Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, SwitzerlandThe last time Doc Sci and I had the chance to escape alone, Charlie was still swimming in my stomach. We went to Milan for one warm, delicious day (the little one must have liked it because we ended up back in Italy to celebrate his first birthday). But with the little guy nearly two (2!!), we were due for another getaway.

With our tenth anniversary on the horizon, I entertained visions of endless days spent lying on Greek beaches, in private villas, and around infinity pools. These images must have been more delusion than dream because who I am kidding?! There’s no way we have the financial or child-care means to support such grand plans.

Instead, we ended up with a plan that was much more “us” than my former imaginations. We booked our trusty babysitter for a day and a half and set off for Switzerland to sleep in the Alps and hike the classic Faulhornweg.

Logistics

Faulhornweg day-trippers need to take the cog wheel train from Wilderswil to Schynige Platte, make their way to First (about 6 solid hours of walking, not including breaks), take the cable car back down to Grindelwald, and then a train back to Wilderswil.

It sounds confusing, but the basic idea is that you must travel up one side of the mountain, walk an insanely long way, and go back down the other side in order to return to your car. It can be done in reverse, but I consistently read that it was recommended to start at Schynige Platte.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

I figured with our limited budget, we’d need to overnight at a hotel in Grindelwald or even Interlaken. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hotel Schynige Platte reasonably priced for Switzerland. The hotel sits just above the cog wheel train station on top of the mountain and affords diners and sleepers glorious views of the big three: Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Rates include both a five-course dinner and breakfast buffet.

Going Up

Since we missed the cog wheel train experience at Pilatus, both Doc Sci and I were eager to cross this experience off our bucket list. We bought tickets in Wilderswil and waited for the last train of the day. We were asked repeatedly if we had overnight reservations (yes) because it would be a cold night alone on the mountain if we didn’t.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

To our surprise, other than a pack of paragliders, we were the only passengers on the train, save one Swiss family with two children. Doc Sci and I were like giddy school kids, jumping over the benches, hanging out the windows, snapping photos every three seconds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Interlaken!

At the beginning of the train ride, we could see Interlaken, Thunersee, and Brienzersee. But then the train went through a series of tunnels before popping out in front of her majesty, Jungfrau.

Just like with the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the best view is not from the monument itself, but rather from a distance.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

We pulled into the station at Schynige Platte, and checked into our hotel. The Hotel Schynige Platte is marketed as something from “grandma’s time.” The bathrooms are very modern (though not en-suite), the hotel is renovated and sparkling clean, but we had to laugh at some of the cheesy antiques.

All chuckling aside, we could barely speak when we saw the view from our room. I’m absolutely sure we had the best room in the entire house because it was on the corner and we could see the Alps from both windows.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Jungfrau!

Dinner was a curious affair. I can’t remember the last time I ate a five-course meal in a restaurant. I must have forgotten that snobbery is often the only thing that comes complimentary.

When we arrived at our table, the waitress insisted that we must order drinks. We only drink water with dinner at home, and I didn’t see in any TripAdvisor reviews that drinks (or at least water) were not included in the dinner price. She refused to bring us tap water and because we only had a limited number of francs with us (stupid I know, but I was not expecting to be manhandled), we couldn’t just order anything regardless of cost. We awkwardly asked for a menu.

A little heads up on this would’ve been nice, and a little understanding from the server would’ve been even nicer. We finally ordered a half liter of Sprite to the tune of 6 CHF. Yikes.

The worst part was that we realized later that another table had tap water – and a different waitress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Several of the courses were served on “plates” of stone or wood.

This flap put a bit of a damper on our dinner. We tried our best to ignore it, but this server was intent on remaining surly throughout the entire meal. To make matters worse, it started raining during dinner, clouding up our view of the Alps.

Well, whatever – we were here without kids, and we were going to make the best of it!

The room was chilly, but a space heater did the trick. As I mentioned, none of the rooms are not en-suite, but we never had to wait for a toilet or shower, and everything was very clean. It was odd to sleep in such silence with nothing but an occasional gust of wind to break it. We savored every minute of it.

In the morning, we rose early in anticipation of the long hike ahead. Breakfast was a limited buffet (though they did have hard boiled eggs and an assortment of pork cold cuts in the protein department). We made ourselves Alpine cheese sandwiches to take along, and we devoured the traditional Swiss yogurt and muesli in between swigs of coffee.

The Hike

After checking out, we stepped out into the drizzle. Unfortunately, the rain from the night before had lingered. Never mind that, our spirits were still high. Whenever anything threatened to fizzle our cheery disposition, we just looked at each other and said, “No kids!”Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

But this weather, this drizzle, was to be the best of the whole day. The plus side was that we were the only people on the trail. We could chat with each other or climb in silence. Our exclamations at the beauty of this place, even despite the fog and rain, annoyed no one. Pit stops were possible anywhere one pleased.

We traversed so many different types of terrain – huge boulders, tiny footpaths, bits of snow, gurgling streams. We dodged cow pies in pastures with scary heifers and slimy black salamanders that came out to frolic in the puddles. It was incredible.

The only thing that could have made it any more amazing would’ve been the lifting of the clouds so that we could have seen the peaks around us while we hiked.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The down side of the nasty weather was that by the middle of the hike, we were already on our way to being soaked. We wanted to sit in shelter somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We came across one restaurant (Berghaus Männdlenen Weberhütte) that rudely shooed us away since we only wanted to take a break and not buy a meal. The only other restaurant (Berghotel Faulhorn) we saw was at the Faulhorn summit. We figured we had about 5 CHF to spare and bought a hot chocolate with that in order to sit inside and warm up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Faulhorn summit.

Unfortunately, our clothing and belongings were now thoroughly drenched (note to self: check waterproofing on clothing and gear before going on a substantial hike). Putting them back on and stepping back out into the chilly rain and blistering wind sent my teeth a-chattering and my body temperature in a frightening downward spiral. Thankfully, I warmed up again after about 30 minutes, and at that time, we discovered a free hut where we could have eaten our lunch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Bachsee.

This hut looked out over the Bachsee, a lake popular with tourists ascending from Grindelwald to First. The sea was dead that day – no swimming, no fishing. I had hoped to take a dip in the Alpine water, but no dice. We had to keep moving to stay warm and get to a place where we could finally dry off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Don’t get any crazy ideas – that’s a camera and zoom lens in my jacket, not a baby bump.

Water literally poured off of us as we stepped inside the cable car at First for the ride back down to the Grindelwald valley. I think the only things that weren’t completely dripping were our feet (thank God), our cameras, and our phones. We rode down the mountain relieved to have made it and eager to get back to our car to change into dry clothes.

Final Thoughts

Would I do this hike again? Absolutely. But, only if I had the assurance of a clear day with no rain. And I think my boys would love this route in a few years. Perhaps we’ll go back for our 15th anniversary.

Doc Sci and I talked about anything and everything during the hike to stay focused, positive, and warm. I am so thankful that we are the best of friends. The fact that after 10 years of marriage, we still have things to talk about really encouraged me. While I would have obviously wished for better weather and more amazing views, hiking in these awful conditions really solidified something for me. I’d rather be in a miserable place with my husband than in a gorgeous one without him.

