If you need to get a hold of Mr. Kooman or Mrs. Tataryn, please call the office!
403 346 5795
Our emails work too:
If you need to get a hold of Mr. Kooman or Mrs. Tataryn, please call the office!
403 346 5795
Our emails work too:
Well, about time.
I’ve spent the last 10 minutes driving by my house with my finger on Google Maps. Finally Apple figured it out and allowed it back. It’s already got about 2000 reviews, and they’re all 5 stars. It’s true, we missed you…
I’m not a real mathematical person. Sure I can multiply, I play the ponies once in a while and I’m a dead-on estimator (ask about the gumball machine I won), but people wouldn’t necessarily mistake me for a numerical savant. Sometimes it’s fun to crunch the numbers on things, though, so I thought I’d look back at our European vacation, ‘by the numbers’:
41 – days in Europe
11 – countries visited
9250 – kilometeres traveled in our rental car
8 – nation capitals visited
28 – cities spent time in
8 – cities we were in (or drove by) that have hosted Olympics – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Torino, Grenoble, Munich, Antwerp
2 – nights spent in hostels
2 – nights spent in campsites
2 – nights spent at friend’s house
9 – nights in Italy (the most in any one country)
7 – nights in Holland
6 – nights in Germany
6 – nights in France
4 – nights in Hungary
4 – nights in England
2 – nights in Croatia
1 – night in Belgium
1 – night in Austria
0 – nights in Slovenia/Luxembourg
10 – meals at McDonalds (free WiFi, honest)
12 – meals at McDonalds for a couple of the kids
9 – nights spent with the Siebengas
9 – nights spent with the Koomans
2 – scorpions spotted
1 – scorpion killed
5 – extremely famous landmarks photographed (Eiffel Tower, Tower of Pisa, Coliseum, Buckingham Palace, Heineken Museum)
5 – stamps in passport (England, France, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary)
200 – Euros spent in tolls driving from Italy to France
0 – celebrities/royalty we saw or hung out with
1 – times our van was mistaken for a taxi by German tourists
>100 – times our van went through a roundabout
1 – TomToms purchased in Europe
1000 – times Chris said he was “So glad we had a TomTom, isn’t this great everybody!”
3 – hubcaps we had when we returned the rental van
It was difficult to say goodbye to Paris. An amazing city, with so much left unexplored. We loved our time in France, and before we hopped in the van for our final day with it, Chris talked to a family from Great Britain in the car park of the hotel. They were heading back to London, and they took some of the mattresses off of our hands. We would soon be without the comfortable storage of the Mercedes, so downsizing was in order.
The whole family was hoping for a final peak at the Eiffel Tower on the way to dropping our rental off at Gare du Nord, however Chris especially was antsy. He had seen the Arc and the daunting traffic circle around it, and frankly, wanted no part of it. Would his trusty TomTom lead him through as he headed from east to north France?
Gare du Nord is a large train station in the north of Paris, and is the hub for Eurostar trains heading north to London via the Chunnel. We were hosed on the cost of tickets from London to Paris, so Shana booked earlier this time and cut the price by 65%. Thankfully, the trip to the station brought us through Paris’ second biggest traffic circle, not its first, so the family got a speedy close up of some tower/pillar thing as we ripped around the inside lane at mach 1.
If you’ve never been in a car park under Paris’ fine streets, you’re missing out. What you need to know is they’re built for little Citreon hatchbacks or Peugot sedans, maybe a SAAB. A Mercedes Vito nine passenger van has no place here. Fortunately, we only had to go six floors down, and park in a spot where both nearby drivers had overstepped the boundaries of their spots. Once the van was in its spot, it wasn’t coming out without a fight. Half the family got out before Chris parked, and the other half climbed over seats and out the back door. Eventually, we all sweated our way out to the rental counter where we dropped the keys off, and were on our way!
