A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2022 – Kingston, Ontario

I went back and forth as to whether to write this final post on our summer trip. Kingston is incredibly close to where we live, we didn’t do much while we were there (except one really cool tour, which is why I decided to write this) and we were definitely at the end of our…travel excitement. However, I decided to write it to not only share the cool spot we toured, but also just a little insight into what our final day or two was like in Canada- because boy did things happen that made me think. 

As always, let’s start with a little history of the area. 

Kingston was originally named Cataraqui and inhabited by the Five Nations Iroquois (though the Wyandot People – of Huron origins- were the first occupants). The French arrived in 1615 and established Fort Cataraqui in 1673 to serve as a military and trade base. The fort itself was occupied on and off, would be destroyed and rebuilt several times over, until finally the British took possession in 1783. The renamed it Tete-de-Pont Barracks in 1787, then turned over to the Canadian military in 1870. It is still in use today; however, it is now named Fort Frontenac. 

Kingston played a bit of a role in the American Revolutionary War as a home location for Loyalists (those who were loyal to the British Crown and wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom). In order to make “space” for the Loyalists the British worked with the Mississaugas to purchase land. The Loyalists gave the settlement the name of “King’s Town” – which would eventually turn in to Kingston. 

One of the bigger military times for Kingston was the War of 1812. Kingston became a major military town and engaged in an arms race with the American Fleet stationed in Sackets Harbor. The base of Fort Henry, later known at Point Henry, was built to help protect the Canadian Fleet and garrisoned until 1871. It’s now a World Heritage Site. 

Once incorporated as a town, it held the largest population in Upper Canada until the 1840’s (it became a city in 1846). From what I can see- Kingston is really known in terms of cultural hot spots. They host several film festivals, music festivals, writer retreats, as well as Busker events (we’ll get in to that last one). A lot of musician and actors name Kingston as their birthplace, most notable being Dan Aykroyd (there are many more musicians that I could name as well). A final notable fact, the first high school in the province was established in Kingston in 1792 by a Loyalist! 

I’ve been to Kingston now twice, the first being a fun girlie day out where we wandered the streets of downtown, stopped in a local independent bookstore (spent some money…), and grabbed lunch at a great Tex-Mex spot, Lone Star Grill. The second time was this trip with both boys and my husband. 

We headed to Kingston from Toronto on the day where half the nation of Canada was crippled by a software glitch. The communication servers for about half of the country simply went down. This was horrifying on so many levels- people weren’t able to work, weren’t able to pay for products (it affected the banking lines, so no debit or electronic means of payments, BUT they could accept credit cards, not debit as credit, but actual credit cards), but people were not able to communicate via phones, the hospitals were impacted, emergency services. It really crippled that portion of the country for the entire day- I believe it started sometime in the wee hours of the morning and didn’t get fully restored until well past midnight. Thankfully it did get restored and everything returned to “normal”, but it did make you think…about a) how reliant we are on technology, and b) just how…dominating our technology/processing world is by very few companies that so much went down. 

Once we arrived in Kingston and we immediately went off to our single scheduled event- a tour of the Kingston Penitentiary. Kingston Penitentiary was a maximum-security prison that has only recently closed in 2013- actually at the time of closing it was one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the world. Originally opened in 1835 as a provincial penitentiary, it was one of nine prisons in the area. The building site was selected due mostly to the ready access to water and abundant fine limestone. It first housed six inmates, though it could hold 564 inmates total by the time it closed (this does not include the treatment center within the prison I don’t believe). Across the street to the north is the Kingston Prison for Women which operated from 1934-2000 to allow for more space- women had previously simply been segregated in the main facility. 

This penitentiary has seen two riots, one in 1954 and another in 1971. In 1954 there was a two-hour riot (which at that point was the worst in history) involving almost 900 inmates. A breakout was attempted coinciding with the riot, however, was not successful. This particular riot started in the exercise yard, led to several fires in different buildings, 50 ringleaders going to solitary confinement, $2 million in damages, and the involvement of both the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The second riot was much worse. 

In 1971 there was a four-day riot within the prison that led to two inmates dying, six guards being held hostage, and much of the prison destroyed. The riot was instigated by concerns about future conditions at a separate prison transfer, lack of work/recreational time and other prisoner issues. Once the riot was quelled, an investigation was opened, and it found that the prisoners were not wrong in their complaints. A number of issues were noted, least of which being overcrowding and shortage of staff, but also prisoners who did not require maximum security, a lack of channels to deal with prisoner complaints and requests, as well as aged physical facilities. This riot led to committees being form and new jobs being created to help deal with these complaints and issues within the prison. 

There have been three escapes recorded from this maximum-security prison: 1923, 1947, and 1999. The first was Norman “Red” Ryan, who was an Irish Catholic Gangster. He escaped with several other inmates in September 1923 by setting a fire as a distraction, going over the wall, and stealing a car. However, he was caught again in Minnesota and brought back. Once back in prison he became a “model prisoner” and the poster child for prison/parole reform. He was released, went on to denounce his prior criminal activities and be a model citizen in public…all while going on an armed robbery spree. During one of these armed robberies the little gang he had formed ended up in a shootout of sorts. While Norman continued to present himself as the model citizen, even offering to help police and detectives figure out what happened, he was found out a few months later and died in a shootout with police at a liquor store. The second escape was fairly straightforward, 3 inmates went over the wall, 2 came back, 1 was never found. 

The third escape was by Ty Conn in 1999. Ty Conn was the first to evade capture for weeks and weeks since the last “successful” escape in 1958 (this is after 26+ attempts by inmates since 1836). Abandoned by both his parents, put up for adoption by his maternal grandparents he was adopted by a psychiatrist and his, alleged/described, mentally unstable wife. That only lasted about eight years before he was “returned” and placed in and out of foster and group homes, and youth detention facilities. As a young child in his adoptive family, he started stealing – first food then cars in his teenage years. By the time of his death, he was only “legally at large” (free) for 69 days (this is from age 13-death). After notifying prison guards at Millhaven Prison that several inmates were planning to escape, he was placed in protective custody and transferred to Kingston Penitentiary. His own escape utilized not only a rope ladder and grappling hook (that he made himself), but also cayenne pepper to throw the scent off to the dogs. He was found two weeks later in Toronto where he committed suicide, rather than go back to prison. 

I have to interject my personal opinion here for a moment because in listening to the tour guide speak about Ty Conn and the brief history I’ve learned about him- he really is one of those…cases for prison reform and slip through the crack’s instances. There is a book currently out by Theresa Burke and Linden MacIntyre, both have met and had interaction with Ty Conn, titled Who Killed Ty Conn. Together they paint a different picture and one that is worth understanding and knowing. It’s a book that I’ve added to my list to read at some point. 

From 1971-1981 Kingston Penitentiary also served as the Regions Reception Center. Every inmate in the prison system would come to Kingston Penitentiary first. It also held a Regional Treatment Centre within the prison which allowed up to 120 inmates who were in recovery. In 1990 Kingston Penitentiary was designated a National Historic Site and it was officially closed on September 30, 2013. A month or so later it was opened for tours- all of which are given by former guards and employees of the prison. 

 Kingston Penitentiary has seen it all and boy, if walls could talk. The tour was, quite honestly, incredible. Not only do you get to see how the prison changed throughout the long years it was used, but you also get to hear real experiences from employees and guards. It gives you a real insight in to not only these prisoners live within the prison, but also insight in to how the prison structure works/operates/could improve. The tour guides were not able to talk about the actual prisoners as it’s against Canadian privacy laws, but a quick search gives you an idea of some of the infamous prisoners housed in those walls. 

We stopped for a bite to eat after the tour (and a gas up- thankfully we found a station that was able to take credit cards!) at Montana’s BBQ & Bar- which was delicious and supplied quite the Long Island Iced Tea ;). 

The next morning, we headed more towards downtown to walk along the river and the store fronts. We were pleasantly greeted by a Busker Festival. If you don’t know, a busker is a street performer. So, the folks that you walk past that are performing on sidewalks or subway stations for donations and your enjoyment? Buskers. And Kingston had an entire weekend full of entertainment lined up. The streets were blocked off to allow several performers, with a good distance between, there was a stage set up at the water, as well as food, face paint, and a sidewalk chalk competition. 

Coinciding with that event, it was also the weekend of a boat race, so while we were walking along the water, we were treated with the site of these souped-up boats, with wonderful sounding engines pull in to dock for lunch. 

We did just a little walking and then, finally, headed back across the border to the states and back home. And that wraps up our Summer Holiday (finally!). Which was your favorite to hear about? NIAGARA, DETROIT, UPPER PENINSULA, SUDBURY, TORONTO, or Kingston? Have you added any to your to visit list? And if you haven’t- you HAVE to add Mackinac Island/Upper Peninsula straight away. Let me know!

