Saturday, September 25, 2010

One night in Pisa

13-14 September 2010

We arrived in Pisa after our flight from Paris at about 11.30pm so we hailed a cab at the airport and went to our hotel for the night. We decided to spend a night in Pisa because we thought it would be too difficult to catch a train at 1am and walk from Florence Santa Maria Novella Station at 2.30am to our apartment. So we booked a room at a hotel near Pisa Centrale. When we arrived at the hotel the concierge said he did not have a reservation for us and he was fully booked for the night. (Grrrrr) I was not happy and my computer would not load up quickly enough for me to show him the email I got saying we had a reservation. Anyway the concierge called another hotel nearby and got us the same deal with breakfast (apparently we were saving 30euros). So with 2 cranky and tired children we gathered up our luggage and walked (yes, walked) from the hotel at least 250m down the road, turn left at the piazza and look for the sign saying Minerva Hotel. The least the concierge could’ve done at that time of night (now midnight) was pay for a taxi to take us. I know 250m doesn’t sound like it far but at that time of night with 2 children and 3 suitcases and a backpack it is not fun. (GRRR).

Anyway the new hotel was very nice and spacious and we had a lovely breakfast when we woke. We walked to the train Station and bought tickets through the self service machine. It costs around 6euro each for adults and 3 euros each for children 4-11years old. So if you are staying in Florence and you want to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa (without paying 100euros each for a tour) you can visit Pisa in a day by train to Pisa Centrale and use the Red line bus to get to the Leaning Tower (this way will cost less than 100euros for the family). There are trains going to and from Pisa Centrale to Florence all the time.

After a 1 - 1.30 hour train ride we were back ‘home’ in our apartment in Florence. And happy to be back in familiar surroundings and the comfort of home. Although very sad to be out of Paris.

We spent a few days relaxing at home in Florence before packing our swimmers and bags for the Cinque Terre.

Architecture and History

Paris 12 September 2010

Well today we decided to go back to the café up the hill for breakfast again. This time Iain had the “vitality breakfast” with me of brioche, jam and a bowl of coffee. Phoenix decided to join Levi in Croque Monsieur and salad. It was all Yum!!!

We also went back to Sacre Cour to get a coin out of the machine for Phoenix (they have tourist coins with pictures of churches on them in machines 2 euros each, great for the kids to collect). Levi and I waited outside watching the lady with the piano accordion dance about under here umbrella and flowers. I have a photo of this that I will upload soon. She was very entertaining.

After Sacre Cour we headed back down the hill towards our apartment to catch a train to Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle, but Iain saw a dress in a shop window that he wanted me to try on. So of course as the obedient wife I am I went in and tried it on and came out with the dress and a leather jacket…I am very lucky my husband likes me to look good. (LOL) so we had to stop at the apartment to drop off my new purchases and the many souvenirs we purchased in Montmartre (who knew I was misspelling this?) as well.

Eventually we ended up eating lunch at the apartment then hopping on the train to Barbes Rochechouart to change lines to Cite the metro station on the island in the middle of the river. Cite station opens above ground to a pet market and the hop on drop off hire bicycles. We walked about 250m to find Notre Dame with a short stop to pick up a coffee and little something for my new niece Pepper.

Notre Dame is more beautiful in the flesh than it is on paper. The architecture of the building so intricate and wonderful. The interior is lovely with all the different saints statues like Joan of Arc and the centre piece shows the life of Jesus in carvings. You can probably use this as “story telling” time for the kids. Brush up on your bible stories first (although you should know these anyway). The church has free entry for everyone and you can spend all day in there if you like and take photos without the flash.

When we had our fill of Notre Dame we walked along the River Seine to the other end of the island to Sainte Chapelle. Sainte Chapelle is 8 euros each for adults, free entry for children. The chapel is located inside the Castle walls and is being renovated until 2013. They are renovating small parts at a time so you really don’t miss out on seeing its spectacular architecture and lead lighting. The chapel was built by King Henry IX for his wife. There is a statue inside dedicated to Saint Louis. The lead lighting here is the most amazing I have seen so far. It is wonderful sight, even the children were impressed, they also like climbing the stairs in the dome.

This was a good way to end our “paid “ sightseeing in Paris, we went back to the apartment for dinner and starting packing our bags for our flight the next night.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What a View...and some Vintage Shopping.

