Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hitchin' a Ride in Barcelona

Casa Milà, or La Pedrera, by Antoni Gaudí
Barcelona can be a fun destination for school-aged and older children, certainly if they’re old enough to appreciate art and design and Gaudí’s architecture, but also if they just like the beach or a somewhat lively bigger city.  With not as many tourists or as much chaos as Rome or Paris, Barcelona’s leafy boulevards and sandy beaches make it a pleasant family destination.

Barceloneta beach, one of Barcelona’s seven golden sand beaches, was listed as one of the “World’s Best Beaches” by Discovery Channel in 2005 and is over a half mile long.  In total, Barcelona has over 3 miles of Mediterranean coast to enjoy (preferably with a glass of sangria!)  The city also has 68 municipal parks.  Montjuïc is the largest park, located on Montjuïc mountain, and beautiful Labyrinth Park contains a very cool garden maze.  (Important tip:  the Labyrinth Park of Horta, or Parc del Laberint d’Horta, is not near the Horta metro station.  It’s off of Mundet metro station.)

Something very unique to do in Barcelona, which will probably thrill your kids (and you, unless you suffer from vertigo or acrophobia), is to ride the cable car from the harbor all the way to Montjuïc mountain.  Officially called the Transbordador Aeri del Port, it departs every 15 minutes and soars 23 stories over the city.  A one-way trip is 9 euros per person, a little pricey but definitely worth it for the thrill and the stunning aerial views of the city below.

If you still need a little excitement after that, there’s another ride awaiting you when you reach Montjuïc mountain.  Albeit much shorter and less white-knuckle, a four person car takes passengers up to the Montjuïc Castle, an 18th century fortress with fantastic views of the Mediterranean and a museum which houses the largest collection of Catalán art in Spain.  Museum is open 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Tuesdays through Saturdays) and 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.  Closed Mondays.  Admission is 8.50€.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


When I traveled Europe as a young backpacker with a Eurail pass, I never made hotel reservations anywhere.  Why, the whole idea of backpacking is the freedom to come and go to any city, any time, on a whim.  Or to just sleep overnight on the train.  But as you’ve probably noticed since you had children, a lot of your old freedoms vanished with your new role as parent.  So to avoid dragging luggage AND sleeping children all over town to find a vacancy, and to avoid accepting, out of sheer desperation, one of those hotels that charge 25 centimes a minute in the coin-op meter shower for your family of five, make reservations from home before you go.  Even the most remote pensiones can now be found on the internet and scrutinized on Trip Advisor.  Virtually no private hotels, pensions, hostels, or Zimmer Frei ask for a deposit or advance payment, so there’s no fear of losing money upon cancellation.  Just be courteous enough to call or email and let them know if you’re not coming, since many times the loveliest of these places are family-run and they do arrange their schedules around your arrival.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Little Man P

I realize this is a family-friendly website, but have you heard of Manneken-Pis?  Also known as le Petit Julien in this bilingual country, that’s the real name of a famous landmark and popular tourist attraction in Brussels, Belgium.  Manneken-Pis (translation:  little man pee) is a statue of a naked little boy going pee.  My brothers and I loved going to see it when we were kids.  As we all know, boys under the age of about 25 12 are obsessed with toilet humor and bodily functions.  The jokes and laughter coming from men little boys upon visiting this statue will lighten up every weary member of a traveling family.  

Knowing the legend of Manneken-Pis before you go makes it that much more amusing.  There are several tales about the origin of the statue, but the story I was brought up with is that the young son of a Belgian noble once went missing while with his family in Brussels.  The nobleman was devastated and the townspeople banded together to find the boy.  The Belgian noble promised that he would have a statue cast, as a gift to the city, of his son doing whatever he was doing when he was found.  The search party found the boy, in the woods without a stitch, relieving himself - and so the bronze was cast.  As children we giggled with beguilement and shared gasps at the misfortune that left this poor little boy immortalized in humiliation.