Have you ever had weather or vendor attitudes threaten to ruin your plans for an amazing vacation? I’m not always this positive – I think the absence of potential chorus of whining helped – so if you have any tips on how you managed to make the best of things, share them in the comments below.Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Mt. Pilatus – More Swiss Alps… with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with KidsOur romp through Switzerland continues today with an outing to Luzern (or Lucerne, if you prefer). The infamous lake of the same name is guarded by two intimidating peaks – Rigi to the east and Pilatus to the south. Both are big, bad, manly Alps.. so how to choose?

Which Peak?

If you’re trying to decide, you may be interested to know that tourists generally flock to Pilatus, but many Swiss people recommend Rigi. The view is said to be more beautiful from Rigi, though the panorama from Pilatus reportedly beats out Rigi. If you have the cash and want to do both, I’ve heard that the look and feel of the two mountains is very different.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

What made us pick Pilatus? Well, our visit was in June, and the cable car on Rigi is free for children in July and August. There was no way I was going to pay for something crazy expensive like a Swiss cable car ticket when I could just wait a few weeks and then get it for free.

Going Up

There are two ways to reach the top of Mt. Pilatus: cable car and cog wheel train. They both go to the same place, but they start from different sides of the mountain.

Many visitors to Mt. Pilatus choose to do something called the Golden Round Trip. You can start the GRT from anywhere along the way, but the classic route begins in Luzern with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne from the city to Alpnachstad. From there, you board the world’s steepest cog wheel train and chug on up the mountain. After dilly dallying to your hearts content in the thin air, you take two different cable cars down to Kriens where a bus returns you to Luzern.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

We decided that from a logistics and budget standpoint, we would get the most out of our day by going up and down the same side of the mountain. It had to be the cable car side since I discovered that Krienseregg boasts a rather impressive playground called PILU-Land. We’d have to leave the cogwheel train experience for another time.

Parking at Kriens was easy enough, and after being completely ripped off by a terrible euro-franc exchange rate, we were off, sailing up into the blue skies.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The first cable car is small, only big enough for four people (though they wisely allowed us to squeeze Charlie in despite the four-person rule). It glides up Kriens-Krienseregg-Fräkmüntegg. At Fräkmüntegg, passengers switch to another larger cable car to reach the peak. Note that from September 1, 2014, to sometime in the spring of 2015, the Fräkmüntegg – Pilatus Kulm route will be closed due to the construction of a new aerial cableway. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

At Fräkmüntegg, you can ride Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. Ticket prices are reasonable, but note that children under 2 cannot ride and children under 6 must be accompanied by an adult.

Pilatus – The Peak

A fancy hotel and several restaurants sit at the top ready to accept visitors’ francs. We sailed right on by and looked for the trails.

Since we were with another family and this time had six kids in tow (ages 8 and under!), we couldn’t very well do any of the crazy Alpine trails. However, we did manage to hike up to both Esel and Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

View of the Pilatus station, including restaurants and sundeck, from Esel.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Chillin at Esel. No ugly hiking boots or zipoff pants today.

The walk up to Esel is rather short, and it offers the best view of Lake Luzern itself. The stairs are wide enough that you can climb side by side with kids on the inside (toward the mountain). You’ll find benches here, but also loads of tourists. Munch on lunch, and move on.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

If you’re lucky, you might just spot a crazed mountain man free climbing up to the summit.

Tomlishorn, on the other hand, is trickier but worth the trek. It’s further from the Pilatus summit station (about an hour), and the trail is narrower, sometimes with only thin metal poles and skinny cables to keep you (and your kids) from skidding down the mountain. But there are pretty little signposted wildflowers to keep you company along the way. And the views of the Alps are better from this side.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Starting out toward Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Things are getting rocky along the way..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

But this picnic spot was well worth the effort.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

And, then, of course, there’s the view..

If you’d rather stay closer to the station, look for the dragon path which you can start from inside the station building. It’s carved into the rock and winds around the north side of Pilatus. On the back side of the path, you can watch the seriously buff hikers finishing their climb up the mountain. You’ll also have a perfect view of the chapel on Klimsenhorn with miles and miles of Swiss land in the background.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The back side of the dragon path.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The chapel on Klimsenhorn. We desperately wanted to go down and check it out, but the terrain was a bit too slippery with young ‘uns and not enough trekking poles to go around.

Back the Way We Came

After we were half tipsy from the endless picture-perfect peaks, we needed to get those six munchkins to the playground ASAP before they wrestled their way down the mountain. When we switched cable cars at Fräkmüntegg, we heard music – alphorns!

At Krienseregg, we joined dozens of other Swiss families for a romp on the PILU-Land playground. In true Swiss style, the grills were all fired up and everyone was eating freshly roasted sausages (well, everyone except BYO cheapskates like us).Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

To top things off, we arrived back at Kriens just in time to watch two paragliders land next to the cable car station. The boys were in heaven, but all I could think of was the hellish barrage of “why can’t I paraglide when I turn 7?” questions for the next three weeks. Sorry, dear, we don’t mind you walking in the clouds as long as your feet are on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very long time before we let you jump off into said clouds with nothing but a little nylon to keep you afloat.

So, How Does Pilatus Compare?

If you’ve read about our Schilthorn experience, you might wonder how Pilatus stacks up. In our opinion, Schilthorn is the better choice, hands down.

Pilatus had no snow on it, and we could only catch hazy glimpses of the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Schilthorn still had some snow, but all the peaks around it were dazzling in white. Also, the view of Lake Luzern is nice, but looking at Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau is just otherworldly. Both peaks are gouge-your-eyes-out expensive. But, if the weather’s clear and it’s within reach, go for Schilthorn.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Don’t miss our third and final Swiss adventure next week which involves NO children, being soaked to the bone, and the only snotty Swiss people I’ve ever met. Subscribe by email, feed reader, or like TTM on Facebook to stay up to date on the latest posts.

Taking the family to Switzerland but don’t have the cash or the time to visit the Alps? Check our adventures in Bellinzona, Stein am Rhein, and Rhein Falls!

Signature-Marigold

A Budget-Friendly Swiss Family Hike in the Clouds

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Walk in the CloudsSomewhere along the way we became that hiking family. You know, the ones with seriously ugly boots and those weird zip-off pants. I shudder to admit this, but I now consider SPF protection and water resistance rather than style when looking to buy new clothes. Please send help.

When our family was driving back from the amazing Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament, my husband and I tried to figure out just when this switch happened. Exactly when did we realize that hiking was our family’s “thing?” And, someone please tell me, when did our four year-old decide that he (1) was not only capable but (2) actually enjoyed walking for hours in the woods?

When planning the aforementioned trip, I asked for trail recommendations in the TripAdvisor forums. I wrote this:

We have two kids, 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 that are accustomed to hiking (max 15km, 10km is ideal).

