Africa vibrations: a family excursion to Kenya and Tanzania

When our four-year-old, Lea, started expressing interest in visiting Africa a couple years ago, my wife and I took interest. We had always wanted to see life on the African continent, to experience a safari, and observe some of the world’s most exciting wild animals in their natural environment. We also thought that it would be an educational experience for Lea and her sister Eva, as well as a memorable, family-building experience for us all.

So, rather than tempering Lea’s wishes with vague assurances of “some day,” Malene and I started making plans. Well, to be fair, Malene did most of the planning.

Eva, Malene, Lea and Nat

There are those who would argue that doing it yourself in terms of researching, planning and making the arrangements for a trip is all part of the experience, but we have found that in some cases it makes sense to enlist the help of a travel agency to make sure that you make the most of your time on the ground. We had a positive experience with the assistance we received planning an Australian trip in 2018 so decided that we would explore some of the packages that African-focused travel agencies had to offer.

We flew on Qatar Airlines, which was a treat.

We decided on a package that included one week in Kenya and one week in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The itinerary for the Kenya leg of the trip looked intensive but the Zanzibar leg was very relaxed so we figured that our busy week would be offset by the following week to unwind after the safari. For the most part this plan worked well, but if we were to do it over, I think we agree that we might try to balance it out a little more evenly.

We arrived in Nairobi at 11:30 PM and were taken to our hotel in the city by a transfer service arranged by the travel agency. The next day, we had a full itinerary of activities in and around Nairobi, visiting the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, a Giraffe Center, the Karen Blixen Museum, and the Kazuri Beads Center.

Our friendly and talented guide, Patrick

There were high expectations among our family for the elephant orphanage. As a sanctuary for baby elephants whose parents had been poached, we expected that it might be somewhat somber, and I can’t speak for Malene or the girls, but my assumption was that it would also be an intimate, hands-on encounter with these impressive and intelligent creatures. With a vision in my head that our group would be one of just a couple others at the park, I thought that we might be able to personally feed the animals or otherwise have direct contact with them.

This was not the reality however. After paying an entrance fee we lined up with dozens of other tourists and filed our way into a viewing area cordoned off by a rope. We were lucky enough to stake out one of the last few spots along the rope line and waited for the elephants to come out from wherever they were hiding.

When they finally emerged, everyone started taking photos and jostling for position to get a better view. Although I was generally enjoying watching the elephants eat and hearing the handlers tell their stories, it was not the intimate experience that I had anticipated.

After the elephant orphanage, we went to the Giraffe Center, which I must say, was closer to the hands-on experience that I had expected with the elephants. Food is handed out at the entrance and visitors are encouraged to feed the giraffes by hand. Their long tongues are surprisingly agile and can scoop food from the smallest of fingers. We all got a kick out of being licked by blue giraffe tongues and were impressed by the animals’ stunning beauty.

Next stop was the Karen Blixen museum. Coming from Denmark we were keen to hear the story of this famous Dane and, observing the gorgeous landscape of her farm, could easily see why she decided to spend so many years living in Kenya. I doubt she missed those long Danish winters.

Our tour guide explained that Karen Blixen is still beloved in Kenya to this day.

The final stop for the day was the Kazuri Beads and Pottery Centre, which is a collectively owned and operated bead factory that employs many local women. It was interesting to learn how the beads are made and to see the social services provided by the center, including its health clinic. The beautiful beads are exported around the world. Needless to say, we bought some for the girls, including a new pair of earrings for Eva.

The next day, we hit the road for Amboseli National Park. Once you get out of the Nairobi metropolitan area, the reality of underdevelopment hits pretty quickly. The unpaved, unkempt dirt roads and general lack of infrastructure are a bit jarring at first and while you might sort of get used to it, keep in mind that the rough going is not temporary. It continues throughout your journey, so one thing to consider when you’re planning an African safari is whether going from point A to point B is necessary and worth it.

Travelers should study a map carefully and decide ahead of time how much time they want to spend on the road, and whether for example, it is necessary to visit multiple national parks or whether one or two would suffice. This may depend somewhat on how important it is for you to see all of the Big Five game animals – the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo – as certain animals are more common in some national parks than others.

We finally arrived at Kibo Safari Camp, checked ourselves in, and went out on a game drive. If you’ve never been on a game drive before, there is little that can prepare you for the awe-inspiring beauty of seeing elephants, antelopes, gazelles, zebras, ostriches, and buffalo roaming the Serengeti, with the sun setting behind a horizon of acacia trees.

