First a few global thoughts about some world issues, and then travel notes of our family vacation to Evian, Paris, Bavaria, Venice and Florence. See these places again for the first time, with the kids.
Middle East –I have been trying to make sense of this latest Gaza episode which brought no real benefit to either side. Hamas could have had the same deal without subjecting Gaza to all this. Israel doesn’t have much to show publicly for its effort; privately, it can point to having cut a deal with Sudan via the Saudis to kick out the Iranians and to stop smuggling weapons to Gaza and to generally reorient the policies of that country back toward the Gulf Arab countries. I had breakfast in Manhattan with my friend Mohammed who was visiting from Israel and who tends to have a deep understanding of how things work in the Middle East. Here are his thoughts: Lieberman will be the next prime minister, he is tough and Russian-minded, he might be less cautious than Netanyahu (and therefore perceived as more dangerous and therefore necessary to deal with), and he will make peace because the other sides respect him. ISIS will take over some parts of Iraq and Syria. Egypt’s Sisi might be assassinated, and it might not help that he just floated a plan to expand Gaza into Sinai and to make that a Palestinian state, and for the Palestinians to have autonomy in 5 major cities in the West Bank. That is a plan that could make a lot of sense, takes some guts to offer because Egypt is putting up the land – and get him killed for actually moving the ball forward. The Saudi king might well die in the next year or two and there is a lot of fighting in the royal family. Qatar makes trouble for everyone and the Saudis could take them out “in the blink of an eye” but won’t because it doesn’t want to start up what could be a tit for tat with Iran taking out Bahrain and the general fact that the various states in the region are weak and could easily be destabilized, not to mention Saudi itself. As it is, Yemenis are furious that Saudi is destabilizing their country right now. With hindsight, Saddam Hussein was the last real national leader in that region. Ukraine is nobody’s business and neither Europe nor the US is going to challenge Putin about it. Hamas is better situated to deal with Israel than the Palestinian Authority because the PA is headed by elderly people who don’t involve the younger generation, are corrupt and narrow-minded. Hamas is really the generation of people that are best situated to deal with the Israelis. The PA is not popular among the people because it gives Israel security cooperation and has nothing to show for it; the benefits go to the corrupt heads of the PA. The PA also suffers from Hamas stating publicly that it won’t agree to 67 borders, even though everyone knows that Hamas is willing to agree to them. So Hamas plays the spoiler boxing in the PA, even though everyone knows it is a farce and that Hamas is also corrupt, and that it also cuts plenty of deals with Israel and that the relatives of senior Hamas leaders get treated in Israeli hospitals and live the high life far away from the reality of the people. The US needs to be involved in the region because if it looks like it is not interested, then troublemakers have more leash to make trouble in the void. The Iranians might be funding ISIS in order to make themselves look more reasonable by comparison.
A year ago Qatar’s emir was essentially overthrown by the armed forces who were being pressured by Saudi’s armed forces who were unhappy with his policies. The new emir’s policies have not substantially changed. I wondered why. What I am being told is that the neighbors are making it painfully clear that if Qatar continues its policies, it will be excluded from the region’s economic and political union (which might affect Qataris’ ability to work in neighboring countries) and that it is trying to save face and reduce its alliance with Turkey and involvement with ISIS that is stirring up trouble with all its neighbors. I’ve noticed a good amount of negative stories in the NY Times about Qatar; for example, one front page article ripping to shreds the Brookings Institute which now shows Qatar as its #1 foreign funder, and Shimon Peres of all people going around very publicly criticizing that country as the lead sponsor of Hamas. Its TV network Al Jazeera is being painted as a showcase and refuge for fanatical clerics. Qatar has spent over a billion dollars polishing its image and is now really out there in PR Purgatory Land. Clearly, a coordinated effort is out there to let the emirate know that if it doesn’t change its tune, it will face very sour music. Actually, I think I get it: Qatar pays “ransom” to free all these foreign hostages to get in “good” with the West, but in essence the ransoms fund Al-Qaida and ISIS. Sorta like the playground bully taking a kickback from another “good guy”bully who takes protection money from the kid who gets bullied by the “bad guy” bully. Yeah, that’s it.
