Humphrey Goes to Europe – Part 4 (The End)

Either the distances listed on our handy map of Italy are way off, or we’re doing something really wrong. It took about twice as long as expected to make it from Cinque Terre to Sienna, but at least it was a gorgeous drive. First we drove along the mountainous coast with it alternating tunnels and bridges. Then, we headed inland through the Tuscan countryside. For some reason, I was just awestruck by the Tuscan hills. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It seems that nature’s beauty is often characterized by dramatic features like mountains or oceans, but there is something peacefully amazing about these rolling hills filled with green grassy meadows, quaint little vineyards and ancient walled cities. I was unexpectedly taken aback by the entire region.

So on the way to Sienna, we noticed that we were going to pass right by Pisa and figured, we’d stop in to see the leaning tower. Pisa is a perfect Italian city for getting lost and driving in gradually narrowing concentric circles until you find the center of town. After a few laps, we found where all the tourists were and cozied into a mostly legal parking spot. We figured the tower couldn’t be too far off, so we walked into the walled area that looked most promising. We paused for a moment and tried to figure out where to go. Straight looked ok. Left would take us back out to the street. Right looked promising. Hmm, how about right? We started off, when it occurred to Beth to look behind us…where, of course, stood the tower not 100 meters away.

Tip #10 – Look behind you.

The tower was kind of neat. It looks just like the pictures and we took some cheesy touristy pictures ourselves. The stop probably wasn’t worth the time and effort. We had the worst restaurant meal either of us can remember for lunch and overall, Pisa was kind of dumpy, it really wasn’t a surprise that their tower is falling over.

We arrived in Sienna sometime late afternoon expecting the hotel to be easy to find. I had it all mapped out and it appeared to be right off a central town square. Well, it was right where it said on the map, but it took at least four laps around the city for us to find it. Don’t ask me how, but we drove right past the hotel on every lap and neither of us could spot it. Sienna is an old medieval city with some modern parts, but also with some very old parts with tiny streets cutting through the village and filled with tourists. On one of the laps, we wound up stuck in the middle of those little streets, desperately trying to find a way out without mowing down any tourists.

Tip #11 – If you’re visiting the Jolly Hotel in Sienna, follow the signs to the center of town and the soccer stadium, then pick up the signs for the Jolly Hotel, then look for a building with a lot of flags (it’s like the 3rd building in a row with a lot of flags) and the hotel sign is around the corner so you can’t read it until you’ve almost driven past it.

The hotel was nice but didn’t really have much Italian character. It was pretty much like being at a nice Hilton. It was actually kind of refreshing to have a little taste of “our world” again.

On the last night in Cinque Terre, we discovered a new trick:

Tip #12 – Around dinner time, put the baby in the stroller and walk until she falls asleep. Immediately dart into the first nice restaurant you can find and you stand an excellent change of enjoying a nice dinner.

We figured we try the same trick in Sienna. Our guidebook detailed a nice walking tour so we pushed Amelia around over the cobblestone streets hoping that she’s fall asleep so we could enjoy some of the famous Tuscan cuisine. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Having spent most of the day sleeping in the car, she wasn’t about to let us have a nice meal two nights in a row. We ate at McDonalds. Before the trip, I had steadfastly refused to eat American fast food in Italy, but it was actually quite refreshing to grab a hamburger…probably because we’d eaten so much pizza (the only take away food available in Italy) in the room already.

Once we left Cinque Terre, Amelia couldn’t have been better. She was right back to her normal playful, happy self. We’re thinking that there might have been something about the hotel room at the Hotel Villa Argentina. Beth thought the bathroom smelled a little musty, so maybe there was something in the air that bothered her. Whatever it was that made her so ornery, we’re glad it stayed there. The last few days of the trip couldn’t have been better and we left with a much better taste in our mouth for traveling with a baby.

We spent the last day of our trip driving around Tuscany visiting the medieval walled villages. We made it to San Gimigano, Monteriggioni and Colle di Vald’Elsa. Each of them was stunning. They are all walled cities that have survived mostly in their original state since the 1200’s. We were expected to visit them and see them in a museum-like state. We were shocked when we arrived in Monteriggioni to find that people still live there (with modern conveniences of course)! People actually still live in these 800 year old stone buildings, how amazing!