The beauty of a rental car, is being able to contain all of your junk in one space. We were now responsible for all of our luggage, and we would need to ride train and London Underground before hitting a hotel. Thankfully this worked out, and we made it to a little Ibis close to King’s Cross Station downtown London without too much fanfare. The rooms were once again little, but appropriately priced.
The kiddos were thrilled to be back in English speaking land, and were excited to be able to read every sign.
London’s Underground is a marvel of engineering. The multiple lines will get you wherever you need to go, and the connections to train stations, buses and airports are really quite something. Our first day in London was spent on the main sights. First to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen wasn’t, meaning the Estate Rooms are open for public viewing. But not for us, as the only remaining tours were full. We booked tickets for a future day, and made our way over to Westminster Abbey. Along the way, remnants of the Olympics were everywhere, with posters and people dressed up, signs and plaques. The city, not unlike Vancouver in 2010, really came together, put on a great show, and made the country proud.
Westminster Abbey was a complete joy. Not only as a beautiful church in its own right, but as a burial place for a who’s who of English history, it is not to be missed. The audio guide, beautifully voiced by Dame Judy Dench and Jeremy Irons (Spencer: “Hey, is this Scar’s voice?”), covers the highlights, enlightens the listener and is punctuated by historians, musicians, art historians and the religious leaders who still work at the Abbey.
The tombs of the kings and queens of England, burial places of scientists like Newton and Darwin, Poet’s Corner are all treasures. The Lady Chapel is one of the most beautiful sights in all of London, and walking the halls where kings and queens have been coronated, baptised and married is really quite tremendous. After the abbey, we walked to Parliament and saw Big Ben. Crossing the river to view the buildings from the other side of the Thames was quite something.
We also had the good fortune of leaving London for a couple of days to visit with Fran and Robert. Fran is a sister of Shana’s brother’s wife Janine. They were lovely hosts and we enjoyed the visit. Thanks guys! The boys slept in the back yard. Fran and Robert live on a small Army base where Robert is employed looking after the vehicles that are used by bomb disposal units. He’s had tours in Afghanistan, Canada and the Falkland Islands, and was very generous in showing us where he worked, along with the different vehicles that he works on. The boys found this a huge highlight! We even managed to sneak into town to catch Batman: The Dark Knight Rises – wow!
A couple of nights later saw us chugging back into London for our final day in Europe. We managed to fit in our tour of Buckingham Palace. The estate rooms, or entertainment rooms for royalty and their guests, were immaculate. All of those young girls who dream about growing up to marry a prince, I can finally understand what they’re after – wowzers! The place is amazing.
We also enjoyed a very quick stop at the British Museum, a short ride on a double decker, London Bridge and Tower Bridge, and a great supper of fish and chips in a traditional pub. Quite a day!
Unfortunately the trip was winding down, and after picking up luggage that we had left at a couple of train stations around town, we made it out of St. Pancras to Gatwick, where we caught a shuttle to our hotel. Our final sleep in England was short, as we woke up early to catch our cab back to Gatwick for the long flight home.
A new selection of movies helped to make the trip a little bit less painful, and before you know it, we were stepping off of the plane and into the arms of both sets of grandparents who came to the airport to pick us up. What a treat to end the trip with those that had started it with us, or joined us on it. It’s hard to believe that it’s over, and while there will be time spent remembering, looking at pictures, reflecting and maybe even scrapbooking, for now it is over, and time for a well-deserved snooze…
Our time in Italy was wonderful. Unexpected sights and sounds,plus the ones we were planning made for a really wonderful time.
Days and even weeks are passing by quickly on the trip, and we were heading back north to one of the first places we traveled to (and origin of our rental van – France). It’s funny how even being in a country once before can give you a bit of confidence. We have been traveling for 5 weeks, have seen a lot of Europe, and are getting accustomed to some of the habits and quirks – whether they be on the highways, in the supermarkets, or at the tourist venues. Even coming back to France was a welcome change in terms of being able to understand the language. I don’t say that as a bilingual Canadian by any means, but as a traveler who has been in countries where little to no English is spoken. I wasn’t expecting it to be in Austria, Hungary, Croatia or Italy, I just didn’t really think through the ramifications of what it would mean to fumble through with signs and grunts. **Hint: speaking louder does not make you any more understandable**
With French, Chris and Shana have a basic understanding, can figure out the majority of signs (thank you Miss Madge) and can carry on basic conversations to get more information.
