First Visit to Europe: Pisa

This is my third post about our first-ever trip to Europe. You can find the first post from this trip here and links to all the educational US travel our family has done here.


On the morning of Saturday, April 6, we left our hotel to wait for our ride to Civitavecchia, the port town for Rome. Our driver, Marco, apologized profusely for a slight delay due to a protest in a nearby street. It delayed us by 2 minutes at most. We didn't know it at the time, but we were in for significant inconvenience due to a protest later in the trip - in fact, I wouldn't have even remembered the Rome protest if I hadn't journaled daily. I'm glad I am in that habit, particularly on vacation. With the action-packed way we travel, there's no way I could keep things straight without my detailed daily notes.

Anyway, the drive took us out of Rome and into the gorgeous Italian countryside. The landscape was so familiar. We saw so many of the same plants, topography, etc. as back home in our part of California. It took about an hour to reach Civitavecchia. We enjoyed learning about and seeing this interesting coastal town that dates back to the 2nd century.

As lovely as Cvitavecchia was, our main reason for going there was to board our floating hotel for the next ten days, the Sapphire Princess

I've mentioned many times that cruising is our favorite way to travel with my family. Not only is the salt air therapeutic for my nephew's cystic fibrosis, but it allows our group of nine to do the tours, contests, and entertainment we want on our own schedule, and still meet up for meals or other activities. We also love that it gives us a taste of many different places without the inconvenience of constantly packing and unpacking. And there's so much more time to explore a city when you don't have to use your waking hours to get to the next place. You really can't beat a hotel room that floats to your next city while you sleep!

We spent some time exploring the ship, then went to the youth room open house. We learned that there were 49 kids aboard (2600 total passengers), including 6-year old Allison and 12-year old Trevor. Big Cousin Timothy is 18 now, so he's no longer a kid. Crazy! 

While Steve and I unpacked, Trevor did a bunch of homework. He missed 12 school days for this trip to Europe. I'll be doing a separate post in a few weeks about everything you need to know about taking your kids out of school for educational travel, including whether or not you should in the first place.

We had a delicious dinner, then enjoyed some of the many activities on board the ship. We went to bed somewhat early though, eager for our first port.


We woke up on Sunday, April 7 docked in our first port, Livorno. Rather than stay in Livorno, we opted to take a shore excursion to Pisa. We had a 30 minute bus ride, then a leisurely stroll through lovely downtown Pisa to the Square of Miracles. Sure enough, the Tower was still leaning.

The cathedral and baptistry were absolutely stunning. 

Our guide took us to the Palazzo dell'Orologio next.

Then we had time to wander through the streets and shops of Pisa.

Our guide encouraged us to sample Amedei Chocolate, known as among the world's finest. It was delicious indeed. And pricy!

Speaking of eating, not only were there multiple gelato stores on every block, but there were dozens of restaurants with outdoor seating. Each had a sample plate of their most beloved dish. Mom and I both had a hard time not taking a bite out of an enormous calzone on display! It smelled so good.

All too soon, it was time to head back to the ship. We all really enjoyed Pisa.

Arrivederci, Italy! We will be back someday.


First Visit to Europe: Rome

This is my second post about our first-ever trip to Europe. You can find the first post from this trip here and links to all the educational US travel our family has done here.


I'd arranged for a driver to take us from the Fiumicino airport to our hotel in Rome's city center. I'd read about unscrupulous taxi drivers in Rome taking advantage of tourists and others having limited English, so it was worth it to me to pay a little extra and arrange a reputable, English-speaking driver ahead of time. As it turns out, it did not cost me anything extra. I booked with Welcome Pickups, which I highly recommend. I prepaid 48 Euros, which is the standard rate from the airport to the city center 30 km away. They had me answer a few questions about our family's interests, any special requests, and whether we'd like a driver who would talk with us and narrate the trip vs. one who would drive mostly silently. We chose the talkative option. They had me upload a family photo so the driver could easily spot us at the airport. A few days before we traveled, they emailed me the name, phone number, and photo of our driver, Davide.

We left the crowded terminal, looking every which way to find Davide. He found us. (It's genius that they have customers upload a photo. Every ride service should do this.) The drive to our hotel was wonderful. Davide was friendly, helpful, and an excellent driver. He knew our interests and pointed out all sorts of fascinating things.

Our hotel, the Telegraph Suites, was in a great location, right in the center of Rome and walking distance from everything, but tucked into a quiet alley. Our room was very nice, perfect for our family. My sister, Kari, chose the hotel and did a great job. 