Paris 11 September 2010

The day started off with a few little hiccups. We walked down the street, around the corner, up the hill, across the road, up another hill, then realised we forgot to go to the ATM just outside the apartment. My fault of course? Well we found one back down the hill and came across a gorgeous café, we stopped and had breakfast there. I had a bowl of café au lait and a piece of brioche with the most amazing jam I have ever tasted. Iain had a big American breakfast, Levi had Croque Monsieur with salad and Phoenix had Quiche Lorraine with salad.

After our hearty meals we headed back up the hill towards Montmarte. What a beautiful part of the city, this is the Artist area and they have a market at the top of the hill with cafes and artists stalls. We kept moving through the crowds further up the hill to Sacre Coeur (sorry should have some funny symbol in Coeur). When we arrive at the very top of the hill (which really only took 10mins) we saw the most spectacular view over Paris. It truly is amazing, if you ever get to Paris you must walk up here and see it for yourself. I liked it better than the Eiffel Tower. The church is simply an amazing piece of architecture and extremely huge.

From the top of the hill we took many photos and went inside Sacre Coeur, then we headed back around the church to the souvenir shops and down the hill towards Clignancourt. We walked down streets and many stairs until we reached bottom and headed towards Les Puces (the flea markets).

When we reached the flea markets I was a little disappointed to see that it was full of the normal cheapie stuff from China, but I knew if I kept walking past it and under the bridge I would come to Rue de Rosiers where I would find the Vintage Market. This is so big and you kind of need a map for it or you get lost surrounded by strange old pieces of furniture and artwork. It is also a good idea to know what you want to find there, it is quite a confusing and overwhelming place with a few little scary alleys. I however braved it on my own, letting Iain take the boys to KFC for a while. I wandered around the markets for a few hours looking for fabric, buttons and something for my sister in law to put in her kitchen. Well the fabric was a lost cause (Sorry Yvonne) the only fabric I found that I purchased was an old curtain with prints of Paris life it cost me 40euros (ouch, but I just couldn’t let it go, it is also part of my giveaway on this website). I searched and searched for buttons in several stores and found many but not made in france and I really wanted them to be vintage and French, finally I found some (so be happy Kellie). Now the something to hang in the sister inlaws kitchen was a little difficult, but I saw it and bought it (not telling it is a surprise Ruvay). After finding what I set out to find, I came across a store I had missed and found these gorgeous vintage cotton and lace huge cushion covers for 15 euros (they will look fantastic on my bed, when I get it back).

I sent Iain a text message letting him know that I had finished shopping and to come and meet me at the place we agreed. He did not hear his phone or feel it vibrate so I hung around in this creepy part of town alone and a bit worried because I only had a little credit left and Iain had none at all. After waiting for half an hour I finally saw 2 little boys and a man heading down the street, boy was I glad. And a little frustrated. We headed back to the metro but not without first purchasing 2 new carry on suitcases for the boys (the backpacks had worn out and were now too small to fit our new souvenirs :-)).

We got back to the apartment and had a little rest. We then went out for dinner to a restaurant very like Lone Star (Texas Grill or something). We were craving “meat and fries” and that is exactly what we got as well as an American waiter. I had buffalo wings, chips and salad, Iain had 3 meats, chilli con carne and chips and the boys had nuggets and chips. The salads and bread were complementary.

After our meal we decided to go and line up at the Eiffel Tower. This ended up being a 2 hours queue at 7pm and the boys were already exhausted from a day out. We went up the first lift to the 2nd floor, then had to line up again to purchase tickets to the top then it was an hour wait for the lift to the top. So after 3 hours of queue we finally made it to the top with a child that was crying from fatigue and another child that was over tired and too excited. We did the mandatory views and photos from north, south, east and west, then headed back down the tower, this was much faster. Then we walked to the metro and arrived back at the apartment just after midnight.

It was a VERY LONG day for all. But worth it.

I will be posting tips on all of the things to do in Paris and how to hopefully avoid long queues.

Hello Mickey Mouse!

Paris 10 September 2010

Today was the day the boys were looking forward to after we finally decided to go to Disneyland Paris.