But why visit Brussels to see Manneken-Pis when there is naked statuary on every corner in Europe?  Because yes, there’s more.  Manneken-Pis has a wardrobe.  As far back as the 17th century (the fountain was designed and placed in the city in 1618), visiting dignitaries, tradesmen, and foreign militaries began bringing costumes from their native lands as sort of a hospitality gift when they paid official visits to Brussels.  Perhaps they’d bring a costume of their national dress, or a uniform of their armed forces, or of their favorite sport – all with a hole cut out in just the right place.  At the present time, Manneken-Pis’s wardrobe consists of more than 800 costumes, and the collection is available for viewing at the Museum of the City of Brussels, located in the King’s House on the Grand-Place, across from the Town
Scuba Manneken
Hall.  In addition to seeing the permanent costume exhibition, the museum admission fee of only 3€ includes an educational game for children (available in English) about the history of Brussels and comes in a 6-8 year old version and a 9-12 year old version.

Manneken-Pis is occasionally dressed in his costumes, always in an elaborate ceremony, often accompanied by brass band music.  Scheduled dates and times for this all-around family fun are published and posted on the railings around the fountain.

Finally, FYI, you will find little Manneken-Pis, a.k.a. le Petit Julien, at the intersection of Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat, a short walk down the alley to the left of the Town Hall in Grand-Place.

Manneken Elvis

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nutcrackers and Nativities

Two years ago, my daughter's best friend's mom (got that?) took her daughter to Germany during Thanksgiving break for a mother/daughter tour of the German Christmas markets.  What a terrific idea for you and your tween!  (Why didn't I think of that?)  The German Christmas markets are magical:  picture a charming little medieval village, with renaissance-style buildings, Romanesque towers and a gothic church in its historic town square, strung with colored Christmas lights and dusted with fresh snow.  Handmade holiday crafts like nutcrackers and nativities are for sale by the costumed townsfolk and a mug of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) warms your hands.  Sounds dreamy to me.  

Although Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Vienna, Prague and many other European cities have Christmas markets, they are prolific in Germany.  Larger cities like Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne have them and so do the small romantic villages like Dinkelsbühl and Bernkastel-Kues.  Dresden has the oldest Christmas market, dating back to 1434, and boasts the world's biggest nutcracker.

I have personal affection for a beautiful, very special Christmas market in Germany that's kind of off-the-radar of most internet sites.  It takes place in Sommerhausen, a picturesque wine village on the banks of the Main River, outside of Würzburg, with a rich artist's community.  The Sommerhausen Christmas market begins this weekend, on Saturday, November 27, and runs every weekend thereafter until December 19, 2010.  The cozy wine taverns and local winegrowers offer tastings of Sommerhausen's famous Franconian wine, and cafés invite visitors to sample various Bavarian dishes or international cooking.  Many of the town's private art galleries exhibit notable canvas, collage, glass and ceramic art.  But what makes Sommerhausen’s Christmas mart unique and personal, is that the residents set up boutiques in their courtyards, domed cellars, and even inside their homes.  Guests are invited to browse and purchase their fresh-baked Weihnachtsstollen, homemade wines and cellar-made schnapps, wood-carved toys and quality crafted gifts.  The village atmosphere is embracing and enchanting, and the Christmas experience is unforgettable.

My daughter created this word-burning art piece
of Sommerhausen in the 7th grade.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

5 Places in Europe to Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving

Are you going to be overseas for Thanksgiving?  Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a traditional turkey feast with all the trimmings!  Here are five European cities serving up delicious Thanksgiving dinners this year:

•      BarcelonaThe American Society of Barcelona holds an annual Thanksgiving buffet dinner.  This year the buffet, which includes all the traditional dishes and then some, will be held at Hotel Arts Barcelona.

•      Brussels:  One of the American Club of Brussels’ most popular social events
every year is their Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of roast turkey, all the trimmings, and an assortment of real American pies.  This year it’s at the Sheraton Hotel, Brussels.

•      Berlin:  A Thanksgiving dinner buffet will be served at the Berlin Marriot and will feature live music.

