Tag Archives: travel

Family Trip to Ireland, Part One: Dublin

Our trip to Ireland last week was one for the ages — we traveled with my parents, drove the entire breadth of the country in a 9-passenger van, and visited the farm where my grandfather grew up and where my mom’s cousins still live.  It was a multi-generational experience that we’ll never forget.

We started out in Dublin, which is where my Dad’s Dad was born.  Rather than go our normal Airbnb route, we found that hotel rooms were actually a better fit for this part of the trip.  Since we had four adults traveling, we could get two rooms and split the kids up.  We knew we’d be spending very little time in our rooms because the two days in Dublin were PACKED with activity, so having a kitchen wasn’t a necessity.  We stayed at the Jurys Inn Christchurch and the location was super convenient to everything.  And it included breakfast, which is always a bonus with my children who wake up starving every day.

We arrived in Dublin mid-afternoon and got lunch at a cool restaurant called Bull and Castle near our hotel.  We walked around a bit, strolled along the Liffey River that runs through the city, walked across the famous Ha’Penny Bridge, and did a bit of shopping on Grafton Street (which Bridget was super excited about because it’s mentioned in her new favorite song, Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran).  Then we headed to Croke Park, a huge 80,000-seat stadium in Dublin, to watch a Gaelic football match!  This was the first time in all our travels that we’ve gone to a sporting event, but I don’t think it will be the last.  It was so much fun!  My Mom’s Dad played Gaelic football in the 1940s for a team in Galway called the Tuam Stars and he used to play in Croke Park — it was absolutely amazing to see the stadium and know my grandfather played there when he was young.  Gaelic football is also really exciting to watch; it’s fast and requires a level of athleticism and agility that is incredible to watch.  Everyone was totally into it — we had a great time.

The next day, which was actually my Dad’s birthday, we did a Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour.  We’ve done these in a few places, and although it’s definitely tourist-y and a bit cliched, I think it’s one of the best ways to get an overview of a city, learn some history, and be able to choose which sites you want to see in more depth.  Dublin is not a huge place, so we were able to see the entire city and get off at a bunch of cool stops to explore. 

The first place we went was to Phoenix Park, which is 7x the size of Central Park in Manhattan, and home to the Dublin Zoo and the Irish White House.  In the park is a herd of “wild” Fallow Deer that was originally established in 1660.  They roam the park at will, but because they are so used to people, they’re not skittish and we were able to walk right up to the herd.  Another family there had a bag of carrots with them which they shared with us and we were able to hand-feed the deer — it was like being in a Disney movie! 

We got lunch at a tea room in the park, then hopped back on the bus and headed to Trinity College, where we walked through the gorgeous library and saw the Book of Kells.  Somehow the boys had all learned about the process by which scribes created books like the Book of Kells and they were all excited to see it and were telling me how it was created and decorated before we even got inside.  Any time my kids get excited by history and start teaching me what they’ve learned, I consider it a win.  The library itself is just breath-taking.  I totally had ceiling envy the whole time.

Then we hopped back on the bus and took it to the Guinness Storehouse where we had a tour of the brewery and a pint in the Gravity Bar, a 360-degree glass room at the top of the factory tower overlooking the whole city.  The tour was really cool and even the kids loved it — it was really visually interesting, full of cool facts and information, and the perfect birthday outing for my Dad.

Dublin was a really cool city — it felt very international and we heard tons of different accents and languages being spoken as we walked around.  Because it’s fairly small, I think you could get to know it really well pretty quickly. And there were so many fantastic shops and restaurants that we saw and wanted to explore but just couldn’t fit them in just two days.  I would love to go back again.  I think we all would!

For the next part of our Ireland adventure, we picked up a 9-passenger van and headed west to Killarney, Galway, and Connemara!  Coming soon!

Visiting the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix, France

The Aiguille du Midi is a gondola ride that goes from the village of Chamonix seemingly vertically to almost the tip top of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.  This single experience was, without a doubt, one of the very coolest things I’ve ever done in all my life.  I cannot recommend it highly enough; none of us will ever forget it.

