CAST OF CHARACTERS
Me, DH and our 9yo DD: we travel quite a bit and our last family trip to Europe was in the fall of 2010 (Amsterdam, Brussels/Brugge, Paris). DH’s father and wife live in Paris, which gives us a great excuse to visit Paris with free accommodations!
Cities visited: 4 (Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome)
Number of times we paid to use a toilet: Only once, in Florence
Number of bridges between our apartment and the train station in Venice: 5
Favorite flavor of gelato: Extreme chocolate
Number of times we got lost in Venice: who knows!
Jewish areas visited: 3 (Paris, Venice and Rome)
Number of Italian security people needed to free a Japanese tourist’s bag strap from the conveyor on the x-ray machine at the Uffizi: 5
Length of time to negotiate repayment for damage to said bag: don’t know!
Accommodations with bidets: 2 apartments and 1 hotel room
Number of Hard Rock Café shot glasses acquired: 2 (Venice and Florence – already have Paris and Rome)
DD goes to a balanced calendar (i.e., year-round school) and has a three week spring break – perfect time for a twelve day trip to Europe! DD has been fixated on visiting Italy and Germany since our last trip to Europe so we choose a few cities in Italy in addition to Paris. We planned to do an open jaw into Paris and out of Rome and then fill in the blanks. DH and I had spent a short time in Rome, when I was pregnant with DD, prior to embarking on a cruise. I have always wanted to go to Venice so we added Venice and then debated a stop in Florence as well – stop just for the day or for 24 hours while traveling from Venice to Rome? We decided on a 24 hour stop in Florence – enough time to get a small taste of Florence and see the highlights of the Uffizi; also, we didn’t want to arrive in Rome late at night.
ADVANCED TRANSPORTATION PLANNING
We bought open-jaw airline tickets – into Paris and out of Rome on Delta and outlined a rough travel plan (Paris for 3 nights, Venice for 3 nights, Florence for 1 night and Rome for 4 nights). We knew that the train made sense from Venice to Florence and then on to Rome but we weren’t sure what was the best way for us to travel to Venice from Paris. We ended up on a very early morning flight from Orly on Easy Jet www.easyjet.com, purchasing, in advance, rights to bring two pieces of luggage with us for half price. We decided against the train alternative because it took too long and would be more expensive.
We bought tickets from www.trenitalia.com on the Frecciargento trains for the Venice to Florence and Florence to Rome legs – we got the Familia rate which is 20% off for at least one adult and 50% off for at least one child under 12. I purposely purchased them in one transaction so I wouldn’t have to deal with the problem I had last time I booked train tickets in Europe – the credit card company freezing the credit card. I didn’t seem to have any choice of seats but we ended up with three of four around a table on both legs.
ADVANCED ACCOMODATION PLANNING
Like usual, I was so overwhelmed with the accommodation options that I procrastinated. I started thinking that we should stay in an apartment for the Venice (3 nights) and Rome (4 nights) stays since the hotel rooms during our last trip to Europe were tiny and offered little privacy for me and DH. In the US, we try to stay in suite hotel rooms but knew that those that existed in Europe would be more money than we wanted to spend. We also were hoping to find a real bed for DD instead of the usual pull-out sofa she usually gets!
PARIS: We are so lucky that DH’s father and his wife live in a lovely apartment in the 16th so we reserved the office and living room there!
VENICE: I sought advice from fellow Fodorites on reputable apartment rental agencies and looked on www.booking.com as well. I started some email conversations with www.SleepinItaly.com but found the Al Campanile apartments listed on booking.com and pursued one of those via direct email contact with the owner (Hossep). www.alcampanile-madonnadellorto.com/index.php?lang=en&pag=home The rate for the larger of the two loft apartments was €160 per night minus 15% (special through the end of March). The only deposit required was a credit card number. I was apprehensive that this apartment didn’t exist and we were going to show up to find nowhere to stay in Venice – and unauthorized charges on the credit card!
