Ok, in fairness, I haven’t actually seen the movie. But I highly doubt it. And we knew that if we wanted to pull off a 5-week vacation, we needed to figure out how to finance it. Home Exchange was the solution that worked for us! First – the usual questions: No, we didn’t trade homes. They have a cool “Points” system now where you basically exchange credits to stay in other Exchangers’ homes. Yes, we did pack away some of the most personal/valuable items into Story’s locked office (Mirai packed the most because she couldn’t bare the thought of someone else playing with her favorite toys, haha). Yes, we spent significant time preparing the home with how-to videos for the espresso machine and the pool, & bought extra sheets and towels, etc. And lastly, no, I wasn’t worried about them rifling through my underwear drawer. And if they did, well, there’s nothing too scandalous to find in there anyways.
This whole vacation idea started as a longing of mine for a quiet visit back to my “homeland” so the kids could learn about their Dutch heritage. But it quickly got the Story-treatment ( “Well, if we’re flying all that way anyways….”) and morphed into a 3-week trek through Italy, a quick jaunt in Switzerland, and 12 days in The Netherlands.
We flew into Rome and spent the first 4 days adjusting to the immense heat (and time difference)…. visiting all the sights one sees when in Rome.
After Rome, we spent a day exploring the Cinque Terre on the Italian Coast. These 5 whimsical villages nestled into the steep cliffsides each offer their own unique experience – and views worthy of all the postcards. Highly recommend, but wear good shoes because the stairs sneak up on you! (In one town the stairs leaving the train station were so bad we pulled a “let’s not and say we did” and took the next train right back outta there, haha!) It really was incredibly HOT and a LOT of walking, so we promised the kids a gelato in each town. Sadly, we were too busy eating them quickly before they melted all over us I didn’t get a single picture of one of them, haha!
I found Florence to be a city rich in relics from the renaissance, but also refreshingly relevant, with culture that doesn’t just rest on the laurels of its history (cough: Rome). We stayed in a lovely home in the city center, and had a relaxing few days while Story worked. Lazy mornings followed by short shopping trips, afternoon siestas, and lots of pizza for dinner. I did all our laundry, the kids watched their iPads. It was a much needed break after the incredible trekking we had done the week prior. In Florence I purchased my only real souvenirs from our trip: handmade leather boots from a cordwainer donning a bright yellow suit with hat and spectacles to match, and a classic straw fedora made by a gray-bearded milliner with the warmest eyes and smile… I took selfies with them both.
My favorite day “in Florence” was actually spent driving 2 hours outside of town into the Tuscan countryside. The main attraction: a visit to “The Butcher”, an eccentric 8th generation artisan butcher named Dario Cecchini. We enjoyed a 5-course meal of the maestro’s various cuttings (he uses the whole cow “from nose to tail”), which meat-averse Mirai will tell you was her least favorite meal of the whole trip! But that didn’t stop us from picking up a cardboard cut-out of The Butcher, which now hangs as an ornament in our Christmas tree, reminding us to wildly pursue our passions with pure love.
The last time I had been to Venice was over 20 years ago, and I was underwhelmed. It was so dang crowded and all of us tourists were vying for the same 5 restaurants in our Lonely Planet books. This time we took advantage of Google Maps (how did I ever backpack through Europe in my 20’s without it?) which led us to lesser known parts where I got to experience the Venice I had always dreamed of – it truly is a charming city. To keep costs down, since there weren’t Home Exchange options in Venice, we stayed in the town of Padova instead – which had its own charms (and cute street art). We went back into Venice though to meet up with my sister and her family whose own European adventure just barely managed to cross paths with ours for a few hours. The kids will tell you their afternoon eating gelato with their cousins in Venice was the absolute highlight of 5 weeks in Europe!
After Venice we did what many Northern European families do in the summer – we stayed at “a camping”! Camping Lido is basically a small village plopped down on the side of Lake Garza with amenities ranging from tents to trailers to little mobile-home-like cabins. There are giant pools and multiple water slides, restaurants, bars, nightly entertainment for the kids, and lots and lots of Germans. I think we were the only Americans there, which was actually kind of cool. The lakeside town of Lazise nearby was fun to explore too.
Our next stop, Mürren, Switzerland, was every bit worth the 4 trains, one tram, and a Gondola ride it takes to get there! With snow-covered peaks that sprawl straight up into the sky, lush green hillsides sprinkled with chalets and wildflowers, and a beautiful stream of fresh water flowing through the valley, Mürren is straight out of a fairytale. I spent my 42nd birthday there enjoying a family bike ride through the valley of Lauterbrunnen, followed by an evening of cheese fondue and European chocolate at our hotel, the Alpina. It was simply perfect. Our last day in Switzerland we spent doing a crazy ropes and zip line course in Interlaken… check out our reel on IG.
After Switzerland, now over 3 weeks into our travels, we again took the gondola, then the tram, and then another 4 picturesque train rides totaling more than 10 hours, through Switzerland and Germany over to The Netherlands. We stayed in a beautiful home in the center of Utrecht, where Story was able to walk to the office a few days per week and meet some Dutch colleagues! On the days he was working I took the kids to meet up with friends and have adventures in goat farms and science museums, and on the days Story was free we did sightseeing adventures as a family. We spent a couple days in Amersfoort, my “home town” where I lived for two years in my mid twenties. We also met up with my cousin Rick’s family and went to a Hansel & Gretel themed pancake house/grandiose playground where the dining tables moved up and down while you ate! We also spent a day visiting Efteling – one of the world’s oldest amusement parks. Filled with fantasy, folklore and fairytales, gnomes, mushrooms, and talking trees, this park is twice as large as Disneyland and even more whimsical! (It may have inspired Mirai’s newfound obsession with mushrooms). In NL we enjoyed fresh, warm stroopwafels from the Markt, and so very much cheese! We indulged in kroket from the dispensers, and yes, ate all our fries with mayonnaise! We had fresh bread with chocolate sprinkles (Hagelslag) for breakfast, and accordingly, the kids decided The Netherlands was their favorite stop on our European adventure! (the preponderance of goats didn’t hurt either).
And another fun reel – the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam:
We experienced very mild weather overall while we were in The Netherlands and especially the second week was jam packed, so when it rained all day on our last day there, I appreciated the time to get all packed up and purchase some last minute gifts for folks back home. It was dry boarding the plane in AMS but unexpected weather delays (paired with utter incompetence from American Airlines employees at Philadephia Airport) meant we got stranded there without our bags overnight and had to spend a full next day wandering around in 90 degree heat with only the clothes we wore to travel overnight on a cold plane. So we made the best of it and visited the Liberty Bell. We came very close to not making it home the next evening either (from my plane seat I watched Philadelphia TSA employees take over an hour to load our bags into the plane and we taxi’d for another hour before finally being cleared for take off). So if I never see the Philadelphia airport again it will be too soon.
Travels are always so fulfilling, but when you already live in paradise, there’s really no place like Home.