Cheesy Fun at the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsHave you ever met an internet friend in person? 

Back in the iffy days (as in over ten years ago in the dark ages when Facebook didn’t exist and you couldn’t just look up about anyone on the planet), I took a chance and got to know two people online who turned into wonderful, real-life friends (hi, Jen! hi, Aaron!).

I’ve since met a handful more, none of whom have turned out to be criminally inclined.  It seems that what used to be weird with a hint of creepy, or a chance of freaky is now… well, normal.

Results (not?) typical.  Do (not?) try this at home.

A few weeks ago, one of my readers here at TTM and I started emailing back and forth, excited to discover a long list of things we had in common.  And then, she went out on a limb and invited our family to stay with hers, ya know, because it would thrifty and require travel.

Bingo!

And, so we found ourselves driving to Luxembourg to meet Rosie and her family (you can check out her blog here).  The kids had a blast together, and we felt as if our new friends were already old friends.

Despite it’s bad rap, the Internet really can bring people closer together.

Rosie suggested we spend part of the weekend visiting the Luxlait Vitarium, a milk museum about 30 minutes north of Luxembourg‘s capital.  I had wanted to make a stop here back in March, but we chose to continue on to the castle at Vianden instead.  A few phone calls later, we were all set to drag five kids along on a dairy tour.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with Kids

Now, we travel a lot more than most families, and I spend an enormous amount of time researching kid-friendly activities at our various destinations (time I could be spent doing things like, uh, sleeping).  I end up chucking most of the suggestions I come across –  museums, zoos, theme parks, blah, blah, blah.

Often these attractions are expensive and rather unextraordinary.  I mean, a zebra is a zebra whether the zoo is in New York or New Zealand.  But, a milk museum?  With interactive exhibits?  And taste testing?  Now, that’s something I haven’t heard of before.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsIn case you aren’t up on your national milk brands (I’m not), Luxlait is the official dairy product brand in Luxembourg.  The Vitarium is a visitor center of sorts (an interactive experience, really) that’s attached to a ginormous factory that turns a gazillion liters of raw milk every day into ready-to-sell dairy products.

The entrance fee to the Luxlait Vitarium is rather steep, so our two cheapskate families visited on the weekend when tickets are less expensive.  Also, we booked an English tour to make us feel like we were getting more for our money.  And, boy did we ever!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsAfter securing our jackets in the free lockers, a staff member instructed us to don on some rather spiffy 3D glasses and a stark white lab coat.  Fully costumed, we were then treated to a hokey but entertaining welcome video.  The two characters in the film served as guides for the next hour, contrasting new and old methods of manufacturing Luxembourgish milk products while leading us through the gigantic factory.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with Kids

The kids were fascinated by the robots and machines used to fill, package, and collect the dairy products.  The adults were amazed at the spankin’ new facilities, extensive areas we were permitted to peruse, and that the whole shindig held five kids’ interest for an entire hour.

That alone is worth the price of admission, right?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsWhen the tour ended, our (human) guide allowed each person to select a Luxlait product to sample.  We gorged ourselves on chocolate milk, eggnog, milkshakes, and Luxembourgish cooked cheese (slimy and spreadable yet somewhat solid.. very strange).

Of course, we needed to work off all those whole milk calories, so we moseyed on over to the interactive stations.  Racing, biking, stomping, jumping, balancing, listening, pulling, lifting, weighing… We were huffing and puffing long before we ran out of activities to try!  Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsAll of the forty-plus, hands-on exhibits emphasized healthy eating and exercise… and, of course, how dairy is at the heart of both of those things.

To be honest, the whole experience felt like one continuous commercial for Luxlait products.  But, it was FUN.  Plus, the products are of a high quality and really do taste great.  Well, except for the cooked cheese.

I think the marketing genius behind the Vitarium just received a raise…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Luxlait Vitarium Milk Museum in Luxembourg with KidsIn short, if you’re looking for a uniquely Luxembourgish experience that you won’t find replicated in Sydney or San Jose, make a beeline for the Luxlait Vitarium the next time you find yourself in the Grand Duchy.

For Rosie’s take on our milk museum visit or to simply stop by and say hello, click here.

Practical tips for visiting the Luxlait Vitarium with your family:

  • You can get to the Vitarium by bus or car.  Bus schedule here.  Parking is plentiful and free.
  • Try to visit on the weekend when tickets are cheaper.  Kids under 6 are free.  Current ticket prices here.
  • Book a tour (included in the admission price) in your preferred language at least a few days in advance.  Make a reservation online here.
  • Take kids potty before joining the tour because it lasts one hour and you’ll need to walk a LONG way back to the loo.
  • We brought a pram with us for Big Foot, so I can personally certify the tour is stroller-friendly.
  • Pack a picnic lunch because the cafe and restaurant are expensive.