I’m not impressed by Obama’s latest program concerning ISIS. Neither are the Arabs. He basically said what he would not do, and what he might do, but very little as to what he will do. The military aid that might go to ISIS opponents might not show up till 2015, just like with the Ukraine. Nobody wants to stick their necks out in this zone of conflict knowing that the US might well do next to nothing. Can you blame him — does the US really want to be sucked into spending another few billion dollars and sending troops into Syria and Iraq just because public opinion is offended after a few journalists were taken hostage and beheaded. The fact is that we really don’t care who wins in this part of the world –granted, nobody wants these people to return to the West and cause trouble, but I am not convinced that choosing sides or dropping bombs on religious fanatics is going to dampen their spirits; it might in fact cause them to get more recruits. People are attracted to the action and to the fact that the ISIS is winning; the best way to dampen their enthusiasm is for ISIS to suffer defeat on the battlefield. It may be that the US ought to be temporarily backing Assad’s forces in Syria. He’s the only one who has a real army out there in Syria. In Iraq, anyone we arm is likely to do what the Iraqi army did — abandon their military kit that we paid for and give it to ISIS, especially if they think their commanders are corrupt and not worth fighting for. But I’m not sure about backing Assad’s forces to stem the tide. Just a thought. But so far I’m not seeing any better ideas out there. Happy to hear from you if you have any thoughts about this.
Family Travel Notes August – (Evian, Paris, Bavaria, Venice, Florence) – We recently finished a 3 week trip to Europe with our 2 kids ages 7 and 8. We had a great time; we were lucky with the weather (it was mostly cooler than normal), nobody got lost or hurt (Jeremy collided with a Segway but just got some bruises), and we had no hitches. Doing this type of trip is one of the most insane altruistic things you can do – you are constantly having to subjugate your desires to those of the lowest common denominator, meaning the kids. That means no Louvre or Musee d’Orsay but there are tons of alternatives and you are not likely in your lifetime to see these sites the same way as you would with kids. So as long as we understand each other and keep saying that we can always come back later, let’s proceed to see how we did it with the kids and saw Europe again for the first time.
One of the attractions for me in Europe is the food and the fruits and vegetables. But to be fair, we have a lot of good food and produce right here in New York, with lots of organic produce available and farms that are local. I just had an apricot and a prune plum at home that tasted better than anything I had abroad, and you can get Grom gelato here in NYC without having to go to Italy to get it. We also have great pizza and pasta too and there is a French bakery right downstairs with super duper croissants. So I don’t want to try and convince you that you have to go to Europe to enjoy all of this, but there are some things you can’t get here. Some of the views and properties are just gorgeous there and the spirit of life is different. Kids can have more fun and the whole atmosphere with ancient walls around you, canals with gondolas, perfectly aligned city plans with boulevards, buildings and monuments (ie: Paris) and alps in the background with cakes and gelatos everywhere, playgrounds of another dimension and children’s floors of department stores with 50 boutiques to choose from are just not the same over here.
Evian – Flew Swiss from JFK to Geneva and from there it is a one hour transfer by car. Go through the Swiss side or else you pay more since the French side has no direct roads to Evian, France. The Hotel Royale was renovated and now has a more modern look. Sadly, they took out almost all the shelves in the rooms so you have hardly any place to hang up your clothes or put them away. The sister hotel Hermitage has rooms 5 minutes walk up the hill that are a bit smaller but more smartly designed at 35% less cost. Food is still great (they have buffets and sit down places and they made stuff up for the kids that they would eat) and they had fireworks and a cabaret show one night. There is a kids camp but it is important to know French to enjoy it. They would have quiz games and by the time they translated the questions to my kids someone else answered them. This is one of the few resorts in France that has a real kids camp and is in a beautiful location overlooking Evian and Lake Geneva. Hotel has a nice spa with cool outdoor pools but none of them are hot water and the temperature ranges from warm to cold. Gym was small. You can drive 45 minutes to Montreux, Switerzland (or transfer to a train from the ferry landing in Lausanne), take a 25 minute ferry ride to Lausanne (the Olympic museum is there but we didn’t go to it) for some decent shopping (ie: Globus) and nice foodies and a lovely playground near the ferry landing, and go around the village of Evian. There are other sites nearby in France such as Voiry, a medieval village and a water park about a half hour from Evian. In Evian, there is a good creperie run by some British folk that is really good, about 2 or 3 doors away from an optical store on the main pedestrian walkway. Things close at siesta here so consider that before coming into town. There is a free funicular from the hotel to and from town. The weather changes a lot here during the day; a car is a good thing to have if you want to go places far from the hotel. We did not come here for excitement; we thought this would be a good rest place to recuperate from the flight over and Geneva is not an expensive place to fly into during August. We arrived on Wednesday morning and on Sunday we transferred to the TGV train to Paris, a 4 ½ hour ride where we celebrated Jeremy’s 7th birthday on board the speed train. The ride had some beautiful scenery and is only fast for the second half because the first half is picking up passengers along the way. But a Sunday train from Evian straight to Paris was also a draw. The train was 100% full so book in advance – you can generally cancel without penalty. The seats are automatically assigned when you book online so you are stuck with what you get – again, best to book in advance. The bathrooms in first class trains on the TGV are the nicest I’ve seen on trains so far and the café car has a nice selection of food.
