Our European Family Trip: A 5 Week Itinerary

We get this question a lot: How did we choose where to go? 

It’s kind of like asking, where do you start? That’s why I created travel products to support other families who might be wondering, how do I even begin to plan a meaningful family trip? 

Here’s how it went for us: 

A few years prior, I was dreaming up a world/homeschool experience where our family would explore, learn and discover together. I knew Ancient Rome and the Renaissance would be topics of study with our seventh grader. From the physical power of the Romans, to the flourishing of new thought during the Renaissance, these historical time periods reflect the inner changes of the pubescent child. 

Actually, it felt like the whole family was on the brink of more expansive thinking and expression, not just our preteen. So instead of asking: where do we want to go?, it was more like: why not go to Italy? Why not go to the very place where the Romans built their great roads, aqueducts and arches? Why not go to Florence and see where the Renaissance was birthed? Why not view learning as a constant, always available opportunity that does not have to be contained in a classroom? 

So . . . first up on the itinerary: Rome. We found a direct flight with Norwegian from New York. I love direct flights! Because we have family in Brooklyn and we’d been wanting to visit, we decided to begin the trip with five days in New York. After that, one red-eye would land us in Rome. 

Elle and I in front of the Colosseum

Through mutual friends, we knew a couple that had a B & B in Tuscany, not far from Florence. This made our next decision easy! Second stop: small Tuscan village.

Village in Tuscany

I convinced Kai that because it’s so easy to move around in Europe, we should stay longer and explore more places. I had my eyes set on the south of France, while he searched out some of the top places for surfing. Once he pinpointed Ericeira, Portugal as his surfing destination, it looked like a natural ending point for our trip—with France and Spain in between. I chose Aix-en-Provence because it was near a site I’d long wanted to visit—the cave of Mary Magdalene. Then, looking at its placement on the map, and hearing so many great things about this city, Barcelona was an obvious choice. 

Swimming at the coast of France

We booked Airbnb’s for our next three stops: Aix, Barcelona, Ericeira. We did this thinking that we’d drive from Italy to France, then to Barcelona, and lastly, fly to Lisbon, Portugal. When we went to book the car, we realized our rookie mistake. Renting a car in one country and returning it in another cost an extra $1200. I researched our transportation options and found that flying with Vueling in between cities would be the easiest and most affordable alternative. (If you want to avoid our other mistakes, check out Practical Tips on the Travel Resources page!

View from our Airbnb in Ericeira

Here are the highlights of our trip (More on each destination in separate blogs): 

Rome: 5 days

Private car pick-up from the airport arranged by our Airbnb host. Lots of walking and some taxi-taking. Eating lots of pizza and pasta. Gelato every day. Visiting the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Taxi back to the airport. Rent a car and drive 3 hours to village just outside Lucca. 

Tuscany: 12 days

Bike riding along an ancient aqueduct, walking the walled city of Lucca, learning about olive oil production and dinner on a Tuscan farm. Day trips to Pisa, Cinque Terre and  Florence. Pasta and pizza, oh my! 

Drive back to Rome, return rental car and fly to Marseille, France. Rent a car in Marseille, drive 30 minutes to Aix-en-Provence.

Aix-en-Provence: 5 days

Walking the small city of Aix, crepe making experience with a local. Day trips to the cave of Mary Magdalene and the coastal town of Cassis. 

Drive back to Marseille, return rental car and fly to Barcelona. Taxi to Airbnb. 

Barcelona: 3 days

Walking Barcelona and using public transport. Flamenco show, and visiting La Sagrada Familia. 

Taxi to airport, fly to Lisbon. Rent a car in Lisbon and drive 45 minutes to Ericeira. 

Ericeira: 9 days

Surfing every day (Kai), walking the small town and beaches, down time and day trips to Sintra. 

Fly Tap Air Portugal home to Florida. 

If you’re planning a European trip with your family, subscribe to this blog and receive Rome with Kids: 5 Mistakes and How to Avoid Them for free!

And if you are wondering where to go and how to begin, find support in the products on the Travel Resources page. 

