As our Amtrak train approached the Newark station I checked our flight status – delayed. While at the check in counter fifteen minutes later, we learned the delay was four hours. A drunken passenger on the inbound flight from Europe assaulted a flight attendant. The result was a diversion to Shannon, Ireland to have the police remove the passenger. To add insult to injury, we were stuck for four hours in an ancient Newark terminal – not an epic start.
Going through Munich to reach Rome seamed like a great idea when planning the trip. We could get off and stretch our legs, get some great German grub then pop over the alps into Rome. Going forward, it will be direct flights only.
Tired and hungry, we were thankful for our own forward thinking. The private driver we hired zipped us into the Monti district in no time flat. We dropped our stuff at our cozy little Air B&B and made our way for pizza and gelato. We retired early knowing that an early day was ahead with a Vatican tour.
With a great deal of fog still in our heads, we made our way to a pasticceria near the Vatican for coffee and pastries. In the course of this particular morning we introduced the boys to the Roman nasones (little drinking fountains). It is amazing that the infrastructure created by the Romans still brings fresh water to Rome. During the rest of our time in Italy, we stopped at every nasone we saw. The fact that it was near 100 degrees every day did not hurt their novelty and utility.
We opted for a Vatican tour before the official opening. Even with early access, the crush of people jamming in was madness. Later the same day, we baked in the sun in the course of a Roman Colosseum tour. Wising up on day three, we got ahead of the tour groups by heading out around 9:00am to visit the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. It’s a whole different city sans tour groups.
My in-laws were the Genesis of this European adventure. They have wanted to rent a villa in Italy for the family for an number of years. This year (2019) seemed the obvious as there were many milestone birthdays in the family. Our base for exploring central Italy was a secluded, Umbrian compound with roots back to 1571. With three buildings, a commercial kitchen and a saltwater pool we had a great hub for exploring.
Umbertide is a sleepy Umbrian town that lacks tourists. The odd position along the national rail lines keeps Umbertide quite. For us, Umbertide became base camp to explore some Umbrian hill towns.
The first hill town we visited was Gubbio. A beautiful, medieval, wall city, Gubbio offered hours of strolling its narrow streets. We lucked out arriving on Gubbio’s market day. The streets were full of vendors and families shopping. The highlight for us was the birdcage-like lift to St. Ubaldo Basilica perched high above the city. At first glance, the lift looked a little precarious. Once on the ride it offered majestic, sweeping views of the town and valley. The small basilica at the top contains many beautiful paintings and frescos. After returning to Gubbio we found our way to foccacia, pizza and gelato.
Our next venture from the compound started with an early train ride. Getting around Umbria from Umbertide is not easy as the there is no operating train station. So, we dragged ourselves out early to catch a train from Arezzo to Florence. We all emerged from the train hungry and looking for a particular cafe that had since closed. While making our way to another cafe we stumbled upon a parking lot full of super cars. Standing on the corner of Via degli Strozzi and Via dei Pescioni our oldest son said, “hey look a Lambo. No, look a ton of cars.” In fact, the parking lot was the overnight parking for cars participating in the Lion’s Run car tour. The lot was full of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, Audis R8s and Bugattis. Florence’s grandeur is impressive but, for my three boys the cars on display were a highlight.
Wanting to stay a little closer to the compound, our next day trip was to Orvieto. This medieval town is far enough of the beaten path to have few tourists. One could wander the medieval streets and be happy but, the Duomo is the draw. By far the facade of the Duomo is the most ornate building you can imagine. Inside, the Duomo continues to impress with terrific paintings and mesmerizing architecture. In effort to escape the heat of the day, we took part in a tour of Orvieto’s underground city. To seek safety from invaders, the old citizens dug into the limestone under their feet. The result was an entire underground city. Before returning to our car, we spent time at the old city gate and ramparts behind the old city’s info center. The views from the ramparts were worth the diversion.
