12 Tips to Fully Enjoy a Day in Rome Without Children

We’ve been here in Italy for ten months now, and I have dragged my children all over the place.  We went to Rome last February (no blog post, alas), Florence in April (again, no blog post), Venice a half dozen times because it’s so close, and all sorts of smaller cities.  We’ve also traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Austria.  I love exposing my children to other cultures, to fabulous art, to buildings older than America, to structures older than Julius Caesar.  But, honestly, traveling with any large group of people is difficult, and traveling with seven children ranging in age from teenager to preschooler is even more challenging.  These are not “vacations” we take.  This is family team building, this is educational, this is work.  It’s worth it, oh, yes, but it is still work.

So when friends recently decided to travel on their vacation to Rome, Bill and I thought we would join them, leaving our kids home under the supervision of Fritz who is now 19.  Although I did miss them, it was lovely to not have to work for a few days.  Traveling without children is very different than when you have them along, and here are 12 tips for how I took best advantage of my temporary liberty from the noble labor of parenting:

1. Spend the night. For a full day of fun in Rome, it’s best to begin and end locally. It’s at least five and a half hours for me from my home to the hotel, so we left Friday afternoon and returned on Sunday. As an extra bonus, I did not have to share my bed with a five year old who for such a small person requires such a disproportionately large share.

2. Stay at Italian hotel. If you want to experience Rome, experience Rome. Staying at an American hotel generally means you will have top notch air conditioning, an American style breakfast, and someone to respond to your needs at any hour. Where’s the fun in that? For the best “when in Rome” adventure, stay at an Italian B&B. I do suggest you check reviews to be sure to get air conditioning, but do not expect temperatures to fall below 75 degrees. My favorite thing about Italian breakfasts is the pre-packaged toast, something you just don’t see in America. You can also buy toast at the grocery store, if you opt to stay at an AirB&B and have to fend for yourself. Just be sure to get some Nutella or jam to spread on these extra large croutons.

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From the front of Santa Maria Maggiore (our B&B was to the left, not seen in this picture).

3. Take breaks at cafes. If you travel with seven children, as I normally do, sitting and enjoying a cappuccino or a spritz at an outdoor café is problematic. First of all, my family takes up between two and four tables. Secondly, my younger children find sitting around watching people walk by to be boring. Thirdly, café hopping can get expensive when you are feeding a family of nine. But if it’s only two adults, it is not overly expensive, and it is an enjoyable way to rest and hydrate before moving to your next destination.

4. Linger over meals. In Italy, waiters are not working for tips and desirous of quick table turnover to make more money. Americans might feel abandoned or ignored and consider the service to be poor if the waiter isn’t quick to hurry over the instant their glass is empty. Italians take their time with their meals, and do not want the waiter pestering them. If you reserve a table at a restaurant (recommended), they will not kick you out and will be perfectly happy if you sit there until closing time, even if you stop ordering food and drinks. So, do it. Sit. Enjoy the people with you. Savor the wine. Have dessert. Sip some limoncello.

5. Walk. With children, I quickly learn the mass transit system of any city. In Rome, with kids, we bought the unlimited travel tickets so we could get on any bus or the metro whenever we wanted. I did not walk them if a bus was available.  Not only did walking tire them out too much to enjoy what we were seeing, certain young children would beg constantly to be carried, making the walk even less fun for the big people. Visiting Rome without children, my sore feet will attest that we walked everywhere. When you walk, you see things you might not notice from the bus. You stop in stores and other buildings along the way, because, why not? When you walk, you need to take breaks, so you stop in cafes…

6. Use a paper map. Most hotels will supply you with a one page paper map of Rome with main attractions highlighted. These maps are simplified and inaccurate in their depictions of how things might actually look when you are standing on the street, but will give you a general sense of which direction you need to travel. Like walking instead of taking the bus, using a paper map instead of an online map program will cause you to see more things than maybe you intended, mainly because you will go down some wrong streets. That’s ok. Getting turned around or even lost is part of how you learn a city. I do suggest you stick to the mapped areas, though, and do not at all recommend simply wandering around. The idea is to have fun, not risk your safety.

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Roman ruins

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Trajan’s Column.  We weren’t looking for it.  We were just roughly heading in a particular direction and there it was.

7. Take a guided tour. A good guided tour is worth every penny. I have done guided tours with kids, too, and with good results. But usually with children, a guided tour means no escape when a kid is bored, needs to use the restroom, or is on the brink of a meltdown. Without children, adults can get the most out of a guide.

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I was surprised and delighted to see this picture, which I love, in the Vatican.  I really didn’t know it was there.  When you look at art, and don’t expect to actually ever be able to see it, you don’t really pay close attention to where it is.

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Not a great picture with my phone, but the afternoon sun in the Basilica of St. Peter’s is pretty cool.

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Swiss guards.  I had to take their picture, but I felt like a dork.

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The spot in the square where Pope John Paul II was shot.  That is his coat of arms.

8. Splurge on something. Maybe you want an expensive souvenir. Maybe you want to eat at a top notch restaurant. For me, the splurge was to take not just a guided tour, but a private guided tour of the Vatican. When your guide only has to please two people, she can quickly figure out what you know, what you like, and what you want to see. You don’t have to listen to other people’s questions and comments. You don’t have to wait for other people to finish looking at something before you move on, and you don’t have to feel guilty about spending more time on things that interest you. But if tours aren’t your thing, maybe get that $90 bottle of Chianti instead.

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Private tour guides will take your picture for you.

9. Do things your kids roll their eyes at.  Let’s face it: the mother of a family of nine cannot expect to please everybody all the time.  Sometimes, you will have to force children (or the husband or yourself) to participate in things that happen to be unappealing.  Yes, we are going to go into this church.  Yes, I know it’s the sixth church today.  No, I do not promise it will be the last church.  And I’m sure my children will not agree, but I really do hold back on suggesting things because I know they are on the brink of mutiny.  But, with no children along, the frequent stops, the multiple churches, the museums, the long coffee breaks, the indecision over which refrigerator magnet to buy, the long dinner with old friends…all can be done without a chorus of complaints.