We found a (guess what?) little Ibis hotel on the east edge of Paris. Chris had driven through Paris, albeit dodgily, once, and didn’t want to spend too much time in the city behind the wheel. Our first day was straight to the heart of the city. We rode the train in from 50m outside our hotel, and hopped the metro from site to site. Our experience in Rome gave us confidence to do this again. It was honestly a breeze moving from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triumphe. And then from Notre Dame to the Pantheon. We pack a lot in in a day! The Eiffel Tower was indeed beautiful, and while all tourists did the little ‘hold the tower up’ photo in Pisa, in Paris it’s all about the IKEA shot from the corner of one of the legs of Eiffel. It is well worth the price to the top. However, some advice: walk the steps the the second floor (actually 43 stories up) and then take the lift. The line from the ground is ridiculous, so don’t bother. You’ll be sore, but you’ll save a few hours of your time.
From Eiffel’s most impressive work, we rode the metro to l’Arc. It is majestic. It’s 50m tall (taller than the Roman Coliseum!) and in the middle of the world”s biggest traffic circle. Besides marveling at Napoleon’s narcissism, I was thanking the good Lord that I wasn’t trapped in one of the endless lanes whizzing around me praying for guidance as to which of the 12 exits to take from the roundabout. Crazy!
From there we walked up and down Paris’ most famous street, popping in to a Mercedes showcase room and a Peugot one. We then went back underground for a train trip to Notre Dame. Build in the 12 and 13 century, the cathedral is imposing, aging and majestic. We walked around inside, pausing longest at the beautiful rose windows. From the church, we walked a few blocks to the Pantheon, and paid the reasonable admission fee to wander the halls of reason. The work on the ceiling is especially tranquil. There was an exhibition exploring the likenesses of Voltaire and Rousseau in art, which needless to say bored the dickens out of the kids.
The night was growing longer, and we decided to try our luck and ride the train back past our hotel all the way to Disneyland. Two stops after ours, we read the small print and realized that our tickets only took us from zones 1-4, which Disney was not a part of. Before it was too late, we hopped out, and rode the train back. We drove to Disney, and ate supper in the village (a little tex-mex!) and bought tickets for the parks.
The kids were tired from a long day, but excited for Paris Disney. We have done nearly 40 days of museums, cathedrals, statues and fountains. Everyone’s been wonderful, with little to no complaining, but I think everyone was ready for a theme park. We spent two days in the two parks: Disneyland Paris (formerly called EuroDisney) is celebrating its 20th year of existence. It has Disneyland Park (very similar to Magic Kingdom or Disneyland in California – although much smaller). The rides are good, the streets are clean, and everyone speaks English! It was funny to ride a couple of rides in French though: Star Tours is weird with a little French robot leading the way. Disney Studios is similar to Hollywood Studios park in Florida, but again, less to do. The shows were lacking, or out of service, but we enjoyed Tower of Terror and Aerosmith’s Rollercoaster. New rides not available in Florida: Crush’s Coaster, India Jones and the Temple of Peril (kind of boring, but Spencer was too short to ride). Everything else we’d tried before. It was a great two days!
Next, we’d be training our way back to London, for the last leg of the journey. More to come!
We left the villa this morning, knowing that it may be a long time before we are back in the beautiful Italian province of Abruzzo. Thanks again to Paul and his family who rent out a beautiful little villa up the mountain. Our last afternoon in Castelli (population: not many, main industry: painting ceramics) we enjoyed some traditional pasta at Pepe’s tiny second-floor restaurant. Delicious! Not knowing that you don’t really tip here, I left the waiter a nice one, and he tried to refuse. I refused his refusal, and he insisted on taking a little shot of some kind of alcohol with me before we left. Nice!
