How We Found Ourselves in Love with Touristy Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsRothenburg ob der Tauber… It’s in all the guidebooks (even Rick Steeves!), often touted as the most charming city along the Romantic Road.  Anything I’ve ever read about the place has made me want to go. right. now.

But, the flip side of all that press is the onslaught: tourists, buses, and hokey souvenir shops.  Seeing as I’m crowd averse, I needed a way to visit Rothenburg and actually appreciate its magic.

So, how do you cut through all the hype and actually enjoy this town?  On a Sunday, early in the morning… and, preferably, in bad weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsOkay, this might not be everyone’s ideal picture of an enjoyable day out in medieval Rothenburg ob der Tauber, but it certainly worked for us.  And, actually, we didn’t even plan it this way.

You see, I wanted to make the most of our six hour drive home from Berchtesgaden.  Sure, we could have driven directly home, but what fun is it to arrive at 10am with only dirty laundry to look forward to?  Better to add a one-hour detour in your travel plans in order to knock out a long-standing member of your bucket list, right?  Right!

We nabbed some free, off-street parking, loaded up the backpacks, and set out around 8am (which that means we left The Hölbinger Alm around 4… I told you we like to leave early).  A blanket of fog settled in around us while a subtle, spit rain coated the streets.  Needless to say, we had the city (mostly) to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Best Part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Hands down, the best thing about pretty little Rothenburg is her undamaged, 14th century city wall.  What once served to protect now provides unique views for visitors.  Climb up the steps at one of the many entrances, and walk for as little or as long as you’d like.  You’ll be among the rooftops, gazing across the cityscape at half-timbered houses, turrets, gables, even two church towers.

My boys loved gallivanting around, looking down on the few souls we found here and there.  With plenty of secure railing, I felt comfortable enough to let them run ahead while Doc Sci and I trailed behind, occasionally squeezing ourselves through a narrow passage.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsPerhaps equally as exciting as the walls, the Spital Bastion is a little boy’s delight since it boasts a few (defunct) canons poking out from the cavernous interior.

When we’d had our fill of imaginary medieval adventure, we cautiously approached the center.  I knew we’d find the most tourists here, and I dreaded it.  Thankfully, the Sunday-morning-in-crappy-weather hordes only ended up being a few groups of about twenty.  That, I can handle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Christmas Craze and Why Asians Love Rothenburg

One of the groups huddled around the entrance to the Weihnachtsmuseum (Christmas Museum).  Christmas is a big deal, year round, in Rothenburg.  While I didn’t see Santa, I did spot some fun, albeit expensive, holiday decor.  Even if you give the shops a pass as we did, don’t miss the gigantic nutcracker.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Perfect for this year’s Christmas tree – an Oktoberfest beer maid, complete with pretzels.

Speaking of shops, I couldn’t help but notice that many signs were written in Asian languages.  Then, I realized that most of the visitors who braved the morning’s conditions were.. Asian!  Why Asians love this place is a mystery to me.  Best guess?  Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a quintessential, quaint old European city so vastly different from what they’re used to seeing at home.

Actually, our know-it-all friend Wikipedia helps out with an explanation:  “This place has become a popular tourist destination for Japanese because of the animated film “Sugar a little snow fairy”, where the main character lives in Rothenburg.”  Ahh, medieval manga… got it!Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Chugging Coffee at Cafes and Where to Picnic

When your eyes have gone cross trying to read Chinese and your hands are numb from the damp fog, duck into one of the many cute cafes to relax and warm up.  Try to find one away from the main square (Marktplatz) unless you particularly like parting with dozens of euros.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Main Square – Marktplatz.

We spotted a few bakeries selling Schneebälle (snowballs) which are essentially tangled masses of dough strips that have been deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. The European equivalent of funnel cakes, perhaps?

P.s. – These pastry creations are totally for the tourists and, in our experience, not very tasty.

On a nicer day, we would’ve brought along a picnic and sat in the castle garden (free, open to the public) to munch.  The park has charm that changes with the seasons: new buds in spring, fully floral in summer, tinged with color in autumn, and a silent romanticism in the snow.  Views from here across the neighboring valley are extraordinary, even in crummy weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Castle Gardens

The Verdict

While diehard Rothenburg ob der Tauber fans might argue that I missed most of the action by skipping the Criminal Museum, Train Museum, Toy Museum, churches, and the über-popular Christmas market, I beg to differ.

My Rothenburg was quiet, empty, peaceful… perfect.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience skipping along the walls and exploring the forsaken fortress.  It is because of this Sunday morning serenity that Rothenburg surpassed all expectations and earned its place as the true jewel of the Romantic Road.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsSignature-MarigoldPractical tips for families visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

  • Reach Rothenburg by rail or by car.  If by train, make sure to enter Rothenburg ob der Tauber as there are several Rothenburg stations throughout Germany.
  • Parking is available outside the walls.  All lots (P1-P5) charge 1 euro/hour or 5 euros/day.  If you arrive early, you may be lucky enough to nab free off-street parking.  We found ours on Kreuzerstr. near P5.  Make sure to check for signs indicating that the area should only be used by residents.
  • Use a backpack carrier if you want to take little legs up on the walls.  Otherwise, the rest of the city is quite pram-friendly. 
  • Surprisingly, plenty of free bathrooms can be found at various points around town.  I didn’t notice any baby changing tables in the public facilities, only inside cafe restrooms.
  • Restaurant and cafe prices can be hefty, so bring a picnic. The only takeaway joints I noticed were pizza or bratwurst.
  • If you want to shop for a sack lunch while visiting or pick up some German supermarket souvenirs, Rewe, Aldi, and Lidl all have locations outside the walls, but Edeka’s E-Aktiv Markt is the closest to the old town at Ansbacher Straße 15.
  • Inside the walls, some streets are not pedestrianized, so keep an eye on kiddos in these areas (though it’s not nearly as awful as Italy).  Everywhere else is mostly safe to allow roaming.
  • Last, but not least, a great playground can be found outside the walls on the west side of the city along the path that leads from the Klingentor (bell tower) to the castle gardens.