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2022- Niagara Falls

It is time to start sharing all the details and history of this year big Summer Holiday. We had quite the adventures, seeing a full loop of the upper northeastern portion of the U.S. and the some of the lower portions of Ontario, CA. I already talked previously about the requirements to enter Canada (I believe I did in my Montreal post), but I’ll touch on them again. These may or may not be up to date when you are reading this post (as they still change day to day), so I would recommend checking the Canada travel site HERE for the most up to date information. To enter Canada as an adult you must be fully vaccinated and fill out the ArriveCAN app on the phone (you can do this via we browser and print the certificate as well if that is easier for you I believe). Kids aged 5 & Up are required to be vaccinated unless they are traveling with fully vaccinated adults. For the vast majority of Ontario, we were not required to wear masks. 

A couple things to note before we get into these posts…in some places I’ll be sharing our hotel and food options, but in others I won’t. To be honest, I treat most hotels as a place to lay our head for the night and what I mean by that is, I don’t always have to be in the heart of downtown, best of the best, right in the action accommodation. Sometimes the best for us is valet parking, close to public transport, or best bed configuration. The same goes with food, though we are a bit pickier about that. However, with food I find that this is a personal varied choice. If a restaurant really stood out for me, I’ll share it, but otherwise I don’t have much in the way for either of those recommendations. 

Ok, so now on to the actual vacation (I’ll post the rules and restrictions once again when we enter back into Canada later on in the trip…). A brief overview of our route of sorts: Niagara Falls, Canada  Detroit, Michigan Mackinac/Upper Peninsula Region, Michigan Sudbury, Ontario  Toronto, Ontario Kingston, Ontario  Home. We took a total of 14 nights/15 days to hit everything, usually spending a minimum of 2 nights in each place, except Kingston which is close enough to our home (aka we can see it whenever) that we didn’t need to do more than a single night. Today kicks everything off with a post on Niagara Falls.

We started our time in Niagara on the American side at Old Fort Niagara. This fort is unique in several different ways; the oldest structure in North America between the Appalachian and Mississippi, was manned by three different countries, and expertly shows the way in which military life and conflict has changed over time. The region was originally occupied by the Seneca in the 17th century as a seasonal hunting and fishing spot. When the French took charge in 1679, it was a key access point for the Great Lakes. The fort passed from the French, who built the oldest building- the “French Castle”- in 1726, to the British in 1759. The British held it from 1759-1796, and again from 1813-1815. The Americans finally got a piece of the Fort (aside from that little loss 1813-1815) in 1796, and then permanently in 1815. While the War of 1812 was the last conflict at the Fort, it has been used in some shape or another through major conflicts in our history. In World War One it was used as an Officer Training Camp, In World War Two it was used Induction Center for troops and a POW Camp. In the Cold War it housed Anti-Aircraft troops. In 1929 & 1934 restoration projects went underway to fix the French Castle and other encampments and buildings within the fort. 

The fort itself is pretty cool if only to see the ways the natural resources and land were used to create an effective barrier. The French Castle also is a really great way of showing how they secured items and lived in an age that we can’t even fathom (wooden nails for example). They’ve also got the originally US colony flag that flew over the fort. If you are into war history, battle or forts, this is a really great stop. 

From the Old Fort we headed over the Niagara State Park and Goat Island. I’m not going to get in to too much of the history of the Falls as I feel like most of us know what Niagara Falls is (I feel like I say this and then go on and on and on), but I’ll give a couple fun little nuggets that I learned and found interesting. First off, Niagara Falls is over 12, 00 years old, but is considered “young”. The Falls are comprised of three separate falls: Bridal Veil, American, and Horseshoe falls. Together they produce 2.4 million kilowatts of electricity for the U.S. and Canada. 90% of the Great Lakes (that would be Superior, Michigan, Erie and Huron) drain into Niagara River, and then on to Niagara Falls, before hitting Lake Ontario. Two more facts and then I promise I’ll stop…maybe. Niagara Falls was the first state park in the U.S., designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the same who designed Central Park). The water has only stopped once, in 1969 at the American Rapids so that scientists and Geologists could come in and study the effects of erosion. During the Winter Freeze and Spring Thaw a little bit more of the rock face is eroded away. 

Now, we started our trip to the Falls out on the American side, which is cool in its own way. We went to the overlook of the Bridal Veil and American Falls, where you can see above the falls and look down. We also visited the “Cave of the Winds”, which is located on Goat Island. This attraction originates back to the 1800’s when there was a cave of sorts just under Bridal Falls. Tours to this “cave” began in the 1840’s (though people visited prior to that) before rock fall forced it to close in the 1920’s. It reopened for a time in 1924 where visitors could visit the “front” of the falls and cave. However due to more rock falls and erosion, engineers decided that the cave was no longer a safe destination and dynamited a portion of the rock under the fall. The visiting area was then replaced by what we see today- a grouping of stairs and standing decks at the base/slightly in front of the falls.

This was easily the must do thing on the American Side. Not only from the observation deck you not only get a really neat view of the falls, and, on a sunny day, the rainbow, but you can also feel the full blast of the falls with hurricane force winds and water spray as it rushes down. 

From there we headed across the border and to our hotel for the evening to check in. We stayed at Old Stone Inn Boutique hotel and found that to actually be a really good option. It’s just outside the hustle and bustle of Clifton Hill and Niagara proper, but not far enough that you can’t walk. After checking in we headed back down the Falls, this time on the Canadian Side for the Illumination of the Falls and the Fireworks show. The Illumination is a year-round show, started in 1860 and utilized for a long time for royal and foreign dignitary visits before becoming a permanent attraction in the 1920’s. The fireworks are a summertime special and are every night in the Summer at 10PM. Both a worth seeing and we loved being able to experience it. I would, obviously, suggest getting there early, but if you show up about 15 minutes before 10, you’ll still get a good viewpoint to watch them. They lift off from the same area as the Voyage into the Falls on the Canada side, so closer to Horseshoe falls would not be a bad spot to pick. Likewise, a spot by Queen Elizabeth Gardens or in between the three falls is good too. 

The next day we were up and off for an early morning Voyage to the Falls. A little clarification before I get into the history, Maid of the Mist (of the U.S.) used to be the only operator on the boat tours to get up close to the falls. They initially launched in 1846 as a ferry between the U.S. and Canada but was swiftly closed down in the 1850’s when the suspension bridge was completed. The company then launched with tours in 1854, but was, once again, swiftly closed when the American Civil War started. It re opened in 1885, this time going closer to Horseshoe Falls than previous. The U.S. added boats in 1892, but those burned on the Canadian side in an accident in 1955. In 1960 during a voyage, the Maid of the Mist rescued and saved a young boy who later became the first to survive a jump over Horseshoe Falls only wearing a life jacket. Finally, in 2013 Maid of the Mist split in to two separate entities, Maid of the Mist on the U.S. side, Hornblower Niagara Cruises (later Niagara City Cruises) on the Canadian Side. These days the boats are electric powered with zero emissions- which is great! 

In my honest opinion, whether you choose to do Maid of the Mist or Niagara City Cruises does not matter. They both map roughly the same route and one does not do less than the other (and I can tell you that factually as I watched them sail day in and day out from above- it is the same). It’s really going to be whichever you choose. But you SHOULD do it. It’s truly just incredible and awe inspiring to be able to stand there…in this belly of the beast of sorts and just…revel in mother nature. Truly just incredible. 

In all honesty though, if I could tell you one thing about visiting Niagara Falls, it is to view it from the Canadian side. You are able to actually view the falls from the “front”, rather than above or beside. It is truly a stunning view and one I am so glad we got to see. Once we finished touring the falls from boat, from below, we decided to wander through the gardens and slowly over to where we could go under the falls. 

Journey Behind the Falls started as this…competition between two businessmen. Located at Horseshoe Falls, in the 19th century, the only way to get down to the bottom of these falls was to take a steep hike down, over a rocky path filled with boulders and questionable rope ladders. It was dangerous and other spots that were accessible were covered up by “entrepreneurs” trying to make a quick buck and charge to look through a small peep hole. In 1818, the first set of stairs down closer to the bottom were built, followed by a spiral staircase to go lower. This was great, however it kicked off a feud between two businessmen that led to staircases being purposely broken and people being injured (unintentionally). This lasted until 1855 when Niagara Falls Park Commission was formed and took control. Shortly after the first elevator was installed and then in 1889 the first tunnel was opened to give lucky tourists a chance to go under these legendary falls. The tunnel as they exist now were created in 1944 and the observation deck was added in 1951. 

While I found this to be really cool and gave us a chance to see below all three waterfalls, I don’t know if the tunnels are absolutely necessary. This could have just been an off moment when we visited, or maybe just shining a light on the society we’ve turned in to, BUT the lines to see the portal under the waterfall were awful. If I had to do it again, I would probably have just gone to one portal and then out on the observation deck. 

