Thursday, November 17, 2016

San Gusme, Tuscany

On our third day in Italy, we actually had an open day as we weren’t sure yet how we wanted to spend it. One option was to drive about an hour west to the coast and visit Cinque Terre, a gorgeous outcropping of “five lands” sitting on Italy’s Riviera. The other option was meeting up with our family again and visiting the area of Tuscany they were staying in. We opted for option two and were so glad we did!

We packed up like the day before and headed south about two hours to where they were staying in the Chianti Region. The cousins were excited to be back together again! The property where my sister's family was staying was beautiful with a large yard, hammock for simply soaking in the surrounds, chimenea for cozy nights, all within a grove of Cypress trees on a large winery estate. My sister and her family were also traveling with two friends who had a house next door and it was great to visit with them, too!
Spending the day at my sister's rental - a beautiful way to spend time in Tuscany

We drove about five miles from their place into this perfect little Tuscan town called San Gusme. It was like stepping back in time because I’m sure nothing has changed here over the centuries. San Gusme was comprised of alley-ways and tiny “streets” with billowing flower boxes brightening up each lane. We really couldn't believe how picture perfect this place was.

We found a little restaurant once we passed through the archway of the tiny village and it was quite an experience! The owner was very welcoming and within a few minutes hauled a large table able to accommodate a party our size to the cobblestone sidewalk outside. Our waiter seated us and seemed happy at his large American party as we were the only ones dining for a bit! After our drink order was taken and delivered we realized our waiter was gone for a bit. We then saw him quickly walking around the corner with a large brown bag stuffed with baguettes of bread, clearly fresh from the bakery! Within a few minutes the bread was sliced and set out on our table in baskets. We all marveled over the authenticity of this experience! We had to then inform him of my kids’ food allergies. I told him I packed a lunch for them so he would not wonder why they weren’t eating his food. He wouldn’t hear of it. I shared my allergy cards I had printed out in Italian before we left home and he completely understood. He insisted on making everything safe for them to eat or at least having an alternative. I was so thrilled that my kids would actually get to try spaghetti in Italy!!! Our meal took a few hours with many courses, all local and authentic to Tuscany. It was a real treat in that my kids could participate as well and I’m so thankful for that.
Dining on authentic Italian food - they were thrilled!

We then headed back to my sister and brother-in-law’s place and left the kids with their nanny they had brought along who also happened to be the niece of the friends they were traveling with. The kids had a great time playing back at the house with their cousins while us adults went about a mile down the dirt road to the winery for a tasting and adult time. We all left with a few bottles of wine en route to the US as well as some olive oil they produce. It was the perfect end to a perfect day!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lucca, Tuscany

The next morning, it took me a while for my eyes to adjust. Even though I had slept for a good 10 hours or so I felt way off and very sleepy! Soon we all woke up, fixed some breakfast with some dry goods I had packed and brewed coffee. We threw open the shutters and I noticed Mike was outside already. "Look at this view", he said, encouraging me to come outside. Through still-blurry eyes I gasped! What a view it was up in the hills of Lucca! I had a slightly different outlook this morning, vs. the night before, as I had rest and coffee since then. It seemed unreal how the hills just folded out in front of me, with peaceful olive groves leading the way down the hill. It was quiet and serene and I was now happy with my choice of location!

Our charming cottage in the hills of Lucca

Mike then informed me my sister and her family were on their way to Lucca! We had talked about meeting up and they opted to drive to us, as they were staying about two hours south of us. We started the shower process and unpacked. I packed some of the food up, my camera, and down the windy road to the inside of the wall of Lucca we went!

We arrived in Lucca within a few minutes of each other. She texted to tell us that they had found parking and were walking to a restaurant by a "big white church". I got the address from her, plugged it into the GPS, and away we went, how easy we remarked! Wellll, turns out one should park and then walk within the walls of Lucca. The little streets, aka alley-ways, are not really made for a large 8 passenger van like we were driving. We didn't know it at the time and during one very tight turn our van got stuck. Yep, Griswold-style. I actually got out and directed Mike out of the spot. Sure, we looked ridiculous and like total clueless American tourists! We also acquired a large dent on the side of the van so I was now very glad that Mike had opted to take out full-coverage at the rental counter! We continued on, still unaware that these little streets were for authorized vehicles only. We arrived at the cafe shortly thereafter and were thrilled to see my sister, her husband, and two little boys! Mike beeped and we all hung out of the van waving, excitedly! My brother-in-law, Scott, opted to drive with Mike to park the van and my mom, kids, and I got out and secured a few tables at the sidewalk cafe. After the guys came back and told us that they passed signs that said official vehicles only and then did we realize our mistake! It was a funny memory!