10. Sit down and relax at a church you want to enjoy.  This churches in Rome are free and have some of the best artwork.  Pay, if you want, to enter the many museums which also house many wonderful pieces, but there is so much to see without spending a dime.  So much, in fact, that many churches will absolutely overwhelm you.  The best way to take it in is to just sit down for a bit.  Now, sitting on the floor is frowned upon, and many churches do not have pews or chairs set up for just chillin’, so, the best way to do this is to go to mass.  Especially if the mass is in Italian and you don’t happen to speak much Italian, you will have the opportunity to stare at the walls and ceiling for 30-45 minutes and not feel overly guilty about not paying attention to the readings and the homily.

11. Be spontaneous.  My kids drive me nuts with expecting a minute by minute agenda.  And heaven forbid I decide to do Thing C after Thing A and hold off on Thing B until later…or add in Thing D because it’s right there.  Even my teenagers balk when plans change and have a hard time with flexibility.  Without children, I only have to worry about myself and my husband and we are both capable of adapting plans on the fly.  In Rome, it is not unusual to pass by a church every few minutes.  Bill and I, more often than not, went inside.  I don’t know all the churches in Rome.  I don’t have memorized all the locations of every piece of artwork in Rome.  If you randomly go into a church in Rome, you are bound to see something interesting.  Yesterday, we were walking up the side aisle of just another random church.  Bill nudged me and pointed ahead.  “Is that…Moses?” I asked.  Yes, yes, it was Moses, carved by Michelangelo for Pope Julius II’s tomb.  Oh, and right next to it were the chains that held St. Peter when he was in prison in Jerusalem.

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Moses and friends

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The name of the church is San Pietro in Vincoli which means St. Peter in something or other…what might that translate to?  Let’s see…

12. Stay up late.  Rome comes alive long after the typical American mom wants to be home in her PJs.  Commonly, dinner begins at 8 pm or later, especially in the hot summer.  While Bill and I were sweltering during an afternoon tour of the Vatican, Italians not involved in catering to the tens of thousands of tourists would have found themselves a shady spot to eat a leisurely lunch and take a midday rest.  Once the sun goes down and things are a bit cooler, the Italians take to the streets, and the sidewalk tables are full.  Children are not left at home, and it is very common to see children of all ages out at 10 pm.  You could head back to your hotel, but if you followed my advice and stayed at an Italian B&B, you might find that the restaurant under your window is in full swing until quite late.  It’s much better to just be a part of the noise instead of letting it bother you!

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Just be sure that all the fun you have is on the up-and-up.  The Grim Reaper wants to remind you to be good.

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Kandersteg and environs

Next summer, if the boys go back to Kandersteg International Scout Centre (KISC), I will go for the whole week as well.  Switzerland is beautiful.

My Men Minus George (MMMG) left on Sunday, June 25, for their week at camp.  The Girls and I and George (TGIG) went on Friday the 30th, which was Peter’s birthday.  A nice break in the steamy weather here in Italy gave us a chance to bake cookies which we brought to share with the troop in Peter’s honor.  I would have baked them anyway, but it was lovely to not work up a sweat while doing it.

TGIG were on the road by 8 am.  By lunchtime, we were in Switzerland, so we made it official with a meal and a look at the gorgeous alps, except for Jenny who stayed in the car and read her book; I don’t think she noticed the mountains.  I had forgotten to tell my bank that I was traveling, so my card was declined, and there was no ATM at that stop anyway.  Not having Swiss cash or a functioning credit card made life a bit harder later.

 

 

I had tried to obtain information about the route from my husband who traveled with people who had made the trek in previous years.  He gave me very little intel.  At one point, when the Garmin was insisting that I drive down a road that led into a factory, when one teenage navigator had her nose buried in a book and the other teenage navigator was just shrugging her pretty little shoulders, and when I had just about given up hope of ever finding the cursed train ferry, I had less than pleasant thoughts about the man who had been a CAV SCOUT and the best he could offer me was to follow the signs for Loetschberg…signs which were not in evidence at this point.  But eventually, we did find the train ferry.  And it’s a pretty cool thing to drive onto a train and let it take you through a mountain.

 

The ferry we took runs from Goppenstein to Kandersteg and lasts about 15 minutes.  There is a 60 minute ferry that goes all the way from Iselle, Italy to Kandersteg, but it has a limited schedule.  See ferry schedules here, if you are interested.  That ferry spares you the crazy Garmin drive-down-a-non-existant-road scenario.

On arrival at KISC (after yet another Garmin misdirect down a footpath), we had just gotten our luggage into the room when I found out that my husband was in the hospital.  New blood pressure medication, no food, no caffeine, a bad night’s sleep and several hours of manual labor in the hot sun combined to give him a killer migraine and when the local doc took his vital signs and saw his BP was dangerously high, he decided to call an ambulance and have him checked out by others.  I left the kids with the troop, spent 10 minutes following Garmin up a narrow, winding mountain road and – again – to a non-existent path, spent 10 minutes retracing my way and forcing Garmin to accept a more traditional route to the next town, and finally found what I thought was the hospital.

Unsure of the building and really unsure about parking, I espied an elderly man heading for his car and looking at me with mild interest.  I was driving my big American van, and I was blocking half the drive in my indecision.  I got out and was able to confirm that this was indeed the hospital, that this was indeed the parking for the hospital, that parking did indeed cost money which you paid at a machine he indicated, that the machine only took cash and only took Swiss cash, and that this super kind man was indeed willing to give me enough change to last me 2 hours.  Yes, only a few hours into my Swiss adventure, and I am panhandling auf Deutsch!

Bill was fine.  IV fluids and pain killers were all he needed.  I got to spend the majority of my time there contacting Tricare and getting them to fax over a promise to pay, otherwise, the hospital wanted payment upfront.  As it was, Bill had paid for the first doctor already and the Tricare form that came over didn’t mention “ambulance,” so I had to pay for that as well.  I am very grateful to all my German teachers in high school and college, as well as my summer working in Germany, which made all of this that much easier.

