Where Ostrava was a dud, Bratislava was a sleeper hit! WE LOVED BRATISLAVA.
It doesn’t hurt that we upgraded our accommodations from perfectly fine Airbnbs, to a gorgeous hotel suite at the Sheraton. Matteo loved our room, especially the giant soaking tub where he proceeded to take a total of 6 baths over the two full days that we were there.
Our hotel was ideally located practically on the banks of the Danube River and a short walk from the Old Town. We checked out the Old Town first, but as lovely as that was, we were too tempted by the views of the Bratislava Castle looking down at us from Castle Hill to stay for long. We made the climb (honestly, a very manageable, winding walk up the hill) to the castle and quickly bought our tickets.
The completely reconstructed, remodeled castle is a must see if you’re in Bratislava. The views from the castle grounds alone are worth it, but buy a ticket and go inside for a beautifully preserved look at Slovakia history.
The weather while we were in town was idyllic, a high of 80 and not a cloud to be seen. The mornings/evenings were cool in a way that suggested fall was on its way — a season we haven’t expereinced in 10 years! We also had a fantastic, indulgent dinner at local burger restaurant BeAbout. Absolutely delicious and worth every calorie filled bite.
We left Bratislava wishing for more. For a quick spot on a trip, mostly chosen because it was close enough to Budapest to make getting back to our departure city easier, we were so very impressed with its beauty and charm.
We left Krakow and made the drive (with two toll stops) to Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Ostrava: The dud of our summer.
Sorry, Ostrava, but it’s true! Our Airbnb was nice, but a bit more in the suburbs than other places we’ve stayed which took some of the walkability out of our stay. Still, it was only two days in Ostrava and what the city lacked in exciting attractions, it made up for in letting us catch up on our laundry.
We did visit a castle in Ostrava — and it was the strangest castle I’ve ever been to. Well, the castle itself wasn’t strange, it was the mini museum inside the castle. With a display of fish in an aquarium, followed by a display dedicated to dinosaurs…then UFOs and aliens…then vampires? And demons? And the coal industry? Honestly, it was so weird. Maybe it would have been a little better if the placards had an English translation, but I can’t be sure. Ostrava was one of the places we’ve visited where we had the most trouble being English only speakers. We stood out quite a bit for speaking English and had to rely on gestures and body language to close the language gap (or at least, bridge it a bit).
We did enjoy a gorgeous Sunday morning in Ostrava’s downtown area. It was nearly empty, even at noon, leaving us the opportunity for a lovely brunch while Matteo ran and played in the square. He then found himself too tempted by the open fountains and ended up running right through them, getting soaked to the bone. But there again, that’s when the beauty of the Airbnb and laundry access come in to play.
So yeah, Ostrava. Not one that I would recommend going out of your way to visit. I don’t think they get many tourists, because we couldn’t find a post card for our collection anywhere, so that’s on the list to order online once we’re back home and settled.
Leaving Ostrava meant we had just one more city on our summer 2017 list before heading back to Budapest for our flight out: Bratislava, Slovakia.
Leaving Budapest in our rental car, we made the 3 hour drive across the border to Kosice, Slovakia. Once we were out of the city, the drive was quite pleasant — beautiful countryside that included fields and fields of sunflowers.
Kosice is not a big city and we knew that we wouldn’t need a lot of time here to see what we wanted to see. The two biggest features are the beautiful Old Town area full of shops, cafes, and restaurants and the centerpiece of downtown, their cathedral St. Elizabeth.
Because we were in an Airbnb again after several nights in a hotel, a chunk of time was spent doing laundry! We were also excited to have access to the modest kitchen (more like kitchenette) so that we could cook lighter/healthier meals for ourselves.
Two nights in Kosice was enough to see the things we wanted to see. We were charmed by the beauty of this small town, full as it was with tourists.
On the way to our next stop, we made our way to one more tourist stop, Spiš Castle. Situated on top of a high, steep hill, the castle ruins overlook the beautiful (BEAUTIFUL) Slovakian countryside. Smooth, slippery stones made for a bit of difficulty navigating this site but it was well worth it for the views that awaited us.
Matteo found himself overwhelmed by both the steep climb and decline on the way to and from the castle, so Tony happily gave him a piggy back ride both up to and down from the castle. While there were other families there with young children, it is definitely not a stop that one could visit with a stroller so if you make your way to this castle with young kids, plan on using a baby carrier if your child isn’t able to walk well.
The castle was a great point to stop as we made our way over the Slovakia/Poland border and on to our next stop, the resort town of Zakopane.
We are in the middle of our great summer of travel right this very moment, but if I don’t start blogging, I’ll get even more behind and will end up not doing it at all. So with the advice of Tony’s Grandma, Shirley, I’m taking a few minutes to catch up on where we’ve been/what we’ve been up to so far this summer.
