Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Tragedy of the GoPro

No, no, no, just say it isn't so.  Our brand new GoPro Hero camera I just posted about eight days ago now lies at the bottom of the Kern River, where it tragically detached itself from my son's helmet on its maiden adventure after he spilled overboard on a class 4 rapid while river rafting last weekend.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thun Town

The charming town of Thun (pronounced toon), Switzerland, might just be the perfect place to base yourself in the Bernese Oberland if you prefer to be in not such a big city but also not in a tiny one-horse town either.  Thun has a busy train station as well as modern office buildings, shopping, and culture, but once you step a few blocks away from the downtown area you will find yourself in a precious medieval village with a rising castle, clock towers, and covered wooden bridges.  That's right, you don't have to visit Lucerne to see ancient covered bridges.

Covered bridge over the Saane River in Thun.

Another covered bridge in Thun.

Walking across the Saane River covered bridge.

After strolling across the river through a wooden covered bridge, one comes to the historic old town, with its cobblestone shopping streets, quaint alpine architecture, and medieval sights.

Dominating the view from just about any spot in town is the 12th century fortress on a small hill in the middle of the city.  If the Disney castle was modeled after Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Rapunzel's castle could have been designed after Thun's Zähringen Castle.

Can't you just see Rapunzel's braid cascading down from one of the turrets?

The castle, which is closed in the winter so we could not go in, features a history museum with several sections about medieval armor, weaponry, and rural life.  A lovely walking path with terrific views leads from the castle to a nearby church.

Church in Thun.

One of the most popular reasons for vacationing in Thun, which was not available to us in the cold month of January, is its water sports and beautiful swimming beach on Lake Thun.  Boat tours on Lake Thun are free to Swiss rail pass and Eurail Pass holders and offer breathtaking views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountain peaks, the resort town of Interlaken, and of course of Thun.

A great place to spend time with kids is at Schadaupark, actually the grounds of Schadau Castle.  From spring until fall every second Sunday of the month kids can ride a steam train for 2 Swiss francs around the park.  There is also a nice playground on the property.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: Europe With Kids - How to Travel Europe the Easy Way

I just finished reading a new book titled Europe With Kids:  How to Travel Europe the Easy Way by Carolyn Schonafinger, who also hosts the website Holidays to Europe from her home in Australia.  Schonefinger has traveled frequently to Europe with her husband and two sons, and writes passionately about planning, budgeting, booking, and undertaking a family holiday to Europe.

The basics are all covered in this handy little book, such as getting a passport, what to pack, and sightseeing highlights in many countries.  But Schonafinger writes about an accommodation option in Europe that I had not considered:  luxury camping, and, in her experience, luxury camping with a company called Eurocamp.  Eurocamp offers campsites in 13 European countries where travelers can rent cabins, tents, mobile home units, or a variety of other housing in a campground setting often with swimming pools, kids' clubs, mini-golf, and more.  I immediately checked out some of these locations, especially in Spain and Portugal where we're headed this summer, and the sites look clean and very kid-friendly!  The prices are generally cheaper than hotel rooms and apartments, and one location in the Algarve in Portugal was just about near enough to one of our stopovers that I would've booked it just for the experience had it been about 40 miles closer.

Schonafinger and I share the same ideas about eating in Europe, too - it's often least expensive to pick up grocery items at the local supermarket and pack lunches, snacks, and even prepare meals in the kitchen of your apartment if you have one.

The author's firsthand knowledge of traveling with her family in Europe makes this book a terrific reference for anyone considering a go at it themselves!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Photo Friday: Swiss Paper Cutting

The Swiss are masters of the ancient folk art of paper cutting (Scherenschnitt in German) and we saw beautiful representations of the work in Switzerland.  The framed paper cutting above portrays the original Our Chalet building in Adelboden, built in 1922.

Below are boxes of chocolate sold at Maison Cailler in Broc depicting an exquisite Scherenschnitt design:

The art of paper cutting originally began in China almost at the same time as paper was invented there in 100 A.D.  The craft came to Switzerland in the 1800s and is still very popular today.

Head on over to for more Photo Friday fun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A GoPro Hero for Windsurfing

After about 8 months of entering the drawing every single day to win a GoPro Camera on, my husband finally decided the odds were against us (most of the weekly winners were from Australia) and went out and bought one.  Impressed by its small size when he took it out of the box, I said, "Oh this is great!  No more HD video tapes piling up in the drawer - it'll all be digital now!"  He said, "This camera isn't for shooting ordinary everyday stuff like the kids."  I was stumped . . . because then whatever could it be for?  "It's waterproof," he replied, "and attachable."

