Kindergarten!

We arrived back in Abu Dhabi last week, getting off the plane at around 1 am on Friday morning. After an annoying wait at the luggage carousel, we realized that our stroller was not coming and made our way to the lost luggage desk to make a claim, before grabbing a taxi to our apartment. With as much as we travel, I remain so glad that we chose an apartment only 15 minutes from the airport.

It was great to be home. Matteo, though exhausted, took the time to say hello and goodnight to his favorite toys (ahem, and his video games) before heading to bed. Tony and I briefly unpacked before doing the same. I was glad to have the weekend together to adjust to the time change (2 hours ahead of what we’d adjusted to in Europe) and to regroup before the busy week started.

Tony was back at work on Monday (Sunday was a holiday) and Matteo I spent his last full day of summer break at the pool. On Tuesday morning Tony met Matteo and I at his new school for kindergarten orientation. We’ve been waiting for this day! We spent the morning checking out his new classroom, playground, and meeting his teacher and classmates.

Last spring after attending a “practice morning” for the new students, I met a group of other moms and we set up playdates for the kids throughout the summer so they could start school at least knowing some other kids. That has been wonderful for Matteo (and for me)! One of the kids from the playgroup is in his class and it has really been great for Matteo to already have a friend in his class (it’s also great as a mom to have faces I recognize at drop off/pick up).

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Matteo’s first day of school

Wednesday was the first day of school and I knew wake up would be difficult. I woke him at 6:30 and…well, let’s just say it will take some time (for both of us) to adjust to the new schedule. Uniform on and lunch packed, Matteo and I were off to school. As most schools are on the first day, it was crowded and a bit chaotic but when we got to his classroom, Matteo was READY. Smile on his face. High-fiving his teacher. A quick “bye mom!” and that was it. No tears, no fear, just excitement. A huge change from last year’s first day of preK drop off.

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Matteo and his friend Anvi — so glad they are in the same class!

I struggled quite a bit after I dropped him off. By the time I got to the car the tears were flowing. As excited as I am for this next stage and the excitement of having a school aged kid, I’m also mourning the end of Matteo being a “little one.” It helps that I absolutely love his school and know he will be safe, have fun, and learn so much.

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Pick up time!

The second day drop off was much easier for me as I joined a group of my friends afterwards at the school’s coffee shop (how genius is it to have a parent coffee shop???) where we compared notes on our kids’ first days and chatted about everything we’re learning as new parents at the school.

Thanks to those who sent me notes and messages of well wishes and good thoughts for Matteo on his first day. We felt loved for sure!

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Bratislava, Slovakia

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.

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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.

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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.

Krakow, Poland

Leaving Zakopane, the weather was terrible. The rain that had started the day before had only gotten heavier over night. That made for a fun excursion, loading the small car full of luggage while trying to keep from getting soaked! Once we were on the road, we realized what should have been a 90 minute drive was going to be much, much longer as we dealt with traffic from too many cars on the road, construction issues, and the general slow down that pouring rain will cause.

While I worried about Tony (since he was the one driving and is famous for tons of patience EXCEPT when it comes to traffic delays), he was worried about Matteo and the inevitable “Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I have to go potty!” that would start up at some point. Luckily, Tony kept his cool and Matteo did well too. Just 4 short hours later (ha!) we were in Krakow.

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Our Airbnb in Krakow was right across the street from the Wawel Royal Castle. This was our first stop when we were ready to go exploring. Because it was peak travel season in Europe, we did have to deal with crowds, mainly from several large tour groups that we ended up sandwiched between as we took in the sights. Photography inside the castle was not allowed, otherwise I would absolutely flood this blog with the beautiful images. We were able to take photos on the grounds though, which were equally beautiful.

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We also celebrated Tony’s birthday while we were in Krakow. A birthday in the middle of traveling meant no party, but honestly what better way to spend Tony’s birthday than doing what he loves — specifically exploring a new city? I think he was okay with this less traditional celebration.

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Krakow’s Old Town was also impressive, with a giant open, pedestrian-only square. We wandered through the square for several hours, checking out the different vendors, shops and cafes. We were hoping to visit the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial while there, but found that the buy-ahead tickets were sold out — and we were hearing that those who showed up on the spot were waiting up to 4 hours to get a spot in a tour. With Matteo, that kind of uncertain wait time wasn’t workable, so we had to scratch it off of our to do list. If we make our way back to Poland, we’ll know to book those tickets in advance, especially if its peak tourist season.

We left Krakow with two more stops on our list. Next up was Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Zakopane, Poland

Ah, Zakopane. Poland’s sporty resort town.

The drive in to Zakopane was really beautiful and fun. Nestled next to the Tatra National Park, as we wound our way to the center of town we passed trail heads that were absolutely BURSTING with tourists and hikers. Our Airbnb in Zakopane was further into town, walking distance to the pedestrian only strip of the shopping area.

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It was in Zakopane that we dealt with poor weather for really the first time during our summer travels. It started to rain on Saturday evening and pretty much didn’t stop until Monday. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of what we could Friday evening after arriving, and Saturday morning/early afternoon.

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Trail running in Zakopane

Tony hit the trails for a run early in the morning on Saturday while Matteo and I were still snoozing and then we went out as a family, first stopping at the park for Matteo to get some play time in. From there we went to the “downtown” area and checked out the shops, cafes and restaurants and then back to the park for some more play time.