Other adorable European small towns:

Stein am Rhein Switzerland for Kids and Families

Stein am Rhein

Strasbourg France for Kids and Families

Strasbourg

San Gimignano Italy for Kids and Families

San Gimignano

Cruising the Chiantigiana.. and A Lousy Time in Greve

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsBeyond the food and wine, Tuscany is known for its unbeatable landscapes.  The Chianti region especially is famous for its picturesque little villages and rolling vineyards.  Since we had a car at our disposal, I wanted to make time for a classic drive on the Chiantigiana, also known as the SS222, between Castellini and Greve.

I couldn’t wait to burn up my camera with gorgeous images.  I had an idea in my mind of what we’d see, how perfect it would look, and where I would hang the lovely prints in my home.

Bahahaha! 

Someone please check my head please, because I must have forgotten reality.  Here’s a reminder (ahem, mostly for myself) – traveling with kids is never perfect, and things rarely turn out in the way you expect.

And that’s the heart of it, really.. expectations.  Keep them low, and you will often be amazed.  Set them high, and prepare for disappointment.

On the day of our wandering through Chianti, we had a late check out from our villa near Lucignano and at least six hours to kill before we could check in near Pistoia.  I made sure the boys had lots of snacks to ward off the where-are-we-going?-are-we-there-yet?-this-is-SO-boring broken record.

After getting turned around a few times, we made a left onto the infamous road.  I could hardly wait!  But, wait I did.  And wait, and wait some more.  My framed print never went from dream to reality.Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIn some places, the trees along the road were so thick, one couldn’t see the beauty beyond.  In other places, the sun beat down in such a way that the light was too harsh to capture anything worth remembering.  Not only that, the road was dangerously narrow and offered very few places to pull over.

And try as we may, we could not find this postcard picture.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsAs if that weren’t enough, Big Foot didn’t feel like napping; instead, he decided screaming would be a more exciting way to pass the time.  We gave up gallivanting about, and parked in Greve.

Allllll the guidebooks tell you how charming Greve is.  And maybe they’re right.. except on Saturday mornings in August.

The main piazza was drowning in vendors and visitors.  Yes, the produce was gorgeous.  Yes, the cheese stunk to high heaven.  Yes, the shops were quaint.  But, it was difficult to enjoy the experience while suffocating from all the hype.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsThrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIt’s hard to love a place when you’re being burnt to a crisp under the scorching sun, you can’t find a bathroom, and you pay through the nose for ice cream that’s worse than Walmart brand.

Even the punto panoramico was lame, and I’m always a sucker for a nice view.

Gah – what bum luck.

Well, am I saying that you should skip Chianti in general and Greve in particular?  Not exactly.  Everyone’s tastes are different, and you might visit on a Tuesday in May and love it to pieces.  Perhaps it’s magical at sunset when the light is softer and you’re not slathered in sunscreen.

Or maybe you’re super extroverted and savor being lost in a crowd.. in which case, what are you doing in backwoods Greve?  Get thee to Florence!

As long as you remember to keep your expectations low (hello, note to self!) and focus on what’s really important (time together as a family, for starters), you’ll always make memories… no matter where you go.

Your turn – have you gone wild with anticipation before traveling to a particular place?  What did you learn from the experience?Signature-MarigoldThis post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Mainau – The Flower Island

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandAt the urging of several friends, we finally (FINALLY!) visited the beautiful island of Mainau.  It’s an amazing place full of flowers, gardens, butterflies, and more.  But, be warned: you won’t want to leave!

Mainau is located close to Konstanz on the Bodensee in southern Germany.  For some reason, my GPS couldn’t find Mainau.  I just set it to Konstanz and followed the well-posted signs once we got close.  Of course, I found the coordinates after I returned home here – ha!  The island is accessible either by parking in the lot on the mainland and walking over a bridge or by ferry from a port closer to Konstanz.

Here we go!

Here we go!

Though the island does have a few hills here and there, it’s relatively flat and pram-friendly.  Bikes are prohibited, but children can bring balance bikes or scooters.  In the summer, wagons (handcars) are available free of charge from the main entrance.

The "handcars" are complimentary during the summer season.

The “handcars” are complimentary during the summer season.

For the little ones, the best part of Mainau is the gigantic water playground.  I knew this in advance, so we saved it for last.  I never would have been able to convince boys to look at the lilies when they knew barges and bathing suits were waiting for them!

Don't miss the butterfly house!

Don’t miss the butterfly house!

Instead, we hit up the Butterfly House first.  The building is shaped like a – wait for it – butterfly, and visitors enter through a gigantic caterpillar.  The inside is jungle-like with high humidity, tropical fruits, and densely packed greenery.  If you’re gentle and patient, you might even be able to get a butterfly to rest on your hand!

Beautiful butterflies.

Beautiful butterflies.

We then trudged on past some ginormous trees to the castle on the far end of the island.  A cafe and small chapel are accessible to the public, but the rest of the palace is still the private residence of the Bernadotte family.

A real redwood!

A real redwood!

