Five Days in Rome with Kids

Piazza Navona

The great thing about living in Italy is the fact that you get to see Italy every single day. That also probably explains why we always choose to visit other countries when we have time to travel. After we returned from Scotland back in February and realized we only have a year or so left here, we made up our minds to see more of Italy in the near future. The Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Sicily…they’re all on our list but Rome topped it all.

Getting There

Looking at 5-6 hours minimum by car, we opted for the faster Frecce train going out of Padova (Padua). At speeds of up to 186 mph, you can easily pull into Rome’s Termini Station in 3 hours, and speed is key when you’re traveling with my kids. I booked through Italo and paid about $300 round trip for 2 adults and 2 kids–first class with assigned seats going to Rome and second class with assigned seats coming back. Honestly, the seating arrangement was better in second class but first class included non-alcoholic drinks and snacks delivered to us. Although it was 3 cars ahead, I did find a family bathroom, which came in mighty handy when Harper’s wet diaper overflowed. It’s reaaaaaly hard potty training when you’re traveling.

Accommodations

We booked through Airbnb for this trip. Rome can be expensive in terms of hotels. For around $150 per night, we found a one-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms, a full kitchen, livingroom with an incredibly comfortable sofa bed, and washing machine (yeaaa!) in Trastevere. In terms of location, it was a bit of a hike to get to the main sites but it was very quiet and there were great bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants, and even a large playground close by. We opted to take taxis when we were tired rather than trying to take buses or the Metro, which didn’t really get us close to our apartment anyway.

Our Favorite Sites

Bocca della Verita

Rome with Kids


If you have 7-10-year-old kids (or if you’re just a fan of the movie Roman Holiday), this is a can’t-miss. Located inside the portico at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the Mouth of Truth is a bit of a mystery. Depending upon who you ask, it was either carved as part of a fountain or as a manhole cover. Sometime during the Middle Ages, the story emerged that it functioned as a type of lie detector…person sticks his/her hand into the mouth and the hand is bitten off if he/she is a liar. Zoey thought the whole thing was awesome; Harper (2-years-old) was pretty freaked out by it.

A few tips on visiting…
1. If you visit Rome in the high-season, be prepared to wait with little or no shade. Even in early April (still the low-season), we waited about 20 minutes. Each person is allowed one photograph and there is an official standing there to enforce the rule.

2. You won’t see the Bocca della Verita from the street. Look for the church first. The portico is located to the left of the church’s doors.

3. Don’t discount Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It’s an amazingly lovely church. Take a few minutes to enjoy it before rushing through to the gift shop (which has some really neat souvenirs).

 

Trevi Fountain

Rome with Kids


After a major $2.2 million-plus renovation, the Trevi Fountain is finally open again! I’ll be honest: it wasn’t what I was expecting. When you see it, you probably imagine a nice, large, open piazza where you can really stand and take in the glory that is Fontana di Trevi. Nope, nope, nope. This huge, awe-inspiring fountain is situated in–what seems to me–one of Rome’s smallest squares. We had Harper’s stroller at this point and had to fold it up. There was room to walk among other visitors but not much. Finding a seat or a clear shot for a photo took some time and patience but it was worth it.

Tips for visiting:
1. If you visit in the busy season, try to arrive early in the morning to beat the heat and the largest crowds. Even in early April, the piazza was was packed but somewhat maneuverable. I can only imagine what June, July, and August will bring.

2. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. There is so much white marble that the whole piazza is nearly blinding as it reflects the sun.

3. If you are facing the fountain, there will be a great artiginale gelato (homemade) shop behind you on your left. Many of Italy’s gelato shops truck in their product these days. Artiginale shops will sell only the gelato they make themselves. It usually made from the freshest ingredients, too.

Rome with Kids

 

The Pantheon

rome with kids -- pantheon
For a site to be so important and so history-filled, the Pantheon was just not enjoyable for us with the kids. The architecture was…there are no words for that kind of beauty. Historically-speaking, the Pantheon that we see today was built by the Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD atop the remains of older Pantheons that date as far back as 27 BC. At 7-years-old, Zoey just couldn’t grasp the importance of the building’s age and what it has gone through. At 2-years-old, the vastness and echo of the interior was too much for Harper. Having horse-drawn carriages out front was the bigger draw, so we were in and out of this amazing structure within 30 minutes.

Tips for visiting:
1. Consider a tour. Although there are signs, I think you would gain much more information with the help of a knowledgeable guide. I didn’t see anyone hawking tours outside the doors, so check sites like Viator or Dark Rome before you go.

2. Entry is free so if your kids are like mine, you’ve lost nothing by going in. See what you want to see, take a few photos, then head back out into the sunshine.

 

The Vatican

rome with kids -- st. peter's basilica
I’ve written and re-written this section a dozen times. Really, there’s everything and nothing to say about Vatican City. Obviously the religious flock there, especially during this Jubilee Year, but there is so much more. Art, history, architecture, politics, intrigue, stories of scandal…it’s all there in about 100 acres. It’s also not particularly a place two small kids would appreciate. Sure, there were giant cherubs and saintly relics (read: skeletons) in St. Peter’s, which my kids liked, but they really don’t get the importance of the whole place.

