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Trip Report 6 weeks in France and Italy for a first timer

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well after extensive research here, we finally headed off on our first foray to Europe. Me, Hubby and Junior (6) boarded our Singapore Airlines flight from Perth to Singapore and on to Paris.

The flight was long, but overall pretty good. We arrived about 30 minutes early (6.30am) and headed off to find out if our luggage had made it. After a bit of confusion, we located our bags, and I was pretty glad of a friends advice to print out instructions on getting to the RER station.

Eventually we got to our stop, and amazingly even found our exit from the maze of corridors. We were a little early for meeting the owner of the apartment we had rented, so we stopped at the corner cafe for breakfast, then on to our Paris home.

we stayed here http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/VacationRentalReview-g187147-d2036676-or3-Charming_Apartment_In_St_Germain_Des_Pres-Paris_Ile_de_France.html#review_140819568 which was awesome. Absolutely perfect for us. Right in the centre of St Germain, with easy access to transport and highlights.

We unpacked then headed out to explore Paris. We wandered accross the Ponte Des Arts, and over for a look at the Louvre (didnt go in, but the line wasnt too long so was a good sign), We walked up through the Jardin des Tuleries and then back accross the Pont Royal and decided to go and have a look at Musee d'Orsay.

We bought a 6 day Museum Pass (which was well worth the money) and wandered around for a look. I dont get into museums and art galleries much, but I did love it.

Junior was pretty shattered so we sought out icecream, and lunch. Sadly we found a cafe nearby that ended up being our worst meal in Paris - it was truly awful.

Wandered home again, and had a rest before dinner (lovely) and an early night. After not much sleep, we were all pretty jet-lagged.

Day 2
Louvre in the morning - We used the Carousel entrance and had no line at all . The Louvre was simply incredible. I loved the building itself - though not enough time there as Junior was bored after a while. She was a trooper though, and stuck it out for a long time with only a lollipop to sustain her. Though we did have the absolute BEST macaroon I have ever had in the coffee shop at the entrance to the shopping centre. Went back for those :)

Eiffel Tower. I had pre-booked tickets, and we got there in good time. We had a batobus pass which was helpful with a small child who was already tired of walking ... so all was good. I had not thought ahead that much though, and because the day was sunny and beautful, was wearing a summer dress. The second level of the tower was FREEZING. It was so windy and cold that we ended up deciding not to go to the top. Jr was not enjoying it, and I was simply too cold. Anyway, tower was good.

After the Tower, we headed over to the Champs Elysees and for a look at the Arch de Triomphe. Petite Palais was pretty cool too (and has toilets which was a frequent issue)

Day 3 - Palace of Versailles
OMG how amazing is this place? Got the RER (which was super-easy thanks to fodors) and was blown away by how amazing the Palace is. Did the Palace first - which was probably the most crowded place we went the whole trip - and then hired a golf cart to explore the beautiful gardens. I had hurt my ankle on the first day so walking was getting to be a problem ... so knowing we could get golf carts, and finding them was a godsend.

Day 4
Cathedral of Notre Dame - I thought this was simply beautiful (but as you will see from when we get to Rome, the churches were all something I will remember for a very long time).

Sacre Couer - I liked Notre Dame better to be honest. And here was the first time we had an issue with people hassling us ... was all fine - we are used to Asia where people hassle you a lot more, just a direct and clear "no thankyou" as you move on seemed to be ok, but Jr wasnt too happy. Went to a few other places, shops, gardens and stuff ... just wandering around experiencing Paris.

This nights dinner I will mention too - was a gorgeous restuarant (cant remember the name but it is right next to the flower shop on Rue de Buci (between Rue Mazarine and Rue de Seine) ... absolutely beautiful food, not too pricey and fantastic service. We went back here.

Day 5 - Shopping !!!
I left Hubby with Junior and spent the day buying more stuff than I could carry home :)

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    good start, Newbie. sounds like a well-paced trip - so many people seem to forget that they have to make allowances for how their children will react to new places and experiences, but you appear to have avoided that trap very well, which no doubt contributed to the trip's success.

    looking forward to more!

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    Day 6 - London.
    We got up early (not an issue as we were still adjusting to the time zones ... waking early and not sleeping that well) and got a taxi to Gare du Nord for our day trip to London. Junior really wanted to see Buckingham Palace, and I got a great deal on train tickets so we figured 'why not'?

    Eurostar was good - no hassles, relaxing and easy. Junior had her trust ipod which kept her entertained the whole holiday ... so worth the money. Thanks Nonno.

    Got to London - we had used the Paris L'Open Tour buses the day we went to Sacre Couer and found them pretty good, so with my ankle still really sore we decided a tour bus would be a good idea.