As a side note, it is very helpful to have your medical insurance phone number saved to your phone in the event of an emergency.  And tell your bank you are traveling, and put that number in your contacts in case you forget to call beforehand.  And get cash as soon as you cross the border.  It’s the little things that make life that much easier.

Back to Kandersteg.

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This was the view from my room window on Saturday morning.  The creek closest to my building is very clear.  It joins up with the larger stream just past it, which is blue and very swift-moving.  The rules state: no swimming, and it’s understandable when you stand there and see it and hear it crashing by.  Upstream is not too far to the right of this shot, and the clear water falls down the mountain, crushing the rocks and taking on all those minerals, adding color.  The low clouds were blocking the majority of the mountain face.  It was cool and gray most of the day, and a welcome respite from the Italian summer.

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My peeps

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The parking lot near where the boys camped

KISC has hostel type lodging as well as campsites.  I stayed at the Old Chalet.  The first night, our room had 12 beds.  The second night, the room slept 8.  But we had the room to ourselves, unlike a youth hostel.  We had to make our own beds and bring down the dirty linens at the end of our stay.  We had to clean the rooms.  We had to share a bathroom, dormitory style.  The Kanderlodge has two twin rooms with a shared bath between them.  It costs more, and was booked when I tried to make reservations.  I will make reservations much earlier next time.

There are many many other places to stay in Kandersteg, and the area is a hot spot for hikers.  Everywhere you turn, there is a sign marked “Wanderweg” – denoting a hiking path.  The streets are filled with large groups of people all carrying packs.  My big boys went on several hikes, including overnights in huts way up high on the mountains.  And elevation sickness was one thing that the docs were considering when they looked at Bill.  Kandersteg is at 1174 m (3851 ft).  One hike my boys went on climbed to 2735 m (8973 ft).  Another guided hike goes up to 3293 m (10,804 ft).  You do not have to be a scout to go on the guided hikes offered at KISC, and I plan to go on one next year, with or without the girls.  They also have instructions for hiking on your own, but they do ask guests to fill out a form saying where they intend to go.  It’s nice to know that somebody will come looking for you if you get lost.  (I got lost on a hike once…)

These are pictures Bill took on a hike before I got there.

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On Saturday, after the troop left, we went to the same place that Bill had hiked in those pictures, but we took a cable car up the mountain instead of walking for an hour, carrying a 40 pound kid.  The cable car wasn’t cheap for our family of nine – 156 CF, but it saved our backs.  There is a Swiss Travel Pass, which would cost 197 euros for three consecutive days (226 euros for non-consecutive days within a month).  Children aged 6-15 ride for free with a parent on many things, including trains, and I think this cable car was one of them.  The Travel Pass is definitely a great idea if you are traveling by train throughout Switzerland.  Three days of train travel for 197-226 euros is great.  If we go next year, I will have to look at what sorts of things I’d like to do and see if the the Pass is worth it.  If I travel by car, though, much of the deal is lost.  And next year, Katie will be 16, and would require her own Pass, which is slightly less, but not much.  There is also a Half-Fare Card which gives you 50% off all public transportation and kids under age 16 are free.  That’s only 109 euros, but I don’t know how long it is valid.

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The cable car

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The cable car

At the top of the hill was the Rodelbahn.  This is what I came all the way to Switzerland to ride.  No way was I going to let those boys come home and tell me about it.  This link has a video showing the whole ride (all the way at the bottom).  Slideshow below of our experience.  I almost fell out the first time down, and spent most of the time telling my kids in front of me to go faster.  Ten adult trips cost 30 CF, and ten kid trips were 20 CF.

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After the Rodelbahn, we did the 20 minute hike to the Oeschinensee.  This was also in Bill’s slideshow above.  Bill, Fritz and Billy went rowing on the lake in their first trip.  On this one, we just ate some ice cream, skipped rocks on the water, and laughed at the girls who were communing with the cows.

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We hiked back to the cable car, rode down to the parking lot, and picnicked in the van.  Then, off to the town of Thun.  Peter had wanted to see some castles for his birthday, and Thun has one, Schloss Thun.  We toured it and walked around the downtown area for a bit before heading back to Kandersteg.

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I spent much of the ride back to Kandersteg on my phone looking for a Catholic Church and mass times.  This might have been done that week before we traveled, but TGIG were very busy watching The Paradise and Call the Midwife.  Finding a Catholic Church in Switzerland is not as easy as it is in Italy or even Germany, but I did see that there is a parish based in Frutigen (where the hospital is) that offered masses in three different locations, including a Saturday evening in Kandersteg.  The website seemed to be up-to-date, and the timing was perfect, so we headed there.

I did not get a picture of the cute little church in Kandersteg, but I wish I had.  This link has a picture if you scroll down to the fourth photo.  It’s as if the Calvinists begrudgingly allowed the Catholics to have a building, but they insisted that it be far away from everybody else so when Almighty God rained down His fire and brimstone for praying in front of crucifixes and worshipping Mary, only the Catholics would get it.

Average age of those in attendance was about 75.  George had fallen asleep, and one woman fetched a cushion for his head.  She asked what language we spoke, and when we left, she said “Goodbye!”  Very nice people.

They did one of St. Paul’s readings and the Gospel – that’s it.  I feared it was a Saturday daily mass, but looked it up and they did do the Sunday readings (nice that I understood the readings and could confirm if they were right or not).  Not sure why they skipped the OT reading and the Psalm.  Whatever.  We did the best we could, God.

Sunday morning, we went to Spiez.  I got this great shot with my cell phone.  It’s the old church from the tower of the castle.

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We got to Schloss Spiez before it opened at 10 am, so we walked down by the lake: Thunersee.  It was misty with low clouds preventing a clear view across the water, but I liked the mysterious effect.  Down by the shore, we met some women walking their dogs and they apologized for the gray weather!  They told us about the ferry across the water to another place we intended to visit, but we decided it was too expensive for this trip.

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The castle was nice.  There was a hands on area for the kids.  I really liked the weighted buckets to show how much work was involved in providing a family with water for the day.  Ten trips with the two buckets back then – but today, a maid would have to haul water for ten hours straight to meet modern (presumably European) demands.

