Eurail with kids: part two of our family Eurail adventure

Eurail with kids: part two of our family Eurail adventure

Two weeks into our family Eurail adventure, we had a big decision to make: should we stick with our original plan to take the train and Couchsurf through Romania and Bulgaria to get to our December destination in Istanbul? Or should we make a lightning fast trip to see Christmas markets in Austria and Germany and up to Scandinavia and then fly to Istanbul?  It was tempting to make the most of our first class pass to use the sleek trains in Western Europe and see the postcard-worthy scenery in the Alps. We weren’t sure what they might be like to the east. If you Eurail with kids you want to know what you’re getting into. But in the end, we decided we wanted to see some of the cultures of Eastern Europe that we had never experienced before, and even though we knew it was going to be a little less comfortable – physically and otherwise – in the end we were glad we did.

Pondering the maps for our Eurail with kids adventures

The beautiful and infuriating Budapest Keleti Station

Our trip from Zagreb to Romania started well enough. We were up on time, our cab came on time, our train left on time, and we had the entire first class car to ourselves. We got into Budapest Deli station just a little late, and we rushed down to the Metro. We needed tickets. The ticket seller didn’t accept credit cards, and we had no forints. She motioned to another window and said “ten minutes.” Agh. I went around the corner and changed some Euros for forints and went back to buy the tickets. OK. Metro to Keleti station. Why oh why are there no escalators in the train stations? Or ramps, at least? And why isn’t the Metro station connected to the train station it is named for? When we finally get into the train station, we don’t see our train on the board. At all. We go to the information desk to see if we can get reservations for the sleeper. No – you need to do that at least 6 hours in advance. You must ask the conductor. OK. Where’s the train? She can’t help me – her computer is down. We think we spot a promising one on Track 11 – all the way on the other side of the station. We get there and they say, “Try Track 6. Or 1.” Both are ALL the way on the other side of this massive station that is beautiful but so poorly designed. We have to walk several hundred yards from one side to the other, our suitcases dragging behind us.

Finally, finally, after our third visit to the information desk, the woman there takes pity on us and calls someone to find out the track number for our train. We get on, and I go in search of the sleeper car. But the very polite porter straight from central casting tells us there is no room. And no room in the couchettes (although I strongly suspect that this less polite porter is just not willing to make up more beds, because it does not look anywhere near full. So we head back to the First Class car (thank you Eurail). We find an empty compartment with plenty of room for us to stretch out, and Magnolia figures out a way we can arrange ourselves for sleeping. BUT. The conductor comes in to tell us that this car will only be going as far as the border. Ugh. We figure we might as well set ourselves up in a Second Class car and try to make the best of it. We find several seats together in a quiet car and settle in. But just as the train pulls out of the station, a boisterous group gets on and argues loudly with the conductor. I can’t tell what the issue is, but these people do not seem pleasant at all. Sure enough, they talk loudly, without stopping. Once in a while one will leave, and the others will do something annoying, like the young couple making out across the seats just behind our girls. Yuck.  After it becomes clear they are not going to shut up, we decide to move. We move to a car closer to the café car, which is the only place on the train where people can smoke, and it’s starting to get a little rowdy.

At around 1:30 am, as I looked at my miserable family around me – Calla coughing, Magno curled up like a pretzel on her seat, John sweating and twitching with bad dreams – I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. Well, I had thought we’d be in a sleeper car, but that was not to be. But why did I think we should go ahead and take this horrible overnight train without the sleeper berths? To add insult to injury, I happened to read an article while on this train about someone’s heavenly overnight train in Switzerland, with champagne and nice sheets and blah blah BLAH! I switched off the data connection on my iPhone and slumped back in my seat to try to sleep sitting up.

One girl looking out the train window at the Romanian landscape, another trying to get a few last moments of sleep on our Eurail with kids adventure

But then, we wake from a not-very-restful sleep at dawn to a totally new landscape in Romania. The rolling hills are just barely green on this misty November morning. The grays and browns of winter are taking over. We approach a red-roofed town that – aside from the electrical poles – looks like it could have been unchanged for centuries. Smoke pours from every chimney in the town of Agustin as the sun comes up. It’s all very charming and picturesque, until we come upon a splatter of plastic garbage tossed from a back garden towards a stream, as if the house vomited up the indigestible bits its owner had overconsumed.

Just say “no.” I mean “yes.”

We arrived in Brasov,  and as we disembarked I saw someone trying to help Magnolia with her bag. We had been coaching the girls on how to say “No” firmly when someone tries to help them with their luggage, because it could turn out to be a scammer who will demand a tip for their often paltry and unhelpful efforts. In this case, though, the perpetrator was our Couchsurfing host, Zsolt, who was actually trying to help. He had a good sense of humor about it. We would come to find out that he had a great sense of humor about everything!