Our final day in Niagara we spent the day on Clifton Hill. Originally Clifton Hill was a sprawling mansion property lived in by both the “owner” of the city and then a U.S. Senator. However, as tourism grew, when Sir Harry Oakes purchased the land, he had business in mind. Before slowing turning Clifton Hill into the fun tourist spot it is now, he created a small quiet garden oasis in the parks, gardens, and outdoor theatre at the bottom of the hill. However, the Hill itself is now basically a carnival park. With Put-Put Golf, a racing speedway (of the go kart variety), arcades, bowling, and haunted houses, you can spend a full day just playing all the games. It was a good way for us to “treat” the boys and ourselves- we did a good amount of the games by purchasing a “FUN” pass- which gave us the Ferris wheel, put-put, and several “roller coaster” 3-D games (including a zombie apocalypse, ghost hunt, and outer space extravaganza). 

All in all, this was the perfect stop to kick start our trip! While Niagara Falls as a whole is very much do able in two whole days, having that half day to explore the American side before going into Canada was fun. If you didn’t want to do anything beyond the actual falls stuff (no fort, no Clifton hill, or if your kids were a bit older and able to withstand later nights better) I think you could easily just do two nights. For us though we’ve learned that sometimes taking the extra time, being able to travel a little bit slower is worth it. 

See you next time…in Detroit!

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2021 – Portland ME

It’s time for our final stop on our Summer Holiday, a couple of nights up in Portland, Maine (you can see our other stops by clicking the following links: PLYMOUTH, BOSTON 1, BOSTON 2). We did make a stop in Salem on our way up from Boston, but I’m gonna save that post for a little bit closer to Halloween time ;). Anyways, I’m a big fan of Maine. This was our second time in the state, with the first being a cabin in the Rangely Lake are and this second one in Portland. I swear, I don’t know many prettier spots than upstate North East and Maine is certainly a dreamy spot no matter where you look. 

I”m going to start this post out by saying, that I think a trip to Portland can have a lot gained by simply going child free. Portland is the home of a lot of breweries and such and we could have done some tastings, hopping around from place to place had we gone without our children, but alas, we still had a fun time. The main shopping district is brimming with people and music and cute, quaint little shops, you are able to do just about anything you’d like on a boat, and you can get some incredibly fresh (and delicious) seafood. 

Portland is the biggest city in Maine (or the most populated at least). It has a good mixture of the older district and modern convenience. The region was originally called Machigonne by the local Native American tribes, however in 1623 the English moved in to settle the land. The first settlement attempt ended in failure and dissapearences of all those that went. In 1632 a fishing and trading village was settled called Casco, then it was “re settled” with the name of Falmouth, before finally being named Portland in 1786.  Historically, Portland has served as a…port city a hub for transportation and shipping. Nowadays it still serves that shipping and transport purpose, BUT it also is home to a thriving community. 

So, two things to note about our time in Portland…1) It was HOT. Like I think probably the hottest temps we had our entire trip. Not only hot, but sunny clear blue skies too. So no relief. 2) This was our last stop, so we were a bit tired, the kids were tired, and Portland is much…further spread apart than the previous stops we had made (and parking is a bit more expensive). Also, we had our kids, and this is very much a hipster town with breweries and nightlife, more so, so there was that to take into account. 

So, we got to Portland kind of mid day to early afternoon, We checked into our hotel and then headed in to town. We mostly spent that first chunk of time just walking through Old Port and the main streets of the “downtown district”. We got some dinner, local seafood, right on the water and then just walked up and down the streets. We also were able to watch the evening fog start to come in, as well as a couple of shipping boats and tug boats navigate the canal space. It was a relaxing nice way to spend the afternoon/evening.

The next morning we were up early (ish) and out the door to go explore some of the sights. We had started with a plan of seeing some trains for the kids, a mansion and lookout for us, and then a couple lighthouses to finish out the day. This quickly changed as we realized the weather and distances between attractions was going to make it a bit difficult for us to see everything we wanted. 

We started off the day at Hifi Donuts for a little donut and coffee moment. From their we headed over to the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co & Museum. When Maine started its rail travel, they not only implemented regular railways, they also implemented what is known as a narrow gauge railroad. The rails on a narrow gauge are only 2 feet apart, as opposed to almost 5 feet apart. In its’ height there were a total of 5 narrow gauge railways that transported both freight and passengers. The benefit of narrow gauge is since it’s narrower than standard rail tracks, you are able to lay tracks in a wider amount of places, connecting rural spots that wouldn’t have been able to utilize a standard railway. 

When visiting, you are able to choose from a variety of seat options, we decided on first class just due to the outdoor seating options. I will say, that we visited this attraction mostly for the children and if they (or perhaps your own) were not as interested in trains, then I would honestly pass this along. The train ride is a total of about 40 minutes long, just taking you along the waterfront. Halfway through the train stops for a break and kids are allowed to go up to the engine and pull the whistle. Our train obsessed boys loved it, BUT if you/you’re kids are not as obsessed or interested in trains, I would give it a miss. 

From there we ended up deciding to skip on the two other sites that we had picked out for within Portland proper. We had intended on going to Victoria Mansion and the Overlook (as well as maybe the Botanical Gardens of the Longfellow House), but the heat and sun were very quickly getting to both kids, as well as us, so we did a quick pivot in our plans and headed straight for some lighthouses. 

Lighthouses are one of those things that I feel like the Maine Coastline is really known for and they are beatiful and well worthy of that. The first lighthouse we visited was the Spring Point Ledge Light. This is what’s known as a caisson-style lighthouse located on the grounds of Fort Preble, right next to the community college. The lighthouse itself sits at the end of a 950 foot breakwater (what the rock outcroppings are called- which I JUST learned). You are able to walk out on the breakwater over to the lighthouse and even tour the interior on certain weekends. Dating back to 1898, this lighthouse is still functioning and has become a landmark in its own right. 

The second lighthouse we went to is probably the most photographed lighthouse in Maine, definitely in Portland (whcih- rightfully so, there are just some spots that lend themselves to that). That would be the Portland Head Light. This is Maine’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1791, it is located right along Fort Williams Park and is still in use today (we heard the bell/horn), as it sits right at the entrance of the shipping channel into the bay. It was incredible, easily one of the highlights of our entire trip, just to stand there and listen to the sounds of the water and the punctuations of the lighthouse horn. 

And that pretty much sums up our time in Portland. In so many ways I wish that we had done more with our time in this gorgeous place, but I also recognize that there is usually one spot on our “multi city” trips that ends up being a bit less than the others and this just happened to be that spot on this trip. We still loved it (and it settled my love of the state of Maine) and I still think it’s a great spot to visit. 

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

I’m going to start our time in the Normandy Region off with our visit to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey. It wasn’t the first thing we did, BUT it was one (in a long list) of the most incredible things we visited. Our entire time in Normandy was full of incredible places, both in happy and heartbreaking times. 

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I’ll be honest- I’m going to give a brief rundown of the history of the abbey, a short breakdown of our visit, but I’m mostly going to just let the pictures speak for themselves in this post. It’s safe to say that this was hands down my favorite place we saw on our entire summer holiday. A place that I’ve heard about so many times, is featured on so many bucket lists, a place that you can only dream about, and a place that I can now say that I’ve been to and it doesn’t disappoint. 

Mont-Saint-Michel dates back to the 1st century (708 to be exact) when a bishop had a sanctuary built on the Mont-Tombe. This mount soon became a sacred point of pilgrimage and in the 10th century a group of Benedictines settled in the abbey. The village outside the abbey grew larger until it reached the edges of the rock island it is located on. Of course, the abbey hasn’t only been used as a religious spot, it was also used as a prison the in the 19th century. During that time, it was known as the “Bastille of the sea”. Finally, in 1874 it was classified as a historic monument and restoration work was able to begin. Restoration work is regularly done to continue to keep the abbey in the state it would have been during the Middle Ages and in 1979 it became the first property in France to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The abbey is still, of course, in active use today as a religious site. 

 

An interesting note to make about the architecture (before I get into our visit) is that the concept of the abbey had to be somewhat redesigned to accommodate the pyramid nature of the rock. This makes it entirely unique; unlike any other monastery. The church stands on various crypts and a platform so that the church itself doesn’t collapse. The concept applied in order to make sure the entire abbey stood and stayed were relatively new and unheard of at the time as it met both the constraints for the monks as well as the constraints placed by the land itself. Walking through the tour you are able to see how this was done and where various platforms and load bearing spots are. 