FLORENCE: I looked on booking.com for possible hotels and focused on those close to the train station since our time was limited to about 24 hours there. I found a good rate for a triple at L’Orologio and thought it looked like a really cool and unique hotel. I hesitated for a day and the triple rate jumped up €40 so I went to my second choice Hotel Albani booked directly on the hotel website.
ROME: As for Venice, I sought advice on reputable apartment rental agencies and contacted www.SleepinItaly.com and www.RentalinRome.com. I heard back from RentalinRome almost immediately with a preliminary booking for one of the apartments I had narrowed down to – Colosseo Loft. I didn’t hear back from SleepinItaly for a few days and I had pressured myself to get a place booked since we were leaving in three weeks! I booked the Colosseo Loft with RentalinRome for €150 per night and gave a deposit via PayPal. Once I finalized the reservation, I read the fine print in more detail and took the time to look at on-line reviews of RentalinRome – and I started to get nervous. The balance was due in cash plus a €300 security deposit; the on-line reviews were crummy and mentioned occasions when they double-booked apartments, etc but they now have a new owner and things are much improved. I was kicking myself for moving too quickly and not even waiting for a response from SleepinItaly. I was very worried about showing up in Rome with no place to stay – I even considered reserving a hotel just in case but I couldn’t find any place that didn’t have a 24 hour cancellation policy.
ADVANCED ACTIVITY PLANNING
We generally like to be flexible and not locked in to too many activities. However, we learned our lesson on our last trip to Europe – because we didn’t book some things in advance, we didn’t get to do them.
PARIS: On our last trip to Paris, DD did not get a chance to go up the Eiffel Tower due to the long lines – so I was committed to arranging that in advance which I did for Saturday afternoon at www.tour-eiffel.fr. I had hoped to book the behind the scenes tour that I think I read about on Fodors but didn’t book in time. www.eiffel-tower.com/preparing-your-visit/booking-a-guided-tour.html
VENICE: Nothing; I looked up info on the advanced purchase of vaporetto passes too late for us to receive any kind of discount so we decided to just wait and purchase once we arrived. We planned to take the Ali Laguna to the apartment so no need to pre-purchase although if I had we would have saved a couple of Euros each.
FLORENCE: Because our time in Florence was minimal, I booked tickets for the Uffizi in advance at www.b-ticket.com/b%2Dticket/uffizi/default.aspx. We picked 4pm so we didn’t have to rush upon arrival in Florence.
ROME: After reading about the excavation of ancient Roman houses underneath Palazzo Valentini on Fodor’s, I booked us tickets for the English tour on our last afternoon in Rome. www.palazzovalentini.it/index.php?lang=eng
OTHER ADVANCED PLANNING
A friend suggested downloading free Rick Steves’ (heresy, I know) podcasts for various places in each city we were going to - they were great and had accompanying PDF maps.
Rome with Kids by J.M. Pasquesi which is a great guide for Rome focused on kid-friendly activities and restaurants.
Kids Go Europe: Treasure Hunt Venice – a fun treasure hunt for DD, earning points for seeing or doing various things in Venice.
I also found Fodor’s Rome and a Cadogan Guide to Rome, Venice and Florence at our local library.
I also took with us Paris with Kids by Valerie Gwinner and Cadogan Guide take the kids: Paris that I had purchased before our last trip to Paris.
FLYING TO EUROPE
We flew to Atlanta and then on to Paris on Delta. We brought two pieces of luggage plus two backpacks. I specifically booked apartments with washing machines so we could minimize what we brought with us – although in hindsight, we could have packed even lighter!
TRANSPORTATION in Paris: We took a taxi from CDG to my FILs apartment in the 16th – not the cheapest but the easiest upon arrival. We bought a carnet of ten RATP (metro/bus) tickets at the local metro station www.ratp.fr – and a carnet of reduced fares for DD. Of course, we walked a lot too!
