A Long Weekend Lisbon

Portugal is such a lovely country – beautiful towns, friendly people, officially the best¬†wine, and very convenient. From renting a car and driving to Fatima, using Lisbon’s metro system from the airport, and finding public WCs… everything was smooth sailing. (Never underestimate the importance of public toilets!!!) We found a great Airbnb¬†in the Alfama neighborhood which is the oldest district and consistently listed as one of the top areas to explore in Lisbon. If you don’t mind lugging your suitcase up and down the cobblestone maze-like streets, we highly recommend this neighborhood as home base! Thanks, as always, to my wonderful husband for being Minister of Suitcase Schlepping.

This trip we focused on exploring outside, taking advantage of the sunshine, trying local flavors, and relaxing by the river front. Lisbon also has¬†museums and a highly rated botanical garden for chillier or rainier visits.¬† Continue reading “A Long Weekend Lisbon”

A Long Weekend Lisbon

Scottish Highlands

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The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”

Scottish Highlands

Spain Part IV: Seville

View from the Tower

Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”

Spain Part IV: Seville

Spain Part III: Toledo

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View of Toledo from across the Tagus River. The Cathedral and Alcazar tower over the city.

I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like √Āvila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.

Streets of Toledo

The drive from √Āvila to Toledo was¬†gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than √Āvila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.

We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.

Cathedral
Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. One of three Gothic cathedrals in Spain, also featuring Mudejar and Spanish Renaissance styles.
Synagogue El Transito
Synagogue El Transito with its rich stucco and elaborate Mudejar ceiling
Toledo and Merida iPhone
Courtyard with olive trees at the Museo de Santa Cruz

Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!

Toledo and Merida iPhone

Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more.¬†You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!

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Toledo and Merida iPhone

Plaza de Zocodover
Plaza de Zocodover, the main square. Site of former markets, bullfights, and public burnings

Exploring Toledo with parents!

We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.

One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.

We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in Mérida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.

Mérida Aqueduct
Acueducto de los Milagros

Mérida Aqueduct

M√©rida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. M√©rida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.

One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!

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Spain Part III: Toledo

Affording a European Adventure

View from our window
View from our Airbnb in a fancy Paris neighborhood

Without further ado, let’s talk about affording travel in Europe. Why? Because it often feels financially impossible or irresponsible to travel extensively, but I think some of the lessons Connor and I have learned may be helpful for other (non-millionaire) people who want to travel. Secondly, I want to dispel any myths that this stint is being paid for by someone other than yours truly + hubs (it’s not), or that we’re taking on debt in order to travel (over my dead body).

The biggest obstacle for Americans who want to see Europe is usually the price of airfare. The initial flight over can be a bear, but with more airlines dropping prices and introducing new routes, it’s getting a bit easier. If you want to take a trip abroad and haven’t added¬†Cond√© Nast Traveler to your Apple News app, I suggest you do so. They seem to announce a new $399 USA to Europe route every other week. Once you have that sorted, it’s up to you whether you hemorrhage money abroad or stay on par with your usual living expenses. We’re a one-income household at the moment and having no trouble making this affordable. Here’s how we’re doing it.

3 ways we afford travel

1. Planning & Researching

TripAdvisor is your friend. So is RyanAir. Once you’re in Europe, hopping a cheap flight to a new city is a piece of cake. European budget airlines generally charge more for checked luggage than your airfare, and their prices are pretty set, unlike flights in the States that are all over the place. Opt only for carry-on luggage (yes, seriously!), book in advance, and marvel at the number of flights you can get for under ¬£15. To be fair, we rarely have our act together that far in advance, but the cheap seats are there for the taking.

TripAdvisor user forums are loaded with sightseeing secrets that save you time, money, and aggravation. Many museums and touristy things offer free entry on certain days. In the UK, its better to avoid official visitor’s centers and parking lots that charge you for the convenience. Check out TripAdvisor for your destination and plan your trip around the advice in the forums. The restaurant reviews are also helpful, and we always seek out the tiny authentic places on side streets. The food is always tastier and more affordable than what you find on busy streets or the main square. In Rome we had dinner and a drink for the price of the drink. This stuff isn’t hard to find, you just need to look past your guidebook.

Finally, familiarize yourself with public transportation options and avoid taxis! Unless you need to be at the airport at 5am.