Paris – Our hotel was right by the Champs d’Ellyses so we went to Pizza Pinto (a crappy but reliable Italian restaurant on a prominent corner) and then walked up the Arch d’Triumph. The kids found this to be one of the highlights of the trip, probably because they had to walk up the stairs since there is no lift. As we arrived, it was cloudy and getting dark early so the lights of the Eiffel Tower came on an hour early and that was a big treat for them to see. The Paris metro is also fun to ride. Our first morning we took a boat ride from the Eiffel Tower that has both covered and open areas and runs along the river for about an hour (use the Bateau-Parisien company). The music is pretty as is the view. There is a carousel by the Eiffel Tower and then you can walk along the grassy area known as Champs de Mars and nearby is a woman selling crepes and sandwiches in the park (La Bonbonniere de Marie on alle Adrienne Lecouvreur). Using your Google and GPS device really helps here. There is a balloon ride in Parc Citroen but call first to see if it is actually running because wind shuts it down more than you think (Tel. 44.26.2000). Nearby this park in the Beaugrenelle shopping center is a branch of Marks and Spencers that also has kids clothes. It is not a large store but it has the essentials and we got some good deals there and their stuff for kids just holds up great under repeated wash and wear. There is a smaller branch of M&S on the Champs d’Ellyses. Next we went to Tuilleries Gardens where they have amusements rides during the summer and the kids totally loved making us go on the water flume. We walked to the Louvre to see the pyramid out front and then to the Royal Palace to see the gardens. Dinner at a kosher restaurant that had some of the best burgers I’ve had anywhere (Fille du Boucher) and of course my kids want their chicken shnitzels. Nobody in the whole restaurant wearing a skullcap but a lot of Jewish people there do keep kosher. Monceau Park is nearby and it is a pleasant after-dinner stroll. It was a long day out with the kids – except for a half hour break at the hotel in mid-afternoon, we were out straight from 9:30am till about 9:30pm with them. Jeremy had a name tag on him but refused to wear it and fortunately never got lost. We made a deal – he doesn’t wear the name tag and agrees not to get himself lost from us. Taxis are useful here and generally get you around the center of town for less than 10 Euros. Jeremy says “I love Paris” and so does Elizabeth, but they mostly love the playgrounds, rides, treats and souvenirs. Our hotel Lancaster again has few shelves in the rooms; it is well located near the Champs D’Ellyses but the restaurant is closed for the month of August (like so many shops and things here), its gym is tiny, the concierges are not really geared to dealing with kids in tow, and the air conditioning had problems 2 out of 4 nights. There were few English TV channels to watch (but thankfully there was C-Beebies which the kids loved both in Paris and Evian), and we would have benefitted from a more full service hotel. That said, the rooms were understated elegance and the location is great just by a main street and a metro station. We could hear people talking in the next room; the hotel gave the kids cute bunnies and kiddie bath amenities. Breakfast was decent, somewhat limited, but there was a very nice breakfast fairy who attended to us and got us things. Mangoes sold here and in Evian are some of the best in the world (they come from Israel and the Caribbean) and I rejoiced in them.