We took a quick trip to the water for another (and last) dip in the Adriatic. The waves were huge, and tiring, and I thought of my brother Dan as we swam – that guy loves waves!
Castelli was celebrating a wine festival all week, and we had heard the music and laughter across the valley in the villa, so Shana and Chris decided to take in some of the festivities before leaving. After communicating with the lady in charge (thankfully she spoke French and Italian, and Chris can fake it in French), we purchased a little ceramic cup each for 5 Euros, and we wandered around getting it filled with the local wines from different growers. Salute!
In the morning, we left at a decent time, our goal was Paris. Knowing it was a 13 drive, we knew we wouldn’t get all the way. And, we had a stop to make: Pisa. After driving through Florence and Genoa (more cities to put on the to-do next list) we stopped at Pisa’s city center. What a very beautiful Piazza! A church built in the 13 century is no less beautiful than the tower, but the little 7-story little belfry does steal the show. Only slightly off kilter as a matter of degrees, it’s hard to believe that the thing hasn’t fallen over. There were more tourists here than we’d seen anywhere so far on the trip (surprise!) and Shana was delighted to hear so much English spoken. It seemed like every tourist was getting their picture ‘holding’ up the tower, and yes we did too. The souvenirs were tacky, (leaning shot glasses anyone?) and it was hot, a perfect day for gelato!
It was a quick stop, so we jumped back in the van and continued. Not knowing where we’d spend the night, but knowing we’d find a place, we kept driving. Torino happened to be on the way, so we stopped. I didn’t know it was a city of over a million people. We found a hotel, and holed up for the night. WiFi was available, so we also were able to book our rooms (yeah Ibis!) in Paris for the next four nights.
We have been so well provided for on this trip, and for that we are thankful. Spencer’s last little words before bed were, “Maybe Jesus brought us to Torino so we could see his shroud!” Well that’s what we’re doing in the morning, and I don’t disagree :)
With Venice behind (and technically to the North of us) we began toodling our way down the coast to our villa in the province of Abruzzo. Chris noticed the price of Diesel was up in Italy (1.85 Euros a litre in case anyone cares), but the scenery, roads and sky looked a lot like Croatia. The further south we got, the warmer the temperature gauge in the van climbed to, and it’s quite a start to step out of air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz comfort to 38 degree heat. Europeans must not be able to drive far in a day, because there are gas stations with huge road side markets, restaurants and even hotels every 30 km or so. We enjoyed the free bathrooms at one we came across, a welcome change from Hungary and Croatia’s pay toilets.
Our instructions said to find the town of Castelli, which our beautiful little Tom-Tom did with no trouble. The road leading up to it however, was curvy and steep in a way that North-Americans outside of San Francisco would have a tough time believing to be roads. We were led to a little house where Fernando lived, who had the keys to our place, and would lead us the rest of the way. He spoke no English, and us with even less Italian, managed to shake hands, say hello, and follow him to the villa. I thought the roads we had been on were steep and narrow. The one leading up to the highest villa on this side of the mountain was what I historically would have called, ‘impassably steep’. However, we made it up, albeit in first gear. I had nightmares about driving down the next day, and wondered how I could convince the family to stay put for an entire week.
The house itself is quite livable. The bottom level has a comfortable kitchen and living area with a TV that supposedly has satellite, but only picks up Al Jazeera, a German news/sports station, a German news station and 20 Arab pornography channels. Even though we were alarmed at the names of the channels (ArabsexyTV.com and sexygirlsallday, etc) the gist of these channels is the photo of a woman with long hair (head shot only), some phone numbers and Arabic writing overlaid with very annoying music. Thankfully our kids’ innocence hasn’t been lost. And even more thankfully, we found the BBC channel. Their programming consists of broadcasting from the Olympic venues, but oddly not being allowed to actually show any video footage of the Olympics, and reporting on Libya, the Philippines’ flooding, and Egypt’s latest issues in the Sinai. Avery is convinced we’ll all be able to describe the Olympics and be experts on the Middle East by the time we leave.