Later in the day, the full impact of what I wrote hit me, and I had to pause. Seriously, when did hiking TEN KILOMETERS with my kids become “ideal”?!

I have no doubt there are other hiking families with little ones out there. I just don’t know any of them. Will the non-poser hiking families please stand up?

Anyway, I guess now we (mostly) just forgo fashion for natural beauty – as in rivers, trees, rocks, mountains. This is starting to sound like we’ve gone completely tree-hugger, but that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, at least I still shower. Goodness.

Plus, even if fashion is your thang, I don’t care how GQ you are – no one holds a candle to the Swiss Alps. Oh, golly do I love the Alps. In fact, I’m smitten.

And while it just feels right to snack on a sandwich at 3,000m, what I usually can’t stomach are the Swiss prices. I can only fork over so many francs in the summer hiking season.

It was, therefore, with great delight that I came across Moms : Tots : Zurich’s post about a hike in the Engelberg valley that only required a one-way cable car ticket and clocked in at a very reasonable 12 CHF per adult. For the hiking newbs, you ride the cable car up and walk back to your car. I completely understand if this sounds like torture to you.

As soon as the weather looked something like summer, we stocked up on trail mix (dear me, now we’re granola) and hit the road.

We did our usual bagel breakfast in the car, and arrived at the Fürenalp cable car just after it opened.

Unfortunately, even though the weather was warm enough to be classified as “not winter,” the skies weren’t entirely clear. In fact, the clouds changed about every twenty seconds.

As I usually do before venturing into die Schweiz, I stalked the weather forecast and webcam for days, comparing the predictions from several sites with the actual weather throughout the day from the 360° webcam. In the end, it’s always a gamble, and we decided we’d rather go to the Alps on a cloudy day than not go at all. Besides, everything in Switzerland can’t always be perfect, right?!

Well, since I know many of you aren’t hiking weirdos with convertible pants and trekking poles, I thought I’d just show you the hike in pictures rather than just yapper on and on about the trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The Fürenalp cable car is much smaller than the ones we are used to. They hold 6-8 people, and the ride only lasts a few minutes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

There’s a photo at the station here that shows an old version of the cable car. It basically looks like an open crate, and the photo shows two children sitting alone in it and sailing up the mountain. Yikes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Thirty francs later (kids under 6 are free), we’re off!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, Engelberg! This turned out to be the clearest view we had of the valley the whole day.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

In Switzerland, there’s always a restaurant at the end of any cable car line. Note that the prices are as impressive as the views.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

But, more importantly, there’s usually a playground at the top, too. This one did not disappoint. Not pictured: a giant trampoline to really get the altitude sickness going.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

As we studied the trail map, Bessie and her buds moseyed up to eye the new trail meat. And yes, that strip of rocky dirt is the start of the Grotzliweg trail.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The kids liked the cows, but Doc Sci was a little chicken to share the trail with them so we took a parallel path. At the time I kind of ragged on him about it, but later, I read Tanya’s post about scary cows. Better leave those heifers alone.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, awesome playground and potentially dangerous bovines.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The trail starts out nice and easy. As Tanya mentions, you can’t take a pram here, but the terrain isn’t too rough for smallish hikers.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

I noticed a sign pointing toward a small mirror lake (Spiegelseeli), so I left the boys on the main trail and ran up to check it out. I imagine this would be a perfect place for the kids to splash and frolic about when the temperatures oblige.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Had the clouds not been so annoying, here’s all the things we could’ve seen (including the more popular and MUCH more expensive Titlis). Sometimes we could see somber black mountain faces smattered with rotting streaks of snow. Other times we caught glimpses of those same streaks morphing into wild waterfalls that careened down the sheer drop-offs. And, in between, we couldn’t see anything but wispy haze that clouded the views we coveted of those majestic Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Along the way, we passed another even smaller cable car station, a handful of dairy farms selling fresh-from-the-cow products, a few restaurants, and the same four pairs of hikers. Everyone took breaks at different times and places, passing and being passed in a funny trail dance that bordered on annoying by the time it was over.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Speaking of that other cable car, if you find that you’ve bit off more than you can chew with a 9km walk, you can catch a ride down on it, and that would probably cut that distance in half. But if you’re game to keep walking, the station makes a lovely picnic spot.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

After lunch, Bravo spotted one of the biggest cowbells we have ever seen.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

One of the highlights of the hike is the Stäuber waterfall. It’s not really a place to wade or swim or test your luck in a barrel, but this section looked okay for the kids to dip a toe or two in (under supervision, of course).

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The waterfall isn’t particularly high, but it still had plenty of water flowing thanks to melted snow. Maybe it’s less impressive in the late summer/early fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The alpine flowers were in full bloom, and we actually saw more critters than usual (read: more than zero). We saw everything from dung flies to butterflies to a laminated frog (tractor tire?) and a silvery snake. All this in addition to the cows that, despite Doc Sci’s efforts to avoid, populated many of the paths.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

The route back down toward Engelberg follows this river which flows from the waterfall. The flow calms down a bit further on. We saw several places to wade in the frigid water, but it was still too chilly to do that, even in mid-June.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Toward the end of the hike, we entered a forested area that was rather unremarkable, except for this billy and his buds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Once we cleared the forest (and another herd of cows), we found ourselves in a big open field with a view of the cable car and a bit of the Engelberg valley. An impressive finish, to say the least.

Whew! We did it – 9 kilometers completed, 30 francs spent, and untold numbers of treacherous cow pies avoided.

Even though we were the only family with kids that day, we still made it down the mountain in roughly the same amount of time as everyone else. We started our hike at 10:30am, and we finished just before 3:00pm. We stopped two times for snacks as well as at the waterfall to let our jaws hang loose while we stared at the simple yet amazing power of rushing water. Yes, despite the cloudy conditions, a good day was had by all.

This post is the first of three short trips to the Swiss Alps. In order to ease you into the sticker shock, I’m starting with the cheapest. But if you’re ready to jump in and bleed as much cash as possible, you can read about our pricey (but amazing) trip to Schilthorn last summer here. Stay tuned for our next stop – Mt. Pilatus!

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Ketchup: The Past Four Months + the Future in 1000 Words (or More)

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

So now that I’m back in the saddle, I thought I’d try to close the distance between where I left you and where we are now.

I’d like (you) to think I’ve been nothing but a good student for the past four months, but I’m a terrible liar. While it’s true I always did my best to complete my homework, it’s equally as true that I played hookey a good bit during my studies. In between the worksheets and flashcards, our little family has had plenty of adventures near and far, both exceptional and everyday.

Ready for the recap?

In no particular order..

Multicoolty, a blog that compiles stories about expats living in Germany, featured me in May, though I wrote my thoughts way back in January. Check out what I had to say and a silly old picture I dug up from our first trip to Berlin here.

Cologne

Köln (Cologne)

My husband gave me a fantastic birthday gift this year – two days alone (ALONE!!) in Köln (Cologne). This was before language lessons had started, so it was a blissful quiet time to do whatever I fancied whenever I pleased.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Keukenhof Gardens with Kids

The biggest boy exploring the tulips with me at Keukenhof in the Netherlands.