The next day we took the petite train from the Moulin Rouge café to the top of Montmarte (about a 30 minute ride) and kids got their portraits done (two for 50 Euro) behind the cathedral. We walked to see a mural that says “I love you” in 250 languages and then to a nearby local institution known as Coquelicot (24 rue des abbesses) for hot chocolate and pastries. Taxied to Butte-Chaumont park which is not big on playgrounds but has beautiful scenery and is probably one of the prettiest city parks ever with drawbridges and high points. Another 10 minute ride to Parc Villette which is a development with several way-cool playgrounds (ie: Sand and Dunes; Dragon Slide) and gardens built around various themes. I took Elizabeth shopping at Galleries Lafayette and Au Printemps and let her choose some nice clothes. You don’t have to show your passport at Galleries to get the VAT refund or the tourist discount; a drivers license will do. Galleries has higher end merchandise but some of the brands overlap and you might find your size at Au Printemps so it is wise to check out both shops which are only a block apart. Marks and Spencers has a lot of food halls in Paris now; we brought fruits and deserts there and let them eat them in the hotel. Dinner for Karen and I at Rafael, a beautiful kosher restaurant headed by a 2 star Michelin chef formerly of the Trianon Palace Hotel at Versailles. The food was excellent; I wasn’t crazy about the beef but it was all clearly on another level and the price was still less than comparable eating in Manhattan. The next day we went to Plaza Concorde and started there with the Museum L’Orangerie, a mini-Musee d’Orsay. You can get combined tickets here that allow you entrance to the latter and it is a good way to avoid the lines. This museum is excellent for kids and gives you the essence of the impressionist art scene in less than half an hour with large and pretty paintings highlighted. We did not attempt either the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay with the kids. I normally don’t use guide books but in Paris we used one that happened to be excellent: Family Guide Paris from the Eyewitness Travel series by DK Publishing. Had lots of color and pictures and each page tells you where to buy treats and has specific areas geared toward children — the kids learned to ask what was listed in the Kids Corner section of every area we visited.
Next stop a taxi to Jardin Luxembourg where you can rent a wooden sailboat for half an hour and float them along the lake in the garden. The kids really enjoyed this and it is a beautiful site with the palace in the background. Next a walk to Centre Pompidou, a big building with a modern art museum in it and lots of escalators which give you a great city view. The kids liked the modern art and there is a decent cafeteria in the lobby featuring bagels with Philadelphia cream cheese. There is a Jewish neighborhood around here with a museum; we walked around the area and found Pralus Chocolate shop (their hazelnut truffle bar is probably my world favorite) and Berko for home-made popsicles about 5 minutes walk from the Centre Pompidou was amazing for the kids. The National Archives courtyard is nearby and is a pretty walk-thru. Berthillon near the Notre Dame was not disappointing for its world-famous ice cream flavors – the chocolate is unbeatable; you can sit down and avoid the lines. The lines to enter the cathedral were nuts and we simply avoided it but there is a nice playground in back of the church. One thing about Paris is that 10% of the French population is now Arab/Moslem and you see tons of them in Paris walking around and the women sporting hoods over their faces. It really changes the complexion of the city. In the Galleries Lafayette department store, I saw some Arab walking into the VAT refund office with his hands out zombie-like holding a basket filled with ton of receipts for refunds. It was especially funny to me since I was there for something like a 40 Euro refund. There is just so much wealth here obviously taking the money out of Arabia and buying things in France. While we were there, some Saudi prince’s van was held up on the way to an airport and a suitcase with several hundred thousand dollars cash was stolen. Nobody seemed to notice the loss of petty cash.
