The Electric Train Museum

Monday I decided, perhaps against my better judgement, to take the kids on the Metro down to Piraeus to see the Electric Train Museum. I say that because they almost always get sick after riding the train. It’s just a cesspool of bacteria. With so much going on this week, an illness is the last thing I need. But I also can’t stand to sit at home all day entertaining my bored kiddos. So I packed tons of anti-bacterial wipes and hoped for the best. 

Now that Violet is two, she is much more interested in the whole train-riding experience. And when she tired of people watching, a couple of matchbox cars helped keep her occupied. Once we changed to the green line, the scenery outside kept her busy. 


Finally we arrived in Piraeus. It’s the oldest metro station in Athens, and the building is grand. But like so much in Athens, old is juxtaposed with new — classic skylights illuminate graffiti-covered train cars. 



Violet did her best to thwart my germ-fighting efforts, practically licking the floor. 


The museum was small and privately owned. No admission and no photography. But the kids enjoyed the exhibits. There was a replica train car they could sit in, and a video of a train’s-eye view of the ride along the Green line that Liam couldn’t keep his eyes off of. They had tons of old photos from construction of the metro dating back to the mid-1800s. And lots of artifacts — tickets, tokens, switchboards, lanterns, and tools of the trade. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Piraeus with your kiddos. 

Next to the museum was a little sandwich and pastry shop, so we found a cosy window overlooking a construction site and noshed on ham sandwiches. Our table was surrounded on all sides by old men sitting at tables, drinking their coffee and animatedly talking about…something. I have no idea what. But they were entertaining. And the kids were entertaining to them as well. Watching a two-year-old decimate a six-inch ham sandwich will definitely brighten your day. 

A weekend in Rome…with children

The family and I spent a our spring break in Italy this year, flying directly to Rome from Athens, spending the weekend sight-seeing, then taking a four-hour train to Venice to stay for the week. We finished back in Rome for a day to catch our plane home.

Rome and Venice are such incredibly different cities, I’ve decided to devote two separate posts to our vacation. First up, Rome!

Let me start off by saying I was told by many that Rome and Athens had similar traffic and crowd issues, but this was not what I found. With far fewer motorcycles buzzing about, I found Rome to be refreshingly absent of the typical traffic nightmare that is Athens. Of course, we were there for the weekend, so it’s very likely that, like in Athens, traffic is much better on weekends. Still, the streets seemed wider and more accessible, at least where we were staying. Our two-bedroom apartment was near the Borghese Gardens, coincidentally just down the street from the US Embassy.

Staying in apartments in Rome and Venice, which I found on booking.com, was probably the best choice I could have made for this vacation. We had a lot more space than in a hotel room, and for just about the same price. Plus we could heat up our leftovers (in theory — microwaves don’t seem to be a “thing” in Italy), plus we could feed our picky kids from the grocery store rather than repeatedly eating in restaurants.

We started Saturday morning bright and early with pastries from a nearby bakery, then a walk over to the Borghese Gardens to see about getting a timed ticket. We’d be here the whole weekend, so we figured we’d get a time later in the evening or in the morning on Sunday.

For. To. Laugh.

We were greeted with a sign that said, “Tickets for the museum are sold out until April 19. That was a week and a half away! I guess that’s what you get at spring break in Italy.

We did have a lovely time wandering around the gardens, vaguely headed toward the nearest Metro stop at the Spanish Steps.

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Refreshingly (and relatively) free of tourists for a Saturday morning, we stopped to snap some photos.

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Liam was already in a mood.

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Next up, St. Peter’s Cathedral! Which was a complete circus. The line stretched all the way around the square, easily a three hours’ wait.

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The kids quickly tired of walking around the square and dodging tourists, so after a not-so-brief and embarrassing meltdown, we went on to Plan C…

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Castel San Angelo fortress! Which was so much better. The line was reasonable, and there was plenty of space for the kids to run around. Plus, the views of the surrounding area were spectacular. Violet especially thought so — she wanted to peer into every single port hole we passed.

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The view of St. Peter’s Cathedral. And proof that I was on this vacation.

Liam particularly enjoyed spying the secret entrance for the pope, though he was disappointed we couldn’t walk through it. The kids also enjoyed the playground in the moat — a welcome, kid-friendly respite from all the sightseeing.

