9 Rome Travel Tips for First Timers

I fell so hard for Rome! From my first glimpse of the Aurelian walls from the back of the taxi maniacally driving us towards the city center, I was hooked. The history, the architecture, the food–oh my god, the food–there’s something amazing seemingly around every corner! With so much to see and so much to do, the smoother your trip goes the better. With that in mind, here are my 9 Rome Travel Tips for First Timers to help make your first trip to Rome a success.

1 – Screw Fashion, Get Comfy Shoes!

You’ll be walking at least 5-6 miles a day, much of it on uneven cobblestones which, though charming, are killer on the feet. A bad pair of shoes can literally ruin your whole trip. Whatever you wear, they should be comfortable, provide support, and be broken in enough to not give you blisters. I did not break my shoes in enough and ended up getting blisters on Day One. I kept on trucking, but my feet were bloody messes by the time we left. I really wished I’d taken tennis shoes instead of zero-support sandals as a backup.

2 – Bring a Water Bottle, Don’t Buy Bottled Water

There are water fountains all over the city that provide free, fresh, cold drinking water, and you’d be crazy not to avail yourself of them. It’s perfectly safe, and because it’s Rome most of them are super old and cool, which makes using them extra fun. Save the planet and your budget, all while staying hydrated. Everybody wins!

3 – Buy Skip-the-Line Tickets In Advance!

Tickets to top attractions like the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums can sell out sometimes weeks in advance. Know what you really want to see and plan ahead. Purchase your Skip-The-Line tickets online as early as possible to ensure you don’t miss out on some of Rome’s most magical highlights! For sites like the Pantheon, which does not offer skip-the-line, your best bet is to arrive very early or right before they close. To buy your tickets to Rome’s top attractions, click the links below:

  1. Roma Pass
  2. Colosseum & Roman Forum
  3. Vatican Museums
  4. Borghese Gallery & Museum
  5. Capitoline Museums
  6. Baths of Caracalla
  7. Castel Sant’Angelo

4 – Spend Wisely and Come Prepared

You’ll want a variety of options when going to Rome. Make sure any credit cards you bring have a PIN, as those without may not be accepted at many locations. ATMs are everywhere, but you’ll want to get some euros from your bank before you go. Be sure to allow a few days for the bank to receive the funds. While you’re at the bank, ask which ATMs will incur the lowest fees, and notify them (and any other credit card companies) of your travel dates so they don’t think your card has been stolen when it starts making purchases in Italy.

While in Rome, always pay in local currency. Sometimes you’ll be offered the option to pay in U.S. currency, and it’s usually presented as a benefit for you. It’s not, it’s a scam. It allows the vendor to set the exchange rate and fees, which will always be higher than the rate your bank will charge.

5 – Stay in the Historical City Center

If you’re budget conscious you may be considering accommodations outside the city where the prices are lower. Don’t do it. The price you’ll pay to be transported to and from the city will eat up any money you saved on the initial lodging, and valuable time will be eaten up in transit. We were just a couple blocks from the Trevi Fountain and only used transportation once, to go to the Vatican. We still walked back, there’s just so much to see in such a small area! In Paris we stayed outside the city and spent hundreds of dollars on Ubers and wasted so much time going back and forth, it just wasn’t worth it.

6 – Enjoy an Apertivo

Italian dinner starts much later than it does in the U.S. Use this extra time to enjoy this classically Italian activity: the Apertivo. Grab a cocktail and some appetizers to tide you over till dinner time. People watch, relax, soak it all in! After all, when in Rome… While it’s good to escape the tourist areas for the best food, enjoying an Apertivo in the Piazza Navona is a fun way to splurge. The atmosphere, scenery, and people watching are well worth the extra few euros you’ll pay.

7 – Embrace the Italian Dinner Experience

  • Italians don’t rush through dinner, it’s sacred, an event, and is meant to be savored. Take your time, enjoy every course, reminisce about your day, just relax. The waiters will not be pestering you to leave.
  • Dinner begins no earlier than 8:00 – 8:30 in the evening, and they stop seating around 11:00 – 11:30.
  • You’ll never be interrupted by annoying waiters asking how your meal is or if you’d like another refill, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone’s meal. But don’t worry, whenever you need something, the waiters are always nearby, ready to help without being intrusive.
  • Tipping isn’t necessary, but small amounts are appreciated! Every time you sit at a table you’re charged, usually per person. It’s called a coperto, and it’s essentially a cover charge. Though tipping is not customary in Italy, rounding up or giving an extra 5-10% is appreciated for exceptional service.
  • Coffee is basically a shot. Italians don’t sit in coffee shops sipping giant mugs of coffee. They buy their coffee at the counter, chug it, and go. If you want to sit down with your coffee you’ll have to pay a coperto. And don’t ask for milk with it in the afternoon, that’s just not how they roll.
  • Your pizza will not be cut when they give it to you. This is more of a side note than a tip, really, but it confused the hell out of me, so I’m sharing it with you. They do not slice pizza, they just give you the whole pie with regular silverware and then you’re on your own. It’s very awkward, but that pizza is heavenly.
  • If you want the most authentic experience and best food, avoid eating in high-tourist areas. Generally, you’ll want to walk at least a few blocks away. The best places to eat will have a smaller menu with no food pictures, and prices will be listed. It never hurts to ask some of the locals where their favorite places to eat are! They know best!

8 – Cover Up, Sinners:

If you plan on visiting any of the magnificent churches in Rome, be prepared to cover your legs and shoulders. If you’re wearing a tank top be sure to have a wrap with you. Jesus just can’t handle your sexiness.

9 – Leave Time to Explore

A certain level of planning is necessary to make your trip to Rome a success, but don’t over-plan every day. Leave time in your day to just explore. Wander the streets with no destination, walk into every random church you pass by, sit by a fountain and people watch, stop by that cute cafe you see, explore a smaller museum you didn’t know about. There’s so much to see and do in Rome, you’ll want to leave time to just explore it!

Want to explore without the massive crowds? The early bird gets the worm on that front. Wake up with the sun and go walking the streets before 7:00am and you’ll have them mostly to yourself. You can always take a rest or break at your hotel in the afternoon when the top attractions are busiest.

Ready to start planning your own trip to Rome? Click here to be redirected to Ladycations LLC, a full service travel planning agency! Member of CLIA and ASTA, Stephanie Stohre is a TAP certified Travel Advisor who’s ready to help make your travel dreams come true!

Masters and Masterpieces: Our Final Day in Florence

Becoming Art at Uffizi

Knowing it was our last day in Florence was not a pleasant thought to wake up to. Our first activity of the day wasn’t especially exciting either, but it was required, so off we went to the Red Cross COVID testing center. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me hoping we’d all be positive and have to stay another 10 days. Alas, we were all COVID-free and reality was barreling towards us like a high speed European train.

After our tests, we were famished so we stopped for some pizza on our way to our next destination. There’s something I can’t believe no one talks about, so I’m going to talk about it. Italian restaurants do not, I repeat, do not cut their pizzas before they serve them to you. I can’t even tell you how confused we were the first time they put whole, uncut pizzas in front of us and walked away. We all just kind of sat there for a second, looking at our plates and waiting for the waiter to come back with a pizza cutter, until we realized we were on our own. Now at the end of our trip, however, we were seasoned and experienced Italian pizza-eaters, so we hacked away at our pies with a knife and fork, and hit the cobblestone streets for our last day of Florentine touristing.

The Basilica of Santa Croce is an ornate building similar to the Duomo in its use of pink and green marble, and is as filled with history as anyplace else in Florence. In fact, it’s what’s, or who’s, inside the basilica that sets it apart. Buried inside Santa Croce are celebrities so big they only need one name, like Madonna or Prince. But these celebrities are a bit more old school: Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.