Here's the inside of the small chapel.  A music festival was taking place during our visit; these children were about to sing in this lovely space.

Here’s the inside of the small chapel. A music festival was taking place during our visit; these children were about to sing in this lovely space.

A lovely rose garden sprawls out next to the castle.  I asked the boys if they wanted to explore the roses or not – I was surprised to hear an enthusiastic, “yes!”

The Italian rose garden.

The Italian rose garden.

Some serious QC going on.

Some serious QC going on.

After a satisfactory amount of sniffing, we moved on to the Italian and Mediterranean gardens.  I was lost in dreamy anticipation of our upcoming Italy trip, wondering if the landscape looked at all similar to Tuscany.  Their interest waning, the boys just wanted to watch people jumping off their boats for a swim in the Bodensee.

The Italian step water garden.

The Italian step water garden.

As I was reassuring them that lunch would come “soon,” we happened upon the petting zoo and pony rides.  T-Rex and Screech went in with Doc Sci to pet the goats, shrieking with delight when they found a baby one.

Side note: I noticed lots of children playing inside the goat pen without shoes.  Um, seriously!?  I get that Europeans want to be all earthy in the summer, but poop pellets between your toes?  G-ROSS!!

Pony rides!  The cost is 2 euros for 3 times around the paddock.

Pony rides! The cost is 2 euros for 3 times around the paddock.

Unfortunately, both boys chickened out when it came time to ride the ponies.  I knew they would like it, but neither would.. pony up.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandJust as a major hunger meltdown threatened to bring down the house, we made it to the playground.  This area of the island is THE point of Mainau’s existence according to little boys, the entire reason they will put up with flowers, butterflies and other girly things.

The kids can maneuver this raft back and forth by pulling on the thick rope.

The kids can maneuver this raft by pulling on the thick rope.

Back and forth.

Back and forth and back again.

Though the playground is quite extensive and features many fun playthings for children of all ages, the main draw is the water area, complete with wooden rafts that children can pilot around the murky green water (let’s not think about where those children’s feet have been…).

More barges!

More barges!

More of the playground - without water.  An area for toddlers is just on the other side of these climbing structures.

More of the playground – without water. An area for toddlers is just on the other side of these climbing structures.

Screech's favorite thing about the island (even over the water features) was this train.  Put a euro in and the ICE train goes 'round and 'round.

Screech’s favorite thing about the island (even over the water features) was this train. Put a euro in and the ICE train goes ’round and ’round.

I highly recommend bringing a bathing suit, towels, a sack lunch, and a large picnic blanket.  Spread out, and relax!  If not for the two hour drive home, we would’ve lounged ’til sundown.

I had high hopes for relaxing after lunch.  But keeping track of 3 kids near water is a two-parent job.  Maybe next year?

I had high hopes for relaxing after lunch. But keeping track of 3 kids near water is a two-parent job. Maybe next year?

Speaking of sunset, admission is half off starting at 5pm.  Prices are not cheap for adults, but children 12 and under are free!  Along with the privilege of enjoying the beautiful gardens, I was pleased to see that ticket sales went toward maintaining plentiful, clean bathrooms throughout island. I saw several baby changing rooms stocked with complimentary diapers and wipes. Though we didn’t use them, clothes dryers are provided free of charge for those families who forgot to bring swimsuits.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mainau - The Flower IslandAfter I got over the initial sticker shock, I thought the price was fair, considering the amount of upkeep that is required for the extensive grounds.  Of course, it’s best to stay the entire day to get your money’s worth!

If forced to find something negative about our experience at Mainau, I’d have to admit that since the island is so beautiful it’s naturally very crowded.  Expect to share your day with hordes of other eager visitors.

Our whole family loved Mainau, and we hope to return again some day with friends.  Who’s in??Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests!!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Trave Dad - Theo Jansen StrandbeestsNerds and nerdettes, you’re not going to want to miss today’s post.  Our family personally met a famous artist/engineer in his studio on our recent BeNeLux trip!  Keep reading for the low down on our encounter with these beach creatures.

In one of those serendipitous travel research moments, my wife stumbled upon a small detail hidden in a random corner of the Dutch shoreline near The Hague.  “Theo Jansen Beach” it said.  Thinking it might be some kind of famous surfer bar, she googled it, but found something much more amazing than booze instead.  Take a look at the 2 minute video below.

Amazing, fascinating, freakish, right?  If you’re like me, you want to see these things in action.  Unfortunately, Theo Jansen didn’t have any work on the beach at the time of our trip to Holland (to find out where the beasts are, look here).

BUT, we found out from his website that anyone can visit his studio near The Hague at anytime.  No need for a wild goose chase in the Dutch countryside; the property is right off a major highway.

Theo Jansen’s workshop is atop a small hill on the side of the road (no parking, just ditch the car on the shoulder and walk up).  Just between you and me, trust me when I say that calling it a “workshop” is kinda pushing it.  The building is little more than a shack to keep Theo protected from the elements when working, and it’s piled high with projects and a case of instant soup envelopes.

This guy developed a formula for creating “new life” as he says, forms that are able to walk across the beach on their own.  A wall next to the shack contains explanations regarding  the proportions and walking motion.  Several creatures greet visitors, inviting the interested to physically experience the creatures.

The sentinels.

The sentinels.

This walking motion and the particular proportions proved to be the two key elements to creating the beasts.  Each animal has a center shaft where all the feet connect in an offset manner.  Wind powers the beasts’ movements depending on the intensity of the gusts.  Theo is now creating a process by which this wind energy can be stored in bottles so the beasts can walk even when the weather is calm.