As soon as we got out there and started seeing these wild animals in their natural habitat, it occurred to me that I had never known how much I had wanted to experience an African safari until that moment. A zoo doesn’t come close to the experience of being among the animals where they live.

I had asked our guide earlier what the chances were of seeing animals out on the drive, slightly concerned that we might not see any, but those concerns disappeared pretty quickly. Animals are everywhere, and it was interesting to see how all these species just co-exist and peacefully share the same space. (Well, at least the herbivores.)

In addition to large mammals, there are countless species of birds to admire.

We spent the next day out on a game drive and despite having already seen many of the animals, the excitement was just as fresh on the second day.

Giraffes were a common sight.

In addition to thoroughly enjoying the game drive, we were all thrilled staying at the camp. Our tent was very homey and the camp had an excellent swimming pool which had both a shallow and deep end, which is essential when travelling with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. The staff was all very nice, in particular one waiter named Lavender who befriended our two girls and gave them big hugs every time she saw them.

It was soon time to hit the road, however, and make our way to another national park – this time at Lake Nakuru. Despite being told that the trip would take six hours it actually took twice that. To be honest the trip was a bit grueling. We were very glad to break up the journey with a stop at Lake Naivasha, where we hired a boat to take us to see Crescent Island.

It was stunning to see so many birds and vegetation, as well as a family of hippos and a flock of zebras that lived on the island.

It was also a bit sobering, however, because our guide told us that the dead acacia trees that we saw in the water should not be there. The dead trees were a result of climate change: due to unusually heavy rains in recent years, the lake was rising and consuming trees and houses along the coastline.

The hippos didn’t seem to mind though.

After this brief interlude, we piled back into the car and continued the journey to Lake Nakuru National Park. It seemed to take forever and when we finally arrived we were all quite ready to have some dinner and call it a day. After 12 hours on the road – a very rough road – I would have liked to stay put a couple days to relax, but our itinerary called for us to do a morning game drive and hit the road again the next day.

I wondered at this point whether it was possible to adjust our plans and cancel or modify the next leg of the journey – perhaps just skip the trip to the next national park – but Malene reminded me that we had to keep going because we would be catching a flight in a couple days to Zanzibar.

So the next morning, after having just checked in, we checked out of the lodge. Unfortunately, Malene was feeling under the weather with a stomach ache. Despite some discussion about whether we should revise our plans, she decided to suck it up and continue with the itinerary.

We piled back into the van and hit the road again. I was not terribly thrilled with the prospect of another day bouncing around in the back of a van but that was nothing compared to how Malene felt. Her stomach bug seemed to get worse throughout the day.

But we kept going and after nine hours arrived at our next destination, at the Mara Sopa Lodge in Masai Mara National Park.

In my opinion this lodge was the best of the three we had been to so far, but Eva disagreed because she thought that the swimming pool at the first one was better. I had to agree with her on that point, but the food at the Mara Sopa Lodge couldn’t be beat. Plus, there were cute little monkeys everywhere.

Lea is asking “Is this close enough Daddy?”

At this point, we were only missing two of the Big Five – we hadn’t seen lions or leopards yet. So the next day, we set out on another game drive. The landscape of Masai Mara National Park was spectacular.

We were lucky to have a very knowledgeable and talented guide named Patrick who was skilled in locating animals and also sharing interesting facts about them. When we found a pack of lions sleeping in the grass, he explained that this is their normal behavior, noting that they are probably the laziest animals in the world – with the possible exception of the cubs who get up on occasion to stretch and yawn.

Soon afterward, we came across a leopard in a tree, which completed our quest to see the Big Five. While this did indeed feel like something of an accomplishment, I would point out that whether or not you see all of these species is probably not the most important aspect of a safari. Personally, I found many animals to be more exciting to observe, including hyenas, jackals, cheetahs and eagles.

A jackal

The next day, we were off again to the airport to wrap up our African vacation in Zanzibar. While we had a few sites we planned to see, the idea of this leg of the trip was mostly to unwind, relax, swim in the ocean and enjoy the warm climate for a few days before heading back to Denmark.

We arrived in Zanzibar on Saturday evening and I was impressed by how lively it was, with throngs of locals out enjoying the nightlife. We checked into Mizingani Seafront Hotel in Stone Town, which I must say was unlike any other hotel I’ve ever seen. Its architecture and old-timey feel were totally unique, and we were all very pleased with our room.

