Monday, April 30, 2012

Queen's Day in the Netherlands

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
Photo credit:  Joshua Kennon
It's Queen's Day in the Netherlands today, April 30th, and the annual official celebration of the Queen's birthday means Dutch citizens will liven up the streets and canals with bright orange banners, balloons, costumes, and flags once again.  Queen Beatrix's real birthday is January 31st, but no matter - April 30 was her mother's birthday (Queen Juliana) and was chosen as the day to celebrate in 1948, and so it remains.

If you love cultural celebrations, traditions, national events, or local parades around the world, then visit Holland for Queen's Day.  The orangemania (or oranjegekte in Dutch) that takes over the country is quite a sight to see.  Orange is the official color of the Queen and the royal family, descendants of the dynastic order of the House of Orange-Nassau.

These photos were all taken in Amsterdam during orangemania after Holland's national soccer team came in 2nd place in the 2010 World Cup.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Photo Friday: Do These Things Have a Name?

What are these things called and why do kids love them so much?  

At the marionette museum in Salzburg.

Inside the Tower Bridge in London.

On the Champs Élysées during the Tour de France.

A variation on the idea at the Louvre.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Do You Need an International Driver's License?

Hubby stopped by the automobile club yesterday and picked up an International Driving Permit.  He did this without my prodding which leads me to believe he feels some apprehension about driving in Spain and Portugal this summer.  He never got one before when we rented a car in Germany.  What is it about Mediterranean cultures that makes one feel as if one might be taken advantage of by la policía?  Why is it difficult to imagine a highway cop in, say, Austria or Denmark or Belgium pulling you over on a dusty country road, leaning against your car whilst lighting a cigarette, and demanding an arbitrary fine in cash?  Yet this is the impression some of us have of the law in particular countries.

Should you get an International Driving Permit if you're going to drive in Europe?  It's not required, your American or Canadian driver's license is sufficient.  But since it is possible - though not likely - that you could be asked for one either when you pick up your rental car or are stopped by the police, it doesn't hurt.  An IDP costs only $15 at your local AAA office or can be applied for by mail.

The most prudent thing a potential driver in Europe can do is to familiarize himself or herself with international road signs and the motor vehicle regulations of the specific country in which one will be driving.  Keep in mind that DUI laws and cell phone usage while driving laws are considerably more stringent in most European countries than they are here.

So, now that I've read up on the peculiarities of Spanish and Portuguese traffic laws, here are a few we'll have to keep in mind this summer:

1.  In Spain, the most likely thing you will be fined for is not wearing your fluorescent orange vest when stepping out of the car alongside a highway.

2.  In Spain, you're legally obliged to carry a warning triangle, a set of spare bulbs, and the tools to fit them.  If you wear glasses to drive you must have a spare pair in the car.

3.  In both Spain and Portugal, traffic fines must be paid on the spot.  Police vehicles have a portable credit/debit card machine.  Failure to pay will result in apprehension of the vehicle.

4.  In Portugal, it is illegal to pass on the right in free-flowing traffic.  The fine for this is 1,250.00 €.

5.  In Portugal, speed limits are enforced by radar traps and unmarked police cars.

6.  It is illegal to run out of gas when crossing Lisbon's mile long 25 de Abril Bridge.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Very Green Citizens of Switzerland

In honor of Earth Day today, April 22nd, I'd like to pay tribute to the Swiss, who are perhaps the greenest citizens of any country I've visited and are maybe even trendsetters.  I say they might be trendsetters because my husband and I noticed their recycling obsession way back in 1994 when we visited Switzerland, and in fact, we still make jokes about it.

We were staying in a wonderful youth hostel, Naturfreundehaus Grindelwald, in Grindelwald, which serves meals in their spacious dining room overlooking the gorgeous valley.  After meals, guests are asked to bus their own tables and dishes.  After our first dinner there, we walked with our trays over to the bussing station only to be confronted by some very baffling instructions.  In German.  And although I speak German, I was still perplexed.  There were at least a dozen containers in which to sort and dispose of one's rubbish.  There was one for green glass, clear glass, brown glass, aluminum cans, plastic, paper, metal, compost, food scraps the pigs will eat, and food scraps the pigs won't eat.  Now, neither hubby nor I are super well-acquainted with the diet of swine, and there were no clarifications.  So we dumped our food scraps into the bin for the pigs.  And, of course, were quickly admonished.  How were we to know pigs don't eat banana peels but love orange peels?  And did you know they like to eat lumps of coal?  Like I said, we still laugh about this experience today.

