Friday, September 30, 2011

Photo Friday: Oktoberfest at Night

Not a great picture, but it's not easy to frame a good shot after drinking several steins of beer with over 100,000 people at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.  Tomorrow is the first day of October, which means, for those of you who don't know, that the Oktoberfest is ending, not beginning.  Opening day this year was September 17th, and the festival closes on October 3rd.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mad King Ludwig's Linderhof Castle

He's known as Mad King Ludwig, but that's not really fair, and I personally prefer his other monikers like the Swan King, the Fairy Tale King, or just plain King of Bavaria.  Sure, he was eccentric, but weren't/aren't most kings and queens a bit peculiar?

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was not prepared to rule when he ascended the throne at the young age of 18, and never fully embraced his governmental duties; rather he preferred art, theater, Richard Wagner's operas, and fantasy.  And it is thanks to these creative desires, extravagant vision, and Ludwig's own personal fortune that we today enjoy three magnificent castles in Germany that he designed and built during his brief life:  Neuschwanstein, Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee.

Linderhof Castle

If your children are very young, I highly recommend visiting Linderhof Castle in Ettal, Germany.  It is the smallest of the three palaces and much less crowded than Neuschwanstein, but the appeal for families is definitely the palace gardens.  In his attempt to recreate the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, King Ludwig designed what is today considered one of the most beautiful mixed landscape formal garden parks, covering a total area of approximately 125 acres.  The splendor of this palace and garden complex is breathtaking.

Music Pavilion
Your young children will be delighted when you suggest a treasure hunt to locate Ludwig's numerous pavilions, fountains, kiosks, sculptures, ponds, temples, houses and huts scattered throughout the estate. You might want to start to the north of the palace at the powerful Neptune fountain and then continue up the cascade of thirty marble steps to the large wooden Music Pavilion.

Neptune fountain at Linderhof

From there, following the wooded paths will lead you to the Venus Grotto, the Moroccan House, the Royal Lodge, and the Moorish Kiosk.

Moorish Kiosk
The Peacock Throne in the Moorish Kiosk

King Ludwig had a fascination for the Orient, French royalty, and mysticism, and many of the architectural features in the gardens reflect these tastes.  Perhaps one of the most eccentric ideas he implemented at any of his three residences is the Venus Grotto at Linderhof, a completely artificial dripstone cave with an interior lake and waterfall.  He modeled the grotto after a scene in one of Richard Wagner's operas and enjoyed being rowed around the underground lake in his golden swan-boat.  As a child myself this "secret hide-out" was always my favorite place to visit at Linderhof.

Your child might be challenged to count golden statues at Linderhof, starting at one with Flora and her attendees in front of the palace and continuing with the gilded angel in the Western Parterre.  There are many, many more.

The particularly beautiful Western Parterre

Terrace Gardens

Linderhof Castle is an easy day trip from Munich, and both a train trip or a car ride to this spectacular destination are very scenic.  By car, you will travel through Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a lovely alpine town, and by train you will disembark in Oberammergau, a charming little woodcarver's village.  From Oberammergau a bus will take you to Linderhof.

Visits inside the palace are only available with a guided tour and English tours are available.  Admission is €8.50 for adults and €7.50 for children, and entrance to some of the garden buildings are an extra fee.  In the winter the palace can be toured, but the grounds are closed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Swiss Chocolat Frey Factory Tour

Came across another Swiss chocolate maker that offers factory tours to visitors.  It's near Zurich, and I don't know why I hadn't come across it during my research for my previous Swiss chocolate factory post.  The company is Chocolat Frey in Buchs, Switzerland.  They offer plant tours on Mondays through Thursdays for groups of 12 to 50 participants.  The minimum age, however, is 14, so keep that in mind if you're traveling with younger children.  The cost for the 3 hour tour (!) is 5 CHF for adults and 3 CHF for children 14 to 18.  Their website is only in German.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Photo Friday: Medieval City Walls

Medieval walled cities are so much fun for kids.  Walking around the inside of the wall kids will often discover secret doors (usually kid-sized!), narrow passageways, staircases to the top, turrets and look-out points.  These photos were taken in Sommerhausen, Germany, a lesser known but fantastic little walled city that I highly recommend for families.  Rothenburg is more famous and is a great destination as well. Other terrific walled cities in Europe are:  Girona, Toledo, and Avila in Spain; Carcassonne, France; York, England; Lucca and Perugia, Italy; Rhodes, Greece; Brugge, Belgium; Obidos, Portugal; and Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free Roundtrip Rail Tickets to Paris

Back in May I was soooo disappointed when Rail Europe ran a great promotion on Swiss rail passes for 50% off, because they were only valid for 6 months and I wouldn't need them until December.  Rail Europe assured me though that there would be other upcoming offers.