The girls were hungry so I walked to a local food market and a vendor described about a dozen different kinds of foods he would barbecue for me while I waited. I chose a few that I thought Eva and Lea would like and went back to the room where we scarfed down our food on the balcony.

The next day, our plan was simply to explore Stone Town, find the famous sites including Freddie Mercury’s house and a former slave market, and visit Prison Island where a colony of giant tortoises live. As we set out from our hotel, however, a young tour guide introduced himself and offered his services. Initially I turned him down, but he started rattling off a bunch of historical facts about Stone Town and I realized that we might benefit from a guide.

Slave memorial in Stone Town

I think the decision was the right one, because despite having to spend a bit more money than I had planned, our guide, Omar, ensured that we made the most of our time. Getting around Stone Town’s narrow, labyrinthine streets also would have been difficult not knowing where we were going and Omar ensured that we found our destinations. He also was quite informative, telling us, for example, all about the slave trade that once dominated the economy of Zanzibar.

Omar describes the conditions of a holding cell where up to 75 enslaved Africans would await being sold at auction.

Besides the fascinating history, one thing that struck me about Stone Town was the exceptional artwork that was available for sale throughout the city center. If you are in the market for art, be sure to leave room in your suitcase because there are many beautiful paintings to be purchased in Stone Town.

We got to Prison Island mid-afternoon and made our way to a colony of giant tortoises on the island. If you are in Zanzibar, this is a must see. None of us had expected the tortoises to be nearly as large as they were, and we were all delighted by their friendly, gentle and inquisitive personalities.

Despite an initial trepidation, even our shy little Lea opened up to the turtles and was brave enough to feed them some tasty leaves.

The next day we made our way to our final destination – a boutique oceanfront hotel.

When we arrived we were initially pleased with what looked like very cozy accommodations and a swimming pool that we expected to get some good use out of. The hotel was right on the beach and we were looking forward to spending a few relaxed days soaking up the sun and splashing around in the water.

We immediately noticed that there were quite a few locals who would hang out on the beach offering various services and selling wares. I spoke with one about arranging a snorkeling excursion the next day, which we arranged for 8:00 AM, to include the whole family. But due to the heat we did not get much sleep at all.

The next day, sleepy and unrested, nobody wanted to go snorkeling, so I found my contact person on the beach and asked if it would be alright to postpone it for 24 hours. He told me that he had already arranged for a boat and that it was a good day to go out because the water was calm. So, I agreed that I would go out but that my family would stay behind.

This actually worked out for the best because I don’t think the girls would have enjoyed going out on the boat that I had chartered. It was very choppy and I’m pretty sure they would have been scared. They also probably would not have known how to properly snorkel since we hadn’t practiced using the masks and breathing devices.

For me though, the experience was fantastic. I had never snorkeled before and couldn’t believe how many fish there were to see. Besides numerous species of fish, I also saw an octopus and a sea snake. I was a bit startled by the sea snake, because despite being beautiful, I knew that its venom was among the deadliest in the world. I subsequently read however that sea snakes are generally reluctant to bite and that their fangs are quite small so it is difficult for them to deliver enough venom to kill a human.

Although the girls were not able to join this activity, Malene and Eva went out the next day during low tide for a tour by foot, in which it is possible to see many of the same creatures as you can during snorkeling. They saw starfish, squid, fish and sea urchins.

While staying at this hotel, it soon became clear that there wasn’t a lot to do – at least nothing that didn’t require paying locals in cash, which I ran out of pretty quickly and only found out later that the closest ATM was an hour’s drive – and it was not particularly kid-friendly. For example, the hotel had a collection of bicycles available to borrow but when I went to get a couple for Eva and myself, I found out that they didn’t have any her size.

Likewise, when I wanted to borrow a kayak to take out on the ocean, I discovered that they didn’t have any child-size life vests. Nevertheless, Lea and I took a kayak out anyway. Lea enjoyed it very much and didn’t seem to mind wearing an oversized adult life vest.

At the hotel, I spent many hours in the pool with Eva and Lea. It did not occur to me until later, but it turned out that this pool was unchlorinated. After the third day or so, my left ear started hurting badly and I came down with a fever. Doing some online research, I figured out that what I was suffering from was most likely an ear infection caused by a bacteria-infested swimming pool. I spent the last two days at the hotel nursing a case of swimmer’s ear and wishing I had never gone in that unchlorinated pool.

