Summer Roman Holiday

I can not believe it took me over 40 years to finally visit the amazing city of Rome! Antz and I traveled to Venice, Italy all the way back in prehistoric times of 1997. We didn’t even have cell phones or digital cameras back then. So, this trip was long overdue. We took the train from lovely, quiet Turino to bustling, crowded Rome in the evening.

As per usual on long train rides, I edit my photos, Liv snacks and reads and Antz plays on his phone or draws. We didn’t get a carrefour which is four seats facing each other but this seating was fine.

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It was tricky finding our way out from Roma Termini, which is enormous. My phone didn’t have service inside the terminal so we just guessed which direction to walk. The real side of traveling is dealing with the hot, overwhelming crowds and the frustration of navigating a new city. I try not to let it get the best of me but I am so much happier when I have a pre-booked car waiting for us or I can just call an Uber. Once I got service, we discovered that only Uber Black cars were available which is too expensive, so we walked in the dark to the bus stop.

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It was too damn hot to be lost. When the bun goes up, it’s serious business time.

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Our Airbnb was very cute, perfectly located near the famous Piazza Navona, had an elevator (we were on the top floor), an awesome balcony overlooking the square and AIR CONDITIONING in the bedroom! We were so happy in the apartment, since we had a late arrival my photos are pretty bad. I love a sexy wood ceiling.

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We were starving so we headed to the first pizzeria that looked the least crowded. I must say that for Italy being the pasta capital of the world, they really have terrible tourist trap restaurants all over Rome. You will not find anything impressive near the city center. The food wasn’t great but we were so tired and hungry, who cares.

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It was midnight by the time we finished eating so I thought it would be a good idea to check out the Trevi fountain since the crowds would have died down by then. We walked past some boring old buildings and not at all special landmarks that have existed since the time of antiquity, no big deal.

Ciao sweaty Lizzie!

Well, as you can see there is no perfect time to walk around Rome. It was still crowded and 90 degrees at midnight. Be we are in Roooooommmaaa!

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There she is folks… the Trevi fountain in all its glory.

It’s almost impossible to get a shot without someone in it at this fountain. The ground is covered in trash and you feel like you will get pickpocketed but we waited and found someone who looked trustworthy to get this shot. I hate to say it, this place is overrated. It felt artificial, like Las Vegas but dirtier. I won’t say to skip it but keep your expectations low.

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I am proud of this shot because I had to crop out so many heads and selfie sticks.

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Despite my poor reviews, the fountain is extraordinarily beautiful and full of coins (the money is collected daily and supposedly donated to poor charities).

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Lesson learned, no late night siteseeing after a long day of traveling, we were all cranky and my quest for the “perfect” family shot was in vain. We called it a night and happily went to bed with the air conditioner cranked on high.

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Ciao Rome!

Road Trip: Cannes

A visit to the south of France requires a visit to the most famous city, Cannes. The international film festival is held in May. It was a scenic hour drive from Nice.

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I admit, I thought the city would be pretentious and snobby but it was as charming as any of the cities in the south of France. There was more traffic than we had seen before and of course more luxury brand boutiques but after we parked Liv found an American style diner and we bought some ice cream.

We were so sunburned from laying out on the beach the day before, ouch! I was so happy to find my first and only Invader in Cannes.

Liv and I rode the ferris wheel. The city was practically empty.

I normally don’t like riding ferris wheels, but I felt brave and I prefer enclosed rides. The view was worth it.

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If I ever go to the Cannes Film Festival (because I totally am) I would like to stay at the Splendid hotel. Now I know the famous Eden-Roc hotel is where all the celebrities stay in Cannes but I feel burned that we were turned away at the gate when we tried to get a drink at the notorious bar. Turns out you can only visit the hotel grounds if you have a reservation and the guy at the gate said there was an opening in 11 months. Cool.

We walked across the street to a little park and found a cute brocantes (antique sale).

