A Travellerspoint blog

Italy: Naples, Mt. Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Pompeii

Otherwise Known As: Eating too much of a good thing is still a good thing.

Destination: Italy
Date of Travel: October 2012
Travel By: Plane, Public Transportation
Length of Trip: 4 days
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 8), a YoungerBoy (age 4)

Itinerary: Day 1, evening in Naples; Day 2, Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum; Day 3, Pompeii; Day 4: Naples

Base Camp: We booked a flat for 4 nights through airbnb.com. The owner was so accommodating - he even sat with us on the first night we arrived and went through the map of Naples, showing us where to go, what metro was closest, and what to avoid. The apartment is in the Chiaia region of Naples, which was safe enough to walk around at night - with kids!

Trip Report: We arrived late in the evening to Naples, just enough time to settle into our apartment and then head out in search of pizza. Close to the apartment was one of the two famous Da Michele pizzaerias, but the less crowded one. We split 2 large pizzas between us (Margherita, of course!) and it was so delicious: thin, handmade crust; fresh mozzarella; piping hot from a wood-burning oven. (The 4 year old ate more pizza on this one night that he ever has in his entire life.)

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Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum

We knew that we wanted to visit Vesuvius, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and I'm pretty sure we hit on exactly the right way to see them. Pompeii is large and you can spend an entire day there, if not more. Herculaneum is smaller and you can easily be satisfied with half an afternoon. Plus, it is much closer to Vesuvius then Pompeii ... so we combined a trip of Vesuvius and Herculaneum together and left Pompeii on it's own for another day. Yes, you can take buses from Pompeii to Vesuvius ... but why?

We took the Circumvesuviana train out of the main Naples station (in the direction of Sorrento) and got off at the Ercolano Scavi stop. (Ercolano == Herculaneum). Immediately coming out of the station, on your left is a group of stores and there is a Vesuvius tour company right there. They take you in a shuttle bus up a steep mountain to the base of the Vesuvius park, a 15 minute ride. From there, you walk up a steep hill for about 20-30 minutes until you can get to the point where you walk around a crater. It is a trek, but kids and adults of all ages were on that hill, determined to get to the top. It helped my family immensely that we were doing it on a gorgeous day. Plus, we were ON A VOLCANO.

At the top of the volcano, you can walk about half-way around the crater. There's a fence all the way around, so there's no danger of falling in - but keep an eye on the little ones who want to run around, or lean up against it. There's a gift shop/cafe up there if you need some refreshment once you've made the climb - including personal-sized wine bottles! We opted with water.

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Little pockets of steam - not lava - rising up from the volcano. My kids informed me it would have been cooler with lava.

The shuttle bus gave us about an hour and a half to get up to the top, walk around, and get back down to head back. It's enough time, although we were running down the hill on our way back down so we wouldn't be late! The bus brings you right back to the station.

Once you get out of the station area, you end up on the main street and walk down. Herculaneum is about 8 blocks, straight ahead. We stopped at a cafe almost practically in the middle to have a lunch of pizza and paninis. Dare I say the pizza tasted even better than the famous Da Michele? Yes, I dare. (I don't actually remember the name of the cafe, but I feel like it had "Luna" in the name. We chose one that was mid-way between the station and Herculaneum because it had much less of a "touristy" feel.)

At the ticket office, we bought one of those combo tickets for Herculaneum and Pompeii. We also picked up some audio guides, as my 8 year old is very interested in the guides. However, the map was a bit confusing and we were never quite sure if were listening to the right number in the right section. We also took our Rick Steve's guide of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, which helped a bit.

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The streets of Herculaneum.

We toured Herculaneum for almost four hours, just the right amount of time for my husband and myself, although the kids were probably ready to go after about 2 hours in. (Chocolate helps immensely to keep them going, as did a second wind once it got closer to closing time and people were filtering out - we let the kids run around a bit, they loved it.) With Vesuvius looming in the background, it is especially chilling to see how close the eruption would have been and how the people in Herculaneum would have been able to see it, even if they probably didn't know exactly what was happening. This town was hit in the second wave of the eruption and many of it's citizens were able to get to the water and flee. Once the eruption flowed towards Herculaneum - mostly ash and pumice, along with extreme heat - it filled in the city from the bottom up, filling in every crevice and preserving the site as it is found today. Many buildings are intact, including a domed roof of one of the baths. All the mosaic and frescoes that are found in Herculaneum are the originals, unlike in Pompeii (which are now found in the Archaelogical museum in Naples).