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Buckets weighted to show how much work was required for fresh water

After the castle, we again picnicked in our car and then we headed for the St. Beatus Caves.  The legend is that a monk, possibly Irish, came to the area and killed the dragon from the caves where he then established his hermitage and evangelized the locals.  The caves are fairly extensive, and we opted to self-guided rather than take the 75 minute long guided tour.  The kids would not have tolerated that.  Outside the caves, there was a cute playground for the kids with a dragon slide and a fortress.

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Our last stop was the town of Interlaken.  It was a Sunday afternoon, but there was one touristy shopping section open and bustling.  The big boys wanted Swiss army knives, and I wanted some chocolate.  We then hit the road for the 5+ hour drive home, where we arrived without incident and were very thankful that we had nowhere to go the next day!

Gaming and Salzburg

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Gaming, Austria

Memorial Day weekend, we went to Austria.  The big kids all attended a retreat at Franciscan University’s campus in Gaming.  I can think of no prettier location to spend a semester abroad.  My photos can’t do it justice.

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The church and former monastery where Franciscan has its campus.

There’s not much to do in Gaming, other than take walks and drink the Kartause Bier, dunkel or helles; I recommend them both.

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One of the dining rooms at the Kartause Hotel – our future basement bar will be modeled after this: vaulted ceiling, round wooden bench and table, stained glass window.

The kids had a good time at the retreat, and we had a good time on our little hikes.  One walk circled the campus.  There was a lot of, “The hills are alive…” singing.

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The former monastery, now a hotel and Franciscan’s campus.

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The hills are alive!

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Rolling down the mountainside

The kids could not resist rolling down the “hill.”  When I was a kid, I really loved rolling down hills.  In my backyard.  I never rolled down an Alp.

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photo by Mary

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Wayside shrine

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Another hike took us across town to a different mountain.  At one overlook, there is an iron cross and a nice view of the city.

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I love this pedestrian crosswalk sign.

After mass and then lunch on Sunday, we headed to Salzburg.  My teens had stayed up late and gotten up early for two days, and were now resistant to the idea of sight-seeing; yet when offered the opportunity to stay behind at the hotel with their little siblings while Mom and Dad went out on their own? Oh, no, they were afraid they would miss something.  We kept to a fairly light itinerary.

Monday morning, we “dragged” them to Fortress Hohensalzburg which is THE landmark of Salzburg, dominating the landscape.  The camera had been inadvertently switched to black and white photos…

The fortress was its own little town with buildings incorporated in the walls and lots of room for all the things one might need to withstand a siege.  We thought this video about how they fooled some angry townsfolk who had nearly managed to starve them out was pretty amusing.  We watched all the videos available at this website, actually.

Bill discovered the color issue with the camera just in time to get these lovely flowers growing in crevices of the fortress walls.

After this castle, we decided to tour the house (now museum) where Mozart was born and lived until he was 16 or 17.  It is a nice museum, self-guided (which is great for people with kids), and has some interactive areas (of which we did not avail).  My only complaint was that there was only one room that actually played his music.  Wouldn’t you think having his music in the background would be nice?

We tried to convince our kids that hanging out at the hotel without parents would be fun, but instead, after a brief rest, we went to the gardens at Mirabell Palace.  Yes, this is where much of the Do-Re-Mi song was filmed.  The gardens are free to enter, and are very beautiful.  We wanted to line the kids up on the steps where they finished out the song, but George refused to play along.  Always somebody.

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Just missing George

On Tuesday, we headed for home but with one castle-stop along the way.  I highly recommend Mauterndorf Castle if you have kids and are looking to break up a longer trip.  Mauterndorf is about 90 minutes from Salzburg and about 4 hours from my house (Salzburg is about 5 hours from my house, so it really only adds about 30 minutes to the drive).

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Approaching Mauterndorf

This is a medieval castle, originally used as a toll/customs stop.  The original road went right through the castle, and one had to pay to go through.  This castle is off the beaten path.  I’m sure some days it is quite busy, but I suspect that the primary clients are school children dragged here on what they think will be a hellishly boring field trip.

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Why I liked this castle:

  • It’s quiet.  No throngs of tourists.  My patience with tourists gets thinner every week.  Yes, I know, I’m one too.
  • The woman at the ticket counter allowed me to use German.  Actually, much of Austria allows me to use German, unlike Germany where anybody younger than I am knows English better than I know German, so they just talk to me in English.  But not only did this woman let me talk in German, she acted surprised that I wanted the little hand-held audioguides to be in English.  Even after hearing me turn to the kids and talk to them in English, she still wanted to confirm that I wanted my guide to be in English and not German.  Yes, I am a sucker for flattery.
  • It is self-guided with handheld audioguides as well as printed signs in German and English.  Some kids like to go fast, some kids like to go slow.  Some kids don’t like the audioguide at all (Peter), but some kids listen to every single word (Mary and George).  Self-guided tours mean everybody moves at their own pace.  Audioguides mean the tour is in English and parents don’t have to read every sign to kids who can’t read yet.  Also, some places, like this place, have a kid-version for the audioguide which makes it a bit more interesting for them.
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Everybody standing around listening to the tour guide.

  • There were several hand-on areas, including an extensive selection of dress-up clothes.

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  • At the end of the tour, there is a fabulous playground area.  This accommodates all ages from 4 to adult.  I wish it wasn’t lunchtime, because my kids would have stayed much longer at this playground.  We had to drag them away.  Our favorite part was the dragon slide which was so fast that we had to catch George when he came down and the rest of us had to fight to stay on our feet.
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Fritz, Mary, and George

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Katie

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Mary

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Peter, Mary, Billy and Jenny

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The dragon slide

  • It was very inexpensive.  George was free.  I think the other kids were included in the family price, except for Fritz.  Overall, I think we paid just over 30 euros for 9 of us.

After this, we found a place to eat and headed for home.  Good times for everybody.

The Spritz

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One of my favorite new drinks here in Italy is the Aperol Spritz.  I also like them with Campari, but my preference is Aperol.  I was making one just now.

“Having a spritz?” asked Fritz.

“Yes,” I said.  “I hurt my back and the Advil just isn’t working.”