I was super tempted into buying a Louis Vuitton travel case that was a bargain for €600 but luckily, she only took cash and I realized, I had nothing that valuable to travel with such an expensive bag.

Maybe one day.

Cannes was lovely but also just a normal French town. I have always associated it with such A-list celebrity, even the public bathrooms were just a fancy port-a-potty.

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On the lovely drive back to Nice, Liv asked if we could stop and ride one of the beach bikes. Antz was exhausted so I took one for the team and rode in the blazing heat with Liv and Lulu. The things I do for my kid.

It was actually very fun, it would have been perfect if it wasn’t so darn hot. We rode the breezy coastline for an hour while Antz napped in the car with the air conditioner on.

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We couldn’t find a restaurant open to have dinner so I ordered my delicious Mediterranean pasta again from the place in Old Town Nice.

Cannes was a lovely day trip. I would only stay overnight if I chartered a yacht, we didn’t find much to do if you aren’t doing some serious shopping.

My Dream Travel List – Europe

A few years ago I made a crazy goal of visiting twenty countries in under two years. I sat down with Antz and Liv and we looked through our MAPS book to decide which countries interested us most and what we would do in each destination.

I have the obvious must-see locations but I also wanted to challenge myself to see places that aren’t frequently visited. After reading about the rad landmarks and festivals across Europe I put together my dream list. In the back of my mind I sort of thought of it as a silly fantasy but now that I am actually living in Europe, it feels like we can certainly accomplish it!

The best part is since we are already  here, airfare and trains are a fraction of what it would cost flying from Los Angeles. YAY! After surviving driving in London, I feel brave enough to handle road trips so we can experience more cities in France. As long as we have reliable wi-fi and a clean/cool place to swap, I would love to visit these incredible destinations.

  1. France – Calais, Lille, Normandy, Cherbourg, Nantes, Aix-en-Provence, RouenRiems, Dijon, Poitiers, Lyon, Biarritz, Marseilles, Brittany, Bordeaux, Deauville, Nice, Cannes, Strasbourg, Arles, Gordes, Annecy, Alsace region and St. Tropez *quite possibly more cities!
  2. Italy – Rome, Florence, Pisa, Milan, Venice, Turino, Naples, Capri, Positano, Sorrento, Cinque Terre, and Sicily *Malta (technically not Italy but close)
  3. Spain – Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Málaga, Seville and Granada
  4. Portugal – Lisbon, Porto, Madeira Island and Sintra

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    Look at this insane castle in Sintra, Portugal 

  5. Morocco – Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier, and Casablanca *Rock of Gibraltar
  6. Germany – Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Hamburg, Bavaria, Frankfort, Heidelberg, Trier (to see the Burg Eltz Castle) and Saxony (Die Rakotzbrück/Devil’s Bridge)
  7. Ireland – Dublin, Cork, maybe Giant’s Causeway in Bushmills (Northern Ireland)
  8. England – London, Salisbury, Bristol, Brighton, Bath, Oxford and Cardiff
  9. Scotland – Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Lochs
  10. Austria – Salzburg, Innsbruck, Hallstatt and Vienna
  11. Switzerland – St. Moritz, Geneva, Zürich, MontreuxGrindelwald, Lucerne, Interlaken, Chur, Basel and Lausanne
  12. Belgium – Brussels, Brugge and Antwerp
  13. Netherlands – Utrecht, Rotterdam and Hague
  14. Russia – Moscow and St. Petersburg
  15. Denmark – Copenhagen
  16. Sweden – Stockholm, Gothenburg, Gotland Island and Mälmo
  17. Norway – Oslo and fjords
  18. Finland – Helsinki and the Arctic Circle (My friend Aura lives there so I’m sure she will know cool places to visit)
  19. Poland – Warsaw, Krakaw and Oświęcim (Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau)
  20. Czech Republic – Prague, of course!