Like I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the spots that I was most in awe and will never forget (like most of the Normandy portion of our trip). From walking the path to the bridge to cross the water, to walking through the tight alleyways with the shops and restaurants out to get your business (it’s not nearly as sinister as it sounds- promise), climbing up the rock until it opens up to the abbey itself was a memorable experience. The view from the uppermost point is the most incredible view, you really get the sense of isolation it could have been (as – at the time – it was only accessible at low tide). The abbey itself is an incredible feat. The architecture aside, the sheer beauty of the church, the intertangling yet separation of the various spots within the abbey was really neat to see. You are also able to see one spot that is an homage to the buildings use as a prison. 

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To be honest, we spent way too long contemplating if we would actually go. It was one of those situations where we would probably not ever get *this close* again, but it was just a bit too far. We didn’t know how long we would spend there and it was across the peninsula from us. The morning we decided to go it was a spur of the moment let’s just do it and have no regrets…and I’ll be honest- it was well worth it. The drive to the abbey is gorgeous, meandering through the French countryside and then along the shoreline leading up. The parking wasn’t bad at all (we did get there early thought), and the crowds were less than what I was expecting (but still more than we had seen previous). We only stayed for a couple hours at most before heading out, but those were hours very well spent. 

 

In terms of Covid and general tips…

I would purchase your ticket online, park, and then walk the path to the Abbey rather than take the bus (take the bus after your visit). The walk isn’t long and it’s stunning to see the rocky island get larger and larger in front of you as you get closer. We went mid-morning (our tour was around 11:30-45 I believe) and it wasn’t that bad. The shops are fun to look into and walking through all the little back alleys was neat. You get a real gist of what it would have been like to live there. They do require masks at all times once you enter in the abbey and the tour is, as many others, a very strict one-way tour. There is also an option to rent a room and stay overnight on the island (which I kind of wish we had done, but it’s totally ok). If you choose to just go for a day, I would plan on spending a few hours on the actual island. 

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Paris pt. 2

There is a word derived from French, flaneur, and it means to stroll and observe; which is basically what we spent our second day in Paris doing. If our first day was spent dotting from here to there, hopping off and on public transport and staying on more of the Notre Dame side of things (read about it HERE), our second day was spent truly walking the streets of Paris. We utilized public transport twice, once heading in and then again heading back out. So, what did we do?

We started our day off at Hotel national des Invalides, or The National Residence of the Invalids. This building has several different facets, but it’s original use was as a military hospital and retirement home for war veterans. It also holds a large church with the tallest dome in Paris and the tombs of some very notable war heroes (we will break this down in a bit, but <cough, cough> Napoleon <cough, cough>).

The original project was commissioned by Louis XIV in the 17th century and it has some key history beyond just serving as a military hospital. During the French Revolution it was stormed by rioters and used against the Bastille, it also served as an important spot in the degradation, and then rehabilitation, of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (which I am just now learning about?!), and holds the sarcophagus of Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Napoleon is not the only Frenchmen interred in the dome, there is an exhaustive list of tombs, vaults, and hearts that are in Les Invalides. 

These days the property not only serves as a facility for veterans (it still holds a medical and rehabilitation center), but it also serves as a museum center with museums detailing war history as well as an archive center for the 20th century archives. The complex is massive, and we spent a few hours walking through all of the sections. The amount of compiled information just in the museum portion is a lot and spans not just French history, but quite a few other countries as well. They’ve got a lot of little models of battlefields and battles that our boys enjoyed. The church and dome are also quite grand and incredible in their own ways and of course, the tomb of Napoleon is front and center. 

From the Hotel des Invalides we walked over to the Eiffel Tower. We chose to simply walk as the distance is not that far and it’s an easy route (you just keep the tower in your sights…). It was actually a really nice walk that allowed us to see a bit more of the Paris architecture (that is different from the countryside in my opinion). 

So, the Eiffel Tower. Constructed in the late 19th century for the 1889 World’s Fair, it “towers” over Paris at 324 meters tall. I feel like it should be noted that this particular World’s Fair was held to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. As with the Louvre Pyramid, there were objectors on several fronts (although the Eiffel Tower massively predates the Louvre Pyramid- HERE). The two popular counter arguments to the Tower were those who objected on aesthetic grounds and those that did not believe that such a tower could be constructed. Gustave Eiffel fought back, had powerful people behind him, and so the tower went ahead. The tower has a storied history, but survived both World Wars (narrowly in the second as Hitler did order it to be destroyed) and still stands today. There are three platforms with the third being at the very top. We were not able to go up to the third due to Coronavirus, and ended up choosing not to participate in going in the Eiffel Tower at all. Instead, we walked “under” (really beside it), across the Pont D’lena bridge and over to the Trocardie Gardens for a view of the full tower. We didn’t linger to long, partly because you can see the Eiffel Tower from any viewpoint on this side of the city of Paris, choosing instead to head over to our next stop of the day. 

From the Eiffel Tower we walked along towards the Arc de Triomphe. The route that we ended up walking allowed us to see a bit more of the “white collar” business side of Paris (I say white collar very lightly) as well as a part of their embassy section. It wasn’t a bad walk and before long we were right at the Arc. 

Commissioned by Napoleon towards the beginning of the 19th century, the Arc de Triomphe is a tribute to the armies of the Revolution and the French Empire. Napoleon really liked Roman antiquity (and you see this theme in quite a few of the buildings he commissioned) so there are a lot of similarities between this arc and those in the Roman Forum. It was placed in a central point of the city, with the Emperors residence at one end of the walkway (now the Avenue des Champs-Elysees) and became a central point for numerous roads leaving from the arc (did that make any sense?). Construction on the Arc was quite start and stop, however once completed it became a rallying spot for the French Army and is home to several large military parades and demonstrations. In 1920 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was interred beneath the Arc and the first eternal flame in Western/Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins was lit. There are a lot of architectural details and war history carved into the Arc and you are able to go to the top of the Arc and see the expanse of Paris. We declined to do so, but wandered around the base reading the names and paying our respects to their tomb. 

From there we wandered down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees which was open to foot traffic (not vehicular). The Champs-Elysees is an avenue that runs from the public square of the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. It is home to luxury stores and boutiques as well as military parades and other major events. Originally called the Grand Promenade it was originally an extension of the Tuileries Garden and the Tuileries Palace. It quickly was extended (several times) and then became home to townhouses of the nobility before finally, much much later in history (not entirely- right around the 1860’s) settling to the shopping center it has become. The avenue is not only famous for its shopping, but also for its military parades. The Germans had two victory parades, but the most joyous were of the parades of the French and American forces after liberating the city. While we didn’t do any magical, high end shopping, we did stop for dinner on the avenue and treated ourselves to a nice little feast before continuing on. 

We wandered over towards the Grand and Petite Palais on Winston Churchill Avenue. The Grand Palais is an exhibition hall and museum dating back to the late 19th century. It is dedicated and intended for the arts and showcased objects innovation and modern technology (think planes, automobiles, household goods). During World War 1 it was used as a war hospital and during World War 2 it was used (by the Germans) as a truck depot and propaganda center. The Petit Palais is directly across the avenue and is an art museum and dates back to the 1900 World’s Fair. 

From there we walked across Pont Alexander III Bridge, which was built to connect the Champs-Elysees with the Hotel des Invalides and Eiffel Tower. Named after the Tsar Alexander III it was commissioned and built in the late 19th century. It is the most ornate and extravagant bridge in the city and boasts incredible views- from one side the Grand Palais, the other the Hotel des Invalides and out towards the water you see the Eiffel Tower. 

And that concludes our time in Paris!  

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Luxembourg City

I’ll start our Summer Holiday posts by saying, our ultimate destination we had in mind with this trip was the Normandy Region of France. My husband is a massive War History person, with an emphasis on World War 2. He had his heart set on visiting the beaches, the cemetery, and a couple other spots and I was interested in seeing them to. As opposed to last summer, this year we decided to stop for multiple nights at each location (a minimum of 2 nights a place). Spreading out our trip a bit more made it much easier for us pace wise (one of my biggest complaints from last year was by the time that we arrived at our last destination, we were so worn out from the pace of the first chunk that while we enjoyed it, it was a different enjoyment). 

So, in keeping this in mind, our first stop on our Summer Holiday was Luxembourg City. Luxembourg is a smaller country bordering France, Germany, and Belgium. It was a good first stop to have as there wasn’t a lot, a lot to do, but it was somewhere that we wanted to see. We visited the capital, Luxembourg City, which also happens to be one of the European Union Capitals. Luxembourg itself has quite a long, hard fought history that has formed it into the independent country it is today. The city of Luxembourg is actually listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site and on the whole, we spent a lovely time there. 

We arrived in the afternoon on Wednesday and checked in to our hotel. We stayed at an Ibis outside of the center of town (actually at the airport), but public transportation was very easy and there was a bus stop right at the hotel. The hotel itself was nice and clean and had plenty of modern amenities. The boys loved staying in the bunk beds and it’s a chain that I wouldn’t mind staying in again (and we did later in the trip).