For some reason, this was the only place that we had difficulty getting into. There were two obstacles. First, Carey was told she had to cover her shoulders. Apparently the god that supposedly created us doesn’t like shoulders. Or legs. Or really any skin on a woman’s body. They were passing out mesh wraps to all women in shorts, as well, which I found bizarre considering the wraps were see-through. Maybe God likes a peepshow, who knows. The second obstacle was that Carey had received the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, which only required one dose and wasn’t used in Europe, so the man checking cards was very confused. Language was a challenge in this particular instance, but we were eventually able to convey the information to someone who understood, wrap a shawl around Carey’s shoulders, and walk our heathen selves into the basilica.

We’d grown accustomed to the decadence and grandeur of the churches we’d seen, and the Basilica of Santa Croce is no exception. A cavernous building filled with intricate stone and woodwork, priceless statues and paintings, ornate stained glass windows, and ledger stones covering the floors to commemorate the deceased parishioners buried beneath. But it wasn’t the parishioners under our feet that got this history nerd crying for the billionth time in Europe, it was who was interred along the walls.

The first I came to was Machiavelli. Arguably something of a douche, and certainly not my favorite, so I continued on. No tears, I got this. Next up was Michelangelo. GOAT alert! There lied one of the most magnificent talents in human history. Masterpiece after masterpiece, he filled our world with beauty, and I felt privileged to pay my respects. Shit, I don’t got this. Finally I reached the burial place of Galileo Galilei, Father of Astronomy and nemesis of the Catholic Church. There was no more holding back the tears, so I settled for not ugly-crying. Galileo was brilliant, curious, and filled with a courage none of us can even comprehend. He stood on the shoulders of other brilliant minds of antiquity, and allowed future brilliance to stand on his. All I could do as I stood there was choke out a broken, “Thank you,” and try to pull my nerdy-ass self together.

We walked outside to the courtyard and heard some rather eerie music coming from inside another room within the Santa Croce complex. We parted thick curtains covering the doorway, and when we got inside I wondered why there hadn’t been a sign above the entry saying, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” cause we had just walked into Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell (such a lost opportunity). The room was dark, and on every wall were moving pictures, all weird scenes of humans in anguish, as freaky-ass chanting played through hidden speakers. Were I obsessed with Dante the way I’m obsessed with the Medici, I may have enjoyed the experience. But it was hot and stuffy, and I quickly went back outside to the fresh air.

There was one more highlight hidden inside Santa Croce. In the Refectory, hanging on a mechanical pulley system so it can be lifted quickly in the event of a flood, is Vasari’s massive painting, The Last Supper. No, this is not Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting by the same name which hangs in Milan, but a masterpiece none the less and, though I’m a big da Vinci fan, I may like Vasari’s version better.

Next, we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, our last museum of the trip. It was a somewhat cloudy day, and we arrived at the Uffizi with time to spare before our scheduled entry, so we sat on the steps in the courtyard, people watching and debating whether or not to purchase a painting from one of the sidewalk artists selling their work. After a few minutes, the clouds began to cry (for once, it wasn’t me) and we were in a downpour. It was the first rain of the entire trip, and given how hot it had been, it was quite welcome.

The Uffizi occupies a huge, gorgeous building right on the Arno River. There are statues, busts, paintings, tapestries; seemingly something amazing around every corner. We walked the hall lined with busts of Roman rulers, saw works by da Vinci, Vasari, Rembrandt, so many Botticellis, and countless others. I gushed over Medici portraits, Carey high-fived ancient statues, both girls posed as art in places that had none, and we even saw a window imprint in a stairwell, left there in the 90’s by the detonation of a mafia bomb, but there were two particular pieces in this gallery that I was on a mission to see.

When I walked into the rooms where they were displayed the usual teary-eyed Steph was back. There they were! The Birth of Venus and Primavera, Simonetta Vespucci looking radiant as a goddess, just as Botticelli intended. They were bigger than I’d imagined, and just so magnificent. I stared at them, studied them, wiped away the tears, snapped endless photos, and finally relented and moved on, but not before swinging by the gift shop to pick up some prints. Sure, you can get Botticelli prints anywhere, but where better than the museum the originals call home?

When we left the Uffizi we headed back to the flat to begin the ultra-depressing task of packing. We had one more day in Europe, but it was our last day in Florence. As we walked, I was trying to mentally soak it all in. The narrow, cobblestone streets, the centuries old buildings, the smell of the leather shops and trattorias as we passed by. I wanted to engrave every detail into my mind. The entire trip had been incredible, and despite my swollen ankles and sore feet, I didn’t want it to end.

We enjoyed a long, leisurely dinner that evening, free from coked-up, singing waiters. The night was beautiful and warm, and the waiter immediately fell in love with Liv and brought us a round of Prosecco on the house. Our meal was delicious, we ordered more wine, and were questioning whether we had room for our dessert when the waiter complimented Olivia’s perfume and promised a free surprise if she indeed finished her dessert. She was stuffed, but she’s no quitter, so she joined the Clean Plate Club, and the waiter brought us a round of limoncello, also on the house. The perfect end to a magical time in this Renaissance wonderland.

I stared at Brunelleschi’s Dome for hours that evening, as if I could somehow bring a piece of it with me if I stared long enough. Our time in Florence, and in Europe as a whole, had been absolutely incredible. In the morning we would pick up our rental car and hit the roads of the rolling Tuscan hills, but first one last sleep in the city I’d fallen head over heels for. Come back next week to read about the final day of our epic European Ladycation! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

5 Reasons You Need A Vacation, and Why it Should Be A Ladycation (Re-Post)

This is an oldie, but a goodie, and something we should all be regularly reminded of.

We all have excuses not to travel. All the responsibilities and obligations that we need to get a break from somehow become the reasons we don’t take a break. We humans make no sense. Aside from just flat-out being a good time, traveling even has health benefits! So do yourself a favor and take a vacation. Better yet, take a Ladycation.

5. Friends Who Travel Together Stay Together

We’ve all had friendships that have come into our lives for a time and then faded away. Childhood friends we lose track of, work friends we don’t keep in touch with when we begin new jobs, friends who move away. As we get older the quality of our friendships becomes more important, preferring a few close, genuine friends, over a gaggle of superficial ones. Since traveling with someone is so intimate; forging a bond through a shared, unique experience, your friendships with your fellow Ladycationers will stand the test of time. They’re the kind of friends you’ll enter assisted living with. They’ll be the ones you play slot machines with when the nursing home bus takes you to the casino, the ones you drive to Canada with for affordable prescriptions, the ones who hold your hand through chemo and who remind you to still to use condoms, even when you’re 82. Ladycationers are friends for life.

4. Strong Female Friendships Help You Live Longer

Our female friendships nourish us in ways other relationships don’t. When familial or romantic relationships are causing us stress, it’s our female friendships that we lean on for support. Studies have shown that close, quality friendships are as important to your overall health and longevity as a healthy diet and regular exercise. As we get older these relationships become even more important. Our children grow up, our own parents pass away, we get divorced or widowed, and it’s the relationships with the influential women in our lives that give us the sense of belonging and purpose we need to keep going.

3. Travel Makes You Smarter

It’s science, ladies. Our brains need as much exercise as the rest of our bodies, and travel is an excellent way to give them a workout. In study after study, traveling is shown to increase creativity and problem solving skills. Exploring different cultures provides a fresh perspective, opens our minds to new ideas; our brains working overtime to process and understand the new information and relate it to what it already knows.

2. There’s More To Travel Than Family Vacations

Family vacations are awesome. Taking time to get away and reconnect brings families closer together, and we all want to show our children the world. But it can also be stressful as opposed to restful.

A Ladycation is a vacation that allows you to take a break from being “Mom,” or “Wife,” or whatever other label you’re tethered to. It allows you to break free of the identity that is wrapped up solely in your relationship to others, and rediscover who you are as an individual.

And, as is true with workplace productivity, taking a break from the pressures of everyday life can increase the quality of the time you spend with family, too. What’s that saying, “Happy wife, happy life?” As a single-and-plan-to-stay-that-way kind of woman, I prefer: When women are happy, life is less crappy. It’s a little more inclusive.