Because we were afraid we would never get back to Rome, we decided to book a 2-hour express tour of the Vatican Museum (including the Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter’s Basilica. To put this in perspective for you, the museums could take months, if not a couple of years, to tour in their entirety, so two hours is akin to speed-reading a textbook to CLEP out of a class two hours later. Our tour was overbooked by the tour operator so they offered us a private tour later in the day. In hindsight, this was a blessing in disguise. Our guide, an American expat booked through Viator, was so patient with our kids, who were worn out and a bit punchy at 1:00 in the afternoon.

Tips on visiting:
1. Book a tour and choose a small-group or private one, if possible. I have had good luck with both Dark Rome and Viator. There are tour operators out there that specialize in tours for families with small children, but you need to be ready to spend several hundred dollars for a tour the kids may or may not enjoy.

2. The Vatican Museum allows strollers and even offers lifts. That being said, navigating with a stroller was nearly impossible. The hallways in the museum are densely packed with people. The officials are allowed to pack the Sistine Chapel to the point that you can’t even turn around. Lifts are extremely tiny, meaning that you may have to wait a long time. If your little one can’t walk, buy an Ergo carrier before you travel. Harper is big for 2-years, yet I can still wear her on my back comfortably.

3. Because 2016 is a Jubilee Year, be prepared for larger-than-normal crowds. The Pilgrims have their own entrance into St. Peter’s but there will be millions traveling there in addition to the regular visitors.

rome with kids --st. peter's square

A “Pope’s-Eye View” from St. Peter’s Basilica out into St. Peter’s Square.

 

The Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum
This was truly the highlight of our trip. We booked a 3-1/2 hour tour through Dark Rome that included all 3 sites, plus the Colosseum underground which is usually closed to the public. It was the most expensive tour of our trip, ringing in at about $350 but the kids loved it. We began walking from the Colosseo Metro station directly to Palatine Hill. From there, we made our way back down to the Roman Forum, then walked to the Colosseum. I have to give huge props to our tour guide Agnese (Agnes). She was excellent and totally went the extra mile by playing peek-a-boo with Harper when she got a little antsy toward the end of the tour.

Tips on visiting:
1. Although Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum were free to enter, the Colosseum had long lines. If you plan to visit, I recommend a tour that bundles all three for the information and, if nothing else, just for “skip the line” privileges.

2. These sites are not stroller-friendly in the least. Harper wouldn’t have been able to walk that far on such steep, uneven terrain, so I wore her in an Ergo pack. There were two lifts in the Colosseum. Only one worked the day we visited.

3. There isn’t a place along the way to easily buy snacks and drinks but drinking water flows freely all over the city. If you’re planning a long tour, bring a water bottle or two to fill up as you go. For the kids, grab a few easy snacks that can get them by until lunch.

Inside the Roman Colosseum

Final Verdict

I’m almost hesitant to say it but Rome was by far our least favorite trip. The city–including The Vatican–just lacked any soul or vibrancy. It seemed dead in a way, and that’s coming from someone who ate, slept, and breathed Roman history in college. It was totally doable in 5 days. In fact, we were a little bored on day 4, which is absolutely unheard of. We all seem to have wanderlust in our DNA. I feel like you have to go to Rome once in your life just because it’s historically and culturally important, but I can’t say my kids loved it. Would I do it again? That’s a tough question. With the girls being so small, probably not. But that’s the beauty of travel…you can make informed decisions after the fact.

Four Days in Edinburgh with Kids

Scotland 2016 160

If you had told me 3 months ago that I would be willingly traveling to Scotland in the middle of winter, I would’ve called you crazy. Cold and rain…no thank you. Then I happened to read BassetWrangler’s blog article discussing her January trip to Scotland. It didn’t sound so bad. So three days before our Presidents’ Day 4-day weekend, we booked a family trip to Edinburgh. We were so excited until we began researching specific restaurants, tours, and destinations and found that many prohibited kids under 5 from entering. We have a 2-year-old, so that automatically sent up some red flags. Still, we were about €1000 invested into the trip (airfare and 3 nights in a two-bedroom apartment), so of course we went. Long story short, Edinburgh with kids is not only doable, it’s a lot of fun.

Flight and Accommodations

We’ve been flying EasyJet a lot lately. Flights are inexpensive–we paid €500 for two adults and two children with pre-assigned seats and no checked bags. The thing is, you have to follow their rules to the letter or else that cheap flight becomes more expensive than a big-name airline. For only 4 days, it was worth the hassle of carry-ons. Knowing what to expect and being prepared, the flight was simple as we expected.