Theo Jansen’s ultimate goal is to create a beast that can exist completely independent of human help.  He literally believes he is creating a new species of life..

T-Rex is impressed.

T-Rex is impressed.

Wanting to see these engineering wonders for ourselves, we gambled that Theo would be at his studio on the day we passed through.  The odds were in our favor, and Mr. Jansen happily greeted us when we knocked on the shack door.

The studio is littered with PVC pipe, the color of Dutch cheese.  As Theo explained, these tubes are then bent, drilled, and heated to his specifications.  Large sheets catch the wind, and recycled soda bottles capture it.

T-Rex was gaga over all the tools in the workshop, and the two of them even chatted a bit in German and English about the gadgets and gizmos lying around.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Theo really enjoyed seeing the boys faces light up as their eyes followed the movement of a tiny beast across a table.  This particular teeny tiny beast had been 3-D printed and sent to Jansen by a student which is quite impressive considering the large number of moving parts needed to make the thing work.

Instead of being outraged that others are printing his work, Theo is delighted.  In fact, he considers this the method of beast reproduction.  These clever creatures use humans to multiply their species.

After seeing the little ones in Theo’s workshop I must admit I really want one (Father’s Day – hint, hint!).  Apparently, I have good company in my admiration for these marvels.  Adam Savage has also developed quite an affinity for them.

Outside the workshop, we tested some beasts with our own hands.  From pushing and pulling a few little guys around the hilltop, I can only imagine what the full-scale beasts look like in person scurrying along the sand and splashing in the waves.

Father and son geek out time.

Father and son geek out time.

I wished we could have stayed and talked the genius Jansen’s ear off, but T-Rex was cold, Screech wanted a snack, and we couldn’t push our luck with a sleeping Big Foot.

Would I go visit Theo Jansen’s studio again?  You betcha.  I hope Mr. Jansen is still around when my boys are old enough to understand the engineering and design principles behind these creations.  Science + Art = always a winner in our traveling family’s book!

Headed to The Netherlands?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Zaanse Schans – Nerdy Travel Dad approved!

Snapshot: Antwerpen with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsAfter our delightful time in Brugge, we needed to make our way up to Haarlem, the third home base of our BeNeLux week.  On a bucket list trip, I find it difficult to simply going from point A to point B.  It’s imperative to squeeze in one or two stops along the way.

I considered taking breaks in both Rotterdam (the largest port in Europe) and Antwerpen (the second largest).  In the end, I realistically thought we’d only have time for one.  Research showed that Antwerpen is prettier, and its cathedral is the tallest in BeNeLux.  I had my winner.Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsDespite my best planning efforts, we almost scrapped our Antwerpen visit.  The GPS in our car is notoriously unreliable (it’s one of those built-in kinds with CDs and we haven’t gotten around to getting a new one), and even the printed directions I used landed us far beyond the city center.

We stopped at a petrol station to fill up and take a closer look at the map.  An older gentlemen was refueling his car and staring at us.  Instead of getting annoyed (my usual response to staring), I decided to ask his opinion on which autobahn was the best route to take north into the Netherlands.  He didn’t want to speak English, so I mustered up my best German and hoped for the best.

Well, the best is what I got.  Not only did this kind stranger advise me on the next road to take, but he offered to personally lead us to the city center when he found out we were (kind of) lost.

At least, that’s what I thought he said.  Everything was in German, after all…

Following our new friend - across the Mexico bridge!

Following our new friend – across the Mexico bridge!

Luckily for us, my baby brain did not fail, and we followed this gentleman along a harbor route with great views of giant ships right to the parking garage in the center of town.  Thank you, whoever you are!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage.  I'm sure this fortress is worth exploring!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage. I’m sure this fortress is worth exploring!

My list for our two hours in Antwerpen consisted of three things: gaze at ginormous freighters, wonder at the beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and put Fritkot Max‘s best-fries-in-the-whole-of-Belgium claim to the test.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

With one down and two to go, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed through Antwerpen’s town square on the way to the church.  We savored an eyeful of the sheer mass of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and then slipped inside for a few moments.  The Cathedral of Our Lady charges admission (probably because of all the Peter Paul Rubens works on display), but you can stand in the prayer area for free.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Just around the corner from the cathedral, we found Fritkot Max.  Doc Sci ordered a large for our family to share.  The fries aren’t salted, and that affected the taste for us.  So, in order to be truly scientific about it, Doc Sci thought we needed another large.  Even after consuming a few kilos of potatoes from Fritkot Max, we still voted Fritland in Brussels the best fries in Belgium.

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

While in Brugge, I had stumbled upon a super fun shop called Oil & Vinegar.  Doc Sci and I love to eat bread dipped in olive oil, and homemade salad dressing is a current obsession of mine.  We didn’t have time to shop in Brugge, so we hurried over to the Antwerpen location in the few minutes we had left.

Oil & Vinegar!

Oil & Vinegar!

As luck would have it, we discovered a small playground right around the corner from the store!  Score for us (we bagged some delicious bruschetta mix and basil olive oil), score for the boys (they let most of the willies out before we had to continue driving).

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

On the way back to the car, we quickly had a look at the water, but it was not possible to see many ships from the city center.  The best views came from the earlier detour guided by our new friend.  Serendipitous events make for the most memorable travel moments!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

My snapshot of Antwerpen: industrial but beautiful, decadent but hardworking, fashionable but fun.

Have you been to Antwerpen?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Vianden Castle with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Vianden Castle, LuxembourgSince I knew we’d only have one day in Luxembourg as part of our BeNeLux week, I wanted to squeeze in one more stop in addition to our morning in the capital.