Modena & Maranello
Before setting off for this European trip, Braden (our oldest) asked if we could visit the Ferrari museums. I agreed but, did not realize how far we would be from the museums. Early one morning, we left the compound for a we drive to Arezzo, then trained to Modena. The long day of travel up and back was well worth the trouble. Ferrari has museums in both Maranello and Modena with a shuttle connecting the two.
We lucked out that the Maranello museum had a super car exhibit with every Ferrari one could hope for. I took great pleasure watching Braden snapping tons of photos with his digital camera. It was like watching a kid in a candy store. With the temps over 105 degrees the train travel back to the compound was a poop show. Our train from Modena to Florence was a cramped, sweat box. As luck would have it the car we were set to be in was one of the only mildly air conditioned cars but, all the extra bodies standing in the car made it not so comfy.
Ligurian Coast, Italy
A pleasant ride from Umbria brought us to La Spezia along the Mediterranean Sea. After twenty years, we returned to where we met with our boys. Not wanting to fight the crowds of the Cinque Terre, we decided to stay a quick train/boat ride away. Our comfy little Air B&B was a few blocks from everything. We made a last minute decision to take a boat trip from La Spezia to Manarola in the Cinque Terre. We did not realize how popular the Cinque Terre has become. It is safe to say that the five towns are now completely overrun. Yes the charm is still there and the beauty is second to none but, there are far too many tourists.
We were happy to find out that hasty tour groups and lazy people do not climb the main road of Manarola. So, we walked up toward the top of town and had a relaxing dinner at Pasta Takeaway. This tiny little place offers up super yummy build your own takeaway pastas. This was one of few places everyone enjoyed eating and the beer was cold.
Hiking the Cinque Terre
Although we forewarned the boys that we would be hiking the next day, they had no idea what was coming. The next day we grabbed an early train to Corniglia with the intent of hiking to Vernazza. To access the town of Corniglia from its train station requires climbing 382 stairs. It is mild to say that the day started with grumbles. We weaved our way through the town to the sweeping views of the sea and stopped for a snack. Loaded with water, we set out on our two hour hike to Vernazza. With temps in the 90’s we stopped a fair number of times for shade and water breaks. With the heat withering away at us, were happy to find a little fresh juice and slushy bar before we got to Vernazza.
Although we made it to Monterosso with the hope of relaxing on the beach, we left for Manarola. Monterosso’s beach was overrun and required payment for one of the many umbrellas. Once back in Manarola, we towel wrap changed into swim suits and swam around in its quaint harbor.
Early the next morning we set out to drop off our rental car in Milan and catch a train to Brig, Switzerland.
Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
As our train weaved north through the Italian lakes thick clouds started to form. Snow capped peaks became visible through low-hanging sporadic clouds. By the time we arrived in Brig the temps had dropped to a very cool high 60s. With enough time to grab some grub at the station we were then off to Interlaken. Smack in the middle of Interlaken, our Harderstrasse pad was a perfect location. Not wanting to waste time, we made our way to the Harder Klum cog wheel funicular. At the top, we had great views over the city and toward the Jungfrau range. The kids got to join in a small band with alpenhorns, spoons, and washboard. As well, we got to try our first local brew – Rugen Brau.
Day two we ventured out early to take the cog wheel train to Schynige Platte. The train ride alone was worth the cost. Weaving up through alpine forests and tunnels and ending at a stunning vista was worth the ride. The cherry on top was spending the afternoon hiking at 7,000 feet. To the south was the stout view of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch. After hiking higher, the north offered huge vistas over Interlaken and the two lakes. After returning to Interlaken we took a boat ride across Lake Brienz to its namesake town. We strolled through the sleepy town of Brienz with a light rain falling. Our main focus in town was to wandering up Brunngasse alley. Some call Brunngasse the most beautiful street in Europe; we agree.
