North Pole

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time, perhaps to the 1950s? Well you have the chance when you head up to the North Pole in Cascade, Colorado.

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The North Pole is a family-friendly amusement park located at the entrance to the Pikes Peak Highway. It opened in the 1950s and it has been frozen in time ever since (in the best way possible). It was a must visit item on our list when we were home in Colorado for the summer.

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The park is sparkling clean and it has all the fun old school rides of yesteryear.

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Most of the rides were for younger kids, which was perfect for us. There are some rides that are a bit more daring so the park is probably best suited for kids 2-12. No Six Flags style roller coasters here.

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Besides the rides, you also have the opportunity to visit Santa and Mrs. Claus or you can touch the North Pole (yes that’s ice in the middle of summer).

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They also have little shows throughout the day. We were able to catch the magic show and the kids were amazed (despite what E’s face looks like. Ha!)

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We love the North Pole. It is a great place to visit and a great place to take the grandparents as there is a nostalgic factor in there as well.

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Here is my favorite picture from the day. Don’t worry this was their favorite ride and they rode it multiple times, which makes this picture even funnier to me.

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Murano and Burano

During our quick trip to Venice, Sara and I got the chance to hop out to the outer islands of Venice. The islands of Murano and Burano were well worth the trip.

On the way to the water taxi, we stumbled upon the Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto. Venice has so many hidden gems.

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Murano is a small island known for glass blowing. Working with glass requires very high temperatures, which posed a major threat to the island of Venice. Therefore they decide to move all the glass-makers to one island to mitigate that risk. There are glass shops lining every street, canal and walkway in this town.

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After a quick lunch, we hopped on the next water taxi over to Burano. The island of Burano is known for the lace that is made there. However, it is becoming a more popular tourist attraction due to the Instagram-worthy colorful houses.

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I mean come on! This place is just beautiful and so much fun

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Random side note: We also found Coca-cola with coffee here. It was actually delicious.

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If you have time during your trip to Venice, the islands are worth a visit. They give a different feeling than the main island (though the overflowing tourists are still there). The water-taxis to the islands are included with the Venezia Card, making it worth the purchase.

In 48 hours, Sara and I were able to hit all the main attractions in Venice and both islands. It was a perfect, quick, girls trip and we checked a bucket list item off the list. Thanks for the memories Sara!!

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Venice

Sometimes in life you just have to say “yes”. You have to jump on an opportunity when it presents itself without thinking too hard about it. Now if you know me, then you know that isn’t my personality. I am an over-thinker and planner. However, when my friend Sara said she NEEDED to see Venice before she moved back to the States. Oh and by the way we need to go in the next couple weeks. I said “Ok. Let’s go!”

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Venice is only a 1-hour plane ride from us and we had 48 hours to try to see it all. As soon as we got there, we hopped on the water taxi and headed to the center of town.

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We went to check out all the major sites like:

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Saint Mark’s Basilica

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Doge’s Palace

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Campanile di San Marco

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Bridge of Sighs

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Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal.

We also decided to do a Vino and Cicchetti tour. Cicchetti is basically Venice’s version of tapas. We hopped around from bar to bar with 10 other people and a tour guide.

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The food tour was nice in that it got us into back neighborhoods and bars that we probably wouldn’t have gone to on our own. We also met a family of 6 Americans on the tour that we kept seeing around town and even had dinner with them one night (By complete accident we ran into them at a restaurant). That always makes for a good time and great stories to tell.

Oh and we randomly ran into this guy playing the piano while being lifted out of a boat and into a party venue. You can’t make this stuff up.

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And that was just our Friday.

On Saturday, we decided to tour the outer islands around Venice. (I will do a little blog post on those beautiful islands in a bit.) But first we had to do a gondola ride. I know that a gondola ride is an expensive, gimmicky tourist thing but come on! We are in Venice. Take our money already.

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The gondola ride price is set by the city and you have to pay cash. The price is the same for up to 6 people on the boat. So find some friends and bring some Euros because you have to have a gondola ride in Venice.

Before we had to leave Venice, we made sure to stop by Saint Mark’s Square at night. Everyone says it is a different experience and it truly is unique. Everything was lit up and there was a five-piece band playing outside a restaurant. It was a great way to finish our quick trip.IMG_4960

Venice is such a beautiful place but a fair warning to those who are planning to visit. We went at the end of March. We had beautiful weather and it was not nearly as crowded as it is during the summer. However, it still looked like this at the main square on a Saturday afternoon.

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I cannot imagine what it is like in summer. However, Venice is always a good idea and she will reward you if you decide to come see her.

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Happy Travels!

