honestly made us feel so much better after the most difficult travel day of the trip. Feeling re-engergized, we walked past the Bocca della Verita (it closed early due to construction, so we didn’t have to see whether Julia was lying when she promised she would sleep better by making her slip her hand into its mouth) and into the Jewish Ghetto. It’s incredibly sad to think that people were (and still are, in some places) forcibly segregated from the rest of the population, but it’s now a beautiful pedestrian area lined with restaurants and running, happy children (including ours). We settled in for dinner at Ba’Ghetto Milky, sharing arancini, fried artichoke, and more fried zucchini blossoms, followed by eggplant parm and sea bream with sage and tomatoes. Our waiter was a little grumpy, but the setting was lovely and the people watching was excellent.
Since the Pantheon line had been crazy the day before when we’d walked by on the way to dinner, we stopped by again to see it at night. The interior was closed, but we could step up and check out the columns, and there were lots of people gathering about and enjoying a warm evening. We bought a funny little light-up flying toy from a street vendor and spent some time playing with it while Julia ran and jumped, wearing herself out for a good night’s sleep ahead.
While I hadn’t originally factored it into our trip, remembering long lines from my visit with my parents in college, Peter decided he wanted to brave the entry to the Vatican museums (Julia hogged all the coins to toss into the Trevi fountain, so who knows when we’ll be back?). I did some reading and while I couldn’t get advance tickets that late in the game, many sources suggested that going in the late afternoon (the museums close at 6 p.m., and you have to purchase your ticket by 4 p.m. to get in) would help avoid the morning rush, contrary to what I would have assumed. So, Peter went off the see the Pantheon in the morning while Julia and I took our time getting ready, stopping for a cornetto and cappucino at the counter of Exquisitaly (shockingly delicious considering the cheesy name) and winding our way down the streets. I rely on Peter a lot to navigate when we’re out exploring, so it was nice to manage on my own and have some extra quiet time with J. Peter had already had his fill of the Pantheon, so we were able to take a quick look with Julia before walking leisurely to the Castel Sant’Angelo. This amazing fortress hadn’t really popped up in my pre-trip research, but a fellow Instagram mom posted about it a week or two before our trip. It looked like such an amazing place to catch views over Rome and did not disappoint! This was probably one of Julia’s favorite stops on the trip – she loved climbing all the stairs (they were nowhere near as high as at the Colosseum, and there were also a lot of ramps to race up and down) and terrifying me by crawling towards the open windows on the top floor (technically too narrow for her to fall through, but only barely).
After a delicious lunch of pizza and caprese salad at Da Vito e Dina, we made our way to the Vatican and prepared ourselves to power through the line. The line was very long, but much shorter than when I’d come in college. A tout-looking person waved us into the “skip the line” section saying “Babies don’t wait in line.” We were a little skeptical at first, but then noticed he had a badge on and figured he might be legit and that we didn’t have much to lose. People kept waving us forward, echoing the first guy, and we felt like we had pulled an Obi Wan Kenobi on them and snuck into the Vatican. We didn’t take many pictures because it was still painfully crowded inside, but we managed to see the key highlights in about 2 hours, mainly by being slowly crushed through by the huge number of bodies. This probably would have been a good place to have a baby carrier in lieu of the stroller because of the available floor space, but my body was just too tired after the previous day to handle carrying 27 lbs of cuteness on my back, so we muscled our way through. The most surprising thing was how well Julia behaved – as we made our way through Modern Art towards the Sistine Chapel, we had a little chat about how we were going somewhere very special and how we needed to be extra quiet like the mommies on the bus (think, the Wheels On The Bus song). She was quiet as a little mouse and kept saying “Mommy very quiet. Shhhhhh” throughout our whole visit. One note on Vatican facilities: there are limited restroom stalls and long lines for them. Also, the changing tables are oddly locked and you have to get a caretaker to bring them down for you. That all renders the bathrooms unfriendly to kids in general, but the caretakers are loving Italian ladies who want to help, so don’t be afraid to ask. If you have a 2 year old, it might be a good time to train them to do diapers standing up (thanks, daycare, for doing this for me). It was too busy for her to nap as we’d hoped, so she promptly fell asleep when we emerged. We peeked at St. Peter’s Basilica, but the line wrapped around all of the columns outside and babies wait in line for St. Peter, so we took the scenic route towards the Trastevere neighborhood. We had hoped to visit Janiculum Park, but we couldn’t seem to find an entrance (we missed one at the top by taking the long way around, and couldn’t find a bottom entrance except for a botanical garden), so we abandoned that plan. We made our way towards gelato, and then stumbled upon a man from Argentina who was traveling the world to do bubble shows (I know – dream life, right?). Julia had been pretty shy around other kids up until this point (like the sweet Italian kids who wanted to play with her on night 2), but this show brought her out of her bubble (#momjoke) and she was chasing them around with everyone else within 5 minutes.