ACCOMODATIONS: We stayed with my FIL and his French wife at their small two bedroom 7th floor apartment in the 16th, near Rue Mozart. All I will say is that it was quite cozy for all five of us and DH and I felt like we were always in the way! They have a lovely terrace covered in beautiful flowering plants but unfortunately, it was too cold to eat outside on the terrace.
MEALS/FOOD: Breakfast was croissants and baguettes from the local boulangeries on Rue Mozart. We caught lunch wherever we happened to be when were out and about – nowhere special. We had a delicious dinner at La Gare on our last night in town. http://restaurantlagare.com/actualitesuk
SIGHTSEEING: We spent most of our first afternoon at the Apple store sorting out a new iPhone for my FIL – it took forever, don’t ask!
We went for a nice long walk on the Promenade Plantee starting at Place de la Bastille – which was wonderful, as the same five of us (me, DH, DD, FIL and FIL’s wife) had explored the Highline when we were together in NYC in June. www.promenade-plantee.org
DH, DD and I missed out on a trip up the tower at Notre Dame on our last trip to Paris so we bit the bullet this trip and waited on line. It was a Saturday afternoon and we waited about 45 minutes. Fantastic views from the top! www.notredamedeparis.fr/nouvelle-traduction-50-les-tours
DD took Grandpa (FIL) and his wife to the Eiffel Tower with the tickets I had pre-purchased and printed. I did receive an email that they were down to one lift and even with a reservation, the wait times could be long. They reported back that the wait to go up wasn’t too excessive but the wait to go down on the elevator was lengthy!
While the others were at the Eiffel Tower, DH and I visited the L’Orangerie (magnifique!) and wandered through the Marais – a favorite area of ours!
TRANSPORTATION to Venice: Up early on a Monday morning to fly EasyJet from Orly to Venice (FIL arranged for a taxi at the apartment). We were familiar with the budget airlines from our time living in Britain ten years ago – and nothing much has changed! We queued up for seats and managed to get 2 aisle seats and an adjoining middle for the three of us in a relatively forward row. Upon arriving in Venice, we purchased tickets at a machine for Ali Laguna while waiting for our luggage. We found the signage lacking for where to go to catch the water taxis and Ali Laguna but soon figured out where to go – out and to the left, follow the path. Ali Laguna Orange to the first stop – Madonna dell Orto.
TRANSPORTATION in Venice: Despite being right next to a Vaporetto stop, we walked everywhere every day except for one. We bought 12 hour passes only on the last day when we decided to go to Murano and Burano, and to take a ride down the Grand Canal and to explore different areas of Venice. (We should have gotten the 24 hour pass as it would have covered the vaporetto trip to the train station the following morning for just a few extra euros.)
ACCOMODATIONS: The apartment was advertised as 10 meters from the Orto vaporetto stop but we managed to walk right by it! We backtracked and found it once we paid attention to the signs and numbers. Hossep was there to meet us, as promised. Beautiful locked courtyard with a little office at the front and three connected apartments. Our loft apartment was fantastic – all white. The main floor had a fully functional/stocked kitchen, table, sitting area, bedroom and bathroom on the main floor; upstairs was a large sitting area and another bedroom. It was perfect for us – we were very please with our choice! The internet glitched on the first morning but Hossep was quick to arrive to sort it out for us. He was a great host and provided helpful restaurant suggestions. We enjoyed staying far away from the tourists on the other side of Venice!
MEALS/FOOD: We stocked up on coffee, breakfast and snack items at the little grocery store a few bridges/canals away that we discovered when we started wandering around shortly after arriving. The only memorable meal we had was at Promessi Sposi, a great little restaurant tucked away off of Strada Nova. We kept trying to eat at Al Timon which was near to our apartment – but for a couple of nights it was closed and then when they were open, we were there too early for dinner!
SIGHTSEEING: I found Venice breathtaking – and even more so with every bridge we crossed and “street” that we walked on. We did a lot of wandering around, our favorite thing to do when we travel, although DD still doesn’t quite get why that is what we like to do!