When we planned our trip to Chamonix, this was the only thing besides skiing that we felt was a MUST DO.  But, because the gondola can only operate in the right weather conditions, we almost didn’t get the chance.  We spent the first two days of our trip skiing; overnight that second night, the weather in Chamonix turned and it snowed.  When we woke up on Sunday morning, we went to the ticket office and were told that because of the snow and high winds, the gondola wasn’t open yet and to check back at 10:30AM.  We were totally bummed, but went and got some hot chocolate and croissants while we waited for the next update.

When we got back, thankfully the ride was opening!  The sky had cleared, the clouds had lifted, and we were on our way.

The ride up takes about 20 minutes, with a stop halfway where you switch from one car on the lower set of cables to a second car on the higher set.  The village of Chamonix sits at about 1035m above sea level (2277 ft); the first half of the gondola ride takes about 10 minutes and seems like a fairly gentle incline — rising up to 2317m (5097 ft).  The second half of the ride takes you up to 3777m (8310 ft).  Our ears popped and Gabe was freaking out a little bit, but that’s what Gabe does.  Then we got on the second cable car and looked up.  And then Gabe wasn’t the only one freaking out a little bit.

I thought for sure that there must be another relay point we just couldn’t see between where we were and the top; looking at the cable stretching up in front of us I felt completely sure that there was no way on earth that we were going to follow that line straight up.  It looked physically impossible.  And yet, that is what we did. 

As we glided over the snowy, rocky mountainside, sitting in a metal box dangling from a metal rope hundreds of feet above the ground, I felt this weird combination of exhilaration and fear.  We were hanging in space, suspended over a mountain and a glacier.  It was both breath-takingly gorgeous and spine-chillingly terrifying.  As we rose, the gondola swung a bit each time we passed one of the three pylons holding the cable aloft (one of which is 70m tall!).  Each time, everyone in car gasped a little.  There was a general sense of amazement and a feeling like everyone there was holding their breath.  It was intense.

At the top, we stepped out of the cable car and had to walk across an open air bridge…

…that looked across this incredible vista…

…and up at our eventual destination. 

The wind was absolutely whipping and it was about -15C and within 5 seconds my hands were numb and stinging.  On the other side of the bridge we went into a bit of a tunnel carved out of the ice.  In there were a few mountain climbers who had taken the Aiguille du Midi UP, but were making their way DOWN on their own.  They had ropes and ice picks and gear that I can’t identify and were attaching crampons to their boots and they were going to go OVER THAT GUARDRAIL and climb down the mountain. 

I made the children promise right then and there that if they love me they will never, ever do that.

We walked through the building to an elevator that brought us up to the very top.  Because of the altitude, everyone’s ears were popped and it was, to be absolutely honest, a bit hard to breathe normally.  We all had headaches off and on, and I got dizzy walking up the scariest staircase on the planet, all metal and snowy and hanging off the edge of a mountain.  But it was 100% worth it for what came next.

When you stand at the top of the world and look out, you feel both tiny and immense.  The Alps stretched out beyond us in every direction forever and ever; at that moment we could see France, Italy, and Switzerland all in one panorama.

It was a perspective change that you don’t forget.  We are these specks on the Earth, so insignificant in comparison to the mountain.  And yet, there we are, standing at the top.

The last part of our tour was called Step Into Void.  It’s a glass box built off the side of the building that hangs out over a 1000m drop.  In order to convince my brain that it was okay to walk out there, I had to look straight ahead.  Once I was in the box, I looked down, and even though I am not afraid of heights, I felt my knees go a little weak.  I may have cursed out loud.

Bridget was the only one who, throughout the entire experience, never hesitated, never felt a tingle of fear; she loves this stuff, eats it up.  She’s the one I’m going to have to worry about going over guardrails and climbing down icy mountains. 

Owen went in the box, but only with Matt beside him.  Quinn declined entirely.  And Gabe, who spent the entire time up until that point near tears with fear and anxiety, watched the rest of us Step into the Void with his back against the opposite wall, refusing to even look.  And then, when everyone else had gone, quietly asked if he could have a go.  He’d worked up the courage; he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime.  And he slid out into the glass room, looked out and down and up and raised his hands in triumph. 