One evening, the German channel was broadcasting Olympic footage, however they only follow their own athletes, and the athlete of the evening happened to be a ping-pong player. Wahoo. I will never take our amazingly excellent Canadian footage for granted ever again. How are the Canadians doing anyways?
Day trips from the villa (I’ll never get tired of saying that) have included a trip to a little sea-side town called Rosetto. The weather was hot and the water beautiful. It was tough to get to the beach, but once there, we found free parking – we think – and enjoyed an afternoon in the sun. The next day we tromped into l’Aquila. This is a large town, and according to our guide book, the highest city in Italy. What it didn’t say was that it was ravaged by an earthquake in 2009. Ravaged might be the wrong word, but as we were walking through the ghost town like old city-centre, we put the clues together: cracks in every building, scaffolding on every façade, wooden frames holding up every window, doorway and gothic arch, no people anywhere, and a giant poster about a 2009 earthquake – we would have made damn fine archaeologists.
Eventually, all roads lead to Rome, and that’s where we headed on Thursday. It wasn’t built in a day, but we managed to see as much of it as possible in 14 hours. The morning started with everyone waking up at 6 am., the earliest day of the trip so far. Chris, always the conscientious driver, was scared spitless about driving, worried he’d get eternally lost in the city. He had it in his head to park at the farthest Metro station, and make way into the heart of the city. Even approaching, Rome is impressive, a thick layer of smog can be seen from miles out. Home to 4 million or so people in the metropolis and surrounding area, Rome is a big one, and apparently no one there has what could be called an actual driver’s license. There are things like lights, signs and lanes, but none of them are obeyed or followed. Our Tom-Tom assured us that the parking lot we were after was 7 km from city center where things get really bad. Even our trusty ‘Europe on a Shoe-String’ which gives astonishing detail on all cities said about driving in Rome: “DON’T”.
We pulled in to Rabibbia’s parking lot (it’s a stretch to call what we found a parking lot), and to our astonishment, but not God’s, found one spot left. It was in the middle of an aisle and blocked a few other cars, but we took it. Most places have clear “Don’t Park” symbols, or pay parking machines, not this place. We hoped this wasn’t a place that we would be ticketed or towed.
Marg and Nick had been in Rome a couple of days earlier, and mentioned to head to the main train terminal downtown, where one could access hop on, hop off tours, as we did in Budapest, and this seemed like a fair idea. Metro tickets in Rome are very reasonable (1 Euro for an hour of riding), while a 24 hour ticket is 6. We opted for that option. Keep in mind we have to multiply everything by six, but still a deal. Our original plan was to head to main terminal, but we noticed Coliseum was a stop. We’ve done most sight-seeing as ‘luck would have it’ and that’s worked out so far so good (if you’re counting clichés or colloquialisms in this post, I’ve reached 5) and this was no exception. The minute we stepped, blinking out of the Metro station and into the sunshine of the heart of old Rome, a tour guide picked up our ‘new tourist’ scent and asked if we wanted to pay for a tour. Leery of anyone offering anything, we were cautious. But he promised English guides, decent prices and queue jumping. We were a little worried yet when only three others were on our tour, however it turned out alright in the end. Our guide was an Italian historian, who knew a ridiculous amount about the Coliseum. He talked for 15 minutes about things before we even got to the entrance, and he certainly could have kept us busy (although not necessarily entertained) all day. We did indeed skip the lines, and we would all recommend paying for the guided tour – line skipping and a guy who knows what he’s talking about. The ruins are magnificent, and no wonder that they attract as many visitors as they do. Unfortunately the arenas were all about murder, death and killing, but those Romans did it in style. We’ve romanticized the ideas of Gladiator’s fighting for and earning their freedoms, but in reality life was nasty, brutish and short.