An hour’s flight takes you to Munich and then another 90 minutes drive to Schloss Elmau, a resort in southern Germany in the Bavarian Alps which we visited a few years ago with the kids and returned to because we liked it so much. Right now allow 2 hours for the transfer because of lots of construction going on ahead of the G8 summit to be held at this hotel June 2015 (and they are building an all-suite hotel next door in time for the summit which will have mostly reciprocal rights to the main property). It is always a happy occasion when you remember something and have expectations to be fulfilled when you come back – we were not disappointed here. The food continues to be excellent; the rooms and grounds are lovely and you keep walking around all day simply being impressed by everything you see. At the buffets, they plate your food while you watch and it is very elegant and tasty. You can sit in a side room which is more cozy if you find it not relaxing to be in the main dining area. They have a family spa and 2 adult spas and they have children’s treatments too and 5 saunas in the family spa; the view from the rooftop pool to the mountain peaks is heavenly. The adult spa facilities are probably among the world’s best. The kids love the trampolines and zip lines. The kids camp organized rock climbing with a professional guide. One of the counselors simply attached Jeremy to himself since Jeremy wanted to go off on his own way. There were soccer games and evening torchlight processions. Sharon Brauner is a Jewish cabaret singer who performed with a band singing a good number of Yiddish songs in deepest Bavaria. I’m sure Hitler would have been “pleased” from his place below. We went to an alpine slide in nearby Garmisch and then drove 45 minutes to Linderhof Castle, one of several that King Ludwig built.
Linderhof is well appointed and compact and that makes it worthwhile to visit with kids. His more famous Neuschwanstein castle is mostly empty inside but people like its outside and the surrounding area. This castle is often skipped but it is worthwhile to see. Be sure to visit the Grottoes 10 minutes walk from the castle; the kids loved them. This attraction requires 2 hours. Afterward we went to a nearby hamlet “Oberammergan” which had a great ice cream and café on a prominent corner with a big ice cream cone in the garden. We had a great lunch there. Across the street is a wood shop with souvenirs and cuckoo clocks. The big highlight in this town is the passion play performed every 10 years; they reportedly make enough money from it to fund themselves for the next decade. It is next being performed in 2020. You can go paragliding nearby. At the Elmau kids camp, more kids speak English and the staff is more international than that of Evian. There are lots of Arab kids in both places and my kids are playing with all the Germans, Saudis and Emiris they can find because they tend to speak English. At Elmau, the main design flaw is a lack of house phones so you keep going from place to place if there is a problem. Lots of people use your name here and the staff is very attentive. Jeremy is very happy; he kisses me several times a day because he is having so much fun. You should see his happy face as he dangles from a rope between two trees on a zip line. Unlike the Homestead hotel in Virginia which won’t let kids under 8 even play on the monkey bars, kids here get a lot more fun although the less the parents know about what the kids are doing the better. You can’t sue if they get hurt but the hotels have to comply with regulations. I think that system works pretty well. The kids love the kids camp and make friends. We wait for the cake of the day to come out and then get more treats to go with it; the cakes are old world cakes Karen’s grandmother used to make in Germany. We play in the pool. We walk down the street eating gelato – life is beautiful. Jeremy has opinions – he thinks the German policy of buying surplus Polish apples is stupid because it means that Germans pay more for apples. The way they make the beds without sheets and blankets is stupid he says. There is no air conditioning in the rooms and you get hot and cold at night here and this is our biggest complaint. Jeremy hid Karen’s eyeglasses in the garbage; we were lucky as the hotel had not yet taken out the trash. They are always cleaning here; I lost a $10 watch in the spa and discovered it a few minutes later but it was already gone. The hotel says they want more Russians and Arabs to come; I think the Arabs need a separate men’s spa area. The adult area is nude and coed; then there is the family area, but nothing in between. Anyway, this hotel works great and we look forward to seeing the newest edition when it opens next year with expanded food and spa options, as if there aren’t enough already. We see more Americans coming here now, as the place’s reputation grows. Others we see agree that there is virtually no place in the world like this. The food, spas, architecture, setting, kids club, cultural programs, etc. make for a great location. Little things like libraries, piano rooms and a great bookstore fill out the picture. 4 nights here was perfect but you could easily come here for a week or two and chill out; we saw others doing it. What I can’t understand about Germany is how a country with such beautiful culture and many nice people could have come up with the Holocaust. But when you meet the older people who are just sticklers for rules and the straight and narrow, it is a bit easier to understand. Our elderly driver wouldn’t go past 30km inside the city and didn’t seem to care that we might miss our flight while he insisted on being more catholic than the pope about observing the speed limit but once he got to the Autobahn he went 180km an hour and didn’t even seem to notice the difference.
