Two Scoops of Slovakia & Czechia, with a Viennese Cherry on Top

Last year Tim went to the International Meteor Conference (IMC) in Serbia by himself. This is unusual. He has been traveling with his family–me and the kids–since before the kids were kids, while the kids were becoming kids, and now that the kids are kids. We applied for Global Entry for the girls and realized they had 18 countries on their passports at ages four and five. Anyway, Tim is part of a meteor tracking project that involves everyone from amateur astronomers to scientists at SETI & NASA. These folks are spread out all over the world and the IMC gives them a chance to meet face to face and do nerdy stuff together. This year, to make up for previously going alone, Tim brought all of us, including his mom, Barbara, to the IMC in Slovakia.

We flew from San Francisco to Prague and spent the night at a hotel before driving south to Slovakia. Can I just say, without any originality on my part, that Prague is a beautiful city? It was cool to be there even for a few hours.

We crossed the Czech/Slovakia border with no fanfare at all thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which basically makes for open borders between 26 European states.

Southwestern Slovakia

The IMC was held at an equestrian event center, Rozalka, in the small town of Pezinok, Slovakia. Tim stayed at the conference while Barbara, the girls and I stayed at a penzion in town.

Penzions are like a cross between a hotel and a bed & breakfast. In this case, there was a receptionist and an area with dining tables, a couch, and a television. Our rooms had simple furnishing, a television, a bathroom, and spotty WiFi. We ate breakfast, European style*, in the reception area. *Coffee and tea, an assortment of sliced cheeses & deli meats, breads, sliced cucumber, tomato, and bell pepper, yogurts, granola, and eggs & sausages.

The weather in Pezinok was warm and humid. There were thunderstorms, which I love, and hot, sweaty nights, which made it hard to sleep, so I don’t love them. Intrepid travelers that we are, we quickly located the important things in Pezinok: an ice cream shop, the beer store and the playground.

It’s never too wet for ice cream.

The girls got to ride a horse named Duck at the equestrian center.

The Rozalka Stables were cleaner than my house.
Duck. Thrilled to be ridden by a four year old.
We couldn’t figure out how to tell the horse lady in Slovakian that Vanessa wanted to try controlling Duck herself.

I met Tim’s Czech friend, Vlastimil, whom he had roomed with the year before. Vlastimil recently earned his PhD in Astronomy and takes beautiful photographs. We made plans to meet up in Czechia with him in a few days.

On the second to last day of the conference, we joined Tim’s fellow scientists for an excursion to a nearby 13th century castle, Červený Kameň Castle, nestled in the Little Carpathian Mountains.

Don’t get any ideas, Tim.
The cellars of Červený Kameň Castle were atypically tall and airy.

A storm blew in and forced a cancellation of a local observatory tour. It rained so hard it was nearly impossible to see the road driving back to Pezinok. Dinner, more strudel than anyone could eat, and traditional Slovakian music and dance were a fun way to cap off that part of our trip.

It wasn’t all without tears, though. (In fact, with two girls, there are tears all the time.) Take, for example, the Pezinok Ball Pit Disaster of 2018. For lunch on our way out of town, we ate at a restaurant across the street from the penzion. Our kids had been told not to bring their new favorite dolls into the restaurant’s play area. So, of course, they brought their dolls into a ball pit and promptly lost them in a mass of plastic balls three feet deep. Both Vanessa and Zara tried to find them but couldn’t. The pit was stifling hot and designed for only small bodies to get in past the toy house and netting. Tim took pity on their tearful faces (and loud sobs) and somehow managed to a.) get his six foot frame into the pit and b.) find the dolls. But alas, this didn’t happen without him first accidentally tearing away a couple of his fingernails on a hidden snag. I gave him a “Daddy of the Day” award and two bandaids. The girls gave him big hugs.

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Vanessa in the ball pit after failing to find the beloved dolls. All hope is lost.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Dolls in hand, we piled into the rental car (which for unknown reasons smelled like a Portapotty) and drove to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. We visited the old town and Slavin, a war memorial & cemetery for the over 6000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives freeing Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. While we were there, a famous Slovakian pop star, Jožo Ráž, was being filmed by a TV crew. Locals were quite excited about it but we were like, “Who?”

Jožo Ráž on the steps in black, while Tim plays it cool and pretends he’s not looking.

Some of the graves had photographs of the Russian soldiers.

We wore Barbara out walking around Old Town Bratislava, which was to our advantage later when she wanted to stay at the hotel. She watched the girls and we got to be grownups for a couple of hours, having dinner at a restaurant we went to years ago on our first trip to Bratislava, and stumbling upon a cool night life spot.

Can you spot the tourist?

On our way back to Czechia, we stopped at Biofarm Nature Stupava, a place we have visited before. It has animals, a playground and a restaurant featuring simple, homemade food.

It’s a hard life.

Czech Republic, Southern Moravia

After lunch we made our way to Southern Moravia, in the Czech Republic, to the city of Brno. It is this area that Vlastimil is from.

Brno is a lovely looking city, with tall colorful buildings and amazing churches. We climbed lots of steps up to see the views and ring a bell, and lots of steps down to see some bones; we found a farmer’s market full of terrific produce (including a selection of super hot peppers, notable since nothing seems to be spicy in this part of the world) and ate some delicious traditional food–think goulash, dumplings, cabbage.

A farmer’s market in Brno.
View of Brno from the Old Town Hall Tower
The Dragon of Brno
Peter and Paul Cathedral from Capuchin Monastery
Capuchin Crypt. After seeing this place, Zara kept telling me she doesn’t want to die.

One of two bells in St. James Church, Brno, Czech Republic.

Vlastimil and his delicate, perfectly behaved rescue dog, Dessa, met us at an archeology museum, Archeopark Museum, built into a hill overlooking three lakes in village of Pavlov. It has a replica of the famous Venus of Dolní Věstonice figurine and is highly worth visiting. Then we went for lunch at Cafe Fara in Klentnice and took a hike to some castle ruins known as Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle. Barbara and the girls stayed at the restaurant while we hiked up the hill. It was so much fun to get away from it all and be able to see for miles.

View of Sirotčí hrádek from the town of Klentnice.
Vlastimil and Tim.

Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle

Our day of castles wasn’t done. The Czech Republic has the highest density of castles in the world, claiming over 2000 of them. Vlastimil took us on a drive through the Southern Moravian countryside, stopping at a few more castles and Lichtenstein buildings. This area is called the LedniceValtice Cultural Landscape, a World Heritage Site. We saw the Lednice Castle, the Temple of Three Graces, and the Valtice Castle. The whole time our girls focused exclusively on Dessa, castles be damned.

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Dessa was a highlight for our girls.
Family photo + borrowed dog in front of Zamek Lednice. Vanessa hurt herself & wasn’t up for a photo.
Tři Grácie, the Temple of Three Graces, used to be a spot for Lichtenstein hunters to gather for post-hunt feasts. Now it’s a spot for Dvě Graces.
Valtice Castle.
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See? It’s all about the dog.
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The greenhouse at Lednice Castle was filled with tropical plants.