After getting settled we headed out to start wandering around. We didn’t have any major plans for that first night as we wanted to do the city offered “Wenzel Circular Tour” which would be a full day long event. So, instead of doing much planning, we hopped on a bus and just headed for an overlook. 

Our first “view” of Luxembourg City was Le Chemin de la Corniche, one of the “most beautiful” balconies in Europe (claimed by a Luxembourg writer- so maybe a little bias? Ha-ha).

Between the overlook and the walk leading up to it, you can get a fairly good look at Luxembourg City and its history (you can see the Grund and the Casemates). This spot was built by both the French and the Spanish in the 17th century and, once the fortress was dismantled, was levelled off. I will say- it was a beautiful look out point and it was really nice to see the river cut between the houses and roads.  

We headed away from the balcony as a good amount of the spots over there we were planning on seeing the next day, and headed into the old town area of the city. We made a quick stop into Saint Michael Church.

This is the oldest church in Luxembourg and its location has been mentioned back to the 10th century. This particular church area has, similar to the city itself, had quite a turbulent history with the current standing church dating to the 17th century. You can see from the interior that the church itself is on the smaller side (in comparison to other churches and cathedrals), but still grand and incredible in its own way. You are also able to see areas that showed some of the previous structures that have been destroyed and rebuilt. From the church we wandered towards the main square and towards some dinner. We ate dinner at a restaurant called La Boucherie (Colton’s pick because they had a cow statue…) where we dined on meats and beers. 

After dinner we decided to walk over to the Adolphe Bridge.

One of the more well-known bridges in Luxembourg this is a double deck arch bridge (with the lower suspension bridge opening in 2018 for pedestrian and bike traffic). Originally built in the early (very early) 1900’s this bridge is known to the people as the New Bridge and has stood as a symbol of Luxembourg independence. The lower deck has become a large tourist attraction and we decided to take our chance and walk across (this was before I realized that it was basically just another lower road, rather than any form of “scarier” bridge). It did provide a unique view of some of the lower walkways and was a fun experience. 

Our full day in Luxembourg City was the day that we had planned to see it all. Luxembourg City Tourism offers a free, self-paced and guided walking tour called the Wenzel Circular Walk. It covers the history as well as the modern touches to give you a full picture. It also takes you through some of the nature walks. We knew that Luxembourg City wasn’t big, and we figured this was our best way to “see it all” (as tourist offices tend to be good places to start in these cases). You can start at the tourism office by picking up your guide pamphlet, which is also offered in a kid’s version with activities, and head out on your way. 

***A Quick Interjection here- if you don’t check my Tips & Tricks post coming on Wednesday (which will have A LOT more details about this walking tour and my full thoughts on how best to see the city) I would recommend stopping at the tourist office, but also making sure that you have downloaded into your phone the pamphlet from the website. The tourist office gave out a City Promenade guide, which will guide you to most of the same sites, but the signs and guide can conflict with each other, so having both options is better. The two pamphlets have different stopping points (mostly because I think they are actually different) and they cover different spots.  We ended up following signs at some of the points and putting the pamphlet aside- especially around the casemates area.***

I’m not going to go through every single stop on the tour, but will give a general overview and highlights of some of the big ones. The tour starts in William Square (which is kind of tucked almost “above”/”parallel” the new square that holds more restaurants and other spots) and covers the town hall, statues, and the Grand Ducal Palace. From there we walked through to the Cercle Cite and the other squares, and then over to the Bibliotheque Nationale (The National Library- we found two libraries by happenstance in Luxembourg City) and the Cathedral to the Blessed Virgin. 

Also known as the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Luxembourg this is the largest church (and only Cathedral in the country) in Luxembourg. Dating back to the early 17th century, this was originally a Jesuit church that was then consecrated and elevated to a cathedral in the late 1800’s. Something interesting I learned was that this cathedral had a fire as well (thinking along the lines of Notre Dame in Paris). In the 1980’s (on Good Friday actually) there was a fire in the towers that destroyed the church bells, the west tower collapsed, and the roof was partly damaged. This cathedral was incredible with all of the artwork and stained glass, it was just a special place. 

From the cathedral we stopped at a couple more monuments, but mostly made our way over to the Bock Promontory and Casemates.

At the Promontory you are able to see several things, the original, uncovered foundation walls of the very first stronghold, the original castle bridge,  and the Bock Casemates right below the street. These are the longest casemates of the world and are able to be walked through during certain times of year (unfortunately not for us due to Covid-19). However, we were still able to walk along the wall, the defenses, see the holes in the wall where canons would go, and much more. 

***This is where we started following the signs for Wenzel Walk, as opposed to the City Promenade map that we were given at the Tourist Office. The signs are placed at various spots that allow you to get the most out of the “lower” portion of Luxembourg City.***

Heading downwards, we walked through the Grund Gate and along the wall of the Promontory towards the Wenzel Wall.

We crossed the water at the Stierchen, which was really cool, then walked down the stairs and along the water. This was probably my favorite part of our entire day as it was basically (at this point) a nature walk. It was beautiful. If you would like, you are able to walk through “Neimenster”, which is now just a social cultural center, but has quite the history as an abbey, a prison, and a military hospital. We chose to head up the stairs to see some more of the tower and lookout points from the original fortifications. 

The signs then gently nudge and directly back around towards Adolphe Bridge through a series of walled pathways (original fortifications) before dropping you at the base of the Bridge. 

And that pretty much concluded both our walking tour of Luxembourg City. It also concluded our time in Luxembourg as we ate some dinner, headed back to the hotel to get ready to leave early the next day. Which concludes this first post of our Summer Holiday.  

Travel & Covid-19: My Experience

We recently got home from a trip to several different countries outside of our own (we currently live in Germany) and I figured I would share a little insight into OUR experience. Obviously this is all very new and things are constantly changing from location to location, but this is what I experienced and saw. 

This isn’t a debatable post, nor is it a place for opinions to be spewed one way or the other, I want to make that very clear. This is a place for those who may be traveling soon or want insight on what travel even looks like currently. Also, I don’t have the current accurate case numbers for Covid-19 and I wouldn’t share them if I did. These numbers and information changes daily and I would refer you to check the WHO, EU, or CDC websites for further details. Finally, I am going to give a very brief rundown of our situation. My husband is in the military and we are stationed here in Germany (I don’t talk about this much and wont moving forward very often, but need to address it for the sake of this post). We have our own restrictions set in place by nature of his job, above the European Union and Germany restrictions which do include where/how we travel currently. 

Another – shorter & quicker – note we traveled to Luxembourg, France, Belgium, and a smaller town in Germany. I would say we experienced everything from strict enforcement to relatively relaxed enforcement in terms of recommendations and Covid-19. I feel like we experienced enough to actually speak about not only what we did, but how we felt and what the experience was like. I’ll be sharing everything from masks, to shopping, to border crossings and finishing up with my thoughts. 

I’ll start by saying that masks are recommended across the board in Europe. In some countries they are required, but not all (for example in Brussels they were mostly recommended, but not required and in Luxembourg they were required inside at all times). In countries that require masks, they are required in any indoor situation (so a museum, church, store, etc.). They also recommend and ask that you have a mask in any outdoor setting where being able to be physically distant from others is not feasible. You are not required to wear a mask outside (unless that specific establishment ask that you do) and I found that most places that had outdoor exhibits chose to minimize the amount of people allowed in at one time over requiring a mask. One final mask note in regard to dining out. In the countries we went to, you wore your mask to enter the restaurant, go to the bathroom, and leave the restaurant. The wait staff wore masks through the entirety, but you were not required to wear one once you were seated at the table. 

Public transportation was something that I was the most intrigued about as it is what we use the most when we travel. We rely on a metro or bus system, so when figuring our trip out, this was what I wanted to know the most about. AND aside from a mask requirement and limited seating options (to ensure people from separate households minimize contact) everything seemed business as usual. The limited seating falls into this: if someone is sitting on a seat, the seat next to them (or in some cases behind- basically the seat touching them) should not be occupied by someone other than a member of their own household. Obviously they would prefer that you not get on a train that is already close to capacity (so don’t pack in like sardines), but there wasn’t any sort of force enforcing that. Public Transportation seemed very…”business as usual, but with masks”.

Everywhere we went, no matter mask requirement, you could count on markers (whether signs or tape on the floor) directing the flow of traffic as well as minimizing the amount of people in an establishment at one time. There is no disruption in any way to doing things this way. In fact, I somewhat prefer it. Most tourist locations know their sights the best and know the best way for visitors to get the most out of their visits. They have engineered the markers to take you along the best routes and allow you to get the most out of your visit. Marking the direction of traffic not only allows them to safely have people on the premises, but minimizes a lot of flow problems and allows you to end up seeing exactly what you want to see without a crowd of people or backtrackers. We didn’t run into any issues with making it into locations or museums due to the smaller group sizes, nor did our wait time to anything get too astronomical (except our last day at a suspension bridge). Honestly, I found it to be a bit more enjoyable. 