VENICE – From Munich it is a 45 minute flight and then a half hour water taxi to the hotel. Sit on the right side for views of Venice on landing. The water taxi berths are some distance from the airport so if you have a lot of luggage you want to get a private transfer which is costly, but then everything here is going to be costly. They only have about 7 months a year to make their money from tourists. When we arrived, we got oriented by walking down the main shopping street that runs from the St. Marco Square to the Rialto Bridge, about 15 minutes walk. During the summer day Venice is like the Magic Kingdom and you can hardly move with all the crowds. Dinner at Chip’s Club at the Hotel Cipriani which can be reached by a 5 minute shuttle ride from a berth in St. Mark’s square. They don’t check if you are a hotel guest and we went to take a look. Chip’s Club is a restaurant facing St. Mark’s square from the water; the view is beautiful and the food is average. Prices are high at this hotel for food and beverage but they probably do so to keep out the riff-raff and they have club members who get discounts on their food, meaning the hotel guests and visitors are the ones who actually pay the prices on the menus. Make sure you have a reservation before going there to eat because tables fill up. The hotel is akin to the Grand Floridian near Walt Disney World – a 5 minute boat ride away from all the action on its own little island. The hotel has gardens with a hammock, lots of spice bushes growing, grape vines, ducks and rabbits roaming around, a great kids club with its own swimming pool, a regular swimming pool, and a spa. Very small gym. Bathrooms on the third floor don’t have standing showers. The rooms are brightly decorated and cheerful. Excellent concierges.
We started our first full day in Venice with a tour organized by Venice First, a travel agency in Venice. The kids had a scavenger hunt around the center of Venice, we went for yummy treats at “Rosa Silva” just off the main shopping street, visited the fish and fruit markets where the earliest banking activities were held in the town square, crossed the Rialto Bridge and took a small gondola ride across the Grand Canal, walked around old parts of the city, and the kids painted a gondola that they saw in a gondola repair shop. We visited a toy store for wooden toys(Signore Blum), took a 30 minute gondola ride around town for 80 Euros and then went back to the hotel to rest. We had two excellent dinners in Venice: Acqua Pazza had great all-around fish, pasta worth the air ticket, pizza (pizza might be best in town) and desserts. Antiche Carampane had some excellent desserts (the Nutella dessert and the fruit soup were best of show) and the rest of the food was also good. Venice has a lot of US and UK visitors, some of whom come repeatedly, but we saw little tourists from elsewhere in Europe and virtually no Arabs or Russians in Venice or Florence. On our second day in Venice we took a boat to Marano island where they have glass factories making mostly the same thing. We saw some glass blowing and furnace glass shaping demonstrations and bought a few trinkets. In the Jewish ghetto district, we saw pretty crappy glassware and passed it up. We found a few things to buy and a kosher restaurant Gam Gam which settled the kids’ schnitzel fix. I saw a high school friend; this is the second time in a row that in a Jewish area of Europe I ran into a high school classmate from Florida on vacation with his family. Our concierge arranged for us to visit this artist’s studio that is not open to the public where a very pleasant man makes marionettes and the kids did a little helping out and watched what he does. We rounded out the day by going up the lift to the top of the St. Marco bell tower. We never figured out how much gelato we had to consume in order to sink a gondola, but we managed to have 2-3 gelatos a day. Venice is creepy walking around at night with lots of little alleys and easy to get lost. They don’t have a lot of crime, they say.
You can walk almost anywhere you want within 30 minutes in Venice and it makes sense to try; locals don’t pay water taxis 70 Euros every time they want to go somewhere and the water buses take a long time and are not so cheap either. The train station is not far away and we used it to get to the speed train to Florence, a 2 hour ride. Tip: At the train station, don’t use a porter unless you have to and negotiate what you will pay in advance. They expect to be paid 5 Euros per bag if you say nothing. I had looked at the Baur Il Palazzo which is 2 minutes walk from St. Marcos square; it is a nice hotel but dark and not child friendly. For kids, you are better off at something like the Cip on one of the nearby islands because they have a very good kids club and it is a nice respite from the crowds with chances to chill out. The concierge staff is excellent and sent us to some very good restaurants. The hotel creates good packages to help people enjoy Venice. The costs of these services is sky-high but worth it; the treasure hunt tour was something our kids really liked and it got our visit off to a good start and we were able to get a lot of our own questions answered and get ourselves oriented. Two connecting water view rooms is enough here. Venice just costs a lot and you have to be sympathetic to the fact that the hotels and gondoliers have to make a year’s living in 7 months. Kiddie food at these hotels can be very pricey; the American snack bar at St. Mark’s Square is an excellent place to feed the kids dinner.