Barcelona
Tiny side streets in Barcelona. This is where you should be looking for your next meal!
2. Airbnb

Renting an apartment has changed the travel game for us. Why pay for a tiny, dark hotel bedroom when you can rent an entire apartment with living room, kitchen, and private terrace for less money? We can do laundry if needed (carry-on only, after all), shop at markets and make a few meals instead of eating out constantly, and experience local living. We’ve met some of the nicest people when picking up apartment keys. Imagine you’re in downtown Chicago and your hotel recommends deep dish pizza or Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse for dinner. Then imagine staying with a friend in the same city and experiencing their neighborhood’s non-touristy gems. You’d probably eat the best tacos of your life and end the night at a microbrewery. Which sounds more fun and authentic to you? Airbnb hosts are invaluable.

View from our Airbnb
View of the ocean and traditional Portuguese tiles on our private porch in the Algarve. Thank you, Airbnb.
3. Living Simply

We are not living a fancy life. Our travel memories and time together have made us feel richer than a Lord in a Manor House, and that’s what is important to us in this season of life. We’ve learned there’s quite a bit we can do without, and simplifying has opened up so many possibilities to see and experience new things. We’ve learned to focus on what we truly value and started to recognize what bogs us down. What can you cut out to make room for travel, new experiences, or whatever is next on the horizon?

Things we’ve eliminated include TV and cable, “I made it through the work day I deserve a reward” syndrome, and superfluous home decor items. Our Ikea collection is slowly but surely destroying my back and neck, but whatever. I shouldn’t be sitting at home often enough to care. I’m almost cured of the very contagious Michigan Avenue Shopping Flu. I no longer need moral support from Chick-Fil-A milkshakes and coffee just to get through the day. When your surroundings are simple and peaceful, you have less to worry about, are less tied down, and more free to get up and go. More sunsets, less Netflix, amiright?? And honestly, learning to live without helps prepare you for what you’ll experience in new countries. The American way of living is very cushy and full of conveniences, but in Europe…

So cut out some pointless expenses, take a look at flights to your dream destination, and start planning! I apologize in advance for the constant pop-ups on TripAdvisor.

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Affording a European Adventure

1 Day in York

When you close your eyes and picture England, what pops into your head?

London and it’s dazzling buildings along the Thames…

Rolling green fields with sheep as far as the eye can see…

Rain, fog, and bowler hats…

Tiny villages of stone…

Or how about York? Beautiful, quaint, Medieval York is the England I envisioned before setting foot on the island. An easy, unforced combination of past and present, clean and well-kept despite its ancient buildings, very traditional yet not outdated. In all of these things York reminded me a bit of Bruges, Belgium. Unlike Bruges, however, York is not a canal city, and its ancient city walls are still standing.

York iPhone

When I hear “quintessential English” I think of York: narrow winding streets, leaning Tudor buildings with tiny doors, Gothic churches, and loads of tea shops.

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hats hats hats.

And, ladies in hats! There was a wedding at York Minster Cathedral and I couldn’t help creeping and taking pictures. Technically they’re called “fascinators.” And they certainly are fascinating. Check out the one with the giant feather.

Also, isn’t this building gorgeous!? The grandness of these ancient churches and the detailed architecture stuns me every time. York Minster is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe and the second most important church in England. I’m not entirely clear on the hierarchy/structure of the Anglican church, but I know Canterbury (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) is #1 and the primate of York is #2. There has been a church on this site since 627 and the crypt still contains elements from this original church, old Roman foundations, and 11th century Norman elements. The existing church was built between 1220 and 1480. We stuck our heads inside but didn’t pay for full access. The exterior seemed to be the real show anyways.

I recommend visiting York during the week or an off-season weekend. Definitely don’t visit on a bank holiday weekend as we did. Narrow streets are even narrower with scads of slow moving tourists. Penny didn’t do as well on this leg of the adventure since there were so many people and dogs, and she prevented us from going inside a tea shop to relax. We sat on the river and had a pint hoping she would chill out away from the crowds, but instead, she made friends with a little toddler from Spain. Thank heavens this little boy liked her because she kept jumping up and putting her paws on his shoulders and giving him kisses. Besos. Cutest thing ever, but a bit nerve wracking since he would walk up behind us and Penny would be all over him before I knew what was happening.