 

Bonus Destinations

21. Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Yokohama
22. Romania – Bucharest (we are dying to see Dracula’s Castle)
23. Turkey – Istanbul
24. Croatia – Dubrovnik, Split and Dalmation Coast
24. Estonia – Tallinn
26. Faroe Islands
27. Australia – Sydney, Brisbane and
28. New Zealand – Aukland
29. India – Agra, Mumbai and Jaipur
30. Hawaii – Maui, Honolulu and Kauai

**Bonus: US – New Orleans, Alaska, Florida (for DisneyWorld and Harry Potter) and somewhere cool in Maine.

I have dreamed of seeing the world my whole life, so living in Europe feels surreal. We have so many beautiful and historic places right at our fingertips. I tend to get overwhelmed when I plan our trips because there is so much I want to see and unfortunately, we don’t have a limitless budget or time so I must contain our trips to weekends and school holidays. That’s always been the hardest part for me, waiting to find the best deal during the time Liv has off of school.

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This is the beautiful town of Hallstatt, Austria

Do you have any must-see places in Europe I have missed? Would you prefer visiting the city or the countryside?

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Bon Voyage!

Day trip to Reims, France

I sometimes freak myself out at how much I OVER-plan things for us to do. We were pretty tired from our trip to Cherbourg but I couldn’t resist getting tickets for the magnificent Marie Antoinette fireworks show. Since I still had the rental car for one more day, I decided it would be worth going since we could drive there from Paris. It was on a Friday evening so we surprised Liv after picking her up from school. The event was held in the beautiful Jardin Orangerie at Versailles. Of course, Liv wore her Marie Antoinette dress.

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Although it was entirely in French, we were able to follow the story of Marie Antoinette’s life in Versailles. It was a whimsical show mixed with classical music and the most insane fireworks ever. Even the character’s costumes had fireworks. As tired as we were, the show was definitely worth it. We all agreed that it was the most spectacular fireworks show we have ever seen!

However, it was painful to get up at 5am the next morning to catch our 6am train to Reims. The good news was the trip was only 90 minutes long which felt like an instant on the high speed train. We were able to take a quick nap on the train.

Traveling from Gare l’est is the best. It’s only a ten minute bus ride away and it’s one of my favorite stations as far as cleanliness, food kiosks and because I use the SNCF app, I just scan a QR code on my phone to board the train.

Reims is in the Champagne region of eastern France and as much as you may want to pronounce it was Rey-ims…for some weird reason it’s pronounced Rance, like rhymes with France.

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We hopped on the tram as soon as we arrived. Hooray for easy, accessible public transportation! This was a rare occasion that I didn’t have an itinerary scheduled for a trip. I always check out the Atlas Obscura website when we visit a new place. I usually visit the local church first, then see a landmark the area is known for and find somewhere off the beaten path. Liv and I also use our MAPS book as a guide to learn about the location we are seeing. It’s super informative and we adore the illustrations. I knew we wanted to go to the local champagne tasting rooms but since Liv was with us, I didn’t make a reservation. I wanted to check out the school named after President Roosevelt where the Germans signed the unconditional surrender of WWII. Liv got May 7th off from school in Paris for Victory Day. I never heard much about WWII when I was in school in America other than Pearl Harbor and Memorial day (which is pretty much celebrated with douchey spring break partying rather than reflection on the horror of war). My Mom always tells me that the reason why Europe is so forward thinking, and provides universal healthcare for their citizens is because they survived a war, so they know how to come together as a nation. Americans are a mess, PLEASE VOTE IN NOVEMBER!

Proud history nerd! Next we went to see Our Lady of Reims cathedral. It was built in 1211 and it is where all the kings of France were crowned. The church has been destroyed by fire but rebuilt many times. In 2011, the city of Reims celebrated her 800th anniversary! The French really know how to build a church.

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Of course Liv lit a candle and we bought a souvenir coin to add to her collection.

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Our next stop was to find a place for lunch. We walked around town but most places were closed since it was too early. We stopped in Flying Tiger because Liv loves that store.