The star of our weekend was the rental apartment. We found the Edinburgh City Center Rose Street flat on Booking.com (our favorite hotel booking site here in Europe and the UK). For a family of four, it was perfect. We were a block from Princes Street with all its tram and bus stops, 15 minutes from Waverly bridge, and 30 minutes from Edinburgh Castle (figure half the time walking if you aren’t toting or walking with a toddler). For a couple without small kids, Dirty Dick’s pub next door to the flat would be so fantastic. They wouldn’t allow us in with the toddler, so all I have to go on is the fact that the drunken revelers seemed to love the place at 3 a.m. Back to the flat…the kitchen was awesome, the bathroom was small but functional, the bedrooms were inviting and comfortable, and the whole place was spotless.

Edinburgh with kids -- hotel

The flat is on the right, one door past the pub.

Getting Around Edinburgh with Kids

Just a few disjointed notes about getting around: Edinburgh is an amazingly compact, walkable city. We took taxis a fair amount in Paris back in December, but even with the cold temperatures and carrying Harper on my hip 90% of the time, we mainly walked during our four days in Edinburgh. Staying in New Town, which is pretty centrally located, practically everything was a 30-minute or less walk. We did Hop On buses occasionally (more on that below) and the city buses twice but it was more to see the city than to go from point A to point B. It wasn’t worth the €50 fee to check a stroller on the flight, but if we’d had ours, it would’ve been easy to get around. As a whole, Edinburgh’s sidewalks and streets are very stroller-friendly.

Hamming it up on the Hop On, Hop Off bus

Hamming it up on the Hop On, Hop Off bus

Kid-Friendly Sightseeing

The Scotch Whisky Experience and Amber Restaurant

IMG_8012

While I think 2-year-olds are probably too young in hindsight for the tours at The Scotch Whisky Experience, we did buy the Silver Tour Family Ticket (£36). The tour begins with a ride in a huge whisky barrel (whiskey in the U.S., whisky in the U.K.) that takes you through the history of Scotch whisky-making and the brewing process. At the end, the group gathers for a tasting. Kids get Irn Bru, Scotland’s best-selling soda, and adults get to taste one whisky. The barrel ride scared the crap out of 2-year-old Harper; it took fruit gummies and coloring pages to get both girls through the tasting.

My favorite Scotch whisky: Glen Scotia Single Malt Double Cask, distilled in Campbeltown, Mull of Kintyre

My favorite Scotch whisky: Glen Scotia Single Malt Double Cask, distilled in Campbeltown, Mull of Kintyre

The Whisky Experience wasn’t all rough. We booked reservations for an early (5:00 p.m.) dinner at the venue’s Amber Restaurant. Since it was Valentine’s Day weekend, we opted for the three course tapas-style dinner with pink champagne, whisky chocolates, and Scottish whisky coffee (think Irish Coffee but in Scotland). The girls ate a la carte off the kids’ menu. I thought ahead and brought crayons, coloring pages, and two iPads. This was a smart move since the courses didn’t all line up. Still, this was a great dinner, and I highly recommend Amber to families. (about £100, so it was an expensive albeit enjoyable dinner)

Believe it or not, the haggis filo parcel was my favorite.

A photo posted by Courtney (@shoemuse) on

Edinburgh Castle

-5 C and spitting snow at Edinburgh Castle. I have a new-found respect for my fab Sorel wedge boots.

-5 C and spitting snow at Edinburgh Castle. I have a new-found respect for my fab Sorel wedge boots.

Riding the tram into the city center from Edinburgh’s airport, the castle was one of the first things we saw. It’s pretty majestic, too, especially when it’s set against a grey, gloomy sky. Despite so much to see–the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish War Memorial, the Royal Palace–we spent very little time here. The weather stopped cooperating completely while we were up there, and Harper wound up in tears because she was “so code, mama” (so cold, mama). Obviously we had to put our own interests on the back-burner and get the baby warmed up. Had the weather been a bit warmer, this would’ve been a great family destination. It is a working military installation and some of the more austere places require silence, but it has plenty of room to explore.

Note: If you plan to visit Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Yacht Britannia, Holyroodhouse, or any combination of those, check out The Royal Edinburgh Ticket. For £49.50 per adult and £27 per child (5-years-old and under are free), you get fast-track tickets to all three venues, as well as 48 hours on the Hop On, Hop Off buses (three routes in total). We crunched numbers and this was our best option with Harper falling into the free category.

Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith

With the temperature hovering around 20F/-5C, we opted to use our tickets for the Hop On, Hop Off bus and head to the port area to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia. Using the Majestic/blue route bus, we were in Leith in about 30 minutes. The HMY Britannia is decommissioned and is anchored at the Leith Terminal, which is conveniently also a large shopping mall. Ticketing begins on the 2nd floor of the mall, then you use a series of staircases to view each level of the yacht. Other than spotting the stuffed Corgi puppies scattered throughout the ship, my kids were fairly uninterested in the yacht…until we allowed them to have chocolate cake and ice cream in the yacht’s tea room. Suddenly we were the best parents until we started saying ‘no’ again in the gift shop. (Tickets included in our tour package noted above; £60 for cakes, ice cream, coffee, scones, and a beer for Eddie.)