We got up early and went to the station to purchase return ticket to Disneyland with a change of train at Nation. We hopped on the wrong train at Nation because I did not notice which stations were lit up on the board. Oops! I asked a lady on the train which station to get off at and change trains for Disneyland, she was very helpful and gave me all the information I needed. We changed trains successfully and were on our way.

After 40 minutes on the train we came to Chessy station (Parc Disney). Of course there was a mad rush to get to the gates. (In Paris you line up and have your bags checked before entering most museums, galleries and theme parks, they confiscate food and drink and anything that is potentially dangerous). Yes don’t even bother packing lunch for Disneyland, the guards will end up eating it or throwing it in the bin.

Then we walked to the ticket office and spent about half and hour in line (Note. Buy tickets at any of the main metro stations, hotels or info boxes in Paris, it saves time). A girl came up to me and told me her friend was not coming so she sold me a childs ticket for 40euros (norm. 49euros). All up our entrance cost about 190euros.

You can get into Disneyland and Walt Disney Studios for a little extra it’s a 1 day/ 2 park pass. But seriously I do not think there is enough time to see 1 park in 1 day let alone 2.

Please take note and keep your map, this is seriously important for when you are looking for toilets and food.

Anyway we headed to Discoveryland first (buzz lightyear, star wars, Lilo & Stitch…) All rides here are great for everyone unless you want to go on Space Mountain and you are under 130cm. Poor Phoenix had to miss out. Phoenix and I ended up in Nautilus (from 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and I had to promise that Levi would miss out on seeing this. Because it was Levis’ fault that Phoenix is not tall enough for Space Mountain??? Phoenix and I then went to Star Wars store and purchased a small bucket of fairy floss and met Iain and Levi outside. Note also that rides that have a 45 minute queue normally only take 2 minutes to finish. :-(

To save time waiting in line there are FAST PASS stations in front of most rides. You simply swipe your entrance ticket and it spits out a ticket with a time for you to go on the ride. Note: do this first thing, the earlier the better, FAST PASS is 1 ride at a time, you ride then you can swipe the next one. It will save you time in queues, but don’t forget to swipe everyone elses tickets too, you must all have it swiped to skip the queue together.

So then we moved onto Frontierland and saw the Swiss Family Robinsons treehouse, Pirates of the Carribean and Mark Twains riverboat. We lunched at a Mexican restaurant and spent 40euros (you can’t avoid it unless you plan on starving and dying of thirst).

Fantasyland was next with Alice in Wonderlands maze, It’s a Small World Afterall, Dumbo and a bunch of pretty Princess things. I made the boys go on the Madhatter’s teacup ride with me, because I remembered going on it with my Mum at Disneyland California. :-)

At the end of the day we watched the Street Parade with the Lion King, Jungle Book, Princess Tiana, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Aladdin & others.

We headed back to the Star Wars shop and let the boys spend 25euros each on souvenirs, they ended up with a stuffed Stitch and Leroy from Lilo and Stitch. I decided on a Disneyland Paris photo album for our many photo’s there and Iain picked a fridge magnet.

We stood on the train all the way back much to the boys disappointment.

It was a GREAT day for all of us!

Versailles Palace and Gardens...a beautiful day (with rain of course)