Two lessons I took away from the experience at our final hotel: 1) It’s important when you’re traveling with kids to make sure that hotels are kid-friendly. This means that they should have special accommodations and activities for kids and that the pools have shallow ends. 2) Make sure that the pools are properly chlorinated.

And finally, it’s important to make sure that the amount of time spent at a hotel is appropriate. While we certainly enjoyed the first couple days at the boutique hotel on the beach, I think we all grew slightly bored after a while. Likewise, while we were in Kenya the previous week, we would have enjoyed staying an extra day or two at a couple of the lodges we were at.

These things are hard to know in advance, but if we were to do the trip over again, I think we would make a few small adjustments in this regard – a little more time on the safari so that we weren’t rushing around so much and a little less time on the beach so that we  didn’t get bored.

But all in all, the African vacation was a huge success and the experience of a lifetime. Although with hindsight we might have done a few things slightly differently, in general it was more than we could have ever asked for. Spending that much time together – whether having fun splashing around in the pool, seeing the world’s most magnificent animals or “roughing it” on long off-road drives – was a bonding experience that brought us closer together as a family and one that we won’t soon forget.

Aussie adventure: Perth and Fremantle

If a visit to the Land Down Under isn’t on your bucket list, perhaps it should be. Australia has a well-deserved reputation as a place of stunning natural beauty and a relaxed, easygoing lifestyle that makes it a popular destination for travelers from around the world. The fact that its seasons are inverted also makes it an attractive option for those who might have a case of seasonal affective disorder and need some warmth and sunshine during those long winter months.

We visited Australia just after Christmas and were met at the airport by relatives who had emigrated to the country decades ago. We were also greeted by the warm summer air and a cool breeze which immediately put us in the mood for a laid-back, stress-free Aussie vacation.

Visiting Australia around Christmastime is a bit of an experience in and of itself because it can be pleasantly puzzling to those of us from the northern hemisphere to see Yuletide decorations during the middle of summer. But of course it is worth remembering that Aussies deserve a Christmas too, even if Frosty the Snowman wouldn’t fare too well in their heat.

Our extended Australian family were excellent hosts, arranging activities for us nearly every day, taking us out on a boat, feeding us and putting us up in one of their homes, all of which was a big advantage – both on our wallets and to make sure we made the most of our time. They showed us good spots for fishing and golfing and attractions off the beaten path. We were also informed that Aussies would never say “throw another shrimp on the barbie,” because they call them prawns, not shrimps.

Starting our Australian vacation in the Perth area of Western Australia (WA, which locals claim stands for “wine anytime”) we spent our first day at Kings Park and the adjacent Botanic Garden, featuring regional plant life and a nice view of Perth from the World War I Memorial.

A hike through the Botanic Garden is good way to get acquainted with the natural beauty of WA, with a highlight being the Lotterywest Federation Walkway – a glass and steel bridge that passes through a canopy of eucalyptus trees.

The following day we visited Cohunu Park, which is a large petting zoo home to typical Aussie wildlife such as kangaroos, emus, koalas, and dingoes. (The dingoes are safely ensconced in caged area, so don’t worry about them taking your baby.)

It is a fun place to visit, especially if you are traveling with children, and a good opportunity to see some Aussie animals up close, but be advised that it might feel like a bit of a rip-off. On top of the $15 entrance fee ($5 for kids), they also charge $30 to take a photo with a koala (per person, using your own camera) and tickets for a train around the park are $4 each. There is also no food for sale, so you might want to pack a picnic basket. Despite these minor drawbacks, the park is definitely worth a visit to see some Australian fauna, with the kangaroos a particular fascination for our three-year-old, Lea.

One advantage of having relatives in Australia is that we had access to both fishing and golfing gear, and we made good use of both. On New Year’s Day, we went beach fishing on Preston Beach, and were pretty successful catching herring using chicken breast and squid as bait. We all caught at least one or two, including Lea.

It is a lot of fun to drive out on the beach but keep in mind that you might not want to attempt it unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who knows what he or she is doing, otherwise you might get stuck. It’s also a good idea to let some air out of your tires which makes the vehicle more maneuverable on loose sand.