“That’ll work,” he predicted.

“No,” I said, “it won’t.  But it will make me not care.”

Unfortunately for you folks back Stateside, Aperol is not cheap.  Twice the price as it is here.  Ouch.  I will be stocking up before we return, that’s for sure.

If you’d like to try one, here is the recipe:

3 parts prosecco

2 parts aperol

1 part fizzy water

Fill wine glass with ice, add the liquids, garnish with a slice of orange, and stir.

Prosecco is a white, sparkling wine.  I had never heard of it, or Aperol, before I came to Italy.  It is also half the price here vs. anywhere in the US.  I get mine, often, from the local wine shop that has it and about 20 other wines on tap.  I bring my own bottles, and we walk out of there with 8 liters of wine for about $20.  This wineshop is why I know Italian numbers.  I could say “quindici” which is 15…and I like the #15 wine which is a frizzante (bubbly) red…but I had to learn the other numbers so I could try the other wines.

You can substitute another sparkling white wine for the prosecco, but I can’t guarantee that it will taste as good.

In Garmisch, Germany, I had an excellent weissbier spritz, using weissbier instead of prosecco.

Locally, they also recommend a limoncello spritz, but in this one, the limoncello replaces the aperol.  Limoncello is another beverage that was unknown to me before coming here, and one that I have taken quite a fancy to.  It is usually served as an after-dinner drink and often is provided without charge at restaurants.  One restaurant in Florence gave Bill and I a second shot of limoncello…we had sent all the kids back to the apartment after dinner and stayed behind to savor a moment of peace and quiet.  The Italians know that everything is better with a little alcohol.

 

Everything I ever needed to know about driving, I learned in New Jersey

IMG_20170430_120611049I followed the Italian woman for a hour on local roads.  Her Audi wagon slipped neatly through the rush hour traffic, and my hulking 12 passenger van chased close behind as we whirled through circle after circle after circle. My GPS was constantly beeping an alarm, flashing red and warning of an imminent forward collision, and sometimes of the possibility of going off the road to the right.  Tiny cars that would fit in the passenger compartment of my van trembled to a stop, yielding the road. Larger vehicles might have noticed the multitude of dents on either side of my vehicle and decided that it was better to just let me pass by than to add to the collection.

The real fun started when we left the final town and began to climb a mountain. The visual of the road on my GPS looked like spaghetti. Switchback followed switchback. Once, I thought I’d have to put the van in reverse, but I just barely made it around. On another one, I did have to let my van roll back enough to clear the corner, throwing the van in and out of reverse with rapidity.  Stone walls marked the border on one side, and guard rails sometimes, but not always, protected against taking the fastest path down the mountain.

Finally we reached the drop off point for our scouts who would have to hike to their campsite. My guide had an appointment and wasn’t interested in dawdling. I wasn’t interested in trying to get down that mountain by myself – the journey around blind curves on a road barely wide enough for one car is much more fun with someone in front of you. She could worry about the head-on collision; I only had to try to keep up.

Once back in the town, we went our separate ways, and after I arrived at my destination, I sent her a text thanking her for leading me up and down the mountain. She responded with, “You’re the best American female driver I met in the last 20 years!!!!”  I’m not bragging; I just want to remember the complement.

And maybe I’m bragging, a tiny bit.

On Facebook, I’ll post a video showing one minute of our trip down the mountain on Sunday afternoon. Bill was driving, and we didn’t have somebody in front of us, so the speed was a bit slower than when I had followed la mia amica on Friday evening.  As we drove up the mountain, George had been singing, “We’re going up the mountain, the mountain, the mountain…” Repeatedly.  Tormenting Mary.  On the way down, he provided the background music, singing, “We’re going down the mountain, the mountain, the mountain…” Repeatedly.

Christmas Road Trip: Bratislava and Vienna

Day One: The Drive to Slovakia

We left the day after Christmas.  In hindsight, two days after Christmas would have meant I didn’t spend Christmas Day packing, but it also would have made our trip shorter, or had us on the road over New Year’s Eve.  We had two children recovering from a virus, and two children who had just come down with that same fever, so it was a quiet trip, and blessedly uneventful.  We arrived after nightfall, and the approach to Slovakia went through acres and acres of Austrian windmills, each with a single red blinking eye.  It was eerie.

{Note for travelers: both Austria and Slovakia require a highway toll called a vignette.  The Austrian ones can be bought at rest stops leading up to the border and are stickers you put on the windshield.  We didn’t see a place to buy the Slovak ones until we got to the border where we pulled over and got one.  No sticker, but the man working there took our car registration information and presumably put it into some sort of central database.}

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Bratislava Castle in the daytime

Shortly after the toll/border crossing, Bratislava Castle came into view, all lit up.  We crossed the UFO Bridge and headed for a street in the downtown area.  An extremely generous friend whom I have not seen in 25 years loaned us her apartment in Bratislava, and we headed for her aunt’s house to get the keys and then to her place.  Once we unloaded our car, Bill and the big kids headed into town to find food while I stayed at the apartment and doled out Advil to sick kiddos.  Kindly not wanting to experience Bratislava without me, Bill and the kids ate at…McDonalds.

Day Two: Walking Bratislava

The next day, cold weather and a biting wind had us turn around a block from the apartment to add more layers.  It never warmed up the rest of our trip, although the wind died down after the first day.  Peter was not yet up for a lot of walking, so Bill and he stayed behind while the rest of us went into town, repeating much of the walking that they had done the night before.  Unfortunately for the kids, with Mom as tour guide, there is a lot more wandering than walking.  Unfortunately for Mom, when the 4 year old quits, wandering with an extra 40 pounds is not as much fun.  We took refuge from the cold…in McDonalds…where George ate chicken nuggets and found his happy again.  Texting with Bill, we agreed to meet for lunch at the Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, which my friend had recommended.  Also following her suggestion, I ordered the bryndzove halusky, which is a very traditional Slovak dish.  I did not think I would like it, but I did, very much so!  Here is a video showing how to make halusky, if you want to try it yourself.