Our family is totally into visiting ruins these days, so I thought it might be fun to pop in to a castle that has been restored.  Vianden is one such castle, located in a small town of the same name in the northeast corner of Luxembourg.  Lucky for me, this castle was a huge hit with all male members of my household.

Imagining what it must be like to charge up this path hundreds of years ago.

Imagining what it must be like to walk on these stones hundreds of years ago.

If you are able to visit Vianden in the summer during their Medieval Festival, I hear it is spectacular.  But even if you find yourself charging up the stone path while fighting gusts of icy wind, you’ll still enjoy Vianden Castle.

The chapel dome.

The chapel dome.

The castle is restored, and all the rooms are interesting in their own way.  For those concerned about little fingers touching things they ought not to, note that most of the hands-off items are in the first few rooms.  After that, the task shifts to keeping small bodies away from big drop-offs.

Treasures galore!

Treasures galore!

The beginning of the marked route through the the open rooms features old knight armor and weapons from the many centuries Vianden has been standing.  Other highlights include the chapel, the dining hall, the well, and some very Narnia-looking wardrobes.  History buffs will need to brush up on their German and French; none of the exhibit information cards were written in English.

Searching for Aslan.

Searching for Aslan.

In one of the rooms, I noticed a puzzle, some plastic swords, and a few other souvenir-type items in a glass case.  I whispered to Doc Sci, “Be ready – we’re going to be hit with the gift shop on the way out.”

But, I was wrong.  No gift shop.  If you’d like to purchase a trinket bearing the visage of Vianden, you’ll have to do so from the tiny admission booth near the entrance.

Following the prescribed path.

Following the prescribed path.

For those interested in practicalities, Vianden has two sets of bathrooms: one outside the castle, and one inside on an upper floor.  Bring your own baby changing mat.  It is possible to push a pram up the hill to the entrance, but you’ll have to ditch it to go inside the castle.  When we visited, the only refreshments available came from a soda vending machine.  It looked like a cafe was being constructed, but I couldn’t tell for sure.  Until then, bring your own…

My favorite feature of this castle was how it seemed to be forged from the rock itself instead of just sitting upon it.

My favorite feature of this castle was how it seemed to be forged from the rock itself instead of just sitting upon it.

If you’re in need of an ice cream or bottle of water on a warm day, I noticed a small souvenir shop in the town a short walk down the road from the castle.  You’ll have to go further and cross the river for anything more substantial.

Delightful details.

Delightful details.

For outdoorsy types, Vianden is at the top of several hillside hiking trails.  Visit the castle, and then hike your way down the mountain to the river and village below.  We didn’t venture out due to time restrictions, but a quick look revealed the path to be rather steep.  Take care when going down with little ones underfoot.

Doc Sci snapped a quick photo of these hiking routes leading down from Vianden Castle.

Doc Sci snapped a quick photo of these hiking routes leading down from Vianden Castle.

All in all, Vianden Castle is a delightful gem on the Luxembourg – Germany border.  It’s worth your time, but make sure you have plenty of it.  The roads leading in and out of Vianden are rural, winding, and often stop-and-go.

The castle is a short walk from the small parking lots on the side of the hill.

The castle is a short walk from the small parking lots on the side of the hill.

Not able to get to the castle at Vianden?  Consider these other kid-friendly destinations in Luxembourg.

  • Gaalgebierg – A park with animals near Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg.  Free!
  • Parc Merveilleux – An amusement park with mini golf, pony rides, an animal park, playground, and more! Route de Mondorf L-3260 Bettembourg.
  • Luxlait Vitarium – A brand-new, hands-on museum all about MILK!

If you’ve been to Vianden or any other place of interest to little ones in Luxembourg, I’d love to hear about it below!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Brussels with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Brussels with KidsWhen our Netherlands getaway became a BeNeLux trip, our itinerary went from sane to harebrained.  Doc Sci and I decided to just roll with the punches and make this a bucket-list trip.

Ever since I heard that the Grote Markt in Brussels is the most beautiful town square in all of Europe, I decided I had to see it with my own eyes.  I made Brussels our morning stop on the way from Nijmegen in the Netherlands to Brugge on the west side of Belgium.

That’s the nice thing about being the master of your own itinerary and driving instead of flying or taking the train.  Do what you want, when you want.

But, because we were driving, I worried about navigating Brussels traffic.  (Turns out, the really heavy flow was near Antwerpen – beware!)  Finding and paying for parking was also a concern.  I wanted an interesting place outside of the city center to explore that just happened to be close enough to public transportation so we could have a little jaunt in the beautiful.  A tall order?  Maybe, but as it turns out, the Atomium fit my criteria perfectly.

I don’t have much to say regarding the Atomium at this time because I’m totally stoked to announce that Doc Sci has decided to start his own line of posts here on Thrifty Travel Mama called Nerdy Travel Dad!  Just by looking at the thing, I’m sure you can tell that The Atomium definitely falls into this category.  Update: you can read Doc Sci’s Nerdy Travel Dad review of the Atomium here.

After packing Big Foot into the backpack carrier, and stuffing some sandwiches in my pack, we headed for the subway.  In fifteen minutes, we were making our way through downtown Brussels.

Fritland - the best fries in all of Belgium.

Fritland – the best fries in all of Belgium.

First stop?  The BEST fries in all of Belgium.  Yep, I’m makin’ a claim and stickin’ to it.  Though others seem to think that Frikot Max in Antwerpen is the best, I’ll personally tell you that Fritland wins hands down.  Try the Mitraillette which looks like a huge fry sandwich.