    It was a beautiful day in London (I understand that is pretty rare) so was great ... went over London Bridge, wandered around the Tower of London, did a river cruise back to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, tour of Westminster Abbey (which I found pretty dreary actually). Pub lunch and back on the bus to Buckingham Palace.

    They were doing tours of the Palace, but the only time we could get was 4.30pm - which was too late for us - so we just looked from the gates. Junior was fascinated with the guards.

    Bus back to Oxford St for devonshire tea, and shopping before heading back to St Pancreas station for the train home.

    Day 8 - Champagne
    Easy morning today and an afternoon trip to Champagne. We had been cooking our own breakfast in the apartment. The kitchen was small but pretty functional and good - and there was a supermarket really close with amazing bread and fruit etc. Breakfast was sooooo yummy that we didnt feel we needed to eat out.

    Anyway - caught the train to Eperney for our tour of Moet & Chandon, which both Hubby and I loved. The caves were just amazing. I had thought long and hard about today as I would have really liked to go to Veuve Cliquot as well, but it seemed like a long day when I was planning .. so we decided on just 1 tour. In the end, we could easily have done both - even training it between Eperney and Reims - but it was nice and relaxing not to have to rush anywhere. We had missed lunch though, so had an early dinner at a pub in Eperney before heading home, and it is still a memory that sticks ... the gorgeous courtyard and wonderful atmosphere.

    Day 8 - Disneyland
    We had promised junior a day at Disneyland if she was good - and she had been really great the whole time. She LOVED disneyland, though Hubby and I were a but underwhelmed. It was very small compared to Disneyworld in Florida, and a little old and tired. Jr wanted a photo with a Princess, so we did the 1 and a half hour wait in line for a photo with Cinderella. But she does treasure it.l

    Paris overall - loved it. Amazing city with so much beauty and history all roled into one. I will go back.

    Day 9 - Paris-Amboise
    Today we left Paris for the gorgeous Loire Valley. We got the metro to Gare Montparnasse and TGV to Tours with no hassles. I had arranged a hire car at Tours, which we collected with no dramas. I booked through Argus Car Hire - using Europcar and they were great. Another couple before us had booked with some other small rental company who were closed, and were going around to Europcar/Hertz/Avis etc to try and find a car ... but basically unless you had pre-booked there was nothing. So glad I had arranged things so meticulously.

    We had taken our Tom-tom with us (and used it pretty extensively to navigate Paris anyway) so didnt ask for a GPS, but the car had one which was nice. Hubby has driven in the US a few times, so has driven on the wrong side of the road :) but it was still pretty harrowing. Round-abouts scared the daylights out of me

    Found Amboise and our hotel easily enough, and checked in.

    We were staying at Le Manior Les Minimes which was absolutely beautiful. A gorgeous french manor house that really made it special.

    http://www.manoirlesminimes.com/uk/galeriephoto.htm

    We had a triple room - which was large for Europe. Had a large Queen size bed, and a seperate area with a sofa bed for Jr. And a gorgeous view of Amboise Castle.

    Wandered about town, and toured Amboise Castle in the afternoon. An amazing castle with beautiful grounds too. And it was one of the only places in either Paris or the Chateaus with 'gardens' where Jr was allowed to actually walk and play on the lawns. Everywhere seemed to just have a path and no area for any actual play.

    Lunch at Le Lion d'Or was the best meal I had in France. Was absolutely beautiful.

    Day 10
    Chateau de Chambord and Chateau de Cheverney.
    Chambord was incredible. Its huge, and has the most impressive skyline ... wandering around it was just amazing. We had lunch in the little strip of cafes just outside the castle, which was nice.

    Cheverney was more of a really impressive Manor House than a chateau - but it was beautifully furnished and fitted, so gave a great indication of how it was used etc. Went to see the hounds here too, which were great. Junior loved them.

    Dinner in Amboise - nice.

    Day 11 - Chenenceau
    Chenceceau is a pretty impressive Chateau which is built on a bridge - so extends over the river Loire.

    I loved all the castles, but by now we were pretty Chateau'd out, so we gave Villandry a miss and spent the afternoon relaxing on the Loire, had a picnic and a nice cold beer on the terrace of our hotel. The place had a nice garden for junior to play in, but here I do wish I had booked somewhere with a pool - as spending the afternoon having a swim would have been nice.

    We decided to send a large package of stuff home to lighten the load, which was cheaper than I expected which was good. I managed to find a laundry too, so was good to be heading to the South with a suitcase of clean clothes.

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    Day 12 - Amboise to Avignon
    Today we left the beautiful Loire Valley, for the even more beautiful south of france. Our train was not until 2pm so we had a leisurely breakfast, packed up and headed in to Tours to have a look around. The cathedral in Tours was amazing. It is in the process of being restored, so you get a glimpse of how it will look, but a lot of it is still quite rundown. I would love to go back and see it when the work is done.

