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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Ostrava, Czech Republic

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).

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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.

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!

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.

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.