Friday, December 31, 2010

Photo Friday: Tower Bridge in London

Watching the famous Tower Bridge raise and lower its drawbridge kept my then 6 year old and 9 year old interested for almost an hour.  Definitely a must-do when in London with kids!

For more travel photos go to Delicious Baby.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter Wonderland in Austria

I just can’t get in the mood to write about warm summer vacation destinations right now.  I’m still in “dreaming of a white Christmas” mode.  So let me give a mention to a very beautiful winter white town in Austrian Tyrol called Seefeld.  I was there around Christmastime once in my youth, and the village and surrounding mountains are breathtaking.

Situated in what is called the Olympiaregion because Seefeld has twice hosted the Winter Olympics, the area is perfect for skiing.  Young families will love the ski school in Seefeld.  It is one of the largest and most reputable in Austria.  The surrounding villages offer small, friendly ski areas as well.

The village of Seefeld is located on a plateau and is therefore very attractive to walkers.  There are miles of trails with hardly any uphill/downhill climbs – perfect for families with young children!  And, something very few people know, is that Seefeld is so committed to its walking community, they clear as much as 80 kilometers of walking paths through the valleys and forests in the winter!  Pick up a walking map from the local tourist office and put on a good pair of boots (no crampons or snow equipment needed) and walk for miles, often without encountering another soul.

We stayed at Hotel Seefelderhof, which is a charming, Tyrolean-chalet-style hotel with nice, basic rooms.  They offer double suites as well as a family suite which can sleep a family of four.  Prices are seasonal, but children up to 15 years old receive a 70% discount, and children 16 to 18 receive a 35% discount.  Also, with two full price guests, children up to 6 years eat for free.  Bonus for families:  brand new playground equipment in Hotel Seefelderhof's large garden.

My photographs of Seefeld, taken back in the day of pocket instamatic cameras (with 110 film!) are dark and poor, so I’ve included some Google images:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

A Partridge in a Pear Tree No. 2
Watercolor by Delilah Smith

“On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .”  What the heck are they talking about?  I know my kids have asked me more than once, “What are the 12 days of Christmas?”  Well, thanks to the research I do for this blog, I can now answer their questions. 

There are 12 days between December 25th and January 6th, which is the Feast of Three Kings and in many countries is the traditional end of Christmas celebrations.  Boy, we here in the U.S. need to get in the game!  Boxing Day, Three King’s Day, plus ten more days in between to party and celebrate!  Those Europeans sure know how to have fun.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Boxing Day!

As long as I can remember, I’ve seen Boxing Day listed on the calendar on December 26th, but never knew what it was or even thought much about it.  Yet I knew about the “Second Christmas Day” observed in parts of Europe, just never made the connection between the two. 

Boxing Day, as it’s called in America, Canada, and Britain, is known as St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland and Christmas II or the Second Christmas Day in some continental European countries.  The day is celebrated as a saint’s feast day, a day of giving to the needy, and, more recently, as a secular, more commercial occasion to shop at stores with huge sales such as Americans do on Black Friday.

The etymology of the term “boxing” to describe this day is not certain.  One possible explanation stems from an old English tradition.  Often the wealthy landowners would give their servants the 26th of December off to visit with their families, and usually gave each servant a box containing gifts, bonuses, and leftover food.  Also, churches sometimes opened their alms boxes and distributed the contents to the poor.

In many countries, such as Germany and Austria, both December 25th and 26th are federal holidays, shops and offices are closed, and families spend time visiting, relaxing, and eating.  Sounds good to me.  Why can’t the U.S. adopt this two-day celebration?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Photo Friday: Merry Christmas!

My friend Udo Benkert and his wife Manuela own and live in this gorgeous old house in the little town of Sommerhausen, Germany.  It is adjacent to the Würzburger Tor (Würzburger Gate) through which Sommerhausen can be entered from the north.  Germany's getting a lot of unseasonably early snowfall this year, so I asked Udo to send me a picture of how his lovely house looks right now.  He stunned me with this touched up photo and gave me permission to post it.
Danke schön, Udo!