    Train to Avignon - I love the trains in Europe. so easy and comfortable.

    In fact we were incredibly fortunate our whole holiday. All of my bookings - so painstakingly and carefully researched - went off without a hitch. No missed trains, no missing bookings, no hotels who didnt expect us or tour guides who didnt show up. Everything went perfectly. So thanks to so many who gave me all the advice.

    Got to Avignon on time, waited for ever for our rental car (again with Europecar) who did have it for us, but were just v.e.r.y. s.l.o.w. We had been upgraded to a Mercedes something-special-that-hubby-loved though, so all was good. (a car is a car to me)

    Anyway, by now it was getting a little dark and where we were staying was still a 1/2 hr drive and off the beaten track so I was a little concerned.

    We found our way, only taking one or two wrong turns, but finding the turn off for our B&B/Chateau in the dark was a challenge. Neither our tom-tom or the GPS recognised the place or the road ... but good old trusty google maps on my iphone had it, so eventually we got there.

    The place we were staying was GORGEOUS. So impressed.

    http://www.chateautalaud.com/en-castle-provence.htm

    Our room was the largest bedroom I have stayed at (and I have stayed at some pretty impressive places). It was basically a whole wing of the top floor. Beautifully furnished suite with a sepearate area for Jr, lounge suite and day bed, and little nooks everywhere - with views on 3 sides.

    I would recommend this place to anyone. The grounds were fabulous. Extensive and well maintained set in a vineyard. Nice little pool too. The hosts Connie and Hein were friendly, helpful and a delight.

    As it is a B&B, no food there so we headed out for dinner (disaster ... pizza and pasta but it took soooo long that Junior was falling asleep before we got our food).

    Day 13 + 14
    We spent the next 2 days just relaxing and enjoying the gorgeousness that is Provence. We explored some of the local towns, drove around and generally just experiencing the places that took our fancy. Carpentras itself was wonderful, and I loved Isle sur la sorgue too. We went to St Remy on market day which was pretty horrendous as it was just so crowded and busy.

    We did find here that fewer people spoke english, but most were pretty happy to try and understand our limited french/english mish-mash. Overall french people were really friendly

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    The things we didnt do in Provence are probably more relevant than what we did. We didnt go to Pont du Guard, we didnt actually go in to Avignon, we didnt do much in the way of tours or touristy stuff ... just relaxed and walked/drove around. It was fantastic and I loved it.

    The last night there we had just got some bread and cheese and stuff (OMG the cheese in France is just so great) and headed back to Chateau Talaud to enjoy some of their own wine and a fun picnic dinner. It was so great. The other guests there were really lovely too, and we enjoyed comparing stories and places to go.

    Day 15 - Avignon to Venice
    We spent the morning in Carpentras, then headed to Avignon TGV to return the hire car. Driving had got much easier though the narrow streets were still difficult in the smaller towns. Lots of trains were delayed so we were a little worried, but in the end all was good.

    I had spent a LONG time planning exactly what we were doing, and researching everything ... so I had got the train tickets all very early and got great Prems - so all our train travel was first class. I was really glad actually as we had a bit more luggage than I had really anticipated (tried to travel light, but I just dont do that :) ) so the extra room was really good.

    Anyway, train from Avignon to Lyon, eventually found the Rhone Express (tram from Lyon Part Dieu to the airport) and headed over to the airport. We were flying to Venice with Easyjet ... which while I knew was a budget airline, I didnt realise it left from a budget terminal. There wasnt much at the airport so waiting was very boring.

    We had paid for speedy boarding though, so meant to hassles or pushing and shoving getting on the flight. Well worth the extra money.

    Got to Venice - we were staying at what I thought was a hotel right near the airport that night. Turns out it wasnt actually that close to the airport - but not really close to Venice proper either. Kind of half way. Anyway, it was nice, clean, modern and functional. We were only there for 1 night and left first thing in the morning to head to Venice proper.

    Day 16 + 17 - Venice
    We stayed at Hotel Carlton on the Grand, which was nice. Small rooms but I guess that is to be expected in Venice. I actually liked being right on the grand canal (though we did not have a view from the room) - it made finding our way really easy, there was a Vaparetto stop right outside and loads of easy places right there.

    The number 1 Vaparetto is VERY crowded, and we didnt really enjoy it much the first time as we were a bit nervous about knowing where to get off / push through the crowds etc .. but once we found our way, we were happy to head to the back and find some more space, which made it much more enjoyable.