Eventually we ended up in his home town, Břeclav, at a cool beer place–did I mention Czechia is the beer drinking capital of the world?–where we got to meet Vlastimil’s smart, funny girlfriend, Paulina, and the kids got to jump on a trampoline and play cards with us adults.

Visiting a science center in Brno. I thought I had a little more time before she starts driving!

Across the street from our hotel was a ropes course called Jungle Park. Of course we had to take the girls. It proved to be quite exciting.

Vanessa was a natural until she fell.
Go, Zara, go!

Just a couple of years ago they could barely walk.

The actual rope course was across the river from the place you get your equipment from. To get there, you zip line across (or in my case, carefully wade across). Both kids had fun doing the zip lining.

On the ropes course, Zara was impressing us with her bravery until she got to a section that was intimidating to her. She started crying and refused to continue to the next section. While we were focused on her, Vanessa went ahead. All of a sudden we heard Vanessa crying and yelling for help. She had climbed into a chair that was supposed to be untied by an adult before it zipped along a rope. Her body had slipped out of the chair. She had a harness on but it was tangled and her head was caught. She dangled above us, scared out of her mind. We talked her down, literally, and she was able to slip her head out of the chair and lower herself close enough to us that we caught her. Vanessa loves the monkey bars and has built up some awe-inspiring upper body strength which served her well in this situation.

All this happened without a park attendant noticing or helping (different than the US). I had mistakenly assumed an attendant was always at the zip chair spot. Vanessa had a nasty rope burn on her inner arm but was otherwise unhurt. After a break, she did the course again, including that scary zip chair.

Zara, meanwhile, already hesitant to continue, watched the whole thing from a tree platform. She ended up needing a ladder to get down. Watching her sister scream in terror and fall didn’t help her morale. She rallied, too, though, and boldly zip lined back across the river.

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We said goodbye to Brno and headed to Vienna, Austria, where we’d spend a day before flying home. On the way, we returned to Valtice Castle to see their Baroque Theater. The original was damaged in the 1940s and 1950s due to the war and communist sensibilities but they recently rebuilt it–it opened in September 2015– and since it is new, we were able to play with the sound effect equipment. Super fun! We made the sounds of thunder, rain and wind. We also got to see underneath the stage, with all the trap doors, ropes and pulleys to raise up the actors and move set pieces. It was complicated and brilliant. Barbara and I both agreed it would be marvelous to see a production there.

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The Baroque Theater at Valtice Castle.
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Zara making wind. No, not that kind of wind. Theatrical wind.

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After the theater tour, Tim and Barbara went to a “wine library” in the castle while Vanessa, Zara, and I played in the grass and daydreamed, finding shapes in the puffy white clouds. An added bonus was an Old English Sheepdog dog show being held on the castle grounds. One of those dogs is a thrill to see, imagine a dozen!

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Castles, clouds, and sheepdogs.

Along the road, we encountered an unexpected and delightful sight.

Vienna, Austria

Brno and Vienna are only about 1 1/2 hrs by car. We dropped Barbara and the girls off at the Intercontinental Hotel in Vienna and drove the rental car back to the Brno Airport. Goodbye Portapotty smell! We took a taxi to the Brno train station, and caught a train back to Vienna with only two minutes to spare. Tim is a master traveler.

Night train to Vienna.

The last day of our trip was spent at Prater, a landmark amusement park situated in the heart of Vienna. We took the subway, went on some rides including the Grottenbahn, a fun little fairy tale ride that gives children prizes at the end (our girls chose vampire teeth over water guns and cheap jewelry), a water ride, and the giant Ferris wheel, Wiener Riesenrad, and the Liliputbahn train that goes around the park.

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Notice who didn’t go on this ride. Me.
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All these beautiful trees right in the middle of Vienna.
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View of Vienna from the Ferris wheel.
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Time to go home…

We finished off the day with dinner at 1516, a beer place Tim and I discovered years ago when we first went to Vienna. Then we went back to our beautiful room at the Intercontinental to pack for the long trip home.

The Beck’s 2018 Summer Adventure: Slovakia and Hungary, Week One

We did it again. We gathered up strollers, suitcases, booster seats, our passports, and, oh wait, yes, our kids and flew to Vienna. The kids were great on the plane. After traveling with babies and toddlers, I am grateful for their flashes of reasonable-ness, their ability to watch in-flight entertainment, and *not* sit on my lap the whole time.

From Vienna, we took an hour train ride to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we planned to spend a couple of days getting over the acute phase of jet lag. Experience has taught us that an affordable, urban place is best for this purpose. You can always find late night food in a city and no one blinks an eye at sleeping in.

This wasn’t our first time in Bratislava. This is an advantage since we know the pivo place next to our hotel has good, traditional food and is kid-tolerant. We know, too, that the zoo is worth returning to.

Once acclimated to Central European time, we bought snacks, sticker books, and beer and boarded a train for Budapest, Hungary.

The train was so crowded that, at first, Tim was stuck in another car with our luggage. A fellow passenger told me there was a kid section on the train so the girls and I struggled along looking for it. Every compartment we passed was stuffed with people. The walkways were nearly impossible to get through.

Eventually, we ended up in an area intended for bikes and wheelchairs. Vanessa and Zara gamely plopped on the floor while I anxiously hoped Tim, who had all the tickets, would find us before the ticket master. Miraculously, he did, and not only that, he managed to talk the ticket master into kicking out the college age guys taking up seats in a kid compartment. I spent the rest of that trip extra grateful for the seats we had.

Tim booked us a lovely room at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the Danube River. Sitting on the bed, you could look up and see this view.

For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant along river and had goulash two ways. Goulash is so good even Vanessa likes it.

Budapest is a beautiful, friendly city. We were there during an air race, which added an additional thrill to our visit. It also added a lot of extra noise and walking but if I could choose again, I’d take the airshow.

The small planes would speed by, roaring past exquisite historical buildings lining the Danube, doing loops, banking through large cones and ending in an exhuberant release, disappearing off into the sky. Loud speakers announced times and penalties (too much G, not enough smoke).

On our first full day in Budapest, we walked to Margaret Island, Margitsziget,
formerly royal hunting grounds and now a large park with gardens, musical fountains, an aqua park, a petting zoo, bike rentals and more.

You could use the toilets for a fee. A modest fee, I’ll admit, but it poses a problem when your four year old only lets you know she has to go after it becomes an emergency and you have no foreign money on you. The cost also adds up when someone has a pea-sized bladder.

One of the things we anticipated visiting in Budapest was the baths/pools. It’s a thing here. The aqua park was relatively empty, probably because it wasn’t a hot day. The girls had a blast–they don’t care if they’re starting to turn blue from the cold. Personally, I wasn’t quite as eager.

Eventually, we found the warmer pools, which were great until the time came to get out of the water. Then it was all that jittery “I’m cold, I’m hungry!” type of talk.