To ease my disappointment over last year’s pathetic lack of tulips at Keukenhof in the Netherlands, I took my oldest son on a quick trip for a better look. We took the overnight train up to Amsterdam, bussed over to Keukenhof to gawk at the fields of tulips, made our way back to Amsterdam, scarfed down a pancake dinner, and caught the night train back home. Whew! And yes, it was actually fun, and yes, he was a champ on the overnight trains. I would definitely do it again!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Flying away in Zadar, Croatia.

Several days after our up-and-back Netherlands trip, the five of us flew to Croatia for ten days. During our trip, we stayed in Zadar, Dubrovnik, and Split. We also drove through a bit of Bosnia and took a day trip to Montenegro. One of the most fun moments of the trip was meeting SJ of Chasing the Donkey and her family!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mexican Food in Germany

The taco truck!

While we didn’t find any Mexican food in Croatia (and opted out of another fantastic dinner at Los Pilones in Amsterdam in favor of a pancake feast), we have been going gangbusters at the Holy Taco Shack taco truck. We took our American-expat-in-Luxembourg friends there a few weeks ago. They’re just as salsa-crazed as we are, and they gave the burritos two thumbs up. Now, if I could just get the taco truck to deliver…

Thrifty Travel Mama | potty trainingThis little champ has kicked daytime diapers and now only uses a nappy at night and during his nap. We did the same thing with all three boys – an awful, torturous, bodily-fluid-soaked potty training boot camp for a weekend followed by the shock and awe of daytime dryness.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Picking Strawberries in Germany with KidsStrawberry season came earlier this year, and we hit the fields several times. We made many of our favorite recipes from last year including strawberry fruit leather, strawberry syrup, and strawberry shortcakes.

Those strawberry shortcakes were made with coconut cream for me as I went dairy-free at the beginning of the year and have kept it up except for a four-week break while we traveled to Croatia. P.s. – I miss cheese and there is NO substitute that even comes close..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Losing TeethOur oldest little adventurer has lost enough teeth to officially apply for Jack-o-Lantern status, and the tooth fairy is flat broke. This photo is a few months old. He’s now missing three teeth on top, and two on the bottom!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Riding a LaufradThe youngest learned to ride a bike without pedals (Laufrad). And now we are losing sleep over his daredevil ways that now are ON WHEELS. Yikes.

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

As soon as the thermometer sailed over the 12C mark, we flexed our hiking muscles. In between our travels, we’ve been able to do a handful of hikes, including one we affectionately call the poo hike and one insane 15km trek with four kids and nearly no complaining. Kilimanjaro, here we come!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking in the Alps with kids

Back in the Alps!

And, speaking of hiking, we (okay, mainly me) became obsessed with the Alps after our excursion to Schilthorn last summer. Last weekend, we took our first summer hike near Engelberg, and we’ve got more ideas for Swiss outings than there are Saturdays before the snow falls again.

Due to an insane amount of planning and the wonderful generosity of friends, I managed a week of solo parenting (single parents, I know this is wimpy – hats off to you!) while my husband went off to Milan for a conference.. and to look for a new job.

 

The last point brings me to a big change coming for our family…

We have decided that Doc Sci won’t be renewing his employment contract here in Germany when it ends later this year. Professionally, he needs to move on; unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to do that where we currently live.

Where will we end up? Only God knows, but most likely, we’ll move back in the US, though we may consider something in Europe if the circumstances are right. This is a decision we have wrestled with for months. We love so many things about living in Europe; it will not be easy to leave our life here behind. But, ultimately, we both know our days in this city are numbered. Sigh.

And, if you will forgive me for throwing one.more.thing your way, I’ve decided to change the boys’ nicknames here. When I started this blog, I never dreamed that anyone would read it, let alone the hundreds that do. I also never thought I’d be writing for nearly four years. In that time, the boys have painfully outgrown their silly pseudonyms.

This also may be a good time to explain why I use nicknames. Yes, there’s the usual safety concerns, but really, it’s a matter of respect for me. My kids aren’t old enough to know that I write about our life on the internet (heck, they don’t even know what the internet is). As such, they have no say in the things I post.

When they are older, they may not wish to have their faces and names plastered all over this space for public viewing. So, until the day when we can have a conversation about their wishes, I’ll respect the option of anonymity by using nicknames.

But then, there’s the matter of what to call them. I thought Small, Medium, and Large was good enough for me, basic… but boring. I tried it in German, but I just can’t call my kid Gross (large).

I’m still keeping it simple, but I’m steering in the ABC direction. The boys will now go by the first three letters of the Pilot’s Alphabet that is commonly used in the travel industry – Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Plus, these names are actually spot on when it comes to their personalities, Creepy!

I’m seriously over my 1,000 word target, and that’s about all the changes and updates I can handle. If you have a blog, post a link (or three) below with exciting news, fantastic trips, handy DIYs, or winning lotto numbers. I’ve love to catch up with you, too!

Now, tell me, which of our adventures above would you like to read about first?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Snapshot: The Swiss Castles of Bellinzona with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)On Tuesday, I told you all about our time in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, on our way back to Germany from a totally rad two weeks in Italy last summer.  Apparently, order isn’t very important to me this week because I’m sharing today about our very first stop on that road trip before we even made it to the Italian border – Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Never heard of it?

Honestly, I hadn’t either. But that’s what you get when you start randomly grabbing names off a map.

How do I come up with these places?  Well, my pit stop selection process usually goes a little something like this…

  • Chart the route in Google maps.
  • Decide how many segments we’ll need to complete the trip.  My kids can usually handle 3 hours if awake and offered food, 4 if asleep and forced to wear eye masks.
  • Search for a city or attraction in the targeted area that we’re interested in seeing anyway, or…
  • Find a park, hiking trail, vista, or other outdoor wonder to explore.

Sometimes the second option is the best because it ensures that the wiggly males from the back seat can just run around and be loud, obnoxious boys for a while instead of having to sit quietly in the back seat like little girls.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

When I found Bellizona, I hit the jackpot.  This small city is big time famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro) that have together been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

Check out this blurb from Bellizona’s tourism website (emphasis theirs):

These fortresses number among the finest examples of medieval fortification architecture in the alpine region. As they appear today, Bellinzona’s fortifications, whose origins actually go much further back to a prehistoric settlement on Castelgrande hill, are mainly the result of intensive and complex building activity undertaken by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century… These battlements, towers and gateway, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, are still a source of wonder today.

For more history, lore, and practical visitor information click here and here.

Since we could only spend a few hours in Bellinzona, I decided we should concentrate our time at only one of the castles.  Our options:

  • Castelgrande: the largest and the oldest.  Located in the city center, access is via a steep set of stairs, a long and winding path, or an elevator.
  • Montebello: smaller, and stands guard 90m above Bellinzona.  Access is via a footpath from Piazza Collegiata in the center or by car/bus on the Via Artore.
  • Sasso Corbaro: austere yet solid new kid on the block.  Only possible to visit by car.
Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Castelgrande

While the Catelgrande might be the first choice of many (check out Urban Bliss Life’s visit with kids), we opted for Montebello instead for two reasons (1) ease of access by car, and (2) it’s possible to see the other castles from Montebello.

