Roma Roma Roma

It had been a very very long time since I had been to Rome.  I was excited to explore this ancient city and experience the warmth of the friendly Italians.  So much of our human culture began in Rome and it is impossible not be moved by the connection to this history.  There is a lot that was brought from the sophisticated Greek Empire that came 500 years before, which is just mind boggling really!  But the Romans, in true fashion created a vast empire which survived for 1,000 years.  We have seen reminders of this vast empire throughout Europe.  The first half of the empire began with a republic government ruled by elected officials and then in the middle period of the empire, the Caesars took over as dictators, which eventually brought the end of the Roman Empire, something to examine for sure.  It is always better to have a democracy!

To first see the Coliseum from afar and slowly walk up to it is a dramatic experience, for sure.  The Coliseum has such emotion to it.  When it opened in 80 A.D., it had a total of 4 stories, which is only partially seen today.  It is said that the Romans invented concrete and bricks.  There is extensive use of brick which is clearly visible throughout the Coliseum.  At the time the Coliseum was used, it was covered in marble.  For our children, learning about the gladiators really brought that history to life.  Imagine yourself as a gladiator walking into the Coliseum with 50,000 spectators excitedly waiting for your gruesome death, what fun they all had, quite the show!  I guess it was important to make clear the power that Roman Empire had over just about anything, man and beast.  Barbaric, yes, but they had something to prove.

We spent several days in Rome strolling among the ruins.  We were excitedly joined by my husband’s mother who added so much to our experience!  In addition to exploring the Coliseum, we visited the Forum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and the incredible Galleria Borghese.  Rome is such a vibrant city but it still is a city and we ended up having one of our tires slashed in a not so safe parking area.  We luckily found a nice man to help us, but we heard it could have been a lot worse.  Anyway, as much as we loved Rome, when it was time to leave, we happily headed off into the sunset, towards Lucca.DSC_0016DSC_0179

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Magical Italy

In early December we stayed just outside of Vicenza, Italy.  Here we enjoyed a week in a beautiful villa that had a wonderful outdoor area, which the owners referred to as a park, and it really was. The garden traversed up the side of the hill and incorporated almost 2 acres.  There was an olive grove, koi pond, tree house, pergola created from grape vines, decorative sitting areas, lush trails, statues and beautiful views. Truly incredible in any season, punctuated with the sounds of church bells ringing in the distance.  We all love being outdoors (as do the Italians) and the garden gave the girls a chance to really spend some nice time exploring.  It was really cold and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground.  The koi pond had almost completely frozen over.  The garden was so serene and beautiful.

Ever since my daughters were little, they have built fairy houses.  They have made them at the beach, in forests, and at the different homes we have lived in, which have been many lately…  On this day though, in December, they decided to build one in Italy.  First they found a location in a beautiful old olive tree and began searching for things to decorate it with.  They found berries, acorns, pinecones, rose petals, bark, olives, and leaves, all fun things to add to any respectable fairy house. They then thought about using the ice from the koi pond to make the floors for their fairy house and they built different levels out of ice in the branches of the tree.  It turned out to be magical! I have never seen a more beautiful fairy house in all my days.  I do hope that the fairies were happy and enjoyed their new house! It was made with love, creativity and sweet innocence.

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Quick Update

We have been in Italy now for just over one month and have had approximately 30 pizzas…we are close to averaging a pizza a day! Food here is definitely the “dolce vita” with the fresh pasta, wine, bread, prosciutto and cheeses, can I just say I am in heaven! Here is a quick update to our whereabouts in the last month.

We first went here:

Amazing Venice!

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Next we went here:

The Italian Alps and Lake Como.  We did a little skiing, skating and hiking.

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We picked up my mother-in-law here:

We were so very excited to see her!

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We all loved it here:

The incredible ancient city of Rome!

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And now we are here:

In the breathtaking Tuscan countryside close to Lucca.

Hope this finds you all happy and healthy and ready for the best year of your life! Cheers to all!

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Today’s view!

We have visited so many incredible places and have done so many amazing things on our trip!  Learning, experiencing, growing, and seeing are all part of traveling, along with overcoming challenges too.

Today, we are on top of the world, well the Italian Alps, but it feels close…  We will be spending Christmas here.  We are staying in a wonderful stone cottage, in a village with only 50 inhabitants, which dates back to the 15th Century.

With the tragedy in Connecticut,  I have been feeling pretty emotional, as all of us have.  Reality still exists on top of a mountain in Italy.  That reality makes me committed even more to this journey we have been having as a family.  Although, no one needs to travel to experience each day to its fullest or to look at life a little more closely, we all can just do that.  Get out there, wherever that may be!

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Annual Christmas Holiday Traditions in Austria with Krampus

We first noticed this devil like creature when we were in Vienna.  Next to all the Christmas decorations was this strange little fella with horns, and I thought to myself that I needed to check into what this creature might be.  Maybe it was left over from Halloween, but realized Halloween is not a big holiday here, as of yet, although it is gaining in popularity.  I never had a chance to look into it while we were in Vienna. So when we arrived in Salzburg, and our lovely hosts at the apartment where we were staying, suggested that we go to a festival featuring this creature in a neighboring village the next evening, we jumped at the chance.  Take a look at what we found…

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Krampus! They were quite a spectacle!  I have never seen anything like it.  The tradition goes something like this.  On December 6th, St. Nicholas (who is similar to Santa Claus) and Krampus come for a visit.  Children are left apples, nuts and sweets if they are good and are dragged away by Krampus to his hellish lair if they are not.  So you better be good!