•      LondonJW Steakhouse will be serving
up a festive Thanksgiving feast this year.  Other Thanksgiving dinners in the U.K.
can be found hereSt. Paul’s Cathedral in London also hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day service, attended by thousands of American residents and visitors.

•      Budapest:  The American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary offers a fully prepared holiday dinner that will be conveniently delivered to your doorsteps.  This turkey and goose delivery is available through December 31st.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Too Close for Comfort

I wasn’t the only passenger on the right side of the plane who got a little nervous when they looked out the window and saw this sight.  And our two planes kept getting closer, too.  Guess the pilots knew what they were doing (one likes to hope), but it sure rattled some nerves.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Got Ja Milk?

The four of us in our family are huge milk drinkers.  Voluminous.  The milkman delivers 5 ½ gallons to our doorstep every Tuesday, and sometimes I even have to run to the store for more on the weekend.  Our taste for milk is a little bit of a predicament when we’re in Europe, though it’s becoming less difficult than it used to be.

I remember years ago, milk was normally
sold in plastic bags in Europe.
When my brothers and I were in Europe as children with my parents, no one understood how we could drink a glass of milk.  “Milk is for cooking and baking!” exclaimed my aunts, or, “Milk is for babies!”  At restaurants the servers would gape, “What?  Milk to drink?” and then bring us a teacup of frothy warm milk.  (It’s kind of like the way it used to be in Europe with ice:  upon being served a glass of warm Coke in a café once we asked for some ice.  The waiter served us one small, melting cube of ice on a platter.)

Now it’s become a little bit more acceptable (for a child, at least) to order a glass of milk at a restaurant, what with the whole organic/natural food movement taking hold all over the Western world.  I even overheard my cousin in Germany scolding her young daughter for not drinking more milk “like her American cousins.”

We don't like
shelf milk like
The only problem that still remains is the taste and availability of the milk in much of Europe.  (I say much of Europe because I think the Belgians and Dutch, which we observed last summer, have it figured out now.)  Commonly available at grocery stores is what my husband and I call, “Shelf milk.”  Shelf milk is not refrigerated, ergo, it sits on the pantry shelf.  It usually comes in a little one liter box, or, when I was young, a one liter plastic bag.  Shelf milk does not need to be refrigerated because of an ultra high temperature pasteurization process, and this results in a distinctly different taste which we are not accustomed to.  My kids can’t stand it.  They call it “cheese milk” because of its somewhat bovine flavor. 

But like I said, the situation is slowly improving.  Last summer we actually found a selection of refrigerated grocery store milk in whole, low-fat, and non-fat varieties in several countries!  Some of the brands, however, still had residual cheesy flavor, but they were tolerable, at least, in a bowl of cereal.  After a lot of sampling, we were delighted to find ja! milk, available in some of the larger supermarkets, which tastes darned close to what we're used to.  It's progress!  Ja!!

ja! milk was definitely the best tasting we've found so far.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Accessible Italy

As my children got older I liked to ask them what they wanted to see in Europe.  At age 10 my daughter exclaimed, “Paris!  Italy!”  The usual crowd pleasers.  Paris wasn’t on the agenda for that summer, but Austria was, so could I somehow work Italy in?  It’s relatively close to Austria.  But there was that niggling feeling of discomfort with Italy.  (See previous post.)  Maybe if we stuck to Northern Italy, I thought, like Venice.  Yes, Venice!  Kids love Venice, it’s like a big Disneyland!

Venice was the right choice for my 11 and 8 year olds to see Italy.  It’s a very curious concept for kids that there are no cars and no streets in Venice.  Engage your youngsters in some interesting conversation before you go by telling them that Venetian children have to take a boat to school!  A fantastic book called The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke is also a great introduction to Venice for boys and girls.  It’s a thrilling mystery about two orphan brothers who run away to Venice and survive on the streets with other young transients.  The movie is also available on DVD and most of the scenes are shot in Venice.  After watching this film your kids will recognize the Rialto Bridge as soon as they see it!