    Venice was amazing. There is no other place like it on earth. I loved the feel of it - and shopping of course :)

    Dogues Palace I was blown away by. I wasnt expecting much (you would think Palace would give it away- but no) I hadnt really looked at what was in Venice so didnt think it would be so great, but it was spectacular. Another highlight was the Da Vinci museum which we happened to be walking past and thought we would give it a bit of a look.

    Overall I liked Venice, but I wouldnt say I am itching to go back. I didnt need a week there ... it was lovely to see and experience, but for me it was a once only kind of thing.

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    Day 18 - Venice to Sondrio
    Hubby has family in Sondrio who we were staying with for a few days, so we left lovely Venice and headed for the amazing Valtelina.

    Train from Venezia St Lucia to Milan, then a regional train to Sondrio all without due distress. Even lunch at Milano Centrale was edible ... Pizza in italy is usually good.

    Arrive in Sondrio and we are met at the station by Hubbys cousin - the wonderful Francesca who was to be our host for the next 4 days. Francesca had been over to visit us in Australia in January, so we had met her before - but the rest of the family were all previously just names and pictures on facebook, so it was nice to meet them.

    Sondrio is on the valley floor of the Valtelina region - and OMG it is beautiful. France was pretty, northern Italy was simply spectacular. The mountains just majestic and incredible ... and they go on and on and on. Everywhere you look its just amazing.

    We arrived in the afternoon, and Francesca had arranged a family celebration for our arrival- so about 25 odd people to meet and get to know over a fantastic feast. Was great.

    Day 19 - Valtelina
    We had breakfast and Francesca drove us around the lower hills to a local castle ruin, a tower and places to view the mountains. We went to hubbys family's house where his parents had grown up, and visited various relatives. We drove to Tirano and saw the amazing church there and wandered around the town. Just lots of local stuff - was such a good day.

    Day 20 - More family stuff. Went to another Aunts and around various villages and places. Just the scenery and places were amazing. Loved it so much. Quick visit into Switzerland ... but really only just over the border, not much.

    Day 21 - Today we went to more relatives in Bormio. Getting higher into the mountains was great and I loved Bormio. You can see how beautiful it would be in winter when everything is white and covered in skiers :)

    Went for a drive to the top of the Passo di Stelvio - such a great experience. I love cycling and was so excited to drive up this epic mountain. There was still some snow at the top, so Junior was pretty excited as she had never seen snow. Our cousin had a little container to collect some snow for her ... so cute.

    Day 22 - Around Sondrio. Went shopping (again), out for lunch, Farewell family celebration ... all great.

    Hubbys family were fantastic and we were so lucky to be able to experience life as they showed us. The local villages and life, the off the beaten track non-touristy stuff.

    Sondrio, Bormio and the Italian Alpes were simply magnificent and we left already planning to go back and stay longer.

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    Day 23 - Sondrio to Bellagio
    WE had a lovely morning with family, then caught the train from Sondrio to Varenna, and the ferry to the lake town of Bellagio. I loved it immediately.

    I have to say, I think Bellagio is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It is that gorgeous.

    We stayed at La Limonera apartments ( http://www.residencelalimonera.com/ ) and they were great without being spectacular. Functional and clean, right in the centre of town. No view of the lake though, but they did have a nice garden area for Junior to play, and a lovely roof terrace for a glass of wine in the evening.

    Mostly we were out and about though, so while it would have been nice to wake up to that view, it wasnt really worth the money for a hotel on the water.

    Bellagio is a beautiful town - though very touristy. Pebbled streets, steps up and down everywhere, cafes and restaurants on the water front and of course the amazing mountains all around.

    We spent the afternoon - and the next 2 days - just exploring the lake. We went on a private water taxi tour to Villa del Balbianello which was lovely. We went over to Menaggio and took a little train/tractor thing down to Lenno and had lunch. More exploring on any number of ferries ... and amazing food and various cafes and places.

    As a place to relax and rejuvinate after being away 3 weeks now, it was fantastic. We didnt try and fit too much in - just enjoyed the scenery.

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    Day 26 - Bellagio to Sorrento
    This was the most difficult day for travel. Getting from Bellagio to Malpensa Airport was always going to be a struggle. Either an expensive transfer, or Ferry and 2 trains taking ages ...

    Next time, I would definitely take the train - there is a direct train from Milan to Naples and it would have been much easier and probably around the same amount of time.

    Anyway, I had booked the flights, and the direct train was really expensive by the time I looked, so we sucked it up and did what we planned.

    Taxi from Bellagio to Malpensa. I did not book this in advance, just a local taxi company once we got to Bellagio, and they were good. Arrived on time, fixed price, got us there in good time. Easyjet flight from Malpensa to Napoli - again we paid for speedy boarding which is something I would always do in the future if traveling with small children.