The next day we visited Serpentine Falls and played nine holes at the Serpentine golf course. This course is an excellent option for those on a budget, only costing $10, but keep in mind that you need to bring your own golf clubs. (They don’t mind if you share though so all you need is one set, and the dress code is also fairly relaxed, only asking that you don’t go shirtless or shoeless.)

The golf course was not busy at all which is an advantage for those of us whose golf game is a bit rusty – no pressure from other groups behind you waiting for you to get the ball in the hole. A good time to go is late afternoon, when it is a bit cooler and has the added benefit of seeing kangaroos coming out to graze at dusk.

Serpentine Falls is also worth a visit, another opportunity to see kangaroos up close as they hang around the picnic area hoping for a handout. (Feeding them is prohibited however.) Be sure to bring your bathing suit for a swim at the falls.

While in the Perth area, you wouldn’t want to miss visiting Fremantle and Rottnest Island. Get to Fremantle (or Freo, as the locals call it) early to take a look around the town before catching the ferry to Rottnest (or Rotto). The ferry ride can be a bit choppy so keep that in mind if you are prone to seasickness.

Rotto is a charming little island renowned for its native inhabitants called quokkas – which are cute, docile creatures that vaguely resemble large rats. (This is how the island got its name, with a Dutch explorer calling the place “Ratnest,” or “Rottnest” in Dutch.)

You should give yourself plenty of time on Rotto if you want to explore the island and do any activities like snorkeling or swimming. We got there a bit late in the day and didn’t have much time before having to catch the ferry back to the mainland, so we didn’t venture too far from the port – playing a game of minigolf and taking a few pictures of quokkas before getting back on the boat.

Freo is also worth devoting a good amount of time to. We didn’t have much time there on our first visit but were so impressed that we decided to come back a couple days later. It’s a pleasant, relaxed beach town characterized by classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture that reminded me of places in the southern U.S. such as Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. It has a bit of a Bohemian, Wild West feel to it as well, and has been called the “hippest place in Australia.” Good opportunities for nightlife and live music if that’s your thing.

We started our day in Freo at the Maritime Museum which is very much worth a visit to see an impressive collection of boats, including the Australia II sailboat that won the America’s Cup in 1983, breaking a 132-year winning streak by the New York Yacht Club – an achievement that Aussies still seem rather proud of. Outside of the museum is a display of panels commemorating the arrival of immigrants to Australia and the ships on which they arrived. Take a moment to find your family names on the panels but keep in mind that they are not very well organized and incomplete.

There are many excellent dining options along the Freo waterfront and other attractions worth seeing such as the Roundhouse – Fremantle’s first prison and its oldest building – and the Markets, which offer all sorts of local wares and souvenirs, as well as fresh fruit. If you want to really explore the town, you should give yourself two or three days.

Finally we visited Perth, which is also worth a visit particularly if you want to get a sense of daily Aussie life and do some shopping. It is a bustling city of 1.8 million and easy to navigate using the metro system. Although there are not a lot of sight-seeing opportunities in the city, its central pedestrian street is nice to stroll along.

After spending almost two weeks in the Perth area, our journey continues with a flight to Alice Springs.

Moose, Vikings and Legos: Highlights from Sweden and Denmark

Sometimes the best travel plans are the simplest travel plans. Since we live in Denmark, it doesn’t get much simpler than travelling next door to Sweden for a countryside retreat, which is what we did for the first leg of our 2017 summer vacation.

The house we rented in Sweden was in a little town called Vittsjö, about an hour’s drive from Helsingborg. It was an idyllic country home with a pond on the property, which was surrounded by farmland. The house had no TV, internet connection or cell phone service so it was the perfect place to go to truly unplug and relax. We spent our days catching toads, making popcorn on an open fire, canoeing in the pond, and playing games.

We also visited the nearby Smålandet Moose Safari, which is a recommended visit if you are ever in the area. They have an impressive population of moose and bison, which are remarkable animals and if you have never seen any up close, definitely worth taking a look.

The second of leg of our vacation consisted of a couple days back at our house, while the third leg was a trip to Legoland, on the Danish peninsula known as Jutland. On the way to Legoland we stopped at the Trelleborg ring fortress for an annual Viking festival held every summer. We enjoyed the festival very much, and the girls were particularly transfixed by a storyteller who told tales from old Nordic mythology.

It was pleasing to see the girls so engrossed by traditional storytelling, offering a reminder that no matter how accustomed we become to the marvels of technology with our iPads and videos literally at our fingertips, some simple props and a good story still have the ability to hold a child’s attention.