The GPS took us right to the parking lot of the castle (free).  While we cleaned up the poo explosion from the birthday boy‘s car seat, the older boys discovered a decent playground adjacent to the parking lot (score!) with a typically Swiss fresh water fountain.  Once all the muck had been removed, I strapped Big Foot to my back, and we all went to have a look see.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Doc Sci was about to go all gaga on me about the drawbridges when I reminded him that the purpose of this visit was for him to nap.  We’d been up since 3:30am, and he still had another five hours of driving to do.  Safety first, boys & girls!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

I was instantly enchanted by this castle.  It had everything you could ask for in an old fortress – walls to walk, bridges to cross, heavy doors to heave, and absolutely marvelous views.

Plus, it was deserted.  I love having the place to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)The boys and I scrambled up and down stairs, scurried in and out of every available doorway, and burst out into the meadow in front of the castle.  I was surprised at how close the Castelgrande seemed from Montebello and that I could see the Sasso Corbaro peeking out from the trees further up.

But, T-Rex?  He was just surprised at how fun it was to tumble down the grassy hill.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

See the Sasso Corbaro up there?

The walls belonging to the actual castle of Montebello are rigged with modern metal walkways and railings for visitors to traipse about as they please.  Unfortunately, the outer walls are not… or at least I couldn’t find a way up.  I might’ve tried harder if I didn’t have a baby on my back.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Bellinzona Castles with Kids (Switzerland)

In short, these little-known castles are gems.  They’re brilliant for boys, history nerds, and weary-on-the-way to Italy travelers.  I only wish we’d had more time to fully appreciate all three castles at Bellinzona!

My snapshot of the castles at Bellinzona: silent, ancient, fantastic, and worthy of all the time you can spare to explore.

Have you been to Bellinzona?  I’d love to hear about your visit or why you might add it to your own bucket list!Signature-MarigoldBe sure to check out What to See in Zadar from Chasing the Donkey as well as all the other fine Sunday Traveler posts!

Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with KidsWay back in September (light years ago it seems), I rambled on and on about our family adventures in Tuscany, ticking things off the bucket list.  I was afraid I might have bored or inundated you, and neither was my intended goal.  So, I waited and saved our pit stop stories for another time.  Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now – get ready to hear a little bit about Vaduz, Liechtenstein!

I’ve always wanted to visit Liechtenstein since it’s oh-so obscure.  And, I’ll admit Doc Sci and I wanted to see the real place associated with the fake character, Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

Well, as it turns out, the name isn’t actually fake, only the movie character.  The real Sir Ulrich was both a fighter and a writer.  Once again, Google saves the day!

Liechtenstein is one of the smallest and one of the richest countries in the world.  It’s completely landlocked, and it’s still ruled by a prince (more on that in a minute).

You might also guess that things in little ol’ Liechtenstein are very expensive.  In fact, costs are so outrageous that Swiss prices start to look like bargains.  Thanks to a tip from my friend Ann at Travel Turtle who also stopped off in Vaduz, we didn’t refuel the car or refresh ourselves at a cafe. 

The Journey

After twice being caught in maddening Italian Saturday traffic, we vowed to not let it get the best of us a third time.  We rose at 3:30am and sailed all the way up the Italian Autostrada from Pistoia to the border near Como.

Past Lugano, the road took us east on a winding Alpine highway.  The rising sun lit the peaks on fire while the sleepy valleys stayed asleep in shadow.  The fuel gauge flirted with the empty line, and the game of chicken ended only a few kilometers from the Liechtenstein border at Bad Ragaz.

As Doc Sci filled the tank (at those bargain Swiss prices), I rummaged around the trunk on a desperate search for buried sweatshirts.  Weren’t we just sweating it out in Italy?  Now, we’re shivering in Switzerland. 

We slipped into Liechtenstein without fanfare of any type – no flashing neon You Are Now in The Sixth Smallest Country on the Planet sign, no sober-faced border guards with weapons and questions, nothing.  Only the license plates proclaim Dorothy, we’re not in Switzerland anymore.

Seeing as we’re self-confessed cheapskates, we searched high and low for a free parking spot in Vaduz.  No dice.  Only when we decided to pay for parking did we realize it’s free on the weekends!

The Gist

Hands down, the best fun, family-friendly, and free thing to do in Vaduz is climb up to the castle.  You could drive up to the Schloss (and fellow freeloaders – the parking is gratis up there).  But, when in doubt, I always vote for the scenic route.

It’s rather easy to find the footpath if you keep a look out for the Schlossweg or Haldenweg signs.  The route dead ends at Fürst-Franz-Josef-Strasse.  Hang a right, and you’ll be at the castle in a jiffy.  Actually, I’m informed that official name is The Princely House of Liechtenstein in case precision is your thing..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

The winding way up…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Stop to catch your breath…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Storm the castle!

Expert Tip: Make a great effort to explain to the wee ones (especially those quite accustomed to conquering castles) that this particular palace is still in use by real royalty.  Unfortunately, that means we can’t go traipsing about the yard or snooping in the cellar.  Snap a few photos, inhale the crisp Alpine air, and feast on the view.

Back down the hill, it’s time for a stroll on the main pedestrian street known as the Städtle.  Here you’ll find swanky hotels, pricey bistros, and several museums meant for those who aren’t in the possession of small children who can neither read nor force themselves to be interested in wine, fine art, or postage stamps.

However if I was to bribe encourage such an interest, I’d be more likely to herd said children in the direction of the Liechtenstein National Museum.

If you’re a passport stamp enthusiast, take your little book and a fistful of euros to the Liechtenstein Center.  It won’t be an official impression, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

As we continued south on the Städtle, I was awed by the juxtaposition of old (Regierungsgebäude) and new (Liechtenstein Parliament building).  The two architectural styles right next to each other made for some fascinating food for thought.

I entertained the thought that perhaps this was a picture of how Liechtenstein held on to its traditions (like being ruled by a prince) while embracing the future.  However, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of such fanciful notions especially since our pal Wikipedia informs us that Liechtenstein was the last country in Europe to allow women to vote.  Doh!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

At the end of the Städtle, we continued on to see the gorgeous little Vaduz Cathedral If you had the dough, this stately chapel would be a picture-perfect place to get married.

Right next to the cathedral stands the Royal Vault.  Silly Americans – the boys thought there were crown jewels in the vaults instead of the actual contents which are a bit more, uh, morbid than that.  No wonder the place was completely unguarded…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

I was doing this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

…while the boys were doing this.

One Last Look

With as many jitters shaken out of little legs as possible, we piled back into the car and headed out of town.  But, I had one more stop to make – the covered bridge located at the entrance to Vaduz.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Not only is the bridge heavily photogenic and slightly nostalgic, it also sports an off-the-charts cool factor for travel nerds… one end of the bridge is in Liechtenstein and the other end is in Switzerland.  Um yes, I will make of fool of myself by quite literally hopping the border and planting myself in two countries at once, thankyouverymuch.