Since we are on the topic (kind of) of the smaller tour groups, I will say we didn’t see an overwhelming number of tourists, until we came back to Germany. Paris seemed almost empty (and in fact a few people that have been previous to Covid have said my pictures made it look almost like a ghost town) and most of the “tourists” we did run into were “within country” folks (people who are sticking within borders). I will say, it was a bittersweet addition to our trip. I know how important tourism can be, how many are suffering and dealing with Covid (in any way from actually being sick, to dealing with job cuts, to being higher risk for it), BUT I would be lying if I said that we didn’t enjoy being able to truly enjoy the various spots without all of the crowds. It was a unique experience. 

No matter what country you were in, whenever you entered an establishment there was a hand sanitizer station set up. These varied from just regular sanitizer bottles, to fancy foot pump bottles, to wipes (in only one or two locations). It was expected that when you walked in, you sanitized your hands (and our kid’s hands) and then again when you walked out. What varied the most with this from country to country was the guidelines of what to do after you touched something. This is a guideline I’m not even sure what or how I would advise, but we saw one location where they sanitized items right after you touched them, others would take them to the back (I’m guessing to wait out some time period), and some would do nothing at all (now some of this made sense depending on what it is that the store was selling), but otherwise shopping wasn’t very much interrupted. Most places had some form of clear material around their cash registers and I found stock wise things were good. 

A note on dining out in restaurants. We found that we didn’t need a reservation 90% of the time. Of course, you can make one to guarantee you have a table (as you would regularly), but it wasn’t required. We were able to walk into most restaurants and find a table to eat. Tables were placed at generous spacing and those in the middle would occasionally have those same clear barriers on either side of the table. As I already stated, masks were required until you were seated at your table. In the strictest location, restaurants had paper recyclable menus, but most had standard menus that would get sanitized after every use. Wait staff wear masks through their entire shift, but that is really the only “abnormality” (you could say). 

As far as crossing borders, we didn’t run into any issues. The European Union (and our little area) has open borders and at this time there aren’t any border checks for the countries we visited. Of course, you can always get randomly stopped and screened, but we didn’t actually experience that. We drove so I can’t speak to what planes or trains look like unfortunately. 

My Thoughts/Feelings

Honestly, I was a bit nervous going into this trip. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what the right steps to do to prepare, how paranoid I should get, etc. Now that we’ve gone and done it I have no fears. Well that may not be entirely true, I am definitely still worried about Covid and everything involved with that, HOWEVER I didn’t feel…unsafe in that sense whatsoever. Basically, a lot of what you do (just in general with travel right now) is going to be what you’re comfortable with. We wore masks inside even if they weren’t required, because that is what felt right for us (for numerous reasons). We tried to stay physically distant as much as we were able to and only going into places that we really wanted to. I think once we got into the swing of things it became second nature quite quickly. It really wasn’t all that bad. 

So, that’s that! Do you have any questions that I didn’t cover or that you want a bit more information on? Let me know!

A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday 2019 – Rome The Final Days

And so, we come to our final “what we did” post of our Winter Holiday. Our trip was jam packed from start to finish, although there was a definite difference to the second half of our trip. Vatican City was a nice way to “break up” the week we were there as that trip was about halfway through. We’d covered most of the Tourist Spots in our first few days in Rome (read that HERE), we covered Vatican City at that halfway mark (you can read that HERE), then Ancient Rome (one of my absolute FAVORITES read HERE)and now all we had left was New Year’s Day and then some.

So, a quick brief breakdown, Day 1 was spent at Castel Sant’Angelo, checking into our Bed & Breakfast, The Spanish Steps and The Trevi Fountain. Day 2 was spent at Piazza Navona, The Pantheon, and Piazza del Popolo. Day 3 was spent at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, The Alter of the Fatherland, and Quirinale Palace. Each day also consisted of a lot of just walking the streets of Rome- you see so much more by just walking around and you get such a great feel of the place. Day 4 was spent at Vatican City walking the halls of Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Day 5 was spent going back in time to Ancient Rome and discovering what life was like in a vastly different era. So, that brings us to New Year’s Day and Day 6 of our trip…

A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday - The Final Days

Day 6: New Year’s Day

Oh, New Years in Europe. New Years in Europe is like nothing I’ve experienced before. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that big of a New Years party goer, but saw the Times Square parties on TV and have heard enough to stories to have what I think is a good idea and I can tell you… the United States doesn’t have much on Europe. And most of the celebrations continue through to the next day. The streets on New Year’s Day are full of celebration, most places are closed, and the atmosphere just feels fun!

We started off the New Year with a breakfast at The Loft, where we had previously eaten. Ate some delicious food, drank some delicious coffee, and then headed out to a very exciting event. We were able to attend the Pope’s New Years Day Prayer. IMG_5054Now, the prayer is actually the Angelus and he will also give a reflection on the Gospel of the day, and on the day that we were there, some additional commentary. Here’s a secret, you can go to this most Sunday’s at noon and participate in this very special moment. I have included a link to the commentary that he gave on New Year’s Day (HERE), and you can view his “schedule” HERE to check if he will be doing the prayer while you are there (if this is something you are interested in). The entire prayer and comments lasts about 15-20 minutes and he speaks into a microphone from the window to the right of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was an incredible moment, so moving and you could feel everyone around you just being swept away by his words and his speaking. It’s something to be experienced, whether you are religious or not.

After the address we decided to further our religious experiences and head over to the Great Synagogue of Rome.

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This Jewish Quarter is one of the oldest, most intact in the world and the Roman Synagogue and Museum reflect both the community and the history. There has been a Jewish presence in Rome since at least the 2nd Century B.C and the museum, located in the basement of the synagogue, displays the history of the community, several artifacts through the history, and is a wealth of information about the traditions and rights of passage of the religion. For me personally, having grown up in a Jewish family, I found it really welcoming and heartwarming to see so much of what I know in such a positive, beautiful light. It was neat to learn some facts about the history of the Jews in Rome and how they were saved during World War 2. Before we get into that, first you need to know that Rome is the ONLY city in Europe to never expel it’s Jews. Did it try to convert them? Yes, there was even a Jewish Ghetto in the 16th century, but it never expelled them (and the Ghetto was abolished in the 19th century- the last in Europe to do so). When the Germans occupied Rome in 1943 the Jewish Community was told it could be saved by giving 50kg of gold. The was given to the Germans and included contributions by non-Jews as well, but the agreement never ended up being upheld. About 2000 Jews were still sent to concentration camps.

Admission to the Museum includes admission and a short tour of the Synagogue.

The Synagogue itself is incredible, dating back to the 19th century and  featuring several different styles which you can see simply by looking from the ground up to the ceiling. You can see the various cultural and design elements (including Spanish, Egyptian, & Roman) and it feels like a good representation of what the community is now. After all, it is an eclectic meld of a wide variety of people from all around Europe. It also features a square aluminum dome which causes it to stand out amongst the other dome’s and, as such, is easily identifiable.  The Synagogue has been visited by 3 different Pope’s, the first of which being a surprise visit in the 1980’s (and marked the first visit since the early history of the Catholic Church).

Finally, we spent our first night of 2020 watching the Sunset over the Roman Forum.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it for a really long time, Roman Sunsets are incredible. I’ve always just really been a Sunrise fan, but this trip in particular reminded me just how beautiful a sunset can be.

Day 7:

Our final day in Rome was one that we weren’t really sure what to do with. We had almost the entire day to explore and weren’t quite sure what else to really do. Most of our “big ticket” items that we wanted to see we had seen, so we decided to just jump on the subway, pick a random spot and explore from there. Lucky for us the “stars aligned” and we wound up at Villa Borghese Gardens.

Listed as the third largest public park in the city, it’s a little haven of beauty in the city. Dating back to the early 17th century, when Cardinal Borghese decided to turn his vineyard into an extensive set of gardens. Within the gardens there is The Temple of Aesculapius, which has a beautiful lake around it and a Piazza that has been turned into a dog park, but was previously used as an equestrian track. There is also the famous Galleria Borghese (that you need to purchase tickets in advance to see) and its garden, the Villa Medici, which now houses a French Academy, a replica of the Globe Theatre, and a Zoo.

We wandered through the Gardens, which was a really nice little nature break, saw the Water Clock and Temple, stopped by the Borghese Gallery, and then headed to the Zoo. This is the Exposition Zoo, which features minimal caging and contains a little museum. I was really surprised by this zoo, the number of animals it contained, and how well cared for they were. Some of the things that I am normally concerned with in terms of zoo’s, were handled well at this particular one. The boys really enjoyed their time there, noting the Elephant, Snakes, and Crocodile as their best and worst animals (the crocodile because it was “scary”).