With our Couchsurfing hosts in Romania on our Eurail with kids adventure

Zsolt drove us from Brasov to their home in Sfintu Gheorghe, where we met his wife Ildiko and their daughters Hongo (which means Heather – another flower girl) and Anna-Villo. We talked for a while, and then they offered us breakfast. And Zsolt offered us shots of Palinka – a plum brandy – to start it off. We were surprised, but we rolled with it. Zsolt offered me a less-strong version he had made with blueberries. We had sausages and bread and an amazing dish made of grilled eggplant and homemade mayonnaise that I can’t wait to try to make at home.

The family is of Seckeler Hungarian descent, and the area is a majority-Hungarian-speaking area within the larger Transylvania region of Romania. They taught us quite a bit about their heritage, and we went to several museums about this culture during our stay.

Zsolt, a biology teacher, showed us around his school in the town. They had very nice facilities, especially his biology lab. The place was astounding! Filled with more stuffed animals than most museums, and several human skeleton models. Great old diagrams and charts. Who wouldn’t want to be a biologist with this classroom, and this teacher? We then went to meet Zsolt’s class. The students crowded around the girls, and they did a great job of answering and asking questions.

Visiting Zsolt's biology lab

We really enjoyed our first Couchsurfing experience as a family, and just couldn’t get over the hospitality of our hosts. If you’d like to learn more about Romania, why not join a small group tour of Transylvania with Unquote Travel? Full disclosure: I’m a founder of Unquote Travel, which was started with the intent to bring more people to experience the wonders of off the beaten path destinations. .

Surprising Sofia

The next leg of the trip was to Sofia, Bulgaria, a place we knew nothing about before arriving. We had made reservations for a four-person sleeper car on the train from Bucharest to Sofia. Our train from Brasov to Bucharest was fine, but we dreaded the three hour stopover in Bucharest. We had heard nothing good about this train station. We read about pickpockets, drug addicts, stray dogs and the like, with no waiting area to speak of. We found it to be not so bad in reality, but we did resort to sitting at the McDonalds to wait instead of the grim fluorescent-lit waiting room.

When we boarded the train, we discovered that it was coming from Moscow, where it had left 36 hours prior. The reservation we made 30 hours prior, then,  didn’t really carry much weight. The two Russian ladies in charge of the sleeper cars took a look at our tickets and then pocketed them and pointed us to two separate compartments with other passengers. Sigh.

Our compartment-mates were nice enough, though neither they nor the porters mentioned that the bedding we were offered did not include sheets. We made the best of it and actually managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep. Maybe we were getting the hang of it.

2012-11-28 17.00.57

The next morning, we arrived in Sofia to a very very grim station. It was a massive communist building that should have inspired but now sat crumbling and dark.  We booked our tickets for the next night’s train and bus to Istanbul and parked our baggage at the station with a friendly handler, who was the first indication that Sofia might be nicer than this station made it out to be. We found the brand new (3 months old) Metro nearby, which whisked us to the center. We were late for the Free Sofia Tour, which our Couchsurfing host had recommended, but managed to find it 30 minutes into the tour. It was a great tour – very informative, with an enthusiastic and friendly guide. (We enjoyed it so much, we went back the next day to catch the beginning of the tour.) We were surprised to find out that most large cities in Europe now offer these free tours, that it’s something of a movement. I wish we had known about them earlier in our European travels, but we’ll pass along the information in case you can use it.

The city is very very old, but none of the buildings are. There are Roman ruins everywhere – the discovery of which delayed the building of the Metro, in some parts. There are mineral springs, with public fountains where people bring their water jugs to fill regularly, but no baths. Seems like a missed opportunity to me!

There were little hidden gems and surprises everywhere in Sofia, like Lavanda, an incredibly charming restaurant where we had one of the best lunches of our trip. I still don’t know how John sniffed that out. He had remarked on it the day before when we walked by, But when we tried to go back for lunch we found only a bar. The girl there pointed up and around toward the back of the building.  We went around the building but didn’t see an entrance. We saw someone else go in a door that looked like it led to apartments, so we followed. (Always follow the locals!) We still weren’t sure, but we went up the stairs and found Lavanda, a place that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York. Fantastic meal.

A table in the kitchen at Lavanda, Sofia, Bulgaria

Another surprise was the huge number of super-flashy new gun shops in the city. There seemed to be one on every block. Not sure what that was about. But we wandered around the city and found interesting little scenes all around that piqued our interest and made us think that we might want to come back and spend some more time one day.

A closed amusement park in Sofia, Bulgaria

Finally, the four of us

For our final train in Europe, we booked a four-person sleeper car on the train to Istanbul. This time, for the first time, we actually got what we were after: just the four of us in a compartment. Of course, this train was only going to the border of Turkey, which we would reach at 2 am. Next year, the train line (and the Eurail pass) is due to be extended all the way to Istanbul, but for now, you must switch to a bus after going through the passport check at the border. The trip was comfortable, and because we knew the routine, we went right to sleep as soon as we boarded the train. The border crossing was painless, and the bus to Istanbul was comfortable. And I will never forget pulling into Istanbul, under the aqueduct, at the break of dawn.