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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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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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Tuscany Part 2

Thanks for making your way over to Part 2 of our Turkey Day in Tuscany adventure. Here we go…

Florence

Of course we visited the city of Florence on our trip. We knew that Florence was going to be a bit crazy and crowded so we had a short list of must see attractions. First up, Michelangelo’s David.

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I read online to book your tickets far in advance but since we were traveling in November I thought I wouldn’t need to do this as peak tourist season was over. However, I double-checked online the week before we were set to travel. This is when I discovered that tickets to see David were already sold out for the day we originally planned to go to Florence. Needless to say I booked tickets right then and there and rearranged our travel plans to accommodate the change. Lesson learned: Do book your tickets in advance to see David no matter what time of year you are traveling to Florence. Also note that even though children are “free” to get into the museum, you do have to pay a 4 euro service charge for them so you have to add this to your ticket reservation. On the website it will literally say children free and then next to it you select quantity and it charges the 4 euros each.

There is a lot of beautiful pieces of artwork in this museum. We were trying to take it all in but we have a grabby 1 year old so it keeps you on your toes a bit. This picture says it all…. Don’t touch the artwork E!!

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We then swung by the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (or Il Duomo di Firenze).

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The next destination was the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica.

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This carousel is beyond charming. I also like that it is a bit of a slow mover (more our pace). O got to ride for the first time without daddy holding onto him and E had her very first carousel ride ever! Pretty memorable moment!

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We are now going to pause this lovely, authentic Italian vacation for a tacky tourist moment. After having fun on the carousel, we decided it was time to eat. There are lots of lovely cafes and restaurants surrounding this Piazza. However, out of the corner of my eye I spotted the Hard Rock. Now if you are visiting Europe for a short amount of time, I highly discourage you from visiting an American chain restaurant. This is particularly true when you are in such an outstanding food location such as Florence. However, the moment I saw that Hard Rock sign I thought: “This Momma could use a Bloody Mary!” The Hard Rock makes a mean Bloody Mary and I haven’t been to a Hard Rock since we lived in Baltimore (over 7 years ago). As a bonus, I knew there would be a baby-changing table in there. I could sense it with my super human mommy powers. Long story short, huge bathrooms with baby-changing table and one delicious Bloody Mary later and I was one happy camper.

Ok back to your regularly scheduled authentic Italian vacation.

Did I mention there is amazing shopping in Florence? There is amazing shopping.

The city itself was easily accessible for us. Stroller and kid-friendly, though I feel like this is an adult city. This is someplace that I would like to come back when the kids are a bit older or better yet an adults-only adventure for just Gav and I. I think then I could appreciate it a little bit more. It is always a good sign of an excellent vacation when you are thinking about when you can come back.

Oh and of course we got gelato on our way out of town.

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We actually stumbled on this quaint gelato shop called La Strega Nocciola on a side street not far from the Duomo. It is true homemade gelato. The type that is tucked away under metal lids not piled high in large containers like in other big gelato shops. Holy cow this was the most AMAZING gelato I have ever had and the best we had during our entire trip. I highly recommend the dark chocolate and the pistachio. And now I want gelato….

Florence American Cemetery

This cemetery is located south of Florence on the route to San Gimignano.

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We have made it a point to visit these places on our journeys, as this is an important part of our history. This is a generation that is being lost to time and I want to make sure that our family does not forget the sacrifice these men and women made for our freedom.

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There are 4,399 soldiers buried here and a memorial with 1,409 names of the missing. These men fought and died during World War II.

Inscribed on the wall are these words:

“Freedom from fear and injustice and oppression is ours only in the measure that men who value such freedom are ready to sustain its possession and defend it against every thrust from within or without.”

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Volterra

On our last full day, we decided to visit 2 smaller towns that were near our rental home. Volterra is a beautiful town on a hill east of San Gimignano.

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Apparently this town has become a more popular tourist town recently due to the Twilight series. I know nothing about Twilight but apparently some of the show is supposed to be set in Volterra (though the actual filming was done in another town south of here). When we were in town there was a movie being filmed here but we never found out the name of it.

This small town is easily done in a day (and stroller friendly). We did a nice stroll, stopped for cappuccino, and visited the Roman baths.

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I rather liked this sleepy little town but Gav was not impressed. I think O liked the town as well because 1) He got to pick out his souvenir.

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2) There was a gigantic red O in the middle of a field on the way up to the town.

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When O saw it he started screaming: “Look!! It is a big O just for me! That is my O!” So here’s another pic just for you kiddo.

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We finished our day at a playground in Colle di Val d’Elsa.

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Italy stole our hearts. We fell in love with the places, the people, the food and all the fun we had. We are already planning our next trip back! Until we meet again il mio amore!

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