Christmas Markets and Prague

Christmas is such a magical time of year all over the world but I must say that Europe does it best. My absolute favorite thing   (that I have become a bit obsessed with I must admit) is the Christmas Markets. They are just such a joy and really put you in the Christmas spirit.

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When you see pictures like this, you can understand why the markets are so amazing. This is the market in Heidelberg, Germany. Some of my friends and I have started a little mission to see as many different markets as possible before our time overseas is up. We have managed to see almost all the local markets so we have started setting our eyes on the most famous markets in Europe. And that is how our little road trip to Prague started.

Prague is about a 5 ½ hour drive from us and has a very famous and popular Christmas market. We dropped the kids off at school Friday morning, said “Good Luck” to our husbands, and we were off. The halfway mark between here and Prague is Nuremberg, Germany. Nuremberg is home to another very famous Christmas market so we stopped off here to get this Christmas party started.

The Nuremberg market is HUGE.

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This is the only market I have been to so far that has a separate international section and a kids’ section. All of this is set up in front of Nuremberg’s Cathedral.

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Most of the Christmas markets in Germany are known for the glühwein that is sold, which is a warm spiced wine. The Nuremberg market is actually known for serving a warm beer (glühbier). When I think of warm beer, it is not usually happy thoughts. However, this is a citrus flavored beer with Christmas spices and it was actually really good. I may even like it better than glühwein!

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You pay a fee for the mug when you get a drink. You can choose to return the mug and get your deposit back or keep the mug. I have quite the collection of Christmas mugs. We had our drink, ate some yummy food and got back in the car to finish the trip to Prague.

We spent the next day exploring the city of Prague. We came to the Christmas market just as it began to snow. It was that beautiful snow where you can see the actual snowflake pattern when it lands. It was magical.

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The largest market was in the Old Town Square so of course we also checked out the famous Astronomical Clock.

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It had just been renovated and repainted over the last year and was looking in excellent condition. On the hour, the clock rings and a parade of Apostles come spinning out and staring down at you, judging your worthiness apparently. Also, Death rings the bell ….. so yeah….. that’s comforting.

The Christmas Market was the big draw for us to Prague but we couldn’t come to Prague without seeing the other major sites. So we headed over to the Charles Bridge.

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There were so many great views from the walk along the river and over the bridge.

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On the other side of the river is where you can find Lennon Wall.

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Apparently, the day after the murder of John Lennon, someone painted a picture of Lennon on the wall. The graffiti took off from there. The wall and its art are supposed to be symbols of peace and love, but it also became a symbol of rebellion during the communist days. The art on the wall is always evolving so every time you visit it will look different.

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We enjoyed our short little girls’ trip. On the way home, we swung by the Bamberg market, which was excellent (another mug for the collection). We also saw a car explode in front of us on the Autobahn (no one was hurt) but that is a story for another day.

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Becoming a Swiss Chocolatier

When you think of Switzerland, images of mountains, money and chocolate pop into mind. We took care of the mountain part in our last post about sledding (you can find that post here: Sledding in Switzerland). Everything in Switzerland is also crazy expensive so that takes care of the money part. So now let’s talk about chocolate!

In Interlaken, we found this super cute little shop called Funky Chocolate Club. It seems like a small quiet little café that serves chocolate drinks and sells chocolate creations in all different designs. However, the real show is in the back of the shop. Here is where they host chocolate making classes. We were able to snag some last minute reservations, which was amazing since we were here over the holidays.

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The class starts out with everyone getting ready including donning our chef hats.

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Our instructor then had us taste different chocolates with different strengths like 50% dark then 70% dark (milk chocolate was also in there of course). This was to help us understand the differences in the chocolate. Our instructor also provided information on the history of chocolate, the varieties and why Switzerland is so famous for their chocolate (hint: it has to do with cows). O loved all the educational pieces because he got to eat chocolate through most of it.

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We got to pick dark or milk chocolate for our individual chocolate bars. Then we got to work tempering our chocolate.

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Then we had to test it to make sure it was cooling properly. The nose test always works. Ha!

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Then we poured it all into our molds and started decorating.

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This is O’s masterpieces. Pretty impressive for a little one.

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At the end of the class, we all got a certificate stating that we were approved Swiss Chocolatiers and got to bring home the three chocolate bars we made. Not too bad for an hours work.