Edinburgh with kids -- Royal Yacht Britannia

Let them eat cake…so we did at the Royal Deck Tea Room

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Chasing a toddler, I often miss the finer points of information provided during tours. A few interesting (to me) things stood out about the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Queen Elizabeth spends a minimum of 6 consecutive days each year in Scotland. When she visits the country, she takes residence in Holyroodhouse. The interior is exactly what you would expect from an ages-old royal palace. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take photos. It’s a shame because there are some fantastic rooms to share. I’ve always been a fan of royal history, so seeing Mary, Queen of Scots’ chambers was a real treat. It’s the abbey–founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland–that steals the show, in my opinion. With carved faces, huge arches, and gorgeous stone, it even entranced the girls. They half expected a dragon to uncurl from behind a column. (Tickets included in our tour package.)

edinburgh with kids

Holyroodhouse Abbey

Rosslyn Chapel

The Chapel's resident cat, Peat, and the snow interested the girls much more than the amazing chapel.

The Chapel’s resident cat, Peat, and the snow interested the girls much more than the amazing chapel.

As a lifelong fan of mythology and tales related to the Holy Grail and Knights Templar, Rosslyn Chapel was a must. The rest of the family? Not so much but they indulged me. For £8.50, we bought a family day ticket for Edinburgh buses and trams and took the #37 bus from Princes Street to Rosslyn Hotel, which is just a short walk from the chapel.

We were all starving and a brief-but-heavy snow was falling, so we took our chances and ducked into a pub connected to The Original Rosslyn Inn. They were happy to have the kids and even offered us kids’ menus complete with coloring pages and Crayons. I had a curry, Eddie did fish and chips, and both girls did macaroni and cheese. For those traveling with little ones, I can’t recommend this place highly enough. (About £60 for lunch and two pints.)

Edinburgh with kids

Seated on a comfy pillow-laden bench at the Rosslyn pub.

The chapel’s interior is…well, there are just no words. Again here, photography was restricted to the exterior only, so I sadly don’t have images. Inside, you get the most interesting mixture of pagan and religious imagery. And as our guide explained, the chapel is often said to be the Bible in sculpture form since every major Biblical story appears somewhere on the walls. Incidentally, ley lines (like the Earth’s circulatory system) are said to converge under the chapel’s cornerstone. Eddie stood and felt a little dizzy; I stood there with Harper on my hip and felt…nothing. Absolutely nothing. I had hoped for a slight tingle or something but nada. Two souvenirs and 60 minutes later, we were back at our hotel.

All-in-all, this is one of our family’s favorite trips since we began avid international travel. In fact, it might surpass Paris, which was pretty spectacular. Four days didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Edinburgh, so there really isn’t a shortage of things to see and do. Will we go back? Absolutely. We hope to visit the Highlands in the next year. So much to see…so little time.

French Drugstore Beauty Favorites

French Drugstore Beauty Favorites

As any beauty junkie will tell you, Europe–and France in particular–corners the market on great beauty products. In some cases, they use active ingredients that aren’t approved for use in the U.S. In other cases, they go much simpler (example: micellar water) and create really phenomenal products. For all these reasons, I was pretty excited to begin shopping beauty products when I moved over. Here in Italy, it’s been touch-and-go. I can get by with my broken Italian, but trying to read product labels in our local farmacia has been tough. France, on the other hand, has been much easier to shop. English often shows up on their packaging, making it much easier to understand what I’m buying.

The day before we visited the French Riviera last summer, I sat and pored over the ‘net searching for French drugstore beauty suggestions. It was pretty convenient that the first floor of our AirBNB had an English-speaking parapharmacie. Five days and about $100 USD later, I came home and started trying out all my French drugstore beauty products (slowly since my skin can be finicky). Over the course of the summer and fall, I really had a chance to see what worked and what was just meh for my complexion. Out of around 15, the products below are what I love and continue to use.

La Roche Posay Anthelios Sunscreen

La Roche-Posay Anthelios

La Roche-Posay Anthelios, $35, target.com

I developed adult acne (with dry skin…go figure) in my mid-twenties. One product that continually breaks me out is sunscreen. Obviously I can’t go without it, so I’ve been on the hunt for a good one for years. This La Roche-Posay sunscreen is light, non-greasy, and doesn’t seem to freak out my skin. If you’re shopping in the U.S., be aware that the formulation is a little different and the price is a bit higher than in Europe. Still, it’s a great product.

Caudalie Beauty Elixir

Caudalie Beauty Elixir

Caudalie Beauty Elixir, $18-$49, beauty.com

When I ran out of my first bottle of Caudalie Beauty Elixir, I didn’t re-buy immediately. It feels fantastic when you spray it on, but I didn’t really think I noticed any benefits. Somehow I began to notice that my skin was a bit dull and pores were clogged. I bought another bottle and…Voila!…my skin went back to the way it was. It’s more expensive in the U.S., but I think it’s worth it.

Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentre

Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentre

Embryolisse Lait Creme Concentre, $16, target.com

This moisturizer is everything! As I said before, I suffer from adult acne and use prescription medications to combat it. That means that my dry skin becomes downright flaky in the winter…well, until this winter. Lait Creme Concentre is light, absorbs quickly, doesn’t break me out, and it really hydrates. Another bonus: $16 from Amazon is pretty close to the Euro price. Buy this.  Seriously.

Christian Lenart Cornflower Floral Water

Christian Lenart Cornflower Floral Water

Christian Lenart Cornflower Floral Water, $27, amazon.com

I bought this for the gorgeous cobalt blue bottle and pretty label. The equivalent of $6 USD, it was a steal no matter what was in it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a cooling, de-puffing elixir for eyes. When I’m tired (and that’s often given my kids), I put a few drops on a cotton pad and swipe it over my eyes. It does tingle a bit but doesn’t sting. You’re going to pay a premium if you order it in the States. If you happen to check a bag in France, buy several bottles.

Bioderma Crealine H20 Micelle Solution

Bioderma Crealine H20 Micelle Water

Bioderma Crealine H20 Micelle Water, $30, amazon.com

Micellar water is a cleanser and make-up remover. I find that it takes too many cotton pads and much too long to thoroughly remove my make-up; however, it is great after yoga or the gym. I was breaking out on my forehead, which I attributed to my yoga mat despite regular wipe-downs. I started using a single cotton pad with Bioderma as I left the gym. Suddenly the forehead breakouts were gone.

Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Dry Oil

Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Oil

Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Oil, $29, beauty.com

I began using cleansing oils off and on eons ago when the Indie brand Aromaleigh made skincare. When they discontinued the line, I stopped using oils for the most part because I really couldn’t find another that I liked. Nuxe brought me back into the fold. While it isn’t a cleansing oil, it is an extremely nice multipurpose oil. I’ve used it as a moisturizer in a pinch, as a shine serum (and to tame fly-aways) in my hair, on rough elbows and knees, to try to smooth out bad sunless tanning applications. The scent is really nice, too.

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Paris Cemeteries — Cimetiere de Passy

paris cemeteries

Some people are drawn to Paris for romance. Others come for the food. It was Paris cemeteries that initially drew me to the City of Lights. Paris was actually very far down my list of must-see places until a friend posted pictures of his trip to various Parisian cemeteries several years ago. We finally had a chance to fly over just before Christmas 2015. Given that I have kids–really small kids who are just grasping death and it kind of scares them–I wasn’t sure cemetery visits would be smart. Still, we chose to visit two and neither kid was traumatized. (We did have a lot of talks about where the people where located in the cemetery, and Zoey took the opportunity to spell out what we’d do if a zombie apocalypse went down while we were in there.)

Between the two we visited–Montparnasse and Passy–Passy was my absolute favorite. As you can see from one of the images below, there’s a nearly unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from one side. There are also some ugly apartment buildings on the opposing side but it was easy to ignore those. Since I come from a long line of Debussy fans, finding his grave was important, but the entire resident list (is that even the correct term?) reads like a Who’s Who of writers, artists, composers, royalty, and statesmen. With the two little ones in tow, I spent more time just admiring the statues and art rather than trying to put together names and histories, and for that I feel like I missed out a bit. Maybe one day I can go back and connect it all.

Besides the practical information–cemeteries are free but do have hours (generally 8:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m.) and Passy is near the Trocadero Metro stop–what else can you say about something so hauntingly beautiful?

Must-have shoes for Italy in the fall

Whether you’re the form over function type or vice versa, I’ve noticed a really awesome trend among Italians (and Europeans, really) lately. You’re going to see a few stilettos on cobblestones (eek!) but most people–especially the most chic–are opting for lower-heeled or flat shoes and boots. I’m not sure if it’s an extension of NORMCORE or if people are just tired of twisting their ankles but I’ll just say it’s a win for both comfort and style. I’m calling four major styles as your best bets when packing shoes for Italy, especially in fall and winter.

Oxfords
One of my favorite looks right now is the cropped skinny pant, a great pair of oxfords, and a silky button-up. I’m seeing it more and more every day on the streets of Venice, Verona, Vicenza (what’s with all the V names in the Veneto?). It’s simple, so chic, and so packable. If you want to stay true to the European aesthetic, go with all black. Also, I highly suggest looking at the Cole Haan version below. It’s a brogue that hides a sneaker. Possibly that alone makes it worth the extra money.

shoes to pack for Italy -- oxfords

L to R, Top to bottom:
Cole Haan ZeroGrand Oxford, $198, nordstrom.com
Marc Fisher Ltd. Katie Oxford, $145, nordstrom.com
Marc Fisher Sailor Oxford , $62 (on sale) , macys.com
Clarks Narrative Hamble Oak Oxford, $120, nordstrom.com