Pompeii

The next day, we headed back to the Circumvesuviana train, and took the same path (in the direction of Sorrento), passed the Ercolano Scavi stop and got off at the Pompeii Scavi stop. We had tried to book a guide that was well known, but she was unavailable on the day we were arriving. I had read ahead of time that some guides would offer private tours right outside of the site, but that they charged a lot and really didn't know more than your guidebook. However, there was a group tour being offered at a booth right outside the train station, and they were charging 12 euro per person and the kids were free - so we took it! (This did not include the admission into Pompeii. Since we had our passes from the day before, we just waited while the rest of our group bought their tickets.)

The tour, in English, lasted about an hour and a half. It was a good start to being filled in with some history (although we already knew approximately half of what she said from reading a guide book beforehand). The best part, however, was that she actually took you around the major points of Pompeii in a logical order. Given the confusion of Herculaneum the day before, this was so very welcome. It was nice to have a leader that actually could take you from Point A to Point B, and along the way, she even pointed out things we never would have been able to find on our own, like the carvings of male genitalia that showed the direction of the brothels (not in the guidebook).

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Temple of Zeus, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background

After the tour, we exited Pompeii to have lunch in one of the cafes directly across from the site and had pretty much the worst meal I have ever eaten in my life. Of course, it's an incredibly touristy area so no one is actually concerned about the quality of food. Gelato made up for it. (You should maybe just consider gelato for lunch.) And then we went right back into the Pompeii site to explore on our own. (You should probably check with the guards at the gate that you will be able to get back in with your tickets - we did this with a guard at the back entrance and went directly to him again to get back in.)

My 8 year old was fascinated with the gated section off to the left of the Temple of Zeus in the Forum, were they had just stockpiled the excavated artifacts from Pompeii that they did not ship off to the museum. This included jugs of all sizes, broken pieces of columns and altars, and even some of the plaster casts of the citizens of Pompeii. When ash from the volcano filled over the city, it covered the bodies quickly before the skin had a chance to decay, creating a mold of how the people were posed when they died - many huddled or crouched. Archaeologists poured liquid plaster into the molds and were able to create body casts of the people of Pompeii in their final moments. Some of them are in this gated section, others are found inside buildings, under glass casing. You can even see the expressions on their faces - it is quite tragic.

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A plaster made from the preserved impression of one of the victims of the volcano.

The brothels were fun to visit. I believe that my children were oblivious to it all, not questioning the tiny rooms that just held one stone bed, and not really noticing the lewd and hilarious dirty pictures on the wall. (The pictures are not the originals, those are in the museum in Naples.) The brothel rooms were very crowded though, so you are moving fairly quickly through them, and the pictures on the wall are high up, so I didn't at all feel bad about taking the kids through this section!

As the afternoon went on, the kids led us away from the crowds and the more famous sections of Pompeii to wander along quieter streets and houses. This was just a perfect way to explore Pompeii, we all really enjoyed being "alone" in the city. We also headed over to the Colosseum of Pompeii, where they did have gladiator fights - it's a bit farther from the main section of Pompeii, so our tour guide did not lead us here. But it is nicely preserved and if you walk around, you'll find a tunnel entrance that will lead you into the arena itself.

One of the best things we did before heading to Italy was to buy the children's book, You wouldn't want to live in Pompeii! It gives a history of the volcanic eruption and how it destroyed the city of Pompeii, done in away that is informative but still accessible to kids, and providing lots of pictures. Both my 8 year old and 4 year old LOVED this book and they carried it around with them the entire day in Pompeii.

Naples

We started off this day by heading to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples to look through all the lovely artifacts that were pulled from Pompeii (some from Herculaneum as well). The museum also houses some of the largest marble sculptures from Rome, including the actual largest marble sculpture, the Farnese Bull. Michelangelo himself even carved certain pieces of the statue - it is majestic.

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Why yes, she is being strung up by her neck to be hanged from a bull.

You can get have a guide show you around the museum for a price, but we were content to wander on our own, first seeing the sculptures on the first floor, and then heading up to see the frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Also from Pompeii are artifacts located in The Secret Room of the museum - where all those original "dirty" frescoes from the brothels are located, as well as some interesting sculptures. We definitely didn't let the kids go inside here, but my husband and I had a laugh looking around.

After the museum, we had lunch (pizza, and we STILL loved it!) and headed over to the street that sells Christmas ornaments year round, Via San Gregorio Armeno. We then went to see the Duomo and church of Santa Chiara, which had beautiful mosaic columns and a somewhat cartoonish nativity scene on display.