Tony’s last day of work for the school year was Thursday, July 6. On Friday, July 7th we left Abu Dhabi for our first stop, Riga, Latvia. Several people have voiced surprise/interest as to why we chose Riga as one of our stops. Really, the entire trip was planned around a great deal Tony found flying KLM business class from Helsinki>Toronto (and then back) with a layover in Amsterdam. Once we booked the return trip tickets, we had to figure out how to get to Helsinki and that’s where Riga came in to play. It was inexpensive to fly to from Abu Dhabi, we were able to find a well rated Airbnb apartment, and the cool climate of the Baltics was appealing after another year in sweltering Abu Dhabi.
I personally didn’t have super high expectations one way or another when it came to Riga, so I was surprised by how much I liked it. Tony and I were both blown away by the beauty of this city in the summer time. Parks bursting with beautiful flowers were seemingly around every corner! We had perfect, warm weather that made it inviting to stay outside all day. Food/drinks were cheap, and sidewalks were wide making it an easy city to stroll with Matteo.
Highlights of our time in Riga include the beautiful, pedestrian only Old Town, a river cruise down the Daugava River, a morning spent at the KGB museum, and our time exploring the large indoor/outdoor market. Matteo loved renting a “power wheel” jeep in the park and practicing his driving skills much to the giggles of his parents.
Riga was a great start to our summer. You could stay as busy or relaxed in this city as you choose — by staying at an Airbnb, we started off our summer relaxed and excited for the stops to come.
Yesterday was Matteo’s preK graduation program! What a proud day for our family, as Tony and I watched Matteo and his classmates show so much of what they have learned since September — colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and even a bit of Arabic! Seeing the difference in Matteo from his first school performance back in the fall (where he barely participated!) to yesterday (he sang EVERY song!) was exciting for us as his parents but what was even better was seeing Matteo engaged and enjoying himself. Though he has officially “graduated” from preK, Matteo will continue to attend his school for most of June (the ceremony was early because Ramadan begins this weekend).
This morning, instead of heading to preK Matteo and I got in a taxi to attend a play morning at the kindergarten he will begin attending in September. Teo has been hearing so much about “big school” both from his preK teacher and at home from Tony and I so today’s visit was perfectly timed.
The morning was structured so that parents could accompany the children to the classroom and then leave in order to give the children time with each other and the teachers. The school has a coffee shop on its second floor where the parents were invited to wait — there was a table set up with second hand uniforms for sale as well a student staffed bake sale and toy drive with proceeds going to provide relief for the current Somali famine crisis. I spent the morning happily chatting with the other parents.
When the parents were invited to return to the classroom to pick up the children, I saw a very happy (very sweaty!) Matteo. He quickly glanced up from the toys he was playing with to say “Oh, hi mom!” and then continued playing. When I told him it was time to go, he responded by asking if we could please stay a little longer. He then pointed out to me all of his new “buddies”. Once I could pry him away from the classroom, he told me all about the fun things there are to play with in kindergarten — including a sand box, water table, big slide, etc.
HE HAD SO MUCH FUN.
I second guess many decisions I make when it comes to raising our precious Matteo, but after this morning his school enrollment is a decision I feel confident in making. It was the only school he expressed a preference for during the application/interview process, and he’s already asked if we can go back tomorrow. This is a big deal!! I was equally impressed by the school today, in particular by the grade 6 student who was assigned as my guide. She has attended the school since she was Matteo’s age and was a poised, well spoken young lady. Impressive all around!
All that to say, we have (finally) decided on Matteo’s school and all three of us are really excited about it. If I have to send him to school a full year earlier than planned (by US standards), I’m glad I’ll be entrusting him to the people in this school. Now we have the summer before us to help him get ready, buy his uniforms, and get him okay with the idea of riding the school bus!
P.S. The school we’ve chosen is British curriculum, so what I’m calling “kindergarten” is technically called Foundational Stages 2 (FS2). While we applied to American curriculum schools as well, this one was the best fit for Matteo.
P.P.S When we eventually return to the US, we will have more decisions to make as Matteo will be a grade ahead of other kids his age. That means we can either have him repeat a grade, or keep him on his current schedule, meaning he could potentially be a year younger than the other kids in his grade. That’s a decision we’ll make later, and will largely depend on how old he is when we return. Because he’ll be in a British curriculum school, the idea of repeating a year if necessary doesn’t really bother me since he wouldn’t be repeating the exact same learning standards.
A fan/reader (ahem, my sister — hi Jules!) suggested I write a post all about travel favorites/memories from the year 2016. I loved the idea and think its a great way to reflect back on such a fun year.
So here goes, all answers are 2016 travel specific:
What was your favorite city/location?
Tony: After thinking about it silently for a few moments, he finally settled on the Scottish Highlands. He was debating between there and Paris.