That evening we stayed in Leeds and had a fabulous time chatting with our Airbnb hosts. We came away with great recommendations for walking in the Yorkshire Dales. They even made us a wonderful breakfast the next morning to prepare us for a long day of hiking (completely unexpected). Thanks to their tips, we had a fabulous 8 mile hike.

Check back tomorrow for pics of the Dales! I know I said I’d do that today. I lied. Sorry. Turns out I had more to say about York than I thought.

1 Day in York

2 Days in Bruges

Bruges is a magnificently preserved Medieval town in Northern Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. One of the first things we noticed was that Bruges is incredibly clean. No pigeons, which means no poop riddled buildings and nothing to trip over in the main squares, no garbage on the streets, no graffiti, impeccably maintained buildings, and very fresh air. We’ve become accustomed to the smokey atmosphere of Europe, the garage door-like shop fronts usually covered in graffiti, and some element of crumbling buildings since everything is just so old. Those things are part of the charm of Europe, but Bruges seems like a fairy tale in comparison.

St. Janshospitaal & Memlingmuseum
St-Janshospitaal and the Memlingmuseum

Markt
The Markt, center of Bruges

The wealth of Bruges came from their position as an important trading center and manufacturer of textiles, especially wool and eventually lace, and was a thriving market city until the 1400s. The city was constantly at odds with their overlords, especially the French, and continually fought for independence. In the 1300s, Jan Breydel (a local butcher, how fitting) and a friend led an uprising against the French remembered today as the Bruges Matins. Their group of guildsmen knocked on doors all around the city, and if the inhabitants were unable to correctly pronounce a national phrase “shield and friend” they were murdered. Basically, if you had a French accent, it was over. A statue of Jan Breydel and his buddy holds a prominent place in Bruges’ Markt square, and the Bruges football stadium is named after Jan.

Markt Statue and the Belfort
Left: Statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. Right: The Belfort, or belfry. One of the city’s most prominent buildings in the Markt

Some time later in the 1400s, the people of Bruges were fed up with the Hapsburg empire so they kidnapped the heir and imprisoned him for 4 months. Pretty bold move for such a small city. The angry Hapsburgs ordered Bruges to tear down their city walls, and today, the only part of the walls that remain are 4 gate houses. They also ordered the city to keep and take care of swans… something about “long necks” translating to the same word as the last name of a friend of the Hapsburgs who was executed by men from Bruges. This was the beginning of the end for the city, and because it fell in prominence, it was left untouched by both world wars. Tourism picked up again as people visiting Waterloo passed by the town, and today the city seems to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. Day-trippers from Brussels are insufferable and they crowd the tiny streets, so staying overnight is essential if you want to soak up the magic of the canals without selfie stick people all up in your business.

Ezelpoort Gate
Ezelpoort gate/bridge near our Airbnb

We joined the Bruges free walking tour on Saturday morning and it was excellent, as usual. At the end of the tour our guide handed out coupons for free beers at a Trappist bar, a discount on waffles, and I made sure to ask for advice on buying chocolate. We took all his suggestions and they did not disappoint.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady. Its tower is the 2nd tallest brick tower in the world
Begijnhof
The Begijnhof. Former home of a women’s lay religious community.
Minnewater, or the Lake of Love
Minnewater Lake, the lake of love

The tour ended in the Burg, the square adjacent to the main Markt center. We went inside the Stadhuis (City Hall) and checked out its Gothic Hall, which is gorgeous. The Burg is the administrative center of Bruges and the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica) is tucked away in one of the corners. The chocolate shop recommended by our guide was here (Chocolaterie de Burg), as well as the most amazing waffle truck in the history of the world. We had waffles covered in chocolate sauce for lunch.

Stadhuis
Stadhuis
Gotische Zaal, or Gothic Hall
Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis

Happy girl with her waffle

In the evening we tried the house beers at Cambrinus bar and then went to Le Trappiste Bruges and redeemed our drink coupons. There is such ceremony in the presentation of Belgian beers! They scrape the foam off the top with a tool that looks like a letter opener, and there’s usually a snack to compliment the drink. I tried a lambic at Le Trappiste and the bottle was served in its own little basket. We had a fun time chatting with the bartenders at Le Trappiste and taking their advice. There are a few cellar bars around Bruges and Le Trappiste was one of them. Really really cool.