    At Napoli there is a coach service (Curreri) that goes from the airport to Sorrento, but the timetable didnt really suit us, so I had arranged for a private transfer with Sorrento Cars (http://www.sorrentocars.com/ ) which were great. It was great to have someone meet us and know where they were going. The driver was great to talk to and told us a fair amount about Naples and Sorrento along the way.

    We stayed at Rota Suites http://www.rotasuites.com/en/home.php in sorrento, and of all the places we stayed, this is probably one we would not stay again. The apartment was lovely, clean and lots of room ... but they were a reasonable walk from the main centre of town, with not much in terms of restaurants and shops nearby. The reason I chose them was because they had the advantages of being an apartment with extra room, cooking, fridge etc - but they also had an arrangement with a major hotel (supposedly next door) to use their pool and facilities - which they did, but that was also a reasonable walk away, so not so convenient. we did use the facilities at the hotel, but it was a pain. Next time I would pay the extra and stay somewhere that had a pool.

    Anyway - we made it in good time and in good spirits ... and set out for an afternoon of exploring Sorrento. Pizza and Pasta were staples in Italy ... but we were getting a little tired of them, so tried to find places that served other food. Not so easy, and we had some pretty ordinary meals :(

    It is a touristy kind of town - but not without a lot of charm. Kind of a beach side resort town - but without the beach!!! Coming from Aus where we have the worlds most amazing beaches everywhere, it was amusing to see the use of so much decking and floating platforms for swimming as there is just cliffs down to the water.

    And while we walked down the stairs to get to the 'beach', we happily paid the 1E each to get the lift back up :)

    Day 27 - The Amalfi Coast
    For today I had arranged a private tour again with Sorrento Cars for a day trip to the Amalfi Coast. Our driver arrived a little early, but luckily we were ready so all was good. He was lovely, happy and informative, and we were very satisfied with the tour.

    First stop - Positano. I had expected to love the AC ... but in truth I found it less spectacular than Bellagio. Dont get me wrong, it was beautiful - but I didnt find it breathtaking or anything.

    Positano - I am glad we did not stay there. It was literally up and up and up - so if you walked down to the beach you would just stay there. My ankle had recovered somewhat from the rigors of Paris and Venice - but still that amount of steps would not have made for a happy holiday - and I am fairly young and fit. Still, Positano was nice and picture perfect from the coastline.

    Emerald Grotto - we stopped and looked at the Emerald Grotto which was gorgeous. Junior loved it, and wanted to get out and swim

    Ravello - we decided we were hungry, and our driver suggested that Ravello was better for lunch than Amalfi so we decided on Ravello first. I loved Ravello, it was so beautiful on the top of the hill. We had a beautiful lunch in a gorgeous restaurant looking over the ocean to Capri.

    Amalfi - I really liked Amalfi too. Out of all the towns ont he AC, I would have stayed here. It just had the right feel about it.

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    Day 28 - Pompei
    After a lot of research we decided to do Pompei on our own. I was a little nervous because it was something I wanted to do so much - but I also was aware that Junior had her limitations, and a long tour was not going to be enjoyable for any of us.

    We took the Circumvesuviana ... which was running very late, was very hot and crowded and very unenjoyable ... but got us there. Once there we got audio-guides and started off. I found it astounding. Just fascinating

    I am glad that we DIY'ed it though - as we took our time, wandered around slowly, stopped and had snacks and drinks and a play on the grass outside the ampitheatre etc. We didnt get as much information as you would with a guide, as the audio-guides are very dry and boring - but it was a much more enjoyable day than if we had tried to fit in with a schedule.

    In any case - Pompei was incredible, and something I will remember for a long time. A reason to come here - though a day trip from Rome would be ok (not with kids though).

    Day 29 - I had planned to go to Capri today - but we were all completely shattered after 4 weeks of travel, so we decided to give Capri a miss and spend the day at the beach/pool relaxing. We went over to the kind-of-nearby hotel (Grand Hotel Riveria) which was lovely, and swum, sunbathed, relaxed and enjoyed. Lunch in Sorrento, more swimming in the gorgeous emerald waters of the Mediterranean. Just what we needed.

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    Day 30 - Sorrento to Rome
    Today we left the glorious Amalfi Coast for the history and ruins of Rome. Sorrento Cars once again came through for us, and did a great job of getting us there. They had turned up early and urged us to leave as their was to be a protest on the major highway between Sorrento and Naples, which unless we got through before they closed the road would result in a 2 hr go-around which would mean we would miss our train. We got a move on, and made it through just in time.

    Train to Rome - our last train trip, and I still love the trains in italy :)

    In Rome we were staying at the IQ Hotel Roma http://www.iqhotelroma.it/en/ which was nice. It was close to Roma Termini, which isnt an ideal location in terms of walking to tourist hotspots - but the hotel was great, and taxis are cheap. The best part about the hotel was an amazing roof terrace that was open 24/7, was BYO - or had a vending machine with beers, softdrink and food - and some small play equipment for kids.