Ballet Flats
I’m adding this style with some trepidation. The look is classic and sleek, so from an aesthetic point of view, it’s obvious why Italian women wear them. On the other hand, some of my least comfortable shoes have been ballet flats. It doesn’t matter how great you look when your feet are bleeding and throbbing from a bad pair of shoes. If you find the right pair, you can instantly pull together a look you’ll be proud of. If ballet flats sound good, I recommend trying several, buying the most comfortable style, then breaking them in long before you leave for Europe. From my own experience, the styles below are consistently kind to my own feet.

ballet flats shoes for italyL to R, Top to Bottom:
Armani Jeans Ballet Flat, $170, armani.com
J. Crew Ava Ballet Flats, $125, jcrew.com
Sam Edelman Felicia Bow Ballet Flats, $100 , dillards.com
Banana Republic Abby Ballet Flat, $79, bananarepublic.com

Cool Sneakers
Despite what others may tell you, Italians do wear sneakers quite often. They aren’t fans of actual performance sneakers–runners and cross-trainers–but retro-style looks are huge. I really didn’t wear sneakers outside the gym until I moved here. Now they’re on my feet regularly. Chuck Taylor All Stars are probably the most popular, followed by retro high tops like styles from Geox and Superga. My Nike Free sneakers work well for travel, and while they aren’t technically an Italian trend, they look kind of in-your-face cool because of the aggressive prints. I pair them with my favorite skinnies, a tee, and a Helmut Lang jacket that could make anything look good.

cool sneakers shoes for italyL to R, Top to Bottom:
Converse Chuck Taylor Shoreline, $50, nordstrom.com
Superga Cotdu Sneaker, $85, nordstrom.com
Geox New Club High Top Sneaker, $130, nordstrom.com
Nike Free 5.0 V4 Sneakers, $85, macys.com

Boots
I know this is a really gnarly graphic but accurately depicts the main styles I wear (and see being worn) most often here. First, don’t have a heart attack when you see the price on the La Canadienne Chelsea boots. If you stalk the web, you will find them cheaper eventually. Honestly, though, they are probably worth the price tag. They’re water-resistant, warm, and maybe the most comfortable boots ever. Over-the-knee boots are so versatile (pinky swear). I wore them non-stop with skinny jeans, leggings, and skirts all winter last year, and that included trips to Germany, Austria, Ireland. Lastly, moto boots. I mean, really, they’re just so popular here because they’re so easy to wear.

boots shoes for italyL to R, Top to Bottom:
Sara Chelsea Boots, $395, lacanadienne.com
Vince Camuto Baldwin Over the Knee Boot, $150 (currently on sale), macys.com
Vince Camuto Pierson, $169, vincecamuto.com
Justthis Booties (Reviews are mixed but the style is perfect), $100 (currently on sale), ninewest.com

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Our visit to Fragonard Parfumeur in Grasse France

One of my favorite things about visiting new places is the scent. Elba Island smells like basil and jasmine. Downtown Vicenza is espresso and brioche. Salzburg is wood smoke and coffee. Istanbul is pipe smoke and spices. Yes, there’s some stench, too, but I prefer to focus upon the good. Based on this fact, it’s probably not surprising that one of the destinations topping my to-do list in France was Fragonard Parfumeur. I’ll be totally up front and tell you that the kids hated it. Eddie wound up taking them out to play near the giant tree out front before we made it halfway. I, on the other hand, had a great time and actually learned so much about fragrance.

fragonard

The Fragonard building has housed perfume-making since 1782. Parfumerie Fragonard is relatively recent, originating in 1926. Open every single day–Sundays and holidays included–Fragonard is the more popular out of three perfumeries in Grasse (Galinard and Molinard are the other two). Free tours are available in many languages and take about 20 minutes.

After hearing about Fragonard’s history, our tour guide took us through room after room of holding tanks and bottles. Some held single scent notes (like the amber-colored bottles above), others held perfume blends (like the silver vats). She also talked about scent extraction methods. Today, floral fragrance is captured much the same way alcohol distilleries make bourbon and whiskey. Many years ago, single flowers were layered on animal fat (see the middle image above) and kept for weeks until the tallow had absorbed the sweet scent. And then there are other scents that are non-floral like my favorite: amber. I think I could have gone my whole life without learning that fragrance amber is actually the squid-laden vomit of a sperm whale. Thank god it’s all synthetic now. I’m not sure I could stomach wearing whale puke.

Probably my least favorite portion of the tour was (surprisingly) the sniffing portion of the tour. As much as I loved Fragonard, I was not a fan of their proprietary scents. It was all, well, too perfume-y. I skipped out to shop on my own part-way through the “testing” and found my own goodies. The Eau de Toilette scent varieties were by far my favorites, and I wound up buying a bottle of Violette, a mix of orange, blackberry, violet, raspberry, musk and amber.

fragonard violette

The home fragrance section was divine, too. Only because I had arbitrarily budgeted less than $100, I picked up a single candle. There were fragrance oil rods, candles, and soaps, all of which were less than $50 each. The Coriander Lemongrass begged to come home, so I had to oblige.

fragonard candle

If you remotely like fragrance, or if you just need some luxurious gifts to bring home, I highly recommend Fragonard. Maybe leave the kids back at the hotel room, but there’s a great yard and tree for them to play under otherwise. For great directions, hours, and visitor information about Fragonard, visit the link fragonard factory. Given that it was a Sunday when we visited, most of Grasse was closed. If you can visit on a weekday, I’ve heard the quaint town is absolutely divine.