A-ha.  Hubby purchased a $299.00 video camera for the two days he and the kids will be windsurfing in Tarifa.  Hope he gets some good footage.

Note added after initial posting:  read about the premature passing of our brand new GoPro here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Photo Friday: Il Redentore

Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, or Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, in Venice.

I like the lighting in this photo of a stormy day in Venice.  Or maybe I just like the memory it recalls of the storm that followed.

Head on over to Photo Friday at to see more travel photos.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Peanut Butter to the Rescue

One of my very first posts ever was about peanut butter and never traveling without it.  Truly it can be a lifesaver when you're the parents of a picky eater.  And peanut butter is generally very hard to find at most grocery stores in Europe.  So I was relieved to find Jif To Go is still available here on the west coast, and I stocked up on it last week for our summer trip.  I do miss those convenient squeeze tubes of Skippy, though.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

I'm participating in a Mother's Day photo carnival today hosted by Mara Gorman on her blog, The Mother of all Trips.  The idea is to link up with a favorite photo of you and your kids on the road.  Easy enough - I have lots of those:

Happy travels and happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Photo Friday: Bad Timing

Always remember to check the train schedule for your departure time when you arrive, otherwise you may find yourself at a lonely, deserted train station waiting a long time for the next one.  We missed an outgoing train by only 5 minutes in Broc, Switzerland, after our chocolate factory tour, and had to wait an hour for the next train to Gruyères.

Thanks to, this post is part of Photo Friday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Hellish Journey Through the RENFE Website

I've just been through website hell trying to purchase train tickets on the Spanish rail site  It's not that I wasn't warned - the internet proliferates with cries of woe from hopeful non-Spanish rail travelers who are up until all hours of the night clicking "Complete Transaction" only to repeatedly and maddeningly get the error message G001 with no other explanation.

Numerous laypersons offer excruciatingly detailed online advice about how to navigate the treacherous site with cautions such as:  "The website is a bit surreal," and ". . . nothing seems to be what it really is," and "error messages come from nowhere," and "You just have to persist."

So persist I did.  I followed all the navigation suggestions to the letter:  I used Firefox browser.  I logged on exactly 62 days before my planned rail trip from Madrid to Seville.  I did not switch to English on the Renfe site until the second screen.  I input a nonsense 9-digit telephone number.  I disregarded the Tarjeta Tempo boxes.  I carefully input my credit card information and . . . wham, error code.  Repeatedly.  Maddeningly.  For five days I did this over and over for hours, trying every credit card in my arsenal, trying my name, my husband's name, my husband's name with middle name, my name with maiden name.  (The Spanish evidently use two surnames, and this can be a problem for foreigners filling out Spanish online forms.)  Then, *blammo*, after probably 30-something tries, the purchase magically went through.  I did a happy dance in my living room.

Why endure all this frustration to buy Spanish rail tickets on when I usually purchase my rail passes and tickets through the perfectly competent and user-friendly Rail Europe website?  Because I saved $245, that's why!  As I've posted before, it's rare, but occasionally there are substantial savings to be found by booking directly on a country's rail website rather than on Rail Europe.  Not for all routes necessarily, but some.  It just pays to check first, and in this case it really did pay.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stay at a Winery in Heidelberg

Think you can't go wine-tasting in Europe with little children in tow?  You can if you stay at a winery!  Besides the wine-tasting bonus, I love winery accommodations because they're usually in the countryside, are beautifully located, and family-run.  Staying at a winery offers a real unique opportunity to spend some time with a local family and enjoy the fruits of the region.

A few summers ago we stayed at Weingut Bauer (Weingut means winery in German) outside of Heidelberg in Germany.  Before anything else, let me show you what my kids loved so much about it:

That's right - a labyrinth of fun.  They spent hours running up and down every row.  They even saw deer near the back edges of the field.  No worries for us, the parents, because the vineyard was the view out our window where we could sit, sipping wine, and watch them play.