    We spent most nights back up here for a relax after dinner, chatting with people we met or just enjoying being in Rome and what we had seen that day. I would stay here again, even though it was out of the way.

    Anway - got to Termini about lunch time, walked to our hotel and checked in. Then set off to have a look around. first stop was the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - and I was already overwhelmed. It was just so beautiful. We then got an open top bus and had a tour around Rome seeing many of the landmarks and sights that we wanted to see. Got off and walked over the to Spanish Steps and had dinner.

    Day 31 - Vatican
    I had booked a tour of the Vatican Museums today with Dark Rome. I had heard some things about some of hte tours booked directly through the Vatican that werent so great, so decided on Dark Rome - and they were fantastic. Our tour guide was friendly, informative and amusing. The museums were amazing and I was fascinated by the building and a lot of things in it. I could have spent all day there.

    The Sistine Chapel was a little underwhelming though. It was smaller than I expected - and though it was crowded we spent a bit of time there, so that wasnt it. I dont know, it just didnt really do it for me.

    St Peters Basilica on the other hand certainly did. Wow. Thats all I can say.

    By now Junior was seriously flagging though, so St Peters was cut short a bit - I would really really like to go back and have another longer look though.

    Anyway, gelato and lunch was definitely required. Though gelato was pretty much a staple diet so it goes without saying really :)

    Afternoon involed Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, Pantheon and general meandering the streets of Rome.

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    Day 32 - Rome
    Today was AFL Grand Final day - and hubby being a big AFL fan (and still more than a little put out that I planned this trip and we were away for the entire month of September so every Final) I had decided to find somewhere in Rome to see the GF.

    Trip Advisor came through, and to the Scholars Lounge we went. It was 6.30am in the middle of Rome - and we walked in to find a pub packed with Aussies who were already drinking beers and cheering loudly. It was awesome. Breakfast lasted well into lunch and we had a great time.

    The afternoon meant shopping, ruins, sightseeing and food ... which also was the evening plan :)

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    Days 33-39 - Cruise
    Today we are heading for Civitaveccia which is our departure point for our 7 day Mediterranean cruise. As we are coming back to this hotel, we arrange with them to hold 2 bags for us so that we dont have to lug everything we have with us.

    I have arranged a shared transfer to the port with another family using Italy in Limo's. They arrived on time and we headed off to pick up the other family - who were running a little late. Anyway we eventually got on our way, and found the ship with no major dramas. We were travelling with Royal Caribbean on the Navigator of the Seas which we were really looking forward to. We had been on Royal Caribbean before, so knew what to expect.

    We arrived, and checked in pretty quickly. They are so organised so it doesnt take long to get the 3,000 odd people on board.

    We had a balcony cabin as after a fair amount of research and talk with Royal Caribbean, it seems that balcony cabins and above are the only ones with a fold out sofa rather than a pull down bed when you have a child sharing with you. Cruising in Europe isnt that expensive (when comparing to Aus) anyway, so we were happy with the extra room.

    The rooms are set up nicely, with a queen size bed, a full size (3 seater) sofa, dressingtable, coffee table etc with plenty of room. And a good size balcony that all 3 of us could be on quite comfortably (we had breakfast there one morning). Having a full size window/door also means loads of natural light which makes the cabin a fairly pleasant place to be rather than just somewhere to sleep.

    The ship itself is a floating city. It has bars, restaurants, a theatre, a rock climbing wall, 9 hole mini golf, rollerskating course, an icerink - complete with international ice show, 3 pools, 4 huge jacuzzi's, a 3 story main dining room and a royal promenade where they did parades and lined with shops.

    And best of all - a KIDS CLUB!!! One that junior loved. Kids club opened at 9am-12pm, 2pm-5pm and 7pm-10pm every day ... and 7am-10pm on days when the ship was in port - and is free. They have great activities and the staff are very involved and engaging with the kids, so the kids love to go. Junior ask to go every single day - and chose kids club over pretty much everything :)

    We spent the afternoon and first evening just getting to know the boat (though we had been on a boat of that class before, so knew the general layout) and eating (of course).

    The next morning we docked at Messina, Sicily. We had planned to go to Taormina or even Mount Etna if we felt up to it ... but neither of us did. We ended up staying on the boat. We did get off and wander around Messina for an hour or so, but decided we simply did not have the energy to do a tour.