See more great travel photos at

P.S.  More about the charming town of Sommerhausen at Nutcrackers and Nativities!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Carol of the Bells

My favorite thing about Christmas Eve in Europe is the church bells.  I love the sound of them anytime I’m there, but at midnight, on Christmas Eve – especially if a light snow is falling – it’s as if the angels were going to float down from the heavens and bathe you in warm light.

Christmas Eve is the highlight of most European Christmas traditions.  In the U.S., some families open gifts on Christmas Eve, but the vast majority open them on Christmas morning.  In Europe it’s the opposite.  Also, here in the U.S., many people buy their Christmas tree already in early December, whereas in Germany, for example, the children don’t even see the family’s tree until Christmas Eve!

I remember one December 24th in Germany as a child, waiting with great anticipation to see the decorated tree (and gifts, of course).  Usually in the early afternoon, the mother or father will purchase a tree and lock it in one of the rooms in the house.  He or she will spend the rest of the afternoon putting on the lights and decorations.
The Christkind
(I have distinct memories of us kids restlessly peeking through the keyhole to see what was going on.)  After a delicious Christmas dinner of roast duck or pork, sauerkraut, and potatoes, mom and dad unlock the door and present the Christmas tree and all the gifts underneath.  Presents are opened, sometimes carols are sung or the Christmas story is read, and families eat marzipan, chocolate, and Lebkuchen (sort of a spicy gingerbread).  Rituals regarding the Christkind (Christ child) or the Weihnachtsmann (the “Christmas Man,” a descendent of Saint Nicolaus who looks much like Santa Claus), who bring the children gifts on December 24th, vary among the different German-speaking regions.  Still another visitor on Christmas Eve is the Christkindl, the Christ child’s messenger, a beautiful fair-haired girl with a shining crown of candles, who also brings sweets and gifts.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ornament Collection

Royal Blue Delft from
Delft, The Netherlands

I mentioned in a previous post that thimbles are the perfect souvenir.  Well, Christmas ornaments are pretty darn close.  That mini Eiffel Tower you bought, that bejeweled Spanish matador, and that cute little pair of wooden shoes?  They’ll just collect dust on your shelves.  Turn them into Christmas ornaments and it's like a surprise every December, a flood of happy memories from your vacations, every time you open that big box of Christmas decorations.  Here are some from my collection:

Bavarian "Hampelmann" ornament

Nutcracker from Germany

Violin from Mittenwald, Germany
Where else?

Murano glass gondolier from Venice
Famous decorated egg shell
ornament from Salzburg, Austria

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!

I prefer to be the harbinger of easy and enjoyable travel to Europe, but if it's not a volcano, it's a record-breaking snowfall causing trouble.  London's Heathrow airport, the world's busiest international airport, is closed.  Flights are delayed and cancelled in Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin.  Rail travel is stalled in most of Europe.  Many travelers' Christmas plans are ruined.

I can't help thinking about my Christmas trip to Adelboden, Switzerland, next year, with EIGHT high school-aged Girl Scouts in tow!  Sleeping for days on a cot in an airport with a group of very disappointed girls would break my heart (not to mention my patience.)

To keep up the Christmas cheer, let's remember the countries in Europe that can handle snow and ice with ease and beauty (I did not take these photos):

Ballachulish Western Highland, Scotland

Copenhagen, Denmark

Helsinki, Finland


Lofoton Islands, Norway

Stockholm, Sweden

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Few Gift Recommendations

Websites and blogs are gushing with gift recommendations this time of year, so I’ll just kind of summarize and link to some useful gift ideas for the travelers in your life.

Travel Entertainment for Kids
I just love for compact, travel-friendly toys, games and activities.  You can browse the site by age, brand, price, type and mode of travel.

Although I prefer old-fashioned navigation techniques like fold-out paper maps, asking locals for directions, and deciphering foreign signage, my husband would never travel to Europe without a portable GPS navigator. (I just think the kids learn a lot more from interacting with their environment rather than with yet another technological device.) But a GPS navigator (a.k.a. garmin, navi) seems a useful gadget for many, so for a list of the best 5 GPS navigation systems, click here.