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If you want to take this class:

We highly recommend this class if you happen to be in the Interlaken area. It books up fast so reserve your spots ahead of time on the Funky Chocolate Club website. The class is about an hour long and then you have to let the chocolate bars set for about an hour before you can bring them home. So factor that into your planning. Kids 3 years old and older can join the class. I would say the class is more geared toward adults but O had a fantastic time and was completely involved in the chocolate making the entire time. The chocolate samples that are spread over the table may have also helped with his enjoyment of the class. Ha! Oh and randomly, there is no bathroom at this location. They will give you a token to use the public restroom one block away but it is not the most pleasant. It may be best to show up to class with an empty stomach and an empty bladder.

Off we go to our next adventure.

Sledding in Switzerland

Blue skies, snow-capped mountains, and the sound of your oldest screaming “Faster Mommy!” as we go hurdling down a mountain on a wooden sled, what better way to spend the last day of the year! Grindelwald, Switzerland provided the backdrop for our epic sledding excursion.

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(Don’t worry the clouds cleared out quickly)

We started our journey in downtown Grindelwald, where you pay to board a bus to take you to the top of the mountain. They leave about every hour.

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(Playground by the bus stop. Not bad of a backdrop)

The bus is a large tourist bus and it takes you up a very steep, one lane road that is full of switchback turns to the top of a mountain. I could not believe the tight turns that this bus was able to maneuver around. Mind you, all of this is done on a completely snow covered road. It was a bit nerve racking (though O fell asleep on the way up) but the views were absolutely stunning.

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At the top, everyone piles off the bus and you can rent your sled at the top from a little hut. This is a cash only operation so make sure you bring some Swiss francs with you. Also, this is the German speaking area of Switzerland so brush up on how to order some sleds (Ha!). After a little confusion, we all had sleds including one with a toddler seat attachment, and we were off.

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We decided to take the easiest, family friendly course. This option allowed for some fast downhill sections and also some flat walking parts with excellent stops for pictures.

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It took a little practice to get used to steering the sled but we managed.

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O loved it. E was not a fan for the majority of the trip but then started to like it toward the end.

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We made our way down our course after a few hours (with some snack breaks in there of course). There is a bus stop right at the end of the track where you throw your sled on the bus’ back racks and hop on for the return trip to town. I thought this was going to be just a morning trip but it took the majority of the day.

It was a great adventure and a great way to finish up our year.

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Santa Park, Finland

Just down the road from Santa Claus Village is Santa Park.

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Santa Park is kind of like a Christmas amusement park that is tucked into an underground cave. Not even kidding.

Santa Park is only 1.25 miles (2 km) down the road from Santa Claus Village but it is the bus stop right before Santa Claus Village. So if you take the bus from Santa Claus Village to Santa Park you have to ride all around town before getting back there. The reason I tell you this is to explain why we decided to walk, 1.25 miles (2 km), with 2 young children……in the arctic cold.

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Now 1.25 miles is not bad, except it was absolutely freezing. This is what it looks like after you arrive to Santa Park from this walk in nature.

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(Suggestion: Take a taxi)

However, it was worth the effort. This place was lovely. It was also nice that everything was indoors and we could check our jackets at the door.

As you enter the cave, you walk down a long tunnel and there is the noise of elves working with their tools preparing everything for Christmas. I got so excited just walking through the entrance!

Some things to see inside the Park:

Ice Bar

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It was absolutely freezing in here. We had a quick drink and got out of there. Then as we were walking out we realized they have free coats for you to borrow. They are just located across from the entrance to the bar and are easy to miss. We felt so silly. Ha!

Sleigh ride

There is a cute little sleigh ride that takes you around the elves workshop and a winter wonderland. It had a very “It’s a Small World” ride feel.

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Crafts

There were several craft areas around the park. In one location you could make your own Santa/Elf out of wood, felt and cotton. Next to this area was a play dough design area. There was also cookie decorating available.

Elf School

This was the absolute highlight for O. It was a super adorable program that ran for about 20-30 minutes preparing children to become elves. It was done by 2 elves with one speaking English and one speaking Finnish throughout.

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It was highly entertaining and in the end each kiddo got an elf hat and a certificate. The certificate is in Finnish, which makes it a great little souvenir. The hat also says “Santa believes in me”. I mean, come on. You can’t get any sweeter than that.

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Entertainment

We happened to swing by the main stage just in time to catch a performance. We had no idea the theme and just happened to snag a seat as it was starting. Then this amazing acrobat/gymnastic performance began. The actors were elves making a present for Santa but they performed amazing flips and jumps all over the stage. It was completely unexpected. After the “story” was over, one of the performers did a handstand on 2 poles. Then she took a bow and arrow with HER FEET and shot down a balloon on a target on the other side of the stage. I wish I had a picture of our faces. We sat there just completely stunned. The kids were also enthralled by the performance and didn’t move an inch when watching it. It was incredible!