The kids had a great time hanging out, running in front of the church, and walking about. That is one thing I love about Europe so much - the sidewalk cafes are very conducive to families. Kids don't need to sit still until their food is ready. And after the food is ready and kids want to get up again, the adults can linger over coffee and dessert.

Our lunch spot within the walls of Lucca

Afterwards, we walked around Lucca a bit and came across a carousel. My little nephews were excited about it so my kids went on with them as well. While I was happily taking photos Mike whispered to me that he thought we were "pegged". I noticed the two men he was talking about walking many times around the piazza looking a bit suspicious. I made sure my cross-body purse was in the front and let all the adults in the party know. Now that we were on to them they seemed to move away, looking for a different victim. I had read a lot about the pick-pocketing in Italy but really only expected to come across it in the larger, more touristy areas. Funny enough during our entire time in Italy I never had a problem, even in Rome and Florence. Lucca was the only place we noticed a couple of suspicious folks. Thankfully, we were spared!

Carousel in Lucca

After the carousel we walked up to the Renaissance-era wall that surrounds Lucca. This wall is unique in that it is still very well maintained and has a tree-lined pedestrian promenade on the top due to it's width. Many people bike up there but jet lag was starting to set in for us. After a stroll my sister and her family had to head back to their place.

From there we went to a local grocery store, Esselunga. We always stop at grocery stores in foreign countries as we need to purchase some items due to the kids food allergies. I take along a lot of dry goods but we always need to fill in with meat, produce, and miscellaneous. It's so funny how long it takes to shop in a foreign grocery store! It takes a long time to sort through products, especially when there is a language barrier. I grabbed a lot of produce, happy for all the healthy options. We also got some pasta and marinara to make for dinner. My mom was looking for half-and-half so she stopped a few people but they just couldn't figure out what she wanted. Finally a mom with a small child said she thought she knew and she pointed her to it. She was grateful! Gotta have creamer with our coffee! I did have a question regarding the bread as it needed to be egg, dairy, and nut-free. Often times bread will have the "may-contain" label in regards to nuts and we just can't take chances. Before we left home I had printed out these awesome cards from FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) that were in Italian, explaining the allergy situation and listing their own specific allergies. They ended up being a lifesaver! I also stopped an employee and showed her the card and she read the bread just to make sure and said it was good! Once we were checking out I realized I supposed to pre-weigh and then label all the produce. They didn't have a built-in scale at the check-out! The clerk grabbed by many bags and was going to call someone to do it but I didn't want to hold up the long line that had formed behind me. I handed them off to my husband to do. When I tried checking out my credit card wasn't going through as apparently my signature was not legible enough overseas. The cashier was trying to explain it but I didn't understand...finally the nice lady behind me said "do again legible". I carefully signed and it went through...phew! We finally had our food stash for the week and then headed back to the house!

We cooked our pasta dinner and dined al fresco on the patio of our little stone house. We had a nice evening with a view of the twinkling lights of Lucca below. Our first full day in Italy was done!

Lovely Lucca

Monday, June 6, 2016

Travel day, continued...yep, two days of travel

We landed at London Heathrow at around 9:30 am the next morning. After clearing customs we had to go through security again as we were leaving one terminal and entering another, going from American to British Airways. Oh my, our liquids bags threw off security! So, before we left home, I came up with the grand idea to access the showers in the American Lounge once we arrived in Heathrow. After all, doesn't that sound nice after flying in a cramped seat for 8+ hours! I had packed all of our main toiletries in our checked luggage of course, but packed each of us a little quart-sized ziplock bag of just shower necessities for this purpose. Unfortunately, because we left the terminal where American was to go to the terminal where our next flight was, British Airways, we could no longer access the American Lounge. Argh! Also, the liquid Zyrtec I was carrying for my poor son who suffers from bad seasonal allergies was over the "100 mL limit", and being that it was OTC it was confiscated. After that they actually took all of our liquids and rebagged them. They were very nice about it, as folks usually are in England, but man that took a while! I guess what "flies" in the US doesn't fly in England! I was a bit annoyed as now I needed to find new allergy meds for Braden and my perfectly organized ziplocks for each of us were now a jumbled mess. After all that, due to our terminal change, we couldn't access the American lounge and therefore no showers...!

So, with the shower plan by the wayside, we decided to just freshen up in the bathroom. We then headed to a drugstore, Boots, where I found Braden some allergy tablets fairly equivalent to Zyrtec. From there we decided we should eat lunch to get our bodies set on the current time. We ate at the Giraffe cafe and we all felt better after the meal. Within a few hours we finally took off to Rome. We landed in Rome at around 7:30 pm and rushed to pick up our luggage and then to pick up the rental car. We upgraded from a minivan type of vehicle to an 8 passenger van because it was an automatic. Plus we could nicely spread out and had plenty of room for our luggage. We also rented the GPS which was a lifesaver! Soon, we peeled out of Fiumicino airport in our Mercedes bus and headed north for Tuscany! That's right, four hours of driving after all that air travel...great planning on my part, right?!