The first day of our visit to Legoland was a wet one – with sporadic downpours throughout the day. We made the most of it though, doing some things that we probably wouldn’t have had the sun been out – for example, seeing a 3-D Lego cartoon at the movie theater and visiting the haunted house – and I must admit the short wait times to get on rides was a nice perk.

The following day was sunnier and warmer and we got to enjoy more of the rides that we couldn’t on the first day due to the rain. Naturally, the waiting times were longer than the previous day but not as bad as you might expect. The lines move pretty fast.

According to our daughters, the best rides were the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel and the safari ride. They also enjoyed the gold mining activity, and Lea was especially proud of the gold medallion she won.

And of course, they loved the cotton candy, or candy floss as they call it in Denmark.

Memorable Minsk

Last week, I was in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for work, and although 90% of my time was spent at a hotel conference center, I did manage to see a few sights and get a general impression of the city. I can even make a recommendation or two.

One of the first things you notice about Minsk is how exceptionally clean it is. It is also a very walkable city, and although I did not have a chance to try it, the city’s metro system is supposed to be first-rate. The locals tend to be friendly and helpful, and I was also told (anecdotally) that they are generally honest. One of my colleagues lost a valuable pearl necklace and it turned up at the hotel’s lost-and-found rather than in a pawn shop, so that’s a good sign. It’s not all places that you might expect that to happen.

I had a chance to walk around one evening after work and found myself admiring the buildings quite a bit. While the architecture is generally done in the monumental socialist realist style, it has more charm than you might imagine. (The photo above is of the Palace of the Republic, which stands on Oktyabrskaya square. It is used for concerts, as well as conferences and political meetings.)

With more than 80% of Minsk destroyed during World War II, it is the perfect place to go if you want to see architecture from the Stalinist era – being that there are very few buildings that date back earlier than the 1950s, with the best Soviet architects completely rebuilding the city during that period. Some have even described Minsk as “a perfect Soviet city.”

It is also home to some beautiful Orthodox churches.

The highlight of my time in Minsk was a concert at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. It is an impressive building, and the performance inside was unforgettable – some of the most talented ballet dancers and opera singers I have ever seen.

Also, interestingly, the décor lining the walls inside the opera house featured hammers and sickles from the Soviet era.

This is actually a common sight around Minsk, where you will see many relics from the days of communism, including a statue of Lenin. While many former Soviet countries have tried to shed that image (including, for example, Ukraine, which in 2015 officially prohibited communist symbols in the country), Belarus is one of the few places where you can still see these symbols proudly on display.

So, if you are nostalgic, curious, or simply have an appreciation for history, it is certainly a place worth visiting.

About us

We are a family of 4 living in Copenhagen, Denmark.

We want to show our kids the world

We like long weekends away, relaxing holidays and exploring new places

 

About us

Long, Fabulous Weekend in Rome and Pompeii

First off, let’s put to rest the notion that seeing the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Vatican Museums is too much for one day, or that you need to join a tour group in order to “do them properly.” In fact, it is not only doable, but highly enjoyable and remarkably stress-free if you plan your time well – and of course make the necessary reservations in order to skip the long ticket lines.

Having previously visited Rome, on a day trip from Tuscany some 15 years ago, I have always mildly regretted that I ended up staying at the Vatican too long and arrived at the Colosseum a few minutes after its closing time. It was bittersweet to examine the exterior of the Colosseum but not being able to go inside, and I always told myself that if I ever returned to Rome, the Colosseum would be at the top of my list of sights to see.

So, when my wife Malene expressed an interest one day about taking a trip to Rome (where she had never been), I began thinking about making a point of revisiting the historic Italian capital, and this time ensuring that all the items on my bucket list were checked off.

Rome

Then, of course, a monkey wrench was thrown into my planning when we watched the 2014 movie “Pompeii” (one and a half stars at Rotten Tomatoes) and both ended up with a desire to visit the ancient city destroyed (and at the same time, paradoxically, preserved) by the famous eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano two millennia ago.

Okay, so Rome and Pompeii it would be…

Anniversary Gift

After a couple years of mulling it over, finally, last fall I decided that for our fifth wedding anniversary in December, I would surprise Malene with tickets for a trip to both Rome and Pompeii which we would take over a long weekend in the spring, hopefully after recruiting the grandparents to watch over our two young daughters for a few days.