To my surprise, the Venice Marco Polo Airport, built in 2002, is modern, convenient, and efficient.  Not at all chaotic or loud as one might expect where Italians convene in large numbers, the terminals are clean and spacious.  ATVO and  ACTV shuttle buses to the Venice-Santa Lucia train station on the western end of the Grand Canal are easy to locate and board.  Once you’re standing on the steps of the train station, overlooking the romantic, shimmering Canal, all your cares will slip away like the quiet gondolas gliding through it over centuries gone by.

That is until you realize you have to find your way to your hotel through all those alleyways, over all those pedestrian bridges, and up and down their narrow steps, with your luggage and your kids.  Panic!  Although I would recommend walking most everywhere you want to go in Venice, it’s a good idea to dish out some bucks for public transportation upon your first arrival with your luggage, and perhaps upon departure as well.  Public transportation is readily available on the waterbuses, called vaporetti, or the traghetto ferries.  The water taxis are limousines and will cost you as much as one (be sure to negotiate the fare before you board the boat, since the water taxis don’t have meters), and gondolas are, of course, a tourist attraction, not a form of public transportation.

When, and if, you find your hotel, take some time to orient yourself.  Collect some city maps from the lobby (or bring them from home if you’re staying in an apartment) and let your kids study them.  Show them how the Grand Canal curves through the city center like a snake and play search-and-seek to locate the only four bridges that cross it.  Ask the lobby receptionist where the nearest gelato shop is (the BEST gelato, however, is definitely Gelateria Nico at Dorsoduro 922).  And when you’re ready to venture out, don’t take the GPS with you - getting lost in Venice is half the fun!  (If your husband is like mine, it’ll take some pleading and prying to get that thing out of his hands.)

Since we were jetlagged on our first day in Venice, we took it easy by walking to Piazza San Marco and leisurely feeding the pigeons.  Big tip here:  bring some popcorn or old crackers from home or you’ll have to buy the overpriced pigeon food the vendors sell there.  Take a look inside St. Mark’s Basilica (if the line is too long, check to see if the left side door is open – another big tip today!) and walk up to the top for a fabulous view.  (Entry to the basilica is free, small fee to walk up to the top.)

Pensione Accademia Villa Maravege
Our hotel in Venice was sensational.  We parted with our custom of using budget accommodations and stayed at Pensione Accademia Villa Maravege.  We really splurged and got the junior suite, which ranges from 200€ to 325€, depending on the season, but we were extremely thrilled with our stay, the grounds, and the service there.  Our room was the perfect location for children – on the ground floor facing a courtyard that led out to one of the very few private gardens in Venice.

After four days in magnificent Venice, we made a quick escape from Italy on a train to Austria.  In only a few short hours you can be in the beautiful mountain and lakes region of Carinthia, Austria, in the eastern Alps.  A few hours more and you’re in the historical cities of Innsbruck or Salzburg.  A Venice/Austria itinerary is easy to plan, and one that is enchanting and enjoyable for kids of all ages.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Exotic Lands

Beautiful Budapest, Hungary
Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are what I like to call the more exotic European countries.  They are all fabulous destinations, each with their own character, history, customs, and scenery.  They probably offer the most unspoiled culture and the best travel bargains among European countries.  But for one reason or another – be it because they were once behind the Iron Curtain, or because they have a shaky economy or government, or because they’re less developed, less industrialized, or have a weaker infrastructure – these countries were never my first choice to travel to with young children.  In fact, I even marginally include Italy on this list, since once, in a hotel on southern Lake Garda, the water shut off while I had shampoo in my hair and didn’t come back on for 24 hours.  The management suggested I jump in the lake to rinse it out.  I’ve also seen some sleazy dealings going on among the Brindisi port ferry operators.  (Looked like extemporaneous ticket price escalation due to the crowds, to me.  But that was nothing compared to the palms we had to grease on the other side, in Corfu, to accomplish embarking on the ferry back to Brindisi.)
Brindisi to Corfu ferry
Anyway, these are not the sorts of things that make traveling with young children any easier.  Better to rely on Swiss precision and German engineering, or the remarkable capability of everyone in The Netherlands and Belgium to speak perfect English.  The Scandinavian countries too, are über-civilized and safe.  Besides, I remember that once I became a teenager I was no longer much interested in rustic mountain chalets or reading World War II memorial inscriptions . . . I wanted the white sand beaches of Santorini!  Snorkeling off the Canary Islands!  The open markets in Istanbul!  Fortunately for me my parents were happy to compromise and we managed a few of those dream destinations.  So my plan is to save these exotic lands until my son and daughter get a little older, too.  But have I mentioned that my daughter is already a teenager?  And already pining to see glorious Rome and ancient Athens.  That's my girl.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Smallest One Was Madeline