The most interesting church, in my opinion, was that of Cappella Sansevero. It was a church designed by Raimondo di Sangro, who was a Free Mason, and had some amazing sculptures commissioned for this place. The most impressive sculpture is that of The Veiled Christ, which depicts Christ under a shroud, all in marble. It is one the most beautiful pieces of art that I have ever seen in my life! I wish I could have taken pictures, but there was a strict policy and many guards stationed all over the chapel. Other works in the chapel are equally stunning, as well as the chapel itself. As if that wasn't enough, downstairs (and well out of the way if you want to avoid your children seeing this, which you should and we did) are two "anatomical models" of ... something clearly creepy. There are two models of what appears to be a human skull and then metal veins over bone, with the arteries and veins being so anatomically correct that some believed that these were real bodies that were injected with some kind of "metalizing" agent into the veins. But probably not ...

As the sun went down, the Younger Boy and I headed back to the flat while the Older Boy and my husband took a funicular to the top of Naples to enjoy the view. The both loved it - I pass down their high recommendation!

Posted by ThisMomTravels 22.05.2013 04:27 Archived in Italy Tagged volcano italy museum pizza naples pompeii herculaneum vesuvius artifact family_travel ercolano

Scotland, Part Two: Eilean Donan, Isle of Skye, Loch Lomond

Otherwise Known As: Attack of the Midges!


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Destination: Scotland
Date of Travel: June 2012
Travel By: Road
Length of Trip: 11 Days (part 2)
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 7-but-practically-8), a YoungerBoy (age 4)

Itinerary: Days 6 - 11: Eilean Donan Castle, Isle of Skye, Dunvegan, Old Man Stoor, Fairy Pools, Glenfinnan, Castle Stalker, Loch Lomond

Base Camp: Days 6 - 9: Skye. Days 10-11: Loch Lomond

Trip Report: We left Inverness and headed towards the Isle of Skye. Just before we reached the bridge that allows you to drive onto the island, we literally passed Eilean Donan Castle on the way. This castle is very picturesque when the tide is high and it is surrounded by water. When it's not surrounded by water, it's still pretty, but it's also covered in mossy, ugly rock. On our way to Skye, the water was low. On our way out of Skye, the water was high. We got the best of both views.

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Eilean Donan at low tide.

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Eilean Donan at high tide, now with water and bagpipes.

Skye

Our base camp in Skye was in a cottage in Dunvegan. I believe the entire town of Dunvegan is devoid of mobile and Internet connection. However, a small price to pay for the very comfortable lodgings of Painter's Cottage, which I would recommend without hesitation. The cottage was about 5 minutes away from Dunvegan Castle, which is worth touring, and a lovely restaurant, The Old School Restaurant, which is just across the street. Also within walking distance of the cottage were two bakeries that were never open while we were actually at the cottage, and a few small convenience stores.

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Dunvegan Castle

Skye is just an incredible place of breath-taking scenery. We drove across most of it, and it was a pleasure to drive around, stop, drink it all in. The roads are narrow (so driving is slower) and many times you are sharing the road with animals, so just be cautious!

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Highland Cow says, Share the road.

On our first full day, we took a hike up to Old Man Stoor, the name for one of the rock formations that just look like an old man. You park at a small and crowded lot and the base of a mountain, and start your journey up by going through a bit of forest. We were here in June, so the midges were out in full force at this time! Midges are like gnats - they swarm and bite and are just a plain nuisance! However, unlike mosquitoes, the bites don't itch - they just turn red. (The "bug spray" that everyone recommends using is Avon Skin So Soft, which is more of an oil than a spray. We used it and got swarmed - there is no avoiding that. But one day we didn't use it and we were covered in red marks - so it really does help.) After emerging from the forest, you continue the uphill trek through a rocky path up to the mountains. At the marking of the Old Man of Stoor rock, the kids and I took a rest while my husband actually climbed up some of the rocks to take pictures. Then we continued on a grassy trail to a lookout point, took in the gorgeous view, had a snack, and walked back. The weather was good and it was a lovely walk. Again, I should stress that the entire walk is UPHILL and some parts are steep, but my 8 year old did the entire walk himself with no problems. (The 4 year old did get some shoulder rides from Dad.) There were people of all ages making this hike as well.

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The Old Man of Stoor. Perpetuating the stereotypes of grumpy old rock men everywhere.

Nearby Old Man of Stoor, we took a stop to see Kilt Rock, which is a beautiful formation of rock and waterfall. There is a lookout point clearly designated to see the waterfall, but it's hard to get a clear view. It doesn't look like you can actually get close to the waterfall either, unless you are taking some kind of boat out on the water.