St. Nicholas from the outside..

St. Nicholas from the outside..

While sitting at a table in the sunshine at Fritland, give the Saint Nicholas Church (across the street) a gander.  For some reason, T-Rex wanted to go in every church we stumbled upon.  After a quick visit and a few photos, we made our way toward the Grote Place.

Inside St. Nicholas Church.

and the inside!

Only a few steps later, we were sidetracked by a small sign showing the way to the other famous Brussels landmark, the Mannekin Pis.  I wasn’t planning on taking T-Rex and Screech to see a bronze boy peeing, but what the heck.  Live it up.  Walk the few blocks over, and get that cheesy tourist picture.  You’ll only be in Brussels once, right?  Right.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

And, while you’re at it, order a big fat Belgian waffle smothered in specaloos.  If you don’t know specaloos, not to worry.  Read more about this cookie spread and where to buy it here.  Or, if you just want the cookie, taste test anything with the word spekulaas in it.

Maison Dandoy - fancy pants speculaas.

Maison Dandoy – fancy pants speculaas.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace.  Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

After the obligatory peeing statue giggles, we finally (FINALLY!) found ourselves in what surely must be the most lovely square in Europe, the Grote Place.  Other cities have more beauty scattered, but Brussels has it all in one neat, uh, rectangle.  The gold on the buildings and the ornamental architectural styles are a feast for the eyes.  Amazing.

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

My snapshot of Brussels: big city feel, small town taste, elegant architecture, and an excellent introduction to Belgium.

Have you been to Brussels?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Luxembourg with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Luxembourg with KidsI’ve long wanted to go on a BeNeLux trip, and the week before Easter I finally did it!

In a nutshell, the BeNeLux countries were beautiful, the food amazing, the weather freezing, and the itinerary exhausting.  We had three (three!!) home bases in 7 nights.  I generally do not like to travel this way with kids, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time.  So, ready or not, here comes a whole host of posts (ha!) on everything BeNeLux we could jam into one week.

Welcome to Luxembourg!

Welcome to Luxembourg!

First up, the Lux part!  Doc Sci and I carefully woke the boys up around 430am on a Monday morning and crept silently to our car.  Under the cover of darkness, we made our way through France to Luxembourg.  We were hit with two curve balls – the traffic going into Lux happened to be a lot heavier than anticipated, and the weather in Lux was much colder than predicted.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

After finding our way to what has to be the BEST park in Lux, we awkwardly dressed the boys in their day clothes (they slept in the car wearing pajamas), trying to maneuver socks and buttons in our cramped car.  We fed the boys and the baby breakfast, and set out for a walk around the old city.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Funky fountain near the city's history museum.

Funky fountain near the city’s history museum.

I had envisioned savoring the beauty of the architecture and appreciating the stillness of the morning unclouded by throngs of tourists.  Oh, the streets were empty all right.  But the only thing I thought about was how I could barely feel my feet.  After a few hey-we-were-here pictures, we headed back to the park.

Fancy a bite to eat?  Better have a wad of cash - this child's expression at the ridiculously priced kids meal says it all.

Fancy a bite to eat? Better have a wad of cash – this child’s expression at the ridiculously priced kids’ meal says it all.

I might've ponied up to try this Mexican restaurant (isn't Chi Chi's a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

I might’ve ponied up some euros to try this Mexican restaurant (isn’t Chi Chi’s a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

On the way back to the park and our car, we found the tourist office.  We stopped in (hello, free heat) and were told that we had caught all the interesting sights.  The only thing we missed and couldn’t do anyway because of our time schedule was the underground casemates tour (a great description of the tour can be found here).  The admission is surprisingly reasonable, and we will definitely do this tour should we have the opportunity to return to Luxembourg.

Even without the cold, we probably could have spent one day in Luxembourg – max.  The city is quite compact, and very walkable.  If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, prams are okay, but a backpack carrier would be better especially if you plan on walking up and down the fortress walls or taking the casemates tour.

When researching Luxembourg, I noticed a hop on-hop off tour.  I have to say that after seeing Luxembourg in person, that tour is most likely a waste of money unless you have limited mobility.  The tour buses are not frequent, and all the sights are quite close together.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and layers of history.  Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci's favorite part of the morning.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and LAYERS of history. Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci’s favorite part of the morning.

Another view from the old fortress.

Another view of the city from the old fortress.

Though I loved taking in the view of the Grand Ducal Palace, I know the boys thought the pirate ship playground was the highlight of our morning in Lux.  If you’d like to visit yourself, the huge park is located near the corner of Avenue Monterey and Boulevard Prince Henri, right next to the Monterey parking garage.  Free (warm!) bathrooms are located in the park as well as in the parking garage.  Many cafes are within walking distance should you need a bite to eat.  (More about this park here.)

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

Though it's hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

Though it’s hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

This park ROCKS!

This park ROCKS!

My snapshot of Luxembourg: bitter cold, enchanting, historically fascinating, and very expensive.

Have you been to Luxembourg?  What was your favorite part of Lux to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Visiting Keukenhof Flower Gardens with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama Keukenhof with KidsSpending Easter Sunday dilly dallying among the tulips at the famous Keukenhof gardens in Holland… sounds like a dream, right?  And it was, except my dreams didn’t include icy wind and late winter weather, but my reality did.  Nevertheless, don’t let my unfortunate timing dismay you – visiting Keukenhof is an amazing experience even under less than stellar circumstances.