Cambrinus
Cambrinus bar, my lambic in a basket, the giant book of beers at Cambrinus, and the house brews
Cellar bars
Left: Connor by the tiny door into ‘t Poatersgat. Right: Inside Le Trappiste Bruges cellar bar

On Sunday we went to mass at the Basilica which is a lot smaller than I was expecting. It was a bit unusual in that the wall frescoes were very patriotic. The repeating pattern on the walls featured swans, a symbol of the city since the 1400s, and there was a giant fresco of the man who brought a relic of the Blood of Christ back to Bruges after the Crusades.

Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges
Heilig-Bloedbasiliek

After mass we had some more waffles since they were sooo good and then took a boat tour through the canals. We learned about the stepped gables of the houses Рthe more steps you had, the richer you were. The number of windows on your house also indicated your level of wealth. At one time there was a window tax, and many people filled in some of the windows on their homes to reduce the tax they had to pay. Only the wealthy were able to afford to keep all their windows. 

Notice all the filled in windows and the number of steps on the roof
Neighbors would try to outdo each other in the stepped gables game
Church of Our Lady seen from the boat tour
Church of Our Lady seen from the canals

After the boat tour we checked out a brewery that recently opened along a canal, but they wouldn’t let us sit outside unless we ate lunch, and we had already eaten waffles, so that was not a good plan. It was warm and sunny so we walked east to see the old windmills in the St-Anna district. They are still used to grind grain but I don’t believe they are in their original locations. There used to be quite a few of these in Bruges, but I believe there are only 4 or so left.

St-Janshospitaal. Look at all those small panes of glass! Beautiful!
Molen, Windmills
Windmill/Molen

We walked past Jeruzalemkerk, a church that was built to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and went inside a stunning old church with massive framed paintings on the walls. Our canal guide said there are 22 churches in Bruges and 21 are Catholic. I didn’t fact check that, but it’s a lot of churches for a small place.

That evening, we visited Connor’s favorite bar of the trip. De Garre is tucked into an alley off one of the main streets full of chocolate shops; one of those streets where your eyes can’t help but jump from one tempting chocolate display to the next, glazing over whatever may fall between.

De Garre. Thanks for the cheese!!

Dinner was outside at a little cafe, followed by a brief visit to ‘t Poatersgat cellar bar, which means Monk Hole. ‘t Poatersgat was cute, mostly because of its teeny door half submerged below ground, but I preferred Le Trappiste Bruges. Better service and beer presentation.

And that’s that! The trip back to England on Monday morning was uneventful, and we stopped in Dover to see the cliffs and break up the drive. I’ll post cliff pics next week! Happy Fri-yay peeps!

2 Days in Bruges

I’m Loving British Vocab

mind-the-gap
Famous warning to passengers riding the Tube, London’s rail system.

We’re 6 months in to this 2 year adventure. Can you believe it? 25% finished. Time has really flown by! I’m fascinated by how different our lives are in Britain vs. the Midwest, and how quickly we’ve adapted to this new lifestyle. Everything from driving on the other side of the road and tackling roundabouts like old pros to cooking with different spices and living simply. No TV, shopping sprees, or fancy kitchen gadgets. Bare walls, boring Ikea furniture, and TONS of tea. I left my bulky acrylic paints and canvases back in the States in favor of more travel-friendly watercolors. Some of our new routines and traditions will surely come home with us (TEA!), and I hope to God we can continue using British vocab Stateside.

Below is a roundup of some of my favorites (American translation in parentheses). And the video above is a funny clip of British vs. American slang on the Ellen Show.

Ta (thanks)
Sorted (figured out/squared away/solved)
Bits n bobs (various things)
Y’alright? (general greeting) No one says, “Hi, how are you?”
Mate (friend) Hey Mate, blah blah blah… or I’m meeting my mates at blah blah blah
Tosh (nonsense)
Bin (garbage can)
Tenner/Fiver (ten or five pound note)
Lorry (truck)
Trolley (shopping cart)
Nappy (diaper)
Brolly (umbrella)
Gherkin (pickle)
Bloody Hell (damn it)
Tosser (idiot)
Nutter (crazy person)
Chav (white trash)
Dodgy (suspicious)
Knackered (tired, exhausted)
Punter (customer)
Ice lolly (popsicle)
Do (party)
Stag Do/Hen Do (bachelor/bachelorette party) Often listed as prohibited in Airbnb listings.
Fancy (like/enjoy) I didn’t fancy that wine.
Kip (nap) I fancy a kip.
Fussed (bothered) “I’m not fussed” is a typical response when asked for your preference
Queue (line) This word is used constantly.
Ts & Cs (terms & conditions)

Posh – I am on a quest to figure out what this word means. I’ve gathered it has multiple uses and generally means wealthy/fancy, but some use it derisively and others boastfully. London neighborhoods are often described to me as “very posh,” but a friend recently assured me that her holiday in the Algarve region of Portugal was not posh. If you are British, or a transplant, or know the answer, enlighten me!!!