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Kilt Rock

Another day in Skye, we drove over to the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle. This is an easy walk along multiple waterfalls that flow into each other and create pools of water. You can even wade around in the pools, but you need to be careful, since the pools just suddenly stop and drop off. We even saw some people diving into the pools, although it was a bit scary to watch - not for everyone! The water is a gorgeous blue and the backdrop of the green mountains really made it a majestic place. This was my favorite destination of our Skye trip!

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Fairy Pools

Glenfinnan and Castle Stalker

Leaving Skye - and passing Eilean Donan once again - we headed towards Loch Lomond, with a few stops along the way. The first stop was Glenfinnan, which has a beautiful lookout to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct. A train passes by at certain times of the day - and not just any train, the very train they used to film the Harry Potter movies. That's right, if you are there at 3 pm, you will be able to see the Hogwarts Express pass by! (I believe there is also an 11:20 am train - check the times before you make your plans!) One note: once the train goes by, wait at least 20 minutes, because another one will cross in the other direction!

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No wizards were aboard this train.

Continuing on, my husband took us a little out of the way to head towards Castle Stalker, which is the only other castle that was used in the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. The castle is private and there isn't a very clear way to get down to see it, but we did manage to park our car along a road and walk towards the beach that would give us a view of the castle. This is another castle that is completely surrounded when the tide is high.

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There's no easy way to get to this castle. It might be because they don't want you to get to this castle.

Loch Lomond

Here's the part where we actually had planned to end our Scotland journey (read: I had planned out a very detailed itinerary and ended it here). But, at the last minute, we decided to add on an extra 2 nights in the Loch Lomond region (read: my husband added on 2 days without researching anything). The lodging we stayed in was in the heart of the Trossachs National Park. They have multiple lochs in the area and they are extremely beautiful - but this is not the place to stay as a base camp for exploring other regions. You stay here to actually stay in the park area and do outdoor activities, such as boating and biking and hiking. On Day 9 of our trip, however, this was not what we were looking to do. And of course, in June, the midges are just wretched, especially in a forested area. So, I can't say that we did much or even went out to eat much in this area, since it took at least 25 minutes to drive to the nearest food lodging and 45 minutes to get out of the park area because the roads are very narrow and winding around the lakes. That said ... we relaxed and were never in a hurry. We also did take a boat ride on Loch Katrine, but it was very slow and a bit uninspiring for the price you pay to take a boat ride. I would suggest, instead, to walk around Loch Katrine or to take a bike ride, because the area is very beautiful.

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Loch Lomond. The midges are hiding.

Posted by ThisMomTravels 11.06.2012 09:57 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland loch kids castle uk lomond isle skye stalker donan family_travel eilean glenfinnan

Scotland, Part One: Edinburgh, Doune, Stirling, Inverness

Otherwise Known As: How to Use the Explorer Pass Like a Champion


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Destination: Scotland
Date of Travel: June 2012
Travel By: Road
Length of Trip: 11 Days
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 7-but-practically-8), a YoungerBoy (age 4)

Itinerary: Days 1 - 5: Dunans Castle, Edinburgh, Doune Castle, Stirling, Inverness (where that monster named Nessie lives)

Base Camp: Day One: Glendalough. Days 2-4: Perthshire. Day 5: Inverness.

Trip Report: We kicked off our road trip by leaving England and driving towards Dunans Castle, a castle known only to those who happened to see a Groupon for "Buy yourself the title of Laird or Lady!" and actually did so. Yes, we proudly own an entire 2 square feet of Dunans property - not anything near the castle, in the woods actually, and where the bugs like to swarm - but we did buy it, and being land owners of Scotland officially gives my husband and I the titles of Laird and Lady. Well, probably not officially officially. More like semi-officially, where that semi translates to "bought a Groupon." But it's Groupon-official, and as such we have a lovely deed and it's got a wax seal on it, too. WORTH IT.

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We own a bit of dirt near this castle.

(Now, if you are in the Dunans area, not to far from the castle is another castle, Castle Lachlan, which is such a fun ruin of a castle to explore, and directly across from it is a delicious restaurant, Inver Cottage. There's also a bit of water in between the castle and restaurant where little boys can throw rocks. We all just wanted to stay there forever.)

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Castle Lachlan, hidden behind the trees.