The admission fee for Santa Park includes 2 days at the park. So we made sure to swing by the next day as well to catch all the fun. Side Note: The tacky Christmas sweater game is strong here. Bring your best!

 

Santa Claus Village and Santa Park took up the majority of our trip to Finland. We did visit the Arktikum museum, which has some kid friendly exhibits and a northern lights simulation.

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After all our fun around the Arctic Circle, we hopped back on the train (read about that adventure here:   Overnight Train to the Arctic) and headed back to Helsinki to catch our flight home.

Helsinki Harbor greeted us with this view on our last day in Finland.

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Finland is a beautiful place. Go visit them!

Santa Claus Village, Finland

We started our Christmas season a little early last year and headed up to Finland over the Thanksgiving break. Rovaniemi is the “official” hometown of Santa Claus (though I know some people in Alaska who may disagree with this comment). If you love Christmas, this is the place for you!

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We stayed in a cabin at Santa Claus Village so we could be as close to the Man in Red as possible.

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There were also lots of fun attractions nearby so we didn’t have to travel far.

Arctic Circle

Right off the bat we had to cross off one bucket list item. We stood on the Arctic Circle.

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Random fact, the Arctic Circle actually moves every year. So there is a nice little permanent marker in the picture, but we walked all over the village to make sure we actually crossed the line.

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Plus you get a fancy certificate to prove that you were, in fact, crazy enough to bring your family up to the Arctic Circle.

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Reindeer Sleigh Rides

The one thing I wanted to do more than anything else on this trip was to go on a reindeer sleigh ride. There is something about the idea of sitting on a sleigh and gliding through the snow being pulled by a reindeer. If that doesn’t scream “Christmas” I don’t know what does.

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Mother nature decided not to provide us snow for this trip, so we were not able to take a longer ride through the woods. However, they did set up a small track with snow to allow for shorter rides. It didn’t matter. I was so beyond happy to just even sit there. Gavin made a wonderful Go Pro video of this adventure, yet I have no idea how to share it. So instead here is us before we took off on our ride.

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It makes me smile just thinking about it now. Love it!

The Big Event

If you are going to Santa Claus’ hometown, you better pay him a visit. You also must get a family photo with the Man in Red after traveling all this way. However, having 2 small children look toward a camera while meeting the official Santa Claus, is no small feat. In order to get that one in a million photo, we actually went and visited Santa multiple times. The final result is this.

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We look like an absolute hot mess, but everybody is looking forward. I am going to take that as a win.

Santa’s Salmon Place

After all of this running around in the cold, we needed to refuel. Now most eating establishments around the Village are more tourist oriented, fast food type places. An exception to this rule is Santa’s Salmon Place.

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Inside this small little Teepee, fresh salmon is cooked to order.

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You have to get there early to get a seat, as the place is tiny. There is also a bit of a wait due to the whole “being cooked in front of you on an open flame in a Teepee” thing. It is absolutely worth all the hassle.

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(I’ll take one please)

Extra Info

There is also a Husky park at the Village. Again, because there was not much snow, there really wasn’t much to see here at the time we went. They do provide husky sleigh rides, which sounds like great fun.

There is a small petting zoo tucked in the back of the village. The family that runs this “zoo” (more like small farm) were unbelievably nice. We were one of the only families there when we visited and they pretty much gave us a private tour of everything. We got to feed the sheep, try out cross-country skiing and hug trees (Halipuu). Hugging trees is supposed to be healing and bring you closer to nature. I totally hugged a tree. Randomly, the only picture I have of this place is this one.

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There were lots of different excursions that you could book from the hotel and other companies. Some of the most popular ones were Northern Lights expeditions and snowmobiling. We did NOT get to see the northern lights. Bummer! Gavin went on an Ice Floating adventure. More on that experience in a future post.

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We had a great time at Santa Claus Village and in Finland. Next post will be about Santa Park. See you then.

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Overnight Train to the Arctic

Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my overnight train tonight….

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Getting to the Arctic Circle is surprisingly not that easy (that may be written in sarcasm font). On our trip to visit Santa up north, we had to decide between spending our entire day in an airport with a minimum of a 5 hour layover in Helsinki or taking the overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi (12 hour train ride). Neither option is the greatest when you are hauling around 2 kids and all their gear but we opted for the overnight train.

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(O not impressed with waiting)

We booked a room with an en suite bathroom. That may sound fancy but it was a little tight. O didn’t mind. He was super excited to be sleeping on a train.

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Gavin may not have shared the same excitement as O. In the picture, Gavin’s knee is touching the bathroom door. Not a lot of room for dancing….or turning while getting dressed. There was also a small seat with a table. Based on how well E fit into it, I am guessing it is not for all sizes.