Voltage Converters
Electrical voltage in Europe is 220. American voltage is only 110. You cannot use your 110 electrical appliances (hair dryers, curling irons, battery chargers) in Europe without a voltage converter. There are great little travel voltage converter kits available that make nice gifts.

Adapter Plugs
In addition to a voltage converter, you will need an adapter plug for the country you’re visiting, as Europe does not have the standard U.S. flat prong electrical outlet. Many countries have multiple types of outlets, so it’s a good idea to carry a kit with all the different ones. These adapter kits make a terrific little stocking stuffer, and there are great guides to world-wide plug adapters on-line if you need help choosing.

Get rid of the tangle of charging cords for mobile devices! How about a multi-charger for the traveler in your life? There's a large selection on-line. There’s also the new Duracell MyGrid Wireless Multi Charger which I’ve heard good things about but cannot recommend personally.

Other Ideas
I never fly without a neck pillow, and I prefer the inflatable ones because they take up less room in my carry-on.  An eye shade and ear plug travel set is a great stocking stuffer, too. And finally, you can't go wrong giving a AAA Gift of Travel gift certificate or the American Express Travel Gift Certificate!

Happy gifting!!!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photo Friday: Grainau

The picturesque village of Grainau, in Bavaria, Germany

It's Photo Friday!  See other great pics at family travel site!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

All Things Christmas

Regardless of whether you’re there at Christmastime, a great little shopping excursion with your family is to a Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store in Germany.  The flagship store is in Rothenburg, but there are now other locations in Heidelberg, Oberammergau, Bamberg, Nürnberg, and many more.  These Christmas specialty shops sell exceptional and unique Christmas items all year round and boast the world’s largest collection of traditional German Christmas ornaments.

This is all INSIDE the store!
The gorgeous medieval town of Rothenburg transforms itself into a brilliant Christmas village during December, should you ever be so lucky as to find yourself there during that season.  (We have not).  But any other time of the year you’re visiting Rothenburg, take a moment (or several hours!) to pop into Käthe Wohlfahrt’s signature store.  This fantasyland is arranged as a Franconian village market with a towering 18 foot revolving Christmas tree in its center and a 13 foot tall nutcracker at the door.  Young children will be agog.  Parents will appreciate the high quality and craftsmanship of the collectibles.  You will find music boxes, nutcrackers, Schwibbogen (candle arches), ornaments, figurines, and nativities, many of them hand-made right there in the Rothenburger Käthe Wohlfahrt workshop, where designers and artists have worked for decades.

Next door to the shop is the German Christmas Museum, where you can learn about the history of German Christmas traditions and customs and enjoy the permanent exhibit of all things Christmas.  The museum is open from the middle of April through the middle of January.  A family ticket is only 7€.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is This Toy For Real?

I'm still trying to figure out if this is for real, since I can't find it on the Playmobil website, but it's on Amazon and it's hilarious!  The Playmobil Security Check Point by Playmobil:

The Playmobil Security Check Point by Playmobil

The customer reviews are priceless.  Here's my favorite:

Customer Review

This review is from: Playmobil Security Check Point (Toy)
I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said, "That's the worst security ever!"  But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.  The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I've heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I'll get him the Playmobil Abu-Gharib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Top 10 in Lisbon

I spent another few hours last night at Barnes & Noble supervising my Girl Scout troop doing their gift-wrapping fundraiser.  This time I cracked open the books on Portugal.  Ahhhh . . . this country looks absolutely gorgeous and wonderful. I think I’ve nailed down the next Euro trip:  Portugal and the south of Spain.  My parents love Lisbon.  We also have a very well-traveled friend who says Portugal is his favorite place in the whole world.  That's quite an endorsement.  Remember my fear of visiting the more “exotic” European countries with children?  Well, my kids will be 16 and 13 years old next trip, so I think they’re ready.  Of course, there’s always another challenge level:  are they ready for Africa?  How can you be in the south of Spain and not cross over the Strait to Morocco for the day?  It’d be a shame not to.  (Anyone with advice on this, please comment!)

Lisbon is a hilly place, so there’s not much bicycle riding, but walking, walking, walking is the activity of choice in this city.  There are trams and funiculars around town, too, for tired feet, and children under 5 ride them for free. 

