Wednesday, August 31, 2011

German Houseguests

Picked up two students from Germany yesterday at the airport.  They'll be our house guests for about a month.  Looking forward to practicing my German and hoping my kids will pick up a little more.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Photo Friday: Muiden Castle

Muiden Castle in the Netherlands.

Some European castles are just the right size for kids to explore.  Muiden Castle in the Netherlands near Amsterdam is one of those.  It's usually crawling with Dutch school kids on field trips because of its historical significance.  Admission is only €7 for adults and €5 for children 4-12.  Children under 4 are free.

The Steen in Antwerp, Belgium, is another kid-friendly castle and it's free to everyone.  More details in my post here.

There are lots of fun travel pics and stories every Photo Friday at

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Getting Ready to Windsurf in Spain

The kids had their first windsurfing lesson today.  Hubby was is a big windsurfer.  Growing up in San Francisco, he learned the hard way:  in the shark-infested, hypothermic, tempestuous waters of the San Francisco Bay (that's how he likes to tell it).  We thought we'd let the kids have an easier time of it by taking a long, leash-held, private lesson in the warm, local harbor waters of Southern California.  The instructor was very good.  I've attempted many windsurfing lessons in the past and hadn't heard half the little tidbits of wisdom he so casually dispensed.

Now my son and daughter just need a little more practice to be ready for some serious sailing in Andalusia next summer.  I've been reading up on where to go.  The hottest windsurfing in Spain (not including the Canary Islands) is known to be in Tarifa, on the very southernmost tip of Spain facing Morocco.  Winds here can reach 40 knots and the area is not recommended for beginners, so maybe we'll just let Daddy spend a few hours in Tarifa on his own.  I'm thinking the oceans might be a little calmer (perhaps with resorts that serve tropical drinks!) on the Costa del Sol or on the Atlantic side near, say, Cádiz.  Doing some earnest research now on these resorts winds.

Son's first windsurfing lesson today.

Have I mentioned another stroke of good fortune regarding our trip to Spain next summer?  A few weeks ago our family went whitewater river rafting.  We were on an 8-man raft, and the other occupants of the boat were a family of four from Barcelona.  Naturally, under such intense, high-adventure bonding circumstances (read:  laughing a lot together) we got to know each other quite well, and it turns out, this family owns an apartment on the coast of Spain near the Portuguese border that they'd be happy to let out to us!  We exchanged email addresses and are going to keep in touch.  How about that!?

Rafting with our new Spanish compadres.

Follow up post:  read about the success of our family windsurfing in Tarifa, Spain, in the summer of 2012 here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ferry to the Island of Corfu

If you have an itch to visit the Greek islands while you're nearby in southern Italy, there's no need to fly to Athens.  The island of Corfu, one of the larger Greek islands, is just a ferry ride from Italy and may fit into your family’s travel itinerary a little easier (and less expensively) than those off the coast of the capital.  And just because I had a horrible experience doing this 25 years ago doesn't mean things haven't changed, especially if you're not a 24 year old backpacker looking for the cheapest transportation possible, like I was.

Head over to Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where you will find the most frequent (and the shortest) ferry crossings to Corfu by a number of different ferry operators.  If you're traveling in the peak summer months, the trick is to make a reservation a couple days in advance so that you actually have a seat.  Yes, here's where things can go wrong.  The ferry services will sell you "deck seating" when the boats get crowded, and you will presume that means a chair on the deck.  But those few lounge chairs on the deck are swiftly taken, and you will be stuck "deck sitting" instead of with "deck seating."  I slept on the floor of the outdoor deck of the ship for the entire 9 hour night trip.  I don't advise this.  Booking in advance can assure you a cabin - shared or deluxe - or an aircraft style seat or several other classes of ticket.

At least I had a nice view from my "seat" on the bow of the ship.

You'll want to board the boat from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa, on the Greek mainland, since it stops in Corfu.  Corfu is a very lush, green island with excellent beaches, a mild Mediterranean climate, and over two million olive trees.  So many of the more popular Greek islands, like Santorini, Mykonos, and Ios, are party islands and great for singles looking for fun, but the atmosphere in Corfu is very laid back and much more suitable for families.  The island is rich in culture, significant musical tradition, and local culinary specialties (lots of squid)!

 Two views of Agios Gordios beach on the west coast of Corfu.