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There were some pros to taking the train. The room itself was really clean. They also put up these nice net things so that the kiddos wouldn’t roll out of bed or in my case E wouldn’t shove me out of the bed.

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The beds were comfortable. The room was set up strategically to allow the most efficient use. The kids could actually stand and move about the room without disturbing other passengers. Also there was amazing Wi-Fi, like really high speed internet for a train speeding through frozen Finland in the middle of the night.

The train left later in the evening so we basically boarded the train, did our nighttime routine and then slept for the majority of the trip. The kiddos and I found the rocking of the train soothing and it put us to sleep quickly. Gavin felt like each movement of the train was like someone shaking him to wake him up. Not the greatest way to start a vacation.

In the end, we made it to see Ol’ St. Nick and O in particular was very pleased to have gotten there by train.

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Would we do the night train again? Yeah…..NO. However, I do think it was a unique experience and we will be sharing that story for years to come.

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Budapest

Budapest is one of those cities where you can just wander around and find beauty at every corner. The river, the buildings, and even the food make you stop and admire for a moment. We spent a weekend there this October and tried to experience as much as possible.

Hungarian Parliament Building

After settling into our Airbnb, we took our first walk around the neighborhood and found ourselves standing in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building at dusk.

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We arrived in time to see the lowering of the flag. O loved to see the marching soldiers.

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Not far from the Parliament building is a park where we ran into this gentleman.

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Apparently Hungarians credit Ronald Reagan with helping bring down Communism in their country.

Budapest Zoo

We did pop into the zoo because….children.

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The Budapest Zoo is like most other zoos but it is known for its amazing architecture. The elephant house is the most famous building.

Castle Hill and the Funicular train

Of course, we had to visit Castle Hill with Buda Castle sitting on top. O remains a big train fan so we opted to take the short funicular train up.

The views from the top were pretty spectacular.

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Chain Bridge

We decided to walk across the Chain Bridge for the full experience.

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There were beautiful views along the way, including this view of Buda Castle from the bridge.

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Shoes on the Danube 

Located on the Danube riverbank, not far from the Parliament Building, is the Memorial called the “Shoes on the Danube” . It is 60 pair of iron cast shoes from the World War II era placed here in honor of the Jewish people who were murdered during the war. The people were brought to the riverbank and told to take off their shoes and valuables. They were then shot with their bodies falling into the water.

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Yummy Food

Budapest has so many fun and yummy food stops. We were able to swing by Mr. Funk’s Donuts.

Gelarto Rosa can’t be missed either. Can you believe this is gelato?

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Children approved.

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Langos are also a local favorite. It is fried bread with sour cream and cheese as the typical toppings.

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We also enjoyed Kürtőskalács, which are also known as chimney cakes. They are sort of similar to a donut. I have no pictures of them because they are served to you warm and we devoured them so quickly that there was no photographic evidence. Ha!

Beer Spa

We also had a fun time at the Thermal Beer Spa that is tucked into the famous Szechenyi Thermal Bath. You can read about that here: Budapest Beer Spa

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We were so happy to have Nana traveling with us on this trip. It is always nice when the adults outnumber the children.

And the sun sets on another great trip.

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Budapest Beer Spa

What’s better than celebrating your birthday in beautiful Budapest? How about celebrating your birthday at a beer spa in Budapest! That’s exactly what we did on our last adventure.

We had heard rumors about some amazing beer spas around Europe. This inspired me to look at what was available in Budapest and we found the Thermal Beer Spa. This spa is located in the famous Szechenyi thermal baths complex, which is one of the top attractions in Budapest.IMG_4146

We weren’t sure what to expect. We booked a tub for 2 and off we went. When we arrived the friendly staff led us to our room.

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The tub was filled with warm mineral water and the staff added malt, beer yeast, hops, and beer salt while explaining the benefits of each. I heard something about helping with relaxation and better skin. To be honest though, I was distracted by the beer tap that was located right next to the tub.

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We spent 45 minutes enjoying the warm water, the cold beer and the peace and quiet. Special thank you to my mother-in-law for watching the kiddos while we had our little outing.

I mentioned that it was hubby’s birthday and the staff added this sign to our appetizer (read: white bread with paprika spread) and played a Hungarian pop version of Happy Birthday over the speakers.

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It was a quirky way to spend a birthday but we enjoyed the experience. Cheers to another year!

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Our Royal Knight

If you are a Disney fan or have ever visited the Parks, you may have heard of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB). It is a little boutique where little girls can get all dressed up like princesses, with their hair and makeup done by Fairy Godmothers-in-training. It is extremely popular. However, did you know that: 1) BBB is on the Disney Cruise Line Ships too and 2) BBB is also for boys!