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That evening we had a wonderful dinner at Pizzeria San Marco near our apartment. The fried artichoke appetizer…I’m seriously drooling just thinking about them again. My pasta was excellent, and while the pizza was a bit too greasy for my tastes, James thought it was really good.

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Of course we had to visit the Colosseum while we were here! The lines were unsurprisingly long, just a week before Easter Sunday, so we sprang for the “skip the line” tickets. Liam actually did pretty well on the guided tour, but once Violet woke from her snooze, she wanted nothing to do with the group. Our tickets also included Palentine Hill and the Roman Forum, but with kids ready to mutiny, we decided to skip it. It pained me to have had paid that much just to walk around the Colosseum, but we’ve discovered that unhappy kids=unhappy parents.

Time for gelato! For lunch! Yes, parents of the year!

Refreshed, we mosied around Trajan’s Market, and as we came upon the impressive Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Liam pointed up and asked, “Can we climb that?”

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Hell yeah, son! Let’s do it! And by god, he climbed every step without complaint. Apparently climbing is ok, standing in line incites fury. Noted. Violet enjoyed running around the broad marble veranda at the top. And it was free.

No embarrassing outbursts from Liam, mostly due to our promise to take him to Hard Rock Café for dinner if he was good. He was so good, we even bought him a shirt. Violet, on the other hand, was a handful. I can’t wait until she’s bribable.

The next morning we caught the train to Venice. Liam was so excited to ride the train! For, like, the first hour. Then he was like BOOOORING! Time for the iPad! We bought lunch on the train, an expensive and largely unsatisfying experience. We resolved to brown bag it on the way back.

Next stop, Venice! Stay tuned!

Halloween in Transylvania

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A well-timed business trip to Romania turned into a perfect long-weekend getaway for our family. Just in time for Halloween, we booked a private tour of Bran Castle, famed residence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Peles Castle in Transylvania. We’d be staying in Bucharest for a few days, and I managed to find what turned out to be the perfect hotel for our family. The Orhideea Health & Spa offers spacious two-bedroom apartments for about 100 Euros a night. A large Carrefour down the street and numerous take-away restaurant options meant we could focus on fun family sight-seeing without worrying about what to do for dinner. Breakfast was included, which made me and the kids happy. They also serve dinner in a restaurant on the top floor, though we didn’t think the food was very good. We ended up not using the spa or the indoor pool, but it was nice to know those options were available.

Our flights were all kind of wonky this trip. James had to fly in from Timisoara in the afternoon while the kids and I flew Tarom Airlines (Romania’s premier, ahem, only airline) from Athens in the middle of the night. We didn’t make it to the hotel until 2 AM. Uncharacteristically, I’d not done a lot of vacation planning for this trip, so we hurriedly scoured Trip Advisor for some kid-friendly sight-seeing options.

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First stop, the train museum! Because…Liam. The Muzeul CFR is housed in the Gara de Nord train station, sort of the grand central station of Budapest. After admiring the big trains and watching a couple of them pull out of the station, we mosied over to the museum at the end of one of the platforms. Inside we found all sorts of artifacts, maps, and models of trains throughout history. But the most impressive of all was a huge model train that was an actual scale model of real areas throughout Romania. We met a wonderful docent who delighted Liam (and us!) with fun facts about the model and about trains in general. I asked if I could take photos, but he said we would have had to pay a fee when we bought our ticket. (We learned later this is common at all of the museums.) We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and because the museum was so small, I think Liam took his time really looking around.

Next, we decided to give the subway system a go. We find it so interesting how different cities and countries manage their transportation systems. While Athens works on an honor system, with simple ticket validation and a hefty fine if you’re caught without a proper ticket, Budapest uses a scanner and turnstile. The train cars were quite nice, with benches running along the walls, and the cars were wider than in Athens. The space between cars was completely open, so as the train made a turn you could see the bend in the cars all the way down the track. Quite a sight to see!

We spent the rest of the cold, dreary afternoon looking for a good museum. Liam spotted a huge Triceratops skull in front of the Muzeul National de Geologie, so we ended up going there. The skull was a bit misleading — there were a few dino models inside, but mostly it housed a vast collection of rocks. As you can imagine, that only took about 30 minutes for Liam to breeze right through. Just as well — we had a big day ahead of us in Transylvania the next day, so best to pace ourselves.