Black Lace & Destructed Denim

I’m fairly confident in my fashion sense. I know what I like; I know what looks good on my figure; I know what’s in (and, more importantly, out) of style. I have to admit, however, that today’s agenda gave me a little wardrobe stress. Dressing for a fashion trade show in Italy on a commoner’s budget is not for the fainthearted. That’s squarely where I found myself this morning as I got ready for Origin: Passions and Beliefs in Vicenza. This trade show puts Italian suppliers together with artists, designers, buyers, and fashionphiles from around the world together in one convenient location.

In the end, I decided to play it cool and easy: destructed jeans, a lace top, simple pumps and a statement bag. Except for the lady wearing what appeared to be a metal kitchen strainer on her head, I looked pretty much like every other attendee. Score one for the American Midwesterner trying to fit in!

And guys, cut me some slack on the photo. I am *so* not a model, I have a 6-year-old photographer, and I haven’t learned Photoshop. (What business do I have blogging, right?)

black lace destructed denim

What I’m wearing
Pim & Larking Black Lace Top (old; similar topshop lace tee), Just Black White Destructed Skinny Jeans (StitchFix.com), Black suede Pointed-Toe Pumps (old; similar Nine West pumps), Alexander Wang Rockie with Rose Gold (Barneys.com; similar alexander wang rockie).

Our Day in Ljubljana Slovenia

Ljubljana Slovenia May 2014 002I have a love/hate relationship with the map you can access on the seatback TV screen during international flights. It is nice to track your progress, but on eight, ten, twelve (or more)-hour flights, it becomes maddening. Really? We haven’t crossed the entire Atlantic Ocean yet?? As I watched us close in on Italy last May, I began seeing Ljubljana just east. I’ll admit that I had no idea how to pronounce it (Loob-lee-yahn-yuh is pretty close) and I really didn’t know where it was. Fast forward a few days. I looked over the Army MWR calendar and saw a scheduled trip to (you guessed it) Ljubljana, Slovenia. I booked all four of us because…why not?

The trip to Slovenia was a bit arduous. Little did we know that we’d booked a trip on an Italian holiday weekend. The mid-way Autogrille (a gas station, restaurant, bathroom stop on the Autostrada) was dangerously packed. I never really understood how people died from human stampedes but I do now, and I hope to never experience that again. Thankfully we did make it through and made it to Ljubljana about 9:30 a.m. Being a Saturday, it was market day. I just can’t even tell you how charming it was!

The city’s mascot is the dragon, as you can see in the image above. This bridge, Dragon Bridge, features two dragons at each entrance to the bridge. Myth says that the dragons’ tails are anchored in the water. When a virgin crosses, they wave their tails, thus making waves on the river. I’m not going to make any judgements about anyone but I can say that I didn’t see a single wave that day.

Also according to our guide, Ljubljana largely missed the unrest in the former Yugoslavian region back in the ’90s. Both the people and the land were resilient, and Ljubljana is absolutely picturesque and pristine.

From the Cathedral of St. Nicholas to the Ljubljana Castle, this city was just awe-inspiring and I hope to return before we leave Europe.

The entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas. This door was created and hung before the 1996 visit of the Pope.

The entrance to the Church of St. Nicholas. This door was created and hung before the 1996 visit of the Pope.

The ceiling fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas.

The ceiling fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas.

Having just recently visited Lake Bled Slovenia, I can heartily suggest this area as a vacation destination. I’ll probably get around to featuring Bled by itself. For now, add Ljubljana to your travel bucket list.

Ropes Ranch Vicenza: A Little Piece of Texas in Italy

ropes ranch vicenza

One thing Eddie and I have embraced since moving the family to Italy is the importance of giving our family experiences instead of things. Maybe we’re spoilers at heart or maybe it’s a side effect of being old parents, but we’ve always given our kids more than they ever needed. Without closets, you really see how much crap you’ve amassed. The beauty of an experience is its lasting effects. Neither of the kids remember what they got just a few months ago at Christmas. The 6-year-old does, however, look back at her pictures and talk about visiting Ephesus in Turkey and seeing the giant Christmas tower in Heidelberg. This will be a part of her much longer than the 10th Monster High doll.