These couple spots seemed to be the perfect way to end our trip, which worked out well because shortly after our Zoo visit we headed to the train station and made our way back home.

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The entire trip still feels so incredibly surreal and one that I really loved. In my first post, I talked about how we handled this holiday a little bit differently than our Summer one and I can definitely see the benefits to both ways of traveling (the go, go, go vs. take it easy and truly vacationing). We just had such a lovely time and, yet again, a dream trip come true.

I hope that you enjoyed coming along with us! I hope I’ve done it just a little bit of justice for you.

A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday 2019- Ancient Rome

I’ve decided to do another split in the Holiday posts and give Ancient Rome the post that it truly deserves. To be fair, when I planned out the original posts, I didn’t really know how it would shake out at the end. I mean, I should have known because I just tend to overshare the information anyways, but I wanted to try and condense it down as best as I could. Just the portion that covered Ancient Rome was almost 2000 words. Instead of giving you an almost 4000-word blog post, I just decided to do two separate posts.

So, today it’s all about Ancient Rome. Next it’ll be our last couple days in Rome (which was a fairly decent size too). Finally, I’ll have some tips and recommendations coming your way later on (probably in February).

So, on to the good stuff…

A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday - Ancient Rome

We started our 5th day out bright and early in Ancient Rome. So early in fact, we got to see the Sun breaking through the remains of the Colosseum.

What a way to start the day, huh?!

We booked another tour with Through Eternity Tours to see the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and The Colosseum. Once again, as with The Vatican, this was most definitely the right way to go about seeing these spots. Our tour guide was John and he was incredible. He shared information not only about the time, the people, and the places (aka the history of Ancient Rome), but he also clued us in on excavation projects including the first one we walked past, which was the most recent excavation to be done. The tour was the best way to get a somewhat in depth look at the history of Ancient Rome, the history of the location and different landmarks within the Forum and a history of the Colosseum. It was also great because we were able to bypass a lot of the lines that very quickly build up to get into these spots. I would highly recommend doing a tour (especially through this company) as it gives you a good overview of these spots and then once you are finished with the tour, you can then double back to the spots that you want to see more of (we went and walked through some other parts of The Coliseum). You know it’s a good choice if we are recommending it as we are not tour people at all.

IMG_4659.jpgSo, our tour started at the entrance of the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum was the heart of Ancient Rome, the heart of the empire, and the starting point of so much of our Western Culture/Civilization. Before I get too much into the history, let me start by saying how absolutely incredible, breathtaking, overwhelming it was to be walking these Ancient Streets. It is an experience that I am never going to forget. My history loving heart was just exploding with happiness, but it was also a bit overwhelming at times to think of just how old, how ancient these places are. It’s hard to wrap your mind around while you are standing there in the moment. To give an idea to this, many historians believe that people first starting meeting in the forum around 500 B.C., even though the “city” wasn’t founded until 753 B.B. (by Romulus and Remus). The Forum has served many uses under many rulers, from a marketplace, to a religious spot full of temples, to a circus/gladiator ring (pre-Colosseum) to a public affairs location where soldiers would march the streets after their victories. In fact, there are a few arches within the forum that were made in honor of the rulers’ military victories. When the Roman Empire started to decline, the Roman Forum went along with it and during the Middle Ages it was completely destroyed to make room for farms and animals to graze. In the very early 1800’s excavations began to uncover the Forum and are even continuing on today (the most recent excavations were “completed” about 5 years ago, I think?). Fun fact/super neat fact: Every time something would get ruined (due to the fact that the Forum was actually located in a swamp/flood area), the Romans would just build over it. So, there are actually several different “eras” to the forum.

A couple of the really cool bits that we got to see (I mean the whole area is incredible) was the old Senate House building. A lot of Roman history focuses on the Senate- it was one of their proudest bits of government, and you are still able to see the exterior of the Senate building. They were in the process of cleaning and restoring when we were there, so we were not able to see the specifics, but still a really awesome site to see. With the restoration in process, we were only able to see bits of the Temple of Saturn, the front columns to be exact. The Temple of Saturn was, what is thought, one of the first temples in the Forum. These specific ruins date back to around 42 B.C. We were also able to glimpse the Arch of Septimus Severus, one of a few arches still surviving, the few columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux dated in the 480’s B.C., AND the Ara di Cesare which is the spot where Caesar was burned after his death (this is one of those things that just still boggles my mind, that we were standing there). We walked past the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, which was probably the most intact and preserved I’ve seen in the Forum, around the Arch of Titus which was dated the 1st century A.D. and built to honor Domitian after successfully winning the Siege of Jerusalem. The level of detail on this arch is incredible (that is THE menorah).

From there we started to walk up towards Palatine Hill and the Palazzo.

Palatine Hill is the center hill of the Seven Hills of Rome and was the actual heart of Rome. It has long been used (dating back to around 10thcentury B.C.) and became a spot for ruler’s palaces and the place to live for the affluent Romans. It overlooks both the Forum and Circus Maximus. Wandering through the rooms you can see just how the wealthy and ruling class of Ancient Rome truly lived. We looked at the “back windows” of the hill towards Circus Maxima and peaked into Palatine Hill’s own Stadium, where the wealthy would work out, have “baths” and various other spa treatments.

From Palatine Hill we walked down the hill, passed some of the last aqueducts
(outside of Aqueduct Park), past the Arch of Constantine and over to The Colosseum.

Commissioned in the 70’s A.D. and later opened 80 A.D.;  the colosseum was originally given the name: Flavian Amphitheater. Since this massive amphitheater (since that was it actually is) was completed under different rulers and there are no documents recording anything that have survived, we don’t know who the architect or builders were. The Colosseum was unique for its time in several ways; first, it was the largest of its time and second it was freestanding, rather than dug in. Each story had a different variety of columns, with seating for 50,000 (seated by class of course). There were also awnings built into the top in case the sun became too bright during the fights. Within the Colosseum there would be gladiator fights against other gladiators or animals. Despite what you see on TV or in movies, these fights would be massive theatrical productions. This was a source of entertainment (in as much as tv and movies are for us today) and so, to keep people interested elaborate storylines would be developed. This lasted 400 years and then the struggling Empire and a decline in attendance caused the fights to come to an end. Not only did the Colosseum struggle against Mother Nature with lightning, earthquakes, and such, but it also struggled from its own people. A large amount of the marble that was used in The Colosseum was “relocated” to St. Peter’s, Palazzo Venezia and other places around Rome. Finally, in the 18th century it has been conserved and listed as a sacred Christian site.

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I was truly amazed at the Colosseum. It’s a place that still very much sticks in my head as I think back to our trip (all of Ancient Rome does). To think about just how big these places and monuments truly are. The amount of work and engineering that went into each of these buildings is just incredible to think of. Then on top of that, the sheer age of the places just completely boggles my mind. In specifics to The Colosseum, aside from the size, the actual logistics of these tournaments, the truly theatrical experience was incredible to hear about it. You can see into the depths, where they would have platforms, levers, pully, whole systems that were so forward thinking for the time. It’s just absolutely incredible to think about and then to be there, standing right in the arena, seeing it all right in front of your face…no words.

Our Ancient Rome tour lasted about 4 ½ hours or so. It finished at The Colosseum and our tour guide finished up the tour with some recommendations on other places to check out. We spent the rest of our afternoon going to two of those spots: The Baths of Caracalla and the Santa Maria Maggiore Church.

Our first stop, The Baths of Caracalla, was not too far from where we were and was a spot that I truly just felt quite…small compared to what was around us. This was kind of a running theme for most of the day, but this just really compounded that in my head.

These baths are the second largest of the public baths (a 62-acre complex with columns reaching close to 40 feet tall) and date back to somewhere in the early 200’s. They were open for about 300 years before falling into ruin. While functioning, these particular baths were listed as one of the wonders of Rome and hosted a number of around 7,000 bathers a day. Something unique to these bath’s was the on-site public library. The library had two rooms, one for Greek texts and one for Latin, and each wall had niches built in to hold books. There was also a “frigidarium” (cold room), caldarium (hot room), a double pool, Olympic size pool, and two gym rooms to wrestle or box. One of the key parts to look at were the mosaics completed in marbled tile. You are able to see quite a bit of the mosaics as you walk along the complex. There were quite a few statues at one point in time, but those were either ruined or have been moved to other museums within Italy.

Our final stop of the day was a church. The Santa Maria Maggiore church is the most important church for the adoration of Mary.

This particular church was granted a Papal Major Basilica status, which is a really big deal (it’s one of four to have this title). Dating back to the early 5th century this church is incredible. Not only are the mosaics amazing, all in tribute to Mary, but it also contains some important things. Under the high alter is the Crypt of the Nativity, or a crypt that is said to contain the wood from Christ’s crib (as in- THE crib). It is also the home to Bernini’s steps AND at the time that we went, had the first nativity set on display. These figures are said to be from the 13th century made for Pope Nicholas IV. The church itself is beautiful, as is the nativity scene. We weren’t able to head up to the alter as a service was beginning.