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The UFO Bridge

After lunch, we walked over to the UFO Bridge, which is really called the Most SNP (better pictures than I could ever take are here).  You can go up to the top, although unfortunately for George who really wanted to go, the elevator happened to break while we waited for it.  At least we weren’t the family stuck inside!  Instead, we went inside St. Martin’s Cathedral, where 19 Hungarian kings and queens have been crowned, including Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress from 1740 to 1780 and mother of 16 children including Marie Antoinette.  I don’t usually take pictures inside churches, so here’s a link with some of St. Martin’s.  George was just now looking at the pictures and pointed out the statue of St. Martin and remembered seeing it in the church.  I count that as a mom-win.

Next we headed for Bratislava Castle.  The walk is pretty steep, but the views are lovely.  I commanded the children to pose as though they were bored.  This was the best they could do.

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“I can’t believe Mom wants us to ‘act’ bored.”

Peter was not up for touring the castle, so I took him and Mary and George back to the apartment.  I think Katie took these following pictures.

Bratislava Castle (Hrad), also known as Pressburg Castle, was apparently much liked by Maria Theresa who had it extensively renovated.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1811 and remained in ruins until the 1950’s.  It is now mainly a history museum.  Since we visited other Hapsburg castles on this trip and saw how glorious they were, it is a shame that the original condition of this castle is unknown.  The name Pressburg is the German name for Bratislava back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Pozsony in Hungarian).

Once we got back to the apartment and the sun went down, I was finished for the day.  Traveling in the dark of winter has its downsides.

Day Three: Shopping and more Walking

Everybody was interested in being warm, and all the kids had Christmas money in their pockets, so we went to the Eurovea Gallerie on Wednesday.  Bill and I left the kids to eat lunch at…MCDONALDS…and went to another cafe in the mall.  After lunch, we drove to Devin Castle, which is in ruins thanks to Napoleonic forces.  It’s quite a beautiful area to walk, despite the cold.  There are traces of settlements in the area from the 5th century BC.

_dsc0759_dsc0764_dsc0766_dsc0768The local church is named after Sts. Cyril and Methodius, of course, who may have come to the castle or visited the area.  While trying to find sources as to whether or not they had, I found this timely and interesting article about the 2 euro coin.  Each member of the EU is permitted to mint their own coins with images relating to their histories, however other countries are allowed to deny the designs.  We have enjoyed looking at the different coins as we travel – much like finding different state quarters (only more expensive to collect!). Apparently, objections were raised about portraying these men with halos, so Slovakia revamped their design and removed the halos.  Funnily enough, this same demand was made back in the good old days of communism when Cyril and Methodius were also portrayed halo-less.  Ah, progress!

After Devin, we tried the UFO once more and were able to go to the top!

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The Blue Danube

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St. Martin’s Cathedral

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Austria: 6 km

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Hungary: 18 km

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Soviet-era apartments with the Austrian windmill fields behind

Leaving the UFO Bridge, we found out that in Slovakia you need to have your headlights on all the time, by law.  The only thing about being pulled over by the police that really made us nervous was that we had left our passports in the apartment.  They say, “Papers, please!” and we have to admit that we don’t have them.  Bill thinks they thought about the mountain of paperwork for 9 people who didn’t have their passports and decided it was more than they cared to do, so they just gave us a warning.

Next up was the Blue Church, built to honor St. Elizabeth of Hungary, their local saint.    Bill and I were married in a church in Pennsylvania named for St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  According to New Advent, she was likely born in Pressburg (aka Bratislava), probably at the castle, because she was a princess.  Just an interesting footnote for our personal history.  I had no idea that St. Elizabeth of Hungary was from Slovakia.  Guess why it’s called the Blue Church?

We found another restaurant specializing in regional favorites and ordered a shared platter with some awesome pork ribs and more halusky.  I drank a dark Slovak beer, Saris Tmavy, which was dangerously smooth, and Bill had a lighter beer from the tap.  A good ending to a busy day.

Day Four: Lost in Vienna

We did not get out the door very early on Thursday, so by the time we got to Vienna, an hour from Bratislava, it was after 11 am.  We decided to park near Schoenbrunn Palace, because they had a surface lot there (not a parking deck, which typically will not fit my van), and a U-Bahn station to downtown.

{Side note: a travel guide for large families would be very helpful.  Where to park big vehicles.  Restaurants that can seat 9.  And no suggestions to spend an afternoon hanging out at a coffee shop unless the coffee shop had an indoor play area for children.}

I went into the palace grounds to look at buying tickets.  There were THRONGS of people.  Busloads.  Sure enough, the wait was over three hours to get inside.  Meanwhile, Bill had taken the kids to get something to eat.  Guess where?  I can’t even admit it.  I will say this: mentioning the golden arches became verboten for the older children because once that 4 yo realized there was one nearby, that was it.  After lunch, we decided to take the subway (U-Bahn) into the heart of Vienna.  We got off at Karlsplatz and headed right over to Karlskirche where we discovered you had to pay to see the inside.  I was not that interested in seeing the inside.  The outside was lovely.

George espied a playground and decided he wanted to go.  Jenny, Peter and Mary decided a few minutes there would be fun, so Bill, whose phone was not working (#iloveitaly) decided to stay there for a bit and then meet me at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in about ten minutes.  Alas, I got lost, thinking that the Ringstrasse (a main road ringing the center of town) was one block further in than it really was.  I ended up at the Opera House talking to a young man named Nick who was trying to sell us tickets to a performance the following evening.  He had a deal: 5 tickets for the price of 4!  Mozart!  Strauss!  A beautiful venue!  And my three big kids were encouraging him.  Ten minutes later, I was wondering why my husband hadn’t showed up (I didn’t realize I was lost yet!), and I finally got away from him.

Once Fritz and I pulled out Maps on our phones and got turned in the right direction, we went over to the museum, where Bill found us.  He was a bit worried that he had the wrong art museum (there are more than a few), or that I had gone inside without him and we would never find each other again.  I had similar worries, but, as usual, things all just worked out, despite the technical difficulties.  How did I manage to travel all over Europe back when I was in college without a cell phone?

I got lost a lot!