After exploring the Dunans area, we headed to the Perthshire area, which was our base to explore the Edinburgh and Stirling areas. There's really nothing in Perthshire we wanted to see, but the lodging we found was about half an hour from Stirling and one hour to Edinburgh, and that was fine by us. Our accommodations were perfect - just know that besides a small convenience store, there really is nothing else worthy of visiting in the immediate area, restaurants included.

Edinburgh

We spent one full day in Edinburgh. Our first task was to walk up the 287 steps to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument. I think we did this because there was a man in a kilt playing bagpipes in front of it, so it must have convinced us that this is what one does in Scotland. Also, this was the first bagpiper we saw in Edinburgh and didn't yet realize there are men in kilts playing bagpipes EVERYWHERE. Our kids are the kind of kids that don't actually care about climbing up 287 steps (much) and there were a few levels so we could break up the journey to the top. On one level, we learned that Charles Dickens had said, "I'm sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground." Hacked-off spire? Yes. But a failure? No. There's a good view of Edinburgh Castle once you get to the top.

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Charles Dickens was jealous of this monument.

We left the monument and headed towards the Royal Mile so we could go to Edinburgh Castle. (It's a bit of a steep path up, since the castle is built on a cliff.) Before we headed out for Scotland, we researched the Explorer Pass, which is pass you can buy to get into unlimited castles on the list for a set amount of days. We bought the 3-day pass which you actually have 5 days to use. After visiting 2 castles, you are already saving money. We used them for Edinburgh Castle(Day One of the Pass), Stirling Castle and Doune Castle (Day Two) and the Loch Ness castle at Inverness, Urquhart (Day Four).

We made it just in time at Edinburgh Castle to hear the 21-gun salute, where they do indeed fire their cannon-like guns 21 times. My 8 year old loved it and stood up with my husband right at the front of the line. My 4 year old covered his ears and he and I stood very much in the back. Afterwards, we explore the grounds and the small chapel and the dungeon-like rooms. There actually was not a whole lot to explore on this day, and I'm not quite sure if it was because certain places were closed or if it is limited-viewing. To view the famous Princess Gardens of the castle, you need to leave the castle-on-a-cliff and head down and away. The gardens offer plenty of space for kids to run around, and there is even a great playground, not to mention a golden fountain and a beautiful view of the castle.

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Older Boy taking a picture of the fountain in the Princess Street Gardens.

My husband would like me to mention that after Edinburgh Castle, he had the best meal of our Scotland trip, one that he still fondly talks about to this day. Caveat: you must like pork sandwiches (which I don't) because I believe that's all they serve. His included a generous lump of shredded pork on a bun, one side of the bun smothered in Haggis, the other in some kind of apple glaze, and apparently the pork was also seasoned with some kind of chili sauce. Sound appetizing? Then head on over to Oink. Not your thing? Go a couple doors down to Hula Juice Bar, where the kids and I had some very fresh and healthy sandwiches and smoothies.

We walked down to the other end of the Royal Mile by this point, trying to see the palace, but it was closing time. So then we walked over to the National Museum of Scotland, and along the way we were surprised and delighted to pass by The Elephant House, which was the cafe where J.K. Rowling would sit and write Harry Potter. The museum was also a delight - a great place for adults and kids alike. I believe it's actually made up of 2 different museums, which show both the natural history of Scotland and the ancient history of the country, and also a very cool technology area where the kids can play and you can see Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal from a cell. Yes, it's actually her!

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J.K. Rowling wrote her masterpiece here. I think I updated a Facebook status in the same spot.

And on our way back from the historic part of Edinburgh, we headed over to Calton Hill, where we could explore some Greek-like ruins and catch a beautiful sunset over the castle. A wonderful way to end the day, I really recommend it. (PS: There's a model of a cannon that little boys may run over to and never want to leave again.)

Doune Castle and Stirling Castle, and William Wallace, too

Doune Castle and Stirling Castle are about 20 minutes apart by car, so it was easy to make the decision that we should see both. Plus, both castles work under the Explorer Pass. Plus, my husband really wanted to see Doune. Why? This is the castle they used to film about 95% of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (The other 5% was filmed at Castle Stalker in Scotland ... which we also visited, later.)

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My husband storming the castle. He also stole a sword from our son.

There's not much to indicate that this was a movie set, except for a few relics in the gift shop. The castle itself is pretty bare-bones, you are walking through the courtyard and a few rooms that they have left open to walk around. But these are exactly the kind of places my boys like to explore, especially when you arm them with wooden swords (we bought these at a castle years ago, they travel everywhere with us). And the biggest boy of all was very excited to identify what parts of the castle were used for which scene. We spent about an hour here, enjoyably.