And I thought, “THIS.  THIS IS WHY WE TRAVEL.  THIS IS WHY WE DO THESE THINGS.”

Even if we hadn’t skied, the trip to Chamonix would have gone to the top of my list of favorite destinations for this single experience alone.  It was inspiring, it was humbling, it was exciting.  If you can go, you should go.

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Traveling vs. Vacationing

hohenzollern-view-4-kids

There’s a huge difference between traveling and going on vacation. 

We’ve been on vacations before, and although there is certainly a good argument to be made that traveling with kids is almost never a vacation, we have taken trips that were about relaxation and fun far more than they were about experiencing a new place.  I like those trips just fine and can always do with a little downtime. 

But I’ve come to learn that, given the choice, I far prefer traveling to vacationing.

Traveling is not about lying on a sunny beach and baking to a golden tan, a fruity drink in hand and a dip in the pool your only concerns.  That is a vacation.  Vacations are fun. 

But I want to travel.

Traveling is going to a new place and learning about what makes that place worth visiting.  It’s finding the landmarks, learning the history, trying the local food, and at least attempting to speak the language.  It’s hard work more often than not.  But that, I believe, is what makes it worthwhile.

When I successfully communicate with a cab driver in Rome who speaks no English but wants to tell us all about the amazing sites we’re driving by, and I’m then able to turn around and explain what he’s saying to my kids, that is traveling.  When we navigate the metro in Paris even though none of us read French anything like fluently and none of the maps or signs are in English, that is traveling.  When Matt drives a right-hand drive, stick shift, 7-passenger van through morning rush hour in London to get us to our new home in the English countryside, that is traveling.  When we try the haggis, that is traveling. 

There are so many places to see and paths to walk, so many languages to learn and foods to try.  When I travel, I make my world a little bigger.  I make my kids’ worlds a little bigger.  We know what it looks like to eat breakfast in the sun on a porch overlooking the Mediterranean.  And we know what it smells like to walk through the Black Forest in the autumn.  We know what it feels like on top of the Eiffel Tower in the wind and drizzling rain, and how long it takes to walk up the long hill to Edinburgh Castle. 

Because we know those things, it makes it easier to imagine other things, even less like what we’re used to in our normal lives. 

We’ve stretched our understanding, and with it, our imaginations.

There have been moments, more than just a few, when we’ve been lugging bags through train stations and airports and convincing tired children that if they can just hold on a little longer, we’ll find a place to eat and sit and relax, when I’ve wondered if all the hard work and exhaustion and confusion is worth it.  There have been many times when I stood, uncertain, before someone whose language I didn’t speak and who didn’t speak my language in return, and wondered how I would communicate. But we find a way to make it work.  We learn something new, we smash down the walls of our comfort zones, and every time we do it, we grow.  In the end, every hard moment is worth it.  

It’s worth it when your 10-yr old son makes a comparison between the architecture in Germany and the architecture in Italy.  When your 12-yr old daughter reads and translates the signs in French.  When your 8-yr old son declares that the curry wurst in Germany is one of his favorite foods.  When your 6-yr old son sees a picture of Il Duomo on a magazine and exclaims with excitement that he’s been there, it’s in Florence, and he had the best gelato ever sitting in the square beside that dome.  Every long walk, delayed flight, argument with an overtired child (or an overtired spouse), they’re all worth it when you see how much it’s changed your understanding of the world.

Travel — real travel — is hard.  But it is worth it.  And I will take it over a vacation every day of the year. 


Also, a trip doesn’t have to be far to be meaningful.


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Travel Woes

train-sleeping

Last night we got home from a long weekend in Stuttgart, Germany and it was really great.  This was our sixth country in the last year and we are all really getting good at navigating unfamiliar places, trying out phrases in new languages, and sampling new foods. 

But we’re also learning that not every trip can go well.  Our weekend in France in May was our first real experience with a major travel snafu, and we’ve been really lucky in the last 15 months that we can point out just ONE time that things got messed up pretty badly.

