We drove halfway that night to Basel, Switzerland. Kirk had Hilton points for a free room which was helpful. The next morning we took a hour or so to explore Basel and to soak up some of the Swiss culture. It was of course very cold, and everything was just as you would expect. Picturesque with chalet-style buildings and fun colors. We were glad to get out and stretch our legs on the walk before getting back in the car for more travel. We drove straight through Switzerland from top to bottom. In Switzerland you have to buy a sticker for ~$40 just to drive on the highways - as they are supposedly the most expensive in Europe. I could see why because they were 75% tunnels. One tunnel was 17 km long...long enough for a power nap while inside (I know because I did it!) Kirk was an excellent driver and the 3 of us had fun together. The Alps were absolutely stunning!
We traveled straight to Bellagio on Lake Como. It was a charming city and the views were indescribable. We were practically the only ones there. I am sure the town has a different vibe during the high season with more crowds, but this was the perfect way for us to explore with a busy toddler in tow.
After Bellagio we took a car ferry to Varenna and checked into the Hotel Villa Cipressi. The hotel could not have been kinder to us. I highly recommend them if anyone is looking for a recommendation. I am thinking that maybe with being only one of a couple rooms filled, the hoteliers are just so grateful that they are more willing to connect with your needs and desires during the slower times. When the first morning arrived, I threw open our 3 sets of windows and was stunned by the beauty right outside our room! The pink snow drenched mountains were more than I expected. I couldn't stop taking photos.
Over the next few days we traveled to:
* Verona, Italy - The city of Shakespeare's fictional Romeo and Juliet - which also has many impressive Roman ruins and sunny piazzas. They really play up the romance of the famous literary tale. It was fun to see Juliet's balcony and to jump into the Capulet vs Montague feud. We thought it would be fun for Connor to have at least photo memories of the "fair Verona" for the day when she studies the play.
* Milan, Italy - We took the train and enjoyed the booming metropolis. Probably the best memory of all was when we went to the Duomo Cathedral, the 4th largest church in Europe. We took Connor out of her stroller so she could stretch her legs. At the back of the church we decided that to keep her focused we would play a game "Look for Baby Jesus".... Connor started in the back and pew by pew stuck her head each aisle and called out "Baby Jesus? Baby Jesus?" They of course ask for silence in the church, but it was too cute and didn't seem to bother anyone. Then to our surprise and delight there WAS a Baby Jesus at the altar in the front!!! Connor was VERY excited to have something to show for her hide and seek efforts and kept pointing and reciting "Shhh, Baby Jesus is sleeping!" to everyone who passed. Our hearts melted. The other memorable event came when we were on the train ride back to Varenna from Milan. We were literally 2 minutes from our stop and exhausted on New Year's Eve when the conductor came to take our tickets. We spent a while standing in line and figuring out how to buy our tickets in the Milan station, so we handed them over to him - no problem. He spoke not a word of English, but when he replied in Italian we immediately realized our grand error in the chaos of boarding the train with Connor despite the language barrier...we forgot to STAMP our 5 euro tickets we worked so hard to buy in order to validate them. I swear they must have hidden the machine from us as it was not an intuitive obvious step! The conductor looked at us without an ounce of sympathy and said it would be a 50 euro (~$70) penalty. Our mouths hit the floor. We showed him the receipt proving that we had just bought the tickets an hour previously and I pleaded with him saying "Happy New Year?" in Italian in hopes he would have pity. But - a silver lining - he couldn't process credit cards and we honestly did not have but a couple euros of cash left on us. He thought about his options for a minute and must have realized that the only thing he could do was to kick us off at the next station (which is where we were planning to get off), so he tore our tickets and left in a huff. I feel badly because I know the validation is important to the integrity of the tickets, but I was so relieved that we were able to avoid the fine truthfully and honestly. Note to anyone traveling by train in Italy - don't forget to validate after you have successfully purchased a ticket!
* Bergamo, Italy - This charming town may not be in your guidebook, but it should be. It is like Quebec City with an "Upper Town" and a "Lower Town." The Lower Town had, to Connor's delight, a Nativity with "Baby Jesus" as well as "Neigh Neighs" to ride. The Upper town was more historic and enchanting with a cozy city center, cobblestone streets and small parks overlooking the lower area. Fresh snow was on the ground and everyone was throwing snowballs and frolicing in the white stuff on New Year's Day. I just had to drag Kirk and Connor to one of the scenic squares and build a snowman. Kirk thought I was crazy, but I was determined Connor was going to experience a snowman!
Finally we survived the 10+ hour drive back up to Brussels and we are now back safe and sound. But we loved Lake Como and were so grateful for the opportunity to experience it at such a special time. Bring on 2009!
Connor Milestones and Memories:
1 --- Connor now when she asks for something and you give her one (i.e. Cheerios, orange slices) she will immediately ask "Two? Two?" in hopes of having one for each hand. It is so funny because she asks so emphatically and passionately. We still hold her to "please" and "thank yous" but this new wrinkle of requesting "Two" has us in stitches.
2 --- Other new phrases include "Meeeerry ChristMAS" with the most energy and inflection you can imagine. It sounds just like the reformed Scrooge on Christmas morning!
3 --- "Muh-Muh" is the name Connor has for her small lovey blanket. When we were in the US I bought her a duplicate to love on (just in case one ever goes missing). The only lovey I could find was 4x the size of the small original Muh-Muh. Kirk taught Connor to call it BIG Muh-Muh. And when she says it her voice goes up several octaves so she squeaks it out with a crumpled face and we all laugh. It sounds a little too close to her saying "Beeeg Mama!"
4 --- At breakfast one morning in Lake Como, we were finishing up and I said "I think her belly is full" since Connor has eaten a lot. Connor immediately lifted up her sweater and stared at her bare belly in confirmation of her fulfillment!
5 --- There were bells right outside our window at the hotel ringing the daytime hours. Every time they sounded Connor chanted "BELLS! RING!" again and again.
6 --- AND PERHAPS THE MOST MISCHIEVOUS - We gave Connor some Rice Krispies on the car trip back to partake. Kirk suddenly looked at me in horror and said - "Is that a rice krispy up Connor's nose?!?!" I turned around and sure enough there was one jammed up there. Oh no! Now what?!? Somehow after a few nervous moments, I coached Connor to blow it out into a Kleenex. Needless to say that was the end to our unsupervised Rice Krispy eating.
7 --- Connor also now has a habit of taking all her stuffed animals and giving them big smacking kisses. But she isn't happy until BOTH Kirk and I follow her lead with big kisses on the lips for Frog, Minnie, Elmo and anyone else in her favor that day right after her. I have kissed more stuffed animals in the past week than I have in my entire life!
8 --- When you are a parents of a toddler with a 7 PM bedtime, night life is very limited. We had mostly take out pizza and Italian wine atop our hotel bed while trying to be very quiet since we were all in the same room. We are big into trying to be consistent with our boundaries and limits with our testing toddler these days. Well Kirk and I had to hide behind our books in peels of giggles when Connor would every night methodically throw each stuffed animal out of her crib and then cry for us to give them back to her. It was really a time we needed to be tough in our expectations, but her focus in releasing them all around her crib was hilarious to her punchy parents!