Practical tip: There’s no place to park nearby the Liechtenstein side of the bridge.  You’ll need to put on your polite face and break out the pretty please (uh, in German, if possible) when asking to temporarily park at one of the businesses along the Zollstrasse.

My snapshot of Vaduz, Liechtenstein: isolated, reserved, historic, and very expensive.

Have you been to Liechtenstein?  I’d love to hear about your visit or plans to do so in the comments!Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: Mulhouse Train Museum (Cité du Train)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)train museumMy oldest, T-Rex, turned six last month – six!! I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a six year-old… To celebrate, we took a drive to Mulhouse, France, and spent the morning at the train museum there (Cité du Train). 

While I could simply say that this is one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited, this place really deserves a Nerdy Travel Dad review, and Doc Sci will be posting for me today.  Even if you don’t love trains as much as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, you’ll soon see why a stop here is definitely worth your while.

All the boys in the thrifty travel house LOVE trains.  And, uh, that’s putting it mildly.  Every other day (or so it seems), my wife and I are interrogated as to when the next train ride will occur.  On the off days, they’re begging to go on an airplane.

Since our budget didn’t allow for an actual train ride for T-Rex’s birthday, we decided the next best thing would be to take him to the biggest train museum in the world, the Cité du Train in Mulhouse, France.  Not too shabby for a birthday, if I do say so myself.

When we rolled up on that Saturday morning, I had not done a lick of research.  Of course, the always-prepared Thrifty Travel Mama ensured we had the 4-1-1, but she just didn’t tell me.  Or I didn’t ask.  Whatever.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

After I walked into the building, I was genuinely surprised.  There were trains, tons and tons of full-size trains, all lit up, dressed, and costumed.  Mannequins dolled up in era-appropriate clothing peered out from the windows, demonstrating how train travel used to be.  This was awesome.

Quirky dialogue leaked out of tiny speakers in the train cars.  Well, at least I assume it was quirky.. it was in French, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

This was my wife’s favorite train – a snow plow from the Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

In case you’re wondering, the museum is pram-friendly. Here I am with Big Foot taking a look at those creepy stuffed people.

There were so many trains the boys kept running from one to another, peeking inside and boarding those open to visitors.  In the middle of the train yard, we discovered a switching booth with the actual switches outside just waiting to be pulled.  Unfortunately, they wouldn’t budge, even with hefty amounts of grunting.  But, right next to the switches was a junction to easily illustrate why the switches were needed and what they did.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The switching booth.

After all that, I was quite satisfied with our experience at the Cité du Train.  I mean there was history, some railway engineering, creepy mannequins… what more could you want?

Oh how naive I was!  We had only just completed the first, much smaller depot.  A whole other GINORMOUS warehouse was waiting for us on the other side of the restaurant.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The museum’s restaurant, designed to look like a dining car.

The first building is dedicated to the history of French trains, and the second focuses more on the evolving technology of trains.

The technological exhibit starts with steam engines, works its way through diesel and electric, and finishes with the ultra-sleek, high-speed TGV.

One of the best displays in the second building was an active demonstration of a steam locomotive, complete with moving parts and, surprise, surprise, steam. The boys were fascinated by the train that was moving but not actually going anywhere.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The little engine that could… make a big fuss without going anywhere.

An adjacent train was literally cut in half so that inquiring minds could have a look and see what all the fuss was about.  The steam engine had color-coded lights for cold water, hot water, steam and coal.  It was a brilliant way to demonstrate how the engine works.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The fascinating inner workings of a steam engine.

What could be better than a steam engine chopped in two?  Why, the ability to go underneath the train to have a look at the hidden workings below.  How many people can say they’ve been on the nether side of steel locomotive and lived to tell about it?

The thing I enjoyed explaining the most (and, as these things go, the kiddos understood the least) was how a bunch of straight pieces of metal could make round things move.  Being able to watch the steam engine wheels in motion helped to illustrate this, but it still was just a smidge over their heads.

Me:”You see boys when the steam builds up inside of this tube thingy, the piston, it pushes this other piece out.  Then this big straight piece of metal that is connected also goes out.  That makes the piece of metal that is connected to the wheel move back and while it moves back the …”

T-Rex: “Daddy look at the size of the wheel.  It is bigger than me!”

See what I mean?

The diesel and electric trains were also difficult to explain to the six-and-under crowd, so I didn’t press too much there.  Plus, the museum offered sooo many trains that some had to be just straight up skipped.  Take my advice and spend the most time on the steam trains since they are the easiest to describe and the most likely to spark interest in young minds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Visitors could take a rest on old train car seats located throughout the depot.

After winding your way through the 70s, you’ll arrive at what kids will most likely think is THE BEST part of the museum – a TGV cockpit complete with bells, whistles, and buttons.  The TGV train was all hype and no science (in the exhibit, anyway), which honestly was perfectly fine with me because by the end of the line I think only Sheldon Cooper would want to see more trains.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

TGV!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Inside the cockpit.

To top things off, the final exhibit was a super fun model train community.  Though not as large and extensive as Miniatur Wonderland, it was packed with zooming trains and working details (and a hefty dose of humor for the adults with keen eyes).  I don’t deny putting in my 50 cents to see it all come to life.

Nerdy or not, I highly recommend adding the Cité du Train to your list of “must see” sites in eastern France.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

If you visit the train museum in Mulhouse, don’t miss the cities of Basel, Colmar, and Strasbourg which are all only a short drive away!Signature-Marigold

Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part II)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandThis post contains Part II of our day trip to the Swiss Alps.  Click here for Part I.

Where were we?  Oh, right, gazing at the top of Europe!

We spent about 2 1/2 hours at the Schilthorn summit before deciding to check out the lower mountain towns.  Birg offers little more than a picturesque observation platform.  Make a quick stop there, or continue on to Mürren.

Going down..

Going down..

The platform at Birg.

The platform at Birg.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

As we approached Mürren, we noticed a children’s playground underneath the cable line and decided this would be the perfect place for our picnic lunch.  Lucky for us, the way was signposted (look for Kinderspielplatz though I believe it was also in English).  The route is short, but the path is steep.

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station...

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station…

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

And then follow the signs up the mountain...

And then follow the signs up the mountain…

To this playground!

To this playground!

A great spot for a picnic...

A great spot for a picnic…

Watching the cable cars go by.

Watching the cable cars go by.

The boys scurried around, trying the swings, the slide, the rocking horse.  Doc Sci and I unpacked the sandwiches on one of the available picnic tables.  Afterward, we lay on the soft grass in the sunshine, still trying to absorb the Alpine landscape that surrounded us.  The hot sun soon became too much, and we went off in search of the stream we could hear rushing in the background.