Paris.  PaRiS!  Is there anything that hasn’t been said about Paris?  Even the lil’est kidlets have seen or read Madeline:  “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. . . the smallest one was Madeline.”  As I mentioned in a previous post, although they are busy, bustling cities, Paris and London are worth the extra bit of money, the crowds, and slight anxiety to enjoy their magnificence even with toddlers.  Will you climb the steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, or to the top of the Notre Dame?  Definitely take the elevator to the top (or middle – it’s cheaper and the view is just as stunning) of the Eiffel Tower.  The glass elevator ride is probably more fun for the kids than the views are.  After coming back down, let your youngsters stretch and run around a bit in the Champ de Mars Park that stretches over 35 city blocks behind the Tower.  And when you come out of wondrous, capacious Notre Dame, if the kids are a little cranky just walk right around the side of the church to the back, where there is a charming little garden you can stroll or sit down in.  I’m delighted every time I enter how suddenly quiet and peaceful the city becomes in that garden.  And, there’s a little restroom in the garden that’s clean and never very crowded.

Since there exists such a surfeit of information on Paris, in guidebooks and on-line, I will not expound endlessly on the allure of the city, but rather just bullet-list my favorite tips for parents and their kids when in Paris:

•    Read the Madeline series to your toddlers before you go.

•    Get the Paris Museum Pass.  Even if your kids are too young to tolerate museums for very long, this pass not only gets you into over 60 museums and monuments, including the Palace of Versailles, but lets you bypass the lines!  We all know what a bonus that is with any aged children!

•    The Museum Pass is not valid for the Eiffel Tower and, as of very recently, not valid for the climb to the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral Tower.  If you want to avoid long lines here (or at least minimize them in the summer), visit first thing in the morning.
•    The Eiffel Tower has a terrific new on-line ticket service.  BUT, if you’re going in the summer, these tickets sell out weeks in advance.

•    Instead of an open top bus tour of the city, how about taking a hop-on hop-off river boat shuttle service?  Batobus boat service has passes for as many trips as you like during a specific period of time.  They also partner with l’Open Tour tour bus service to do a combined ticket, offering you the opportunity to move between double-decker buses and boats on the Seine.  These options are much more scenic and interesting for kids than the metro.

•    With crêpes and Nutella, gelato, and croissants on every corner, your kids will never be hungry or complain about the food.
The French have the biggest jars of Nutella I've ever seen.
•    Consider staying near rue Cler, a pedestrian-only street in the 7th arrondissement.  The open markets here feature fresh produce, meat, cheese, and prepared foods that will save you from having to eat at restaurants three meals a day.
Rue Cler open market street.
•    Print out this splendid guide of WCs in Paris and take with you:  http://www.slowtrav.com/france/paris/rl_restrooms.htm.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mind the Gap

Subway trains scare me.  But mostly only when I’m towing two children under 10 and six pieces of luggage.  Subways don’t wait for passengers to safely disembark, like railroad trains do.  Before you can even count your bags that buzzer shrieks and the doors start closing like some kind of steely prison cell door in an Alcatraz film.  Sure, my husband’s always with me and the kids and the luggage on the subway rides.  But he’s already dripping sweat two stops before our destination station trying to inch our bags closer and closer to the doors through a thick tangle of legs, and then cursing the train operator under his breath for opening the doors opposite the ones he expected.  At that point I’m in utter complete fight or flight mode grabbing children by the hair and kicking luggage out the door before that dang shrrrriekk . . . slam!  Then we always do a headcount and a luggage count and let out a deep breath.