Stirling Castle is a different experience than both Doune and even Edinburgh. For one, the rooms are lavishly decorated and you are walking through as if the royal family is living there, right now. Also, if you get there at the right time, you will see characters in full dress, including Mary-Queen-of-Scots herself. The day we went (on a weekend), they had many activities for the kids, including "knight training" that pretty made this the BEST CASTLE EVER for my boys.

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Stirling Castle on a cliff. Thankfully there's a parking lot up there.

From Stirling Castle, you can see the William Wallace monument in the background. We headed there next, about a 10 minute drive. You park at a lot at the base of the monument, and then walk uphill on a mostly-paved path (we had a stroller, it was fine). The trek is not horrible. However, once you get to the monument, put your strollers away, it 237 steps to the top. Considering what we'd done at Edinburgh the day before, no one actually blinked an eye at this. The steps are also broken up by various levels, the first level holding what may be the reason everyone comes to the monument, to see the sword of William Wallace.

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This sword weighs 6 lbs. Only Mel Gibson can wield it.

Now, on our way out of the William Wallace/Stirling Castle area, we passed a charming-looking restaurant on the water and stopped in for dinner. We all enjoyed our meals. The atmosphere was nice. Two of us got food poisoning that night. So, I don't know know, maybe skip it.

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Because of our two sickies, we skipped a trip out to Balmoral Castle and headed straight to Loch Ness. (And honestly, it worked out better, Balmoral is out of the way. From the Perthshire area, we drove about 2 1/2 hours over to Inverness.) We spent one night here and just rented a room at the Premier Inn, which suited our purposes for a pit stop. We checked in and relaxed and got up bright and early to explore the surroundings.

Urquhart Castle is right on the famous Loch Ness, a castle of ruins. It is absolutely stunning and offers a beautiful view of the water. Don't miss the gift shop movie, which gives you a nice-and-short history of the castle and the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. And when the movie is over, you are in for a very cool treat.

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There were at least two monster sightings at Loch Ness that day, and both of them were my children.

Now, because of the whole Nessie-the-Monster thing, there are A TON of horrible little tourist attractions around there. One that we visited was called Nessieland, and honestly, skip it. All of these places are overpriced and are not even interesting for the kids. The only thing I would suggest that would be fun is a boat ride out on the lake. Friends of ours have done this and it was fun for the whole family - I believe they even "point out" Nessie to you! But because we recently had a bout of sickness, we had to skip the boat ride.

After a nice time exploring Urquhart Castle (also on the Explorer Pass), we got into our car and headed over to the beautiful Isle of Skye (to be continued in another entry).

Posted by ThisMomTravels 10.06.2012 05:19 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland loch edinburgh kids castle uk stirling family_travel doune inverness urquhart lachlan

Barcelona, Spain

Otherwise Known As: The Gaudi-est city in the world.

Destination: Barcelona, Spain
Date of Travel: February 2012
Travel By: Flight from London to Barcelona, public transportation via metro around the city
Length of Trip: 6 Days total, 4 full days of sightseeing
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 7), a YoungerBoy (age 3)

Itinerary: Sagrada Familia, Park Güelll,Casa Batlló, Picasso Museum, Mercat de La Boqueria, Santa Maria del Mar, Chocolate Museum, Christopher Columbus monument, Montjuïc, Montserrat, Casa Milà, Aquarium

Base Camp: We stayed right in the city of Barcelona. Our apartment was directly in front of the Sagrada Familia, which is also directly in front of a metro stop. I highly recommend the place we stayed: http://www.gaudisnest.com/

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This church has been under construction since 1882 and still isn't finished. So now I don't feel so bad about procrastinating either.

Trip Report: Having an apartment in front of the Sagrada Familia was excellent - we had an unobstructed view from the rooftop of the apartment building and all we had to do was cross the street to explore the church. (After stopping at the playground on the way there for the kids; there are playgrounds in both parks in front and behind the church.)

The church - along with many other buildings in the city - was envisioned by Antoni Gaudi. Our Older Boy loved it because we had read about it and other Gaudi architecture in this book. Our younger boy just loved that the church was still under construction and he could see the cranes every day - win for everyone! It really is beautiful and unique, inside and out, and it's still not completed.

After visiting the church, we decided to explore some more of Gaudi's creations: Park Güell and Casa Batlló. The park was a great place for a picnic (we grabbed sandwiches from one of the shops along the way) and to see the famous winding benches and mosaic Geko. We bought tickets to go inside Casa Batlló and listened to an audio-guided tour. Older Boy and I were very interested; husband and YoungerBoy were not. Needless to say, after the house, they had enough of Gaudi and we went in search of a snack.