Thrifty Travel Mama Keukenhof with KidsA few notes on visiting Keukenhof with kids… Of all the places we visited on our trip to BeNeLux, our time at Keukenhof was the least stressful (full disclosure: it was also the most expensive!).  The gardens are well-planned with wide, flat, paved walkways and several sets of (clean – and free) restrooms with changing tables located throughout the park.

Thrifty Travel Mama Keukenhof with KidsThe gardens at Keukenhof are extensive, offering enough to keep young, old, and even tired eyes interested for hours.  If tulips aren’t your thing (wait, is that even possible?!), you can find orchids, hydrangeas, crocuses, hyacinth, and a zillion other flower varieties in the pavilions.  And, might I add that even though I visited Keukenhof with my very manly husband and three rambunctious boys, I received no comments or complaints about it being “too girly.”

More than just tulips!

More than just tulips!

My boys loved the playground with its zip line, swings, slides, and structures for climbing.  I was impressed by the variety of play equipment, suitable for a wide range of ages.  We brought our own lunch and munched away at the picnic tables located right on the playground.

View from the Keukenhof windmill.

View from the Keukenhof windmill – no tulips peeking up from the ground.

Perhaps even more than the awesome playground, T-Rex and Screech really enjoyed going inside the old Dutch windmill on the property.  It provides an excellent view of the fields at Keukenhof and beyond.

Giant, fresh stroopwaffels!

Giant, fresh stroopwaffels!

At the base of the windmill, two ladies were serving up giant, hot-off-the-press stroopwaffels.  More about stroopwaffels here, but in case you are craving the experience of tasting a fresh stroopwaffel like we were, I might as well tell you that the packaged ones are just as good as the fresh kind if you warm them up.  Oh, right, and the packages are much cheaper if you buy them at the grocery store rather than at Keukenhof.

The bald eagle, waiting for his big entrance.

The bald eagle, waiting for his big entrance.

We were pleasantly surprised by two things at Keukenhof: the Birds of Prey show and the petting zoo.  The Birds of Prey show featured a Red-tailed Hawk and a Bald Eagle as well as a large owl (sorry, I didn’t catch the exact species).  Several members of the audience were allowed to don a heavy leather glove while the handler invited the owl to fly from arm to arm.  My boys had never seen such large birds up close before.

Easter lamb!

Easter lamb!

Doc Sci and I were delighted to discover a spotless Easter lamb in the petting zoo.  He hovered close to his mama, but graciously let little fingers and palms caress his soft wool while goats, cows, and chickens milled in the background.  Getting to touch the animals was thrilling for the little boys, but the symbolism of the lamb was a highlight of our Easter Sunday visit.

The Easter Bunny!

The Easter Bunny!

And, speaking of Easter, T-Rex had been asking me for weeks when we were going to see the Easter Bunny and get some Easter eggs.  I kept saying we’d have to look for him on Easter, all the while knowing that the rabbit himself was scheduled to make an appearance at Keukenhof that day.  The look on T-Rex’s face when he almost ran smack dab into the Easter Bunny was priceless, and I think he almost went into shock when the rabbit offered him an actual Easter egg!

Easter eggs - European style.  No plastic or candy here.

Easter eggs – European style. No plastic or candy here.

While I truly was disappointed by the lack of tulips in the fields outside (darn you late winter!), I still enjoyed my visit to Keukenhof.  Weather is always a gamble, but a memorable visit can be guaranteed with the right attitude (and season-appropriate clothing!).

This year's flower scene - Big Ben - had barely even sprouted.  So sad.

This year’s flower scene – Big Ben – had barely even sprouted. So sad.

p.s. – Keukenhof is only open two months of the year.  Because of that, the crowds are insane.  My advice?  Get there early – like, 8am early.  Head straight for the pavilions (don’t miss the Willem-Alexander Pavilion!) before the hordes of tour buses loaded with people show up.

For more advice on when to go, a bit of history, and why tulips are so important to the Netherlands, click here.

And now, a smattering of photos from our time at Keukenhof…

A visit to Keukenhof starts at this organ, playing silly tunes.  CDs for sale!

A visit to Keukenhof starts at this organ, playing silly tunes. CDs for sale!

The Willem-Alexander Pavilion was awash with color.

The Willem-Alexander Pavilion awash with color.

I loved discovering varieties of tulips I had never seen before.  These GIGANTIC red ones were my favorite.

I loved discovering varieties of tulips I had never seen before. These GIGANTIC red ones were my favorite (three year-old hands shown for scale).

Can you believe these are tulips?

Can you believe these are tulips?

Thrifty Travel Mama Keukenhof with Kids

And these are, too!

Check out the frizz..

Check out the frizz..

The fringe..

The fringe..

The spikes!

The spikes!

Splendid!

Splendid!

Not quite as big as my favorite red ones..

Not quite as big as my favorite red ones..

Just to compare, let's have another look..

Just to compare, let’s have another look..

"Regular" red ones.

More red!

Whoa..

Whoa..

So many shades of pink.

So many shades of pink.

Can you choose a favorite?

Can you choose a favorite?

Radiant hydrangeas..

Radiant hydrangeas..

Prom and proper daffodils.

Prim and proper daffodils.

These little teensy things were Doc Sci's favorite.

These little teensy things were Doc Sci’s favorite (thanks to Screech for hand modeling).

Only two flowers had bloomed.  These purple beauties..

Only two flowers had bloomed outside. These blue-purple beauties..

.. and these yellow ones.

.. and these yellow ones.