Without too many hiccups, the plan was set for a three-day visit (arriving on Thursday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning), and since a trip to Pompeii was arranged for Saturday, the trick was to ensure that all the most important sights in Rome were seen on Thursday and Friday.

Pantheon

We started Thursday afternoon by visiting the Pantheon, which was amazing, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which were beautiful but massive tourist traps. (Pro tip: do not accept roses from the street peddlers unless you are willing to give money, no matter what you are told about these roses being “free.” They’re not free.)

Rome

Rome

Having already experienced the disappointment of missing the Colosseum 15 years earlier, I knew that planning was important in this regard, so I had gone online for advice a week before we had left for Rome.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

In a thread at Fodors.com entitled “Are Forum/Colosseum and Vatican too much for one day?” a few commenters advised not to try cramming them into one day or simply expressed the opinion that the Forum/Colosseum and the Vatican each deserve their own day, but one piece of advice caught my eye, which I ended up printing out and making part of our itinerary for the trip.

A user by the name of Dave recommended that it is possible to do both in the same day without much hassle, as long as you start early. Be there by 9 AM, he advised. I’m glad we took his advice. We got there about 8:45 and since we had already purchased our tickets we were able to quickly make our way in.

Colosseum

Entering the Colosseum is a bit surreal. We all have some idea of the horrors that took place there, at least those of us who have seen “Gladiator,” but when you arrive, you realize that this is not just a place where a few bad things happened, but that its entire purpose was the depraved entertainment of privileged spectators by watching the less fortunate fight each other to the death – or, worse yet, by being torn apart by lions, bears and other wild animals.

The fact that the opening of the Colosseum back in 80 AD was celebrated with 100 days of “games” that featured gruesome deaths of thousands of animals and humans is a bit overwhelming when you confront the issue head on, and to be honest, I had the same feeling in the Colosseum as I once did when I visited the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Even nearly 2,000 years removed from those events, it’s hard not to contemplate human nature a bit and wonder if perhaps people are naturally just cruel and bloodthirsty.

Colosseum

But That Architecture

At the same time, while pondering our humanity and wondering if deep down perhaps we are a bit sadistic or maybe just fundamentally indifferent to the suffering of others, it is easy to also be taken in by the splendor of the place and recognizing it if nothing else as a rather impressive feat of engineering and architecture – especially for people operating a couple thousand years ago with what must have been relatively primitive construction methods (or maybe that’s just my 21st century historical bias).

Colosseum

My wife and I also noticed how the builders of the Colosseum used bricks that were surprisingly not much different than bricks that are used today. It turns out, in fact, that the ancient Romans developed the use of bricks under Emperor Augustus, borrowing techniques developed by the Greeks, and actually the technology hasn’t changed much to this day.

Déjà Vu

After about an hour in the Colosseum, we headed over to the Forum, which we enjoyed exploring for another hour or so. There were many beautiful and interesting sights to see, but if you have ever visited Athens’ Parthenon, Acropolis or Temple of Zeus you might get a sense of déjà vu. It occurred to Malene and me that, perhaps, one ancient ruins site might not be much different from another.

Forum Romanum

But of course, this shouldn’t be taken as a non-endorsement of the Roman Forum. By all means, if you visit Rome, you should see the Forum, if for no other reason than because, according to legend, it is the place were Rome was founded in 750 BC by Romulus, who, along with his twin brother Remus had been raised by a she-wolf. (Click here for more on that possibly apocryphal story.)

Forum Romanum

After getting our fill at the Forum, and a bit ahead of schedule, we proceeded to the Colosseo Metro station to catch the metro to Termini, changing to the A line and getting off at the Ottaviano stop metro stop where we had a delicious lunch at the nearby Duecentogradi sandwich shop before entering the Vatican Museums.

Skip the Lines

While making plans for our trip to Rome, I had been told that it is wise to make an appointment for the Vatican Museums rather than just showing up and buying a ticket. I cannot stress enough what a good idea this is. When we arrived at the Vatican Museums, we were taken aback by the exceptionally long line to get in, but then spoke to a Vatican employee and were reassured that since we had a 1:00 appointment, we could skip the line and head directly into the building to collect our tickets.

This made all the difference in the world, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why anyone would go to the Vatican without a reservation. I felt a little sorry for the people standing in line, wasting precious time standing out in the sun when they could have been inside making their way to the Sistine Chapel.  