Eurail with kids

And so our Eurail adventure draws to a close. We had some incredibly wonderful times on the trains, and in our travels across Europe. We had frustrations and some uncomfortable moments, too, but above all we had a great adventure on Eurail with kids, and we have some memories that will last us a lifetime. And our kids have learned how to navigate not just the train stations but the metros and buses across Europe like the backpackers they may emulate one day. It’s been a great journey, Eurail, and we thank you for it.

 

 

Walking Bones – Catacombs Tour with Kids

Walking Bones – Catacombs Tour with Kids

We were looking for a Catacombs tour with kids in Rome, and found a gem in Walks of Italy’s “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour. We were guests of Walks of Italy on this tour.

My daughter keeps a collection of artistic skulls and my son has a thing for zombies so we thought the “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour offered by Walks of Italy would be the ideal thing to allow my wife and I to learn about some of Rome’s religious past without rattling the kids’ bones too much.

CAPUCHIN CRYPTS AND BONES

The tour began in the Piazza Barberino, named after one of the powerful families of Renaissance Rome, where headsets were distributed and our tour guide, Andrea, explained directly into our ears the agenda for our tour. The headsets turned out to be a nice feature because crypts and catacombs tend to be tight spaces; knowing that you would be able to hear Andrea no matter where you stood minimized jostling for position with the other tour participants.

The Capuchin crypt is in the basement of the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione, a short walk from the piazza. Prior to descending into the crypt, we spent some time in the attached museum looking at a few artifacts while Andrea covered the history of the Capuchin monks, a branch of the Franciscan order. The artistic highlight of the museum was a painting of a monk that was formerly attributed to Caravaggio, but is now believed to be a copy. Andrea is a student of art and he gave us a short biography of why Caravaggio, who was hiding out in another part of Italy after having killed a man, could not have completed the painting on the date attributed.

In the crypt on a catacombs tour with kids

In the crypt on our catacombs tour with kids.

The highlight of this part of the tour, and what we had really come to see, is in the basement of the church; six crypts filled with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks who have died since the 16th century. The decorations fashioned by the monks from all those bones included chandeliers, skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes, bones arranged in patterns on the ceilings and walls, skulls with shoulder blades for wings, and just plain old piles of bones. This is all very interesting to see – my daughter nearly salivated at the sight of all those skulls – but after visually absorbing it, the two obvious questions are – why would they do this and what is the significance? It was critical to have Andrea there to explain the symbolism of the motifs – I won’t take away all of his thunder, but I will put a little meat on the bone for you – Christianity, the cycle of life, and rebirth.

THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA

The second part of the tour required us to take a shuttle bus outside of the city walls to the Catacombs di Priscilla. The site comprises nearly 7 miles of underground tunnels, and my kids were glad we didn’t have to hike through all of them. The parts we did walk through, carved out of the soft volcanic tufa stone that provides the foundation for Rome, were well lit to highlight the thousands of shelves where bodies of early Christians were laid to rest. No bones remain because at some point the tunnels were looted, and the bones were either returned to their families to be interred on more sacred grounds (for example, in a cemetery next to a church) or sold as souvenirs. Though, Andrea did show us one femur bone that had been left behind.

What struck me from Andrea’s dialogue during this part of the tour was his contrast of Christianity as a lower cost alternative to paganism. He also drew parallels between the two from imagery in the several frescoes that have survived from the early days of the complex. It was fascinating to hear, but much deeper than either of my kids cared to delve. They were more interesting in exploring the maze of hallways – some of the corridors run off into infinite darkness. It was easy to imagine how dank, dark and scary a place this must have been when it was full of bodies, and how easy it would be for the current curator to freak everybody out by pulling the plug on the lights for 30 seconds!

There were two other interesting points for me to this leg of the tour. First, it required a journey outside the city walls. Because our accommodations were in the city center, this was our one and only foray outside the walls of the ancient city into modern Rome. It was interesting to get this perspective on the city. Second, Andrea showed us some graffiti done by U.S. soldiers who were obviously in a celebratory mood a few days after the liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. We wondered if they had ever been back.

PAGAN CRYPT

After another bus ride, we made the final stop of the tour – back in the city center at the 12th century Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere. The purpose of our visit here was, again, a visit to the underground. This time to the basement to see the original columns of the pagan temple that the church was built over. But the highlight was about fifty feet worth of an original Roman pedestrian market, with recesses where the merchant stalls would be in the walls on either side of the sidewalk. Even the kids perked at this – to realize that this was the original level where the hustle and bustle of ancient Rome took place; far removed from the bustle going on above our heads. It reminded us of what Andrea had said when introducing the tour – Rome is like a lasagna. It has many layers – and by going into its crypts and catacombs we had gotten a taste of the religious foundation on which it was built.