Architecture in some parts of Corfu looks very different from other Greek towns due to the influence of many centuries of Venetian rule.  Interesting sites to see are the Palaio Frourio, an old Venetian fortress on an islet; Achillion Palace and its picturesque gardens; the Vlaheraina Monastery; the famous beaches of Paleokastritsa and the Canal D'Amour in Sidari; and even Aqualand Corfu, a water park for you and your kids!

Just one more tip on the ferries:  they are run by Greeks.  Just because you book a ticket on a website, doesn't mean that itinerary (or even that company) will still exist when you go.  There may be a schedule change, or a cancellation, of which you will of course not be informed.   Price reductions are supposed to be given to InterRail and Eurail Pass holders, but in my experience this is up to the whim of the particular ticket agent you are speaking to.  During the high season, be deliberately insouciant when you approach the ferry operator about a return ticket to Italy, because if he senses any urgency or desperation in your voice to travel that day, or any other predetermined day, your desired boat may suddenly be full and he will offer you "one of the few remaining tickets" available on the only alternative - and much more expensive - ferry.  Nothing against the Greeks, of course.  They just have a different way of doing business.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Movie Monday: A Little Romance

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as a weekly feature to recommend films that might expose children and their families to any small bit of European history, folklore, scenery, or animated imagery as entertainment, perhaps new knowledge, or just a couple of hours of electronic babysitting.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

A Little Romance is a very sweet love story of an adolescent boy and girl in Paris, and if it weren't for a couple of sexual references in the movie, making it rated PG, I would say it's a must-see for every family.  Diane Lane as an intelligent, mature 13 year old American girl going to school in Paris is genuinely adorable in her role as Lauren, who falls in love with Daniel, a French boy.  When Lauren learns that her family will be leaving France to go back to America, she and Daniel decide to run away to Venice.  The film's scenery in Venice is enchanting, and yes, very romantic, especially the climactic scene where the two young lovers glide under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola to kiss at sunset while the campanile bells are tolling.

A legend, possibly inspired by Lord Byron, says that lovers who kiss underneath the Bridge of Sighs at sunset will be granted eternal love.

Other stunning movie scenes are the Palace of Versailles and its opulent gardens, where the two lovers first meet, and the Italian countryside.

Finally, Sir Laurence Olivier's performance as Julius, an elderly gentleman who befriends the two teenagers and accompanies them in their journey to Venice, is quite entertaining and rich in character.  A Little Romance was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for screenplay and one for original score, and it won the Oscar for original score.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Photo Friday: The Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall in 1987.

The 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall was last weekend, on August 13.  Read my post about it and my experiences in East Germany.

See more travel photos every Photo Friday at

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Part 2 of Our Teenager's Solo Travel Adventure

You may recall my 15 year old daughter's first solo airplane trip to NYC of which we were so proud?  And you might have read Part 1 of her adventures with her cousin on the top-rated NYC blog, baby meets city?  Well, Part 2 is now published and highlights a couple more of the hot spots they hit together.  Check it out!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Remembering the Berlin Wall on Its 50th Anniversary

Today, August 13th, 2011, is the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall.  It took only 9 days until it was basically completed - virtually overnight - and over 28 years it killed at least 136 people.  The border strip was armed with machine guns, automatic crossbows, mines, alarms, and electric fences.

How senseless it all was.  When I was about 12 years old my family and I were in a small village near the East German border.  I noticed some camo-wearing soldiers army crawling with their rifles through a wheat field and I walked over to ask what they were doing.  They were American.  One's reply, with a gesture toward the tall watchtower on the eastern side:  "We're just watching them watch us."

On a backpacking tour through Europe when I was 24, I took a train from Hamburg to Berlin across East Germany.  Randomly, the train would grind to a stop in the middle of nowhere, and we would wait and wait.  Nothing would happen.  It was just a scare tactic.  Occasionally on these stops, however, the Stasi would board and search our train cabins.  They tapped the ceiling panels and looked under the seats.  They ran long handheld mirrors underneath the train cars to see if some poor East German defector was clinging to the axles for dear life.

On a later guided bus tour of East Berlin, we were told we may not take photos of any bridges, train stations, airports, or even Checkpoint Charlie (I did anyway):

Checkpoint Charlie from inside East Berlin.