Unschooling Myself

I remember this moment clearly: I’m in the third grade. I sit in my desk in the second to last row when the teacher announces, “We are ready to begin learning our times tables.” I think—This is it! The moment I’ve waited for! I begin drumming my desk and pounding my feet in excitement. Finally, I would learn something supremely fundamental about life and how it works. “Carrie, I know you’re excited, but please sit still,” Ms. Cantrall says.

I always sat still. I was the most proper student any elementary teacher could hope for. This was a rare moment. 

Then this: It is nighttime. I’m at the kitchen table with pencil and paper. I’d been told to “write out your 3’s times tables.” I go down the paper, line by line: 3×1=, 3×2=, etc. I try to recall any multiplication facts I’d heard my older sister recite, but I only remember a few. Anger and frustration well up inside of me . . . Why didn’t my teacher show us how to multiply? I ask my mom, “What is three times three?” I am heartbroken as I write out 3 x 3 = 9 because I have no idea why or how these numbers go together. 

My third grade teacher never showed us how to multiply. We were instructed to find the facts, write them out, then memorize them. 

So it went for most of my schooling. I became efficient at memorizing facts and passing tests. I could play this game. In this game, I didn’t even have to think too much! And still, I’d be considered a success, as evidenced by my good grades. 

Of course, somewhere along the way, I learned to multiply. What I never learned, though, is how I might take these numbers (along with most of the information I was given) and use it in the world; how I could create things, understand the meanings, connections, and workings behind things. There was also simply no space for exploring individual passions and how we might contribute to a greater good. 

It’s been nearly five years since the desire to unlearn what I thought I knew—to un-school myself—first began to swirl in me. Even though I had no idea what it would look like, my imagination was holding on to this idea: discovering the world alongside my daughter, Elle. 

Today, we are halfway through our first year of homeschooling. We’ve traveled to four European countries. We’ve been to Hawaii. We go to Central America next. AND we love home. We love traditions and small, simple moments of connection.

What did Elle do the moment we returned from our extended European trip? Forget jet lag, she was so excited to share a piece of France with her friends, having them over for crepe-making. I consider this a great success. These are gifted girls, competent at making traditional French crepes. 

What is happening here? So much more than “just” making crepes.

How did Elle learn to make crepes? Resources for finding unique and local experiences can be found in the product, Create a Memorable and Authentic Family Travel Experience, located on the Travel Resources page.

Rome: Twenty Years Later— With Family

In 1999, while the media spoke the word Y2K approximately 2K times a day, I was all, carpe diem—I’d just resigned from my first full-time job and was headed to Europe for two months. I was based in the Czech Republic and took trains to nearby countries, including Italy, where Rome was a highlight of my travels. When I walked the Roman Forum, I couldn’t believe that my feet were walking a path more than two-thousand years old. The magnitude of time revealed itself in a way that was completely new to me. Then I discovered gelato. Even ice-cream revealed itself in a completely new way to me. Obviously I was mind-blown. But Rome kept coming at me, with more. I stood inside St. Peter’s Basilica and nearly wept for the beauty. I was twenty-three and my world busted open. I was connected to a deep, deep history of humankind. 

Fast forward twenty years. When I started to plan our five-week family trip to Europe, I knew Rome would be on our itinerary. The fact that Roman History would be part of our middle-school homeschool curriculum, MAJOR BONUS! 

But how would I create a meaningful trip without feeling overwhelmed? 

First, I’d been thinking about my intentions around travel for a good amount of time. I knew that I wanted to travel to Europe because of our homeschool studies; I knew I wanted to experience again that feeling of deep connection. And I hoped that our trip would provide that same experience for my family. 

I spent months researching, scheduling and planning. In September 2019, we flew to Rome and stayed at an Airbnb in the Trastevere neighborhood. We ate considerable amounts of pizza and pasta and gelato. We walked the Forum and the Colosseum. We visited the Vatican Museums and the Pantheon. Our twelve-year-old, not easily impressed, was visibly inspired inside St. Peter’s Basilica. 