Once when my 6 year old son fell asleep on the underground ride from Heathrow to our hotel, we knew he hadn’t slept a wink on the airplane and was out cold.  And dead weight.  We shook him and prodded him and eventually just tossed him out the door, I think, to manage that exit from the tube.

Now that they’re older, we have a rule:  if you get off the train and mom and dad aren’t there, stay where you are.  We’ll come back for you.  If you find yourselves on a train and mom and dad got off, get off at the next station and we’ll retrieve you there.  Fortunately we’ve never had to test that rule.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Potty Talk

Don't make the mistake of traveling to Europe without referring to The Bathroom Diaries before you go.  This hilarious and very useful website at www.thebathroomdiaries.com provides locations, cleanliness ratings, and costs of public restrooms all over the world.  Got another hour to wait in line for the Eiffel Tower and you need to go?  According to The Bathroom Diaries, if you step out and face the tower from Avenue Gustave Eiffel, underground to the right will be a clean, well-kept restroom for use for 40 cents.  Just can't hold it any longer at St. Mark's Square in Venice?  There's a McDonalds to the right off the square with a filthy floor and dirty stalls, only recommended for emergencies.

Here in the U.S., we take public restrooms for granted.  It's rare that we're desperate to find one, and unheard of to have to pay to use one.  Loos are plentiful any place where tourists gather, and when unusual crowds are expected, straight rows of porta-potties appear overnight.

No porta-potties for all these people!
We were in Amsterdam in the summer of 2010 on the day when Holland's World Cup soccer team returned home from South Africa as the 2nd place champions.  The city was enveloped in orange, their national color -- streamers, balloons, banners, t-shirts, hats -- and they were expecting thousands of people to converge on the canal where the team would be arriving by boat and making a victory cruise through town.  Yet there was not a single porta-potty. Instead, there were very simple, plastic urinals, with no walls or
doors, placed on the occasional corner or bridge (see photo.)  What were the women supposed to do, I wonder?  As if it's not easy enough for the men to pee in the canals, which is what they very often do anyway, they get extra facilities!  Go figure.

So if you want to avoid that moment of panic all parents have experienced, when your youngster suddenly, without warning, crosses his or her legs, clenches his or her teeth, and says, "I can't hold it any longer!!" and you have no idea where the nearest restrooms are, peruse The Bathroom Diaries before you travel.  It's definitely handy information.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Soul of a Young Girl

At some point in middle school children usually learn about the Holocaust and will probably read The Diary of Anne Frank.  In 8th grade, my daughter was captivated by this sad story about a girl her same age, with similar hopes and dreams, yet living and dying in such tragically different circumstances.   It was a highlight of our trip to Europe that summer for her to visit The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  What a powerful experience of classroom learning becoming very real!  My daughter was deeply moved to walk in Anne Frank’s footsteps, to look out her window onto the tranquil canal, to touch the wallpaper in her bedroom.  Throughout the museum the idea of tolerance for all people is reinforced by inscriptions and video and audio recordings by Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who was the only family member to survive the Holocaust and was inspired by Anne’s writings to shed light on the lives and experiences of those who suffered persecution by the Nazis.  It is a clear and compelling message for all visitors to the Anne Frank House.

There is currently a wonderful interactive exhibit at the Anne Frank House called Free 2 Choose.  Visitors watch various video clips (with headphones and a choice of 6 different languages) which present situational human rights conflicts and are then asked to vote electronically on the “best” solution.  One's opinion is then compared to others’ choices by age groups, nationality, gender, etc., and it becomes clear that solutions are not always black or white.  The exercise is very thought provoking and even my 11 year old was engaged.

Another Holocaust memorial is the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany.  Children are not forbidden to enter, but, in my opinion, the site is much too disturbing for them and for sensitive young adults.  The memorial site has several churches, a chapel and a Jewish house of prayer which may be visited and are, gratefully, somewhat separate from the gas chamber and crematory ovens if you wish to avoid these.

"Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."  - Anne Frank

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mespelbrunn Castle

Very young children are often too restless to tour grand castles and palaces like Windsor or Versailles.  How about a smaller, more charming, fairytale castle surrounded by a water moat, nestled among the trees of the Spessart Forest?  Mespelbrunn Castle near Aschaffenburg in Germany is one such peaceful, remote destination for you and your family.

The castle’s center watchtower is framed by sweet gabled houses and an arched bridge, and the whole picturesque scene is reflected in the waters of the moat.  Because of its remote location, Mespelbrunn Castle never suffered any war damage and is in pristine condition.

Still a private residence (home of a Count), guided tours of the north wing are offered daily beginning in March through November.  These usually non-crowded tours are only 40 minutes long and tickets are only 3.50€ for adults and 3.00€ for students and children. 

Mespelbrunn Castle is an easy day trip from Frankfurt or a quick stop off of the A3 Autobahn between Frankfurt and Würzburg.  If you’re not in the mood for a tour, the quiet, romantic castle grounds are free.  Stop for a picnic or for lunch in one of several eateries. 

The Mespelbrunn Castle website is only in German, but English information can be found by googling Mespelbrunn.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I’m feeling a little guilty for that Club Med recommendation I posted the other day.  Club Meds are not exactly budget accommodations.  I price compared four of the French coastal resorts for a family of four, all-inclusive for 7 nights, and the prices ranged from $2,756 to $4,668 not including air fare.  But like I said, you may very well be willing to pay for the convenience and comfort-level provided for your family by these gorgeous resorts.

But now I’d like to give a shout out to a good ol’ money saver:  youth hostels. 

Youth hostels have changed.  If you ever stayed in one as a young backpacker, you’ll remember the ones where they separated men and women.  And the ones that let you sleep on a cot on the roof when they were overcrowded.  And the ones that smelled like hashish.  You’ll be happy to know youth hostels have changed for the better.  Many of them now accept families, have smaller, more private rooms, and some even have private bathrooms.  Like always, they’re still an excellent choice for budget travelers and sometimes just a super fun choice for families who wish to meet other travelers. 

No longer must you be a member of a hostelling organization to stay at a hostel.  If you intend to overnight primarily in hostels, then it might behoove you to join Hostelling International (free if you’re under 18, $28/year for adults) to avoid paying a supplement at their membership hostels, but without a membership card these locations are still available to you.

Now more than ever, independent hostels (not affiliated with Hostelling International or any other licensing body) are catering less to “youth” or “backpackers” and are offering diverse, novel accommodations for all travelers.  (However, to be considered a hostel they must still provide dormitory accommodations.)  Most have family rooms now, usually with a double bed for parents and bunk beds for the kids, with a private bathroom and sometimes even a private kitchen.  Check out City BackPackers Hostel in Stockholm, Sweden.  They have two apartments/studios for up to 6 people with private bathroom, shower and kitchen.  Scandinavian hostels are always open to travelers of all ages, and are frequently booked by Scandinavians themselves, because they know their hostels are clean, comfortable and affordable.  Look for special deals for families, such as at A&O Wein Stadthalle in Vienna, Austria, where two kids are free of charge for each adult.  Or find buildings so unique to sleep in your children may not want to leave, for example, Stayokay Domburg and Stayokay Heemskerk, both spectacular medieval castles.  Stayokay is an independent chain of hostels in Holland with several interesting locations, even a hostel nestled in a hollow in a sand dune on the beach!

Find out ahead of time whether your selected hostel will rent you bed linens and towels.  Most of them will.  And book early for summertime or holiday stays, because most hostels fill up quickly!