1. Ladycations Are Heart Healthy

Life is stressful. Work, kids, social obligations, ailing family members, financial responsibilities; it builds and builds. That tension isn’t all in our heads. Stress manifests in our physical health, both directly and indirectly. We’re more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking (chain smokin’ like it’s 1950), overeating (eating all your feelings), and social isolation (Netflix, yoga pants and “winter legs”) when we’re struggling with chronic stress. It even causes our brains to release hormones that elevate our heart rate and blood pressure and, over time, contribute to a buildup of plaque in our arteries and cause our blood to thicken, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Both traveling and friendship are shown to reduce stress and promote overall well-being and longer life span. So, really, it would be irresponsible not to take regular vacations. Travel, wander, explore; pick up your girlfriends and take a Ladycation. Your life may depend on it!

Iconic Art and Clumsy Come-Ons: Our Second Day in Florence

Brunelleschi's Dome at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore

Waking up in Florence, seeing the Duomo the moment I opened my eyes, could simply never get old. I could’ve lived happily in our little Florentine apartment forever. While the girls were getting prettied up for the day, I enjoyed a cigarette on the balcony and took a moment to just appreciate where I was. The moment, however, was brief, cause we had a centuries old murder scene, and a very tall, quiet, naked man to see!

My last post mentioned the Pazzi Conspiracy, which I said I’d explain, so let’s go back to April 26th, 1478 for this week’s edition of Steph’s History-Nerd Porn. The Medici were the most powerful banking family in Italy. Their primary rival, the Pazzi family, were sick of their second place status, and hatched a plot to essentially execute a hostile takeover through corporate assassination and a coup d’etat all mixed into one. Everything had to happen simultaneously and flawlessly, they had to kill both Medici brothers and seize control of the government all at once or they’d be totally screwed. So, with the blessing of the Pope, while some of them were readying an attack against the Florentine government, the rest were attending mass in the cathedral alongside the Medici. When the priest raised the host, the assassins pulled daggers, concealed in their tunics, and attacked. Lorenzo received a gash to his neck but was able to escape to the sacristy without mortal wounds. His brother, Giuliano, wasn’t so lucky. He was stabbed multiple times, including once in the head, and bled to death on the cathedral floor. They had only gotten half. The Pazzi takeover of the government hadn’t been successful, either. They were totally screwed. The entire city rose up against the conspirators. All said and done, more than 80 people were executed for some level of participation in the plot (but not the Pope, which is total bullshit).

One of the things I most wanted to do on this trip was to walk into the Duomo sanctuary and actually be standing in the place where it all went down. However, this was one of those times my frugality trumped my dream and led to nothing but regret. Entrance to the Duomo is free, but tickets are sold to climb the dome stairs, view the museum, etc. Since our time and funds were limited, I decided not to buy tickets and just explore the sanctuary/murder scene. Such a rookie move I’m embarrassed to even type it. We got there early, thinking we’d be at the front of the line when they opened. 45 minutes before they opened their doors the line was already wrapped halfway around the building. We didn’t have enough time to wait in the line and make our scheduled entry at the museum, so I never got to fulfill that particular fantasy, and that alone all but guarantees I will go back to Florence.

The Galleria dell’Accademia, our second stop of the day, is a hugely popular museum and it’s solely due to one particular piece housed within: Michelangelo’s Statue of David (you didn’t think we were going to see an actual naked man, did you? Dirty girl!). We slowly made our way inside, and as soon as we entered the marble hallway, there he was. Bigger than I’d imagined, casually gazing off into the distance, David was towering over everyone and damn, he was beautiful!

The closer we got the more detailed he became. Everyone talks about his hands, and as I stood there staring up at them I knew why. It was almost hard to believe they weren’t real. I half expected to see a finger twitch as I studied him. The talent it took to create something so realistic, so detailed and flawless, so massive, out of a single slab of rock, is almost unfathomable. David took my breath away. Of course, beyond the artistic appreciation, we also had a fantastic time giggling at his package like children.

It became clear as we explored the rest of the building that David was the singular draw to the Galleria dell’Accademia (as well as several lesser known Michelangelos). The rest was small, almost exclusively religious in nature, and not particularly to our taste. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves anyway, the girls re-enacting some of the sculptures to hilarious effect, and me puzzling over a painting of a disturbingly aggressive baby Jesus.

When we left the museum it was already lunchtime and we were starving. We stopped at Pizza Napoli 1955, a charming and delicious little trattoria, and were escorted to a table by a very enthusiastic young waiter. He seemed really eager, and a little anxious, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. As he was giving us our place settings, he looked at Olivia and said he was very “excited” to serve her and told her, “You have beautiful eyes, beautiful eyes,” and then he dropped her silverware. Nervous and embarrassed, he quickly picked everything up, said something else about Liv’s beauty, and ran away. It was the clumsiest, most hilarious come-on I’ve ever seen. Liv was totally embarrassed, but also hella flattered, and when we left, the adorable little waiter gave her a, “Ciao, bella!” Between that and Carey getting hit on at the Eiffel Tower, the girls decided they were destined to score European husbands.

Our next stop was the Museo Galileo, an entire museum dedicated to the Father of Astronomy. While the museum has a great many things, the sole reason I wanted to go was rooted in my obsession with history and generally negative opinion of the Catholic Church.

In the early 17th Century, Europe was under the thumb of the Catholic Church which, at the time, was little more than a massive, well organized boys’ club teeming with greedy, corrupt, power-hungry men as eager to violate their vow of poverty as their vow of celibacy. So, when Galileo looked up at the sky through his new telescope (which he built by figuring out the principle behind telescopes from Holland, then building one 10 times more powerful) he discovered that Copernicus was right. The sun is stationary, with the planets in orbit around it, and the Bible was wrong! The Church completely lost its shit. It took another 20 years, but Galileo was ultimately tried and found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition and sentenced to house arrest in perpetuity. It wasn’t until an “investigation” in 1984 that the Catholic Church finally admitted Galileo was wrongfully convicted.

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de Medici took him in, where he lived under their protection until his death in 1642. While the Galilei family was interred in the Basilica of Santa Croce sanctuary, Galileo was initially buried in a smaller chapel attached to the Basilica, his family fearing retribution from the Church if they honored their supposedly dishonorable relative. But a century later, followers with enough clout and money were able to have his body moved into the Basilica sanctuary and commission a beautiful monument to mark his place of rest. In the process of moving him, however, things got a little weird. The movers decided to also remove three of his fingers, a tooth and a vertebrae before placing him in his new, fancy resting place.

One of those fingers, notably the middle finger, was said to be on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence, and I was not about to pass up the opportunity to see the Father of Modern Science and Astronomy flipping the bird at the Catholic Church for all eternity.

We paid the admission fee and began roaming the floors of the museum in search of Galileo’s severed fingers. One by one we descended from the top back to the bottom floor with no sign of them. That’s when we did another Google search and discovered that the fingers had been moved. Again. I never thought I would be so upset about not seeing severed finger bones.

Luckily, our next stop lifted my spirits: The Medici Chapels at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, tomb of the Medici! There are two main chambers where the Medici family are interred. One, a more lavishly adorned room with colored marble and intricate decorations where later Medici were laid to rest. The other a more simple, older room, containing the remains of earlier Medici, including my two favorites: Lorenzo Il Magnifico, and Giuliano Il Sexy, with monuments carved by Michelangelo. If you’ve been reading this European series, I bet you can guess what I did as I stood before the graves of Lorenzo and Giuliano (if you guessed cry like a little bitch baby, you are correct!).

After we’d paid our respects we walked back to our apartment, stopping to pick up some desserts on our way. We had an early dinner that evening and ended up perusing the UberEats McDonald’s menu for late night snacks, yet again. The “Smarties McFlurry,” “My Selection Chicken Pepper,” and ” Le Ricche Fries Cheddar,” sounded too alluring for the girls to pass up.