We ate at Grazie e Graziella right up the street after enjoying a quick pop into the Basilicia di Santa Maria and some more street performers. They were very friendly with Julia and she loved the penne pasta with guanciale that we shared. It was a long walk home, but a beautiful evening after what had been a long, but lovely, day.
Day 5 Our last day in Rome! We took a train to Tivoli to see the Villa d’Este. The train itself was pretty easy – we caught an 8 a.m. train that we made with just a couple of minutes to spare (because I really did need coffee) and the ride was an easy hour since Julia had snacks and a few toys.
I had read there was a shuttle from the station to the Villa, but there were crickets chirping when we arrived, so we tried to walk. The entrance is poorly marked (there was literally a sign pointing down one street, but you actually needed to make a right at the square and basically u-turn to get to it), so we wasted a good 40 minutes walking there and trying to find the entrance. Also, someone had mentioned that it’s closed on Mondays, which is great because the website only says they’re closed Monday mornings (I’m sure it’s a translation error on the English version), so I had originally planned for us to go on a Monday. Once in, however, it was a toddler paradise, full of stairs and fountains and rocks. It’s almost impossible to believe it was built in the late 1500s – it is so ornate and beautiful, and the layout makes you feel like you’re constantly discovering a new hidden gem.
We skipped the actual house completely since there were several school groups on tour and spent about 2 hours walking through the gardens. The water organ shows were at 10:30 and 12:30 the day we visited – we missed the 10:30 by a couple of minutes because of the signage issues, but made the 12:30 before heading to lunch. All the places downtown are tourist-y, but we sat down an alleyway and enjoyed our pasta and wine as if we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. The waiters all flirted with Julia and everyone was happy.
We missed the more direct train back to the city, so took one to Rome Tiburtina and walked. This was exhausting because it’s much further and in a less beautiful neighborhood (should have taken the Metro), but we made a stop for gelato before heading back to the Villa Borghese. It sprinkled on us a bit and my feet were dying, so we stopped and let Julia play in little log-cabin-style playhouses for a bit.
We eventually made our way back to Edy for dinner, where I had my last carbonara of the trip.
Rome With A Toddler Jet lag on this trip was real, and it definitely threw a little bit of a wrench in some of our plans. That being said, we also had much better weather than expected and the Italian people (especially the men, interestingly enough) are so kind and indulgent of children that it was a really kid-friendly destination to kick off our trip. Having already seen most of the big monuments on a previous visit, I also felt okay hanging back with Julia to see things through her eyes while Peter took time to explore the sights a bit more in depth. To me, the “can’t miss” sights with a toddler were the Villa BorgheseGardens and the day trip to the Villa d’Este. Strolling through the little neighborhoods, like the Jewish Ghetto and the Trastevere, made us feel more like locals and provided a respite from the crush of crowds at places like the Colosseum and the Vatican. I also really liked the area we stayed (near the Roma Termini train station) – it was very convenient to get around (and would have been easy to take the Metro if the weather had been worse) and felt incredibly safe.