OVERVIEW

The Crypts, Bones & Catacombs tour cost 160 Euros and lasted about three hours – with about 30 minutes of that spent in a bus going to the different sites. It is a group tour, but due to the small spaces of the sites visited, groups are kept to a maximum of 15 persons. We never had a problem hearing Andrea through our headsets, and he added a lot of depth and history to the sites in good English and with humor. It was because of Andrea that my wife and I learned a lot. But this tour is not tailored for kids nor is it advertised as such. Our kids were more interested in the novelty of the bones and wandering in the underground spaces than listening to what the guide said, so although they liked the tour overall because it was spooky, they got bored.

There were two other children on our tour. One, a 12-year old boy, felt the same way as our kids. The other boy on the tour was 16 and a self-proclaimed history geek. He loved the tour but recognized that not every 16-year old would feel the same. If you think you have a child or children who would be interested in listening to a lot of history and interpretation of art and its meaning, you won’t be disappointed with what you see and learn on this tour. However, if you think this tour is not for you and your family, it is obvious to us from our experience that Walks of Italy is a reputable company that employs high-quality guides. You can find information about other tours offered by Walks of Italy in Rome and throughout Italy at www.walksofitaly.com.

DETAILS

  • Walks of Italy
  • From the US (toll-free): +1-888-683-8670
  • info@walksofitaly.com

Pompeii Tour for Kids

Pompeii Tour for Kids

We took a Pompeii tour for kids and the whole family got an education. And a great time!

Pompeii – Risen from the Ash

On the morning of 24 August, 79 A.D., the residents of Pompeii rose to a sunny day and went about their daily business. The slaves opened the city gates to the port to let in carts laden with goods. The gladiators swung heavy clubs in their training complex for an upcoming event at the stadium. The bakers baked and the food stand operators prepared the days menu – lentils, barley soup, baked fish – in anticipation of the lunch crowds. The rich merchant families breakfasted on the leftovers from the previous evening’s sumptuous feast. Perhaps a young couple stole away from their chores to meet in one of the city’s many alleyways and carve their names into the wall – Julius loves Claudia – never guessing their sentiments for each other would be preserved for the world to see.

The theater we visited on a Pompeii tour for kids

Rossana, our gregarious guide from the company “Tours of Pompeii with Lello & co.” set this dramatic scene for us under the clear blue sky of a November afternoon in passionate, engaging, and clearly understandable English. Then she described how later that morning, Mt. Vesuvius would blow its top on the unsuspecting populace – literally – catapulting molten rock tens of thousands of feet into the air and creating a tremendous cloud of rock and dust that would block out the sun. For three days, the remnants of this sudden blast would rain burning hot pumice down upon the city – suffocating people under a 20-foot deep blanket of ash and offering no chance for escape.

The evidence of how unexpected this catastrophe was can be seen in the various plaster molds the first archeologists cast of the dead – the young girl with her arms raised to shield her mouth and eyes; the baby cradled protectively in its mother’s arms; the guard dog twisted in agony, helpless to escape its chains. As compelling as these casts are as macabre – capturing flesh and blood persons in their last, terrified moments – the legacy of the eruption is that it gave an otherwise inconsequential city and its inhabitants everlasting life. Twenty feet of ash preserved the city in a type of saran wrap that protected it against the erosion of time. Thus, when Pompeii was rediscovered by archeologists in the late 1800’s, many of the everyday items, graffiti, marble works, and even bread and food was preserved. This offers a unique glimpse into Roman society that informs our views of them as a class of people that none of the ancient sites in Rome can provide.

THE CITY TOUR

Rossana explained to us the complex history of Pompeii – from Ossian rule, to Greek, to Roman – and this set the stage for our tour. She is a trained art historian with a passion for archeology and architecture that she shared with us in pointing out differences in Greek construction of the Gran Teatro as compared to Roman techniques, and in other places as we wove our way through the city. Her background in art was helpful in understanding the magnificent frescoes and other artistic flourishes that are so well preserved and decorated the wealthier homes. For example, in the Casa del Menandro, Rossana led us to the artwork that lends the house its name (it is not named after the owner) and pointed out elaborate mosaics inlaid on the floors.

Her understanding of architectural design gave life to the layout of the homes – where the families ate, slept, and partied. She also taught us Latin names for the different rooms and shrines – Pompeii and the Roman Empire at this time still practicing pagan worship. She pointed out features of the different buildings of the thriving city that helped inform what it had been up until that fateful morning – the terracotta pots at the food counters that kept foods at proper temperatures, the operation of the mill stones at a bakery, the way steam was dispersed at the public bath houses, the obsidian mirrors at the barbershop, the way sound was amplified at the theater. These were all details that we would have missed, or that we may have been able to glean after hunching over our guidebook while our kids tugged at our sleeves, which Rossana was able to relate as easily as features of her own home. That is the real benefit of the tour – Rossana’s familiarity and knowledge of the site and subject matter allowed her to direct us to the sites that would most interest our children and to have the knowledge at hand to inform and intrigue.