There are many festivals and parades called Krampuslauf, leading up to Krampusnacht, celebrated on December 6th.  They usually begin at night fall and large groups, mostly young men, dress in their incredible costumes and prance down the street, stealing hats and scaring people along the way.  We found ourselves at the Koppler Krampuslauf, on a snowy cold night.  It was a perfect time to enjoy some delicious hot punch and the girls had the kinder punch (non-alcoholic) to keep them warm.  Once the parade started we were close to the action, as it went on we moved back a little, my youngest daughter got a little scared of these beasts.  She knew it was all in fun, but their costumes and actions can be pretty scary! They were amazing! To learn about and be a part of this tradition dating back to the middle ages and earlier, was an incredible treat!

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Good Stuff

Sadly, it is our last day in Salzburg. Our lovely host arranged for us to go out into the forest where we were able to watch a deer feeding.  We saw approximately 150 deer.  They are fed everyday once food becomes scarce, usually starting around December 1st.  The hunters set out food as they are required to help take care of the deer during the winter, seems only fair…  We hiked out through the snow to a viewing platform, where you sit quietly, as the deer come down the hillside to feed.  Thankfully, we were given blankets to help keep us warm, since the cold took our breath away, we are not quite use to it.

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Afterwards, we drove through the lake region, which again took our breath away, it was so beautiful.  We then stopped and walked through our last Austrian Christmas Market.  It was magical with lights, carolers and all the festivities.  We are truly going to miss Austria, we have really loved being here!

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Vienna

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Austria is amazing! It has certainly left an impression on me. Currently, we are in lovely Salzburg. It is dumping snow outside and so the girls are out running around with their dad, perfect time to blog. Fresh snow falling is definitely something we do not have many chances to see, living in Southern California, so everyone has been squealing with excitement! It is a winter wonderland!

Anyway, back to Vienna. What a beautiful city Vienna is! There is a style and grace to the city that reminded me of Paris. I am so glad we made Vienna a stop on our European tour.

On our first full day in Vienna, we surprised the girls with a performance by the Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzaner stallions. The riding school began over 430 years ago and is very much a cultural tradition in Vienna. The Spanish Riding School’s name comes from the Lipizzaner horses, which originated from the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal. There were several different events showing classical horsemanship culminating with a beautiful “ballet” of 8 white horses. It was fascinating to see these incredibly trained horses jumping and prancing to the music, like nothing I have seen before. The girls were very excited! The beautiful space where the performance was held was completed in 1735 and is part of the Hofburg Palace.

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One of our favorite ways to relax and observe the Viennese culture was to sit in the wonderful cafes and enjoy the incredible coffee and sweets. I have to say these are the original coffee houses and put Starbucks to shame. One sweet you can indulge on is the Sachertorte, who has the best Sachertorte in the city is a big debate. The Sachertorte is a a soft and fluffy chocolate cake with apricot jam. The one we tried was pretty dry but I am willing to try it again, if I must. My daughters have become hot chocolate connoisseurs and my husband is on a quest to try every type of beer that is humanly possible.

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After relaxing in a cafe we enjoyed viewing Gustav Klimt’s work at the Belvedere Palace which was the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. There are actually two Baroque-style palaces separated by a formal garden. Gustav Klimt’s work is in the upper palace with a collection of work by other Austrian painters. I was really taken by Klimt’s work, with his use of mixed media and different artistic styles it was incredible. The whole city of Vienna seems to be taken by his work too as he is a huge part of the culture of the city.

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We also were able to see an opera and a ballet at the gorgeous State Opera House or the Staatsoper. Having heard about the possibility of having standing room seats for 3-4 euros each, from a Rick Steve’s podcast, we decided what a great way to go. Not being an opera fan and wanting to just give a little exposure to our girls, you cannot beat it. We figured we could just stay until intermission and not feel bad for leaving. It is an interesting process getting the standing room seats, so if you can handle that, it is a wonderful deal. Some people line up three hours before the tickets go on sale to be the first in line. You can also arrive when the tickets do go on sale, 80 minutes before showtime. We opted for the latter and with the kids we were lucky enough to get in the front row. There can be a lot of pushing and shoving for position. We even saw people running in to get a good spot, it reminded me of a rock concert, not an opera… The 4 euro standing room area is just behind seats costing up to 150 euros, and are on the ground floor with a great view. The amazing thing was though, that we stayed for the entire performance of both the opera and the ballet. The girls loved it! I think it helped that the opera was L’elisir d’armore (The Elixir of Love) which is not so serious nor tragic. The ballet was interesting also. I think we have a whole new appreciation for the arts. I really love how Vienna makes the arts accessible to everyone in the community, not just those with big bank accounts.

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Traveling in the winter has allowed us to see how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday. One of these very special traditions, are the Christmas Markets, and Vienna has some of the best. They are quite a spectacle. Christmas Markets are called Christkindlmarkt or Adventmarkt and have been a part of the Christmas tradition since the Middle Ages in German speaking countries. They are open air markets filled with seasonal goods and food. We found different markets all over the city. You can find Christmas decorations, ornaments, nutcrackers, gingerbread cookies, and handmade crafts, just to begin with. There are food vendors serving different types of wurst, potato patties and roasted chestnuts. You can also try the hot wine (Gluhwein) hot punch (Punsch), and for the kids a warm punch (Kinder Punsch). Delicious on a cold day!

We truly enjoyed our week in Vienna. It is an incredible city! I will never forget our special time there and can’t wait to go back!

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