Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bone Up on Europe

Halloween 1967

Costumes have come a long way since
those sweaty plastic masks, haven't they?
Well, it seems everything's gone global nowadays, doesn't it?  When I was little and my mom mailed photos of my brother and me dressed in our Halloween costumes to my relatives in Germany, they thought we were really confused.  In Germany they only dressed up during Fasching (Carnival), the party season right before Lent, which usually occurs in February.  Never having heard of Halloween, they couldn't understand why we were costumed in October.

But now, just like McDonalds and Starbucks, Halloween has crossed the ocean to Europe.  Actually, Halloween first crossed the Atlantic to America, then crossed back over to Europe.  It started in the British Isles out of the pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain, a harvest festival, and kind of evolved together with All Saint’s Eve, which is October 31st.  In the 1840s, during the large Irish immigration, the tradition traveled to the U.S. and eventually became the children’s holiday we know today as Halloween.

Anyway, Halloween is all the rage now in Germany, Italy, France and the UK.  There’s no trick-or-treating, but they do dress up and party.  The House of Horror in Hamburg, Germany, is stocked full of gruesome, ghoulish costumes.  But if you happen to be overseas on October 31st and are looking for a more uniquely Euro creepy experience, there are a number of enchanting attractions you might visit.

The Catacombs of Paris are fascinating to tour any time of year, but I imagine it would be exceptionally spooky to enter their deep, dark caverns on Halloween night.  (They normally close at 5:00 p.m.  Wouldn’t it be a great marketing idea for them to stay open until midnight on October 31st?)  Children under the age of 14 are not allowed in the catacombs without an adult, but if you think your kids can handle it, take a tour of the miles and miles of tibiae, femurs, skulls and every other type of human bone, stacked upon one another over centuries of underground burials.  (Side note:  there are no bathrooms in the catacombs, nor lockers or coat check.)

Maybe you’ll want to take a hauntingly beautiful stroll surrounded by tombs, sepulchers, and mausoleums in one of Paris’s very large and famous cemeteries on Halloween?  Of course your children don’t know who Jim Morrison is, but you’ll get the added bonus of paying homage at his grave if you go to Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in the northeast corner of the city.  (His grave is the fourth most-visited tourist attraction in Paris!) 

Several other ancient cities of Europe stacked and displayed the bones of their dead, usually because their cemeteries became overcrowded.  Rome has at least 40 different catacombs; the Sedlec Ossuary in Sedlec, the Czech Republic, contains somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 skeletons, many of them decorating their chapel.  In Halstatt, Austria, one of my absolute favorite Alpine villages in Europe, visit the bonehouse which dates back to the 12th century.  Each of the 1200 skulls displayed there is intricately hand-painted with flowery designs and the date of death.

With Europe's long history of honoring the dead, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when one of my cousins in Germany asked me a few years ago, Do you have Halloween in America?

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television series on PBS?  Of course you do!  My kids’ favorite segment on that show was always when Mr. Rogers showed a clip about how something is made, like a traffic light or a tennis shoe.  (I used to think:  why doesn’t someone create a TV show for kids that features how things are made?  Well, voilá:  see How It’s Made on the Discovery Science Channel.)

Anyway, one fine way to learn about a different place or culture is to actually see how they make something they’re well known for, like Murano glass or Swiss chocolate.  Not one to forego a teachable moment, I thought it a wonderful opportunity to visit a master violin maker’s workshop while in Mittenwald, Germany, with my young kids. 

Sculpture in Mittenwald

Stringed instruments were originally developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, and Mittenwald has been acclaimed for its violin-making since the 18th century. Craftsmen are trained first as apprentices and then gradually become masters at Mittenwald’s renowned State School for Violin Making. Many violin workshops inhabit the city and several allow visitors to watch them work.  My daughter, who plays the viola, was intrigued by the intricacy and fine detail of the art.  What's impressive is that the craft hasn't changed much over the centuries.  The luthiers (yes! we learned that word there! it means a stringed-instrument maker) use the same wood tools, brushes for varnishing, and woodcarving knives as the old masters did.  Mittenwald’s tourist office provides a list of violin makers who allow visitors.  I recommend this very cool little excursion!