Have you been to Rome with kids? What did they enjoy the most about the trip?
We’re back from our 2-week trip to Europe! I’ll be working on Travelogues over the coming weeks, but one of the things that’s been on my mind a lot is the shift between traveling with a baby vs. traveling with a toddler. I knew it would be different, but hadn’t really anticipated the significance of the differences. Here are some of things that stood out the most.
The Bad (sorry it has to come first, but save the best for last?):
1. Jet Lag
Julia was always a pretty good sleeper as a baby. She didn’t sleep for as many consecutive hours as some friends’ babies, but she also didn’t tend to wake up a zillion times per night, either. That pretty much held true for traveling to Europe with her last year, and for trips to the East Cost that had a time change. She would wake up at night, and possibly cry, but as long as someone was holding her (or she was breastfeeding), we all got relatively adequate sleep. She also slept great in the stroller or the baby carrier, so we could take her out and about, and she transferred well (pack and play to carrier/stroller, or vice versa) so we didn’t have to worry about moving around.
Skip to toddler Julia, who turned 2 a couple of weeks before our trip. For the first 3 nights of our trip or so, she was awake from 12-3 a.m. straight. The first night she was content to sit in our bed, singing quietly to herself and climbing around, but the second night was pure hell. She climbed out of her pack and play multiple times (which I’ve never seen her do before and which she couldn’t quite repeat the following day when I asked her to show me), yelled, and generally made herself a nuisance. I finally got her to sleep after 3 hours by holding her while she screamed and then putting her in the baby carrier to rock when she’d worn herself out. She would fall asleep in the baby carrier, but would usually wake up when transferred, so we couldn’t walk her to sleep and then take naps ourselves (which we desperately needed after those sleepless nights). Sleeping in the stroller went reasonably well, but heaven forbid you recline the seat before she was fully asleep or she would wake up mad and you’d start all over again. This was definitely the biggest struggle for both of us and I’m glad we were able to travel for 2 weeks, or we just wouldn’t have had enough time post-jet-lag to explore as a well-rested family.
As an 11 month old during last year’s trip, Julia wasn’t quite walking yet, so she was pretty happy to ride in the carrier or stroller as long as she could see out. We also didn’t have to worry much about preventing her from running into cars/people/bicycles.
2-year old Julia, on the other hand, is an excellent runner and loves to walk by herself (preferably without holding hands, unless she’s tired). Her order of preference would generally be: walking on her own, pushing her own stroller, riding in the stroller, being carried in someone’s arms, and then the baby carrier o my back (not on the front, please, Mama). Luckily, there were squares, parks, beaches, and apartments where we could often let her run around by herself, but often she had to be toted around for efficiency or safety purposes. This leads me to:
Babies are awesome. They are perfectly happy to do whatever you want as long as Mom and Dad are around. We took Julia to the Prado museum in Madrid for 3-4 hours last year and it was a piece of cake because she looked at the art, napped, and then crawled a tiny bit in a safe space.
Toddlers, on the other hand, must do everything themselves and have a very specific preference for every situation. Julia’s favorite words (other than “No” and “Mine”) are currently “My do it.” We had to allot a significant amount of time (over an hour) every morning to getting ready since this particularly applies to dressing and feeding herself. Traveling between sites also took longer, particularly if there were stairs involved (we sometimes went up and down the same flight more than once). This is also sometimes cute, like when your toddler eats carbonara pasta and charms all the other diners with the way she crams noodles in her mouth like you’ve been starving her, or when she feels okay leaving you to chase bubbles in the square with other kids.
Baby Julia had an attention span of about 2-3 minutes most of the time. That was perfect for distracting her when she was upset, but also made entertaining her for long flights more difficult, and meant that she wasn’t that interested in any particularly activity we were doing.