Florence – Most of the second hour of the 2 hour train ride from Venice to Florence is in a tunnel so you don’t get to see as much countryside as you might have hoped on the speed train from Venice to Florence. The Villa San Michele is a 20 minute ride from the center of town on a mountain side overlooking the city. It is a gorgeous site with a main building and then rooms dug into caves all over the place. You have to walk a lot of stairs here; over 100 of them just to get to the pool. No wonder the gym is hidden all the way at the top behind the pool. We had dinner at an unusual restaurant in the city – Il Santo Bevedore which had interesting dishes and challenged our restricted taste buds. In the morning, we started with a city tour arranged by our hotel concierge which was a good orientation for us and the kids. We went to the palazzo vecchio and saw various rooms, saw Florentine paper being made, visited the Duomo. Our planned visit to the Uffizi was called off because we were afraid the kids would be bored. COIN department store has a children’s department; the local Rinascente does not and is very small. Lunch at La Posta (right by the post office near Piazza Republica) featured excellent pasta. Saw the synagogue of Florence which is an impressive site. My Wallit has some really cool designs of bags and wallets. Desigual has a luggage shop near the Rinascente and you can get light luggage for about 50 Euros. Vivoli and Perche No (the latter is behind the Coin department store) were our votes for best gelateria in town (Grom and Venche were best in Venice). Piazzela Michelangelo is a taxi ride away but has the best views of town at the end of the day. The Stibbert Museum is amazing for its collection of armor; it is probably one of the most impressive collections in the world and it is very interesting how it is all displayed. We were pleasantly surprised. The Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace with its grotto is an OK stop but nothing particularly beautiful to see. The Da Vinci museum shows inventions and ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and was a good easy stop with the kids just a few minutes walk from the Duomo. Near the Ponte Vecchio bridge is Golden View restaurant with great views of the bridge and river and rather good food. We had an excellent pizza lunch at Casa del Vin Santo on Via Porta Rossa a few blocks from Piazza Republica. Our guide definitely proved her worth by sending us to some very good meals. The carousel at piazza Republica doesn’t fail to delight and our kids had lots of yummy gelato. TAF has beautiful children’s clothes on the same street as the Rinascente 2-3 blocks toward the Ponte Vecchio.
One day we stayed at our resort and walked the path into the town of Fisesole; they have Roman amphitheater and ruins and a local gelateria known as Toucano which had some good flavors. Food at the hotel was very good; the restaurant is on the terrace overlooking the valley and the city and the music from the piano can be heard from the rooms above and below the main house. The views from the pool are killer views and the kids got to make pizzas at the pool, which was really cool. The hotel has a shuttle running almost every hour to and from town. It has nice gardens and the service is very attentive. It is different from staying in the city, but it is a real respite and it is particularly good if you are staying over a Sabbath and want to chill out at a resort instead of just walk around the city. The rooms were spacious and had lots of storage space and huge showers. The kids loved watching the DEA kids channel with Italian cartoons which they kept laughing at even though it was all in Italian. Here it was safe enough to leave the kids in the room at night while we ate above them in the restaurant. That gives you a 115 Euro head start over 3 hours babysitting and the cost of a taxi back from town at night so that you don’t mind as much that you are paying a lot for food at the hotel. There is a kids camp but it only runs from 12:30 to 5:30 and they operate from a windowless chapel. It is not exactly up to par with the other hotels that claim to have a kids camp but it was adequate for the kids. From the hotel it is a 30 minute taxi ride to the airport. You need to get your VAT refund stamps here if you are flying to Switzerland, which is still outside the EEC for these purposes. Our Swiss flight to Zurich took an hour and then we flew back to New York. The third world airport that is our HQ hit home when we hit the one hour taxi line at JFK airport but at least the passport arrival area has been streamlined and it moves now.