    Day at sea - more relaxing and regenerating

    Athens, Greece. After many fantastic recommendations, I had booked with greektaxi (www.greektaxi.gr) for a day tour around Athens, and they were absolutely fantastic. Our driver/guide Dimitris was simply superb. He had so much knowledge about Greek history, the sights and just general stuff. He was just amazing. We went to the Acropolis and although he did not come up with us (the company had told me beforehand that he could not, that if I wanted a licenced guide I would need to arrange, or could arrange at the site) but he didnt need to. He spent around 1/2 hr beforehand explaining what we would see and the history/important aspects - so we felt pretty good about just being able to poke around and look at what he told us.

    Going with a private tour rather than the ships tour was so much better. I cannot put into words how much more pleasant it was. We were able to ask questions, go wherever we felt like or were interested in - and Dimitris took us to some incredible places. The normal tour included shopping and lunch, but we werent really interested in either ... with only 1 day in Athens I wanted to absorb as much as we could, so we went to see other things instead which was awesome.

    I liked Athens and thought it pretty and interesting. It was much more what I expected as opposed to say Rome which was very different to my expectations.

    Junior liked the changing of the guards, though it was very hot standing there and waiting.

    The next day we were at Kusadasi in Turkey. I had booked another private tour with Ephesus Shuttle - and once again the recommendations and research came up trumps. They were also really good.

    Ephesus was a real highlight of our trip. You get into the car at the port of Kusadasi and drive to what is basically a field in the middle of nowhere ... and get out at a few shops and a building selling tickets. Kind of just looking around and waiting to be mugged or something, there is just nothing there (except a shop advertising "genuine fake watches" :) )

    Our guide produced our tickets and we went past the building ... to find a huge marble path, and stones everywhere. The further into the field you started to see the remnants of what was Ephesus buried under the hills of mud. They have excavated only a small amount of the hills when you look at what is still to go - but what is there is quite simply amazing. a theatre, a library, a full ampitheatre, what used to be shops and houses, a central square and roads ... all dated several thousand years ago.

    We had chosen to add the "terrace houses" to our tour on a recommendation from a few other people on cruise critic, and I was so pleased we had. They were even better than everything else, and that took some topping! I was officially enthralled.

    It was basically a walk-through where the car dropped you at one end of the field, you walked through all the ruins and the car picked you up at the other end. Our guide (who comes with you) was good and certainly knew his stuff.

    We stopped at a carpet place on the way back (our choice, he was not pushy in any way) and bought a carpet - which I love. I am so happy with it - but decided against stopping at a leather place (I had spent enough money :) )

    We went back to the ship, had a late lunch (more food *groan*. The one thing you do not run out of on a cruise is food. OMG all you do is eat) and went into the port town for a bit of market shopping. Just tourist stuff, but junior was happy with a cute belly dancing outfit that made her day. She had been soooo good on the tour, so certainly deserved something.

    Crete - the last stop on the cruise was Crete, and to be honest I was a little disappointed with it. We did not go to a beach (which I understand the beaches are gorgeous) but the island in general was brown and dry - very much like the landscape in WA. We caught a bus into town and I went shopping (pretty much a staple for me :) ) but it isnt a place I would be itching to go back to. Still, it was a good day.

    I do have to say though, the people in Crete were fantastic. I have some medical issues and had a major case of the runs which struck when I was in the markets in town. No chance of managing the 30 minute bus ride back to the boat ... but several of the shops came to my rescue :) I will be forever grateful to the lovely shop staff who were wonderful. Eventually it passed enough for me to risk the bus ride, which was good.

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    Overall the cruise was fantastic. Certainly more American and UK people on board than I expected - which was good as my Italian is even worse than my French (which consists of Merci and thats about it :) ) But there was a wide variety of cultures and people on board, and lots of different age groups. We met some really lovely people and had a great time.

    I had originally planned the cruise for the middle of the holiday, but changed cruises as we wanted a bigger ship, and this itinerary suited us better. I am glad in the end that the cruise was in the last week - as we were completely shattered by then. 6 weeks is a LONG time to be travelling around living out of a suitcase and dragging a 6 yr old along. Next time I would do 4 weeks at the most.

    The only real disappointment for us was dinner. We usually eat earlier rather than later, so with a choice of dining times at either 6pm or 8.30pm we had nominated the early seating (even though it is earlier than normal even for us). The boat wasnt full though (only about 2,700 on board when it takes around 3,800) ... and being Europe in Autumn when people eat later, most had chosen the later seating so our seating was very empty. In fact on our table of 10 we were the only regular attendees. Sometimes that is nice, but we generally like to meet people and chat so it was a bit disappointing. Not the cruise's fault of course - just the way it was.

    Anyway - after a fabulous cruise it all came to an end and we found ourselves back at Civitaveccia. I had arranged for a shared transfer back to Rome with Bob's Limos - who again turned up on time and got us back to Rome without issue. Rome to the port is pretty expensive so I was glad to find a company that offered shared transport rather than arranging our own group, and it was definitely better than catching the train which, while cheap, is a hike up the hill from the port.