Top 10 Lisbon Travel Guide by Tomas Tranaeus lists the following sites as the top 10 to see:

Castelo de São Jorge – a medieval castle with great views
Torre de Belém
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – a historic monastery
Sé Catedral – a fortress-like cathedral
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga – national gallery housed in a palace
Parque das Nações – expansive park with many activities
Torre de Belém – a defensive tower and city landmark
Museu Nacional do Azulejo – museum featuring Portuguese and Moorish tiles
Palácio de Queluz – a Rococo palace
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian – a small art history museum
Sintra – a must-see, unique village on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Looks like Parque das Nações is the most child-friendly destination, for the younger ones at least.  It’s an expansive park on the riverfront with playgrounds, water gardens, cable car rides, a food court (big plus!) and a toy train that travels to all the park’s main attractions.  There’s also the Oceanarium, apparently one of the world’s most impressive aquariums.

For my teens and a little relaxation, there are beautiful beaches in Lisbon. According to the same book by Tranaeus, some of the best beaches are Portinho de Arrábida, Tróia, or along the Estoril coast.

And this is only Lisbon!  There's so much more of Portugal to learn about!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Little Passports™

I'd like to pass along this fabulous gift idea for the little travelers in your life!  An exciting product called Little Passports will teach your child geography, history, culture and language in a fun and interactive way.  Starting with an Explorer Kit, your child will then receive monthly Adventure Kits where they journey to new countries. This product has been featured on KTLA Morning News and has been endorsed by Parent Magazine, Disney Family Fun, and Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine.

Great educational value and fun!

Special Offer for Cool Mom Picks readers: Get 15% off your order at Little Passports with "CMP15" through 12/15/10.

Little Passports™ - a Global Adventure

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Perfect Souvenir

Have you ever spent an entire day at an amusement park with a giant, plush Shamu under your arm because your child wouldn’t stop begging until you bought it?  Or even worse, with an oversized (and unbelievably overpriced) Mickey Mouse balloon tied to your stroller?  Since you couldn’t take Shamu or Mickey on the rides with you, did you worry every time you disembarked the carousel or Splash Mountain that they had been stolen from your baby carriage?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to buy my kids souvenirs to remember special moments and special places.  But I tell you, I sure breathed a sigh of relief when my daughter decided she was going to collect souvenir thimbles.  Little, tiny, precious thimbles.  Easy to find.  Affordable to buy.  Small enough to carry around all day.  Simple to pack.  Compactly organized at home in a dust-free display case.  The perfect souvenir.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Photo Friday: Kinderdijk

Breathtaking Kinderdijk in the Netherlands

I'm excited to join the other travel bloggers who participate in Photo Friday on (a terrific family-travel blog)!  Photo Friday is a blog post that links to travel photos all over the web on the website of anyone who chooses to join in.  Why don't you join in?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wait Till the Cows Come Home

So many villages in Europe have special traditions or a unique custom that add color and culture to their beauty and charm.  One such town is Appenzell, nestled in the green, rolling hills of the Alpstein region in Switzerland.  Appenzell is a quintessential Alpine village, with timbered chalets, blooming geraniums, distinctive buildings with painted façades, narrow roads, and rustic old barns.  Yodeling and alphorn playing are strong rural traditions to the people of this lovely area.

Appenzell’s very unique custom, that is a memorable event for children of any age, is the ceremonial descent of the village cows, which takes place every year in autumn.  Sure, cows are herded from pasture to pasture all over the world, but not with such a happy celebration as this.  The Appenzell cattle are led down the mountain by men and women dressed in their traditional costume, considered to be the most exquisite such ensembles in the country.  Villagers perform folk dances and play music and serve honey cake and pear bread.  Many of the cows are miniature, oddly enough, and wear enormous decorative cowbells.  (Strangely, many of the locals are kind of hobbit-sized, too.  Seems a regional thing.)  The entire atmosphere is festive and wonderful.