Stayokay Domburg, a another hostel in Holland.
No, I'm not kidding . . . this is a hostel.
It's Stayokay Heemskerk in Holland.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Open Jaws

Save time and see more of Europe by flying in and out of different cities.  You won’t have to do any backtracking if you, for example, arrive in London but don’t trek all the way back there to fly home.  Depart from your furthest destination, such as Paris or Rome or Athens.  The airlines call this an “open jaw” ticket.  It’s really not more expensive to do this, in fact, it may save you money by not having to circle back by train or rental car.  The airlines calculate the price of an open jaw ticket by taking the average of the two roundtrip fares.  The fare will be cheaper if both flights are with the same airline or one of its partners.

When you are surfing for airline tickets on the various travel websites, the trick is to click on the button that says “multi-city” or “multiple destinations” to price your ticket.  If you price your departure and return flights as two one-way segments, the cost will be outrageously more expensive.

Final tip of the day:  Did you know that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the cheapest days to fly?

Friday, November 5, 2010


Are trains the best way to travel with children in Europe?  I think so!!  “Happiness is a journey not a destination” is especially true in Europe where train travel is scenic, convenient, and comfortable.  Children aren’t confined to their chair by seat belt, families can share a packed lunch or a card game, and there's no need to stop for bathroom breaks.  In most countries, local travel on regional trains is cheap and requires no advance reservation or purchase.  International travel, however, is usually provided by high-speed trains such as the TGV (French), ICE (German) and Thalys (French, Belgian, and German) and these DO demand a reservation.

A very popular website in the U.S. for buying European railway tickets is Rail Europe.  Normally their prices will be competitive, but it doesn’t hurt to price compare by checking your itinerary on one of the many national railway websites such as FS (Italy), DB Bahn (Germany), RENFE (Spain) or SBB (Switzerland), for example.  We’ve actually gained significant savings at times by booking the same ticket through DB Bahn instead of Rail Europe.  But again, no need to pre-buy regional, town-to-town rail tickets – keep your itinerary flexible.

If you’re planning lots of multi-city or especially multi-country rail travel with your family, or especially if you are a young backpacker, you’ll want to look into the dizzying selection of European rail passes.  You’ll find global passes, regional passes, youth passes, family passes, saver passes, and many more at Eurail.com.  Their website will walk you through how to select the best pass for your destinations, duration, group size and age.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Club Méditerranée

So you are more of a luxury traveler.  An all-inclusive resort type of family.  Or maybe not ordinarily, but the idea of a comfortable home-base in a foreign country, with food and recreation covered, seems a more appealing way to introduce your family to Europe. 

If you’ve been to a Club Med all-inclusive resort before, then you know it is a French corporation (and if you’ve eaten at a Club Med you know their French chefs are marvelous!)  So I imagine a Club Med resort in France would be quite authentic, wouldn’t you?  (Disclaimer here:  I have not personally stayed at Club Med in Europe, only in the Caribbean and in Mexico.)  But the reason I recommend Club Med is not only because I love their resorts, but also because they offer such a variety of family options.  They actually have unique children’s programs for different age groups, inspired by each facility’s natural surroundings, such as snow or beach.  Their children’s clubs begin with Baby Club Med, for 4 months to under 2 years old; Petit Club Med for 2 – 3 year olds; Mini Club Med for 4 to 10 year olds; and the Juniors’ Club Med for teenagers.  These programs provide childcare, learning experiences, and entertainment for your youngsters and can be included in your vacation package or purchased á la carte.

The European Club Med resorts are in France, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Turkey.  Skiing (with ski schools for kids!) and other snow sports are offered in the Alpine resorts of France, Italy and Switzerland, while the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast resorts in France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Turkey provide water sports, seaside pleasures, and beautiful beaches.  Family vacation packages are available on the website for:  Opio en Provence and La Palmyre Atlantique in France; Kamarina in Sicily; and Palmiye in Turkey.  The various children’s clubs are found at certain locations only, so be sure to confirm with your selected resort for these options.

I checked out several of the European Club Med resorts on TripAdvisor and found many, many positive reviews, so I feel comfortable recommending them to you and your family.  And certainly, in my experience, Club Med seems to acquire the most prime and desirable locations on any island or mountain, as well as some fabulous chefs.  There’s plenty of delicious food at each meal and enough variety to please even your picky little eaters!

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