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My husband looked at this creation by Gaudi and wondered if the word "gaudy" originated from him. It actually originates from people who make this exact joke.

The thing to do in Barcelona is to eat churros dipped in hot chocolate. Hot chocolate in Spain is not a drink but more like melted bars of chocolate. Which sounds delicious, but after two sips, you will realize quickly that you cannot sustain drinking it. We embarked on it incorrectly, however: we drank the hot chocolate at one location and ate the churros at another. But you really must dip-and-eat, do not make our mistake!

The day wasn't over for us - we still managed to fit in an evening stroll through the Picasso museum, which was interesting only for the adults. At this museum, you'll see why Picasso really was crazy. He embarked on a 5 month mission to recreate the painting Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, but did so in a way that you think a 5 year old painted them. In fact, I think my 3 year old could have done better, and he really only likes to draw triangles and circles. Should this deter you? I hope not, it really is entertaining! Plus, you'll get a good range of his work in this museum.

We ended our evening with a delicious tapas meal. I couldn't tell you which restaurant we went into, just picked one that wasn't crowded and looked family-friendly (there were many to choose from). We had a selection of tiny plates brought to the table. This is a great way to eat with the kids - they mostly ate some chicken skewers and bread, but Older Boy had a great time trying everything. And the adults had a great time drinking Sangria.

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Little plates of food are just adorable. Actually made me to forget that I don't like squid and tried the squid. Still, no.

Our second day of travel included a walk down La Rambla for a visit to the markets, a chocolate museum where the tickets are actual bars of chocolate, and a cable-car ride up to Montjuïc. There is a castle on Montjuïc that we explored, then we caught a bus down to the MNAC where we settled in to have a great view of the Magic Fountain show. Unfortunately, the show was not actually showing that night, but we still had a nice view of the city.

The highlight of our trip would no doubt be the journey to Montserrat. This mountainous area is about an hour outside of the city (easily reached by the RD5 train via metro), complete with a Benedictine abbey and lots of inclined trains called "funiculars" to get to top of the peaks. The abbey was lovely, but taking the funicular to the top was the treat. There's an easy walk towards a small church perched on the cliff - and if you take the steps that go up into the mountain (instead of continuing up the inclined path), you'll get to see some caves where the monks used to live. A great adventure for the family! (Also quite safe for kids as the path is very wide, but you are walking on the cliffs, so be cautious.)

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Pretty sure Montserrat is Spanish for "rocks that are made for cuddling."

Our last day consisted of doing a quick walk-by seeing Casa Milà (could convince no one to go in) and then heading to the marina, where we saw the Christopher Columbus statue, went to the beach (but it was February, so we just played in the sand), indulged in ice cream (but it was February, so we just ate it inside) and then ended up at the Aquarium for the kids. Hey, they put up with Picasso, so we could let them see some fish. There's a nice tunnel that you can walk through to see sharks swimming above your head. There's also a toy submarine near the cafe area, where certain little boys played Battleship while certain parents got sit down and leisurely sip their tea. Worth the admission price.

Posted by ThisMomTravels 07:59 Archived in Spain Tagged mountains children architecture barcelona church kids museum spain gaudi montjuic sagrada aquarium tapas churros picasso family_travel monstserrat

Northumberland, England

Otherwise Known As: The Trip Where Everything Was Closed

Destination: Northumberland, England
Date of Travel: November 2011
Travel By: Car
Length of Trip: 5 Days total, 3 full days of sightseeing
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 7), a YoungerBoy (age 3)

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Hadrian's Wall path

Initial Itinerary: Hadrian's Wall, Alnwick Castle & Gardens, Dunstanburgh Castle, Bamburgh Castle, Newcastle upon Tyne. We knew it would be chilly in November, but did not realize that all the castles would be closed or have limited opening times!

Base Camp: We rented a small but lovely converted barn/cottage in the city of Warkworth. We found this was a good base for getting to all the sites we wanted to see, and the city itself had ruins of a castle we could walk to see from the cottage.