We took in all of the tourist sights – the Bridge of Sighs, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, the market, the Doge’s Palace – but mostly just walked around and enjoyed the surroundings. We went to the Jewish Museum in the Ghetto and took a guided tour in English of a couple of the synagogues. Very fascinating and interesting to compare them to the synagogues we are familiar with. http://www.museoebraico.it/english/home.asp
On our last day, we bought a 12 hour vaporetto pass and went to Murano, Burano, Lido and took a ride down the Grand Canal. Murano was fun – we wandered around for a bit and found the glassblowing shops and factories. The ones we stopped at did not pressure us to buy at all; however, some asked for money to just watch the glassblowers so we moved on to those that did not. We went from Murano to Burano on an incredibly full vaporetto – wall to wall people standing up which was very uncomfortable for the 40 minute ride; we ended up getting off at Mazzorbo and walked over a bridge to Burano. Burano was very cute, with all of the different colored houses. We enjoyed the long ride out to Lido and walked along the main drag over to the beach and saw the Adriatic Sea. We also rode the vaporetto on the Grand Canal, while listening to a Rick Steves’ podcast, which we all found very informative. I must say that the vaporetto map isn’t the easiest thing to decipher. We wanted to go to San Giorgio Maggiore but never quite figured out where to get the vaporetto without backtracking our route too much.
TRANSPORTATION to Florence: We took a Frecciargento train to Florence and had three of four seats around a table. It appeared that one could get wi-fi for 1 euro-cent but we were skeptical that there were hidden charges so we didn’t bother. Upon arrival in Florence, we walked directly to our hotel which was just a couple of blocks from the train station.
ACCOMODATIONS: We stayed at the Hotel Albani in a triple. The room was a decent size with plenty of space for the extra single bed for DD. Breakfast was included in the rate and was a nice, typical European hotel breakfast buffet. We would definitely stay at this hotel again.
MEALS/FOOD: For lunch, we ended up eating at a sit-down place in the market; we had stumbled on Da Mario but the wait was too long for us since we were hungry! http://trattoria-mario.com/index_english.html One guy who was waiting in line said he had eaten there every day on his trip! As a hardcore carnivore, my mouth watered when I read about the bistecca alla fiorentina! We didn’t want to venture too far for dinner so we tried Trattorio Da Guido which had received decent reviews. As usual, we ordered too much food but it was still one of our cheaper and better meals of the trip. We would definitely go back. http://www.trattoriadaguido.net/
SIGHTSEEING: We spent a jam-packed twenty-four hours in Florence, mostly spent on our feet! We started at the Central Market and then made our way down to the Accademia but the line was long and we didn’t want to shell out the extra euros to buy reserved tickets to see David; we settled for the replica! We wandered around the Duomo and ended up climbing up the campanile – fantastic views of Brunelleschi’s Dome! We had reservations for the Uffizi and had to pick up the tickets at one place and then wait in the “we have reserved tickets” line to actually get in. The security line ground to a halt and we realized that the shoulder strap of a Japanese tourist’s bag had gotten stuck in the x-ray machine and the security guards struggled to free it! We used a Rick Steves’ podcast to guide us through the Uffizi. DD loves art but barely made it through the museum – and we didn’t even look at everything! The following morning we wandered back down to the Duomo, along the river and across to the Pitti Palace. We came back across the Ponte Vecchio and spent an hour at the Museo Galileo, previously known as the Museum of the History of Science. As engineers and a budding scientist, we were all fascinated by the exhibits; however, there were few explanations of what things were so we had to decipher them on our own.
TRANSPORTATION to Rome: We took a Frecciargento train to Rome and again had three of four seats around a table.
TRANSPORTATION in Rome: We originally planned to buy a three day metro/bus pass as we knew we had to take the metro from Termini to get to our apartment, which was close to the Colosseo stop. (I had forgotten that when you exit the Colosseo metro stop, there was the Colosseum, right in front of you!) But we quickly realized we wouldn’t use the metro as much as we originally thought, so we bought individual tickets as we needed them. We couldn’t figure out the bus routes so we didn’t even venture on them. Also, we took a taxi one night back from dinner.