Budapest Castle was almost directly across the river from our hotel but the nearest bridge was closed during the day for the air race. This was a bummer since we’re pushing two kids in strollers and I have a bad right ankle. Tim looked up how we could take public transit to the castle but it would take a long time and it was such a beautiful day, I wanted to walk anyway.

It was quite fun to walk the long way around, we enjoyed the racing planes, the gorgeous clouds, and the other people around us. At one point we stopped for a beer. Later we stopped for coffee and cake.

Tim and Vanessa wanted to explore the labyrinth under the castle. He’d read that there were kid tours at a certain time and we ended racing up the seemingly never ending steps, strollers in hand, trying to make it on time. Tim is a vigorous walker and I find myself often–ok always–falling behind.

Luckily both girls were willing to do the stairs themselves because I, for one, had enough trouble hauling myself and the stroller up the hill and it would have been so much harder to carry a 40 pound kid. I almost felt like Cinderella for a minute as I looked around between breaths.

Unfortunately, we never did find the kid tour for the labyrinth but we had a blast exploring it on our own. Some sections were completely dark, some had low lighting and “fog,” and all of it had creepy music. We read about how Dracula had been inprisoned there and it had been a shelter during the second World War.

Vanessa got a little unnerved at certain points but overall the girls were impressively brave. I overheard two teenage girls using them as examples of why they should be able to handle the dark. “See, that four year old isn’t scared…”

After all that walking, I loved taking the funicular down the hill from the castle.

We finished the day at a beer festival on top of a mall–guess who’s idea? There was casual food, lots of beer, of course, and a playground for the kids. The World Cup has been going on and Europeans are watching it everywhere we go. It adds a fun element to the trip and I get to sit down!

Next up: Taking an eight hour train ride to Belgrade, Serbia. Will we have seats this time? How long do we have to wait for passport control at the border? Did we bring enough snacks? Will someone in our group have a meltdown? Check back to find out.

Ljubljana Summer 2017

Between Soča and Ljubljana, in a wide valley called Vipava, there is a little town called Ajdovščina. If you go through the center of town and keep driving toward the hills, you will find our friends Anita and Matej busy running one of Slovenia's newest and most exciting craft breweries, Pelicon. We have been visiting them since their brewery was in its infancy. To get their beer, you had to go to Ajdovščina. Now it's available in multiple places in Slovenia and they have gained international recognition for their beer.
We stopped by to say hi on our way to Ljubljana and to check out their new taproom.
The temperature was picking up and a heat wave was predicted for Ljubljana. Everyone was starting to wilt but some cold drinks in the taproom perked us up. One of their beers is called Out of China, a play on the pronunciation of Ajdovščina. We returned to out favorite little hotel in the old town of Ljubljana. I arranged for them to do our laundry, as I do whenever I stay at Hotel Allegro. I follow Rick Steve's packing advice, packing one week's worth of clothes no matter how long the trip is. Traveling becomes a bummer pretty quickly with too much stuff. But a suitcase full of dirty clothes is also a bummer!

Then we headed out in the evening heat to see the city. Ljubljana is always vibrant and active but this was the most people I've ever seen. It was hopping, with new restaurants and souvenir shops, and gorgeous Europeans with their dark tans and beautiful clothes.
Barbara and I started shopping within a few minutes of being outside. I've learned that if I see something I like, it's best to get it right away as you never know if you'll have a chance to go back.

We got some sladoled (ice cream) at a shop our friend Iva turned us on to on our last visit to the city. (Iva does food walks and is simply tons of fun as a person. When she swears in English, which she does frequently, I always giggle. It sounds so innocent when she does it.)

The sladoled place, Vigo, has a large selection of innovative flavors. This time they had lemongrass, coconut and passion fruit, and mango sorbet, among others.

We watched street performers and took in the gorgeousness of the hot summer night in Ljubljana.
Pretty soon Tim received word that Anita and Matej had decided to come to Ljubljana for dinner and meet us for drinks after. Barbara watched the girls while we went out for beer.

Anita and Matej had just been to the Ukraine for a wedding and we enjoyed hearing about it. Based on what they told us, I'm pretty sure Ukraine won't be at the top of our travel list anytime soon. At one point the hotel they stayed at, touted as having four stars, didn't have any running water.

I especially enjoyed my shower at Hotel Allegro that night. It was so hot I kept the water cold.

The next day we decided to finally visit a popular and highly advertised tourist spot in Slovenia: the Postojna cave, home of the "human fish," amphibian-like creatures that historically were thought to be baby dragons. Thus the reason for our visit. Vanessa is a huge dragon fan.

The day highlighted Barbara's trouble with walking. She has trouble with her knees. There was the walk from the parking lot to the cave, half of it uphill with lots of steps. The train into the cave made me think we might be home free but then the guide told us it's "only a one kilometer walk" as he kicked us off the train deep in the cave.

The cave was huge, deliciously cool, and full of stalagmites and stalactites.Our guide said we must stick together. The one kilometer walk involved significant inclines and Barbara's biggest trouble is with walking downhill. Pretty soon our large group disappeared ahead of us as we stayed back to wait for Barbara. Even the little old lady with a cane walked easier than her. In fact, everybody walked better than her.

It's difficult for me, as a nurse whose job it is to assess people, to watch her struggle, sense her embarrassment about it and listen to her try to rationalize it. "Oh, downhill is really just psychological for me," she said. No, it is hugely physical, I can see that as she walks.

Barbara will grab a stroller pretending she'll help by pushing it when in fact she relies on it like a walker. She insists she doesn't need knee replacements, claims her doctor even told her that, won't consider getting a disabled placard for her car, and yet she is so limited by her mobility. I'm confident that any decent orthopedist or even a regular GP would quickly realize she is not fine when it comes to walking.
Anyway, the cave was neat and the "baby dragons" were worth seeing.
We returned to the Ljubljana Zoo to see our favorite elephant, Ganga. She's about 43 and is the only elephant there. She seems sad, a bit, but well cared for. And we can feed her, which is simply amazing.
After the zoo, we ate across from our hotel at a new restaurant.
The square just down from our hotel had a small stage set up, so Barbara grabbed an outdoor table nearby. Boy, were we glad she did!

A salsa band played upbeat music and quickly the square filled with people ready to dance. While waiting for the music to start, the air was still and muggy. If you paid attention, you could see heat lightning in the sky above the castle overlooking us.

As the music started, the wind began to pick up and the lightening intensified. My instinct told me it was going to rain–it was so hot that rain was the only reasonable conclusion. I got the girls back to the hotel even though the party had only just reached full swing. The rain started while they laid in bed.

Our last day in Ljubljana we lunched with Iva. She was in the middle of the both exciting and not so exciting process of buying an apartment with her boyfriend, Rok. She told us about needing to expand her food walk business simply because the demand is so high and there is only one of her.

Between Iva and Anita and Matej, it is easy to grasp the youthful vitality of Slovenia. There is a sense that Slovenia is their oyster, it is their country. All three of them seem determined to bring new ideas and ways of doing things to a place studded with history and tradition. These friends we have made are a big part of why we love Slovenia.