Now, my friends, if you go to one art museum in Vienna, this would be the one.  First, we went through the section on Ancient Egypt, which Peter is doing right now for school (score one for homeschooling!).  Then we went through Ancient Greece and Rome, which Jenny is doing this year (score two!).  Eventually we made our way, carrying George, to the paintings, many of which are in the Mommy It’s a Renoir postcards or the Art Memo game (and my kids recognized them, so score three for homeschooling!).  We were only there for about 90 minutes, almost entirely because George had had enough.  Fortunately, ages 19 and under are FREE, and the cost for adults was reasonable (15 euros).

Right outside the museum was one of Vienna’s Christmas markets which is where we ate dinner that night.

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Day Five: Schoenbrunn Palace

On Friday, we got to Schoenbrunn Palace earlier than the day before, less than a half hour after opening.  Still, though, signs indicated that the wait was about 2 hours and more people were pouring in by the minute.  I hoped that the entrance time was like other places I had visited where you could go in anytime AFTER the wait, so we decided we would get the tickets and come back later in the day.  The kids roamed the gift store while Bill and I (and George) waited in the line.  The man at the counter was very impressed with our family size and decided that a Sisi Family Ticket plus two more one-day children tickets would be the best deal for us.  Even better, the Sisi Tickets do not have a timed entrance, you get to go right in.  He kindly called the gate and explained that we had two children with timed tickets, but the rest of us had the Sisi pass, and they agreed to let all of us go to the front of the line!  Austria moves to the top of the list of nicest, friendliest people in the world.

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One of the fountains outside Schoenbrunn Palace

Schoenbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the Hapsburgs.  On the tour, everybody gets their own audio guide, at no additional cost, in the language of their choice (well, at the least, German and English are offered).  We did the Grand Tour, which includes 40 rooms and takes about an hour.  George made it almost half way through, carefully listening to his guide and refusing to leave a room until the guide had finished.  He even repeated to me some of the information (“Mommy, Marie Antoinette was killed!”).  Peter quit after about 25 rooms.  Mary cried when an obnoxious older sibling tried to hurry her out of the very last room and “made” her put her guide in the box before she had had a chance to listen to the whole section.

This palace is gorgeous and really gives you an idea of the grandeur of the Hapsburg Empire.  It also tries to highlight some of the personalities of the people who lived there, especially Franz Joseph and his seemingly unhappy wife, Sisi.  According to Wikipedia (take it for what it is), Franz Joseph was born and died at Schoenbrunn Palace.  He died in 1916, and his grandnephew and heir, Charles I, was the last Hapsburg Emperor.  Charles I died in exile following WWI, and was beatified in 2004.  Footnotes of history and the things they don’t teach you in school.

There was another Christmas market right in front of the palace, and that is where we ate lunch.  My bigger kids have Christmas markets nailed, and are quite capable of pointing and ordering what they want.  I really did not want MORE Christmas market mugs, but my family disagreed.  I need a whole cabinet just to store these things.

Outside the palace, we met some street artists who let you take a picture if you give them some coinage.  We failed to get a picture of the gold gnome, but Mozart was very friendly.  He asked Katie where she was from, and since she answered, “Italy,” even though we were clearly not Italians, he called out every Italian phrase he (and we) knew, including, “buona sera” which means “good evening” (it was too early for that).

The guy in the picture frame really freaked George out, since he had no legs.

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After lunch, we had but one goal: the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) to see the Spear of Destiny (said with an echo-y, deep voice).  When your 16 yo really wants to see a holy relic, you go see a holy relic.  The Imperial Treasury contains many of the symbols of power for the Hapsburg Empire.  I spent the whole time we were there saying, “Tis not the balm, the scepter, and the ball,/The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,/The intertissued robe of gold and pearl…”  It was all here.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is supposed to be the spear that pierced the side of Christ after he died on the cross.  Here is a story of the legend.  In addition to the Lance, the Hapsburgs had an extensive collection of relics and reliquaries, which are also on display.  I understand that the reliquaries, as beautiful works of art, deserve to be displayed, but I’m not sure how I feel about the relics being right there.  Even my kids thought it was odd, unholy.  Up until the 20th century, the relics were not on public display and were treated with reverence.  I guess it’s hard to find a good balance…making them available, but treating them with respect.  I mean, even if you don’t think that a bone fragment actually belonged to THE Apostle Peter, it belonged to somebody, and shouldn’t be just left out to be gawked at.  I feel the same way about the mummies at the art museum.  It might be art and it might be history, but it’s also a person.

Anyway, having successfully located the Spear and having artfully dodged the horde of French speaking tourists (when I caught myself saying, “Scusi, s’il vous plait,” until I remembered “Pardon” was French for “Move it!”), we made our way out of the museum and headed for the U-Bahn.  The Imperial Treasury is one part of the complex of buildings that seem to make up the Hofburg Palace, the main palace for the Hapsburgs, in the heart of Vienna.  On our way out, we passed the Spanish Riding School, which I knew was there, but I did not realize that certain children of mine would be upset to see it.  Why did we go to see the Spear of Destiny and yet neglect to schedule time for a visit to the famous Lipizzaner horses?  We went to see the branch of Lipizzaners do a practice performance when we lived down in Tampa, and we all enjoyed The Miracle of the White Stallions (good family movie if you need something to watch).  So not going to see the famous horses while in their hometown did not go over well with my horse-loving daughter.

But it’s okay.  Vienna, there is so much to see, we must go back to you again!

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We drove back to Bratislava and found another restaurant with traditional fare.  I actually drank a Budweiser, my first of any nationality, I think. But the best part was that George discovered that chicken schnitzel tastes a whole lot like chicken nuggets, only better, and so we went a WHOLE day without a stop at you-know-where.

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One of the many nifty statues in Bratislava.

Day Six: The Drive Home

This trip was, fortunately, also fairly uneventful.  The Austrian Alps had gotten several inches of snow, and made the drive very pretty.  The highways had been plowed, so we had no issues.  The only difficulty was George deciding a few kilometers past a rest stop that he needed to pee, and naturally that section of highway had no shoulders or grassy pull-off areas.  We took an exit and found a store with groceries (and a toilet).  I bought some food for lunch, and had Bill go in to check out the beer selection with no idea that it was closing time – an early hour because of New Year’s Eve.  I got locked out and the man assured me that my husband would come out soon, but let me in when I told him that I had the money!