Related posts:
Chocolate Making in Broc, Switzerland
Wooden Shoe Making in Gouda, the Netherlands
Cheese Making in Gruyères, Switzerland
Glass Making in Murano, Italy
Porcelain Making in Delft, the Netherlands, and in Oberschliessheim, Germany

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Swiss Misses

Right now I’m planning a winter trip to Adelboden, Switzerland, with my 9th grade Girl Scout troop. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts own and operate four international program centers: Sangam in India, Our Cabaña in Mexico, Pax Lodge in London, and Our Chalet in Switzerland. Girl Scout troops may visit and stay in these lodgings at a modest price. My daughter’s troop, for which I am the leader, decided in 7th grade that they wanted to start saving money to travel to Our Chalet in high school. Planning for this trip has taught them how to set goals, develop money management skills, and work cooperatively with one another to fundraise and create their itinerary. I am very proud of my hardworking troop of girls.
"Our Chalet" owned by the World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts

Going to the Swiss Alps in the winter has its downside. What if we get snowed in? What if the weather is so bad we never even see the Alps? These teens are warm-weather gals too, so the cold will be quite a shock, I’m sure. Right now the girls’ enthusiasm has them convinced that given bad weather they’ll be happy just relaxing in the lovely old chalet eating Swiss chocolate and cheese fondue. (I actually believe them – it’s their parents that won’t be happy about that!) But if luck is on our side, we will enjoy the many exciting activities we have planned: Snow Olympics, igloo building and guided hikes offered free by Our Chalet; snow tubing, tobogganing, a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the little town of Adelboden; and a day trip to the nearby picturesque city of Lucerne.

Click here to find out more about Girl Scouting!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flat Lands

When the kids are little, it’s easy to have one of them sleep in the hotel double bed with you, or to ask for a crib or a rollaway.  But as they get bigger, you risk losing a good night’s sleep on your vacation if you let your tossing, turning, kicking, 9 year old sleep in your bed with you.  An option then, is to book a double room, with two double beds, and let the kids sleep in one together, with mom and dad in the other.  If you have more children, sometimes the hotel can squeeze a rollaway into a double room.

But what my family has now encountered, with a teenager and an almost-teenager, is that they DO NOT want to sleep with each other in the same bed.  That’s so gross, mom!  So begins the hunt for a hotel with a “Family Room” or a “Junior Suite,” with three or more beds, and these are few and far between when searching in the budget accommodations category, as I usually am.

The answer to this challenge, and in fact, I think, the answer to almost all family overnight lodging, is to stay in an apartment.  An apartment will have a kitchen (a benefit so valuable I’ll save listing the advantages for another post) and a living room couch, which can usually serve as a bed in a pinch.  And I have found vacation apartments in Europe to be equal to or less expensive than a hotel room with three or more beds.  Really!  (Check out, for example.  Their service is excellent, by the way.)

How do you find a vacation apartment in Europe?  Just like a hotel, you can google it.  Check out some of the bed and breakfast websites too, because often these lodgings are fully equipped with kitchens, couches and extra beds.  One of the most spacious apartments we’ve ever stayed in in Europe – with a private bedroom, full kitchen and eating area, and backyard with swing set – was in Delft, The Netherlands, booked through  (I personally recommend this site, as well.  Have had pleasant experiences with their apartments.)
Moderately priced hotels in Europe with great family rooms, per my experience:  Nadia Hotel in Amsterdam, Hotel Rubenshof in Antwerp, Park Inn Munich East in Munich, Crescent Hotel in London.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

Art by my son  :)
Since most guidebooks don't mention this, let it be known that children under the age of 8 are not permitted to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and children between 8 and 12 must be held by the hand. And for good reason. This is not a safe place, folks. The steep, narrow steps to the top of the bell tower are slippery and worn from millions of feet over the centuries. Although it is forbidden to enter the outer walkways around the tower - which, again, happens to be leaning - they are easily accessible. And once you’re at the top, the small, rusty railing that is supposed to keep you from a very long fall needs repair, not to mention a safety net. (Someone please bring this up to the Italians.) Also know that children between 8 and 18 shall be allowed only if accompanied by an adult. And finally, some good news: you do not need to haul your handbags and backpacks up to the top. There are free lockers in the cloakroom.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Spirit Gorge

One of the most awesome hikes I’ve ever climbed is through the Partnachklamm, a gorge carved deep between steep limestone walls by the Partnach River in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In the spring and summer, the aquamarine glacier water cascades beneath the trail at breakneck speed; in the winter one is surrounded by frozen waterfalls and enormous ice formations. Would I take my children here? No, not under the age of 13 or 14.