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By the end of our first day we were marveling at how affordable everything is in Romania. Museum tickets were all less than 5 Euros, we got a HUGE two-bedroom apartment for the cost of a single hotel room, and groceries cost half of what they would in Athens. Perhaps this is because Romania opted to keep its currency, the Lei, instead of switching to the Euro. Interestingly, Romanian leis are made of plastic instead of paper, and each bill has a small, transparent shape, like a little window (that’s what Liam called it).

Cristi, our private tour guide, met us bright and early Friday morning in our hotel lobby. The service we booked through Viator actually contacted us to suggest we switch to a private tour because we had a small child, and it was definitely worth the extra 50 Euros. They provided a car seat free of charge, and our guide was fantastic. As we drove out of the city, Cristi told us all sorts of facts about Budapest, some history about Romania, and we talked at length about his experiences as a child living under the Communist regime. He was only about nine when the wall fell, but he remembers his parents and grandparents having to stand in long lines for food. And he remembers how excited he was to try McDonald’s for the first time! He said he dreams to one day visit New York City, and he was thrilled to hear that we’d lived there once. I guess it’s very difficult for Romanians to get a US Visa these days. He hopes that will change soon. He also told us Romanians love almost anything American, especially the holidays, like Halloween. No trick-or-treating there, but lots of decorations up around town!

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As we approached our first stop, Peles Castle, we were told about its grand history and even grander rooms. It’s really more like a palace, with 170 ornately decorated rooms,  30 of which are bathrooms. James and I would have thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour if we could have ditched the kids. First off, it was still quite dreary and cold, even colder in the mountains, and Liam was NOT HAPPY about this situation. Then, Liam was under the mistaken impression that we’d be getting a private tour of the castle, so he threw a fit when we had to crowd in with a huge group of strangers for the English-language guided tour. He finally calmed down a bit when I exasperatedly handed him the camera and told him to start taking photos. But then Violet decided she wanted to nurse RIGHT NOW. Thankfully there was a female docent who overheard Violet’s pleas and motioned me to come around a curtain where there was a chair and a little bit of privacy. I say “little bit” because from the tour group’s vantage point, I probably looked like part of the exhibit. Sheesh. When we finally made it out and met Cristi in the courtyard, he asked if we’d like to tour the grounds. We opted for hot chocolate at the café instead.

Refreshed and in slightly better spirits, we stopped for lunch at Halewood Winery in Prahova Valley. Cristi recommended a few Romanian delicacies on the menu — the tripe soup (we opted for the less, um, intestiny option, beef soup), the “skinless sausages” called Mititei, and a Romanian dessert which was like a large, round donut covered in cream and blueberries. Romanian food is soooo good!

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Bellies full, we continued our trek through the Carpathian Mountains to Bran Castle. The clouds cleared out and the temperature rose. Beautiful fall foliage followed us up, down and around the curves, while craggy, white rocky outcrops rose impossibly high up ahead.

Now, clear your minds of all that spooky Dracula stuff. Bram Stoker set his infamous vampire tale at Bran Castle, but he’d never actually been here. And subsequent renovations by Queen Marie have transformed it into an almost quaint neo-classical cottage. But no bother — it’s still way up on a hill, and the tourists love it. No tour groups — we were free to roam around ourselves, and Cristi served as our private tour guide, pointing out various rooms and telling us of the history of the place. Liam loved walking through the narrow halls and peeking into the tidy rooms. dsc_0112 He especially loved the secret staircase through the walls discovered behind the fireplace. At the base of the castle stood a huge collection of souvenir booths. Cristi said that until the movies, Romanians hadn’t even heard of Dracula. This tourist industry sort of cropped up when people started showing up wanting to see the place. It was all a bit kitchy, but we couldn’t leave without getting a magnet, a statue of the castle for our mantel, and couple of T-shirts. Liam picked out a bell with Vlad the Impaler’s picture on it. We explained to him all about Vlad and the Dracula myth. He seemed to get the gist.

dsc_0153 On our final day we went to the Natural History Museum, which was VERY COOL! Better than I’d imagined it would be. Very modern, like a museum you’d see in the States. From there we took the subway to beautiful Herastrau Park. After riding the little choo-choo train (seems like we’ve always got to do that wherever we go!) we discovered the best Romanian street food ever: spiral potatoes. Actually, who knows if these are really Romanian, but who cares? They totally hit the spot. And of course we had to try the Kurtos Kalacs, fried bread molded around a thick rod, then coated in sugar. Sweet crunchy deliciousness!