Jen: Same answer for me, the Highlands! It was just otherworldly, misty and cool, green and lush. I’m sure it helped that we visited in the summer and stayed at an amazing Airbnb. Also, Paris was a close second. We had great weather for the end of December and really loved the beauty of the city at Christmas time.
Where/what was the best meal?
Tony: KöD Copenhagen. The meal was a splurge, but was so worth it! The steaks were fantastic.
Jen: I loved the fantastic breakfast I had in Paris at a cafe called The Hardware Société. I don’t know if its just because I was so hungry, or the excitement of being out and about exploring on our first day in Paris, but the breakfast blew me away. All of the food in Paris was fantastic.
Most memorable travel moment?
Tony: The chance to fly in the Etihad first class apartment to and from London in the spring. A once in a lifetime experience — made possible through the wonders of booking on points!
Jen: I know it will sound silly to some, but I really loved my morning exploring the Guerlain Perfumery on the Champs Elysses in Paris. It was amazing! So amazing, that even though I was there just to look, I ended up going back two days later and purchasing a bottle of their perfume, one who’s scent I couldn’t stop thinking about. For a beauty lover like myself, exploring that store with decades and decades of beauty indulgence was perfection.
Most kid friendly location?
Tony: Amsterdam. We didn’t go out and do too much because of the terribly jet lag, but overall there was a lot to do with kids.
Jen: The USA is what first came to mind — mostly because Matteo had the chance to play with family, specifically cousins who shared their toys! Non-family trips though, I think my answer is Copenhagen. I felt like we could take Matteo pretty much anywhere with us, the Danes were very friendly, and the city itself felt very accessible with a stroller. They also had a GREAT children’s exploratorium/museum. None of the locations we visited were outlandishly unfriendly for kids — the worst was probably Malaysia as the time change/food choices were rough for him.
Where do you want to go next?
Tony: When I asked him this, I got an audible sigh back. He hates hypothetical questions! But with a little prodding, he answered with this list: The Balkans, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, stating that they are all currently on his travel hacking radar.
Jen: Croatia and Iceland are at the top of my wish list, with New Zealand not far behind. I would also welcome another trip to France, maybe in warm weather and venture out in to the countryside this time.
On Monday the 26th, we packed up our things and prepared to leave Paris. The second stop on our Christmas vacation was Geneva, Switzerland.
Tony booked tickets on the high speed railway, leaving Paris and arriving in Geneva in just about 3 hours. The train made for a very comfortable trip! It was so fun to watch the scenery change from the city of Paris, to a more industrial area, to finally countryside for the remainder of the trip. According to the screen at the back of the train car, the majority of the trip was travelled at 290 km/hour.
We arrived at the train station in Geneva on time and ready to make our way to the Airbnb. While we had good weather for Paris in late December, much of the trip was under gray skies so it was a welcome change to see sunshine and blue skies staring at us. Our Airbnb host had told us which tram to take to get to her place, a short 10 minute ride away.
The airbnb Tony selected from this trip is one of my favorites (nothing can beat the renovated Oak Mill in the Highlands, though!). It is far larger than I was expecting for a centrally located city apartment. Well decorated and comfortable, with a better than average stocked kitchen for a vacation rental, I knew we would feel right at home here. Matteo was so happy to have a place to run around and play, and a HUGE bathtub to enjoy too.
As tends to be the case, after a week of traveling Matteo was starting to feel fatigued, so our time in Geneva has been far more relaxed and slower paced than Paris — which is fine, because its a much smaller city. We have taken advantage of the opportunity to simply wander the streets of this picturesque city — taking in the natural beauty that surrounds it. It reminds both of us a bit of both Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria though has a distinct charm that is all its own. The not-as-big city feel is always my preference, so of course I’ve spent the last several days dreaming about what it would be like to live here.
Today is our travel day. Our flights home were booked on award points, and unfortunately there wasn’t availability for all three of us to fly direct from Geneva to Abu Dhabi, so while Matteo and I will take that flight this evening and arrive early Friday morning, Tony will first fly back to Paris and then have a layover in Doha, Qatar before landing in Abu Dhabi mid day on Friday. I don’t love that we’ll be traveling separated, but it is what it is — I am glad that we’re all flying on points rather than $$ (thanks travel hacking!)
Once back in Abu Dhabi, we’ll welcome the New Year before Tony returns to work on the 2nd. Matteo has more time off, as school doesn’t start until the 8th for students. I’m hoping to plan some play dates for him next week as he greatly misses his friends from his class.
It’s been a wonderful Christmas vacation. Two weeks in Europe — we feel so lucky! Of course, this is what we had in mind when pursuing and accepting the position in Abu Dhabi, and that has meant sacrificing time with our family and friends in the US, whom we certainly missed over the holidays. Lots of love to you all — we’re excited to see everyone in summer 2017!