Slovenia

I survived the car ride from Pula to Soca in the Julian (Slovenian) Alps. Even though Tim got a bigger car, it doesn't mean more sitting space for me.
We left the dry, scrubby landscape of coastal Croatia and climbed up a winding road that follows the river into the mountains. The environment became lush and green, the farmsteads tidy as a pin, fields of corn growing in neat rows, the occasional Slovenian beehive set back against a row of trees. Billowy clouds floated above increasingly tall mountain tops. The river we followed, the Soca, is brilliant blue-green. Calcium carbonate from limestone settles on the bottom of the riverbed, reflecting light like a swimming pool.
This area of Slovenia is a popular tourist destination, drawing outdoor enthusiasts for kayaking, mountain climbing, skydiving, biking, hiking and camping.
Pristava Lepena, the place we were staying, was still serving dinner outside next to a camp fire. They had the grill going and other hotel guests had that relaxed, chatty vibe of families away from all the day-to-day hassles of life. We heard English, French and German around the dining tables.
There was a rumor that some other visitors were from the US but we never encountered them.
A kid herd quickly formed, as it was only adult dark, not kid dark. Even though most of the children were older than Vanessa, I noticed her standing in their midsts, talking confidently. Soon, they were doing her bidding.
Zara sat off to the side, seemingly silent. Later, though, she was being carried on the backs of the bigger girls, which is perfect because she doesn't like to walk much.
After dinner we settled in the cute little cabins they have for guests. The cabins are rustic but equipped with all the basics. I love their steep roofs and alpine feel.
The next couple of days included lots of feeding of the goats. This served as a great social gathering spot for the kids.There was a French speaking boy, Keagan, from Switzerland, who didn't speak any English. Vanessa quickly befriended him, as she speaks French. You could see the pleasure in his face having a friend with whom he could talk to. They fed goats, swam in the pool, and hunted for bugs.
We had our dinners at the hotel restaurant. Meals were set outside and featured traditional Slovenian food. There are two cats that beg for food, despite the large sign that instructs diners to NOT feed them. But, but! Another distraction, at least for our kids, were the other kids encouraging them to skip their meal and go play.

The girls got to ride Pika a few times and I had a perfect ride on Linda the Lipizzaner down along the blue Soca River with Anina, from Finland.
Vanessa and Zara thrive outdoors. They found many delights like beetles, snails and even a little scorpion. I love watching them play and explore.
Oh Slovenia! You are such a lovely country, neat, unpretentious, astoundingly beautiful, friendly, delicious, and vibrant. If, for some reason, events conspired to require me to live in this country, I wouldn't mind at all.Next up: Ljubljana, Slovenia's sweet little capital city.

Croatia

Doberdan! We arrived in Pula, Croatia at sunset. Seeing the land and sea as we landed reminded me why this place is so popular. The water is bright blue, islands and inlets everywhere you look, the red tile roofs, dark green scrubby trees adding extra color to the already lovely scene.
Remember that guy who wouldn't let the man in front of him recline his seat to sleep on the international flight? I thought of him as I struggled into my seat on the plane. The person in front of me had already put his seat back (and we had early boarding!). He did put it upright once after a flight attendant made him before taking off, but as soon as she moved on, he put it right back. People.

There was heat lightening off in the south as we found our rental car. It was immediately obvious to me the car was too small, so Tim went back to see if he could get another car. He had booked the car last February, during the slow season, and now it was peak tourist season so he was doubtful about the options.

I managed to cram our three suitcases in the postage-sized trunk, which was good because they had nothing left. It was pure clown car as Tim tried to shut the back door. Vanessa and Zara in their car seats, their legs raised up on backpacks, above them car seat bags stuffed into the grooves, me with two strollers in the not even full space next to them, my thigh cutting into a car seat, the strollers pulling flesh from my knees. The car door took more than one attempt to close.

This would be ok driving the ten minutes to our hotel but we planned on having this car for the next two weeks. A three and a half hour trip into the Slovenian Alps. I get car sick and have a blood clot in my leg! I tried to think of the crowded buses of Mexico or India. It's not so bad, really.

We spent a couple of lazy days in the beach town Tim likes to take us to. We went to the beach, obviously, furiously trying to catch up on the sun tans everyone else has, and whose lack marks us as the new arrivals that we are. I never see sunscreen being applied at this beach and even hats are rare. I do see plenty of sun oil and cigarettes.

Vanessa is obsessed with her new swim mask. Personally I don't like to be reminded of the sea life in the water. It gives me the heebie jeebies, I can't help but immediately think of sharks. Barbara sat at the beach bar, no swimming for her. I guess the people watching was satisfying enough.

Tim was trying to decide between two different places to stay. He ended up canceling a reservation for a place that had two flights of stairs, on account of Barbara's knees. The joke was on us when we realized the hotel he opted for had four flights of stairs to our suite at the top of the building. (The good news? It was a beautiful hotel and both kids managed the stairs on their own. We've come a long way since last year in that regard.)

On our second night, Tim and I went back to the Pula amphitheater to see Sting in concert. The amphitheater is strikingly beautiful, especially at sunset. And there is something special about being in a place that has been a venue for human entertainment for two thousand years.

Sting was great, he sang plenty of Police songs and didn't spend much time talking. His adult son is in the band and he had a terrific voice.

The crowd was similar to most of Croatia–white and well dressed. When I commented to Tim about how white it was, he reminded me that it wasn't that long ago when this country was at war trying to rid itself of white people that were just a little bit different. Oh yeah, good point. Even the hotel housekeepers are blond.

We had some good Istrian food. Truffles, white wine, blitva. Tim had seafood.
On our last day at the beach, we rented a pedal boat for an hour and took the girls out on the bay.

I was reminded that we weren't in the US when we had to ask for life vests for the kids. If there's nothing else I've learned as an ER nurse, it is to put life vests on people who don't know how to swim.

Things were going great until Zar poked Vanessa with the whistle on her life jacket and Vanessa retaliated by pinching Zara's forearm. Then, just as Zara stopped crying from the pinching, she got stung by a bee under her arm. It was traumatic for her and she told me between sobs that she "needs to go to the doctor." Some TLC and an ice cream helped her feel better.
Tim did his best to remedy the car situation. He went back to the rental place and returned with a normal sized sedan. It will still be uncomfortable for me squeezed in the back but at least the strollers won't be in my face.Next stop: the Slovenian Alps. I love the place we are going so much I could spend all summer there!

This is not the last of Croatia for us. We'll be returning for the last week of our trip.

England, Part II

On our last day with Felicity, we went to a pub that a work friend, Becky B., told me about. She knows an American guy who has lived in England for over 30 years. He owns a pub called the Dog and the Hedgehog. By name alone, I was ready to visit! As luck would have it, the D&H wasn't too far from Birmingham.

We had a great Sunday roast at the Dog and Hedgehog and once again, played on the lawn with the girls.


I tried to talk to the owner, Bill, but he wasn't there at the time. Then it was a bittersweet goodbye to Felicity. Becky was going to join us in London for a couple of days.