The author and his son try out the public urinal on a Pompeii tour for kids.

We didn’t actually use the ancient public urinal in Pompeii, but we had to get the pic.

Rossana also added historical tidbits that enhanced our visit. When we were in Rome, my kids heard stories about the Emperor Nero, who had a wife from Pompeii. Rossana took us to her home and dramatically said, “You are walking on the same marble floor where Nero walked two thousand years ago!” In pointing out the lead pipes that supplied water to the home, she guessed that maybe Nero went crazy from lead poisoning. Not a bad theory. She also showed us centuries-old graffiti on city streets and encouraged us to spend time looking for familiar symbols, like a ship, gladiator, or fish, to which she then gave some context. She made a point to note that the rudimentary art was done at waist level, allowing the kids to conclude that they had been scratched by children. These types of asides kept the interest of our kids, who tend to get quickly bored at the more typical “look at this and let me explain” type of group tour. Rossana deftly engaged the kids throughout our time with her, calling them by name to ask a question or point out an interesting feature.

OVERVIEW

This was a quality, worthwhile tour which we highly recommend. The tour cost was 240 Euro, which did not include the cost of entry to the site (15 Euro per adult; children under 18 free).

Pompeii is a vast complex. Wandering around on your own is a recipe for tired children who have seen too much and cranky parents who didn’t get to see what they wanted. Pompeii Tours with Lello is a Pompeii tour for kids, and they can provide context to the otherwise overwhelming site. If you have preferences, the company can tailor the tour to meet them. The first thing Rossana asked us after meeting was if there was anything that we wanted to see – thereby ensuring that we would walk away satisfied. In addition to all the cool information that Rossana shared with us, including the colloquial Italian phrase “allora ragazzi” (okay, guys), she lent direction to the time we spent at Pompeii. And this was the greatest value added. After all, we wanted our tour of Pompeii to be remembered as a fun and enjoyable family time.

Thanks to Rossana and Pompeii Tours with Lello it was a blast, and the magnets she gave as parting gifts to the kids will ensure every time we open the refrigerator, we will remember it.

DETAILS

Rome Tours with Kids

Rome Tours with Kids

We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.

But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.

Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.

Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.

Colosseum tour for kids

THE COLOSSEUM TOUR

We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.

Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.

After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.

The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.

In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.

The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!

We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.

Kids Tour of Roman Forum

OVERVIEW

Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.

We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.

Rome Tours with Kids

Hosted

The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.

Stay in a Castle Hotel in Ireland

Stay in a Castle Hotel in Ireland

Castle Hotel Stays – Ireland

Did you ever dream of being a princess? Or a king? I would have been happy to be Lady So-and-so of Thus-and-such, but I’m generally pretty happy with the life I have. But if you want to pretend you’re royalty and have a staff at your beck and call, there are plenty of places you can stay in a castle hotel, and few places do it better than Ireland. Many many castles in Ireland have been converted to hotels and resorts, and each offers something special.

On my recent trip to Ireland, there were lots of travel bloggers in Killarney for the TBEX blogging conference, and before and after the conference a few of them managed to stay in some sweet castle hotels. I asked them for their thoughts about the castles they stayed in, and they share their experiences (and photos) below.

 

KILKEA CASTLE

–Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, Green Global Travel

We visited numerous castles during our 10 days in the Emerald Isle, but Kilkea Castle (located in County Kildare between Athy and Tullow) was easily our favorite. The oldest continuously inhabited castle in Ireland, Kilkea was built by Sir Walter de Riddlesford in 1180. After his granddaughter married Maurice Fitzgerald, the 3rd baron of Offaly, Kilkea Castle remained in the Fitzgerald family for over 700 years.
Kilkea Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Kilkea Castle (Photo Credit: Green Global Travel)

The castle has been operated as a hotel since the 1960s, but was put on the market in 2010. It was purchased by American builder Jay Cashman, who spent four years renovating it into a 5-star resort that includes multiple immaculate gardens, a golf course, three restaurants, and facilities for fishing and archery.
Owl experience at Kilkea Castle Hotel

Mary holds an owl! (Photo Credit: Green Global Travel)

We were honored to stay in their Ernest Shackleton Suite (named after Kildare’s famous explorer) several weeks before the resort opened to the public, and it was as posh and luxurious as any medieval castle could possibly hope to be. We’ve traveled all over the world, and Kilkea Castle ranks among our favorite places we’ve ever stayed!

