Monday, October 20, 2014

Last Day in London

Today's goals for our last full day were:
1- Get out of the city,
2- Enjoy a more laid back pace, and
3-Try to accomplish a few of the 7-8 things on our wish list that we hadn't managed to do yet in London.

We didn't have a single reservation, so we had a great deal of flexibility. As an added bonus, the weather was fantastic...crisp & clear in the mid 60s.

We let the kids sleep in until 8am/2am EST (oh, jetlag is going to be a drag!) before heading to the train station for a 20-30 trip to Windsor. This was honestly one of my favorite things we've done. It was so peaceful, yet regal. It reminded me of the Biltmore in North Carolina--except a few centuries older and so very grand!

 The love for the Royal Family & the Monarchy in general is so clear here. It was easy to get swept up in the sentimentality of it all. The history is so long and deep. We particularly loved the stories of the knights!

We all wore our audio guides and found much of what they covered very interesting. The sheer grandeur of the castle, chapel and grounds is impressive. I just cannot get over the artistry and craftmanship of the architecture. This trip has reminded me what a young country the U.S. still is! 

We had heard that it was more enjoyable to view the Changing of the Guard at Windsor than at Buckingham Palace...and after visiting the grounds I can see why. Unfortunately, we arrived in time for the 11am ceremony only to discover they had switched to an every other day schedule in the off season. Bummer. 

The grounds here are extensive, so you could spend MUCH more time exploring than we actually did. We gave it two hours before heading back to town, because although this was our 'laid back day,' we are Scotts--and we like to do a lot. :-) 

 From Windsor, we traveled via train & tube to Kensington Gardens where we had a real British tea at the Orangery on the grounds of Kensington Palace.

I have read assorted reviews of this place, so I will add mine. Although we did not have a reservation and were able to walk right in at 2pm. The price was less than many other places in town and the atmosphere was nice. I appreciated the location, because as you will see in subsequent pictures, my children really needed to just RUN for a bit and just outside the doors they could do just that.

The tea was delicious, but I have mixed feelings about the food. We had hoped this would count as lunch...but my 10 year olds couldn't quite find enough in the selection (cucumber sandwich, curried chicken sandwich. egg sandwich, scone & cake) that they loved enough to fill up.

We spent an hour and a half after tea exploring the grounds at Kensington. Having just been at Luxembourg Gardens yesterday, I found the feel here to be very different. Kensington was much more natural, relaxing and full of dogs, bikes and kids.

In addition to chasing the ducks and taunting the two dozen swans, my children loved the Diana Memorial Playground. I think they were likely just on the verge of being too old for it, but you would not have known it from watching them play. They thoroughly enjoyed it!

We exited Kensignton Gardens via Notting Hill and took the tube to Picadilly Circus--which is truly a British version of Times Square. We spent 15-20 minutes taking in the atmosphere here before our final adventure to find a pub with fish and chips.

I wish this picture quality was better so you could see how clearly comfortable (perhaps too much so) my children became with the underground!

Tonight has been spent packing up--which made the reality of the extensive travel involved in getting here come crashing in. My final thoughts on this as a family trip are yes, yes, yes. I told Ryland tonight that I wouldn't change anything and he agreed. I wish we had made it to Churchill War Rooms and Cotswold, but as young R said "we will just have to return one day for that!"

Relaxing vacations are fine--but, honestly, this type of travel is far more our family's speed. We are busy bodies who like challenges, learning and exploring. The opportunity to sequester our kids outside of their normal routine, screen free and engaged in adventure is how we bond and grow.

We have been so proud of the way our kids have learned to flex this week--and, honestly, it has been good for our marriage too! The nature of our life at home often requires both Ryland & me to operate very individually. We spend much of our time dividing and conquering. He works long, hard hours and I hold down the fort with kids, bills, house, etc... As a result, working TOGETHER, in concert with one another can often be an adjustment for us. This trip required us to be a team and work things out together and, by golly, we've done it.

Returning home tomorrow with a full heart... but first we must 'pay the piper' with 18 hours of travel!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Paris Part Two

Did I say 36 hours in Paris? Because it was actually only 29! So fast I thought at times we might be auditioning for The Amazing Race as we carted backpacks through parks and dashed down metro platforms to avoid missing a train. 