    Back in Rome we checked back in to the IQ Hotel Roma and set out to explore Rome once more.

    The first time in Rome we had been to a few churches, but walked past quite a lot without bothering - but on the last day we had wandered up the road to the on old church that looked half falling down from the outside http://www.romaviva.com/Stazione-Termini/santa_maria_of_angels_and_martyrs.htm it looked nothing.

    We decided that as quite a few churches had been pretty amazing on the inside, we would poke our head in for a look - and OMG it was absolutely amazing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:3221_-_Roma_-_Santa_Maria_degli_Angeli_-_Interno_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto_17-June-2007.jpg Just incredible.

    After that we went inside every church we passed by - and that was a lot. They were all so beautiful

    We spent the rest of the day just wandering around, walked through some of the ruins near Piazza Venezia, (the church at the back of the monument to the unkown soldier is pretty amazing too), got lost and walked around in circles, back to Piazza Navona, lots of churches and stuff. There were lots of weddings too - and Junior is a girly, girl who loves brides ... so we had to stop and watch the bride every time we passed one :)

    Day 41 - The Coloseum
    I had arranged a tour of the Colosseum and Palentine Hill with Dark Rome. The guide was good - but we were soooo tired, it was hot, my ankle hurt and it involved a LOT of walking. I enjoyed the Colosseum part, but after about 2 hrs I was really not enjoying it. So in the end we gave in and called it quits. I was really interested in the ruins and the history, so I am sad now that we didnt stick it out, but I know that I will go back and do this again - when we are not at the end of 6 long weeks - so I am ok with it.

    The guide had a book which was "Rome reconstructed" which had a lot of pictures of how things are now, and a re-creation of what they think it might have looked like. It was really cool - so we walked around a bit to find a copy of that (I had seen it at tourist shops), had more gelato, stopped in more churches and ate more pizza.

    I really loved Rome. Just the way they have combined the old and the new was something I really liked. "oh - we need to excavate there, so perhaps we will build 5more metres that way" seems to have been a common theme ... so there are lots of buildings next to ruins and reconstructions.

    I am sad that it was at the end of the trip, so we certainly didnt appreciate it as much - but as I said, we will be back - and now I know what I want to see, how to plan it and what to expect.

    Day 42 - Home
    We packed up our things, had a last breakfast at the Irish pub down the road which thankfully sold decent coffee (I like mild coffee with lots of milk ... not something you find much of in Italy) and got a taxi to the airport.

    Flight home was uneventful (even good ... wow) and 24 hours later we were home. I have never been so grateful to sleep in my own bed

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    In terms of planning - this trip, being our first time in Europe, and being such a long time away - took an awful lot of planning.

    We had originally decided on a couple of organised tours, but they all moved around pretty quickly, with only 1 night or 2 nights at the most in each place. With a child I didnt think that would really suit us much, and didnt think the other people on the bus would appreciate a whingy, whiny child all the time ... so we decided to DIY and just do half of what we wanted.

    The rules I set were - minimum 3 nights, stay in apartments where we could, and not try and do every thing we wanted. It had to be at a pace we could all manage, and still have a good time.

    Overall I think we managed that pretty well.

    Still - it took an enormous effort, and I am glad that I only have to do that once :) Next time I will not be so nervous about things. I will know what to do and what to expect.

    We have decided to go back to Italy. More than likely in 2 years time or so. France was lovely, and I enjoyed seeing what we saw, loved Paris and the south of France was beautiful - but to us it doesnt match anything Italy has to offer.

    So the next trip is loosely planned as 2 weeks in Sondrio with family - including a day trip to Milan to see the Duomo and the Last Supper which we missed, a few days in Switzerland and a few days in Bellagio to relax - a week in Florence / Tuscany, a few days in Perugia/Assisi and a few days in Rome.

    Thank you to everyone who helped me soooo much, from trains to accommodation to itinerary planning and more. Everything went so smoothly due to meticulous planning and great information from so many on here.

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    as for Crete, it sounds like you have only been to Heraklion, which is just an ugly city ( with some nice spots).

    Crete is a very beautiful island and a huge one too...
    There are many things to see, very beautiful cities, beaches, archaeological sites etc....

    2 weeks wouldn't be enough to scratch the surface of this island...
    Maybe a reason to return some day and really discover it :)

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    Thanks for your trip report. I'm investigating the prospect of travelling to France but remain seriously tempted to return to Italy and Switzerland so your comments were interesting. Feel I should visit France while I still can but have to admit Italy and Switzerland hold my heart at this stage.

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