On our way to London, Zara had to use the potty for the 100th time (what was that big rush for potty training anyway?). We stopped at a rest stop that had a mini mall, a hotel, and a petrol station. England really isn't that big for these sorts of places!

We spotted a hedgehog on our way out. Naturally, we had to stop and see him up close; he delighted everyone.

London was short and sweet. We went to the Natural History Museum to see their exhibit on whales. There was a section of whale aorta on display that was about ten inches diameter!

They had an excellent dinosaur exhibit, too. Vanessa is taking after her Aunt Felicity, who once gave a long and detailed lecture about dinosaurs to her fellow kindergarteners. Sometimes she made innocent mistakes, saying a large dinosaur weighed 60 pounds when she meant tons for example, but overall flooring everyone with her knowledge of dinosaurs and her ability to orate at age five. Similarly, Vanessa will point out a dimetrodon and then tell you it's not actually a dinosaur.

Next Tim took Vanessa to the Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum while Becky and I took Zara to Hyde Park. As if we hadn't done enough for the day, after the museums we popped down on the double decker bus to see the Big Ben tower.

It was hard to say goodbye to Becky. She spoiled us with all the help taking care of the girls. It's hard to have both sisters live so far away.

At Heathrow we quickly found our next travel buddy, Tim's mom Barbara, waiting in a lounge. Together we boarded a plane for sunny Croatia!

England

Birmingham

Our trip from Los Angeles to my sister, Felicity's, house in Birmingham was generally uneventful, just the way I like it.

All the traveling we do has turned our girls into mini Rick Steves. They have their moments, of course, but I'd argue they travel better than most adults.

There is one thing that happened on our flight worth mentioning. It is an example of self-centered rudeness in its purest form. What is it about air travel that brings out the worst in people? Or the best, depending on how you look at it. During that dark, quiet time when people are supposed to be sleeping, a man next to me refused to let the man in front of him put his seat back. He claimed that if the seat was back, he wouldn't have enough room.

This very same man had his own seat back. Of course.

The poor man in front sounded truly puzzled. "I don't understand how the rest of the plane has their seats back but you don't have enough room. You're smaller than me."

This guy in the front seat maintained his dignity throughout the encounter, which got a little tense. Other passengers started chiming in, standing up for the guy in front. "Who asked you?" growled Rude Guy, who was cementing his assholeness with each passing second. Then Rude Guy's wife, snarkily suggested the guy in front switch seats with his own kids. Surprisingly (to me, anyway, because Rude Guy was being so rude), the guy in front thanked the woman for her suggestion and proceeded to rearrange the seating with his sleepy looking children. I guess Rude Guy is "special." (But not special enough for First Class.)

After landing, Vanessa complained her ear hurt. Uh oh. I hoped she just needed to adjust to the pressure change but worried that it was an ear infection. She hasn't had ear problems from flying in the past.

Driving to Birmingham, I had to fight to keep my eyes open. So. Hard. Concentrate on the funny little lorries, the tail-gating speeders in their Opels, look at those fluffy sheep…mmm, sheep, sheep makes me sleepy. Who could possibly be in a hurry in quaint little England? Is it tea time? If I was that tired, Tim must be, too. Since he was driving, I had to stay awake in solidarity. He was driving on the wrong side of the road like a champ but still. It wouldn't help to have me sawing logs next to him. The girls have no such hesitations, they slept the whole way.

My sister Becky answered the door once we got to Birmingham. She's staying with Felicity and James for the summer. We played on the lawn until Felicity and James got home from work (playing was our rested kids' idea, if it were up to me, I'd have taken a nap). And then we played some more.

This was our third visit to Birmingham and probably our last. Felicity and James are moving for work at the end of the summer and Becky will be in Cambridge at her new nursing job.

Vanessa's ear was still hurting. She was crying from the pain and her whole body felt feverish. That darn thermometer I packed was nowhere to be found.

The next day Felicity helped us figure out where to take Vanessa to a doctor. She made a call and was advised to take us to a walk-in clinic. This was my first experience with the NHS. The building was government style, bare bones posters on the wall, plastic chairs. No carpets, potted plants, or magazines. Only a few other people seemed to be waiting. This was certainly no crowded US emergency room.

I filled out a brief form and we sat down. In less than a half hour, Vanessa was seen. A well-groomed young doctor called her name, brought us to a large exam room, and did a quick but thorough assessment, including taking vital signs. No medical assistants or nurses in sight. "Oh," he said as he looked in her ear, "that looks awfully red." He diagnosed Vanessa with an ear infection and printed out a prescription for an antibiotic, suggesting we wait a few days to see if it goes away on its own. Then we left, not having to give them our insurance information or a single cent in payment. Walking in to the walk-in center.

She really wasn't feeling good.

After giving Vanessa more pain reliever, she perked up and we spent the rest of the afternoon at a geology museum. Which was also free.

Vanessa continued to have ear pain and fever, really the worst ear infection she's had. So when Saturday morning rolled around and she was still waking up in terrible pain and high fever, we decided to pick up the antibiotic. At the Boots pharmacy, the pharmacist handed me the medicine, gave quick instructions and said goodbye. "Don't I have to pay something?" I asked her. "No, it's on a green sheet, so there's no charge," she smiled at me. Wow, thanks England.

Another thing we did was visit the park across the street from Felicity and James's. There was a mini amusement park set up and we all had fun in our own ways.

We went to an exhibit called Dinosaurs In The Wild, ate at a cereal bar, went to a pub with good Indian food, walked in the rain, took a bus and a train.

The whole visit included being spoiled by our hosts. Hot coffees placed in front of us at breakfast, meals labored over, kids carried, kids bathed, late night game sessions, drinks poured, even shoulders massaged. It's definitely a vacation!

Grand European Summer Tour 2016 Part I: England

Back in October of last year, Tim found a great deal on flights to Europe. Not only were they an unusually low price, they were nonstop business class in the middle of summer. Traveling with kids on international flights is difficult when your kid sleeps across three seats, tossing and turning as if they are the ones who are uncomfortable, as you jealously look on with a painfully numb tailbone.

So of course I agreed to the purchase of these tickets. Thus began our plans for another overseas adventure traveling with two kids.

And of course things didn’t go as I imagined. Business class was  great–roomy, excellent food & drinks. But my girls both decided they needed to be with me (on me) as it was time to go to sleep. There I was, stretched out flat in my seat–and honestly I can’t complain about anything when I’m able to lay flat on an airplane–with both girls vying for the best spot on top of my body. With two empty flat seats next to me…


This photo is deceiving because it only shows what happened for the last half hour of the flight. The rest of the time I had at least one child with me the whole night.
The trip from Heathrow to my sister’s house in Birmingham was relatively uneventful except the GPS took us to a different house with the same address, bring us through some crowded ethnic neighborhoods. People chatted with each other in the streets and every other shop seemed to advertise kabobs.  Tim and I used our wiles and past memories of visiting to find our way to the correct West Drive, where my sisters Becky and Felicity and brother-in-law James were anxiously awaiting our arrival. 