I am decidedly not posh, since my daily uniform consists of holey jeans and an over-sized men’s sweater from Scotland. And, in case you need even more of a visual, my skin tone is so pasty from lack of sun that it’s almost the same shade as the sweater, and coincidentally, the walls in our house. So if you have the pleasure of FaceTimeing with me in the near future, you may need to look carefully to pick out my brown eyeballs from the camouflage that is my life.

I’m Loving British Vocab

Christmas in Rome

Picture this: your wonderful vacation ends, you return home, walk into work, and try to answer the enthusiastic “how was your trip!??” question with some semblance of honesty, accuracy, and humility. All you can muster is a lame “It was so great! We had a great time!” Actually sharing all the details could compromise your commitments to maintaining humility and not not flaunting your fabulousness. Consider this your official warning. As this is a blog, failing to share details defeats the purpose.

Italy remains my favorite vacation destination and it was really difficult to narrow down an entire weeks worth of fab pictures, stories, and blunders, hence my significant delay getting a post up!

Let’s start with the blunders, shall we? The cheapest flights to Rome when we booked had a connection through Brussels. Our plane from Birmingham was VERY late taking off and so we spent a good amount of time worrying about missing our connection and ruining Christmas. When we finally landed, we RAN through the airport, only to run smack into a line for customs. WHAT!? Isn’t this supposed to happen at your final destination? I was not about to spend the night in a sicko hotel in Brussels, which the BBC tells me is the hotbed of all European terror activity, and RUIN CHRISTMAS. All pride abandoned, I begged my way to the front of the line, sweating and gasping, and then spent a good 5 minutes talking like a normal nice lady to the customs guy who just wanted to talk about how hot Adele is. And then we were RUNNING through the airport again only to run smack into another security line. WHYYY!??? I had to throw away my full water bottle. In hindsight, I should have just dumped it over my head NFL style since I was so sweaty. Please note the plane was scheduled to depart 10 minutes ago. We made it through security, Connor’s pants were falling off since he had to take off his belt, but we were running again nonetheless. To one of the last gates. And we made it! They held the plane! I’m sure everyone else was annoyed, but whatever, Christmas was saved. It was with both triumph and humiliation that we walked to our seats in the very.last.row. past all the other people now looking at a 30+ minute delay.

Oh, and water wasn’t free on that flight, so there’s that.

We landed in Rome, and the last train leaves Fiumicino airport for the city at 11:37pm. We had about 15 minutes from the time we landed to get to the train and buy tickets. And so, we RAN. AGAIN. Got to the machine, bought the tickets, and then like the fool that I am, I turned my back on the waiting trains right in front of my face and RAN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. Connor, like the sweet husband that he is, followed me. Then he noticed that all the signs for trains were pointing back the way we came. And so, we turned and ran back the way we came only to watch the train pulling away.

Whatever, it’s Christmas and we were in Rome, and so we took a taxi. The kind man hosting us through Airbnb talked to the cab driver over the phone to make sure he didn’t rip us off (pretty sure we still got ripped off) and day 1 ended in a comfortable bed with a bottle of water on the nightstand.

Travel tip: always fly direct.

We used up our blunder allotment in the first day so we had only good things to look forward to.

We stopped in St. Peter’s Square first thing, which always takes my breath away. The basilica is just magnificent.

St. Peter's Basilica 

We checked out the usual sites and visited some churches, picked mainly for their works of art or relevance to our lives. I love seeing art in its native habitat; museums are wonderful, but this is much more intimate. We saw pieces by Caravaggio, Michelangelo and countless others in just as many churches, including the Jesuit St. Ignatius and Gesu. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva has the most stunning blue ceiling. You can check it out on Flickr along with all the other church and art pics that I won’t be posting on the blog. PSA: there are a lot of pictures on Flickr now, but I promise I cut the Italy pics down to a third of what I actually captured. Below are a couple pictures of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. The beautiful ceiling frescoes are by Andrea Pozzo, who also painted the illusion of a dome on a circular portion of the ceiling. The third picture is of the Pantheon – great people watching spot!