The Partnachklamm guard rail is unsafe for kids.
Europeans are just not as litigious as we are here in the states, so as a result, they don’t suffer from the same safety neurosis.  (I’ve seen tourists standing on the outer walkways around the Leaning Tower of Pisa; mind you, there were no safety rails!)  Basically, they figure, if your negligence causes you to get hurt, it’s your fault.  Well, the protective balustrade along the wet, slippery, narrow trail through the Partnach Gorge is just two iron cables with about a two foot gap in the middle.  That’s right:  no rail height or 4” sphere (the head of an infant) safety code enforcement here!  The risk to a young child is not worth it.

There is another dramatic gorge relatively nearby, however, called the Geisterklamm, or Spirit Gorge, on the German/Austrian border, with a trail designed for children.  Although the trail is over 250 feet high in some places, it is well protected with chain-link fencing, even across bridges.  Depending on the ages and endurance of your children, you can choose the shorter walk which begins in Mittenwald, Germany, where the entrance fee is 1.60€ for adults and 0.80€ for children, or the longer walk, accessible from Leutasch, Austria.  Here admission is free but 5.00€ for parking.

The ancient cliffs, the swirling water and cascading waterfalls are spectacular.  The trail is safe and easy to climb, and most of the walk is on metal gratings so you can see the raging river far below you (making it unsuitable, however, for strollers, dogs, and bicycles.)  Delightfully, frequent signboards featuring the friendly Spirit of the Gorge explain (in English, too!) the legends of the Infernal Water and Ghostly Castle, the Witch’s Cauldron and Devil’s Pool.  Children will learn how the surrounding rocks and geology were formed by glaciers during the Ice Age.  At the Mittenwald end of the gorge there is a breathtaking 75 foot waterfall, and at the Austrian end of the trail you can extend your walk along the stream through the Unterleutasch valley.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Middle Ages for All Ages

Children, often as young as 2nd or 3rd grade, are fascinated by medieval times. An exceptional place to fulfill all medieval fantasies is Carcassonne in southwestern France. The city is convenient to reach by train from either Paris or the French Riviera. Carcassonne is separated into the old city on a hill, La Cite, which lies completely within an enormous fortress, and the newer, lower city outside the castle walls. To immerse your family in the medieval experience, stay in one of the inns inside the fortress walls. The fortress, some of it dating back to the 1st century, includes over 50 stone watchtowers. Tours are offered in English, but it’s just as captivating to spend some time walking the walls on your own.

Along the narrow cobble-stoned streets within the old fortified city you will find cafés, restaurants, gift shops, and a historical museum.  But most intriguing of all are the year round street exhibitions.  Lavishly costumed knights and nobles stroll the lanes and interact with the tourists.  Elaborate jousting battles on horseback take place regularly, demonstrating various feats of skill with a lance and other medieval weaponry.  There are also falconry exhibits with these birds of prey flying right over your heads.  All street shows are free to watch.  If you’d like to check which demonstrations might be scheduled during your visit, email the Carcassonne tourist office.

Absolutely the best local dish I’ve ever eaten, in the best local setting, was dining on the regional bean stew, cassoullet, inside La Cite, Carcassonne. The dish itself dates back to the 14th century, so sitting in a dark restaurant cellar eating duck or goose cassoullet by candlelight is truly a cultural, and delicious, experience. After my husband and I returned home to the U.S., we once asked a Carcassonne native we know here if she ever makes cassoullet. She scoffed no, in America she just can’t find good duck fat!

P.S. My blog header does mention that I'll give tips on free public toilets, a rarity in Europe. In the case of Carcassonne, let me just say there are free toilets in La Cite, but they're NOT pretty. They're absolutely medieval (sorry.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kids' Staple

My super big tip of the day is . . . peanut butter.  Never travel to Europe with kids without a jar (or one of those cool tubes) of peanut butter.  I speak from experience when I say that a child under 12 can subsist for an entire vacation on peanut butter sandwiches and noodles with butter.  Got a picky eater?  You don’t think they’ll be thrilled to try bratwurst, proscuitto, quiche or croque monsieur?  Peanut butter will save you, but you won't find Skippy or Jif in many European grocery stores, so bring it from home.  (No need to bring jelly or jam.  That's easy to buy in Europe or swipe from your hotel breakfast buffet.)