ACCOMODATIONS: Despite my apprehensions about Rental in Rome, everything worked out just fine. The apartment was on the main floor on a little side street in a small neighborhood near the Colosseo, with several restaurants and two little grocery stores. A rep from Rental in Rome met us at the apartment at the prescribed time. DH and I weren’t keen on forking over 300Euros for the security deposit – we had to do the check out the night before our departure and worried about not getting it all back for some reason and then having a lot of euros in cash upon our departure from Europe. The deposit was 150Euros – and the Rental in Rome rep accepted $200 in US dollars (a check was an alternative but I forgot to bring a check – and besides, I wasn’t sure they would accept one written on an American bank for dollars!) The apartment was smaller than the one in Venice and not as nice. DD had a double bed in the loft which was up a narrow, steep staircase. Our bedroom in the back of the apartment felt dark and damp. The kitchen was a well-stocked cabinet with a sink, stove-top and refrigerator. We had a washing machine with a built-in dryer that somehow DH figured out how to use – it just took forever to dry the clothes. The wi-fi was very slow and spotty – we reported this but it didn’t get fixed during our stay there. The bathroom was small with the tiniest shower I have ever seen – it had a wrap around door that made you feel like you were in a space capsule – you could barely move around in it! And when you stepped out of the shower, you had to be careful not to land a foot in the bidet!
MEALS/FOOD: We found two small grocery stores near by the apartment and again stocked up on snacks and breakfast items. There was also a little bakery and gelato place nearby that met our evening sweet tooth needs! We caught dinner wherever we were – but made a special trip to Hard Rock one night when we all felt pizza and pasta-ed out! Just getting unlimited glasses of ice water made it feel worth it!
We had told DD that in Rome every time you turn around you see something old and after the first afternoon of wandering around on Via dei Fori Imperiali and looking in on the Forum and Trajan’s market and column, she finally understood what we were talking about! We bought the two day combo ticket for the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine hill and went to the Forum after the Colosseum; that was just too much for one day! We thought we could go back and see the Palatine Hill the following day but we could not – once you go inside the Forum/Palatine Hill turnstile, that is your only chance. So we walked around the Palatine Hill from the outside to Circus Maximus. We again spent a lot of time just wandering around, bumping in to interesting ancient sites (Pantheon, etc.) and other tourist areas (Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, etc.). We explored the Jewish area with a great Rick Steves’ podcast and then wandered around Trastevere. We wandered around the shopping area and the following day made our way up to the Vatican City – DD was thrilled to add another country to her list of places she’s been! On the way back from the Vatican, we took the metro and DH’s wallet was stolen. See this post: http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/pick-pocketed-in-rome.cfm On our last day, we explored the market at Campo de Fiori and then went to the ruins under the Palazzo Valentini, which was just fascinating. They have excavated some Roman houses and it is presented in a very unique manner – you walk on a glass floor (disconcerting at first!) to see the excavation – and they use some virtual reality techniques to fill in some of the blanks. For example, they show a portion of a beautiful tile floor and then fill it all in with lights and color to show what it probably looked like. Tickets for the English tour need to be booked in advance. http://www.palazzovalentini.it/info.php?lang=eng
FLYING HOME: Through Rental in Rome, we arranged for a car to take us to the airport since we had to be there at 7am. We had upgraded to Economy Comfort for $40 per person and that was well worth it. We had bulkhead seats with plenty of legroom and space – there was no one in the fourth seat in our group of four seats. The flight was long but the time seemed to pass quickly – maybe it’s because DD is now old enough to keep herself entertained (I let her watch a couple of PG-13 movies so she was happy!).
NEXT TIME or things we’d do differently: I loved Venice and could have spent even more time there. I’m glad we went to Florence but don’t find the need to return; same with Rome – this was our second trip there and the stolen wallet put a damper on our time there!
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CAST OF CHARACTERS