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Lunch and done. Let’s look at some little houses! Next we took a lovely stroll through the Village Museum, an outdoor display of quaint little houses they moved from the countryside dating from 18th-early 20th century. You couldn’t go into most of them because they were too fragile. But with the falling leaves, lovely lake, and traditional music, we really felt transported in time. I spotted a sign for hot wine. Wine…for a cold fall day, you say? Sure, let’s give it a whirl. It smelled great, like cinnamon apple cider with a hint of tannins. But it tasted kind of revolting. I thought as it cooled it would taste better. It didn’t.

Our trip ended too soon. I wish we could have had just one more day. Cristi highly recommended seeing the Parliament Palace, reputedly the second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. But we were worried the kids wouldn’t do well on another lengthy guided tour. We also missed seeing the Old Town, a few blocks of medieval buildings in the heart of the city. Perhaps when we return to Budapest someday we’ll be able to see them. Maybe we can leave the kids at home, ha!

We’re actually thinking of making a return trip to Romania in the spring, this time staying in Timisoara and seeing some of the more medieval castles associated with Vlad the Impaler. Perhaps they’ll scratch that spooky Dracula itch that Bran Castle didn’t. Budapest, Hungary is a relatively short train ride from there, too. This trip went so much better than Malta, I have high hopes that our family will be able to survive more travel!

Graffiti and Feral Cats

Liam and I spied a graffiti artist on our way home from the park today. He had a bag full of spray paint and a huge swath of wall on a pedestrian bridge as his canvas. He didn’t seem particularly nervous about being caught — pretty brazen painting in broad daylight — though I still thought better of whipping out my phone to take a photo. We watched for awhile as his vision took shape — a seemingly random smattering of colorful boxes. He chatted on the phone. He smoked. He didn’t notice us at all.

Graffiti is one of the first things you’ll see as you enter this city. It is EVERYWHERE. I just kind of figured, like with the traffic laws, the authorities adopted a laissez-faire style of policing, but it seems there is some historical significance to the graffiti here. This New York Times article shed some light on the subject.

It’s interesting to see this from my seven-year-old’s perspective. He doesn’t see defacement of public property. He just sees cool artwork. The green line train is his favorite partly because it is covered in street art. And I’m starting to see the beauty in it, as well. Most of the graffiti I’ve seen is your run-of-the-mill bubble written words scrawled in neon colors. But some of them are quite beautiful. In fact, there are some pretty famous ones around the city (see 15 of them here), but I haven’t ever come across these.

Now that the weather is getting cooler, I’m spending more evenings with the windows open. We hear traffic, church bells, random loud conversations in Greek…and cats. Cats screeching, cats fighting, cats in heat. The other day Liam called me over to our back window. He and his sister were enthralled by a mother and her kitten just hanging around in our backyard. (Back garden, I should say.) Great. Another cat to add to the cacophony.

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Today we continued our quest to ride every single Metro and Tramline in Athens by riding the Red Line from end to end. Save for one section of the Blue Line that goes to the airport and costs extra, we’ve just about done it. Actually, Liam is quick to remind me, we still haven’t ridden the commuter train in its entirety. But with 32 stops spread over several kilometers, I’m thinking we’ll save that for…never.

As  usual, Liam was glued to the window while Violet happily smiled at strangers. At one point an orthodox Greek priest sat in the seat across from us. He wore a long, black tunic and a funny black hat. Liam leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I think he’s a magician.”

We stopped off at the Acropoli stop to do a little sight seeing. Liam had gone to the Temple of Zeus on a field trip, and he was keen to show it to me. As we walked through the crowds of tourists, I heard more English spoken in passing than I have since we got here. We kept our visit brief, opting out of the 6
Euro entry fee and just snapping a few photos from outside the fence — summers here are hot, hot, hot!

Our subway car on the way back wasn’t very crowded, so Violet got up and cruised around a bit. She couldn’t do much standing on her own — still a new skill, and with the motion of the car, she couldn’t keep her balance. But she was so cute strutting up and down the car as she held onto my fingers, leaning around seats and just grinning at everyone she saw. I have a feeling we’ll be doing a lot of cruising up and down the airplane aisles on our upcoming trips in July. Let’s hope she’s just as endearing on the plane as she is on the train.