The next few days were a combination of  jet lag recovery–the careful interplay between uppers and downers: naps, coffee, tea, wine–and kid-friendly activities. Felicity and Becky spoiled us and fawned over the girls. Vanessa skipped the jet lag all together but Zara had a couple of sleepless nights. At least this time she refrained from screaming for hours at four in the morning.

It didn’t help that poor Zar caught a stomach bug that caused her to be uncomfortable while we were in England. I wonder what Rick Steves would say about how to pack for little kids. Would he factor in diarrhea, vomit and urine?

Becky took us to this great outdoor living museum called Black Country which features life in that area in the early part of the 20th century. We wandered around speaking with the people working there, riding old amusement park rides, tasting candy, chips, and beer. We lingered over the two equines working at the museum (only two?!)  and took a boat ride into the old mining canals.

Felicity and James took us to this fantastic old rambling pub called the Fleece Inn. The floors, shelves, tables and chairs were all uneven but as James said, it all kind of balanced itself out. The girls were thrilled to have a big grassy playground behind the pub.

After the Fleece Inn we drove to the town of Broadway and took Vanessa to a beautiful kid park. Becky and Felicity played with Vanessa, James graciously stayed in the car with sleeping Zara, and Tim and I dozed in the grass like lazy parents. Tim remarked that the park would be horrible in California because it didn’t have any trees. But it was overcast and the perfect temperature to be playing outside in England!

Broadway is an adorable town the the Cotswolds. We took a delightful walk above the town to see a castle after the park. 

The whole gang spent the night at Becky’s house in Worcester. Felicity gave the girls a bath, a sure way to their hearts. The next day we went to a beer festival which was kept as a surprise for Tim. It was “family fun day” and they had activities like face painting, jumpy slide, and dance-a-thons.That night Felicity and Becky prepared a lovely meal which we ate in the back garden.


 

It was hard to say goodbye to everyone but it helps that we have plans to see them again on this trip.

The Long Trip Home

First I’ll start with some pictures from Trogir, Croatia. Then I’ll tell my story.

DSC_0946vanessa_trogir

The Awful Story

You know those stories about disasters, where the people set out to sea when a storm is coming? Or the classic horror film scene where a person goes outside in the dark to check on an unusual noise and the audience is saying, “No! No! Don’t go outside!” We were that naive character on the trip home.

Getting home was supposed to be simple. Tim planned it to make it as child-friendly as possible. All we had to do was fly from Trogir, Croatia to London, with a layover in Vienna, Austria. We’d get into London early evening, have a relaxing evening and be ready for the 10-hour flight from London to San Francisco. Then we’d catch a short flight to LA. Easy, right?

Our first travel day started nicely enough. We checked out of our hotel in Trogir and did a quick hour-long trip on a semi-submarine. Vanessa “oohed” and “aahed” at the underwater views while Zara napped in the carrier.

The Semi-Submarine
The Semi-Submarine
  

Then we drove to the airport, dropped off our rental car, lugged our stuff into the un-airconditioned airport, and got in line for the luggage drop off.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first hint of the trouble we’d face getting home. As we patiently waited in line with our now fussy kids, a group of women with children decided that lines were for suckers and went around to the front of the line. What?! That was rude enough (we have effing kids, too, be-atches) but once Tim got up to the other service agent, these woman were literally blocking the whole area. Tim couldn’t even put our suitcases on the scale next to the agent. He had to tell them multiple times to move. (And some guy behind us had the nerve to ask which line we were waiting in, as if he could somehow finagle going ahead of us.)

Besides some aggressive people behind us in security (“where are you traveling to?” as an opener for wanting to cut in front of us isn’t the best start), we flew to Vienna.

At the Vienna Airport, we hurried through lines, boarded the plane, bickered with the flight attendant over not being allowed to use Vanessa’s car seat on the flight (they wait until she’s buckled in it to tell us). This car seat wasn’t a problem on all the other flights we had. Apparently Austria Airlines in special.

But at least we were on the plane, only two hours away from London. Now if we could just get a drink of water. Everyone was thirsty and beginning to get hungry, too.

Just as the plane was about to depart, two Austrian Airline employees, wearing their cute red uniforms, walked to my seat and said, “Mrs. Beck?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Do you speak English?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid there’s a problem with your luggage. You will have to come with us. The X-ray shows bullets in your bag.”

“What?! Those are not bullets, they are harmless souvenirs from Sarajevo.”

“You’ll have to come with us. They won’t put the bag on the plane. You can split up if you’d like,” indicating toward Tim and the girls.

“Um. No.”

So we gathered up our bags and our children and conspicuously walked off the plane. It was a bit like a walk of shame except the other passengers could only see our backs as we hauled ourselves down the aisle.

What ensued next was a labyrinthine walk through the airport being led by a somber female employee. We ended up back at a security check. They manually screened me in front of a crowd of people waiting to get through security themselves. I noticed two Austrian police in their dark blue coveralls watching me closely. My shoes got sent through X-ray (unlike the U.S., shoe screening isn’t automatic in Europe.) Zara screamed in Tim’s arms and Vanessa looked worried.

The situation was kinda absurd, so as soon as I sat down to wait for my shoes, I played trot-trot with both girls on my knees, bouncing and singing. Yep, everyone, I’m definitely a terrorist.

Once we passed the security test, we were taken on another labyrinthine tour of the airport, led by a different but more somber employee, male this time. He appeared to have more responsibility than the first person. He took us to the bowels of the airport where we met an especially tall and physically imposing Austrian police officer, with bright blue eyes and predictable blond hair. I couldn’t help but notice the blue of his uniform complemented his eyes.

The police officer explained they wanted me to open the bag and produce the offending objects.

He said, “It really would be best if the children stayed behind.”

The officer took me into a room that had a black door over 12″ thick. This must be a bomb room, I thought. On a metal table lay Tim’s black suitcase.  When you check in luggage as a family, your bags are randomly assigned to a family member. Tim had packed the suitcase, it even had his name on the luggage tag. I had no idea where the offending souvenirs were, so after starting to open it up and seeing a bunch of neatly packed bags of various souvenirs, I explained to the police officer that Tim would know better than me where the objects in question were.

So Tim stepped into the bomb room and after a minute found the souvenirs that look like bullets.

“Ah,” said the policeman with a bemused smile on his face. “Next time just declare them when you are checking in. He wrapped tape around the suitcase that said it had been inspected by the police.

Our suitcase with the
Our suitcase with the “Inspected by Police” tag.
The airport/airline employee who had taken down to the bomb room explained that we would be rebooked on another flight at no extra cost. He seemed more relaxed as he walked us up to a booking agent.  As he bid us farewell, he said, “Next time, leave them at home.”
Well, given that they are souvenirs bought on our trip, that would be impossible.At this point, I thought our troubles were over. But I was wrong.