Toddler Julia did really well entertaining herself on the flights (and on train rides/at dinners). Yes, it absolutely took more effort from me to make sure we had a variety of toys/games along and to get her started on them, but she could pay attention to a task for a longer period of time with light supervision. She was also much more interested in what we were doing and ready to engage with the activity. She loved pointing out colors for me at the Monet Museum (Musée Marmottan Monet) in Paris, interacting with other kids at playgrounds and restaurants, and talked about what she had seen and done like she had really enjoyed it.
Babies coo and smile at you, and Julia was using a few signs during our trip last year to communicate basic needs (milk and more), but one of the cutest things about toddlers (and what keeps me sane when the jet lag crazy kicks in) is their hilarious chatter about everything. For example, our road trip through Normandy included seeing lots of farm animals (cows, horses, sheep, chickens, etc). If she missed seeing something from her seat, we would tell Julia to keep her eyes open for more of whatever it was. This became a cute running joke throughout the trip where she would say “Eyes Open. More ____” without prompting. It let us know what she was interested in seeing and made us laugh, like she said she was keeping her eyes open for more cows on our first day in Paris (sorry, kid, probably no feral cows running through Sainte Chapelle). She also kept comparing everything to “At home!” As in, croissants “at home!” or another kid’s stroller “at home!” It was so sweet that she noticed that even though people live differently around the world, there are a lot of similarities between us all. Seeing the world through her eyes was particularly fun once she could tell us what she was thinking.
This is actually sort of a tie: Baby Julia was either breastfeeding or eating very small pieces of our food if we could manage to get something soft or puréed. That made feeding her easy since it could happen on the go, but it wasn’t necessarily fun. Toddler Julia, on the other hand, is reasonably open minded about food and wanted to try some of almost everything we ordered. This made dining with her more of an experience. Watching someone taste amazing Italian or French food for the first time is awesome, and everyone around us enjoyed her appetite, too. She had foie gras, paté, and mussels without blinking an eye. Could I guarantee that she’ll eat them willingly again tomorrow? Nope, because she’s a toddler, but I love that she enjoyed trying new things. One note about eating with a toddler: if you would typically slip them a fruit/veggie pouch or another healthy-ish snack, you might have to be flexible when in Europe. There were pouches available in some of the larger grocery stores, but they tended to be all fruit (primarily apple-based), so you won’t be able to sneak veggies in that way. There didn’t seem to be any naturally-sweetened finger food (something like Puffs or Melts) either, and the children’s biscuits available had a lot of sugar, so I skipped them and got Julia some horrible whole wheat crackers that we all hated. I also accepted (and somewhat looked forward to) the fact that gelato/ice cream is a perfectly acceptable late afternoon snack in Europe. Julia probably had more sugar over our 2 week stay than she’s had in months, but it was delicious. Sorry, dentist!
Things That Seemed Similar (short list):
Europeans’ treatment of children – everyone in Europe loved both Baby and Toddler Julia and complimented her on her behavior. We were able to jump several lines and interact with locals more because we had a child with us on both trips. This was rewarding and really made the vacation extra special.
Amount of clothes needed – at 1, we had to worry about blowouts and dribbling food, so we needed extra clothes for when laundry wasn’t feasible. At 2, we needed those extra clothes for when Julia slid down hills and dug through rocks and got her clothes insanely dirty/wet. She’s also still not a particularly precise eater and has earned the self-given nickname “Chocolate Face” for a reason, so there was still a lot of food everywhere.
Overall, traveling with a toddler was a LOT more difficult than I was expecting. It was primarily the jet lag (which increased the severity of independence-related tantrums), but having a curious and mobile little one around means that you don’t really get breaks like you may have with a baby. That being said, I don’t regret our decision to bring Julia along at all, although I’m supremely grateful for the babysitter we had for 2 nights. It was amazing to see things through her eyes and I enjoyed her commentary on everything immensely. I can’t wait to see what the next age group will bring in terms of travel surprises.
Did you noticed big differences in traveling with your kids in different age groups? What made it more difficult or easier?