 

KNAPPOGUE CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Knappogue Castle Hotel in Ireland

Knappogue Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

While any castle stay will make you feel like royalty, staying in your own private castle instantly turns you into the queen (or king) of your domain. At Knappogue Castle in County Clare your family members (or group) are the only overnight guests in the castle apartments. Rooms are furnished with a mix of antique and contemporary comforts, and the modern kitchen has everything you will need to create meals to feed your crew. Don’t wish to cook? Each morning your fairy godmothers arrive to fix an Irish breakfast to power you through a day of exploring. And each evening (from April thru October) the dining room downstairs hosts a medieval banquet featuring delicious dinner and entertainment. As the only guests, the castle is yours to explore – no tours are offered here – to treat as your home… if only for a few days.
The Drawing Room at Knappogue Castle Hotel in Ireland

The Drawing Room at Knappogue Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

CASTLE LESLIE

-Julie and Charles McCool, McCool Travel

Castle Leslie in Glaslough Ireland

Castle Leslie in Glaslough Ireland (Photo Credit: Julie McCool, McCoolTravel.com)

Castle Leslie welcomes guests to a perfect balance of relaxed and historic luxury, on a family estate that dates from the 1660s. Rooms in the castle are spacious and comfortable, with quirky Victorian bathrooms and a strict no TV policy. The Lodge offers more modern rooms (with TVs) overlooking stables that draw equestrians from all over the world. Novice riders (like us) can take a “gentle hack” through the estate’s beautiful grounds, followed by dinner in the award-winning restaurant, and time to kick back and savor castle life.

The Blue Room at Castle Leslie

The Blue Room at Castle Leslie (Photo Credit: Julie McCool, McCoolTravel.com)

ASHFORD CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Ashford Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Ashford Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted: Ireland Family Vacations)

Consistently voted one of the top hotels in the world, Ashford Castle in County Mayo is a fairytale. From the moment you are allowed through the gated entrance by a dapper man in top hat and livery, to the moment you depart the marbled lobby, every bit of your stay is magical. Rooms are lavishly furnished and special treats await younger guests. The grounds at Ashford Castle are extensive and on-site activities include falconry, boating, shooting, golf, and a zip line. Rooms in the castle are expensive, and both the clientele and the spectacular service reflect this. If you wish to visit when the castle is truly kid-focused, plan a Halloween stay when the castle becomes a Wizarding School! Send your little witches and wizards with their capable instructors and enjoy 6 hours of couple time. It’s magical for everyone!
Ashford Castle Junior Suite by Jody Halsted - Castle Hotels in Ireland

A Junior Suite at Ashford Castle (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

GREGANS  CASTLE

 -Sher, travel photographer blogging at Sher She Goes
Gregans Castle - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Gregans Castle (Photo Credit: Sher from SherSheGoes.com)

Gregans Castle Hotel is the ultimate Irish country house for food and luxury. Although no longer a castle in the traditional sense (only the 15th century round tower remains from the original structure), the Georgian-style manor house has stunning views of Galway Bay and the unique Burren landscape. The hotel has won numerous awards for its innovative cooking and the bedrooms are stunningly decorated with antiques, cozy fireplaces and eclectic art. Make sure to stay here if you’re interested in visiting the Cliffs of Moher or love food – Gregans is located on the Wild Atlantic Way and the Burren Food Trail.

LOUGH ESKE CASTLE

-Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations
Lough Eske by Day - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Lough Eske by Day (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted, Ireland Family Vacations)

Few know that Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal was a mere shell before it was lovingly restored just 10 years ago. Now ranking as one of the top hotels in the world, guest can expect a warm cead mile failte from the staff, the majority of whom are local to the area. Rooms at Lough Eske Castle are luxurious and spacious, with connecting rooms for families well thought-out. As castle stays go, this is one of the most affordable in Ireland and you’ll meet a wide variety of people. Located on the shores of Lough Eske, the grounds are a wonderful maze of walking paths; a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the luxury of an Irish castle vacation.

Lough Eske by Day - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Lough Eske by Night (Photo Credit: Jody Halsted of Ireland Family Vacations)

BARBERSTOWN CASTLE HOTEL

–Sonja Holverson, Outbounding
Barberstown Castle Hotel lounge lobby by Sonja Holverson - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel lounge lobby (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

When one imagines staying in a 12th century Irish Castle thoughts of cold rugged stones, towers crowned by turrets, ghosts and dungeons most often come to mind. However, when one arrives at the entrance to the Barberstown Castle Hotel Kildare, a warm welcome is waiting inside a pristine white Victorian and Elizabethan blended luxury town house including conservatory windows along with two lion statues on each side of the entry step. A spacious uniquely decorated lobby lounge area opens out onto a lovely terrace which leads to 20 acres of gardens. The reception is discreetly placed on the left as you enter.

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

If you find yourself lost in the corridors and nooks and crannies looking for the dining room you will encounter elegant antiques and décor of days long past. You may even run face to face into a full body suit of armor around the next corner.