So I'd better explain my reasoning for my wild and crazy idea of going to Tuscany right away. Well, when my sister booked her itinerary she booked it flying into Florence and out of Venice, meaning she would be in Tuscany at the beginning portion of our trip. I knew it would be silly for us to be in Italy at the same time yet not see one another so I figured we would try to overlap somehow. Initially I had planned for us to do Rome for the first few days of the trip and finish off relaxing in Tuscany. It would have been nice to crash at the hotel in Rome after landing there but instead, we drove up to Tuscany...just a mere four hours to our rental home in Lucca!

I am actually glad that we did it the way we did. We had the relaxing portion of the trip at the beginning and then the busier part at the end, once we had adapted to the time change. So it all worked out! But as we were driving north on our travel day and I was fighting off crying due to being so tired I thought I had made a big mistake. We needed to get into Lucca by midnight as the nice man whose home we were renting said he could meet us as late as midnight to then show us to the home. I didn't want to keep him waiting as I realized this was not an ideal time to meet, so we pushed through. I also wanted to stay up to help Mike navigate if he needed it and didn't want him to accidentally fall asleep, either! Finally we arrived in Lucca, just a few minutes after midnight and met up with Massimo.

We followed Massimo through the outskirts of Lucca and then to the "Torre". Torre means tower in Italian, however at the time I thought it meant mountain. That seemed more fitting as our drive following Massimo up was winding up up and away, higher and higher into the hills of Lucca. We had the large 8 passenger van and Massimo had a smaller, more typical-European car. I was gripping the seat hoping we'd just make it soon! After about 15 minutes of winding up the curvy road with many hairpin turns, we finally arrived at the house. We couldn't see much as it was pitch black but Massimo was happily showing us all the inner workings of the house. I unloaded the van and reminded the kids that their PJs were in a packing cube in their backpack. They all quickly changed and I think as soon as our heads hit the pillows we were out!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Spring Break 2016 - Italy!

This year we had quite an exciting spring break trip planned - our first trip back to Europe in 5 years - Italy!

When initially discussing spring break plans we knew that we wanted to be traveling as an extended family this year, which included my sister's family of four and my mom. We had a couple of milestones birthdays with my brother-in-law turning 50 and my husband turning 40 so we wanted to make it special and travel together. At first we tossed around the idea of Hawaii. Some of us hadn't been there yet and a beach trip is easiest with kids in tow. However, after spending countless hours stalking the American website, I couldn't find tickets to any Hawaiian island using flight miles, which for our family of 5 was a pretty imperative aspect of my travel plans. We then started looking around the Caribbean. We loved Grand Cayman last year but also like to try new places. We finally all settled on the Bahamas, or so we thought, but didn't have luck finding any appealing lodging options. Just when I tought this trip may never happen, my brother-in-law mentioned that going to Italy was always on his bucket list. But of course! Why didn't I think of that?! So, I checked flight mile tickets and voila (or rather "eccoti"!) - tickets were booked! My sister was on board and quickly booked tickets to Italy for her family as well. Then my mom did the same. Within a few days this turned into a multi-generational, European vacation! Woohoo!

I spent a lot of time researching for this trip, after all Europe can be a little overwhelming! Knowing we were flying in and out of Rome, we had to decide what all we wanted to see. I pulled out a map of Italy and asked the kids if they'd rather go south towards Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii, or north towards Tuscany, including Florence and Pisa. We talked about the things to see and do in each place and we all decided north to Tuscany was best for our first trip to Italy.

Finally, early April came and spring break was here! On an early Saturday morning we left home and drove to Chicago's O'Hare airport. We did encounter construction, traffic, and bad weather on the drive to Chicago, so we were glad we had left home with plenty of time to spare. In fact, just as we pulled into the parking lot, a huge gust of wind carrying snow and sleet hammered down on us. We ran with our luggage into the building to catch the train to the terminal. We had a few hours before take off so we spent it in the American Lounge. We snacked, read, wandered, and watched planes take off. In fact, Braden even had fun making a few time-lapse videos which are especially neat from the airport.

We ended up with a delay so we didn't take off until 10 pm. At least we'd be really tired and hopefully sleep on the plane! After dinner was served, we all settled in and I encouraged everyone to try to sleep as this would be the most sleep we'd be getting for a while. I caught a few winks here and there but woke up once with my head almost on the shoulder of the lady next to me! I didn't want that to happen again so I really didn't sleep well after that. I watched some shows on the TV and kept checking the flight map to see how much longer. Finally, breakfast was served and I doled out the kids prepacked breakfast. Shortly thereafter we landed at London Heathrow! Phase one of the trip was done.

The kids passing time in the American Lounge at O'Hare, waiting for our departure to London