Looks Like Skippy no longer makes Skippy Squeez' It tubes of peanut butter.  It's not even available on Amazon.  Too bad - it was very convenient for travel.  But Skippy Peanut Butter In-a-Cup or Jif® To Go snack sizes are practical too.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

London - Part II - My Favorite Part

After a few days in London on our first European adventure with little ones, the jetlag had subsided, we were acclimated to adventure, and we were ready to conquer the mainland.  The Eurostar awaited us.

The Eurostar, affectionately known as the Chunnel Train, is a high-speed passenger rail service from London to Paris and Brussels.  Imagine the wide eyes and the questions you will get from your youngsters when you tell them you’ll be taking a train through a tunnel under the ocean!  The Eurostar experience is practically a destination in itself.  Bring snacks or a sack lunch for the ride and enjoy every minute of your children's fascination and wonder!  It was the first thing my 1st grader wrote about in his back-to-school "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" project.

The Eurostar train takes you from London to either Paris or Brussels.  But here’s my favorite part:  if you travel to Brussels, the Belgian railway will let you ride to any other Belgian destination on the same ticket the same day!  So after a few days in the bustling city of London, go directly to the afore-mentioned relaxing, small beach town of Blankenberge.  The Eurostar leg takes about 3 hours and the ride from Brussels to Blankenberge only about 1 ½ hours.  Kick back on the beach with your kids and think about where you will go next!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

London Calling

In my previous post I recommended avoiding big European cities when traveling with very young children, but I make an exception for London and Paris.  C’mon . . . ferris wheels, sewer tours, really high elevator rides, and parades of soldiers wearing tall, black, fuzzy hats?  What’s a kid not to like??  For parents not to like are the usual big city parental-anxieties:  crazy drivers on busy streets, impatient subway trains (mind the gap!), pickpockets, considerable distances, and noisy hotel rooms.  But if mom and dad vigilantly hold on to the kids (in my case it’s me, the mom, hanging on to the kids because dad’s too busy looking at his GPS device) and wear a money belt (in this case it’s dad, not me, wearing the money belt because who needs extra padding around the waist in all those vacation photos?) then really, London and Paris are quite doable. 

London - Part I
I chose London as the very first stop on our very first trip to Europe with the kids.  They were 6 and 9 years old at the time.  The most practical reason for this decision was simply that London is the shortest non-stop European destination from North America.  (I know there are Reykjavik and Dublin and Glasgow but we’re not going there right now.)  Obviously, the less time one has to spend on an airplane and at airports with children, the better.  Another plus for the city of London is, of course, the English language.  Why not lessen the culture shock for your little ones by dipping their toes in a foreign country where they can at least be understood?  (Frustrations may still arise, i.e., “Mommy, I said I want french fries, not chips!!”) 

Even the phone booths
are just big toys for kids!
But the sights and sounds of London are really the best incentive to take children there.  Toddlers can be entertained just by riding around on a double-decker bus while mom and dad rest their legs and enjoy the view.  The changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace is free to watch and the pageantry, brass and drums, cannons, horses and carriages delight all-aged visitors.  At the Tower of London my little princess adored seeing the Crown Jewels and Star of Africa diamond while my young knight stood in awe of the very cool royal armor and weaponry, all included in the standard admission ticket price.  And, of course, the relatively new London Eye ferris wheel is not only an e-ticket ride for kids but provides an exceptional view of London, night or day.

The many, many other traditional sights in London will appeal to older children as their maturity and attention span progress – it’s a city for families not to miss.  Several guidebooks like “Fodor’s Around London with Kids” by Jacqueline Brown and “Frommer’s London with Kids” by Rhonda Carrier cover these attractions quite well, so I’ll leave St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, Covent Garden, Legoland, The British Museum – where do I stop? – to these very good and comprehensive guidebooks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Top Pick

Big cities like Rome, Madrid, Munich or Amsterdam may not be the best place to start with very young children.  Ruins, cathedrals, palaces and art museums are too immense, too crowded, too incomprehensible for a pre-schooler or even an elementary school child.  Great destinations at this age include small, relaxed storybook villages such as Mittenwald, Brugge, Volendam, Feldkirch, particularly ones with kids’ activities such as Hallstatt, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Gouda; lakeside or seaside towns such as Riva del Garda or Zandvoort or, in my opinion, any place with water.