That was the end of our day heading back farther into time than we could have ever imagined. Ancient Rome is probably one of my top places of our trips and this day was easily one of my favorites of our entire trip. I hope you enjoyed it too and that I did the history, information, and photo’s justice for you.

A Cuppa Cosy Winter Holiday 2019 – Vatican City

It’s the smallest country in the world. It’s among one of the holiest spots (save for Mecca/Jerusalem/and the like) in the world. It has quite the history in both good terms and bad terms. And we spent the better part of the day walking its paths, looking at its artwork, learning its history. Vatican City.

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Where to even start? Our route was simple, we started in the Vatican Museum, then the Sistine Chapel, and finally to St. Peter’s Basilica. Before we even go much further I want to talk about how we saw Vatican City. We booked our tour through Through Eternity Tours (website HERE). They have a couple different options when it comes to Vatican Tours, but we decided to go with the Early Morning Vatican Tour with Sistine Chapel. It’s slighter more expensive (though still incredibly reasonable) and the timeline is specifically set up to get you the best time in the Sistine Chapel. I cannot recommend them enough. We had Federica as our tour guide, and she was great. She had not only great art knowledge and Vatican knowledge, but she also has a personal connection in that her husband works there, her son was baptized there (by the Pope himself!) and she shared not only the important stuff, but also little anecdotes. It may have been a very early morning, but it was very early. Honestly- if you are planning a trip and looking at different tour groups, this is the one that I would go with. They have their meeting place, their headset and ticket gathering down so that when you line up with the rest of the tour groups, you are already ready to go and one of the first groups in. (You’ll hear about them again in the next Rome post as well as we did a separate tour with them elsewhere)

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Our tour started off with meeting Federica and picking up our headsets at 7AM. From there we headed to the entrance spot (one entrance!) and waited in line. We were up towards the front with only a couple groups in front of us. While we were waiting, Federica made use of the time giving us a quick rundown on the history of Vatican City and specifically the artwork and artists displayed within the walls.

The history of the Vatican dates back to the 4th century when the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica began over the grave of St. Peter (issued by Emperor Constantine I). As the chapel and location grew in popularity, so did the development of the city. The walls were originally commissioned in the 9th century (after an attack) and were expanded through to the 17th century. The Pope’s have not always lived in the Vatican; however, a residence was built in the 6th century with a tunnel connecting the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo ( from our first days in Rome HERE) added in the 13th century. The Catholic Church briefly left Vatican City to relocate to France, but returned relatively quickly and worked to restore and rebuild most of the country.

Much of the Vatican City that you see today was due to Pope Julius II (with a bit of Sixtus IV and his commissioning bits of the Sistine Chapel). Julius II not only commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he also commissioned a new church (St. Peter’s Basilica), and a new courtyard.

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Now, a quick foray into the Politics of Vatican City being its own country, separate from Italy and some information about the country itself. The Pope originally held power over its regional territories, but in 1870 a unified Italian government decided to take back the land located outside the walls of the Vatican which caused some…issues. In the 1930’s Mussolini signed an agreement that allowed Vatican City to become a separate, sovereign entity and had them receive compensation for the loss of territories. The Pope now only had power over his country, which is 109 acres and has a 2-mile border. The smallest country in existence. As many of you have probably heard, the Vatican does have its own post office, banking system, and you can potentially (depending on who is working) get a Vatican City passport stamp.

Our tour started in The Vatican Museum. The Vatican Museum actually takes you through the residence rooms of various Pope’s that contain artwork or statues that were either commissioned or used during their time as Pope. However, before you can get through to the artwork and rooms you go through the courtyard, statue, tapestry, and maps rooms. Each of these rooms featuring exactly what they are named for and each being almost more incredible than the last. Each room (or museum) has its own unique story and informational background. I’m going to link the official site of the museum and its history HERE as this blog post would get even longer than the last (and potentially more boring) if I went into elaborate detail about each spot. Instead of doing that, I’ll take a little bit to talk about each of my favorite one’s.

The map room in particular was incredible as the walls are lined with maps of Italy (and the islands) as it was seen at that time. It’s a much much different look at the world as this Gallery was opened in 1581. So much was still relatively “undiscovered” by Romans and their view of the world was much different. The walls of this room are lined with these maps and you can really see how they saw their “world” in a sense.

I also absolutely loved Raphael’s Rooms which, similar to the Sistine Chapel, were commissioned by Julius II and feature some absolutely incredible artwork. Raphael was given free reign over the design and depictions in the fresco’s and they are just an incredible sight to see.

A final cool spot (mostly because of the Pope) was Pope Alexander VI (Borgia)’s rooms. This particular pope is a very well known (some might say infamous) Pope and his rooms are exactly as you would expect. They are located in one of the most exclusive wings of the Apostolic Palace and were not inhabited by any other Pope’s. The ceiling of one of the rooms was decorated with pinecones, a symbol of fertility (yep you read that one right) and remained vacant after his death.

Something to note about the entire indoor areas of Vatican City is the floors. The floors are these absolutely incredible mosaic tiles, each individually laid and placed with care. These are the same floors that have been in existence since it’s origin. So, while you are walking through these various rooms, walking through the paths of artwork and statues, you are walking the same floors that many, many, great’s have walked before you. You are walking the same path that Michelangelo would have walked while he was working, the same path Raphael walked to get to this commissioned rooms. Just incredible to think about.

Once we finished with the museum portion (the Borgia apartment is the last to see), we headed straight into the Sistine Chapel. IMG_4474.jpgI have no pictures of the Sistine Chapel. First off, you are not allowed to take pictures in the chapel. Second, I don’t know that I would have wanted to take pictures even if you could. The Sistine Chapel is something that simply needs to be experienced, something that should just be taken in, without prior knowledge or warning. It is a spot to sit in silence and just revel at the beauty that is around you. It is truly incredible the amount of work, the paintings, the level of detail. Our tour guide, Federica, did a great job at pointing out a couple of spots for us to pay attention to when we did walk through. A couple of spots of note were the spots where Michelangelo inserted his…”opinion” on the commission. It is well known that Michelangelo had no interest in painting the fresco’s, he worked with marble, created statues- he hadn’t painted fresco’s in many many years. This “petty attitude” towards the Pope that he developed came through in some areas of the large painting (specifically where a little child is “flipping the pope off”). He also managed to apply this attitude to those who had…less than desirable opinions on the artwork (there is a Cardinal that is in a…precarious position in The Last Judgement).

We were able to spend 20 minutes in the Sistine Chapel before moving on to St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’ve already briefly touched on St. Peter’s, but I’ll continue it here (very briefly to spare you). It took a little over 100 years to complete (after being commissioned in 1506) and the alter sits directly atop the shrine of St. Peter. It is truly a masterpiece just in terms of a church not even considering the incredible art inside the church. One of the major pieces that you can see within the church is the Pieta by Michelangelo. You are also able to see two pope’s that are “on display” within the church.

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When they were ready to be entombed in the Grottoes, they actually were found to be in perfectly preserved condition. Instead of being placed down in the Grottoes, they were placed at two different spots within the church for all to see. That’s not to say you can’t see the other Pope’s, simply head down the stairs to the Grottoes and you can learn about the histories of each of the Pope’s. It’s a pretty incredible site to see.

Our final stop within Vatican City was not as part of the tour, but something we decided to do ourselves, and that was to climb to the top of the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. We’ve always been “those travelers” who like to get above a city and get a sort of “eagle eye view” of the city. This was the perfect chance to get as high as we could and take a look.

I will say this, despite my incredible fear of heights/falling from said heights, this view did not disappoint. It wasn’t my favorite of our entire trip (Alter of the Fatherland was as a side note), but this one was so special both for views and location. It is quite the climb up (500 something steps to the top), but you are able to take an elevator for about 200 of those steps. The elevator stops you at a higher point within the church, so you are able to see the interior of the dome a bit better and see down into the church from a higher viewpoint. Also, the steps aren’t really that bad as you are going up, you are able to tell each part of the dome that you are in.

IMG_4323 2.JPGThe Vatican was one of the most incredible parts of our visit and something that I am going to remember for the rest of my life. To stand in this most sacred spot for so many is something that words cannot describe and then you bring it’s long (and rich) history…it’s a lot. A lot of feelings. It is definitely a spot that you HAVE to go to if you are in Rome and a spot that I think is best done as part of a tour group (the line to get in without a pre-planned tour ticket was INSANE…heck the line to simply get into St. Peter’s Basilica without the tour was INSANE too). Through Eternity exceeded all of our expectations and we will definitely use them in the future if we are ever in need.

And that wraps up Day 4/Vatican City. I hope that you enjoyed!