Already planning his triumphant return

Ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up, and he’ll give you a very specific answer. He wants to be a conductor on the Athens Metro, specifically Line 1, the Green Line. He plans to come back to Athens when he grows up so he can fulfill his dream. Now, of course, I’m hoping his dream will lean more toward engineering mass-transit systems for metropolitan areas as he gets older. He’s got the mind for it. But for now I’m happy to indulge his little obsession. We’ve ridden the entire Green Line from Piraeus to Kifissia, and we’ve ridden almost the entire Blue Line (holding us back is a 10 Euro fee to ride all the way to the airport). His last day of school is tomorrow, and I’m poring over Athens4Kids to come up with fun sight-seeing ideas for the summer. He tells me all he wants to do is ride the Red Line from terminus to terminus. So we’ve got one day planned at least…

This morning Liam was full of questions: when was the Green Line built? Why are some of the stations nice and others are old? So I jumped on wiki to find out. And it turns out the Green Line is even older than I suspected, built in 1869! The original track extended from Piraeus to Thiseio, and it was a steam engine that ran completely above ground. In 1904 they converted it to electric, and they spent the next 50 years extending the track all the way to Kifissia. In the early ’90s they constructed the Red and Blue Lines to help ease congestion and smog (I hate to think what traffic would be like now without it!), and it wasn’t until 2013 that they opened the Tram Line that we took to the Averof Battleship and to the beach. Along the way they discovered archeological sites, which were preserved and displayed in many of the stations.

The most interesting thing I discovered is that there are plans underway to construct a 4th Line, the Orange Line. Set to break ground next year, the Orange Line should be up and running by 2025. Liam will be 16. I told him we wouldn’t still be living here by then, but maybe he could come back the summer between senior year in high school and freshman year in college, like a lot of students do. Besides, the train may not be ready by 2025…this is Greece, afterall. Better to give them a couple of extra years.

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And it looks like there are plans to extend all of the other subway lines, as well. It’s funny to think so far in the future and whether Liam will still be interested in trains. I can just picture him, all grown up (sniff), eyes glued to the windows as he rides each line from end to end, just like he did with his mom and baby sister when he was seven years old.

Back to the bus

There was a transit strike this morning, so James took the car into work. Which left me figuring out how best to get Violet to her Gymboree class. Thankfully the strike only lasted until 10, so I could take the bus. I’m quite familiar with the bus from our two months of car-lessness, but I remembered the last time I took the bus to Gymboree, the walk there was a high-traffic nightmare. But now that my girl is napping in her crib again (Good girl, Violet!), I could do a little pre-planning and find a better route. Turns out another bus will take me to a much better stop, away from the busy road. Thank you, Google Maps!

Then I remembered…Crap, James has the car. And with it the stroller and the baby Bjorn. Faced with either having to carry her or wrangle my much larger stroller onto the bus, I remembered we kept our 1st Gen baby Bjorn as a back up. In fact, I gave James grief over it, wanting to just sell the thing in our garage sale. It has no back support, and it’s not very comfortable. But now I’ve got to eat my words. It certain came in handy today!

Since the last time we rode the bus, the city has installed a sign that tells you how many minutes each bus is from the stop. What a relief! That’s one of the worst things about waiting for mass transit — you never know when your bus/train will arrive. Back in the mid-aughts, none of the New York trains had this feature. Now most every place has it, even Greece! Way to go, Greece! Except…hmmm..the bus I wanted to take didn’t seem to be listed. A young woman sitting on the bench was able to tell me that in fact the bus I wanted did stop at this stop — she was waiting for the same bus — and the sign didn’t actually work. Well, balls! Thankfully, her app told her our bus was only five minutes away. Yay!

Twenty minutes later, our bus arrived. Oh, Greece…

I snagged a seat and simultaneously fed a fussy toddler animal crackers while tracking our progress on Google so I knew when to get off. I’m becoming such a city mom!

And we made it with enough time to spare for lunch! Actually, I had no reason to worry — our class never seems to actually start “on time” by American standards.  I practiced some of my new Greek phrases on Violet’s enthusiastically cheerful instructor, Giotta. She is truly a delight. (Incidentally, I remembered her name because it sounds a lot like “Yoda”. I know. I’m such a nerd.)

Another aside — I wasn’t sure how to spell her name, so I googled it. I remembered she told me her full name means “Madonna” and I managed to find this website on my first try. I think I’m getting the hang of Greek spelling!