Well, there's finally another Swiss Pass promotion . . .

Click here for more information on this RailEurope featured deal.

We probably won't take advantage of it, but it's not a bad deal!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Movie Monday: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Another Movie Monday post just kind of dropped into my lap this week.  I was continuing my research on mountaintop excursions in Switzerland, specifically Schilthorn mountain in the Bernese Alps, as a possible side trip for the girls and me in December, when I learned that the Schilthorn summit was the setting for the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  I know James Bond movies are not exactly young-family friendly, as they always contain strong action violence, sexual situations, and mildly crude language, but if you've got pre-teens, especially boys, these films are no worse than most of  today's action adventures.

Well, there is a beautiful panaramic revolving restaurant called Piz Gloria on top of Schilthorn, which in 1969 was unfinished due to delayed construction.  The Bond production team actually financed the completion of the restaurant and helicopter landing platform in exchange for the right to use the location (and blow it up) for the Her Majesty's film.

Piz Gloria makes for a fabulous visit, not only to experience the longest aerial cableway ride in the Alps, but for the unforgettable scenic views at 9,744 feet of Switzerland, France, and Germany from the rotating restaurant.  And, the highlight for you 007 fans, will be living the James Bond legend:  the black diamond ski run featured in the movie starts at the summit and leads down to Engetal below Birg; at the Piz Gloria restaurant, you can order the very popular James Bond Breakfast Buffet served daily from 8:00 to 10:30 a.m.; at the James Bond Bar you can enjoy the famous "Martini, shaken not stirred," and in the Touristorama there is a photographic exhibition as well as extracts from the movie to honor the secret agent.  Don't recognize James Bond in this movie?  It's the only one where the role was played by George Lazenby.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Recalculating . . .

I guess this is really just a private joke in my family that I'm sharing today.  We never had a vehicle with a navigation system, but when we took the kids to Europe for the first time in 2005 we rented a car in Germany (they upgraded us to a BMW although we had paid for a compact!) that had a built-in system. It provided some good laughs.  First we couldn't figure out how to change the language from German to English, so I was constantly shouting translations from the passenger seat.  Then, once we switched the navi to English, we got the giggles over how often and indifferently the "voice lady" would say, "Re-calcu-la-ting . . . " every time we stopped for gas or an unexpected sight or somehow got lost.  Guess you had to be there . . . .

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Discount Euro Airlines

My first look into flights from here to Spain or Portugal indicate that the cheapest destination is Madrid.  Since our summer 2012 itinerary is southern Spain and Lisbon, Madrid is a bit inconvenient.  We'd have to add the cost of a possible overnight in Madrid and then train tickets to Córdoba or Seville or Granada.

For the first time, I'm considering trying out one of Europe's many low fare airlines.  You know, like RyanAir.  There are more:  Condor (German), Windjet (Italian), Vueling (Spanish), Scandjet (Swedish), Aer Arann (Irish), and others.  Maybe it would be more affordable to fly to one of their hubs and then hop on a discount connection to Seville, for example.  There are disadvantages to consider though, like dependability, non-refundable tickets, etc.

I would love some advice from any travelers out there who have utilized these airlines in the past.  Are they worth the worry?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hotel Recommendation: Haus Cian in Hallstatt

Visiting a magnificent alpine town like Hallstatt, Austria, calls for excellent accommodations, and Haus Cian, at the edge of Lake Hallstätter, is exactly that.  I'm pretty sure that all the panoramic picture postcards of Hallstatt were taken from the balcony of our room at Haus Cian, that's how impressive the view is.  Our room was actually an apartment, which is, as I've recommended before, the perfect solution for traveling families.

On the balcony at Haus Cian.

An apartment kitchen is a sanity-saver when the kids are young and restless in restaurants, and a money-saver when the kids are any age.  Our 3rd floor suite in Hallstatt had a fully-stocked kitchen and a charming little eating nook with another view out over Lake Hallstätter.  Daily after sightseeing we'd pick up some food items at the grocery shop around the corner and whip up some spaghetti or chicken and rice and enjoy it in the apartment with our five-star view.

Haus Cian is in the middle of this lovely setting.

My husband and I had a private bedroom in the apartment with another balcony and view, and the kids shared the pull-out sofa in the large living room:

Gotta love those big, fluffy, down comforters.