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I wish I bought this cute hand-crank fan because it was the hottest day ever! We couldn’t resist to pick up a bag of chocolates to snack on while we searched for a place to eat.

It was during World Cup fever so we got soccer themed white chocolate. We stopped by Maison Fossier, Liv loves their rose biscuits but we didn’t want to carry around the huge box all day and they sell them at Monoprix.

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We encountered this awesome farmers market and sampled the fruit but they didn’t have any restaurants so we continued our search. We always seem to be too early or too late for lunch!

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We noticed brasseries began to put out champagne bottles while we were walking by but we couldn’t start drinking before eating something. Liv and I got a ice cream cone to cool us down since it was like 100 degrees.

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As tempting as those lovely avocado tarts looked, we continued walking around town to find a place to sit down and eat. We kept getting unlucky because I wanted to visit the town hall but of course it was closed for repairs.

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We finally found an interesting place that was opening for lunch in a few minutes wait.

We were so happy to order fish n’ chips!

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We enjoyed being able to lounge and get out of the sun. Of course as soon as we started eating the crowds arrived and everyone started smoking, cough!

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So I knew it was time for a glass of champagne. We walked to this cool looking place.

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When we inquired about a tasting they informed us they were closing early so no walk-ins. Merde! I called to see if we could make a reservation for the Perching bar which was outside of Reims.

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I saw it on Pinterest and it looked very cool however they didn’t allow anyone under 18 inside so if we went, Liv would have to stay outside of the bar area. There was also a 40 minute drive to get there and Reims didn’t have Uber. The owner gave me a phone number of a car service but the driver wanted €45 each way in cash. We decided to decline because it would have taken too long to drive out there, plus the fare seemed excessive. We ended up walking back to the place we went to for lunch because I couldn’t leave without having some champagne.

To be honest, the champagne was just meh. Antz likes it more than I do. I think it’s too expensive (a bottle started at €75!) We noticed the Veuve Clicquot tasting room was closed while we were walking to the train station.

If you want to go champagne tasting in Reims, make an advance reservation!

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We walked past a medieval church and a plaque dedicated to Joan d’Arc. It was too hot to really enjoy a walk around town so we headed for the train station a few hours early and waited in their air conditioned lobby.

Au revior Reims! Antz and I will have to return without the kid to share a bottle of bubbly.

Road Trip: Cherbourg & Beaches of Normandy

June is always a busy but special month for me. Liv’s birthday is at the beginning of the month, then Father’s Day and ends with Antz birthday. I rented a car and we drove to Cherbourg for a weekend trip for Antz birthday. I have wanted to visit Cherbourg ever since I saw the French musical “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” Since Cherbourg is near the beaches of Normandy, we spent the day visiting Sainte-Mère-Église village, the Omaha Beach Memorial and the American Cemetery. The drive was over five hours and even though I normally would be able to drive longer than that in LA (I drove for eleven hours for our road trip to Portland) something about the French highways seems to lull me to sleep. I drove the first three hours and then Antz took over for the last two.

 

There were many tolls heading west towards Cherbourg. We also noticed livestock on the sides of the highway. At first we thought we were looking at sheep but with a closer look, they were golden cows! They were so pretty we pulled over and tried to snap a photo with some of the cows. The countryside is insanely pretty.

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I was surprised at how small Cherbourg was. Our hotel was just across the street from the harbor.

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We went for a walk around the town looking for a place to eat for lunch. Of course it was after 3 so we missed lunch and nothing was open until after 7pm.

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We found this gorgeous fish market but they didn’t cook the food. Liv bought a bag of apricots, Antz and I got crepes to tide us over.

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Les parapluies were everywhere. I only recently saw the French musical in the last few years although I have always been a big Catherine Deneuve fan. I also discovered that the guy who directed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of Liv’s friend’s from school grandfather! How rad is that?!!