Signature-MarigoldMore Luxembourg with Kids!  Read about our frigid morning in the city of Luxembourg here and an afternoon spent at Vianden Castle here.

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Atomium, Brussels

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumIn honor of Father’s Day this past weekend, Doc Sci has whipped up another post for nerdy and not-so-nerdy travelers to Brussels.  Whether you dig atoms and molecules or not, you’ll want to check out his review.

On our recent trip to Belgium with the boys, the Atomium was the one place I just HAD to see.  This structure is truly a wonder to observe.  The design is meant to be a full scale model of an iron crystal unit cell only way, WAY bigger… 165 billion times bigger.

For those of you not here for the brainiac review, I’ll start with a few practicalities..

  • Admission for children under 6 is free; adults are 11 euro each.  Ogling the structure is free.
  • Wait times can be horrific because the Atomium is crawling with school children.  Check your intended visit time with the chart here.
  • Bathrooms are crowded, grimy, and not free (30 cents).  No changing tables in sight.
  • Use a backpack carrier for babies.  Strollers are not allowed inside.  Though there is an elevator to initially get to the top, visitors must use stairs to travel between spheres.
  • Parking is plentiful in front of the Atomium (metered) as well as in the Miniature Europe car park (flat fee) next door.
  • For those coming by public transport, the metro stop Heysel / Heizel is located a short walk from the entrance.
  • The park surrounding the Atomium is an excellent spot for a picnic or simply letting the little ones roam around.
  • Should you need to grab a bite to eat, a cafe is located near the entrance.  A fancy schmancy restaurant with a view is located on level 8.

Next, a disclosure.  We (okay, my wife) read loads of reviews that mostly said the same thing.  The tour of the Atomium is expensive and overrated.  The exhibitions are rather boring, and the big highlight is being able to view Brussels from above.  Unfortunately, the Atomium is located so far from the Brussels city center that it’s impossible to see anything of note even on a clear day.  So, since we are a thrifty bunch of travelers, we opted out of the tour.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumA much cooler option (though unfortunately only available for school children that live in the area) is to spend the night in the Atomium.  It’s rather obvious from the special offerings to the admission priority that school children are the Atomium’s bread and butter.  If you do decide to pay to go inside, consider yourself warned.

But, all that being said, I still consider it worth any family’s time to take a ride out to see the Atomium.  It’s just awesome to stand there and be dwarfed by science. 

Now on to the cheat sheet bits.  The main things to remember are:

  1. 165 Billion
  2. Elementary iron crystal
  3. Body Centered Cubic

165 billion is the amount of magnification.  This makes for interesting conversations with little ones who can’t quite count past 20.  The iron crystal bit just lets us know what type of unit cell it will be.  And from looking at the model, we can tell that it is a body centered cubic structure.

From there we can go on to tell our prospective (captive!) learners that each lattice point (ball) represents an atom.  At this point, your offspring with either stare at you blankly (8 and under), or whine about what a nerd you are (13 and older).  If you dare, continue to elaborate on how densely packed the atoms are and how that creates certain scenarios and so on.

But, a better idea is to have your children pick a spot with a good view of the Atomium.  Provide paper and colored pencils.  Have them sketch the structure (it’s really just circles and straight lines).  Later on, compare their drawings to other pictures/diagrams of actual atoms.  Help older children correctly label their interpretation of the structure.

For little ones, I honestly couldn’t figure out a way to dumb this down to 5, 3, and 0 yr old levels.  Telling my preschool boys that the huge shiny thing in front of them is actually a model of an iron crystal, (what’s iron? what’s a crystal?) blown up a billion times (is that more than 100?) makes no sense.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The Atomium

To T-Rex, I simply said, “Wow, look at that big thing.” (Brilliant, I know.  They don’t give PhD’s away to just anybody.)

He replied, “Daddy, it’s GINORMOUS.  Can we go inside?”

Instead of saying no, I opted for, “Maybe, but do you want to know something amazing instead?”

“Uh huh.”

“This thing is a HUGE model representing something super tiny.  So tiny, in fact, that it could be inside you.  So tiny that you couldn’t see it just by looking at it with your eyes.”

“Whoa.”

The beginning of science career?  Most likely not.  But I’ll settle for a love of learning and an appetite for exploration.  So, despite our reluctance to spend 22 euros for what is most likely a lame tour, I definitely think the Atomium is worth a gander if for no other reason than to be fodder for good discussion.