Haus Cian's location is on the outer edge of the village, but no problem because the town is small enough to walk from end to end in 15 minutes.  Although the website quotes prices for weekly stays, the lovely Frau Madlberger let us the apartment for only 85€/night.  The Haus does not have a restaurant but there are several in town - highly recommended is the fish at Gasthof Zauner.  To read more about the many great family activities in Hallstatt read my earlier post about this little alpine gem.

Why would you stay anywhere else?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Photo Friday: Guarding the Eiffel Tower

Yeah, my son thought the combat gear and machine guns were extremely cool, of course, but it makes me sad.  Before 9-11 there were no heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the Eiffel Tower, no handbag checks at La Sainte-Chapelle, no airport body scans, and no problem bringing home a couple bottles of Bordeaux in your carry-on.  Comme c'est dommage.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Our Ideal House Guests

Our two student house guests from Germany left yesterday to commence a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, Las Vegas, etc.  Don't get me started on a rant about why this country can't have a decent - or any - high speed rail system to get us from beautiful place to place and tourists have to resort to days and days along dusty desert roads on a crowded bus.  It's just not right.

They will return after their bus trip to stay with us through the end of September, and we're delighted.  E and K, our guests, have been ideal visitors.  Believe me, we've had vacationers from overseas who won't try Mexican food, don't like the beach, are afraid to speak their (almost perfect) English, and think everything in their country is superior.  This is not E and K.  One of the first things they said they wanted to do when they got here was, "Go to an American football game and eat hot dogs and ice cream!"  Love it.  Love it!  That will happen at the end of the month since football season hasn't started yet, but we took them to a baseball game, fully adorned in team regalia, and ate popcorn and chili dogs.  They were ecstatic.  We sojourned to the beach, the pool, the outlet mall, the supermarket (always interesting to foreigners), the amusement park, and to Ruby's American Diner where they took pictures of their burgers and milkshakes.  The two of them ask lots of questions about our customs and slang and schools and family life.

I know my children are learning from E and K's fine example not only how to be charming house guests but also how to appreciate different cultures.  Now my kids will be just a little more encouraged to try the escargot in France (well, maybe not - maybe just the bouillabaisse), or read the Norwegian folklore, or play the cavaquinho, or join the polka dance.  I like that.

We had a gorgeous day at the beach.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day

Happy Labor Day to the many hard workers in America and all over the world.  And cheers to the many interesting jobs in Europe:

The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace
and Fortress of the Tower of London,
commonly known as Beefeaters.
The artists of Montmarte (Paris).

The millers at my grandfather's flour mill in Germany.

The old cheesemakers in Gouda.
The nuns, one wearing a baseball cap,
in Grainau, Germany.
The porcelain painters in Delft, the Netherlands.
The many, many, many Eiffel Tower statue sellers
at the Eiffel Tower.

And all of the awesome lederhosen-wearing oompah-pah
musicians in Bavaria.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Photo Friday: It's a Bird, It's a Plane . . .

It's a bird, it's a plane . . . it's the Münchner Glockenspiel!  We're all looking up in anticipation of the chiming and performance of the Glockenspiel in the tower of the city hall building in the Marienplatz in Munich.  Kids love to watch this little show.  It re-enacts two stories from the 16th century with 32 life-sized figures and 43 bells.  The top half of the Glockenspiel tells the story of the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V and Renata of Lorraine, complete with a joust between knights on horseback.  The lower half tells the story of the 1517 plague in Munich, where coopers danced in the streets to overcome the fears of the villagers.  The dance now represents perseverance and loyalty to authority during difficult times.

The Glockenspiel in Munich chimes every day at 11:00 a.m., as well as 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. in the summertime.  For a schedule of tunes it plays, and also to listen a bit, go to their website here.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

First Day of School

My kids went back to school today.  When they were younger this day was always kind of a relief after a long summer of swimming lessons, supervised playdates, mommy-and-me classes, and long outdoor activities in the hot sun.  But the last few years, since they're older, I really miss them when they go back to school.  I enjoy the time we spend together in the summer going to lunch, watching PG movies, shopping with my daughter, or hanging out at the beach with my son.

I'm not going to get all sentimental here about how "it was only yesterday that they left for their first day of Kindergarten," but I am going to write about the first day of school.  In Europe.  Cuz that's what this blog's about.

The photo above is one of my cousins in Germany on his first day of Kindergarten.  He is holding a Schultüte, oddly named because Tüte means "bag" and it's really more of a school cone than a school bag.  It's filled with chocolate and sweets, pencils and erasers, and other good stuff.  It's a German and Austrian tradition that every child receives one from his or her parents on the first day of school.  And I don't think there's a German child in the last 50 years that doesn't have a photo of himself or herself holding one.
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