Despite the formality of the long French-influenced multi-course evening dinner in the opulent Barton Rooms Restaurant with pedagogical descriptions for each delicious course, the waiters are also appropriately down-to-earth Irish: friendly and loads of fun. Other dining choices are the Elizabethan Room and the Medieval Banqueting Hall.
This privately-owned Castle Hotel and Country House is the only one in Ireland that has earned 4 stars. Furthermore, it is unique in its harmonious historical blending with the Elizabethan era and Victorian era country house and the Medieval castle with its own historical epoch décor. All in all, a delightful and eclectic elegant and comfortable accommodation.
The Barberstown Castle Hotel easily handles conferences and large parties, weddings and the perfect weekend Irish castle stay for those with little time as it’s only 30 minutes from the centre of Dublin in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East.
Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House entrance by night - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Barberstown Castle Hotel and Country House (Photo Credit: Sonja Holverson, Outbounding)

DROMOLAND CASTLE HOTEL

by Paige Conner Totaro
I was very fortunate to spend a few nights hosted by Dromoland Castle.The staff at Dromoland Castle Hotel is deferential and service-focused. Rooms are spacious, meals are scrumptious, formal rooms are warm and welcoming despite their grand proportions. The sprawling property offers not only the obvious golf and spa, but also archery, clay pigeon shooting, pony and trap (horse and carriage) rides, fishing, hiking the grounds, and my favorite: falconry.
Dromoland Castle by WHAT BOUNDARIES TRAVEL- Castle Hotels in Ireland

Dromoland Castle (Photo Credit: Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel (whatboundariestravel.com))

There has been a castle on the site since the 11th Century, but the present building, in all its ivy-covered limestone and turreted glory, was completed in 1835. In 1962, the property was renovated and opened as the luxury Dromoland Castle Hotel.

Dromoland Castle facade covered by red ivy with a cloudy blue sky above - Castle Hotels in Ireland

Dromoland Castle (Photo Credit: Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel (whatboundariestravel.com))

Cheryl and Lisa of What Boundaries Travel were entranced by Dromoland Castle. “We held our breath as the wooded driveway turned and the castle came into view. It was a fairytale setting of falcons, livery and ivy shrouded towers. Inside was even more spectacular. The drawing room beckoned us to step inside and let time retrace her steps. A magical experience!”

Freelance travel writer Victoria Hart witnessed a VIP arrival during her visit. “Dromoland Castle is an example of living history,” she said. “So often we experience history through a museum or by visiting ruins. It is refreshing to see a place with over 1000 years of history still being used and enjoyed by people who admire the majestic landscape that first attracted its creators and respect the historical events that transformed it into the place it is today. The level of service is still fit for royalty, and an experience I will always cherish.”

Dromoland Castle Arrival - Castle Hotels in Ireland

A VIP arrival at Dromoland Castle features a staff lineup and bagpipes. (Photo Credit: Victoria Hart)

The castle’s location, about 15 minutes drive from Shannon Airport, makes it a great first or last (or entire!) stay for your Ireland trip.

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Please note: most of the bloggers featured in this article were hosted by the castle hotels they have written about. They all offer their honest opinions of their stays. But how could you not love staying in a castle?
A family trip to Greece

A family trip to Greece

Our guest post today comes from Bernard Sury of GuruWalk, who writes about his family trip to Greece.

A Family Trip to Greece

Planning to have a family trip to Greece soon? What a brilliant idea! I honestly had one of my best family trips in Greece.

Expecting the Belgian summer to be as rainy as it is in winter, my parents, my sister and I were looking for a sunny destination combining culture and leisure. After considering Croatia, my mother’s love of Greek food tipped the balance in favor of Greece.

But where to go in Greece? Getting lost on small island, in busy Athens, or in the countryside? Well, there were as many options as there are sunny days in Greece.

Passionate about Greek mythology and history since I studied it in high school, going to Greece without seeing the Acropolis would have been unimaginable. Flights were also cheap to Athens, so we decided to spend some time in the city. However, as any capital city in the world can prejudice your view of what the rest of the country actually is, we were looking for adding another destination on our travel in Greece. My sister had heard friends’ amazing stories about Crete, like hiking in the Samaria Gorge which is Europe’s longest, and swimming in some of the most crystalline water of the Mediterranean Sea. The choice was made.

Day 1

We left Brussels late on a July afternoon. After leaving the luggage at the hotel, our first goal was to have the best dinner the Greek capital could offer us. After doing some internet research we found Lithos not so far from the hotel, and had a delicious moussaka.

Day 2

The next day, our first trip was to see the Acropolis early in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowd. This visit was wonderful. We remembered all the stories we had learned at school, seeing the most beautiful ancient Greek ruins, including the Parthenon and the famous Caryatids. We learned that the Parthenon survived for a long time in a good shape until Greek people decided to store gunpowder there, which caused an explosion in 1687. The view of Athens from the top is stunning.