We waited at the booking agent’s desk for between 2-3 hours. Communication was sparse but it was clear the agent was working on getting us a new flight. The girls were thirsty, hungry, and tired. They entertained themselves by running up and down a hallway. Eventually, at the risk of being gone when our new flight was finally booked, I found a place to buy a sandwich and drinks.IMG_1965

At last the booking agent had news for us. She’d gotten us on a flight that was scheduled to leave soon. She had trouble with the tickets, especially because of Zara being a lap child. We would have to race to get on the plane.

When I was getting on the plane, I saw the original employee who had taken us off the first plane. She apologized for our trouble and wished us well.

We flew to London with two tired girls and arrived around 10 PM. Heathrow is a huge airport and we had a to walk a long way, carrying the girls, before we reached the immigration line. We would not be able to get our stroller until after we went through immigration.

The line took two hours to get through. There were tons of people and only 2-3 immigration officers. It was challenging to hold both the girls and our carry-on luggage. Zara cried and cried, she was so tired. I tried to get her to sleep in the baby carrier but it only worked for a few minutes.

As we waited, I told Tim I was glad our travel day was finally over. Ha!

Once we made it through immigration, we got our luggage and headed outside to catch a taxi. It was now midnight. There was a long line for the taxis.

I am getting so sick of lines.

We waited 45 minutes for a taxi. When it was our turn for the taxi, the attendant helping travelers get taxis told us we needed cash. We didn’t have cash. We were only staying overnight. For a minute it looked like we’d have to leave the line, go back into the airport, and get some pounds sterling. No. We cannot do that.

Tim objected and the taxi driver took pity on us, agreeing to let us pay with a credit card.

We piled all our stuff and kids into the taxi and drove to the nearby Hotel Leonardo. The taxi driver was friendly. He asked Vanessa if she’d ever been in a taxi before. The answer was yes (she loves yellow taxis) but she’d never been in a special black London cab.

At nearly one in the morning, we arrived at the hotel, hungry and bone tired. As we walked into the lobby, we saw a line of people waiting to check in. What? Another line? How is this possible? The travel gods seemed to be laughing at us. Tim sent me over to the bar area with the girls to order some food while he waited in line.

I ordered three main courses and while we waited, Vanessa and Zara bumbled around the bar area, being way too loud, dangerously swinging their bodies around without regard to safety. They were SO tired.

After a bit, my attention was drawn to the reception desk, where a man was yelling. Tim hadn’t moved at all in line. It turns out the man in front of the line was yelling because the hotel had no room for him. They had overbooked their rooms. This man, who seemed Spanish, was traveling with his wife and three children, the youngest only two months old, to San Francisco.

From this point on, the night became utterly surreal.

There were seven groups of people who had booked rooms at the Hotel Leonardo who were turned away. Some of them had paid in advance. Some had been traveling for 24 hours. All of them were upset.

There were two men working reception. They were immigrants and poorly trained to handle the situation.  They didn’t even know that it was their job to find us accommodations at other hotels. When they eventually did this, the news was not good. There were no available rooms within a 1 1/2 hour radius of London.

The night staff claimed they had nothing to do with the over booking and had simply shown up for their shift. (I’m sure this is true.) But they wouldn’t call a manager, even though the situation was chaotic and tense. The question was asked, “Who would you call if there was a fire at this hotel?” They responded unironically, “The fire department.” This of course didn’t go over well with the would-be lodgers.

There was yelling for the next few hours. Some people wanted their money back right then. Some wanted to be paid more than their cost of the room (they estimated 200 pounds), figuring the hotel made more money on the last-minute reservations than on what they reserved them for.  Yeah, right, these two peons can write you a check at this very moment. Not.

There was talk of putting us in a conference room with cribs but that never happened. Tim said at one point things got so ugly the police were almost called.

I tried to shield the girls from most of this. But there was nowhere to go. It was too bright and loud to get them to sleep. It was hard to think straight. The situation was beyond absurd. What does one do when stuck at a hotel with no rooms, in the middle of the night, with two exhausted children who aren’t able to fall asleep in the hectic lobby? 

I noticed one of the hotel employees, the shorter one, go into an adjacent room, with his back turned, and mop his face with tissues. I’m pretty sure he was crying. I could relate.

Eventually, a few sets of sheets were given to the man who had originally been yelling, the one I dubbed the Spanish Guy. He generously shared them with us. Another stranded traveler, a kindly lady, came to me and suggested I take the computer room, just off the lobby. She said there was a couch and it was darker in there. So I put a sheet on the couch, put our luggage cart in front of the entrance (there was no door), and got the girls settled. It was difficult, as the noises (yelling and such) in the reception area were loud, and the lights bright just outside the room.

I found a bathroom in the basement of the hotel. To get to it, I had to go through a brightly lit room where the Spanish Guy’s family had camped out. They got an even–excuse my French–shittier spot, with the lights and the bathroom… I felt terrible for them. Especially their kids.

leonardo
Our “room” at the Hotel Leonardo.
Tim got maybe an hour of sleep on the floor. I had about two hours of terrible sleep, curled up around Zara and Vanessa so they wouldn’t fall off the couch.

In the morning, the two night shift employees came into the computer room and gave us vouchers for breakfast and offered us showers in a recently vacated room that hadn’t been cleaned. They also handed me a piece of paper.

I felt sorry for the night reception staff. They were clearly way in over their heads. Instead of having a chance to at least make the best of the situation, they had to field a constant barrage of irate customers. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a.) they quit or b.) were fired after that night. If they were fired, it would be a shame because they didn’t have the appropriate training. If they quit, that’d be a shame, too, because working a night shift at a hotel indicates a lack of work options.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time for showers and breakfast. Tim took a shower first and reported back that there was no soap or shampoo in the room. I found some baby shampoo in our luggage and hurried through a shower. The empty room where we showered was depressing. Then we literally raced through the breakfast buffet, grabbing a few things we thought the girls might eat, like hard-boiled egg and mini pastries (later to be found stale).

As we swept through the lobby area, I noticed piles of sheets and clusters of luggage around the couches. All the other room-less customers had spent the night there, under the glare of strong lighting and the loud jazz music playing overhead. I wonder what the other hotel patrons thought of this as they ate their breakfast?

The hotel called a taxi for us and we scooped up our exhausted girls and headed to Heathrow for another long day of travel. The hotel covered the cost of the taxi at least.

At the airport, we declared the offending souvenirs and after a long time, it was determined that we could not bring them with us on the airplane. They said, “If we send them through X-ray, alarms will be sounded and the police will have to come.” Yes, we are familiar with that scenario.

“But you are looking at them right now and you know they aren’t a problem.”

It doesn’t matter. At Heathrow, there is no thinking outside the box.

One of the employees who helped us agreed to keep them in a locker at the airport for a few months, in case we could make it back and mail them home. This same employee said the souvenirs were very cool.

Next we spent hours as the airlines struggled with Zara’s lap-child ticket. Each time we talked to someone, they said it was a problem but that they’d fix it. We’d wait while they did stuff and then when we encountered the next person, they’d say the same thing. This went on until we were actually on the plane. As we were trying to board, they began telling us again there was a problem with the ticket and pulled us aside. Tim got a little angry. (Adults get tired, too.) Some words were exchanged and I’m sure everyone thought we were unreasonable for being upset.