Nonetheless, we hit the major high points on our list and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

Being too young for coffee has definitely been a disadvantage for these little travellers. Mornings are groggy!
 Today's cafe stop for 'real' hot chocolate quickly perked them up.
Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about what troopers they have been this week--rolling with the punches, trying new things and really embracing the experience! (and mostly carrying their own stuff ;-)

Our first tour stop this morning was the Catacombs. I confess, my first impression of this activity was to be pretty creeped out. After all, it is a set of tunnels deep under Paris where remains of 6 million Parisian bodies were laid to rest in the 1800s. But after reading the Lonely Planet book about Paris and discussing our trip with a travel agent friend, my children were insistent. The tour was quite interesting--and this was a situation where I am glad we booked a guide and skipped the very lengthy line. 

After the Catacombs we went directly to the Notre Dame. It was a glorious Sunday and the line was very long. We decided our limited time was better spent exploring than standing in line, so we took a lap around the outside and admired the grounds and exterior along the River Seine without going in.

This walk allowed us to see the "Love Lock Bridge" and enjoy a true Parisian experience with the musical accompaniment of street performers.  
We ended this walk with a quirky little find our friend Jennifer, suggested to the kids...a pet/bird/flower market tucked along a small city street only a block away from Notre Dame. Of course, the kids asked to take home a bird or bunny. Can you imagine Customs' response?

 After this we had a cafe lunch before a short Metro ride to Luxembourg Gardens.
 It was a sunny, warm day so the park was very busy! We enjoyed some wooden sailboat racing around the pond.
 These boats are powered only by the wind and a long stick, so it really is a unique and fun activity!
The plan was to then watch a real French marionnette show in the gardens. We got there early, stood in line for a spot, and my children stared so longingly at the children running and laughing on the playground that we gave them a choice.

A French Marionette version of Pinocchio or stretching, climbing and enjoying other kids...guess what they chose?

Ryland & I kicked up our feet (backpack free) and enjoyed nutella crepes and passion fruit sorbet while they played. Everybody was happy!

In the "I wish I would have known" column: Admittance to the park is free, but you have to pay to use the playground AND you have to pay to use the toilet! (half a Euro each to potty)
We left the Garden with just enough time to spare to stop by the highly recommended Pierre Herme for macaroons. The line stretched down the block...and they did not disappoint. That made three stops for macaroons in 29 hours if anyone is counting! It's a good thing we've walked an average of 9 miles a day this week. (Seriously, my people are troopers!)

We took the RER train from Luxembourg back to Gare du Nord for the 5pm return train to London...resting our travel weary bones tonight for one last day tomorrow!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Whirlwind Day in Paris

We woke up VERY early this morning bound for France. The children were less than thrilled about alarms that required them waking up at 1am EST, but their resiliency was amazing. We took backpacks only and headed for a fast and furious 36 hours in Paris!

A short tube ride to St. Pancras station where we boarded the Eurostar train for a trek through the 'chunnel,' underwater to cross from the UK to France. It was a pleasant ride, much like Amtrak (but on time!)

Once we arrived at the Gare du Nord station in Paris it became quite clear we were in a foreign country. So much of our foreign travel experience has either been in primarily English speaking countries or places where we can get by with our broken English. Paris was fast paced and quite a different culture than the one we've become accustomed to in London.

We boarded bus 42--a highly recommended public transit route that took us right through the city center.  I had read a lot about this method of travel--and it was definitely a taste of Parisian life-- but not having any French language skills made this somewhat of a 'baptism by fire.' 

Even the way the buses work here--they don't stop unless you push a button--was foreign. We figured it out, but it was an adventure! People were pushy and unconcerned with the fact that we had three children, but  for one kind woman who noticed we could use some help and made sure we knew what we were doing.  Merci, kind woman, merci!

We got off the bus near the Louvre because one of our people had a bladder in need of some attention. Lucky us, it was on the same block as Laduree and their incredible macaroons. We went through the line twice, feasting on salted caramel, citron, gingerbread, vanilla and chocolate. Yum!

We then hailed a taxi and went on the ride of our life...honestly, this guy's reckless driving seriously rivalled our experiences in Central America and made NYC cabbies look like kiddie rides. It didn't help that he was on facebook on his tablet while driving--and pointed to the spot where Diana's crash occurred as we flew through a short tunnel.

After checking our backpacks in the hotel, we went to the Louvre.

We planned a quick 2 hour visit since our stay in Paris is so brief. We were able to see our three top priorities: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo & the Egyptian antiquities. But, honestly, it was way too short. I do not have words to accurately capture how incredible the Louvre is...the artwork is unbelievable, but the facility itself is breathtaking...and the ceilings? The artistry is hard to comprehend!