Maybe as a concession for the flowers not peeking out yet, the walkways were lined with tulips in crates.  Not exactly the same as having the fields full...

Maybe as a concession for the flowers not peeking out yet, the walkways were lined with tulips in crates. Not exactly the same as having the fields full…

If you want to bring some wooden tulips home with you, buy them elsewhere!  We saw these at a store in Brugge (you can also buy them at the Zaanse Schans for this price).  At Keukenhof, EACH wooden tulip was 3,50!

If you want to bring some wooden tulips home with you, buy them elsewhere! We saw these at a store in Brugge (you can also buy them at the Zaanse Schans for this price). At Keukenhof, EACH wooden tulip was 3,50!

Thanks for looking!  Have you been to Keukenhof?  I’d love to hear about your adventure!

Love tulips?  Here’s another post with a visual tour of our visit to the Thanksgiving Point Tulip Festival in Lehi, Utah!

Signature-Marigold

Our First French Road Trip – Château de Saint-Ulrich

Hooray!  We’re stretching our travel wings again, and making small steps toward becoming European road trippers.

This past Saturday, we swallowed our breakfast whole, and then rushed to pile all the boys in the car.   We wanted to leave before Big Foot’s nap time, so that he could (hopefully) sleep in the car.  Yeah right.  The kid hates his car seat.

Our destination?  The Alsace region of France in general, the region north of Colmar specifically, and the three castles above Ribeauvillé exactly.

Though the new car came with a built-in GPS navigational system, we hadn’t tested it out yet so I made sure to print out driving directions just in case.  And good thing, too.  The directions while in Germany were accurate, but the French ones were not.

But I’ll get to that in a minute.  Let’s recap.. in pictures.

Screech, Big Foot, and T-Rex ready to ride.

Screech, Big Foot, and T-Rex ready to ride.

Driving to France was much quicker (and less painful) than running there.

Driving to France was much quicker (and less painful) than running there.

It might sound exciting to drive through France, but this is what you're in for... lots and lots of fields.  Blah.

It might sound exciting to drive through France, but this is what you’re in for… lots and lots of fields. Blah.

Since the Navi wasn't working properly, we made our way to Ribeauville using the printed driving directions.  But after a  couple of quick turns and I lost my place in the text...

Since the navi wasn’t working properly, we made our way to Ribeauville using the printed driving directions. But after a couple of quick turns, I lost my place in the text…

...and we ended up in the thick of the pedestrian zone!  Oops.

…and we ended up in the thick of the pedestrian zone! I could’ve stuck my hand out the window and touched the goods for sale, we were so close.  Oops.

As we were meandering our way out of the teeny streets, I looked up and saw our destination!

As we were meandering our way out of the teeny streets, I looked up and saw our destination!

We followed the road until we came to a parking lot and a dead end.  I asked some nice French lady (in German) if it was the way to the castles.  She assured me it was, so out piled the boys and up the mountain we went.

We followed the road until we came to a parking lot and a dead end. I asked some nice French lady (in German) if it was the way to the castles. She assured me it was, so out jumped the boys and up the mountain we went.  After a few minutes, we came to this sign.

The path to the top was quite steep, and most of it was covered with small rocks.

The path to the top was quite steep, and most of it was covered with small rocks.

We pressed on, and suddenly the path cleared.  Though the castles were still a long ways off, we at least had the end goal in sight.

We pressed on, and suddenly the path cleared. Though the castles were still a long ways off, we could at least see what we were after.

Before we could reach the castle, though, we'd have to cross this area of solid rock.  Though it was a bit dicey, it was nothing like hiking Hallasan.

Before we could reach the castle, though, we’d have to cross this area of solid rock. Though it was a bit dicey, it was nothing like hiking Hallasan.

I was really proud of the boys for hiking up a mountain for a whole hour without complaining.  In the end, we promised the first snack to the first boy to reach the castle.

I was really proud of the boys for hiking up a mountain for a whole hour without complaining. In the end, we had to bribe them to pick up the pace during the last five minutes of walking.  We promised the first snack to the first boy to reach the castle.

The payoff for such a short but steep hike was huge.  The view from the top was nothing short of marvelous.

The payoff for such a short but steep hike was huge. The view from the top was nothing short of marvelous.

While Doc Sci and I ogled the scenery, the boys played in the ruins.

While Doc Sci and I ogled the scenery, the boys played in the ruins.

You can see

You can see Chateau de Girsberg from Chateau de Saint-Ulrich.  It’s also possible to hike to Girsberg, but we didn’t want to push our luck with the little ones.

At the top, we attempted to take some family Christmas pictures.  As I was packing up, I noticed we had company from a token French guy in a beret.

At the top, we attempted to take some family Christmas pictures. And I do mean attempted.  Getting three boys under the age of five to all look at the camera and not make dorky faces is nothing short of a miracle.  As I was putting the camera away, I noticed we had company from a token French guy in a beret.

Bellies were rumbling, so we decided it was time to go.  But what a great day we had breaking Big Foot in to what I hope will just be the first of many hikes.

Bellies were rumbling, so we decided it was time to go. But what a great day we had breaking Big Foot in to what I hope will just be the first of many hikes.

On the descent, we handed T-Rex the camera and let him snap a few shots.  Here's what I found when I downloaded the pictures.

On the descent, we handed T-Rex the camera and let him snap a few shots. Here’s what I found when I downloaded the pictures.

Thanks, France!  We'll be back soon.

Thanks, France! We’ll be back soon.

Love France?  Check out our trips to Strasbourg and Colmar and read about the time I ran from Germany to France.Signature-Marigold