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.

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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.

Tallinn, Estonia

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.

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Tony and Matteo preparing to get on the bus to Tallinn

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.

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Tallinn, Estonia

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.

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St. Olaf’s Church — Tallinn, Estonia

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.

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.

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On the right, Tony sleeps on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. On the left, Tony sleeps on the train from Toronto to Windsor.

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.

Summer Travels — Riga, Latvia

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.

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Matteo and I in Riga’s pedestrian only Old Town

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.

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Tony and Teo ready for our relaxing river cruise in Riga, Latvia

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.

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Matteo ready to drive!

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.

 

 

Michigan

We left Edinburgh and flew back to London where we stayed the night before departing Heathrow for our flight to Detroit. Flying out of Heathrow is a pain in the ass. No way around it, no point in sugar coating it. The drive from our hotel to the airport was full of traffic, and therefore stressful, but we did find the agents working at Heathrow professional and kind.

Our seats were Economy Plus which means we had a little more leg room than the regular economy class. It’s just enough extra room to make a longer flight more bearable. Writing this a month and a half after the fact, I can’t remember too much about the flight itself — which means it must have been fairly easy. At this point, Matteo is truly a pro on a plane. We don’t have any qualms about flying with him — even long flights. We let him choose where he wants to sit (typically the middle) and he loves using the inflight entertainment system. I do remember that this was the flight where he watched Finding Nemo three times in a row!

We landed in Detroit, grabbed our bags, and made our way to where Aunt Chris was waiting to bring us back to her place. Although Michigan was hotter and more humid than average, it still felt nice compared to what we’d been used to in Abu Dhabi! The time change from London to Detroit meant that we had a 5 hour time difference to contend with, but we quickly learned that traveling east > west made time change transitioning much easier.

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Summer fun with Uncle Jerry

Over the next dew days, we had a blast with Chris, Jerry, Grandma and Grandpa Thom, Kyle, Candice, Brady, Rachel, Stella and Jax. It was particularly fun to watch Matteo enjoy some of the classic, summer playtime activities that Tony and I enjoyed during our own MidWest childhoods. There were sprinklers, water guns, soccer, tee ball, and games of hide and seek. Matteo definitely remembered staying at Chris and Jerry’s house last year — and was SO excited to play with the awesome pirate ship and castle toys that he’d enjoyed last summer. Another highlight? Aunt Chris took Matteo fishing — and he caught not one, but TWO fish! It was so exciting! I think it’s safe to say Matteo  is an Aunt Chris fan for life.

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Matteo’s first fish

We also got to visit Tony’s grandparents at their new condo. Last year, they were preparing for their move, and this year we got to see them settled in their lovely new home. We were treated to lunch and dinner at their place and Matteo had a blast pretending to be a superhero who was fighting bad guys as he ran through the hallways.

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Matteo and his great grandparents

After nearly a year away, what can I say other than it was just so enjoyable and wonderful to sit with family, chat, catch up — just be together. I enjoyed driving again (I don’t have my license in the UAE) and, of course, shopping at Target.

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Our Michigan Family — we love you guys!

We always feel so welcome when staying with Chris and Jerry. On top of two people who definitely have the gift of hospitality, there’s nothing quite like seeing the people you love, love your child. I could have watched quietly as Matteo played with his great grandparents, cousins/aunts/uncles, and cousin-dogs all day long. There’s nothing better, truly. It was also awesome to be able to play outside again since the heat of Abu Dhabi had us housebound for much of May and June. It definitely made me think of the positives of living/growing up in the midwest — there really is nothing like a midwest summer!

After about a week of family time in Michigan, it was time to get on a plane again, this time to Arizona.

Scottish Highlands

After four nights in bustling London, we packed our things and made our way back to Heathrow for our flight to Aberdeen, Scotland. London traffic on the way to the airport had me nervous, but the flight was short, easy and uneventful. At this point, the hardest point about traveling with Matteo has very little to do with Matteo — it’s all the “stuff” we have to bring (like the carseat and stroller).

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At Aberdeen’s airport, we picked up the rental car that Tony had reserved. I was quite nervous about driving in the UK — simply because I think the habit to want to overcorrect to the right side of the road would be difficult to overcome. But Tony did so well! I served as navigator and we were on our way for the roughly 3 hour drive from Aberdeen to the Airbnb we booked in the Highlands.

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The drive was lovely. Very little traffic and fairly straight forward with directions. We stopped on the way at a grocery store the Airbnb owners had recommended so that we could stock up on kitchen basics before we got in to the Highlands and away from store options. Every mile further we drove, the views became more and more impressive. Expansive, rolling green hills with gorgeous wild flowers everywhere you looked.

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The Airbnb we booked is without a doubt our favorite booking so far. We stayed in a renovated oat mill. The mill was the perfect set up for our family — beautiful and rustic, so comfortable, and in a location that made us feel the Highlands. All three of us loved it. It was the perfect place for us to stay with Matteo. The owners, knowing we were traveling with a  little boy, even left several of their sons old toys for Matteo to enjoy — including a train set that entertained him for hours.

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The Highlands felt like the opposite of London. Where London was a place to expend energy and fit as much into a day as we could, the Highlands made the perfect place to recharge and relax. The house had wifi but no television, and it was a testament to the beautiful set up that Matteo didn’t even notice the lack of television during our stay. We spent the days reading, walking, taking in the view, cooking, playing with Matteo’s toys, running*, and trying to figure out ways to move to Scotland permanently.

I think we could have stayed in the Highlands for a month without getting bored. The beauty of this part of the UK — its unrivaled by any place I have traveled to before. It was like love at first sight — an instant connect and feeling of compatibility. With so many beautiful locations on our planet, we try not to visit the same place twice. The goal is to see as much of the world as possible! But Scotland…that’s a place we’d like to visit again.

All good things come to an end. After a quick 3 days/2 nights in the Highlands, we packed our things and hopped back in the rental car to make our way to the next stop on our summer travels adventure — Edinburgh.

*On our first full day in the Highlands, Tony decided to go for a run. His plan was to stick to a 6 mile path/loop that he’d found on a map. He took off around 7:45 am — by 10 am he wasn’t back yet and, knowing his mile time,  I was officially nervous. Another hour passed, and I started to panic. I had decided to give him until noon to get home or else I would have to go over to the cottage’s owner place across the street and ask for help. I was terrified that something had happened to him! Luckily, at 11:45 Tony made it back. He had gotten horribly lost on the poorly marked path and had to figure out a way back to our rental by manner of cutting through people’s farms. He even was zapped by a cattle fence in the process! All said and done, he made it back — filthy and exhausted — but okay. Because I had been so afraid that something terrible had happened to him, we made a pact to never go running without letting the other person know the route we planned to run — particularly when we do not have GPS to rely on.  Funny story now, but at the time I was a wreck!