Ordering European McDonald’s can be quite entertaining. The “Smarties McFlurry” did not, in fact, contain Smarties and was actually an M&M McFlurry. The My Selection Chicken Pepper was nothing to write home about, and the Le Ricche Fries were just fries with a squirt of cheddar and, inexplicably, a little wooden spoon at the bottom. We laughed harder than I ever expected a McDonald’s order to warrant. It was so memorable, in fact, that Carey still has a screenshot of the digital receipt.

With bellies full of pasta, wine, and whatever the hell McDonald’s puts in their food we finally went to bed. In the morning we’d wake up early to head to the Red Cross COVID testing site in preparation for our flight back across the pond to America, which was approaching faster than we’d have liked. I hope you’ll come back to read about our last couple days in Europe as our epic Ladycation comes to an end. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Practically A Pilgrimage: Our First Day in Florence

Florence was the main event for me on our European Ladycation. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Firenze was the city Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Poliziano, and Botticelli all called home. Masters of art, science, and philosophy all tied together by one family: The Medici, and I am completely obsessed. Being in their city, walking those streets, and seeing the art they commissioned was more than just a dream come true for my history-nerd self. It was practically a pilgrimage.

So, about that history. . .

The Medici were the wealthiest, most powerful family in Florence in and around the 15th Century. They were cunning, ruthless, calculating, and ambitious. They were also some of the most influential lovers and patrons of the arts who ever lived. Artists depended on wealthy people like the Medici for their livelihood, while people like the Medici depended on the artists to curate favor and popularity among the people. The Medici reigned during a time when, instead of buying mega-yachts and private islands or dick-shaped rockets, the upper echelon of society spent their money commissioning artwork and building projects. While the Medici patronage certainly had an aspect of political manipulation, it also sprung from a genuine love of the arts and an innate ability to identify pure artistic talent. They were basically Renaissance talent scouts. Really good ones.

Cosimo de Medici (Father of the Fatherland) commissioned Donatello’s bronze sculpture of David, and chose Brunelleschi to construct the iconic dome atop the Duomo. Cosimo’s son Piero (The Gouty–15th Century shade) took Botticelli into his home and raised him alongside his own sons. Piero’s son Lorenzo (The Magnificent) gave Michelangelo a space to hone his skills, commissioned work by Leonardo da Vinci, and held gatherings at the Medici villas with philosophers like Poliziano to debate the wisdom of the ancients against the teachings of the Church, and the emerging field of science. It was Lorenzo’s nephew Guilio who became Pope Clement VII who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. And it was a Medici who later took in Galileo after the Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic and sentenced him to house arrest in perpetuity. These are just a few examples of Medici contributions to the world of art, science and philosophy. Their legacy in its entirety is immeasurable.

We set out from our flat and headed towards the historical center of the city, just a few blocks away. We’d only been walking a couple minutes when I saw it. Austere, imposing, it was exactly like the pictures in my books: The Palazzo Medici!

We walked the halls and admired the rooms, and somehow I maintained my composure. While the exterior was severe and stark, the interior was lavish and lovely. Many of the rooms had been updated by the Riccardi family, who owned the palazzo after the Medici, including a mirrored ballroom that would have felt right at home in Versailles. But it was the chapel, with Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi frescoes, that I was most enthusiastic to see. Of course, when I saw them, I lost my composure and the tears began to flow. It was stunning. I couldn’t believe I was actually there, seeing it with my own eyes. Cosimo, Piero, Lorenzo, Guiliano, Contesina, Lucrezia. . . all of them had been in that very room, staring at those same frescoes. I was basically fan-girling over a bunch of people who’ve been dead for centuries.

After I collected myself it was time to move on, and we headed towards the Piazza della Signoria. So much to see, so much history in one little space! We wandered around the piazza, taking it all in, as my head spun remembering all the trivia I’d learned throughout my years of obsessive reading. I stared at the windows in the Palazzo Vecchio where the Pazzi conspirators were hung after their failed coup attempt (more on that in a later post), and at the tower where Cosimo had briefly been held prisoner. I looked at the wall of the loggia that once showcased Botticelli’s death portraits of the executed conspirators. It was in this piazza where the fundamentalist friar, Giorlamo Savanarola had ignited the Bonfire of the Vanities, and later where he was burned to ash at the stake. I was hardcore fan-girling again. We admired the sculptures, the fountain, and the palazzo before heading towards our next Renaissance stop, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti.

I love Botticelli. Sure, it’s partly because of the Medici connection, but I also love his work. You may recognize his paintings as some of the most famous on the planet, but you probably don’t know the story behind the beautiful blonde in his most famous pieces.

Simonetta Vespucci was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence, and Sandro Botticelli was enraptured by her. She was the model for Primavera, Venus and Mars, and Birth of Venus, and she was also rumored to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici (Mars, in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars). At the tender age of 22 she succumbed to what was likely tuberculosis, devastating Botticelli. He requested to be interred next to her upon his death, desiring to spend eternity alongside his muse, and his wish was granted. Both are now laid to rest, side by side, in the little church.

Since it was closed for the afternoon riposo we decided to relax in the piazza for a while. I smoked a cigarette, and we admired the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. It was a perfectly lovely way to kill an hour, away from the crowds of the main tourist areas, with sunny skies and a light breeze. We were having the best effing day!

The church was small compared to the other monstrosities we’d visited, and was quite dark inside, but no less marvelous in its decoration. We wandered around the sanctuary, pausing at the pulpit for a picture to send to my retired-pastor father (his response, “Cool pulpit! Steal it for me!”), and finally found what we were looking for. Side by side, for all eternity, there were Simonetta and Sandro. Sadly, Botticelli’s tomb was under some kind of renovation, and was blocked from view, but we were able to pay our respects, and I, of course, cried again.

We headed back to our AirBnb afterwards to get cleaned up for dinner. Along the way a sign caught my eye. As I’ve previously discussed I’m very much a cannabis advocate, so when I saw a sign with a single cannabis leaf I went in for a closer look. Much to my amazement, not only was the sign for a little basement pot-shop, but that shop had a vending machine. Weed vending machines?! How is this a thing?! After two weeks of not smoking this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I picked up a few grams and some rolling papers and we headed back to the flat. I won’t say it was good weed. It decidedly wasn’t. It was most likely not cannabis at all, but hemp, as the THC content was almost nil, and it smelled more cannabis-adjacent than dank skunk. But damn if smoking that joint on our Florentine balcony as I gazed at the dome of the Duomo didn’t make me feel like the most cultured, sophisticated stoner ever!

We did our laundry that afternoon, feeling like real Europeans as we hung our wet garments on the clothesline off the balcony. I’m not sure if it’s energy consumption or what, but Europeans seem to have an aversion to clothes dryers. No place we stayed had one. Be that as it may, we kind of enjoyed the line-drying. It was different, felt authentic, and even fun. It made doing laundry in Europe feel like an adventure!

Our meal that evening was. . . interesting. Ironically, what initially drew us to the restaurant we chose was what ultimately made us desperate to leave: a singing waiter. In theory it’s a delightfully Italian experience. In reality it’s cliché and obnoxious and likely caused by a bit too much nose candy. We spent the entire meal listening to him singing the same few bars of the same song, and hollering at passing tourists. The food was fantastic, but we didn’t linger and savor our meal as we’d done at each previous dinner. We scarfed down our meals and high tailed it out of there like the Americans we are.

We’d had another magical day, and despite our dinner time serenade, the girls remarked at how surprised they were to be falling in love with Florence. I wasn’t surprised, but I was most definitely smitten, and so happy that they were loving it as much as I was. We still had a few days of magic left, so it was time to close the curtains on our view of Brunelleschi’s Dome and get some sleep. I’d love you to come back for our next installment as we visit the most famous sculpture on the planet: Michelangelo’s David, and so much more! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

One Day in Normandy: Omaha Beach and COVID Test Chaos

It was our last day in France, which was bittersweet. We’d all fallen in love with France, and could have explored it forever, but Florence awaited! Since our flight didn’t depart until close to 10pm we’d planned to spend the day paying our respects to the thousands of Allied soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day by visiting several sites relating to the battle. It was a lot of driving, and time would be tight, but we were determined. However, we first needed to obtain COVID tests in order to fly back into Italy, so we bid Gilles a reluctant, fond farewell and set out on our three hour drive to Caen for testing.