Paris 9 September

Ahhhh what can I say? The day started out fresh and cool and absolutely gorgeous. We caught the train to Invalides and hopped back on another train to Versailles. It was about a half hour trip out of Paris with very nice scenery on the train.
Versailles is so beautiful, especially the gardens, we could’ve spent another entire day in the gardens wandering around the many chalets and fountains and the Grande Canal.
But first we went through the Palace and saw all the wonderful architecture and the interior design and decoration. The Palace is decorated with gold leaf ceilings, flocked wallpaper, marble and timber flooring and of course priceless works of art and furniture.
As you walk through the first hall there are many rooms leading to the main staircase leading up to the apartments and ballrooms and long wide corridors. I think if you are planning a trip to Paris you really must take one day to visit Versailles and see how the royals lived in France many years ago.
The views from the windows to the gardens are spectacular.
The boys were very excited about heading out into the garden, so we did and it started to rain lightly. We had promised Phoenix that we would hire a boat in the Grande Canal, so we headed down the centre of the gardens past secret passageways and marble sculptures. We hired a boat for 11 euros an hour. Iain rowed the boat out for us and we relaxed in the sunshine for a little while. After floating around for 3o minutes the big scary grey clouds descended upon us and started dumping huge drops of water everywhere. I told Iain to pull over to the side of the lake for us (the boys and I) to hop out and get under the trees. Iain had to row the boat back to the dock. Well the trees did not help very much so I used Iains jumper as a raincoat, Iain got soaked of course…hehe. The boys wanted to run in the rain to their father so I let them, after a few minutes I went to meet them as well.
Soaked and feeling cold we went into a restaurant by the lake and had coffee and sandwiches 50 euros (ouch). Nice restaurant though and good coffee.
The rain stopped for a while and we went and hired some bicycles to ride in the park. This was a surprise to my boys because they have never seen me ride a bike (it has been 20 years). Luckily it is true you never forget how to ride a bike. I was glad I didn’t have to wear a helmet.
The bicycles were very well worn and the brakes were not as good as I would have liked, but the ride was very enjoyable and Phoenix loved seeing me ride a bike (so did Iain). We rode for an hour or so through the trees, along the street with sheep farms and down private roads (people live in the Versailles gardens) and along the lake. It was so beautiful and photogenic. I may even buy a bicycle when we get home.
After our bicycle ride we went back to Paris and had fried chicken takeaway for dinner (well after not having it for a few months it is very tempting). Did I mention we have been having pastries every night for dessert? Well we have in Paris, just can’t help myself they are so good.

The Louvre...what more can I say?

Paris 8 September 2010

First things first, I did not have a very good day with the children inside The Louvre. We did make it out alive and without breaking anything.

We left the apartment at about 10am and headed to the Louvre, down the streets, into Galleries Lafayette up the elevator to the top to see the view(children really enjoyed this), back down to the street and out along Rue del Opera. Most of the main streets are named after whatever is at the end of them. So the Palais Royal Opera building is on this street. Before reaching the Louvre we had breakfast/lunch in a café. We met an American couple that the kids chatted to about what they have been doing and how long they are out of school (most important to children).

My wonderful cousin Deborah told me to use the entrance under the red awning on Rue du Rivoli to skip the long queue at the Pyramid entrance. We went in the door, down the escalator and crossed the floor to the ticket machines, it cost 9.50 euros each and Free for children. We found the upside down pyramid in the centre of the mall and walked straight through with no queue at all, it was great.

First area we entered was the history of the Louvre, fascinating how it started as a castle with farm lands surrounding it. There are the old foundations on display that look like where a moat would have been in the past.

We wandered through the Egyptian exhibit with statues, tools and jewels on display.
Then we found the area with the famous Mona Lisa on display, we had been in the musee for hours so we were happy to view the most famous painting in the world and leave with a few Louvre souvenirs.

Ok we did have a problem with our 7 year old after about an hour in the Egyptian exhibit. He decided He wanted to take photos so we gave him the spare camera. He was calm for about 5 minutes then He went ballistic at a couple standing in front of the sphinx. He told them that they should learn English and that He will kick them if they don't get out of the way (it was a bit worse than this, but I didn't want to write everything). I was so embarrassed. But this is a travelling with kids site so these things happen.

We exited out of the Pyramid and into the plaza above into more rain.
As we are near the Arc di Triumph we pop down a hole to the metro and catch a train to a station near the Arc. What a sight! It is so beautiful even in the rain, this area is near Charles de Gaule-Etoile Metro station and is on Champs Elysee it is lined with stores such as Louis Vuiton, Guess, Gucci and Cartier (a real shoppers paradise).

Back down a hole to our apartment with children in tow of course.

* There is a cartoon on the The Louvre website that can help prepare children before your planned trip to The Louvre. I will add the link soon.