An aunt of mine had family in the area where the dividing line between East and West was drawn.  The family was literally split in two.  Fortunately in this particular location the wall was not heavily fortified, in fact it was chain-link, so relatives could occasionally greet each other through the fence if they kept at least 30 yards away.  It was all so absurd.

There are commemorative services being held throughout unified Germany today.  Flags are being flown at half mast, a minute of silence is being observed at noon, and wreaths are laid at the small sections of wall still remaining as memorials.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Photo Friday: Under the Tower Bridge

Great memories of our very first day in London, on our very first trip to Europe with kids. hosts Photo Friday for bloggers every week.  Check it out!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview: Cruisin' With Kids

My 12 year old son's good friend just returned with his family from a western Mediterranean cruise.  Alas, what kind of traveler am I, as I have never been on a cruise?  I would like to, very much, but for now I can only report to you the experience of our little friend, Logan (not his real name), and his opinions on cruising Europe with as a kid.

Royal Caribbean International Liberty Of The Seas

Logan's family includes himself, who is exactly my son's age, his parents, and his sister, who is, conveniently, exactly my daughter's age (15).  They flew to Barcelona to board the Royal Caribbean International Liberty Of The Seas for a 7-night roundtrip cruise.  Ports of call were:  Barcelona, Spain; Toulon, France; Nice, France; Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy; and Naples, Italy.

Here is my personal interview with Logan about his vacation:

To Europe With Kids:  Did you have a great time?
Logan:  It was one of the best trips I've ever been on.  There was lots of educational stuff but it was still fun.

To Europe With Kids:  Did you spend any time in Barcelona and whaddja' think?
Logan:  Barcelona is overrated.  I thought it was kind of dirty.  We were there two nights.  But they had the best gelato I've ever eaten.

To Europe With Kids:  Do you know who Antoni Gaudí 
Logan:  Who?

To Europe With Kids:  What was your favorite activity on the cruise ship?

Logan:  Definitely the Flowrider.  It's a wave pool where you can surf or boogie board.  But I also liked the movie theater, the rock climbing wall, and the ice skating rink.

To Europe With Kids:  What was your 15 year old sister's favorite thing on the ship?
Logan:  Laying in the sun.

To Europe With Kids:  Did you two hang out together or was she too cool for you?
Logan:  She was all right.

To Europe With Kids:  Did you feel comfortable and safe walking around the ship by yourself?  No worries about getting lost or abducted?
Logan:  Well, since our cell phones didn't have service, we brought walkie-talkies to keep in touch with each other around the ship.  That was a good idea.

To Europe With Kids:  Any impressions about the cities you visited in Europe?
Logan:  The street performers in Europe are awesome!  They do the coolest things!  Italy was okay but over 100° (Fahrenheit) every day.  We spent a lot of time in that big museum by that big church in Rome (the Vatican Museums) to try and keep cool.  

To Europe With Kids:  What did you think about Paris where you spent a couple of days after your cruise?
Logan:  I loved the crêpes.  I got them with Nutella, bananas, almonds, and coconut.  We stayed at Citadines and it was right across the street from the best crêpe place.

To Europe With Kids:  Anything else?
Logan:  Yeah.  In Paris they have these random square things on the street corners where you push a button and a door opens and there's a toilet inside.  Weird.

Disclosure:  Although I had to pay Logan $5.00 for the time the interview took away from his video game, all opinions are honest and his own.  I also had to pay my son $5.00 not to be embarrassed by my asking to interview his friend.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Movie Monday: The Black Stallion

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as a weekly feature to recommend films that might expose children and their families to any small bit of European history, folklore, scenery, or animated imagery as entertainment, perhaps new knowledge, or just a couple of hours of electronic babysitting.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

This Movie Monday choice was unexpected.  The kids and I were actually just watching The Black Stallion the other night, when I remarked about how pretty the beaches in the film were.  Lo and behold, the credits rolled by, and the beach and island scenes were filmed in Sardinia.  Ta-da! . . . another Movie Monday recommendation with just a little bit of European scenery to whet your family's appetite for travel.

It's a good story whether the Sardinian beaches entice you there or not.  The 1979 Disney film based on Walter Farley's classic book of the same name is about the bond between a young boy and a black Arabian, stranded on an island together after a shipwreck.  After being rescued and taken to America, the boy is trained to ride and soon the two are challenging champion racehorses.  The visuals in the film are quite beautiful and the soundtrack is moving.  Definitely one for the whole family to enjoy.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Location, Location, Location in Antwerp

My parents just returned from Europe a few days ago, and I like to pick their brain after a trip to see if they have any new hotel or sightseeing recommendations.  They're retired, so obviously they don't look for kid-friendly accommodations or activities, but sometimes I get insight into a city or location that I can then investigate.  They help fuel my hobby, if you will - researching European destinations.