Whether it was user error or our phones’ Americanized algorithms struggling to perform a Google search in France, the testing location we navigated to did not actually exist. Frustrated and confused, we began searching for another nearby location, each of us getting different search results, none of which proving fruitful. To make a long, and indescribably boring story a bit shorter, it took us almost three hours to find and obtain our COVID tests, which meant trimming our itinerary down dramatically, to a single stop.

We opted for Omaha Beach, set out in that direction, and arrived as we received email notifications that our results were available. However, the friendly nurse who had administered our tests had input my birthday incorrectly, making me unable to access my results. It took another half an hour and three phone calls before she finally entered it in correctly and I was able to access my results, and by that point Olivia, who spoke the most French of the three of us and had been the one making those three phone calls, was ready to explode.

Our tests were all negative, but our frustration level was still high, so we decided to get some lunch before heading to the beach. There was a restaurant across the street where we found an outdoor table to catch our breath and feed our bellies. It took many French fries, but by the time we got up we were in a much better head space.

On June 6, 1944 America, Great Britain and Canada launched the largest invasion fleet in history. More than 1200 warships, 4000 landing craft, 12,000 aircraft, and 160,000 troops set off for Normandy to finally gain a foothold in Nazi occupied France, and begin their push towards Berlin. The invasion itself was a surprisingly and hilariously successful deception by the Allies. Between radar trickery, dummy-paratrooper drops, espionage, and US General Patton’s phantom army full of inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, the Nazis were hoodwinked. They knew an Allied attack was imminent, but they thought it would happen at Calais, not in Normandy, and they focused their defensive resources according to that erroneous assumption. Hitler literally slept through it. Once he woke up around 9am, convinced the Normandy invasion was just a diversion from the non-existant attack on Calais, he started dispatching his infamous Panzer troops mostly in the wrong direction. Sucker.

While the Allies were successful on D-Day, we paid a heavy price. More than 3000 Americans died on Omaha Beach alone. Thousands more on Utah, behind enemy lines, and in the ensuing days in the push to seize Caen and secure a supply line. That’s to say nothing of the millions who died throughout the course of WWII, including the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. I can’t even fathom how it must have felt to walk through these European cities 80 years ago, amidst unimaginable destruction and death, knowing it was all at the direction of a madman.

If you didn’t know of the bloodshed that occurred there more than three quarters of a century ago you’d think it was just another beach. Omaha Beach today is pretty, and fairly touristy. Families milled around, walking their dogs and playing in the surf, and with the sun shining it was hard to imagine it had once been the site of unfathomable carnage.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional we’d feel walking on that battlefield. In my head I kept seeing the beach-storming scene from Saving Private Ryan. The clear, sunny day transformed into a haze of smoke, with boats full of terrified men and boys filling the ocean along the shore. I could hear the gunfire and screams, see the mangled bodies littering the blood-soaked sand. It was overwhelming to imagine. It reminded me how fragile our own democracy is. We’ve all seen how susceptible people can be to propaganda and misinformation, and how that vulnerability can be exploited by madmen craving power.

We had a long drive to the airport so we hit the road once we’d paid our respects. It was a quiet, reflective 3 hour drive back to Paris. By the time we arrived we were all emotionally exhausted. Our flight was a quick one, but thankfully long enough for us to get in the right mindset for our Florentine adventure. The only complaint we had about the flight was that after all the confusion and frustration and wasted time to get our COVID tests, we were never asked for them. Not at the airport, and not on arrival to Florence. We found that irritating, but we got over it quickly.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived so we took a taxi straight to the AirBnb. Although the driver totally overcharged us and lied about it, we were just grateful for our day of travel to be over and to get settled into the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Our AirBnb host’s son, Niccolo, arrived to let us into the flat, and the girls were positively smitten. He was young, adorable, so polite, and his Italian accent was absolutely charming. The flat itself was equally as charming, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our home for the next four nights. The apartment was small, but beautifully decorated and comfortable. The girls had their own room, with my room next door, both connected by a balcony overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, which was all lit up for the evening when we arrived. My dream was coming true. I was in Medici country!

We had a busy day of exploring planned so we needed to get some sleep, but first we needed some food. As had become customary during our trip, and since we’d arrived so late, we ordered McDonald’s. And, as always, it was the comfort food we needed after a crazy day traversing two foreign countries.

Come back next time to get a history lesson from your resident nerd-blogger as I acquaint you with the Medici family while we explore the birthplace of the Renaissance! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Today Was A Fairytale: The Castle, the Vineyard & Dinner by Gilles

Our second day in the Loire Valley began with the smell of fresh baked breads wafting up the stairs and into our rooms. Our AirBnb host, Gilles, was busy in the kitchen preparing a traditional French breakfast. There were meats, fruit, croissant, baguette, jams, juice, and eggs waiting for us as we meandered downstairs to start our day. A handsome man had made us breakfast; talk about a fairytale beginning! I’d tasted the good life and never wanted to return. I was ready to give my blessing for Olivia to marry Gilles simply so I could come visit and eat baguette and creamy, French butter on the regular.

We had only two places on the itinerary that day, so we took our time savoring our meal and getting ready before hitting the road. While we were preparing for the trip Olivia and I had gone shopping. She wanted to find a dress, something delicate and feminine, to wear while visiting castles and vineyards, and found a beautiful Kelly green dress to fit the bill. I’d been eyeing a kimono in the same shade of green, and Carey found a dress that was also the same shade, so we decided our second day in the Loire Valley would be Green Day (and yes, we obviously listened to Green Day in the car). Once we’d all stuffed our faces full of the delicious breakfast Gilles had prepared, and donned our floral green outfits, we were off.

Our first stop was the Château de Chenonceau, a Renaissance castle once owned and occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (after kicking the king’s mistress out of it upon his death). I’ve told you all before that I’m a history nerd, but that nerdiness is on a whole new level when it comes to the Medici family. I’m completely obsessed (just wait till I post about Florence). I was beyond excited to visit the Château de Chenonceau, and the experience surpassed my expectations beyond measure.

The path to the castle is lined with well manicured trees, a gift shop, gardens, and a hedge maze. The castle itself is smaller than the others we’d visited, but no less beautiful in appearance. Situated over the Le Cher River, the Château de Chenonceau is like something straight out of a fairytale. Built in the early 16th Century, and renovated to its current state by the Medici Queen, its design is classically Renaissance and hopelessly romantic.

We explored every nook and cranny of the castle, seeing the room where Queen Catherine slept and the kitchens where her meals were prepared, admiring the antique furniture that filled its many rooms and corridors, standing on every balcony, imagining what it must have been like 400 years ago. The entire building was enchanting, with intricate wood paneling and stonework, massive fireplaces, stunning leaded glass windows, and beautiful tapestries. I was in heaven.

Once we’d gone through the whole building we went outside to explore the grounds. A moat surrounds the castle and gardens, with tall trees all around, making the property feel like its own little enchanted kingdom. We walked along the moat and through the beautiful, meticulously manicured gardens, soaking it all in and taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I almost had to pinch myself to believe we were really in such a magical place!

I couldn’t take enough pictures of the Château de Chenonceau. So many of my favorite pictures of this trip are from this day, including a hilarious series of Olivia attempting to leap. It took about 30 tries to get it right and by the time we were done we weren’t the only ones laughing. Don’t let Instagram fool you. For every perfect shot there are dozens more that look ridiculous and hysterical.

Before moving on we swung by the hedge maze where Carey and Olivia raced to the finish as I relaxed in the shade and smoked a cigarette. Carey won the race, and after a stop in the gift shop we were on our way to the Château de Miniere for a wine tasting.