Last night would be time number two.

Flight delays happen all the time.  We’ve experienced them more times than I can count.  But sometimes they just really, really suck.

Our flight home was scheduled to leave Stuttgart at 8:50PM on Sunday night.  We got to the airport reallllllly early because we wanted to eat a full dinner before getting on the plane, not just an airport snack.  We had almost three hours from the time we had checked our bags and gotten through security to the time we were supposed to board the flight, and that was largely by design so we could sit and eat at a restaurant in the airport without any stress about making it to our gate.  We ate slowly and leisurely, even getting coffees and hot chocolates after the meal, and walked to our gate without incident about 30 minutes before we were supposed to board.  And then, about 15 minutes later, they made the announcement that the flight was delayed an hour and ten minutes, putting our new estimated departure at 10PM.

It’s no big deal to have a flight delayed.  Sure, it’s annoying, but it happens.  For this particular trip, though, we were flying in and out of an airport on the opposite side of London from where we live.  Once we landed, we’d have to take a train from the airport into London, transfer to the Underground to get to Kings Cross station, and take another train out to the station near our house where our car was parked.  In total, it took us about 2.5 hours to get from our car to the airport on the way out to Germany.  That’s a long time to travel tacked on to the time you’re already spending in the airport. 

We bought the tickets from the further airport because the prices were so good — half the cost of flying from the airport closer to our house.  And though we’d never flown out of this further airport, we knew people who did use it and it seemed like no big deal.  Unfortunately, we didn’t take into consideration the toll it would take to travel for so long with luggage and the four kids, transferring trains, waiting on platforms, hoping to find seats, managing bathroom trips, etc.  It was fine, but it meant we basically left home at noon to just make it on time for a 5:40PM flight out on the way to Germany.

Now we were sitting in Germany facing a flight that wouldn’t leave until 10PM and even once we got to London we’d still have 2.5 hours of travel ahead of us to get home.  Suddenly the good deal on plane tickets didn’t seem so good anymore.

In addition, because we’d be arriving so late we had to determine if there were even trains still running to get us where we needed to go.  Matt searched the timetables and found the schedule for the airport express into London.  The last train left at 12:15AM.  We should be able to make that train, then we’d have to switch to the underground and get to Kings Cross to make the final train out toward our house, which would leave the station at 1:35AM and arrive at our destination at 2:50AM.  Then we’d have to drive the 15 minutes home.  At best, we’d get in at just after 3AM.  At worst, we’d have to get hotel rooms in London for the night and then make the trek during Monday rush hour with all the kids and the luggage.  I could almost see Matt’s skin crawling with the thought of that.

To complicate things, the flight was delayed another hour, with a new estimated departure at 10:49PM.  We realized that if we landed by 11:15PM (London is an hour earlier than Germany) and could get through passport control, customs, and get our baggage, plus make our way from the North terminal of the airport we’d land in to the South terminal where the train station was located in 45 minutes, we could get the last train into the city.  Basically we’d have to hope the passport lines were quick and we’d have to run for it. But if we were late at all, there was simply no way to make it to all the connections and get home that night.

As we sat in the airport in Stuttgart after a long three days of walking and exploring and the clock ticked later and later, the kids started to nod off.  Quinn fell fast asleep.  When we finally got the word to board, he was simply out cold and wouldn’t be woken up, so I had to carry him onto the tram that took us across the tarmac and then up the flight of stairs onto the plane.  He never woke up.  In fact, he slept through the whole flight.  The rest of the kids fell asleep within minutes of take-off.  I knew though, that we had HOURS of traveling ahead of us, so although I closed my eyes and dozed a few times, I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt like that would just be worse.  It’s easier for me to power through than to get some sleep and then have to wake up and run again.

When we landed, we woke up all the kids because they’d have to be able to be awake to get through passport control.  We speed-walked to the baggage claim, got our bags right away, and made our way as fast as possible to passport control, but the lines were already long.  As we stood there watching the minutes tick by, Matt went and checked with one of the agents to be sure we were eligible, and then went online and registered for priority clearance — which we had to pay for — so we jumped out of the long line and into a very short line.  We probably saved 30 minutes of standing in line, but even still, at that point we had less than 10 minutes to get across the airport to the train station, buy tickets, and get on the 12:15AM train that was the last express into the city.  We RAN.  The kids, exhausted and groggy, were absolutely awesome.  We made it literally by seconds, dashing down the escalator into the open train doors just before they closed.