But what did Rome do? It kept coming at me, with more. The windows, wide open at our guesthouse, displayed a full moon hanging over Trastevere apartments. There I was, exactly twenty years later in the age-old city, staring at the most ancient time-keeper. And it was full. I was struck, once again, by the scale of time. Something stirred in me . . . this feeling of being exactly there . . . how we each hold together the ancient with what is to become. Rome

All of this, and it wasn’t a perfect trip. There were things that went wrong, things we learned as travelers. I stepped off our red-eye with an intense migraine. Our visit to the Vatican Museum was not as enjoyable as we’d hoped, mostly because of the crowds, although we did love the Raphael Rooms. The Trevi Fountain was so saturated with people we could barely toss our coin.

There are always things that happen in travel that help us learn to be flexible. Some things we can plan for, others are out of our control. Are you planning a trip to Rome with your kids? Follow this blog and receive, Rome with Kids: 5 Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, for FREE. Just leave me your email address so I know where to send it. (You can enter it on the righthand side of any page, and click follow, or on the Subscribe page.) 

Don’t forget to check out Travel Resources, where I’ve compiled suggestions based on hours of research in preparation for European travel, and guidance on creating meaningful trips wherever you go! 

'Tis the Season for Slowing Down

Outside, the natural world is slowing, but our culture is just getting going. Is it the season for slowing down or for getting the cookies made, the holiday cards sent, the errands run—maybe just one more trip to Target? Does the Elf on the Shelf have to do something funny every night?

The choice is yours. What rhythm do you want to plug in to? 

Maybe you want to ban the busy, but how? There is too much to do! 

The wise traveler knows that checking off all the “top ten things to do” when visiting a city can leave one weary, and sometimes unfulfilled. Whether traveling or staying home for the holidays, you can do something similar and toss out the “must do” activities and chores. Are they really “must do” or are they details that only overwhelm? 

You are allowed to be choosy about what you schedule.  

You are allowed to bake the cookies with your children and sing while you do it, and lick the bowls and laugh, and not care if they don’t turn out perfect. You are allowed to purchase store-made cookies to wrap as presents. You are allowed to leave the mess until tomorrow. You’re seriously allowed to leave dishes in the sink overnight. 

Do you need to forget the holiday photo and cards this year and instead post a pic on social media? Do it.

In order to tap into the slow of the season, take a moment to be in the moment with your family. Just make the choice. What happens in the few minutes it takes to make hot cocoa? It is the good stuff that life is made of. It’s the thing your children will remember: the smell of warm milk and chocolate, the Christmas carols in the background, the anticipation, the waiting with you. 

What are the traditions you want to keep sacred, and which do you want to toss out? You are allowed to choose. Do you savor the morning when everyone unloads their stocking, or the night when the candle is lit? Whatever you do, wherever you are, protect it. Keep it from being interfered with. You guide the energy in your home, or in the guesthouse. Bring your full presence to a simple, traditional act. 

When we don’t make the conscious effort to create moments, the season can pass by in a whirlwind of activity. 

What are the ways you cultivate a slow, intentional season?

She Graduates

She graduates . . . and you want to post a picture, say something about how time flies but you know that this will never encompass what you feel and maybe this is why you find it difficult to post on social media but you try anyway. You sit in tender recognition of this thing called time and growth, of transitions and of new era’s, of looking back and moving toward the new. You recall the different shapes of her, the chubby, the slim, the dimpled, those bitty feet; and the old angles of you both around the house, holding on to coffee tables for balance, bending over and reaching up as she says, “Hold you, hold you.”

You’ve seen the kids graduate and move on, but you never thought it’d be her because time kept you wedged within a week. But then it pushes you out into the future and you are sitting in a wooden little-kid chair because this is not a high school graduation, but a sixth-grade end-of-elementary-school ceremony. And she will give a speech and your heart will do this thing, this impossible thing, it will break open again. You will want to hold on to one dear detail from this moment; you look at her and you tuck it beneath the covers of your heart. You think of your future self looking back at this present self . . . she is not laughing at you for feeling such depth of emotion at an elementary graduation, even though she knows this is only one of many crossing overs. She is thanking you, you who watches closely. You who can see that you are staring right into your vulnerability of time. You know that one day it will be you that she is leaving. You allow it to happen, you breathe and you love.

Our routine of the last six years is complete. We are preparing for a world/home education. May we use what we know to establish new and thoughtful rhythms.