So I had to smile when staying at Our Chalet in Switzerland in December, to see another multitude of recycling possibilities.  These bins were near the front door:

And these tubs beckoned to us after every meal in the dining hall:

I had no idea - and neither, certainly, did the suburban teenagers I was with - how to differentiate between "Food Scraps," "Unwanted Food," and "Compost."  Notice the little icons taped to the wall behind the tubs . . . a bit of help, but not really.  We tried our best.

On this Earth Day, I thank the Swiss for being at the forefront of the effort to save our planet.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Photo Friday: Matthias Church in Budapest

The Matthias Church in Budapest is a glorious conglomerate of Gothic, Renaissance, and Ottoman architectural styles thanks to centuries of repairs, remodels, and restorations.  Also known as The Church  of Our Lady, construction began in the mid-13th century but most of the Gothic exterior was fashioned in 1896.  The landmark's most notable feature is its multi-colored, diamond-patterned roof tiles, similar to St. Stephen's in Vienna.  

Your admission ticket into the church includes entrance to the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art, which begins in Matthias Church's crypt and contains sacred relics, medieval stone carvings, and replicas of the Hungarian Royal Crown and coronation jewels.  Organ concerts are held every other Friday evening in July and August at 8:00 p.m.

Matthias Church is located on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube River.  A funicular is available to ride from the river up the hill.

The richly intricate Holy Trinity Column in front of Matthias Church.
It was commissioned in 1712 as a safeguard against the plague.

Related post:  Buda and Pest

This post is part of Photo Friday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Buda and Pest

View of Budapest.

Budapest has survived Mongol invasions, Ottoman rule, Turkish occupation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two world wars, several revolutions, and a communist regime, each leaving its mark on this indestructible city.  The river Danube, crossed by eight expansive bridges including the famously beautiful Chain Bridge, divides the metropolis of Budapest into its west bank, Buda, and its east bank, Pest, each with a number of tourist attractions, museums, and historical sights.  It's been a long time since I visited Budapest, Hungary, but the city still enchants me.  I would love to take my children now in this post-Soviet era.

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge

The most imposing structure in Budapest is without a doubt the enormous neo-Gothic parliament building, stretching 880 feet along the Pest embankment of the Danube.

One of the oldest legislative buildings in Europe, this architectural jewel is ornamented with turrets, arches, and statues of Hungarian monarchs and military figures and can be toured inside.  Guided tours in English are offered every day at 10:00, 12:00, and 2:00 p.m.

Heroes' Square is one of the most visited sights in Hungary's capital and is surrounded by City Park, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Palace of Art.  The Millennium Memorial in Heroes' Square is impressive with its tall column and seven mounted figures, two matched colonnades, and numerous statues of statesmen, angels and chariots.

Heroes' Square

The base of the column in Heroes' Square

Also of possible interest to kids (of all ages!) on the Pest side of the river are the Vajdahunyad Castle, which looks Count Draculan, and the mummified fist of St. Stephen I of Hungary in the basilica named after him.  At 315 feet, St. Stephen's Basilica is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, and if you like climbing steeples like my family, 364 steps will get you to the top of the dome where you will enjoy a 360° view of Budapest.  (An elevator will also take you there, if you'd rather.)

Ride up to medieval Castle Hill on the funicular (catch it on the Buda side of the Chain Bridge) and spend some time at my favorite sight, Fisherman's Bastion.  Really just a lookout terrace with amazing views across the river to Pest, the white-stoned, fairy-tale structure with turrets, parapets, and climbing stairways is a beautiful place to stroll, picnic, and take photographs.  There are seven white cone-top towers, each one symbolizing one of the seven Magyar tribes that came to Hungary in 896.

Patron saint St. Stephen astride his horse at Fisherman's Bastion.

Views from Fisherman's Bastion.