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We walked around for an hour then hung out in our hotel room. By 7pm, we were starving so we went to the first restaurant we found that was open. We ordered a plateau de fruits de mer for Antz birthday dinner. To our surprise, shellfish is served cold and there’s no melted butter to dip. Sadly, no matter how many times we have tried, we don’t like oysters. As fancy as the meal looked, we really missed our annual seafood meal from Duke’s in Malibu.

We drove around town looking for the Cherbourg sign. Oddly, we could find it’s location on Google Maps so I relied on photos from Pinterest and my intuition. Finally, just as I was about to give up I drove right past it on a steep hill! Since the sign was so big, one of us had to run into the street to get a photo. We waited forever for someone to get a photo of all of us but it’s an isolated area. This selfie has made me want to travel with a reliable tripod. I just don’t see where we could have set one up since there were cars passing in the street.

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The next day we grabbed breakfast at our hotel and headed out early.

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I had to take a photo with my umbrella by the harbor before we left. Our first stop was Sainte-Mere-Eglise. We learned the heroic story of Private John Marvin Steele. As the 82nd Airborne soldiers parachuted into the village, they were under heavy attack by Germans. John survived the jump but his parachute got caught in the spinnet of the church. He hung there limp, playing dead for two hours before he was taken prisoner. He later escaped and captured 30 Germans. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his valor. He is featured in the classic film The Longest Day.

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Miraculously, it didn’t rain. The sun actually came out as we headed towards the American cemetery. I spent hours explaining the D-day invasion to Liv and she listened intently. I was surprised to see how interested in history an eight year old was. I think it hit her the most when I told her how many men were drafted into the war and how her Dad would have most likely been sent to fight if we were alive during that time. During the summer of 1944 over 100,000 total men died.

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This was the most incredible experience for our family. France has always been a romantic place for us but visiting these sites where close to 10,000 people lost their lives felt very somber. We visited the memorial and watched a short film about World War II.
Below is Omaha beach.

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Our last stop wasn’t planned but Liv was asking what happened to the German soldiers so we stopped at La Cambe German war cemetery. It definitely had a different vibe to it. There were very few people there. Over 21,000 German soldiers are buried there. The cemetery has 1,200 maple trees as a gift of peace.

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If you are a history buff, I strongly recommend making this trip. Normandy Discovery Tours offers a tour by French locals. We saw a group of school children at the Omaha beach memorial. I really think that the difference between American children and European is our approach to the past. I feel like Americans shield their kids from the dark side of history but I believe that is doing them a disservice. They lack empathy and may grow up to make the same mistakes of bigotry and complacency. I talk to Olivia about everything, not to frighten her but to open her eyes to the world she lives in. She is a multiracial child so she doesn’t have the privilege to ignore the past suffering of her ancestors. Every accomplishment she makes in her life, she has many generations of proud Mexican and Black people cheering her on.

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Visiting French castles

Liv and I were super bummed to find that we missed this year’s Fêtes Galantes (which is a fancy dress up event) at Versailles so I started researching castles nearby to visit. I decided it would be fun to play tourists and booked a day tour with Viator. We took a luxurious air conditioned coach to Château Vaux Le Comte and Fontainebleau. I was pleasantly surprised with the group we traveled with, mostly older folks but very friendly and lovely, not obnoxious tourists types. No-one even took pictures with an iPad!

Our first stop was the Château Vaux le Comte which is a baroque French château located in Mainly just southwest of Paris. The château was constructed from 1658 to 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV. I read that this place was the inspiration for the palace of Versailles. Olivia was in heaven. She would wear her Marie Antoinette dress everyday if we let her. It was nice to visit a place that wasn’t packed with crowds and we were able to explore the château at our own pace.

This was the tree lined road to the château!

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WOW! We walked up a narrow staircase to the tower.

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This was a master bathroom from the 1600s!

The kitchen was in the basement to keep the food cool. Along with the Man in the Iron Mask.

 

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We spent so much time in the chateau that we only had 45 minutes left to explore the huge gardens. We rented a golf cart and wow, it was so fun!