Peeling off shoes and socks, Doc Sci plunged his feet in first.  Not even five seconds later, he hobbled out with toes nearly frozen by the frigid glacial water.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Though Rick Steeves thinks rather highly of Gimmelwald and Mürren, I can’t say I was too thrilled by either.  Mürren seemed too touristy (but the views peeking in between houses are fabulous), and Gimmelwald was barely more than a half dozen houses (make a quick playground stop).

Mürren.

Mürren.

Of the two, Mürren has more to offer.  With a grocery store, post office, and railway station connecting to Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken, it’s the more happening of the two villages.  If you’re in the market for some Swiss trinkets, Mürren would be your best bet.

We ran into an American family at the Piz Gloria that just happened to be lodging in Gimmelwald.  They mentioned that it’s possible (even with children) to walk downhill from Mürren to Gimmelwald.  The way is paved, and the trek takes about 40 minutes.  Short on time, we skipped this hike.

Gimmelwald.

Gimmelwald.

Though the boys went nuts over the giant slide in Gimmelwald, the most interesting part of this village for us was The Honesty Shop.  This hole in the wall (almost literally) offered everything from bananas to postcards.  Prices were clearly posted, and shoppers were expected to total their merchandise before leaving the correct amount of cash in a small wooden box.  Cool, right?

Maybe I would’ve enjoyed Gimmelwald more if we would have had a few more hours to hike the surrounding countryside.  But alas, nap time was calling; babies were bored and bawling.

For us, the most amazing part of the whole experience was being dwarfed by the massive Alpine peaks: Schilthorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger.  These giant mountains issued a sobering reminder that we are but small specks, our lives a mere vapor in the wind.  And who is this Creator that he is even mindful of us?  I cannot fathom it. Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandBudget willing, we wouldn’t mind standing in the shadow of other Swiss peaks.  For now, we’re satisfied, thankful, and thinking often of the amazing day we experienced at Schilthorn.

Here are those insipid yet indispensable details I mentioned…

  • Planning: If you’re coming/going to northern Switzerland, I would recommend the route through Bern (A2/A6) over Lucerne (A1/A8).  If you choose the latter, get ready for a wild mountain ride and a slew of tunnels.
  • Currency: You can pay in euro or Swiss francs (CHF).  If paying in euro, the exchange rate is poor, and change is given in CHF.  But this was still more practical for us than trying to locate an ATM in the boonies at 7am.
  • Ready: The temperature is a lot colder at the top than at the other stations.  Pack a windbreaker, hat, and scarf, just in case.  Also, slather the family in sunscreen before ascending.
  • Accessibility: It’s certainly possible to take a pram on the cable cars and on the paved village roads.  A lift at the Piz Gloria takes you to the observation tower.  But, you’d miss out on the second observation tower as well as any mountain trails (and the playground at Mürren).
  • Affordability: Prices in Switzerland are unreal.  Bring your own food and drink whenever possible.  I noticed a grocery store (Coop) in Mürren if you need to grab a few necessities.
  • Freaky: The very last cable car ride from Gimmelwald back to Stechelberg swoops noticeably down which, in turn, solicits some serious squealing from passengers.
  • Risky: My five year-old was fascinated by the paragliders.  Several landed right next to our car as we were leaving.  If this is your thing, have a look at Airtime.  The staff were super cool to talk to and even lent us their parking pass when I (stupidly) dropped my paid ticket into a crevice in the console.  Doh!
  • Corny: Get ready to hear the 007 theme song every time a cable car departs.  Oh, and there are statues of movie characters on the observation deck that repeat the same lines over and over.  Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

Signature-Marigold

Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part I)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandNote: This post is rather long winded.  I thought a minute or twenty about whether to just post pictures or to release an avalanche of words with aforementioned photos.  Since my hope is to inspire others to travel the world high and low with children, I chose the latter.  Feel free to just ogle if that’s more your thing.

Our family is privileged to see amazing places, things, and people in this world with our own eyes.  A dangerous side effect is the possibility of becoming familiar with the sensation of newness, numbly chasing after the next scenic thrill.

But every once in a while, the beauty of a particular place stays with you, haunts you, even changes you.  We recently trekked to the Swiss Alps and hitched a ride to the summit of Schilthorn.  What we saw there is still taking our breath away.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandWow.  Just.  Wow.

My wish would be that every one of you could have the chance to gaze at these peaks, mouth gaping in awe of creation and the Creator.  But, practically speaking, that may not be possible.  So, come along with me, and let’s experience the Alps together.

The valley floor near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

Leaving the valley near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

In order to reach the tippy top of Schilthorn, one must ride a series of cable cars.  The first cable car starts out near the village of Stechelberg.  Arrive by car or by post bus (post as in post office!) from Lauterbrunnen.  I was dismayed to find that we had to pay to park, but at least it wasn’t obnoxiously expensive (about 5 CHF for 7 hours).

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Caution: Tickets to reach the summit of Schilthorn are NOT cheap.  However, we chose Schilthorn over other mountains for several reasons.  First, Schilthorn is less expensive than Jungfrau which will rob you of something like 200 euros per person to reach the top.  Second, you can see three major peaks from Schilthorn (Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger).  Third, the views are 360° which means you see a whole heck of a lot more than just those three mountains.

This is what you see as you go up the mountain...

This is what you see as you go up the mountain…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this!

…and this!

Fortunately, we discovered one way to save a little on the fare.  Early morning and late afternoon tickets are discounted by about 25%.  Children under 6 ride free.  In all, we shelled out about 130 euro total for two adults.  Though this doesn’t scream “bargain,” I felt like we got what we paid for, and I can’t ask for more than that!

A little note about the early morning tickets… I highly recommend this option.  Not only are the tickets cheaper, but the crowds are nonexistent.  Not so later in the day.  Plus, visibility and weather conditions are often at their best first thing in the morning.  As the day goes on, the clouds roll in.

The clouds started to roll in around noon.

The cloudy afternoon skies.

Obviously, you don’t want to pay Swiss ticket prices to ride to the top and not see anything.  Check the weather first!  Several days before our trip, I hovered like a hawk over the forecast, religiously clicking every few hours to ensure that we would have clear skies.  I like this website since it allows users to check conditions at three altitudes.

For more insipid yet indispensable details, have patience!  I’ve included them in Part II to be published Thursday.

Enough – back to the climb!  Board the first car at Stechelberg.  The ride to Gimmelwald takes approximately 5 minutes.  Switch, and take the second car to Mürren.  Another change, and another car glides up to Birg.  From Birg, the last leg of the journey takes visitors up to the Piz Gloria restaurant on the Schilthorn summit.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Leaving Birg...

Leaving Birg…

Don't look now, but there's a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

Don’t look now, but there’s a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

He's got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

He’s got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

At 2790m (9740 ft) above sea level, we were huffing and puffing just climbing the stairs to the observation deck.  We decided to get some fresh air, drink lots of fluids, eat a snack, and take it easy.  We didn’t want to take any chances on developing altitude sickness (read about signs, symptoms, and what to do about it here).

Taking a look around.