Schilthorn & Murren
Day three we moved to a wonderful apartment in the Alpine village of Wengen. After storing our stuff at the train station, we went to the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley for the gondola ride to the Schilthorn. We struggled all the way up the gondola system with Chinese tourists. The Chinese tour groups were both pushy and rude. When we left the base of the valley the sun was shining. By the time we reached the top of the Schilthorn, we were above clouds. We made the best of being there by touring the James Bond museum and spent some time on the outdoor decks catching glimpses of the glaciers. On the way back down, we separated ourselves from the tour groups by hoping off at the Murren station. This proved to be a solid decision as the town was sleepy and the sun was out. We took a break at Cafe Liv (strong recommendation) for some yummy coffee and life size chess.
Day four started early as well and no tour groups were in sight. We walked through Wengen to the Männlichen gondola where we had only a few people with us. Once at the top station we hiked up to the top of the mountain for wonderful a 360 degree panorama. With the gondola to Grindelwald closed, we decided to hike down to Kleine Scheidegg. The walk down was magnificent with alpine flowers in bloom and few other people along the path. From there we made our way to Grindelwald and further to the First mountain to do some mountain carting. It was a long wait for a quick ride down on the carts. The bonus was the poop spray from riding through the cow patties dotted along the path down. Thank goodness for fenders.
Jung Frau & Paragliding
Day five was another early start with the goal of getting to the Jung Frau station. We had seat reservations for the train ride but, the inefficiencies of the loading system in Kleine Scheidegg resulted in no seats for some of us. None-the-less it was a great experience. We were fortunate to have a beautiful day to enjoy the stunning views from the top of Europe. Since we were traveling over Braden’s birthday, he and I went paragliding with Paragliding Interlaken. We launched from Beatenberg on a clear evening and gentle breezes. We flew by Harder Klum over the lake for a 20 minute ride from jump off to town. Great experience with a great outfit.
Murren, Trümmelbach Falls & Funk Chcolate
Day six was a low key day. We descended from Wengen to Lauterbrunnen and ascended the other side of the valley. With beautiful weather, we walked from Grütschalp to Murren. Another stop at Cafe Liv was inevitable. Then, we made our way down the Murren gondola to the valley floor. We strolled by the huge waterfall and by the lazy creek to have a picnic at Trümmelbach Falls. After a quick tour of the falls, we made our way to Interlaken’s Funky Chocolate Club to learn about, make and eat chocolate. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the chocolate making experience, we left our chocolate in the fridge at our Wengen place.
Nyon & Geneva
With the aim of heading to Paris, we left the Bernese Oberland and headed toward Nyon, Switzerland. The hostel in Nyon had wonderful ratings and a family room. We wanted to give the boys a taste of hostel travel so we booked a few nights. With only two days in the area we toured our nice little town of Nyon and made our way to Lausanne to see Spider Man Home Coming (birthday wish filled). We spent our second day in the lake area touring Geneva and taking a boat ride across Lake Leman.
Our TGV arrived in Gare de Lyon where we had some lunch before making our way to our Paris Pad. Being a block away from the Louvre, we were in the center of the city. With only a few days, we hit the highlights with the boys. We hit the Eifel tower, the Arc, the Tuileries Gardens, Îlse Saint-Louis, The Louvre, a Seine boat ride and wandering the Bouquinistes. We did buy some nice posters from the Bouquinistes. Oh, we made sure to check the box on having baguettes in Paris many times over.
Wrapping the adventure
On our last night we went out to see the city lit up. Upon setting out we noticed Algerian flags waving and discovered their Africa Cup soccer win. We stopped by the Eifel tower for some night time pics then made our way to see the Arc de Triomphe. When we climbed out of the Metro at the Arc we discovered the whole traffic circle full of people. There were thousands of people everywhere which freaked the boys. We stayed for a few minutes and decided to head back. As we got back to the Metro entrance, a mob of people left the traffic circle with tear gas cans flying. We stopped to let the mobs move by and ended up getting some of the tear gas before descending into the Metro. The kids went from total freak out and anger to proudly posting on social media about getting tear gassed.
Not sure I can wrap this post any better then a tear gas story. So, there you have three weeks in Europe. Thank goodness for fontanellas and gelato.