Getting inside the Vatican Museums is a bit hectic, and for the first time, I really counted my blessings that we hadn’t brought our two young daughters on the trip. They would not have been happy, I don’t think, and most likely neither would Malene and I, so if you are thinking of taking small children to Rome, I would think twice. They probably won’t be very interested in the sights and keep in mind that many of the activities would be somewhat demanding for young children who tire easily. Rome is not terribly stroller-friendly either – or wheelchair-friendly, I suppose.

Vatican

Malene and I decided to try to make a bee line for the Sistine Chapel, but in the Vatican Museums, going “directly” to the Sistine Chapel still means a long, winding walk through a number of cavernous buildings. It is indescribably beautiful though, and worth taking the time to savor. You end up walking down the most majestic hallways you have ever seen, which are covered with gorgeous frescos, magnificent sculptures and other ornate décor from floor to ceiling.

Sistine Chapel Raises the Bar

By the time we made it to the Sistine Chapel, I thought that I might have already had my fill of religiously inspired artwork, having just walked past hundreds of some of the most incredible paintings on earth, but this trepidation disappeared the moment we entered the room. It is quite simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and despite the fact that you are accompanied there by hundreds of tourists and there are guards shouting things like “No photos!” it is still a very special, personal moment that you are not likely to forget any time soon.

The only “problem” is that once you gaze upon that sight, you might become a tad jaded and maybe even slightly desensitized to other beautiful works of art. Indeed, after leaving the Sistine Chapel and seeing other paintings on display in the Vatican Museums, I would sort of shrug and think to myself, “Oh look, another masterpiece.” The Sistine Chapel certainly raises the bar of expectations when it comes to art appreciation.

After the Vatican Museums, Malene and I headed over to St. Peters Square with the intention of going inside St. Peters Basilica, but upon arrival we discovered one of the longest lines we had ever seen and decided that it probably wasn’t worth the wait. So, with no regrets, we opted out of entering the church and just absorbed the atmosphere at St. Peters Square, marveling that even Catholic nuns were made to wait in line with no VIP treatment whatsoever.

Vatican

Vesuvio

The next day was our big trip to Pompeii. I had booked a day trip through the company City Wonders, which I would highly recommend. The trip was well arranged with very engaging and knowledgeable tour guides who offered all sorts of interesting tidbits of information.

Vesuvio

The tour started with a visit to Mt. Vesuvius, or Vesuvio as it is called in Italian. The tour guide made clear that it was optional whether we wanted to climb the volcano that was responsible for Pompeii’s destruction in 79 AD and Malene and I resolved that we would try to make it to the top. Although the climb started a bit rough, we found our stride and made our way up to the summit in no time. This is strongly recommended, both for the view you can enjoy at the top and sense of accomplishment, not to mention the fact that there are few people who can say that they have looked into the cone of an active volcano.

Vesuvio

Proceeding from Vesuvio we stopped for lunch at a place that serves traditional Napolitano pizzas, which we were told are quite different from Roman pizzas. Malene ordered a Margherita pizza and I had a Bianca (white) pizza, both of which were delicious, and we decided based on our limited experience that Napolitano pizzas are better than Roman pizzas, but perhaps not quite as good as New York pizzas.

Following lunch we got back on the bus and made our way to Pompeii. Despite all the amazing highlights that we had already seen over the past couple days, there was little to prepare us for the amazing experience of Pompeii.

Pompei

An Ancient City

The ancient ruins were remarkably well preserved and provided an intimate glimpse into life in the first century. As we started walking around, it began to dawn on me that this place was much bigger than I had expected. I suppose that I knew that it was a city, but as you start exploring, you realize that it really is, like, a city. Our tour guide was fantastic, explaining all sorts of details about the place that we wouldn’t have known without an expert, including insight into the lives of slaves at the gladiator school and prostitutes at the brothel.

Pompei

While I would not necessarily recommend joining a guided tour of the Colosseum, Forum or Vatican, for the Pompeii leg of the visit, I would definitely suggest a guide – although, naturally the guided tour is only as good as the guide.

Pompei

If we had another day in Rome, Malene and I would have liked to visit the Catacombs, but alas, we had to catch a flight back to Copenhagen. Next time, though, the Catacombs will be at the top of the to-do list – now that I think about it, a good reason to make a point of returning someday.