Taking a look around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Babies younger than one year should generally not ascend higher than 2500m.  Since Big Foot was the size of a one year-old and two weeks shy of his birthday, we were comfortable taking the risk.  I didn’t see any other babies at the summit, though I did see a few in the other, lower Alpine villages.  Make sure to talk to your doctor before traveling with an infant to high altitudes.

The main attractions on the Schilthorn mountain are the views (obviously), the rotating Piz Gloria restaurant (pricey), and Bond World (hokey, but included in the lift ticket price).

Since much of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed here, it’s impossible to escape 007’s influence on the place.  A new museum chronicling the filming and movie highlights was recently completed.  Fan or not, do stop in with the kids.  My boys couldn’t get enough of the helicopter cockpit, and Doc Sci was geeking out at the ginormous smart table.

One of the many breathtaking views.

One of the many breathtaking views.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

Bond World!

Bond World!

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

After filling the camera memory card with Alpine images, brave parents can step out onto the partially fenced path leading to a second observation platform.  Keep your kids close, and insist on hand holding at all times.  If you’re feeling up to it, photo opportunities are better down here sans unattractive guard rails.  Ask fellow gawkers to swap photographic favors.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we're steppin' out.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we’re steppin’ out.

I wouldn't recommend trying to get this shot with the kids...

I wouldn’t recommend trying to get this shot with children that aren’t strapped on for safety…

For more jaw-dropping views and picture-perfect Alpine villages, you won’t want to miss reading Part II here.  Along with notes on the intermediate cable car stops, I’ll show you one of the best picnic spots ever as well as share what you need to know before YOU take the family to Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps.  Stay tuned!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

Signature-Marigold

Hohentwiel – AWESOME Castle Ruins for Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hohentwiel - AWESOME Castle Ruins for KidsIf you decide to visit only one smashed up castle in Germany, make it Hohentwiel.  In a nutshell, this place is absolutely stunning!  The extensive grounds dwarf the other ruins we have explored.  But, bring a picnic – you’ll be here a while!Thrifty Travel Mama | Hohentwiel - AWESOME Castle Ruins for KidsFirst built in 914, the fortress at Hohentwiel (near Singen) at different times housed both a monastery and a prison.  During its heyday, it was considered unconquerable.  It’s no wonder that Napoleon ordered Hohentwiel destroyed in 1801.  Today, it’s the largest castle ruin complex in Germany, a claim verified by our good friend Wikipedia.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hohentwiel - AWESOME Castle Ruins for KidsWe arrived by car, but it’s also possible to come by public transport.  Stop half way up the mountain at the barn-like welcome center, and purchase your tickets (3,50 adults / kids free / family rate available).  It’d be a shame to hack it up the hill, just to be stuck outside the iron gates!

Speaking of that “hill”… it’s a brutal one.  It might look innocent enough at first; hey, it’s even paved most of the way.  But the climb is quite steep. That’s not to say kids can’t or shouldn’t attempt it.  We survived with a minimal amount of whining and, on the descent, observed a considerable number of senior citizens making the trek.  So, buck up!  You can do it!

Leave your pram at home unless you want to keep your arms in line with your ears the whole way.  Even if you did muscle a stroller up the mountain, it’s rather useless inside the complex.

Don't let this benign-looking path fool you...

Don’t let this benign-looking path fool you…

At least you can feast your eyes while your feet are screaming.

At least you can feast your eyes while your legs are screaming.

Screech thought he'd try a horizontal ascent, inching along parallel to the stone path.

Screech thought he’d try a horizontal ascent, inching along parallel to the stone path.  Yeah, that lasted about 3 seconds.

Descending was equally as challenging.  Time to get some walking poles and make life easy on the knees.

Descending was equally as challenging. Time to get some walking poles and make life easy on the knees.

Please do yourself a favor and leave the stroller at home!  I can only imagine what was running through that dad's head...

I can only imagine what was running through this dad’s head… and his kid isn’t even in the stroller!

While we were walking up to the ruins, Doc Sci noticed cords and lights strung up along the path.  When we reached the entrance, we found a stage and loads of equipment littering the fortress.  Boo.  Nothing like a bunch of techies and sound equipment to make a mess of your photographs.

Ugh, look at all this junk!

Ugh, look at all this junk!  And to the right you can see a stage.  We found at least 10 of these around the complex.  No bueno.

Visitors to Hohentwiel have several levels of ruins to conquer.  We didn’t look around the lower part on account of it being chock full of kegs and beer advertisements.  After a quick gander over the wall, we carried on up the steep, rocky path.

On the main level, we found the tower.  It’s not very pretty to photograph due to the cell phone antennae bolted to the side.  The view, however, goes beyond amazing.  On a clear day, you can see the Alps!

Whoa, Nelly!

Obviously, our day was not clear enough for the Alps…

The boys and I decided to investigate the tunnels underneath the original castle structure.  They giggled with delight as their shoes slid around on the slimy stones.  I couldn’t get over how much cooler the air felt; my non-scientific self estimated a 20F difference.  Nothing like free, natural air conditioning!

Deep, dark, and cool.

Deep, dark, and cool.

The best discovery for me lay in a smallish circular tower (real technical, I know) on the south side of the fortress.  Initially, we climbed down to it in order to snap a photo of the view, sans crowd control barriers.  We were delighted to find that we could, in fact, go on the tower.

Down, down, down, we picked our way carefully on the stone steps of the circular staircase.  We found ourselves in a cool, quiet recess.  The boys climbed up the rock in several places.  From here, we could watch the festival worker bees scurrying to set up their ugly equipment.

Don't miss this!!

Don’t miss this!!

Gah, just can't even get over that view.

Gah, just can’t even get over that view.

Keep the kids close; no railings here!

Keep the kids close; no railings here!

We passed this as we climbed down the stairs - a clue as to this area's former purpose, perhaps?

We passed this as we climbed down the stairs – a clue as to this area’s former purpose, perhaps?

Casing the joint.

Casing the joint.

Hello, pretty.

Hello, pretty.

If you want to know how my kids feel about traveling all the time, this picture says it all.

By the way, if you want to know how my kids feel about traveling all the time, this picture says it all.

We spent roughly two hours at the Hohentwiel ruins, and we would’ve stayed longer if we had not made plans to visit a few places in Switzerland later in the day.  As I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend bringing a sack lunch.  I noticed several proper picnic tables as well as benches.  Even the most boring salami sandwich can be turned into a memorable meal when this is your backdrop!Thrifty Travel Mama | Hohentwiel - AWESOME Castle Ruins for KidsIf you’re within day trip distance of Singen, add these ruins to the top of your “must see” list.  Unfortunately for us, no ruin in Germany will ever impress as much as the Hohentwiel.  Fortunately, we don’t care – we’ll never stop exploring!

Visiting the Bodensee / Lake Constance area?  You won’t want to miss Mainau, Stein am Rhein, or the city of Konstanz.  What are your favorite smashed up castles, German or otherwise?Signature-MarigoldYou can find this post and loads of absolutely fascinating travel-related posts at the Sunday Traveler hosted by my friend Chasing the Donkey. Check this week’s list out here!