Jardin de Plantes- Menagerie (the zoo)

Paris 7 September 2010

Today we met with Massimo, Annalisa, Irini and Andreas (our neighbours in Florence) at the Menagerie. It was fun for our first time in Paris to work out how to use the Metro on the day of the strike. The trains were so crowded we were so squashed that I almost passed out. They were running less trains because of the strike.
Anyway back to our day with Massimo and family at the zoo. Jardin de Plantes is an amazing park in Paris, it is huge and very green with lovely crushed granite paths and overhanging canopies. It reminds me of photos I have seen of Central Park in New York. There are museums in the park and a menagerie (zoo). We found Massimo at the café just inside the zoo, we ate crepes with sugar and had coffee before exploring the zoo.
The first animals we saw were emus and jack rabbits together in an enclosure. We saw wallabies and other Australian animals, it was quite funny seeing those animals in the middle of Paris. We spent a few hours in the zoo then Massimo and family invited us back to their apartment in the Latin Quarter.
The Latin Quarter is a more upper class residential area than Blanche where we are staying and very quiet. After some tea and cake with Massimo and Annalisa we left to catch the metro back to our apartment. We walked to St Michel metro (oh before I forget, the metro is underground and most stations are located by finding Metropolitan written above a set of stairs, we called them a ‘hole”) so after finding the St Michel hole in the ground we hopped on a very crowded train, just fitting in the door, then changing at Stalingrad and hopping on another train to Blanche. Dinner tonight was kebab sandwiches, yummo!!!

Ooh La La...Paris is beautiful!

Paris 6 September 2010

We arrive in Beauvais Airport about 70 minutes out of Paris at about 930pm on Monday night, it was a late flight and then we had to get the baggage as well. Then we had to go and catch a bus to Paris (Porte Maillot) then find a taxi in the rain of all things with a whinging, crying, tired 7 year old. After waiting in the rain for 10 minutes a taxi finally stopped and we were on our way (easy with an English speaking taxi driver). We had stop at an ATM to get some money out for the owner of the apartment because we had forgot to at Pisa Airport.
When we arrived on our street it was a big surprise to see sex shop after sex shop, pole dancing places and girls girls girls signs everywhere. “Close your eyes boys!”. I was however trying not to giggle like a little girl for the whole drive. Suddenly we stopped right out front of a girlie show theatre and the taxi driver said “here it is”. Just 2 shops back was a dark blue door with the number 54 on it…cringe.
Oh well out we got and I sent a text message to the owner telling him we had arrived and to please come and open the door for us. Guillame met us at the door after we waited 5 minutes watching a lady try to entice men into the theatre, it is quite hilarious when the guys blush.
We went into the blue door and up a corridor to another door with another code, in that door and up 6 flights of stairs to the 3rd floor. To my surprise the apartment was very quiet thanks to the double glazed windows front and back. We got all the necessary information from Guillame for the metro, codes for doors and where the supermarket was. We went to bed to the quiet rumble of the metro every now and then.

Things to see and do with the kids in Paris

Kids in Paris

Most museums and galleries are free entry for children under 18, if you are between 18 and 26 and can prove that you are a student in your country you are also free. This is fantastic for parents, because most of the time it is only you who wants to see the museums and art and you really don’t want to waste money on children who are not interested in it. So bravo to Paris for having free entry for kids, Parents love this.

Tips for kids in Paris:

There are many large parks in Paris for the children to play in:

Bois de Boulogne for example has many playgrounds and lakes. You can hire bicycles for the whole family for 10euros each per day, best to do this in the morning to take advantage of the price and time. Please do not expect to get a top of the line bicycle here, you get one that has been used a bit, when hiring them take a bike for a little test run and check the gears and brakes before going any further. The pick up/ drop off bikes for the centre of Paris are free for the first half hour but then they sting you after this (you can not pick one up and drop it somewhere in half an hour and pick up another for free, you have to use a credit card to start so it knows if you have used your first half hour). While walking or cycling in Bois de Boulogne, keep an eye out for the animals wandering the forest: ducks, rabbits, squirrels, birds, lizards and horses on the horse paths (with rider of course). Try to stick to the main wide paths for cycling, it gets a bit narrow close to the lakes and very bumpy and dangerous when there are walkers and other cycles on the path.

There is Jardin di acclimation, this is in Bois de Boulogne and is a park with rides and water that you pay for (great for hotter months).

*To get to Bois de Boulogne take the Nation/Porte Dauphine Metro line all the way to the end to Porte Dauphine then follow the signs to Bois de Boulogne (hint: look for masses of trees, this is what I did).