We weren’t sure they were open as we arrived and were the only car in the parking lot, but a very handsome young man greeted us at the door and gave us a map of the grounds, telling us to explore while he checked the guests out of the château. The first thing we saw when we went into the courtyard, aside from the charming château itself, was a cat. My daughter is like the cat whisperer and was positively gleeful as she called the little kitty to her for some pets. Liv was already in heaven and we hadn’t even had any wine yet!

We explored the vineyard and made our way back to the château where the sommelier was ready to give us a lesson in the region’s wines. We sampled 10 different wines; some red, some white, one rose, all exceptional. I didn’t know what good wine tasted like until these wines touched my lips. It took but one wine tasting to make wine snobs out of women on a Barefoot budget. We’ll never be able to drink bargain wine again! I brought home the rose, while the girls bought the 1996 white–without a doubt the crème de la crème–harvested the same year I graduated high school.

Olivia gave some extra pets to the resident cat before we left, which gave me a little time to let the effects of sampling ten wines wear off before getting back in the car. The day had been absolute magic, and it wasn’t over yet.

After all that wine and exploration we were (okay, I was) starving, so we started looking on Google for a nearby market, stopping along the way to get some pictures at a sunflower field (the only one we’d seen with the sunflowers still alive). What we hadn’t taken into consideration was that it was Sunday, and nothing in the small towns of France is open on Sundays, nor, apparently, do people leave their homes. We mapped our way to two separate towns, not finding a single store open, and not seeing a single person out and about. They were like ancient, picturesque little ghost towns. Undeterred, we knew we just needed to find a larger city, so we headed into Tours.

Given our ignorance of the area and the names of French grocery stores, we mapped our way to the nearest market that said it was open. When we arrived we realized we should’ve done more research. The store we mapped to was a tiny little bodega that was most definitely designed to serve their black community, not white chicks with the munchies. Lots of products to care for black hair, lots of French beans and nuts, but nothing snack-wise. We got quite a few “are you lost?” looks as we walked in. I did find Coke, so I bought a couple to take with us and we headed to the fast food joint around the corner, called Point B.

What a hilarious experience. It clearly wasn’t just the folks in the bodega who thought we were lost. The whole restaurant was watching us as we ordered, and we felt quite on display. I went outside to smoke after I inhaled my burger, and the girls came out saying everyone in the restaurant had been staring at them. Blatantly, shamelessly staring, whispering and pointing. Clearly we had not found the touristy part of town, and our presence was either amusing, confusing, or both. Such a bizarre, yet highly entertaining experience!

We arrived back at our AirBnb to find Gilles hard at work in the kitchen preparing our dinner, and us regretting our stop at Point B barely an hour before. The whole house smelled amazing as we got cleaned up. The table on the patio was set and the sun was just beginning to go down as our first course of baguette, pâté and fruit was served with a bottle of local wine. We had barely finished that when he brought out our next course of various meats, followed by the main course of slow-cooked sausages (smoked for 8 hours) and cheesy potatoes, then a cheese course, and apple cake for dessert. By the time the dessert arrived we weren’t sure we could eat another bite, but the cake was so good we couldn’t help ourselves. The girls said they had never been so full, which is really saying something for Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving every year.

We sat on the patio for hours digesting, talking, laughing, calling family back home, and just relishing every second in this French paradise. Each moment of the day had been unforgettable. We were so satisfied and joyful that I didn’t want the day to end. So fun, so memorable, so magical, so unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Truly, today was a fairytale!

Though we were sad we had to leave France the next day, we were excited to head back to Italy to soak up the Renaissance history of Florence! Come back next week to hear about our attempt to visit Normandy and get a Covid test before our flight, both of which proving to be a bigger challenge than we’d anticipated. Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Loire Valley Road Trip: The Castles and the Countryside

After a week in two of the biggest cities in Europe it was time to switch gears (literally), and head to the countryside. There’s so much more to France than Paris, and narrowing down the area to explore was difficult, but a trip to Europe would seem incomplete without visiting castles and vineyards, and the Loire Valley is absolutely ripe with both. And so, we bid a fond farewell to Paris and set off for our next adventure.

The best way to see the French countryside is by car, and since I love road trips I didn’t hesitate to rent a car in France. With our budget being what it was I wasn’t willing to spend the money to upgrade to an automatic transmission, so the first challenge was remembering how the hell to drive a stick shift. We stalled twice pulling out of the parking garage, and initially struggled to follow the GPS navigation while simultaneously re-learning how to shift, but once we were out of the city I’d gotten the hang of it. That’s not to say driving in a foreign country is without its challenges. It took me over an hour to realize the circular signs with numbers along the highway were speed limit signs, which is probably when I received two radar-generated speeding tickets (notified by the rental car agency of the violations, I have yet to receive the actual tickets from France, now 4 months later). Oops!

We had about three hours to our first castle, and I was immensely grateful for the time we spent in the car, just watching the countryside pass by, seeing sign after sign for castles and historical sites, and listening to our (mostly Taylor Swift) Spotify playlist, created especially for our European road trip. We all sang along with T-Swizzle, jammed to the French pop song (Carrousel by Amir) we’d added after hearing it in a taxi, and bumped FDT by YG as loud as the little car’s speakers would go. We were impressed by the large number of wind turbines we saw, by the infrequency of above-ground power lines to sully the beautiful landscape, and by the amount of sunflower fields we passed (sadly, all wilting at the end of the season).

Our first castle of the day was the Chateau de Chambord. The enormous, gorgeous castle was commissioned in the 16th Century by King Francois I, and completed in the 17th Century under the reign of King Louis XIV (the Sun King). It was built as a hunting lodge (you know, just a cozy little country cottage), and was never the primary royal residence, but both kings stayed here during their reigns. The central feature of this magnificent castle is the double helix staircase, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, which is designed so that a person can be going up the stairs, and another going down, without ever seeing one another.

When we first arrived we decided to sit down for lunch at one of the shops on the castle grounds. We had yet to eat French crepes, so we were excited to find a creperie on site. We each ordered a different crepe and then perused the vendor stalls, buying a bottle of local wine for my sister, before heading into the castle to explore.

The Chateau de Chambord is positively marvelous. Like everywhere we’d visited, it’s freaking gigantic, and is beautifully and intricately detailed. We wandered its many rooms and corridors, all filled with period furniture and art, and even walked along the rooftop, admiring the view of the grounds. Though there were quite a few people visiting, it’s such a massive space that there was never any crowding.

It was a hot day and the 500 year old castle was pretty stuffy inside, so once we’d finished exploring the interior we found a bench in the garden under the shade of a tree to cool down on. This was one of those moments we were able to truly appreciate the slower pace of our road trip through the countryside. We had no timetable to keep except to be at our AirBnb that evening, so we were able to just sit, relax, smoke a cigarette (for me, anyway), and soak in our glamorous surroundings.

After an hour or so we headed back to the car to drive to our next castle, only about a half hour away, the Chateau de Chaumont. Originally built around the year 1000, it was rebuilt about 500 years later in the Renaissance style we see today. My favorite fun-fact about the Chateau de Chaumont is that it was once occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (more on the Medicis when we reach Florence). When her husband, the King, died she took another castle that she like more, the Chateau de Chenonceau, as her own, kicking out the late king’s mistress, and sticking her in Chaumont instead. Pretty boss move by Queen Catherine! Before leaving, she entertained the likes of Nostradamus in this stunning, medieval marvel.

The Chateau de Chaumont has such a classic, fairy tale appearance, and the interior definitely felt older than the Chateau de Chambord. We explored the interior and the gardens, and though it was exciting to be in such an old, historic place, the modern art installations in the chapel and other rooms of the castle looked incredibly out of place. The inside of the chapel looked like something out of the Blair Witch Project, and the art throughout simply did not work with the beauty of the Renaissance architecture. Then again, modern art is definitely just not our thing in any environment.