May I then, in my first extended recommendation, suggest a seaside town that very few guidebooks find notable but I find unsurpassed in Europe for children under 10?  Blankenberge, Belgium.  You will find no American tourists here (read:  no inflated prices), but the Belgians love to vacation with their families at this little beach resort.  Yes, Blankenberge has sand and water for endless hours of sandcastle-building for kids and relaxation for mom and dad, but that’s not all I love about it.  The city is an absolute playground for children!  (Note:  few of the Blankenberge website links have an English language option.  Don’t be afraid, upon a little reflection it’s easy to figure out basics like operating hours and prices.)

Above all else for fun is the Kinderautodroom on the strand by the pier.  Here, kids of all ages rent pedal go-carts to ride around an enormously long and wide track that weaves under the pier and back.  Along the way are traffic signals, roadside phones and gas pumps.  When I drove this course as a child I felt an incredible rush of independence as my parents disappeared out of sight behind me.  (Parents can observe the whole track when standing on the pier.)  Added bonus:  the foot-pedaling tires out the kids for an afternoon nap or a good night’s sleep.  For only 3€/person for 30 minutes, this activity can’t be beat.

With a smaller but more charming track, Blankenberge’s Kid Carting at Leopoldpark offers sports cars, fire engines, and dump trucks to pedal.  I realized what very authentic pretend-play this course was when my 6 year-old son got out of his cart to berate another child (who didn’t understand a word of English) for running a red traffic light!

Families can ride around together in beach pedal cars, which can be rented all along the strand, or watch dad look really silly on a crazy bike in the Lustige Velodroom.  Blankenberge has miniature golf, a permanent mini-train expo, a Marine Park and Sea Life Center, and a Serpentarium (that would be reptiles), too.

The city is small and you can walk to the beach from virtually any hotel in town.  However, even the beach-front hotels on the promenade are relatively affordable, and we stayed at Hotel Helios.  Any size family can be accommodated by their suites, junior suites, extra beds and cribs.  Half-pension and full-pension are available, also.  (I know, that one always throws me off, too.  Why don’t they just say “dinner” and “lunch and dinner”?)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Have Kids Will Travel

We dressed up
for travel in the '60s.
(Yeah, that's me.)
My parents first took me to Europe when I was 3 years old.  Surprisingly, I actually have some memories from the trip.  Are they false memories created by seeing the photographs while growing up?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Those were not the digital days when photos could repeatedly be viewed with the click of a mouse.  Those were the days when dad, maybe once a year, would schlep out the slide projector and the enormous, pull-down screen and stage a family slide-show evening.

Probably the most positive benefit from taking the trip at age 3 was that when we went again a few years later, the experience was already familiar.  And so the sensory images build upon one another.

Knowing that my mother survived taking me to Europe at age 3 was not convincing enough for me to take my children at that age.  I was terrified:  the long plane ride!  the jetlag!  their picky eating habits!  their temper tantrums!  When I finally did summon the courage to take them, at age 6 and 9, I realized those concerns were relatively minor compared with the extraordinary experiences we had and the memories we made.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Let Me Introduce Myself

I’m a Europhile.  It’s in my blood and I want to breed it into my children.  Not just the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Acropolis and the Oktoberfest, but the quaint country villages, the colorful Dutch cheese markets, the sound of cowbells tinkling in the Alps, and the aroma of my aunt’s kitchen in Tiefenthal, Germany, after she’s baked Hefekissele.  Those Euro smells, they’re unmistakable.  Nothing triggers my memories of Europe quicker than the unexpected aroma of a musty cellar, Fanta soda, a cool damp forest, fruit at an outdoor market, fresh baguettes, stale beer (um yeah, that reminds me of my college dorm, too) and even cigarette smoke and diesel fuel.

But the idea of bringing young children on a vacation to Europe is daunting, and teenagers, well . . . what if they roll their eyes at everything?  What if, to the horror of all teenagers, they are bored?  Is it even worth spending all that money to go?

I think it is priceless to bring the kids at any age.  I’d like to invite you to share my enthusiasm in planning how to do it, even on a budget.
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