If you can’t make it to Appenzell during the fall, there’s plenty of other activity year-round.  Famous also for its dense network of hiking trails, there are leisurely walks among the rolling hills and there are challenging tours and climbs up the Alpstein’s 8000-foot-high rock formations.  There are stunning panoramic views, especially atop Säntis, the highest summit of the surrounding mountains.  In the winter, you can enjoy the area’s 125 miles of cross-country skiing tracks and three nearby popular ski resorts.

For an interesting side trip with your kids, ride the cable car from Appenzell up to Ebenalp.  Walk about 15 minutes along a gentle trail and through two caverns to visit the Wildkirchli cave and its chapel.  The Wildkirchli cave was inhabited by hermits from 1658 to 1853 and is open to the public.  The small wooden chapel that clings dramatically to the rock face at the cave’s entrance was built by the hermits who once lived there.  Looking even more precarious, and actually built into the rock itself, is Berggasthaus Äscher, an inn built in 1805.  Enjoy a hearty lunch at Äscher and head back down the mountain or spend the rest of the day hiking along the beautiful trails egressing from Ebenalp.

Have lunch here at Äscher, or stay the night!
(Dormitory-style rooms and no showers,
but still awesome!)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Waterloo, Promise You'll Love Me Forever More

The last time we took the Eurostar (chunnel train) from London to Brussels, it still departed from Waterloo station in Central London.  Waterloo hosted the international railway platform from November 1994 to November 2007, after which the Eurostar international trains to Paris and Brussels were relocated to the new St. Pancras station, near Oxford Circus and Covent Garden.  (Take the tube to Kings Cross St. Pancras station.)  Although I haven’t been to St. Pancras, I imagine it’s a huge improvement over the Waterloo platform, which wasn’t designed for international travel and crowded hundreds of travelers into small areas for both customs and security checks.  Another bonus at St. Pancras is a fresh food market just inside the main entrance to the station.  Pick up your drinks, snacks or lunch here and enjoy them on your fun ride to the Continent!

Boarding the Eurostar.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy St. Nick's Day!

Today, December 6th, is St. Nicholas Day.  St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the 4th century and through legend became the protector saint of children and the bestower of gifts to them.  Germans, and many other Europeans, celebrate his feast day by waiting for Nicholas to come the night before and leave them gifts and sweets.  Nicholas doesn’t come alone, however.  He brings Knecht Ruprecht, who wears a grim-reaper-style hooded cloak and carries a switch and a large burlap sack.  Knecht Ruprecht's job is to punish the naughty children by leaving them a switch or a rock or coal, to flog them, or if they were particularly bad, haul them away in his dark sack.  (What is with those old-world stories??  Wolves eating grandmas, witches getting thrown into ovens, children getting flogged on a saint’s day celebration?)

My mother, who grew up one of nine children on a small village farm in Germany, remembers they were TERRIFIED of Knecht Ruprecht as children.  When he and St. Nicholas knocked on the door (evidently two townsmen dressed up to do this for every family in the village) the children cried and ran behind their mother’s skirts in fear.  (This just doesn’t sound like a happy holiday to me.)  My mother will never forget the December she was about 6 years old, when St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht came to the house.  They loomed over the children and quizzed them on their catechism and asked them to recite their prayers for their rewards of sweets, walnuts, and fruits.  Knecht Ruprecht grabbed one of my mom’s brothers (who had apparently stuttered through his prayers), stuffed him into his sack and carried him off into the cold, dark woods.  (Yeah, I know, nowadays this sadistic villager would be arrested, but back then . . . well, it was just the older generation’s way of showing some firm discipline, I guess.)

The moral of the story today is:
1)  thank God modern parents have learned that corporal punishment is NOT an effective means of discipline, and
2) more in relation to my blog, it’s relevant to be knowledgeable of others' customs and traditions when you travel.  St. Nicholas Day has been widely celebrated in Europe since the Middle Ages in honor of children.  The customs became a little muddled though when, during the Protestant Reformation, Germany’s Martin Luther decreed that the Catholic saints should not be glorified, but rather the Christ Child would bring the children gifts, not on December 6th but on Christmas Eve.  The Catholics at the time responded by keeping both traditions.  Today, Germans and other Europeans celebrate St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve in the manner of their own faith and custom.
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