The Perthenon

The Parthenon and its tourists (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

After a quick lunch, the weather was becoming very heavy and warm. We decided to spend the afternoon at the Acropolis Museum, one of the most important archeological museums in Greece. The museum was modern, contrasting with the ancient pieces within. It is a great complement to a visit of the Acropolis itself.

Caryatids at the Acropolis Museum - Family Trip to Greece

Caryatids in the Acropolis Museum (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

 

Day 3

On our third day, we decided to spend some hours doing a Free Walking Tour of Athens to get to know more about the history of Greece, but also to learn about its current situation. It was very interesting and entertaining and we had the opportunity to ask many questions to the local guide. We also had the chance to see the changing of the guards at the Greek parliament (only on Sunday at 11am!).

Changing of the guards in front of the parliament.

Changing of the guards in front of the parliament building. (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

In the afternoon, we had to pack again and take off for Heraklion, Crete. We took a plane and in less than one hour we landed on the Greek island. Upon arriving at the airport, we found our rental car and drove to our rental apartment in Panormos. To get there, you will take the local highway, which is basically one main road crossing all Crete. Arriving at Panormos, the contrast with Athens was striking. Panormos is small village – touristy but still authentic, and even if tourists filled the streets, it was not as crowded as Athens. There is not much to see but it is a good spot to see the surroundings of the city.

The author and his sister at the small harbour of Panormos

The author and his sister at the small harbour of Panormos (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

 

Day 4

The next day, we headed to Rethymnon and visited the ruins of the Venetian Fortezza. This was the fortress or citadel of the city and was built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Well restored few decades ago, the site is worth a visit for its beautiful vistas of the sea and some ancient buildings such as the Mosque of Sultan Ibrahim (the site was indeed also occupied by the Ottomans).The site is huge and you can easily spend hours strolling through it. My sister and I loved playing in these well-preserved ruins.

The author's family at the top of Venetian Fortezza

The author’s family at the top of Venetian Fortezza (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

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Lost in a maze of ruins

Lost in a maze of ruins (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

We went back to Rethymnon city and had an amazing lunch with a view of the marina and some traditional live music. Both in Athens and Crete, it is very easy to find a good restaurant mainly because there are so many! In Crete, you usually pay 10 euros for lunch or dinner, so we tried a lot of local restaurants. Most of the time, you will even receive some fresh fruit for dessert, perfect with the hot weather. As a sign of Cretan hospitality, you will always receive a typical and strong digestive alcoholic shot after eating dinner. However my mom always politely refused it as she was driving.

 

Live music by the marina

Live music by the Marina (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

 

Day 5

The next two days were for “chilling” at two of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my life. If I did not know I was in Crete, I’d have thought I was in the Caribbean, as the water was of an unreal perfect turquoise.

The first beach stop was Elafonissi. There are no words to describe how heavenly this place is. However, it was very, very, very crowded. It would be awesome to enjoy it in September or October when there are fewer tourists.

Day 6

The second beach was Balos. It takes hours to go by car and once you arrive, you are in the mountains, so you still need to walk about 40 minutes down to the beach. You can also go on a day trip by ferry and if I were to return, that is exactly what I would do. Nevertheless, the view from the mountain is beautiful.

 

Look at that gorgeous blue water!

Look at that gorgeous blue water! The beach at Balos (Photo Credit: Bernard Sury)

Overall, it was an amazing trip. Everything was perfect: the weather, the natural and cultural activities, the delicious food, the local people… It was a trip to paradise and I would love to go back.

What was your most memorable experience?

I love to travel back in time and learn more about the ancient Greek lifestyle. I was studying ancient Greek language at school for 5 years and experiencing all these places and imagining the history there was very strong. But also, the Caribbean-style beaches of Crete were breathtaking.

What do you wish you had known before you left?

I knew that water was not drinkable and that we always had to drink bottled water. Once in Crete, we were at the restaurant and received an open bottle of water. We thought that the waiter just opened it before serving it to us, but it was in reality tap water. The day after, I was quite sick. But thankfully it did not last long. But now, I would never accept a bottle of water I did not open myself at the restaurant. Even better, drink wine!

Details and budget:

For the budget, the most expensive purchases are the plane tickets (300 euros from Belgium), the rental car with gasoline (250 euros) and hotels (350 – 500 euros), But activities (6 – 15 euros) and restaurants (10 – 15 euros) are quite cheap.

About the author:

Bernard Sury of GuruWalk

Bernard Sury of GuruWalk

An avid traveler, Bernard is always organizing his next trip, with friends, family or alone. Addicted to sunny weather, he has mostly traveled in the warm destination such as Southern Europe, South America or South-East Asia. Fluent in Spanish, English and French he has lived in 4 different places in the 4 last years. Back from South America, he learned more about his own city, Brussels, and even became a Greeter and a Free Tour Guide for some months. His passion for traveling brought him to be expat in Spain working for the international community platform for Free Tours Guruwalk.