It was late afternoon when we got back to the car and we decided to get an early dinner before heading to our AirBnb for the night, so we drove to the nearby town of Onzain, parked the car, and went in search of a restaurant. The town was picturesque and charming, and had the added bonus of having a festival going on in the town square. It must’ve been a big event in this small town, cause we didn’t see a single human being anywhere until we reached the square, which was packed with people. We found the only restaurant that was actually open and sat down at a small outdoor table to enjoy the all-ages community orchestra playing American pop music and show tunes while we ate our meal.

The big cities and tourist attractions were full of people who spoke English. Not so in the less touristy areas. Only one person at the restaurant spoke English, and it was limited, so Olivia and Carey got to really test out their French. Thankfully, everyone was patient with us, though I think they were also a bit annoyed with my requests to get my burger sans cheese and other toppings. Picky-ass Americans, amiright?

We’d been in communication with our AirBnb host, who had let us know his sister would welcome us upon our arrival. The house was located on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and was even more adorable than the pictures. We were greeted by Sylvie, who showed us around the space, then sat on the patio chatting with us over a bottle of local sparkling wine. Sylvie was gracious and hospitable, telling us about her family and asking us about where we were from and what brought us to France. The sun was beginning to set over the field when she left, and after getting settled into our home for the next two nights, we found ourselves back on the patio, enjoying the warm night breeze and the sound of the crickets. It was so quiet, so peaceful, the perfect place to unwind after our day of driving.

While we had run of the house, our host, Gilles, lived on the premises and had rooms at the back of the cottage. Olivia had been in touch with him regarding our visit and was already dying to meet him simply for the way he worded some of his messages. Gilles is an award-winning local chef who, for a fee, offers a full, 4 course meal option to his guests, which we were delighted to take advantage of. When he asked which menu we preferred, he asked which one “seduced” us. Language barriers can be positively amazing. Gilles arrived as the girls were getting cleaned up and I was on the patio. Though his English was limited, he made a valiant effort, and was as handsome and charming as we’d imagined. Olivia was ready to marry him on the spot, despite his being at least ten years older than I am. Truth be told I don’t think any of us would’ve turned him down. We were all loving the oh-so-sexy Gilles.

We each had our own room at Gilles’ cottage and we slept incredibly well. Perhaps it was the country air, maybe the frantic pace of our first week, or just how much more concentration I had to put on driving in a foreign country, and the comfortable atmosphere of Gilles’ cottage, but it was the best night’s sleep I’d had through the whole trip.

Our first day of the road trip had been absolutely wonderful. By this point I was running out of adjectives to describe just how wonderful each day had been. Every single one had been enchanting, and that was to continue for the duration of our epic Ladycation. Be sure to come back next week to read about our second day exploring the castles and vineyards of the Loire Valley. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Our Last Day in Paris: Versailles to Ver-cry

It was our last day in Paris, and although I was absolutely exhausted, there was so much more we had yet to see in the City of Lights! Paris is synonymous with luxury and extravagance, and there were two places that epitomize both which we had yet to visit: Versailles and Galeries Lafayette, which is basically the Versailles of malls. So, for our final day in the most beautiful city in the world we set out in search of the most pretentious palace and swanky shopping. Little did I know I’d be sobbing into my pillow by day’s end.

Though we’d planned on using the Metro, we were seeing so much, and were so short on time, that Ubers were just easier. However, the cost of all those Ubers was really adding up. While none of us were confident that we’d be able to figure out the train system and actually get where we wanted to go on time, we were able to be a bit more flexible on our last day, so we decided to save some money and brave the train.

Surveying the train maps

We’d planned to go to Galeries Lafayette first. We studied the train map and thought we knew which train to get on, but about two stops down the tracks we realized we were going the wrong direction. Oops. This was why we hadn’t attempted public transit until now. Luckily we were headed in the right direction for Versailles, so we just flipped our plan for the day and went to the Sun King’s Pleasure Palace first.

The train station is a short walk to the palace, and we’d arrived quite earlier than our timed entry slot, so we stopped for coffee, then to peruse an antique shop. Antique books, trinkets, furniture, you name it. It felt like walking through the past; the truly authentic Paris of regular people, instead of those who occupied the palace we were about to explore. I felt like everything I touched had a story, each one a small piece of Parisian history, the Paris Hemingway fell in love with, the Paris in which Monet was born. It was one of my favorite places we visited in the entire city.

There’s no missing the Palace of Versailles. We came around the corner and there it was, dominating the landscape in the distance, occupying an entire city block. It’s absolutely gargantuan, and looks as if someone drizzled gold over the whole thing. Even the fence around it is gold. It’s insane. It’s difficult to imagine it being someone’s home, not at all difficult to imagine the effect living in such a place would have on the ego of its inhabitants.

As we walked the halls and rooms of Versailles, each one seeming more opulent than the next, I could almost see the members of his Majesty’s court milling around in flamboyant outfits and powdered wigs. Ostentatious doesn’t even begin to describe just how ridiculous the luxury on display is in the Palace of Versailles. The girls were loving it, but I found it all a little off-putting, to be honest. Seeing the in-your-face exhibit of wealth made it fairly easy to figure out why people were pissed enough at the monarchy to start a Revolution.

It took a couple hours to get through the palace, and I was absolutely spent by the time we were done. My legs felt like lead weights and my blisters had blisters. All I wanted to do was lie down, but the girls had been looking forward to shopping since we first began planning the trip, so I womaned up and off we went.

The Galeries Lafayette is a multi-building mall/department store in Paris with everything from an H&M to Dolce & Gabbana. We perused cashmere sweaters and colorful berets (the girls each bought one), smelled designer fragrances and admired the domed, leaded glass ceiling. The top floor holds a resale shop of all top designers, and the girls each found a little something to take home that didn’t break the bank. I found it rather amusing to watch a woman try on a used Burberry coat that was at least 3 sizes too large for her, and still drop $300 on it, just because it was Burberry. I’m no fashion icon, to be sure, but that made me roll my eyes so hard I thought they’d pop right out of my head.

The Galleries Lafayette.

By this point I was ready to drop. I was hungry and so tired, and I just wanted to be sitting down in the flat. It had been go-go-go, nonstop, for a week. Wonderful, yes. Exactly as I’d planned it, yes. Worth it, also yes. But I was physically shutting down from the pace of our epic Ladycation.

Since we were staying outside the city limits we had to switch trains at one of the main hubs in order to get back to Suresnes. That meant buying a second train ticket for the different train line. To this day we have no idea what the hell we were doing wrong, but we couldn’t figure out how to buy the second ticket to save our lives. We bought three tickets, all of which ended up being wrong, and we couldn’t even get out of the train terminal because we needed to scan the tickets we didn’t have in order to do so. “Screw this. We’re getting an Uber.” I was beyond frazzled. A few kind Parisians took pity on us inept Americans and had us closely follow them through the gate when they swiped their tickets, and we were finally out of there.

Unfortunately, our frustration was not over once we emerged from the train station. We couldn’t figure out how to get down to the street level, and it felt like we were wandering in circles forever in a concrete maze. By the time we finally found the street and got in the Uber I was ready to cry, but I kept it together.

The second we arrived back in our flat, however, I went into my room, shut the door, and sobbed. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t having a bad time, they were tears of pure exhaustion. We hadn’t stopped since the second we stepped foot in Europe, and my old ass simply couldn’t handle that much fun for that long. We were walking a minimum of six miles every day without a break. Even when I was backpacking we never went four days without a rest day, and I was in much better shape then.

Before we left the US my boss asked to see our planned itinerary. I gave him a multi-page, detailed outline of everything we planned to do, filled with my own colorful commentary for some added flavor, and he shared it with his family. They gave me a card with a gift before we began our adventure (truly incredible, amazing people. I was blown away by their kindness), wishing us a wonderful trip. His wife wrote that she’d be exhausted attempting just half of our ambitious itinerary, and advised us to make time for relaxation. As I was melting down on that bed, dripping snot onto the pillow, I remembered that card and thought, Dammit, this is what the Lews were afraid of! But, after a good thirty minute emotional purge I pulled myself back together. Sometimes a person just needs a solid ugly-cry to cleanse and refresh the soul. Besides, compared to my busted neck on my Hawaiian Crap-Cation some sore muscles and blistered feet felt pretty benign and unremarkable.

