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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
After our time in Tallinn, we were ready and excited to arrive in North America and see so many of the family/friends whom we’ve been missing while living in Abu Dhabi. Last year, we visited all three states where we have family (Michigan, Arizona and Ohio) but this year we skipped Arizona. The Phoenix area is beautiful, but HOT in the summer and we get more than our fill of heat in Abu Dhabi, plus its another 2 time zones to cross and to adjust. Mom and Dad Galietti and Brian/Angie/Enzo made the trip to Michigan for a week so we still got to enjoy some of the best parts of Arizona, without having to actually visit it.
For visiting Tony’s side of the family, we all made our way north to Traverse City, Michigan. I’d heard stories of the family’s vacation to TC when the “boys” were young and was excited to experience the town myself, particularly with Matteo. Living in Abu Dhabi gives us a lot of perks, but one major con is the summer heat which prevents us from being outside (unless we’re in the pool) from basically May through September. Traverse City beckoned, with promises of outdoor time!
Our week up north was lovely — we stayed in a beautiful vacation rental, along with Brian/Angie/Enzo, Kyle/Candice, and Brady/Rachel. Tony’s grandparents, parents, and aunt/uncle stayed at a nearby hotel. This arrangement maximized family time for the week, with a balance of activities as well as the down time necessary when traveling with kids. A highlight of the week was celebrating sweet Enzo’s first birthday (albeit about a week early).
At the end of the week, we drove back down to Livonia to spend the night in the Grand Thom Suite (i.e. Tony’s aunt/uncle let us stay in their SUPER COMFY finished basement when we’re in town and its the best) so that we could break up the drive from Traverse City to Cincinnati where my side of the family was waiting. I was especially excited for this trip because this time last year Julie was 8 months pregnant with our little Shawn which means I hadn’t actually met him yet — though we video chat regularly.
Most of the time in Cincinnati was spent letting Matteo run wild with his cousins. It was awesome, and just what he needed at the mid point of our summer travel when time with just adults was getting a little stale. Millie is 17 months older than Matteo and David is 17 months younger so they’re both a really good match for Matteo when it comes to playing together. Poor little Shawn — that boy clearly thinks he too is a big kid, and wanted to be wherever they were the entire week! It was precious. Matteo also got to see my brothers’ children — Case (1), and the oldest cousins on my side, Gracie (8) and John (6). It was the best version of cousin overload imaginable and we massively enjoyed catching up with everyone. While in Cincinnati, we got to eat great food, visit the zoo, spend time with family and friends, and marvel at the mess that continues to be Cincinnati traffic (that bridge closure, HONESTLY).
We left Cincinnati with enough time built in to ensure that we would a relaxing, non travel day before the second half of our summer travels began. This meant returning to the Grand Thom Suite and getting an extra evening to visit with Tony’s grandparents. On Saturday, August 5th though, it was time to say goodbye. Aunt Chris drove us back across the US/Canadian border to the train station in Windsor where we caught the train for the 4 hour trip up to Toronto.
We stayed in Toronto for 3 nights — enough time to be enchanted by the city. Particularly with American politics in their current state, it was refreshing to be in a North American city that felt a little less —- what’s the word I’m looking for? Trumpy.
Toronto’s Hyde Park and Casa Loma enchanted us as did the poutine we tried. Our time in town also worked out well to meet for lunch with my friend Lisa, someone I’ve known for years but hadn’t actually met in real life before (its a long story, but with a happy ending where we met and neither of us ended up murdered). We dealt with a bit of rain, but took it in stride.
With our time up in Toronto, we made our way to the airport (Toronto loses some charm points due to horrid traffic) to prepare for our flight back to Europe, Helsinki specifically, via a long layover in Amsterdam. One note on that 8 hour layover, we booked 5 hours in Amsterdam airport’s Yotel — affording us a bed and shower, which made ALL the difference in the world when it comes to an overnight flight, not enough rest, and too long a layover.
We arrived in Helsinki jet lagged, but excited. Tony’s marathon was days away and we were looking forward to the second half of our trip, where we would get to knock some more cities off of our travel to do list.
Leaving Riga, Latvia, we took a bus for the 4 hour drive to our next stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Again, we booked this trip all with the end goal in mind — Helsinki, Finland for our flight to Toronto. Tallinn was the perfect next location because it is right across the bay from Helsinki.
The bus ride was actually AWESOME! All four of us were surprised by how much we enjoyed it. The bus was new, and comfortable, with wifi and in-seat entertainment — the library of movies/tv was better than many flights we’ve taken! Driving through the countryside to Estonia was as comfortable as it could be, and all three of us were able to get short naps on the way.
When we arrived at the train station in Tallinn, we grabbed a cab to take us to our next Airbnb. We stayed in a third floor apartment in a new building only 5 minutes out of Tallinn’s Old Town. This Airbnb was PERFECT for so many reasons — not only were we walking distance to the Old Town, but we were right next to a grocery store (so nice when you’re traveling with a child!), and the apartment itself was incredibly family friendly. There were lots of toys for Matteo to play with, and he ended up being so comfortable that he told me “this place is way more better than our apartment.” Um, thanks Matteo.
Tallinn is BEAUTIFUL. It quickly climbed to the top of the list when it comes to favorite cities we’ve travelled to. It is beautiful and charming, with its well maintained, yet ancient walled fortress that makes its beautiful, famous tourist area. Coincidentally, we also had a fantastic Mexican meal in Tallinn (if you’re there, check out Taqueria). I was more than content spending all day just wandering the streets of the Old Town, stopping in cafes for a well priced bite, and go back to the Airbnb full and happy at the end of a Fitbit-record step-kind-of-day.
It’s not an easy place to get to from North America, but man, if you have the chance to visit Tallinn (especially in the summer) DO IT. The weather was phenomenal — so beautiful that I googled residency visa requirements about 2 hours after we arrived. We were only there for 3 days, but it was enough to make an impression.
St. Olaf’s Church, bottom of the tower
Top of the tower!
When it was time to leave Tallinn, we took the ferry over to Helsinki. Calling it a ferry is deceptive really, because we were on what looked like a huge cruise ship! The trip took about 2 hours from dock to dock. I was excited to arrive in Helsinki because it meant we were that much closer to seeing our family and friends in America.
We stayed just one brief evening/overnight at the Holiday Inn in Helsinki. It was raining when we arrived so there wasn’t any venturing out to explore, but we were okay with that because we knew that we’d have 4 nights in the city on the return part of our trip after our time in North America.
We left Helsinki and flew the brief 1.5 hour distance to Amsterdam where we had a long enough layover to get some food and relax. The next leg was Amsterdam to Toronto, about 8 hours. We were blissfully in KLM’s business class, which meant lay flat seats and the opportunity to rest. We all got several hours of sleep.
When we landed in Toronto, we cleared passport control/customs, gathered our bags, and grabbed a taxi to the hotel room we booked even though we were only going to be there for about 10 hours. We landed a little before 8 pm and although the hotel wasn’t really that far from the airport, traffic meant we didn’t arrive until after 9 pm. Still, we were tired enough that when we did arrive, we all crashed and ended up sleeping until 4 am the next morning (remember, we were working with an 8 hour time difference at this point, so sleeping till 4 am was GREAT!).
Our train left Toronto at 6:45 am and from there it was an easy, enjoyable 4 hour ride to Windsor, where Tony’s aunt and dad were waiting to pick us up. We were so excited to start the American part of our summer trip.