I noticed the BBB was available on our cruise as I was signing us up for onboard activities. They had a package called the Royal Knight package and I couldn’t resist signing O up. He was very excited but wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

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They started off with the usual adding of hair gel with some flare.

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O seemed to be enjoying it. The Fairy Godmother-in-training then asked O for his favorite colors and added some Mickey bling to his hair using “Dragon Snot”.

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It finished off with a sprinkle of fairy dust of course!

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O was spun around for the big reveal.

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That face says it all. I love how excited he is but also how happy the Fairy Godmother appears. The final results were amazing.

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Before we left, O was given a sword and shield and deemed a Royal Knight.

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O was over the moon.

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We then marched around the ship looking for dragons for about an hour. O let his little sister help on the hunt.

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If you have ever had the chance to meet our spunky little girl, you will know that the above picture embodies her personality.

Overall, we had a fantastic experience at the BBB. It was very reasonably priced and the thick foam sword and shield not only lasted through our trip, but they are still in one piece at our house almost 3 months later. That is our sneak peek into the Royal Knight Package.

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Our Disney Cruise- Italy

Our final stops on our Disney Cruise were all in the beautiful country of Italy. We LOVE Italy. We love the people, the food, the wine, the scenery, the history, basically everything. If we could pick anywhere in Europe to live it would be…… Switzerland, because it is basically Colorado with better chocolate, but Italy would be a close 2nd.

Genoa

We stopped in the port city of Genoa. The views in the morning were very welcoming.

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We decided to head down to the harbor and spend the day at the aquarium. The aquarium is only a 20 min walk from the cruise port. When we got off the ship it was a bit warm (cue toddler meltdown). The friendly ladies from Treecycle Genoa were waiting for riders at the exit. They typically do a full Genoa tour but they were more than happy to give us a short ride over to the aquarium in their rickshaws.

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O loved it.

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During the ride over, they pointed out important landmarks in Genoa and gave some history. This was a nice bonus for us, as we didn’t know too much about this northern city of Italy.

We spent the morning at the Aquarium, which was rather large and well maintained.

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The Biosphere is also a popular attraction. It sits right next to the Aquarium.

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Genoa was a bit of a gritty city. There were some pick-pockets and swindlers along the harbor. However, I think it is a city with a lot of potential and I know several people who pick Genoa as one of their favorite cities in Italy. Though I think knowing it is the home of pesto may sway people a bit.

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Livorno 

Livorno is typically the big cruise stop where people can access Florence and the Tuscany region. We spent a week in the Tuscany area last year and absolutely loved it. You can see the posts about those trips here:  Tuscany Part 1 , Tuscany Part 2

We spent the day shopping in Livorno. We picked up some favorite Italian treats and had a lovely leisurely day.

Naples

Naples is probably best known for pizza and the ruins of Pompeii that sit outside the city. Seeing Pompeii has been a big bucket list item for me. Gavin volunteered to stay on the boat with the kiddos so I could truly see Pompeii and not just chase children around Pompeii while dishing out snacks. I did an adults only excursion through Disney.

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We had a fantastic tour guide. She was able to get our group around the site with ease and gave us excellent details about each area. Pompeii is actually a rather large site so I was grateful to have the tour guide to help navigate the city.

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Of course I took a picture in the brothel. It is like a required picture for all tourists.

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Overall I really enjoyed my visit to Pompeii. Thank you Gavin for letting me have my own little adventure for the day.

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Rome

The final stop on our cruise and where we disembarked the ship was Civitavecchia, Italy. Cruise lines like to call this stop Civitavecchia (Rome) but the port itself is about 90 minutes from the big tourist sights of Rome.

We used a lovely tour company called Tours around Tuscany during our week in the Tuscany area last year. The owner Gianni is just a fantastic person and he helped set up a private transfer from Civitavecchia with a half-day tour of Rome for us to finish our cruise. This was icing on the cake. Our guide was absolutely fantastic and he got us around to all the major sights.

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These pictures are Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, Palatine Hill, and the Orange Garden

Somehow our guide was able to maneuver an 8-passenger van around the streets of Rome and find parking within feet of most of these sights. He knew the city extremely well and negotiated through the notoriously crazy traffic with such ease. It was amazing to watch. He also drove us by the Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Parliament building and (just as we were leaving town) the Pyramid of Cestius.

The tour gave us a great overview of all of the iconic sights and it helped us get a better understanding of the city. This is exactly what we were looking for as we plan to (hopefully) travel to Rome again for a more in-depth visit.

Until we meet again Italy! Ciao!

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