Then we had an hour train ride into Victoria Station, where we’d transfer to the tube, get to Kings Cross, and finally head home.  The kids crashed out on the train, sitting on their luggage and sleeping with their heads leaned up against each other because the train was full and we didn’t have seats.

We made it to Victoria Station, but realized that the Underground had already stopped for the night.  It was 1AM, and we stood outside the station with our four kids and all our bags and saw the taxi line of people in similar situations waiting to get in cabs.  We knew we wouldn’t make it to our train in Kings Cross if we had to wait, so instead of getting in the cab line, we walked out to the main road and called an Uber.  Our driver was 7 minutes away.  When he arrived, we explained that we had to get to Kings Cross to make the 1:35AM train or we were stuck in the city — and he was so great about trying to get us there in time.  I watched the ETA on the Uber app on my phone — it literally had us arriving at Kings Cross at 1:33AM, then went up to 1:36AM — TOO LATE — and back down to 1:32AM again as we drove through the quiet late-night city.  We still had to unload our luggage from the Uber and buy the train tickets, too, so even with 3 minutes to spare we were cutting it close.

As soon as we pulled up I grabbed my suitcase which had been by my feet in the Uber and ran into the station to get tickets as Matt unloaded the rest of the bags and got the kids.  He checked the platform on the departure screens — which was easy because it was the only train still listed, the last of the night — and got the kids running toward the correct platform while I hit the ticket machine.  A guard at the station saw me frantically trying to get the right number of tickets and yelling to Matt and the kids to keep going and I would get there, and asked if I needed help. 

“We just need to be on that 1:35 train!” I gasped.  I didn’t pay much more attention, but I do think he called over to the engineer on the platform.

I finally got the tickets ordered; they printed individually, painfully slowly, and I flat out sprinted through the deserted train station to catch up to my family. 

Matt and the kids were climbing on to the train as I ran down the platform.  I looked up at the clock at the end and it said 1:34:32 as I jumped through the doors.  The engineer on the platform blew his whistle as I climbed on board, and the doors instantly closed behind me.  We had made it with less than 30 seconds to spare.

The kids fell asleep again almost instantly, but I was so adrenaline fueled, it took me a little while to calm down.  We made it back to our station, woke the kids again with some difficulty, trudged out to our car and loaded up the bags and drove home, pulling into our driveway at 3:10AM.

This will become one of those family stories, I think, that we tell again and again — at least this isn’t as bad as that one trip home from Germany! — but it is not something I want to repeat.  We’ve learned that a good deal on flights isn’t always a good deal, because we have to take a lot of other factors into consideration.

We also learned, though, that when we’re in a tight spot, we can make things work.  To be honest, I would probably have given up on trying to get home while we were standing in the passport line with 10 minutes left to get on the last train into London.  But Matt SO did not want to spend a night in a hotel, which would have cost hundreds of extra pounds because we always need two rooms with our big family, and then make the 2.5 hour train trip home on Monday morning during rush hour with luggage and children.  He really, really needed to try to make it home.  So we all rallied and ran and weaved through crowds in the airport and lugged suitcases down escalators even though we were exhausted and the kids were dead on their feet.  At one point on the train from the airport into London, Owen just stood there crying silently because he was so tired he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep.  But he pulled it together, wiped his eyes, and made the last bit of the trip without complaining.  I was really proud of him and of all of us.

Matt and I have learned a lot in the last year, about ourselves, our children, our strengths and weaknesses, about traveling and down time and how we want to shape our lives.  Last night was just another lesson.  Even though it sucked while we were in it, it was also a victory because we did it — WE MADE IT HOME!

But next time, we’re flying out of the close airport, even if the tickets are 5x more.


Also, our terrible initial arrival in London a year ago.


 

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