Jardin de Plantes is on the other side of the city to Bois de Boulogne, in this park there is a Natural History Museum with dinosaur bones and there is the Menagerie (zoo) which is great for children of all ages. It was less than 30euros for a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 children under 12). There is a large range of animals from all over the world including wallabies from Australia, snakes from South America and Red Pandas from Asia. In the zoo you can purchase coffee and tea and food at reasonable prices. If you have the whole day to spend in Jardin de Plantes I recommend the Jardin museum pass to see everything there. Well worth it for the kids.

* To get to Jardin de Plantes take the(will fill in)Metro line and get off at Gare du Austerlitz. The park is across the road and runs along the River Seine.

Paris = fun + games!

In the begining of September we visited Paris for one week.
A great website to look for apartments in Paris is We got a small one bedroom apartment with sofa bed in the living/kitchen/dining area for less that 500euros a week in the Moulin Rouge area. They will send you an email letting you know if the apartment is available, then you will be required to get in contact with the owner and send them signed copies of the rental agreement and 100euros to half the cost of apartment for a deposit. Many of them accept Western Union (most expensive), Paypal (best) and Bank transfer (expensive). When you arrive you pay the owner the remaining amount + some will ask for the same amount again as a safety deposit that you will get back when you leave (this is to cover any damage that may occur). We have found that many look at our children and decide that they are old enough to not destroy anything and forgo asking us for this deposit.
The Moulin Rouge area is classed as "red light" so many of you are thinking - oh no I would never stay there with my children - Well trust me I thought the same thing when we arrived at the apartment and I could see all of the shops and "dance" halls lit up (we arrived at midnight). But the next morning I looked out of the window and it was like any other city, families out for walks, business people on the way to work, people walking their dogs and stores opening up for the day. The thing is when you are travelling with children you are not likely to go out a night except for dinner and normally with children that is quite early, so you don't really see anything that goes on at night. Also in Europe they quite often use double glazed windows for the apartments in built up areas, so when inside with the windows closed you don't hear a thing.
Back to our apartment, the owner met us at the door when we arrived and showed us in to a very secure apartment building. He showed us how to turn the key to enter and where all the household equipment was stored (extra blankets, iron etc...), how to use the washing machine and cooktop. He gave us a map of the city and showed us all the areas nearby that are "classic Parisien" and told us we must see this and that. He was very informative and extremely helpful.
If you are travelling with a pram/pushcar or buggy, please be aware that in Europe you will not find many apartments that have lifts, you will more than likely get an apartment that has between 3 to 7 flights of stairs to climb, so keep this in mind. Always ask if they are on the ground floor or 1st floor (you should be fine up to the 2nd floor).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Free things to see & do in Italy by city…all sights are a photographers dream

Unless there is something or some work of art that you simply must see then you do not even have to pay to enter a gallery or museum in Italy. There are many copies of the original statues up around the cities that are just as important and just as good to photograph.

Here is a link to Free things to see & do in Italy by city…all sights are a photographers dream

Groceries in Italy

Our usual grocery list and costs in Florence and other Italian cities

Rice (long grain) 3.10 2kg bag
Chicken in parts 3.95/kg
Natural yogurt 0.55 500ml
Chocolate block 0.74
Potatoes (washed) 0.89c /kg
10 eggs (no dozen) 0.95
1lt milk 0.65
Tin tuna (160g) 0.51
Potato chips (big bag)0.82
1 lemon 0.37
Brie 200g 1.55
10 chuppachups 1.14
Bread(like ours) 1.90
Nescafe Gold 100g 3.14
Edam cheese 5.40 kg
Cucumbers 0.95 kg

These are just a few of the things we buy regularly.

Long grain rice is not popular here so it is more expensive than Arborio.
Also instant coffee is more expensive than machine coffee.
It is cheaper to buy pork products.
When you buy fish, you buy the whole fish to scale and fillet yourself, it is less expensive. We have stuck to tins of tuna for our omega 3s.
Vegetables are inexpensive as are fruits in season.

You will not find cheddar cheese in blocks here only (plastic cheese), it is cheaper to buy pecorino or edam, both taste good.

Shampoo/ soap/ moisturiser is the same here, you can buy big brand or homebrand.
Sunscreen is more expensive, but we have not used it much, don’t seem to get burned like at Australia.

Basically when it comes to grocery shopping in Italy, just try a few different things if you can’t find your favourites, you will find something you like. Also you pay per plastic bag here too, so better to purchase some shopping bags and a trolley to save money.