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We made it back just in time to our coach and drove about a half an hour to château Fontainebleau. The earliest record of a fortified castle at Fontaineau dates to 1137. It became a favorite residence and hunting lodge of the Kings of France because of the abundant game and many springs in the surrounding forest. it took its name from one of the springs, the fountain de Bliaud, located now in the English garden, next to the wing of Louis XV.

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I mean, I guess it’s alright.

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To top off the opulence, there was a live piano concert playing in the enchanting musicians gallery.

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As we were leaving we saw several wedding parties taking photos in front of the chateau. Tell me that sky is not painted.

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She literally skipped all the way home.

 

Day trip to Nantes, France

Before arriving in France I had a long list of places to travel and things to see. Antz, Liv and I all agreed that one of them was seeing the Les Machines de l’île in Nantes.  I purchased annual SNCF passes because they were on mega sale (they are usually €75 each but I got them for €29!) These passes give us discounts on train fares for trips on the weekends and a special child fare. We plan to take so many train trips, I think it’s a wise investment. So I’m sure you have never heard of Les Machines de l’île or le Grand Élephant so pop over to their website to see what I’m talking about.

We have watched several videos about these magical creatures so I booked a day trip to Nantes to surprise the kid a week before her birthday!

The train ride to Nantes was our longest to date. Just over 4 hours but we sat in a Club Four which is a set of four chairs facing each other with a table. This configuration is rare to book so we really enjoyed it. We departed from Gare Austerlitz.

 

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We did everything you could during the four hour ride. We played video games on our phones, ate snacks, napped, read books, colored in Liv’s coloring book and played an intense game of Uno. I taught Liv how to play the card game Speed (my favorite game when I was in high school). We arrived after noon and it took awhile to figure out how to navigate the part of town where the machines were. I would think it is such a popular attraction, the tram would take us directly there. However, we took a tram for about 20 minutes and then had to walk over a long bridge before we found the site.

We were shocked to be sitting next to this cutie on the tram! Our cat Lola would never sit so obediently let alone let us put a harness on her.

We walked past the Château des ducs de Bretagne but it was closed and there was a protest happening nearby.

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During the long walk across the bridge I was wondering if we would end up having to climb that ladder to get to the Le Carrousel Mondes des Marins. It’s hidden in plain sight!

We had no idea what this gentleman was selling when we first saw him riding past. I was hoping for some cotton candy but it turned out to be marshmallow squares in very unique flavors.

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It’s hard to describe the Marine Worlds Carousel. It’s part steampunk, part nautical. There are three levels. The lower (Ocean floor) levels don’t have a floor, so you board via a moveable gangplank which Liv and I felt too apprehensive to ride. So we climbed to the top. I was so captivated by the sea creatures I kept forgetting to take pictures. It’s so huge I couldn’t get a shot of everything to fit!

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As you can see it’s a very surreal experience. I was explaining to Liv how the characters reminded me of the films of Terry Gilliam. The only one she has seen is Doctor Parnassus but she got the idea.

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When we reached the top, we were happy to find a floor and the raddest set of creatures. Each one has a moving element that you control like a marionette. Some by steering and some by pedals or pumps. It was very cool but also odd. I couldn’t capture the entire carousel in photos due to the sheer size of it. I loved the music they were playing too. It reminded me of one of my favorite singers Tom Waits.

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Next we walked over to the mechanical elephant. I was surprised to see a sign saying that the elephant ride was sold out. It was close to 1pm, and they weren’t due to close until 7pm that evening. When I found someone who spoke English she said they had to close early due to thunderstorms. What a bummer! So we took some photos and marveled at the giant wooden elephant. The gracefulness in it’s movement and agility was remarkable. I wish we could have experienced riding it but seeing it up close was rad.

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I’m so glad I brought my wide lens for my camera because our iPhones couldn’t fit it in one frame in photos. Antz took this amazing video with his iPhone X.

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Liv and Antz went inside the Gallery and Liv was chosen to steer the giant Ant!

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