Speaking of my sister, her family and our parents had already been in Rome for three days when we arrived. They'd started their trip a week earlier in Iceland, then went to Rome. When we arrived, they were on a tour, so we made plans to meet up for dinner and headed out on our own to explore.  

It was a short walk to Trevi Fountain. If I had to describe it in a single word, I'd choose "crowded." This was the closest we could get. Still, it was neat to finally see it in person. 

We headed in the general direction of the Pantheon, doing our best to take in the beauty and history all around us. I was fascinated to see that every single door was completely different from the next, even within the same building.

There were delightful surprises at every corner.

The Pantheon was amazing.

We ducked into at a grocery store because that's my absolute favorite thing to do when we travel. We learn so much by looking at what is for sale and how it's sold. And we almost always find something interesting that we want to try.

We continued wandering in the direction of the Colosseum. It was spectacular, of course. 

Two seconds after I took this picture, the skies opened up, so none of us took any more photos as we made our way back to the hotel. We dried off, then met my family for a delicious dinner at La Cabana, next door to our hotel. 

Then we went around the corner for gelato at Antico Caffe Castellino.  

The rest of the family had been there on one of their previous nights in Rome and became friends with the waiters. 

We had a waiter take a photo of our group and this was the result. I find it absolutely hilarious that not only did the first waiter continue to pose with our family, but the waiter taking the picture cut off part of my dad and included the lady at the next table, who is looking at us like we're crazy.

At 9:00 pm, we headed back to our room and collapsed into bed, excited for the next day's adventures. 

Friday, April 5 was our only full day in Rome. When we have a limited time to see an entire city, we love to start with a hop-on-hop-off (HOHO) bus. They usually provide an excellent overview and interesting commentary, plus transportation to the places we want to explore more in-depth. After reading a bunch of reviews, checking maps, and looking at different amenities, I'd booked with Big Bus, and it was a great decision. The bus stop was an easy walk from our hotel. 

Tickets for Big Bus include walking tours at various locations for no extra cost. We took advantage of two of these. The first took us to Vatican City.

The tour was excellent. Our guide had tons of info to share and pointed out lots of interesting things we never would have seen on our own. We hopped back onto the bus and completed the loop. Everything was so beautiful, with such an amazing history. The commentary was so interesting and engaging.

We got off the bus at our original stop where there was another walking tour. We had just enough time to grab gelato before the tour started. Gotta love a city where you are never more than a few steps away from a store selling gelato 'round the clock!

Our second walking tour took us from Marcello Theater to the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum, plus everything in between. It was outstanding and we learned so much. Trevor just studied ancient Rome in his history class, so he was thrilled to see everything he'd read and learned about in person. 

The walking tour ended at the Colosseum. We spent some time exploring, then found our first Italian geocache. No spoilers, but it was in this general vicinity.

We continued strolling through the city for the next two hours. Rome is wonderful.

Not everyone who visits Rome has positive memories, however, as the city is known for scammers and thieves targeting tourists. Before we traveled, I made Steve and Trevor study this very helpful article. We talked about what to avoid and how not to fall victim. I'm very glad we did, as over the course of our time in Rome, we saw many of the scams listed in the article! It became like a bingo game of sorts for us, as we'd spot scams and point them out to each other. ("Look! Men in gladiator costumes trying to take someone's camera from them!" or "Hey! That guy is tying a bracelet on that woman's wrist!" or "Oh my gosh - it's the Dancing Cartoon Cut-Outs!") 

I discovered another scam not listed in the article. There are many artists situated around Rome, painting the scene and selling completed artwork. I'm sure a few are legitimate, but I started noticing that many of the 'artists' were 99.9% done with the painting they were working on, and the paintings were all of exactly the same thing, from the same angle. It was suspicious, to say the least. When I pointed it out to Steve and Trevor, they started noticing the same thing. Nearly every 'artist' had identical paintings and the one they were working on was one stroke away from complete. After a little research, I learned that these phonies dab a tiny bit of paint onto a photocopied picture, pretending as if they'd just finished the whole thing. 

After a very full day in Rome sightseeing and scam-avoiding, we met up with the family for dinner at Antico Caffe Castellino, the same restaurant where we’d had dessert the previous night. Turns out their food is as good as their gelato. And, of course, we had to sample more flavors of gelato to be sure it was all excellent. (It was.)

We had another big day ahead of us, so we headed back to the hotel for our final night in Rome.