I just returned a week ago from 7 weeks in Switzerland and Italy. I left in early May to photograph a wedding in Switzerland and stayed until my husband and my kids could join me. I grew up in Switzerland and we visit every 1-2 years depending on what we have going on. This year was a bit different as my husband is celebrating a round birthday this year (but I can’t tell you which one, I’ve been sworn to secrecy) and because we can’t travel in August on his actual birthday, we decided to take advantage of my travel and explore another country. So, after 2 1/2 weeks in Switzerland by myself, the gang arrived and we drove to Rome to start our 2 week Italian adventure.
When we’re in Switzerland, we’re lucky to stay with my cousin who lives in a small town outside of Lucerne. Actually, it’s the same town where my mother grew up, and where my uncle still has the farm he took over from my grandparents. It’s always funny when you run into somebody who knows your family history - without even knowing them! Lucerne is in central Switzerland which is a convenient as it’s central to most places we visit. This was my first time in Switzerland by myself in almost 20 years...oh the places I could go! Seriously, traveling by yourself and traveling with your family are completely separate things. I hiked to new places, I stayed out late and got up early, I stopped when I found something beautiful, and I pulled into random driveways to get the *shot*. One day, I even left my lunch in the car in favor of a view. True story (and it paid off!).
In Italy, we used Airbnb to book our accommodations in Rome, Cinque Terre and Florence. Rome was amazing…the old and the new seamlessly mixed together without a second thought. You can’t turn a corner without seeing something noteworthy. The apartment we had was outside of the historic center. It was big and spacious and we’d definitely rent it again. We didn’t need the car at all - the bus and subway/train was easy to navigate and took us wherever we wanted to go. We also had “Roma Passes” that gave us free entry into some museums (and discounted prices into others) and free use of public transportation during a 72 hour period.
Things to see? Oh, the list is endless and you’ll never see it all - and the 5 days we were there was definitely not long enough. Since it was our first time there, we made every effort to see it all (and failed, but we knew we would - but had fun doing it). Must sees are the Colosseum, the Palatine, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps (though they were being renovated), Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain (the sheer size of it!), Villa Borghese (and the park around it), the Vatican (you can get amazing shots from Ponte Sant’Angelo of St. Peter’s Basilica), Castel Sant’Angelo, Campo dei Fiori (a flower market), and Terme di Caracalla (ancient Roman Baths). We used the car on the last day to visit Tivoli, a beautiful medieval town outside of Rome and where we visited Villa D’Este. The gardens are the reason to visit: they are included in the UNESCO world heritage sites - and are incredible. Definitely worth the trip. (You can also get there using public transportation).
Next we headed north to Cinque Terre. Unfortunately, our rented apartment was...not up to par. So we left after 2 nights instead of 3 but it turned out to be one of the best things about our trip. We ended up in a B&B in the Tuscan countryside (it was right out of a story book). This was also where we went to an incredible restaurant, Il Milione, that was in an old renovated farm house overlooking the Florence and surrounding Tuscany. The food was incredible! (just be aware that you might need to know some Italian…or bring a dictionary) And, just in case you were wondering: Piccioni are pigeons. My husband is still grateful that I thought about installing an english-italian dictionary and saved him from eating pigeons. True Story.
The last part of our trip in Italy (or, so we thought) was in Florence. In contrast to Rome, where the old was mixed in with the new, there was definitely a historic city center in Florence. What we didn’t know about Florence was that it’s the leather goods center of Italy. I remembered my cousins would always buy new wallets in Italy - but I honestly had no idea how important leather goods were. If you’re in need of a new wallet, purse or briefcase? Florence is the place to go. I was in the market for a new wallet and after walking into two stores in search of a wallet and walking out with 2 new purses, my husband debated about letting me walk into a third. Except: he walked into a third store, and walked out with a new briefcase.
Restaurants: there was only one restaurant that we tried during the 2 weeks in Italy that was bad. Otherwise, any trattoria, pizzeria & osteria are great. We really had no trouble finding a restaurant that had something for kids, a vegetarian and a “regular” eater. ;) And in most restaurants the staff speaks some English (and most places, they speak a lot of English).
The best part of our trip to Italy was spontaneously extending the trip by two days and returning to the B&B. We spent part of one day doing some glorious laundry and the other we spent in Siena. If you can, I highly recommend this trip. The town is rich in history, remains frozen in time, with its cobble street and narrow, steep medieval alleys. The main attractions are the Piazza del Campo and the Siena Duomo. The views from the top of the tower stretch for miles…and miles over the Tuscan countryside. The floors of the duomo are notable because they are made of inlaid marble.
Tuscany reminded us of northern California. While driving to Rome from Switzerland, we felt welcomeD immediately. Something about the vast landscape and they scrub-brush like vegetation made us feel very much at home. Safe to say, we will be back.
Once our stay in Italy was over, we headed North to Switzerland again. My husband left a few days later (somebody has to work while I galavant across Europe), but the kids and I stayed a couple of weeks longer. I love being in the mountains (and away from crowds). There’s just something soul-nourishing about it. I can’t explain it - it just is. So, when we’re in Switzerland, that’s where we go: to places in the mountains away from crowds. This time we ventured a bit farther - the Berner Oberland has remained one of my favorite places. Switzerland is dotted with gondolas and cable cars up hillsides and there is no end to hiking trails. The kids and I went up First to Bachalpsee and hiked down to a gondola stop; we hiked up Männlichen and down to the Kleine Scheidegg, we hiked up to the Golzernsee, a mountain lake in Uri. And when the weather is bad, we go to the Swiss Transportation Museum. It is a hands-on museum for Swiss Transportation. It’s the awesomest place EVER! The exhibition halls contain trains (like, real-life sized trains), cars, planes/flight, boats, cable cars and gondolas. There’s also a planetarium and an iMax theater. (https://www.verkehrshaus.ch/en).
The one thing about Switzerland is that it is expensive. Like insanely expensive. If we didn’t have family to stay with, we couldn’t go as often and certainly couldn’t stay as long. So, to keep the vacation reasonable, we don’t eat out a lot and make sandwiches to take along. We also buy a 1/2 Tax Card (1/2-Faire ticket) to keep costs down. Also, the kids travel free with a parent as long as you purchase a “Junior-Card” on any public transportation.
*Tips: If you go to Italy, remember that Milan is a city in Italy and it is the fashion capital. (ie. No matter how good you look in your work out gear, that’s probably not the “correct” attire in Italy). Use public transportation - the Roma Pass and Firenze Card were awesome and saved us time standing in line. Google Maps in Florence was a life savior in finding the bus stops going the opposite direction (there are lots and lots of one way streets). Don’t be surprised to find a “sitting fee” when you sit down in a restaurant to eat. Restaurants around the corner and down the street from major attractions will be more reasonable and just as tasty. If you go to Cinque Terre: use public transportation to get there. The 5 towns are “car free” - ie. pedestrian zones. Leave your car in La Spezia. If it rains, the hiking trails along the ocean could be closed and the hiking passes will not be for sale and the ferries will not run.
Dominique lives in Chattanooga, TN, with her husband and 2 kids and a dog. She teaches chemistry at the local university and is a family and wedding photographer, and adds new travel destinations to her ever increasing list of places to visit on a daily basis. She loves the quiet of early morning, good coffee, and long walks with the dog. She has a severe yarn addiction and almost had her knitting needles confiscated by a Japanese customs official once. Her photography journey started in elementary school when her father gave her her first camera that took 110 cartridges. (Anyone remember those?) Her photographic interests are varied and is known to schlepp her camera, tripod, and remote (when she remembers) up mountains and hillsides.