Frescoes by Andrea Pozzo on the ceiling of St. Ignatius Church St. Ignatius Church  Pantheon Castel Sant'Angelo from Ponte Sant'Angelo

On Christmas Eve we packed a dinner and went to line up for midnight mass with Pope Francis. Yes, we had tickets, but they don’t guarantee you a seat inside the basilica, and we were determined to have two good seats. There was no sign of a line when we arrived in the square, or any indication where the line would form. We asked some Vatican volunteers, security people, police… no one knew where to go. We were too… early?

Please. I waited in freezing cold weather for almost every single Marquette basketball game to make sure I had a good seat. Including one 19 hour overnight stint for ESPN College Game Day. And this was 100x cooler than Marquette basketball. There’s no such thing as too early.

We teamed up with some other Americans wandering around the square looking for the same thing and eventually we were in a “line.” More like a crowded hot mess of passive aggressive cutting. People were singing. The sun was shining. I could see the gigantic Christmas tree. Nuns were scalping tickets. We were going to see the Pope up close and in person. Just a typical day. The “line” rushed forward and Connor and I were once again running. This happened a handful of times as security moved the line closer and closer to the basilica. All of a sudden all those nuns who were scalping tickets just hours ago were at the front of the “line!”

For those of you who don’t know, nuns are a serious threat to your carefully laid plans to nab a good spot at a papal event. They’re a sneaky, smiling, singing little army that think they can ignore the rules of orderliness. Do not ever get between a nun and her chance to see the Pope. She will throw elbows. She will duck under your elbow and the elbows of everyone else because she is 3.5 feet tall. She will win and you will lose, so instead of fighting it, stick to her heels and go wherever she goes. Do not let her tiny figure out of your sight. The nuns will lead you straight to the front of the “line” and to the fastest security lines because somehow THEY KNOW THESE THINGS. This was my third papal event and the nuns have meant serious business every.single.time. And I love them for it. See below. They are at the front. And so are we. Mwhahaha.

All of those nuns cut in front of us

So Mass was pretty great. We had seats on the aisle and were as close as you could possibly get to the Pope. Another secret about these Vatican events – if you sit in the front, you will have wasted your time waiting in line for hours. There are always between 5 and 40 rows at the front saved for fancy Italians/priests/people more important than you and they will block your view. Just sit somewhere along the main walking route.

 Swiss guards doing their job

The choir was beautiful, everyone said the rosary together before mass, and one of the readings was actually in English. We read the translation of the Pope’s homily when we got back to the Airbnb that night. Such a special treat! It was also incredible to see that huge basilica full of people and functioning more like a church than a museum. Only the Holy Father can say mass at that main altar, and I just felt tingly and giddy the whole time.

The next day was Christmas and we used some hotel points to stay at a fancy schmancy place by the Spanish Steps that night. We checked in, saw that they gave us fresh oranges, sparkling water (I’m still an addict), and 2 bottles of free champagne! Bonus!¬†Can you see Connor at the bottom of this? Poor guy – I kept running off to take pictures and he’d turn around to find his wife missing.

Hotel de la Ville

Then we went to the Pope’s Christmas day blessing called Urbi et Orbi (for the city and the world) which he gives twice a year. We wandered for the rest of the day and enjoyed the Borghese Gardens, Piazza del Popolo, and sunny Piazza di Spagna before ordering truffle fettucine and pizza takeout for dinner.

Shopping in Rome at Christmas  Italian streets at Christmas

We walked around 15 miles or more each day, and I think we still hit 10 miles on Christmas Eve despite being stationary in line for hours. We had plenty of gelato and vino, although we seem to have bad luck buying wine in Rome. We finally asked for help and spent way too much, but at least got a good bottle of Chianti. One night we went out for aperitivos in Trestevere. For the price of an aperitif we had “access” to the aperitivo buffet and called it dinner. It was quite tasty, and the place was very hipster, and in such a fun neighborhood. After four days in Rome we hopped a train at Termini Station and headed North to Florence, which bumped Rome down to #2 on my favorites list. If you’ve read to the end of this very long post, thank you. Florence will be less wordy – we didn’t run into any blunders or nuns.

 

Christmas in Rome