Last Sunday, we decided to visit a spot close to home for one of our “experiences.” To fully appreciate this story, I need to set the scene for you. As we parked along a treelined side road and opened our doors, Garth Brooks–loud and proud–boomed into our ears. Nearly simultaneously, the strong scent of summer hay wafted into our faces. A few paces further, we heard the soft thumping of horse hooves and a whinny. Finally–the piece de resistance–a huge Wrangler banner came into view. Back where I come from, this is just another day. In the middle of the Veneto Region of Italy? It was pretty surreal but this is Ropes Ranch.

ropes ranch vicenza

Tucked between the Autostrada and farmland in Grisignano di Zocco (VI), Ropes Ranch is a small but well-equipped place for casual riding and riding lessons. Honestly, it had been on our to-visit list for quite sometime but we had never taken the time to just go. They were opening the ranch that day for rides, food, and early camp sign up. The minute we signed Zoey up for summer horse camp, Denis (the owner, who speaks fluent English…bonus!), handed cute cowboy hats over to each of my girls. He couldn’t have delighted them more if he’d handed over gold ingots. The staff graciously let the kids have the run of the ranch, peeking at the new foal, watching the calves, and taking guided rides on Nacho, the most patient American Quarter Horse that I have ever seen.

I am absolutely clueless about such things as horseback riding lessons, though I have been told they’re expensive back in the states. They’re more than reasonable and budget-friendly here. The one-on-one lessons at Ropes Ranch are $15 per hour-long session while lessons for younger kids run 30 minutes and ring it at around $10. The staff offer lessons on weekday mornings and afternoons, then all day on weekends.

Zoey has her first lesson tomorrow morning, then camp begins when school is out for the summer. I’m even considering some lessons. There are some great-sounding horseback riding tours around local wineries here from time to time. I suppose I should be solid on horseback before trying to sample vino while riding.

If you’re new to the Vicenza community, the easiest way to get in touch with Denis and the ranch is through their ASD Ropes Ranch Facebook page.

The Conscious Closet Challenge: An Update

Just to get new readers up to speed: I began the Conscious Closet Challenge sponsored by grechenscloset.com midweek last week. I pared down to what I would’ve once called a minimalist closet last year but I’m ready to edit down even more. You can read more about it in my initial article here.

As I write, I have a huge stack of clothes to donate. I feel like this is a really great time to be working through my thoughts and feelings about clothing–and possessions–in general. This challenge didn’t exactly start this process but it was my incentive to actually sit down and create a list of Dos and Don’ts to follow. I think this topic will spin off in a number of directions but I wanted to just create a simple update of some things I’ve learned.

1. Stop Shopping Clearance
I pride myself on never paying full price but there’s a difference between shopping clearance and being financially smart when shopping. Between last year’s purge and this year’s edit, I found that almost everything unworn in my closet was a clearance acquisition. We itemize and deduct our donations on our taxes each year, which means I keep meticulous notes on donated items (their purchase price, brand, style, year, etc). Pages upon pages of my 2014 donations included clothing and accessories from Loft and J. Crew. Those $4.99 steals add up to several hundred dollars over the course of a few years (and I’m not even kidding about that number) fast. I will always look for coupon codes or wait for percentage off sales but the clearance rack is NOT my friend.

2. Just Buy Coveted Items
So let me explain. I have a solid track record of trying to buy cheap to quench a desire for something expensive. A case in point: I fell in love with the Helmut Lang Villous Jacket. It retails for $230 but can often be found off-season for $150. I wanted it. I loved it. I tried it on when I saw it in a store. I never bought it but instead went everywhere buying up cheap inspired-by styles. I have two versions of it from Modcloth; I bought one from JC Penney; I bought another from some other off-price place. In total, I spent about $300 on jackets inspired by the Villous. They just never did it for me. I wore them sometimes but just not very often. I finally bit the bullet and ordered the Villous during the late winter of 2014. That did it. I wear it constantly. I love it. It doesn’t just hang in my closet like the knockoffs. Had I just bought the damn thing when I decided it was a must-have, I literally would’ve saved $300. I do this much too often and it’s time to stop.

3. Purge/Buy For My Current Lifestyle
I have a habit of hanging on to clothing items because I once wore them non-stop. When I worked at Brown Shoe, tailored cardigans were a staple. Our dress code was business but the D2C department was creative. This meant that I could get away with denim trousers and a cardigan. On Friday, destructed denim and platform wedges worked with a cardigan. I had a million and wore a million. In the last three years or so, I haven’t worn a single cardigan (well, maybe an oversize Grandpa style occasionally). As of today…GONE. They served their purpose but they don’t fit into my life now. At the risk of going all KonMari (I wonder if she knows she’s a verb now…hmmm), they needed to go on to help others who could love them more.

Another example: the Mansur Gavriel Bucket Bag. I very briefly thought about getting on a waitlist for one. They’re so sleek and gorgeous. But…BUT…I live in Italy. Pickpockets are not just a possibility, they are life. I am constantly balancing a 2-year-old, a diaper bag and goodness knows what else. I can’t be bothered to watch my cinch-top handbag every second as we travel. $400 saved…period. If I have to worry about it (whatever “it” is, it isn’t worth my attention).

I know, I know. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much–3 realizations–while contemplating my whole adult wardrobe. I have to say, though, that these three areas have cost me more than I would even like to consider. Hey, it’s a place to start. I feel like this challenge has been really good for me. Maybe it can help others. Either way, I’m glad I took this next step.