After the Coliseum, we hooked up with a new guide for the Palantine Hills. This time, it was David, an Italian born to an English mother, with a clever wit, brilliant mind and acid tongue. He tricked and fooled us, entertained and informed us, and couldn’t tell anyone’s place of origin from their English-speaking accent. He is a lover of all things ancient Roman, and still holds a bit of a grudge (understandably) against the Catholic Church, who was largely responsible for why everything ancient Roman looks ancient and crumbly. Apparently the leaders of the church told people to use the precious metals, stones, ceramics, statues and even to grind the marble down to make into cement to build the churches. (The churches are astonishingly beautiful, too, but alas it comes at the expense of destroying the beautiful ancient buildings and temples – and I always thought it was due to erosion…)
We plodded over the hill and along the Roman Forum – still impressive in its dilapidated state. Our time on the hill was short, but we wanted to attempt a peek at the Vatican. We hopped back on the Metro and buzzed over. Again we were met by an English speaking tour-operator-seller who asked if we wanted a guided tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Our answer was yes, and worth every penny. Covering our shoulders and knees, we entered the Vatican’s museums. Days and weeks and months could be spent here, pouring over the ridiculous wealth of paintings, and sculpture. We took the 2 hour tour. Entering the Sistine chapel was like a dream come true. The detail, colour and scope are simply breathtaking. I don’t know what qualifies a piece of art to be a masterpiece, but the size and breadth of the subject area undertaken by Michelangelo all of those years ago, using the plaster, brushes and scaffolding he had – this goes beyond anything that I could have imagined possible. I know some of the finer details of the ceiling: Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the flayed skin, the pope portrayed amongst the numbers of the damned, God mooning the pope, the one-eyed artist staring into the crowd and most of the Bible stories circling the room. However, when our tour guide pointed out the ring of people painted under each arch in pairs as the members of the lineage of Christ as recorded by Matthew, it was all I could do not to weep then and their amidst a crowd of Japanese tourists. The last thing I’d want is a photobomb of that.
It was tough to leave the chapel, but we did, and entered the equally impressive, although much less intimate, St. Peter’s Basilica. Built on the site where Peter was crucified in Rome in 64 A.D., The Basilica is one of Christendom’s most holy places. Certainly for the Catholics it is. It is the site of the conclave that announces changes in the papacy, the burial place of all popes, and of course also houses St. Peter’s remains. Another of Michelangelo’s works was the first thing we saw when we entered – La Pieta. Smaller than I thought it would be, Mary’s virginal youth and pained expression are all too real as she wraps her arms around the body of her recently crucified son. To me this has always been a strange icon for the church, but seeing it in person makes one’s own heart nearly melt, and the realization that this has been carved out of stone even more so. The Basilica was busy, but the place is cavernous. The incredibly high ceiling is detailed exquisitely, and the sculpted works are fantastic. The fact that the subjects are all popes doesn’t take away the grandeur and majesty for a staunch Protestant. Unfortunately the crypt where all of the Popes are buried closed at 4, so the Kooman’s hightailed it to the Vatican post office where we sent off a few letters by owl – oops, wrong story.
While tired and achy, we decided to catch Trevi fountain on the way back, even though the day was getting on, thinking we wouldn’t be back again soon. Trevi of course changed that, because amidst the enormous throng taking pictures of the aquatic wonder, we managed to make a wish as we threw our coins in – that we’d make it back someday. Rome shouldn’t be seen in one day. There are things here that we may never get a chance to see again: the museums, the Pantheon, Hadrian’s column, the list is endless in a living museum like this. My advice, spend a week, and don’t come in August. The boys all declared that even though they don’t necessarily love all of that Museumy stuff, this was the best day of the trip – so far. It ended with a two hour trip back to the house, and showers for the hot, sweaty travellers. Avery was trying to remember a quote from Gladiator to use when we got to Rome. It came to him just in time. When one of the characters sees the Coliseum for the first time, he says, “I did not know men could build such things” – our thoughts exactly.