They were extremely pleased this trip with the location of their hotel in Antwerp, De Keyser Hotel.  This recommendation should not be taken lightly, as you might recall that Antwerp, Belgium, is my father's hometown, and they have stayed there many, many times and know the city very well.  De Keyser Hotel is located right next to Central Station, which is right smack in the middle of town near the shops, restaurants, and city squares.  Just about everything is an easy walk from there.

I looked into family-sized rooms at this hotel and didn't find any.  They do offer a suite which can perhaps accommodate a roll-away bed, but 4-person rooms are not available.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Photo Friday: I Love Alpine Cows

My mom says I asked to have my picture taken with these cows in the Austrian Alps when I was 3 years old.

So I couldn't resist another chance 30 years later in the Swiss Alps (sans the feathered Tyrolean hat and dirndl).

Check out for lots of exciting Photo Friday entries.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There's More Than Just a Leaning Tower

We marvel at the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Florence Duomo, St. Peter's Basilica, and St. Paul's in London, but hardly anyone would recognize the equally stunning medieval Cathedral of Pisa, because all we ever see is its leaning bell tower.  In fact, some people don't know that the leaning tower belongs to a church but rather think it's a public building of some sort because it is free standing.  The Italians often built free standing bell towers and in fact have a name for them:  campanile.  St. Mark's Campanile, one of the most recognizable symbols of Venice, is the free standing bell tower of St. Mark's Basilica.

Don't short change yourself by zipping through the city of Pisa only long enough to climb the leaning tower and move on.  The Piazza dei Miracoli ("Square of Miracles") where it stands is one of the main centers for medieval art in the world with four great religious buildings inside its walled area.  It's easy to spend an entire day in awe there, even with kids, since the square's wide grassy lawns provide ample room for everyone to take a break, run around, or enjoy a picnic.

The massive Duomo in the heart of the square was begun in 1064 and has an elaborately impressive columned façade and a dramatic interior with black and white marble, a gilded ceiling, and a frescoed dome.  The carved pulpit is considered a masterpiece of medieval sculpture.  Strong Byzantine influence can be seen in the mosaics and pointed arches throughout the cathedral.  Go inside!

Interestingly, the cathedral baptistry is also free standing in the Piazza dei Miracoli and is the largest baptistry in Italy.  It sits like a dollop of whipped cream at the west end of the cathedral.  You might notice it tilts a little too, as do many of the buildings in Pisa.  The interior is enormous, but somewhat plain.

Lastly, the Campo Santo cemetery lies within the square and is beautiful to visit.  The Gothic cloister building contains marvelous 15th century art, sculptures, and frescoes, and there is an inner court with elaborate round arches.  It can also be a peaceful respite from the crowds around the bell tower - this might be where you want to have your picnic when you spend the day in Pisa!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Movie Monday: Bon Voyage

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as a weekly feature to recommend films that might expose children and their families to any small bit of European history, folklore, scenery, or animated imagery as entertainment, perhaps new knowledge, or just a couple of hours of electronic babysitting.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

Remember Fred MacMurray?  I'm dating myself.  He was the dad in My Three Sons, an old television series about a widower (MacMurray) raising three boys by himself with the help of his housekeeper, Uncle Charlie.  Anyway, he was a very likable actor in his time and starred in a few Disney movies, including one filmed in Europe called Bon Voyage.  The plot has the same premise as National Lampoon's European Vacation (which I suggested NOT to watch with your kids in a previous Movie Monday post) but is much cleaner.  A typical midwestern family takes their three kids, including two teenagers, to vacation in France, and chaos, misunderstandings, and family quarrels ensue.

Bon Voyage was filmed in Paris and the Côte d'Azur in 1962, so it's kind of fun for adults to see the fads and fashions from that era, but your kids won't appreciate the nostalgia.  It's highly possible they won't even appreciate this movie so much, since the humor is somewhat dated.  If you're planning a trip to Paris with your family and think you might take a sewer tour, there is an interesting scene where MacMurray gets lost in the Paris sewers.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...