Right before this, Vanessa, understandably, had a huge meltdown. We had to give the stroller to the gate agent and she wanted to stay in it. I wished I could tell everyone what a horrible time she’s been through. It wasn’t her fault. You’d be crying, too, I though, if you had the night she’d had.

Our flight to SFO was uneventful, thank God, but the girls slept way less than you’d expect.  Which means we slept less than we’d hoped. We saw the Spanish Guy and his family on our flight. It was reassuring to know they were headed home, too, and putting the Night From Hell behind them.  There were lots more lines, which by this time were pure physical torture. Every muscle in my body ached, especially my hips, from carrying the kids and our bags.

I slept on the flight to LA. My head would roll forward and then I’d jerk awake, afraid I would drop Zara from my lap. I couldn’t get to a bed soon enough!

Tim’s mom graciously helped us recover for a few days before we drove home. She treated me to a massage (the best one of my life) and helped with the girls when they woke up at 4 in the morning. 

 The funny thing about all this is that a few days after we left Hotel Leonardo, there was a charge on our credit card as no-shows. It was later reversed. And when Tim wrote a negative review on Trip Advisor, a manager indicated he was lying. A manager, who, by the way, was not there on the night in question. Tim responded by posting photos of our girls sleeping in the computer room.

The hotel did offer us two nights free stay at one of their hotels, which might be okay if I ever wanted to set foot in a Hotel Leonardo again.

I looked into possibly getting financially compensated for our trouble but apparently hotels in the UK can over book to their hearts content with no repercussions besides a possible negative review. At the same time, they can charge you the full rate of the room if you fail to show up for a reservation. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem fair.

You might think that after this experience, we’d swear off traveling. No way! We will not let a lousy experience stop us from exploring the world.  But you probably won’t find us at a Hotel Leonardo any time soon and you most certainly won’t catch us with anything bullet-shaped in our luggage.

Dalmatia

It was time to leave Bosnia and head to the Dalmatian Islands to finish our vacation. From Mostar, we drove 1.5 hours east toward the Croatian coast. Tim jokingly said we’d survived Bosnia. It was kinda true.

  

We took a car ferry from the small town of Drvenik to Suceraj on Hvar Island. The trip was short and it was fun to be on a boat with the girls. We waited in line for a while before cars started driving onto the ferry. Our car was the last one on–whew–and it was squeezed in at an awkward angle. Tim had to adjust the position of the car after the ramp was closed so that we could get out. And by get out, I mean Tim and Vanessa had to climb over to the passenger side of the car.

Our car is the red one.
Our car is the red one.
Two years ago we stayed on Hvar Island, in the town of Hvar, but this time Tim thought we’d do better in a little town called Vrboska. It is a family friendly place and more affordable than the nightlife-popular Hvar Town. (Prince Harry is rumored to have partied in Hvar Town. We didn’t see him but had experience with young South Africans drunkenly laying on the cement as we all waited for a boat.) Vrboska has a little harbor that goes inland, tapering to a tip. From the air, the harbor looks like a cornucopia.IMG_1819

Tim warned me that we might have trouble finding the place we booked for the next six nights. The streets aren’t labeled and it’s rare to find a house number. Because of this, our printed directions were no use at all. After driving around a bit with a tired, crying Zara, we pulled over at a little playground on the harbor. Zara finally fell asleep, so I opened the windows and played with Vanessa while Tim took off in search of our rental. The park, like pretty much all the parks we encountered on this trip, didn’t have the care and attention parks in the U.S. have. The merry-go-round was in good shape, the wooden play structure studded with sharp screws and alarming metal pieces, not so much. Also, the unattended, mangy dogs using it as a bathroom was off-putting. But the view of the harbor was terrific!IMG_1817

It was a long time before Tim reappeared. He had a friend with him, who turned out to be our landlord. We piled into our car and followed this guy to our new place. It was a good thing he showed us the way because we had to drive between two buildings in a space that barely fit our car.

The apartment was conveniently situated in the middle of town. One of the town’s best restaurants was across the alley and it only took 30 seconds to find multiple places serving cappuccinos. It was ground floor, a huge benefit when you are traveling with small children, and had a lovely private courtyard with flowers and a shady table. Our landlord’s wife was waiting for us at the apartment and she made sure we had everything we needed. The place included a dishwasher and a laundry machine. Be still my heart.

The next six days were spent savoring our dwindling vacation. Our first day was mostly spent inside because there was a freak rainstorm. It rained so hard the walkways were small rivers of water.

Rainy day in Verboska
Rainy day in Verboska
After that the weather cleared and we spent time at the beach, ate sladoled (ice cream) and drank cappuccinos, attended a midsummer’s eve celebration, found a new brewery in Hvar Town, and had many a meal outside.

Midsummer's Eve
Midsummer’s Eve
The lavender festival was smaller than I imagined but very sweet. It was in the center of the island. We ended up driving to it on a road that wasn’t meant for festival goers. It took us down a steep road right smack dab into the middle of the tiny town. The road was claustrophobically narrow. At one point we were in the square of the festival, waiting for another vehicle to move so we could get out of the way. Tim is a confident driver. This is exactly what was required in this driving situation. Later we saw the main road, which, while tricky in its own right, was much more reasonable as a road.

Tim found a nanobrewery in Hvar Town. It was delightful.
  


We enjoyed the views on top of the island and the gorgeous fields of lavender.

Our landlords invited us to visit their vineyard one evening. The visit ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. As the sun set gorgeously over the island, we sipped homemade white wine, ate bread, cheese, vegetables from the garden, and pršut (dry-cured ham). Our hosts were enthralled with our girls and enthusiastic about their island.

  
  
Another highlight was returning to Konoba Kokot in the town of Dol. We ate at this sweet little restaurant two years ago when Vanessa was 10 months old, just a little younger than Zara is now. Our table was under a 100-year old almond tree. The restaurant was just getting started, there were no Trip Advisor reviews yet, and it was practically empty. Now it is gets rave reviews on travel sites and is full of diners. All the tables are outdoors and the grill sits just off to the side of the dining area. You can watch as your food is cooked (and feel sorry for the guy that has to do the un-envious job of standing next to the blazing heat as he cooks your food).  Squash vines curl over to your table from the garden, children happily play underfoot as you wait for your food, and the sky always seems to be full of golden clouds. Konoba Kokot is a celebration of Hvar, of summer, of local specialties, of fresh food cooked perfectly. (Not that they need it, but it helps that they start the meal off with dried figs and homemade liqueur.)

We like Konoba Kokot so much that we ate there twice on this visit.

Konoba Kokot
Konoba Kokot
  
  
I could have easily spent the whole summer on Hvar. I think I said that about the Soča Valley, too. Our little apartment had everything we needed and life was very, very easy. It was hard to pack up and face our long trip home. It’s hard to go back to stacks of bills, a neglected house and all the details that constitute real life.

Burek and cappucino for breakfast.
Burek and cappuccino for breakfast.
Lavender ice cream
Lavender ice cream
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