A tear-filled selfie to remind me that the lows are what give so much joy and significance to the highs

The only thing we had planned for that evening was dinner, so I ordered McDonald’s yet again (comfort food), and the girls ventured out on their own. I won’t speak for them, but I suspect it was nice to leave Mom behind for a few hours. As far as moms go, I think I’m a pretty cool one. Olivia and I have a great relationship, we’re very close, and Carey and I were getting along beautifully. But I am still Mom. So, while I enjoyed a quiet, solo evening relaxing on the balcony watching the Eiffel Tower and eating my American junk food, Olivia and Carey set out on their own for an adventure without their chaperone.

By the time the girls returned I was full and relaxed, and they were laughing and telling me stories of their mom-less dinner. They’d had a blast, I’d enjoyed my me-time, and we all gathered together once more to watch one last Eiffel Tower Twinkle Show from our balcony to cap off the day. What an absolutely magical time we’d had in Paris! Sure, I broke down and cried like a little bitch-baby by the end, but I wouldn’t change a moment of our trip.

We’d completed our first week of vacation, and still had another week to go! Come back again to read about the next adventure: renting a car and road-tripping from castle to castle through the Loire Valley! Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Louvre-ing Life: Art, the Seine, and the Frenchmen

We’d already had two amazing days in Paris, but we’d barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. Since we had no idea if or when we’d be back in Europe I wanted to cram as much as possible into our itinerary. While I would certainly not describe our trip as a relaxing one, we awoke each morning excited for what we had planned. Waking up knowing we were about to see the most famous painting in the world, and would be eating our dinner in style as we cruised down the River Seine, was certainly no exception. And, as usual, the day far surpassed our expectations.

Paris is absolutely full of museums, but only one is the most famous museum on earth: The Louvre. The museum itself is gargantuan, and filled with some of the most recognizable art on the planet, including sculptures like the Venus di Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, both of which are absolutely breathtaking.

We drooled over the Crown Jewels of France, walked past priceless paintings and sculptures, and through rooms of hundreds of years old furniture, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. But, without a doubt, the main draw to the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master who painted her, got his start in Florence in the 15th Century, and was a man of many talents. He was a painter, inventor, and scientist before science was really even a thing. He had a curious mind and was ahead of his time, even performing autopsies to understand human anatomy during a period when that was a huge no-no. The dude had brains, talent and balls.

Everyone says, “The Mona Lisa was smaller than I expected,” which is why it was bigger than we were expecting. The painting is at the center of a large gallery, surrounded by other masterpieces, including his famous (and strangely erotic) painting of St John the Baptist. Though we would have undoubtedly had a better view of the detail had we gone through the rope line, standing outside it near the front gave us a pretty solid look at her without waiting for an hour amidst the throngs of people. We may have been vaccinated and masked, but we were still cognizant of the risk involved with spending time in crowded indoor spaces mid-pandemic. Just to be in her presence was a privilege.

After spending a couple hours wandering the massive Louvre, there was one more museum we didn’t want to miss, so we struck out across the Tuileries Garden towards the Musee de l’Orangerie. A smaller museum, with an abundance of pieces by Renoir and other masters, the crème de la crème is definitely Monet’s Waterlilies. The paintings surround the walls of two oval shaped rooms dedicated solely to those paintings, and they are absolutely magnificent. The galleries are intended for silent meditation, which is enforced by museum employees whose sole job it is to sit there and tell people to shut the hell up. A boring job with a spectacular view.

We walked around each room slowly, marveling at the detail of these enormous paintings. It’s so cool to see them up close, admiring the texture and the colors, then to stand back and see them all together as a whole. Two completely different experiences, both exceptional. And, as was becoming customary for me, I was moved to tears.

We had some time to kill after we left the museum, and decided to just relax and enjoy the gorgeous day in the Tuileries Garden before heading back to the AirBnb to get ready for dinner. We grabbed some drinks at the museum and found a quiet spot to kick back and revel in not having anywhere to be in that moment. We admired a particularly handsome man lunching nearby, watched the leaves that were beginning to fall from the trees, and were amazed by the stamina of the young (teenage) couple who sucked each other’s faces for the entirety of the time we sat there. No shame, gratuitous groping; they just wanted to get it on. It was so Parisian (and rather nauseating).

The Bateaux Parisiens is considered the best dinner cruise in Paris. They have several package options for just about any budget, but since this was our special, splurge meal, we went for the premium VIP package that included champagne at the beginning and end of the cruise, and a table in the front of the boat, completely enclosed with windows to allow you to see the whole city as it floats by. It was touristy and pricey, almost $300 per person, but worth every penny.

The boats board beneath the Eiffel Tower, and we were a little tense as we were running late, so when we finally found the right boat and got in line we were relieved. The one thing about Paris we were not crazy about was the aggressiveness of the people walking around selling shit. Souvenirs, water, beer; they were approaching us constantly. A polite, “No, merci,” is usually sufficient, but not on this occasion. As we waited in line to board the boat a guy approached trying to sell us roses. We politely declined, but he wasn’t taking no for an answer. I get that everyone’s gotta make a living. However, if you’re selling something and I say I’m not interested, being pushy and intrusive is definitely not going to change my mind. After a couple minutes of this clown testing the limits of my patience, I’d had it. I summoned my angry-mom voice and forcefully said, “NO!” Did that do the trick? Of course not. He just began to mock me with, “No! No! No! No!” until Olivia whirled around with an assertive, “No, fuck off!” We’d tried polite, we’d tried firm, but it was ultimately good ol’ American snark that finally did the trick.

We boarded the boat without further incidence, and were escorted to our table and given champagne and hor d’oeuvres. We felt positively pampered as the boat slipped away from the dock and glided down the Seine. The city was all lit up along the riverbanks, and we finally got a glimpse of Notre Dame, still closed for renovations after the devastating 2019 fire. We were relaxed and laughing, enjoying the atmosphere, and the food.

Our cruise lasted nearly 3 hours, included several glasses of wine, five courses of authentic French cuisine, and concluded with cappuccino and a macaroon. The girls even got to try something they’d been wanting to try since we arrived in France: escargot (to mixed reviews).

Once we got back to shore the Eiffel Tower was all lit up and looming over us. The girls looked absolutely stunning in their fancy dresses, and we decided to stay for the next Twinkle Show before heading in for the night. We all FaceTimed with family, giving them a view of the shimmering tower against the dark, night sky, as we walked to the Champ de Mars to admire the show.

Even that late at night we were still approached by no fewer than six men attempting to sell us something to drink. Fortunately none were as obnoxious as the flower man from earlier in the evening, but it got irritating. After a while a young, cute, French man approached Carey not to sell her something, but to hit on her (a refreshing change of pace). He apologized for his English and asked, “Is okay if I. . . sit down with you?” Carey wasn’t sure how to respond, probably at least in part because she was there with her best friend’s mom, so she said, “Uh. . . I’m on the phone with my dad, but sure.” The young man sat and kept trying to spark a conversation, eventually asking what her plans were for the next day, and telling her he would love to show her, “hidden Paris.” Surely an innocent proposal to show her around areas not frequented by tourists, but definitely came across as serial-killerish. She let him down gently and we called an Uber to take us back to Suresnes. Awkward though it may have been, is there anything more Parisian than being hit on beneath the Eiffel Tower?!

The Uber that arrived was a tricked out Mercedes, with neon lights throughout the interior and undercarriage. Total pimp-mobile. While at a stoplight a car full of young men pulled up and tried to get the girls’ attention. They weren’t sure how to react, so I leaned over them both and yelled, “Hi! I’m their mom!” to the car full of now confused young men. The light turned green, and we drove away laughing, as our Uber driver chuckled along with us. An amusing end to another wonderful evening.

We had only one more day left in Paris, which was bittersweet, but a whole extra week of European adventure to follow. Stop by next week to read about our trip to Versailles, and the moment all that activity caught up with me. Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!