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Our cottage in Warkworth

Trip Report: On our first full day of sightseeing, we headed out for a walk along Hadrian's Wall, and we were lucky that it was sunny and beautiful to make up for the November chill. We left our car at the car park and started at the English Heritage site of Housesteads Roman Fort. We explored the fort before travelling along the wall (left from the fort) towards the Steel Rigg Car Park, which was probably a walk of around 3.5 miles. The walk does not actually require you to walk on top of the wall - mostly, you are next to the wall on the grass - although there are some parts where you can. There are many hills along the way, but nothing too steep - my 7 year old clambered up and over them with no problem. However, sometimes the steps going up the hill are very rocky, so we would give our 3 year old a hand with those (much to his dismay). Also, the very last hill down towards the Steel Rigg Car Park is quite steep - it took me awhile to figure out how to get my 3 year old down it and I thought there should have been rails of some sort. If it was raining, it would have been a real problem.

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Starting the walk on top of Hadrian's Wall. Swords are not optional.

The walk leads onto crags and overlooks the lake Crag Lough (held on to the kids hands for this part!) and goes by the famous Robin Hood Tree, officially known as Sycamore Gap. The tree was used in the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves - the part where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman are walking along the stone steps and little boy runs up a tree to escape from the Sheriff of Nottingham's soldiers? Yeah, it's that tree!

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Morgan Freeman, Kevin Costner and I all stood under this tree. Not at the same time.

Once we ended our walk at Steel Rigg car park, we had to figure out how to get back to our car which was over at Housesteads. I believe there are some buses that will take you back, but in the end, my husband just ran the entire way back, got the car, and picked us up. I should mention that a) he's a runner b) he's a little nutty and c) he headed back just before we noticed the last hill to get down to the car park where I had to help the 3 year old. It took that long!

On our second day of sightseeing, we started off the day by heading to Dunstanburgh Castle, also an English Heritage site. This is a ruined castle, perched on top of a hill overlooking the North Sea. We parked some distance away and took a path that was marked just off a golf course that lead towards the castle. Once we reached the base of the castle, we walked up the hill, only to get to the top and find out the castle was closed! However, the walk was fun and the views were incredible, so the journey was well worth it. On our way back, my husband and older son took the rocky walk along the coast while I chased the younger boy back down the grassy path we originally had taken.

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Walking towards Dunstanburgh Castle

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Dunstaburgh Castle

Since this castle trip was cut a bit short, we decided to head to another nearby castle, Bamburgh Castle. This castle claims to be open all year, however starting in November, it's only open on the weekends. We did not visit on a weekend.

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Bamburgh Castle, Not Quite Open All Year

Next up, Alnwick Castle, also closed starting in November. The gardens on the castle grounds were open, but some of the exhibits were closed and the price did not seem worth it to visit (especially since it was cold). But on the grounds is a Treehouse Restaurant, where we had lunch. The boys thought this we neat (okay, we all thought it was neat!) and the food was very good (kids menu included). Not more than 5 minutes away from the castle is a pretty well-known used bookstore, Barter Books. It's large, has lots of kids books, and a toy train that moves along the tops of the bookcases. We all enjoyed our visit and stocked up. (I also learned later that the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster was a lost English propaganda poster during World War 2 that was never used and was found here - neat!)

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Alnwick Castle, also used for the Sheriff of Nottingham's Castle and partly filmed for Harry Potter

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Treehouse Restaurant

For our last full day of sightseeing, we headed up to Newcastle. We explored the city and headed over to the Millennium Bridge, because according to the website, it was going to tilt up at 11 am that day to allow boats to pass underneath it. But according to the schedule at the actual bridge, it was not scheduled to tilt that day at all.

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Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Tilts, occasionally.

No worries, we visited what was left of the castle keep in the city, ate lunch at a sandwich shop and headed to see Tynemouth Priory ... which was closed. It was actually supposed to be open, but they were filming some sort of documentary that day and had closed it to the public. Honestly, we would have been surprised if it was open. But we realized that we were not far from the Metro Centre in Newcastle, a shopping center that is one of the largest in Europe and open until 9 pm. Having lived in a small town in England for awhile - where there is no major shopping mall and stores that all close around 6 pm - we decided to head over. We browsed, ate dinner at Wagamama's and stayed out LATE!

During the course of our days as we headed back to base camp, we explored the town of Warkworth. The castle was closed, but there was a wonderful walk around the castle, alongside the River Coquet. And not far from town is the coast of the North Sea, which perhaps during a month other than November would be suitable to swim in. But then again, this is England; to my American temperament, there is no time in England suitable to swim in the water.

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Warkworth Castle

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Bridge over the River Coquet

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This was supposed to spell out North Sea. But writing in the sand can be tiring.

Posted by ThisMomTravels 07:18 Archived in England Tagged england history kids countryside castle walks uk hadrian northumberland alnwick family_travel

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