A few last notes.  Bill mentioned that he felt like everywhere he turned in Bratislava, he was seeing somebody who could have been my cousin.  I thought he was exaggerating a bit, but at one red light, he pointed out a woman in another car who did look just like my sister, Elisabeth.  Also I did notice that if I kept my mouth shut, people weren’t sure what I was.  “Slovensko?” asked one waitress, but she was happy enough to serve me in English.  Although Vienna made me happy with the large-family-moves-to-the-front-of-the-line service, Bratislava certainly is a friendly place, and nobody seems insulted that you don’t happen to speak their language.  Not everybody spoke English, but many did.  And when I did throw out a phrase or two, they seemed very pleased.  One young man was so tickled with my “Dakujem” (thank you) that I swear he would have patted me on the head like a sweet, lisping 3 year old had I been closer.

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The windmills of Austria from the Slovak side of the border

And those Austrian windmills.  As I mentioned at the beginning, you approach Slovakia through these enormous fields filled with windmills which at night have one big, blinking red light, like some huge cyclops, like a whole army of cyclops, or, as Fritz said, a “fan-guard.”  And then in Bratislava, there is a UFO on top of a bridge.  And then there are these store-window dummies with super-long legs.  The aliens came in the UFO and have populated Austria, living in windmills, ready to take over.  They’ll meet at the store in Bratislava.  I think we’ve watched too much Dr. Who.

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Our First Italian Road Trip: Pisa

Pisa is about 3 1/2 hours from Vicenza, Italy.  We had planned to spend the night, but, alas, last minute planning which left few hotel options available and children who seem to think we’re kidding about doing school work in a timely fashion forced us to make this a day trip.  A long, tiring day trip.  7 hours in the car, 7 hours in Pisa.

The first thing that struck me as we approached the town was how isolated the Tower, the Cathedral and the Baptistry are.  In many towns, these important structures are in the heart of the city with other buildings crowding in close.  In Pisa, the densest sections of the city are to the south, and these structures are well separated by a lovely green space called the Field of Miracles.

The Cathedral, or Duomo, was built first, and was consecrated in 1118 (yes, that’s nearly 900 years ago).  The Baptistry was built between 1152 and 1363.  The Tower was started in 1173 and started leaning as early as 1178.  It is typical for churches in Europe at this time to have these three separate structures: church, baptistry and bell tower.

We arrived in plenty of time to attend Mass, although Bill sat outside with the dog and went to the evening Mass instead.  Non-prayers had to wait in line and go in the main doors with a ticket, but pilgrims could go through the Door of Mercy.  No lines for mercy, people.  Lines for gawking, no lines for praying.  Non-Catholic friends who do not like to wait in line: please note that nobody checks your I.D. or asks for the secret Catholic handshake.  Go in, sit, enjoy.

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John 10:9 I am the door.

The cost to go into the Tower was 18 euros, so we declined.  Personally, I had little desire to go up.  They say it’s safe, yet it is leaning more than 17 feet from the vertical.  It doesn’t look safe to me.  There was also a charge to go into the Baptistry and the cemetery, so we didn’t do those either.  I heard, later, that the Baptistry is the best thing in Pisa.  Maybe next time.

After Mass, we went to lunch, and after lunch, we watched many people taking their riposo (nap) on the grass by the Baptistry.  The Duomo was closed during riposo, which seems to be typical throughout Italy.  Except for gray skies and an occasional drizzle, it was a lovely day.

Everybody takes pictures of themselves or their loved ones either holding the Tower up, or pushing it down.  It’s the thing to do.  It’s very hard to line up seven children…much easier to do one or two people.

After we decided to not climb the Tower, we thought we would head over to the church of Santa Maria della Spina (St. Mary of the Thorn).  This church once held a thorn from Christ’s crown.  Once.  We didn’t know that until we got there, and the church was locked anyway.  It was a 15 minutes walk through town and across the Arno River.  We took a different path back towards the Duomo to see more of Pisa.

The church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was not locked, and we were able to go inside.  Bill thought the unlit interior felt empty and sad.  It certainly was dark, but it helped me to imagine what it would have been like to attend Mass there before electricity.  I didn’t take any pictures, but this link shows the beautiful altar windows which were one of the few things one could see inside.

 

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St. Apollonia

We also passed a small church which happened to be the church of St. Apollonia, for whom I have a special devotion.  I only grabbed a quick shot of the exterior.  The interior was closed, but the note on the door announced that there would be a Latin Mass that evening.  If I were more familiar with the TLM, that would have been nice.  I would have liked to see the Baroque interior.

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Palazzo della Carovana

The last part of Pisa we wanted to see was the Piazza dei Cavalieri, or Knights’ Square.  I learned later that the church on this square, Santo Stefano, has banners captured during the Battle of Lepanto.  I really could have done better research before taking this trip!  I suspect, though, that no matter how much research I do, there will always be things that are missed.  It was in this square that Florence announced to the citizens of Pisa that they were now a conquered city.  The Palazzo della Carovana, pictured above, had been the Palace for the Knights of St. Stephen (who brought home the banners from Lepanto) but is now part of a university (according to Wikipedia, the university was founded by Napoleon).

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Some of the buildings near the Duomo

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Part of the walls surrounding the Duomo

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These gates lead to the Jewish Cemetery.

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Mail slot.

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George holding up the Tower. I don’t think he will succeed.

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A plant growing in a wall crevice.

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They really are not going to allow those dead people to get out.

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This is how my men riposo.

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Waiting for Godot.

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A random door.

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Chasing the 4 yo.

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A neat building.

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Across from St. Apollonia.

Just throwing in some other pictures from our trip.  Our final stop was to eat some gelato, and then 8 of us headed back to the van, exhausted, while Bill went to Mass.  The evening Mass had been listed as beginning at 5 pm, but, as we had been warned, the posted time is not always the actual time that things begin.  It actually began at 6 pm, so we waited, and even the dog passed out from all the walking.