I, honestly, was concerned about how 'into it' the kiddos would be...but we could have easily spent a couple more hours there before they grew restless. I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm. And when R asked for my cell phone so he could "take a selfie with the Venus de Milo" I felt like all the cheesy photo ops from the wax museum yesterday were redeemed. I am raising well balanced children, right? 
(This pic is not of R because though he started the trend he did not want the pic published. :) 
After the Louvre, we took a taxi to the Eiffel Tower.
I decided to go through a tour company for a 'behind the scenes, skip the line, theatrical experience' and I am SO glad we did. It was a true history lesson that kept the children captivated for two hours--from the war bunkers to the engine room--and there were even two special photo op areas off limits to the public that were terrific. 

As we were leaving, the sun was setting, so we decided to take our time and walk down the stairs to exit rather than the elevator. I will always treasure that memory. The view, the supreme weather and the time with my tribe. 

We took a quick ride on the double decker carousel as it got dark, then admired the Eiffel Tower all lit up before heading out in search of a restaurant that served escargot. This was P's #1 request of Paris...and I am happy to report it was satisfied. He is our pickiest eater, so we were surprised by this request...but he followed through and even convinced the other two to try.

Again, there were other things I'd hoped to accomplish today, when this was all just a plan on paper...but this was a comfortable pace and a satisfying day of rich experiences!
(And I have already decided I plan to turn 40 every single year. What a gift this trip has been!!!)

Friday, October 17, 2014

London Day Three

We started the day as cheesy tourists at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. I know... but we are traveling with a trio of fourth graders and they had a great time!

There are levels with rooms full of various celebrities and world leaders past & present. I could argue that the trio learned a bit about notable people due to their curiousity about who certain figures represented--but truthfully it was just silly fun.

There was a 4D movie experience and a 'historical' British ride at the end.

A TOTALLY touristy outing--and the children loved it.

It was very crowded. I wish I would have known that you really can't make it out of this place in under 90 minutes...and that's if you are flying through.
After this special request was crossed off the list, we took the tube to Waterloo where we happened upon the realfood market for lunch. (A high point for me.) It offered an impressive array of street vendors featuring fantastic ethnic foods.
I haven't yet had bangers & mash, ale or fish & chips but I've had excellent Indian, Thai and Chinese! The merger of cultures here has really had a positive impact on the cuisine.
After lunch we boarded a water taxi to Greenwich. The trip took about an hour, but was an interesting guided trip along the River Thames. The weather was pleasant & sunny so our walking feet enjoyed the rest.

The borough of Greenwich is known for the Royal Observatory, its incredible views of London and, of course, the prime meridian

Our children studied latitude & longitude in school this Fall, so we definitely qualified this as an educational side trip.
And here's my confession: I was bored by the museum aspects of this. I love art, history, stories about people and animals...but physics, clocks and angles? Not really my thing.  My husband, on the other hand, absolutely loved it! He could have spent all day there. Despite my lack of enthusiam, I really did learn some things. 

It is a steady 15 minute hike from the pier to the observatory, but it is through a charming little town and a nice park. The kids loved the chance to run!

We took the boat cruise back to the Tower of London Pier where we disembarked and took a long walk across the Tower Bridge to the South Bank. This area is a couple of miles of shops, restaurants, pubs and street perfromers along the River Thames. Great people watching!

We arrived at the highly recommended Burrough Market just in time to feed these tired and hungry children. The sights, sounds and smells were everything travel should be. 
Even our pickiest palate was able to find something yummy to eat. (And I may or may not have had a dessert larger than my hand.)

Reinvigorated by our supper, we walked across the London Millenium (aka the wibbly wobbly) Bridge. I had heard about its controversial opening, but thankfully had not seen the video footage until we were safely back in our flat.

I had a few other things planned that just didn't happen today. I am embracing the reality that flexibility is key to this actually being a family vacation where we can relax and enjoy each other instead of feeling tied down by an agenda. 

It was a fun day, where each of us had different highlights related to our own interests, but as I was flipping through the pictures on my phone tonight I realized my favorite moments were the ones that happened from place to place. 

The silliness on our long walks (that is sometimes hilarious or sweet and other times requires stern Mama intervention)...the games of rocks, paper, scissors that happen when you remove screens from the equation...and the moments when I would feel someone I love slide their hand into mine.

Wherever the location, these are the parts of family vacation that count...all the rest is just icing on top.