As if sock wasn’t enough, I got nailed with some fresh bird poop in Colle di Vald’Elsa. Better my shirt than Amelia’s nearby head.

Amelia slept great in the car for most of the day and we didn’t want to push her too hard so we spent a lot of time just driving around the countryside. We eventually wound up on this tiny little gravel road between towns that should never have made it on any map. The poor Fiat. The nap schedule once again didn’t mesh well with a nice dinner, so it was another night of bad take out pizza (and gelato) in the hotel room.

I think the trip (and mostly Cinque Terre) just caught up with Amelia. There were some times where she’d get so tired, that she would just fall over in place….but then she wouldn’t want to miss anything, so she’d get right back up…then fall over again a couple minutes later.

We had to leave way too early to get to the airport in Rome the next morning. We made it there without incident, but we wound up on the wrong side of the airport at the general aviation terminal.

Tip #13 – When following signs for the Rome airport, follow the ones with the little yellow square around the airplane, that’s where you want to go.

More agent confusion at the Rome airport. Seems Delta struggles with infant tickets and even more with booking re-routed through another airline. We somehow had to wait in five separate lines at the airport, all with a fussy baby and full bladders (the bathrooms near our lines were locked!!). It was shaping up to be another one of those days. Fortunately though we made it on the plane and everything was great from there on in. Amelia did great on the plane and made friends with all our neighbors. We made it through our tight connection at JFK, got home, showered and crashed! Amelia is still recovering. She slept about 10 hours last night and she’s entering the fourth hour of her morning nap as I write this.

So overall, the trip was great. We’d do it again in a heartbeat. Traveling with a baby has its pros and cons. I’ve always said that there’s a big difference between travel and vacation. A trip to Europe usually falls into the travel category. Bringing the baby along pushes it a notch further away from vacation and closer to adventure travel. It’s too bad the conference was a bust, it would have been a great excuse to do it all over again with a 19 month old!

Baby travel tips to remember:

• We’re glad we got the car. It’s a lot easier to load and unload things in stages rather than hauling everything onto a train before the doors shut. It makes a world of difference being able to set your own schedule around naps and having the car as a napping grounds made a world of difference.
• Try to plan naps around driving time. Babies are a lot happier napping in the car seat than when being lugged around sightseeing.
• Try to research handicap accessibility of the sights you want to see and places you want to stay if traveling with a stroller.
• Don’t bother to pack a lot of toys. Just as the toy box is often more fascinating than the toy itself, the airplane safety information card is more fascinating than any plastic teething ring.
• Be prepared to make a lot of new friends. Everybody you meet will want to look at and play with the baby. It’s actually a nice way to get to know lots of people. Don’t be afraid to convert them into helpers as needed.
• Get translations for all your baby needs ahead of time. Also, know how to convert the baby’s weight to kilograms.
• The big stroller was nice to have along to load stuff into, but it was also a pain at times as well. The rental car seat was good and sturdy. I’m glad we got it instead of lugging ours along.
• When you get to the hotel, just go ahead and ask for extra towels. Between changings and feedings, you’re going to go through a few.

Traveler’s Reviews
• British Airlines – Probably the second favorite airline I’ve ever flown (next to Air New Zealand). In the bulkhead seat on their 777, there was plenty of room for us and a nice bassinette.
• Delta Airlines – Egh, just ok, about what you would expect from the major US airlines these days. They have a remarkable ability to confuse themselves. The bulkhead seat in their 767 was pretty cramped and the bassinette a little difficult. In our particular seat, we were right in front of the movie screen so anytime we got up to change Amelia, we felt like we were standing in everybody’s way.
• Kensington Close Hotel, London – Nice. Only complaint is that the nearest subway station is not handicap accessible so it is hard with a stroller.
• Grand Hotel Imperiale, Maltrasio Italy, Lake Como – Awesome. Aside from the crib mattress, everything here was just about perfect. We’d stay here again in a heartbeat.
• Hotel Ville Argentina, Riomaggiore Italy, Cinque Terre – Nice, but not the best for traveling with an infant (no crib and hard to get to). Great views come at the price of a hefty walk up the hill and no elevator. We’d probably stay somewhere in the town of Vernazza should we return to Cinque Terre, but we probably wouldn’t go back there with a baby.
• Jolly Hotel, Sienna Itally, Tuscany – Nice, basically a Hilton.

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