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Once the rain started, it didn’t let up. This gave us time to catch up on some reading, Netflix, and podcasts, and to do a little bit of nothing too. Our airbnb was comfortable enough that vegging and not doing much felt like an okay choice. I still stand by my assessment that I really don’t mind the rain if I have the right gear, but we had nothing other than flimsy rain jackets (our umbrella broke in Toronto so we didn’t even have that) so we felt a bit stuck.

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We still pick up a postcard in every new city we visit. This is our pick from Zakopane.

Leaving Zakopane ended up being a bit of a pain — in addition to the heavy rain, we were leaving a tourist town on a Sunday afternoon, along with what seemed to be the WHOLE OF POLAND, to head in to Krakow. Add rain and lots of cars on the road to a ton of unexpected construction, road closures, and a few accidents and what should have been a 90 minute drive took a full 4 hours! I was mostly worried about Tony, who typically loses his patience in traffic, and Tony was mostly worried about Matteo (bathroom breaks? temper tantrums?) but honestly all three of us did just fine.

What else can you do but take in in stride? This has been a long, beautiful summer of travel so far so what is one day of headache? A small price to pay!

Kosice, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Budapest, Hungary

Of all of the cities we were scheduled to see on this summer trip, Budapest was the one I (Jen) was least excited for. It’s silly really — I used to have a friend from Romania and if you’re not aware, the Hungarians and Romanians have a complicated, difficult relationship. For that reason, this friend used to regularly tell me how awful Hungary was and basically, without me realizing it, she planted in me a preconceived notion that I would not like Budapest. Which is ridiculous, because Budapest absolutely wowed me!

We arrived at night so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what a beautiful city Budapest was. Separated in the middle by the Dabube River, one side of the river is the Buda side of the city and the other is the Pest side. Full of history, the gorgeous architecture along the banks of the river had me surprised at every turn.

We spent one morning on a river cruise with audio tour — one of my favorite things we’ve done all summer long. Typically I’m not able to give my full attention during an audio tour at a museum because I’m busy wrangling Matteo but here he was contained and enjoying just being on the boat so I was able to actually listen to the tour as we cruised down the river.

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Buda’s Castle

Our hotel was in a great location, just down the hill from Buda’s Castle. The castle itself is stunning, but the views you get when you reach the top of the stairs — WOW! Absolutely amazing. We also spent a morning on Margaret’s Island where we rented a family bicycle (which I thought Matteo would love  — and he did, for about 5 minutes and then it was “this is boring”).

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Climbing trees on Margaret’s Island

On our third day in Budapest, Tony picked up our rental car for the next portion of the trip — a road trip from Budapest to Kosice, Slovakia > Zakopane, Poland > Krakow, Poland > Ostrava, Czech Republic > Bratislava, Slovakia and finally back to Budapest, Hungary to return the rental car and fly out of Budapest and back to Abu Dhabi.

Helsinki, Finland

I’m pretty sure I could write “Go to Helsinki” and feel like I covered the most important part of this blog post. It really is a beautiful, beautiful city. Particularly in early August. Our entire summer trip this year was more or less built around Helsinki and a great price Tony found on a KLM business class flight to/from Toronto. With Helsinki mapped out as a main destination on our trip, everything else fell in to place, including Tony’s decision to sign up for his first marathon.

Tony has been running for years, becoming more serious about it in the last several years. He ran his first official half marathon in February 2016 up in Ras Al Khaimah and I think that very positive experience planted the seed of interest in him to sign up for a full marathon. With the dates aligning well for the Helsinki City Marathon, its like it was meant to be.

Originally we had booked at Airbnb for our stay in Helsinki but it was cancelled just before we left Abu Dhabi in early July. Luckily, Tony was able to book us in to stay at the Klaus K Hotel on points thanks to our Starwood membership. The location of the hotel was great, but otherwise we had a rather underwhelming stay at the hotel. I don’t have anything overtly negative to complain about, but the room was small (even by European standards) and the customer service was lack luster. Still, as I said it was a great location and for that we were grateful, especially considering the city was largely booked well in advance for this marathon weekend.

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Preparing to start the race

Jet lag hit us pretty hard in Helsinki. It was a 6 hour time difference from Toronto, and there’s just not a great way to get over that quickly. The first day there, Matteo and I slept until nearly 1:30 pm! Tony was up at 11 am, with some effort, but since it was Thursday and the marathon was on Saturday, I admit having some worries about how jet lag would affect Tony come race day. He remained optimistic and concentrated on getting quality rest when he could, and eating well in preparation.

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At the 14 km mark

The marathon didn’t begin until 3 pm which meant that the jet lag wasn’t as big a problem as I’d been expecting. Matteo and I joined Tony down at the starting line, cheering as the race began. The 14 km mark wasn’t far from our hotel so we made a plan to see him there too (scheduling it based on his expected km/minute time) before we made our way down to the finish to cheer him some more. It was such a cool thing for Matteo and I to watch Tony succeed in this marathon, after months of training and preparation. While Matteo is too young to vocalize it, his excitement as he cheered for his daddy as he crossed the finish line was absolute magic. Such a special moment for our family!

With the marathon complete, we had most of the day Sunday to relax and enjoy the city before we flew out Sunday evening for our next stop on the trip — Budapest, Hungary. Though our time there was relatively short, Helsinki made its mark on us and would definitely be a preferred repeat destination for the future. Clean, walkable, friendly and safe — it was everything we had hoped it would be.