Don't miss the Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle, on the southern tip of Castle Hill and all the medieval, baroque and 19th century houses, churches, and public buildings around it in the Várnegyed District.  The Mattias Church is also a famous landmark here.

Matthias Church in Budapest (in 1987)

I won't be making any personal hotel recommendations in Budapest.  I traveled there when the country was still behind the Iron Curtain and we were "assigned" to our overnight accommodations by a government official as soon as we arrived at the train station in Budapest.  As budget travelers, we were directed to a residence in an old, unmaintained apartment building.  The residence belonged to a middle-aged woman, who evidently lived alone there, and had a spare bedroom she either agreed to let out or perhaps - I don't know - was required to let out.  She served us a meager breakfast every morning in her kitchen.  (I wonder how much, if any, of the money we paid actually went to her, since we gave the money for the room to the government official who assigned us.)  The day we left her apartment in Budapest she pleaded with us to buy some of her hand-embroidered doilies and asked for American dollars, if we had them.  This experience, as well as a trip through East Germany, are the extent of my brush with Soviet Communism.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Photo Friday: Seat Warmers

I've always lived in a warm climate, so I had to laugh when I saw the amenities offered by this eating establishment in Zurich in the wintertime for customers who might venture to dine outside.

Part of Photo Friday for travelers at

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of Hotel Biber City Backpacker

Between the two youth hostels in Zurich that I compared for our stay in December, one had a great location but was not so clean and the other was a bus ride out of town but was immaculate.  As always, location, location, location was the right choice.  Hotel Biber City Backpacker is on Niederdorfstrasse, a couple blocks from the Limmat River that cuts through old town Zurich, within minutes' walk of just about all the city sights.  Niederdorfstrasse is pedestrian-only, with lots of little cafés, bakeries, and a Migros supermarket, so it's not a problem that Hotel Biber doesn't serve breakfast because there are lots of options just steps away.  The hostel is only a 10 minute walk from the train station, too.

But was the hostel "not so clean"?  What about all those stairs up to the reception desk complained about on the TripAdvisor reviews?  Personally, I felt the rooms were clean.  The bunk beds had some graffiti on them and the wool blankets were military-gray and heavy, but the rooms were neat.

Not so neat and tidy with teenagers in it.

We had two rooms with three bunkbeds each; each room also had a sink.  Bathrooms were shared with hallmates, but they were clean and convenient.  The showers had nice water pressure and besides some mold on the ceiling, were spotless.  I guess one expects perfection in Switzerland so one notices the flaws here, but in any other country this would be an A+ hostel.

Free wifi is available in the reception area lounge and on the staircase.  So what about that staircase?  Like so many buildings in Europe, residences were built tall and narrow and of course, long before elevators.  So, yes, the stairs are steep, narrow, and windy, and the reception isn't reached until the 4th floor or so, but they won't be the only stairs you encounter with your luggage in Europe.  (On about the 2nd level or so you'll pass the open door of the kitchen to the restaurant below.  Didn't bother me, just made me hungry.)  

We also found the staff to be tremendously helpful and kind, with perfect English skills.  I would definitely stay at Hotel Biber again.  The price of our 6 bed room was 36 CHF, a single room is 75 CHF, a double with two single beds is 114 CHF.  They have triples and quads, too.  Sheets are 3 CHF extra.

The city of Zurich.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Movie Monday: Night Train to Lisbon

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To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as an occasional 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.
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I'm intrigued by the development of a film called Night Train to Lisbon, based on a 2004 novel by Pascal Mercier and scheduled for release in 2013.  Preliminary cast includes Jeremy Irons and Vanessa Redgrave and as well as being filmed in Lisbon, scenes will also be shot in Caxias, Palmela and Bern, Switzerland.  The story is a thriller, about a Swiss professor who is tired of his dull, routine life and drops everything to jump on a train to Lisbon to explore the story of a Portuguese author with whom he is mesmerized.  It would be fun to see this film before we jump on that same night train to Lisbon (actually we'll be traveling from Lisbon) in July.

Other Movie Monday posts:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Frohe Ostern - Happy Easter!

Frohe Ostern, Happy Easter!