Weingut Bauer is an estate nestled in the foothills south of Heidelberg city center.  A taxi or rental car is best for getting there, but the bus will take you most of the way there with only a short walk through a lush forest:

The accommodations are apartments with fully equipped kitchens - my favorite way to overnight.  Our two bedroom apartment was excessively spacious and clean, with a queen bed in the master and two twins in the second bedroom.

The living room sofa could easily have slept another person.

Herr and Frau Bauer, the owners of Weingut Bauer, were lovely to talk to and told us all about their wines.  Tasting was available any time and their delicious Heidelberger Dachsbuckel varieties were available for sale.

The apartments for rent are in the building on the right.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Interview: A Teenager Travels

Les Invalides in Paris.
Photo credit:  Sarah

One of the girls I took to Switzerland in December had the good fortune and privilege to go back to Europe with a school group a few months later on her spring break.  Sarah (not her real name) visited London, Paris, and Barcelona with her high school French class.  I was eager to hear her report when she returned about which city she liked best, which activities she enjoyed, and the differences she noticed between the cultures of the four European countries she had now traveled to.  Like most teenage girls, Sarah talks about a mile a minute, so it was difficult to keep up with her comments and her enthusiasm, but here's the gist of it.

To Europe With Kids:  So did you have a great trip?
Sarah:  Oh my gosh, I didn't like staying in hotels!  We could only have 2 to 4 girls in one hotel room, whereas in Switzerland with you we were in hostels and could have all our friends in one room!  I love hostels so much better.  But when I told my French teacher I like hostels she made a face and said they're dirty.

To Europe With Kids:  I hope you set her straight on that.
Sarah:  I tried!  I told her they are really clean and nice.

To Europe With Kids:  You visited London, Paris, and Barcelona - which city did you like best?
Sarah:  Barcelona.  It was sunny and had the most unique style.  The shopping was awesome and the least expensive.  The people are really nice there, too.  London was too much like America since they speak English and they had a Westfield Mall.  But I loved the British Museum and I would go back to London just to spend more time in the British Museum.  The Rosetta Stone is there!  The British Museum is even cooler than the Louvre.

To Europe With Kids:  How was the food?
Sarah:  The food in London was weird, except for the fish and chips which were good.  The crêpes in Paris were awesome.  I can't believe I paid 5€ for a Sprite at the Eiffel Tower though.

To Europe With Kids:  Any other special experiences?
Sarah:  We took the Jack the Ripper tour in London and it was really cool.  I also liked climbing the stairs to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.  The night train from Paris to Barcelona was awful though - there were 6 bunkbeds in a room, three on each side, and they were so close together you couldn't sit up in bed!  I did like the swaying of the train though while I was sleeping.  I'd do it again.

Photo credit:  Sarah

Friday, May 4, 2012

Photo Friday: Cathedral St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands

Catholic Cathedral St. Bavo in Haarlem - not to be confused with St. Bavokerk in Haarlem - is an elaborate hodge-podge of turrets, domes, and towers built mostly out of brick in 1895.  Victorian, art deco, and even Gothic styles kind of blend together to create this enormous basilica that seemingly cascades into the Leidsevaart canal just southwest of the city center.

Haarlem, the Netherlands, is a small town just outside Amsterdam that serves well as a home base for exploring not just Amsterdam but other nearby cities.  Hotels in Amsterdam can be expensive and the city can get crowded, so on several occasions I have opted to stay in Haarlem.  Trains depart from Haarlem for Amsterdam every 6 to 9 minutes and the ride is a short 10 minutes.

Check out more travel photos at Photo Friday at

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Train With a Playroom Car

In Switzerland over Christmas we were on a train where I encountered, for the first time, a children's playroom car.  It was on an InterCity train from Zurich to Spiez.  What a marvelous amenity for travel-weary parents of small children!   The playthings were clean and colorful and a perfect way for kids to pass the time on a long train trip.

According to information I found on a website by Switzerland Flexi Tours, family cars with playrooms are available on the following lines:

•  Romanshorn - Zurich HB - Bern - Interlaken East
•  Chur - Zurich HB - Basel SBB
•  Geneva Airport - Lausanne - Bern - Zurich HB - St. Gallen
•  Basel SBB - Bern - Interlaken East

I also discovered that VR, the Finnish railway, has playrooms and family compartments on their InterCity trains and have earned "Innovation and Excellence" awards for their family-friendly carriages concept and design.

You know that when the kids are having fun, the adults enjoy the journey too!
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