Have you seen this character before, this giant white mouse named Diddl?  He is an extremely popular cartoon character in Germany and Austria.  Diddlmania hit those countries in around 2003, and there is Diddl candy, Diddl stationary, Diddl plush toys, games, accessories, and collectibles.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Why Are There No Toilet Seat Covers?

That was the question I heard at least once every day by at least one of the teenage girls in our group when we were in Switzerland:  Why are there no toilet seat covers?  It occurred to me then that no, I had never seen toilet seat covers in any public restroom in any country in Europe.  At first, my answer was that seat covers are not necessary because the lovely Klofrau will step into your stall after you're done and wipe down the seat for the next person, all for the few Euros she charged you at the door.  Ewwww!, was the response to that, of course.  But we encountered not a single Klofrau in Switzerland.  (That was much to my disappointment, too, because personally I feel one's European experience is not complete until one has been chased out of a public restroom by a toilet lady with scrub brush in hand for trying to sneak by without putting coins in the plate or for using too many paper towels.)

In one restroom we found this product dispenser in the stall:

It's a little hard to read because I should have used the macro setting on my camera, but basically it's a cleaning soap (disinfectant, one hopes) that you dispense on to a bit of toilet paper and then wipe down the toilet seat with before you are seated.  Ewwwww, was also the response to that.

If you can read German you'll get a chuckle out of this sign posted on a bathroom stall door:

It's a little rhyme beseeching you to use the toilet brush before you leave so that no one should have to "read the tracks you left behind."

Actually, I found the Swiss quite revolutionary in the world of European public restrooms.  Take a look at their McClean facilities (does McDonalds know about this infringement on their trade name I wonder?):

A McClean public restroom facility in the Bern train station.

Since I, as a matter of principle, refuse to pay to use a restroom, I did not enter the McClean facility seen here, but one of my co-chaperones did.  She proclaimed it exceptionally hygienic and well-stocked with everything - except toilet seat covers.  As you can see from the pricing schedule below, McClean exhibits a measure of sexism in its rates:

Women have to pay 2.00 Swiss francs to use the WC; men only pay 1.50 for the pissoir.

We didn't see any free-standing pissoirs on the streets of Switzerland (à la France) nor encounter any squat toilets (common in Turkey and still seen in Italy).  In Zurich, this pay toilet stood in a busy market square:

I like to think European countries are beginning to see the wisdom in providing public restrooms (anyone like the smell in the Paris Metro?) and maybe someday will also determine them to be much more effective when offered at no charge.  And much more sanitary with disposable toilet seat covers.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Nixing the Paradors

The beautiful paradors of Spain come highly recommended as lodging bargains in scenic, historic areas around the country.  I was thrilled when I first learned about them, especially since I love novelty accommodations, but I haven't had much luck attempting to book them.  And not because they're already full (many paradors fill up 6 months in advance) but because they're relatively too expensive!

Of the 93 government-sponsored paradorsParador de Carmona in Seville, Parador de Arcos de la Frontera in Arcos de la Frontera, Parador de Ronda in RondaParador de Granada in Granada, and Parador  de Chinchón and Parador de Alcalá de Henares in Madrid are located in or near cities we'll be visiting this summer.  Here's what I've encountered.

Stunning Parador de Granada is the most expensive of them all because of its prime location within the walls and gardens of the Alhambra Moorish palace.  A standard twin is 330€ and a junior suite is 620€, without breakfast.  The junior suite, however, only sleeps two, and so a family of four would have to rent two rooms, doubling the price.  I have not found a single parador that can accommodate more than two persons to a room.  There exists one other hotel within the Alhambra walls, the Hotel América.  Its standard double room is 90 - 130€, and they have a triple for 180€.  Needless to say, this is the better option for a family.  (We booked a triple with an extra bed.)

The Parador de Carmona in Seville is an enormous 14th century citadel located on a hill with marvelous views.  For 130 - 185€ a night, again there are only double rooms.  We booked a two bedroom apartment with kitchen for 145€ per night including breakfast in the heart of Seville.

Parador de Carmona in Seville.
Photo credit:  Carallan

Built in restored convents, castles, fortresses, and palaces, the paradors are all beautiful and culturally significant structures, maintained by the Spanish government.  I would really like to partake in a bit of this national Spanish heritage, but it seems families have been priced out.
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