Headed to Brussels?  Check out our Snapshot of Brussels with Kids.

More Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests, The Zaanse Schans, and Essen Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex.

Budget Restaurants in Brugge

As I mentioned in my Brugge, Belgium – With Kids! post, eating out here will bust your budget.  In fact, restaurant meals in BeNeLux cost a lot more than we are used to paying here in Germany.

I scoured Pinterest, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other corners of the web in hopes of compiling a respectable list of lunch and dinner options.  Unfortunately, the best research doesn’t always translate into a good dining experience.

I personally have the worst luck when it comes to choosing a restaurant which is why I prefer to stick to simple, inexpensive food, or make something from the local grocery store in our vacation rental.  I’ll be sharing some of my travel dinner recipes soon, but for now – budget restaurants in Brugge.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.  This restaurant was described as being a refreshing place to grab a quick and light lunch.  After all the fries and waffles we’d been eating, I really looked forward to a salad chock full of fresh vegetables.  Regrettably, my salad was served with a side of attitude.

The woman in charge clearly communicated her disdain for the little mouths in our party.  Portions were subjective and tangibly stingy, especially for the make-your-own salad.  When we drank some tea out of our thermos, she scolded us and insisted it was “not possible” for us to partake of our own beverage inside.  This only goes to show that just because a restaurant has high chairs, it doesn’t mean it’s kid-friendly!

Regardless of our poor experience, Manna & Co was obviously a local favorite.  Police officers came in for “the usual” and seating became scarce once the clock struck 12.  Katelijnestraat 46

Quick

Quick

Quick.  Our family has a somewhat twisted tradition of trying the McDonalds ripoffs in every country (Lotteria in South Korea, for instance).  Quick is the Flemish imitation.  Burgers and salads are acceptable; fries are atrocious by Belgian standards.  Kids meals (Magic Box) even come with a strawberry yogurt for dessert.  Come for the cheap food, stay for the market square view.  Markt 14

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent.  Located on the east side of St. Salvator cathedral, Chez Vincent is a great place to grab a cone full of Belgian frites and some grilled snacks (we tried the shrimp on a stick).  Not as good as Fritland, but still delicious and inexpensive.  Sint-Salvatorskerkhof 1

Brasserie Medard.  So close to the Markt, you won’t believe your good fortune when the heaping plates of 4 euro spaghetti Bolognese arrive.
Of all the restaurants on the list, I looked forward to Brasserie Medard the most.  As my awful luck would have it, the restaurant staff didn’t feel like working the evening of our visit.  No reason, just a “kitchen temporarily closed” sign on the door.  Two female students who just happened to speak Dutch and also have their eyes fixed on the spaghetti prize confirmed what we suspected.  The telly was more interesting than the customers.  Sint-Amandsstraat 18
Republiek.  Billed as a funky student hangout, I found the prices a little bit above my post-doc budget.  Not the most kid-friendly, but an extensive menu and generous opening hours make up for it.  Sint-Jakobsstraat 36

Grand Cafe de Passage.  A little bit off the beaten path, this restaurant serves mains costing no more than 10 euro.  Dweersstraat 26

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery.  Take a tour of the brewery (7 euros including a beer), or stop in for a beer and a snack in the tavern.  Walplein 26

Ribs 'n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer.  At 18 euros just for the ribs, the only redeeming factor is these bones are all you can eat.  Dinner only.  Ezelstraat 50

If you know me, you’re wondering what in the heck I’m doing with a list that doesn’t include one single Mexican option.  Sorry – I couldn’t find ANY!  But, no worries, we still stuffed our faces with beans & rice and chips & salsa back at the holiday home.  For an excellent Amsterdam option, check out my Los Pilones post here.

Any Brugge budget restaurants I missed?  Leave a comment or review below.

Want to know where the best fries in Belgium are?  Check out my snapshots of Brussels and Antwerpen, and then decide for yourself!Signature-Marigold

Exploring Brugge by Boat

Thrifty Travel Mama - Canal Boat Tour, BruggeEverywhere I looked, the guides all insisted the same thing – explore Brugge by boat!  Or by horse drawn carriage.  Pick your pleasure, but either way a tour of the city must be taken.

I don’t normally spring for expensive tours in new cities.  I prefer walking, taking public transport, wandering about on my own and at our family’s pace.  But, I couldn’t get away from this advice no matter where I turned.  And, let’s face it.  Little boys love boats and water.

My boys also love horses, but we could only afford one splurge and the budget choice (though not exactly cheap) ended up the winner.  Plus, I can walk where the horses trot, but I can’t swim where the boats glide.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

I couldn’t find any concrete information (as in a credible website, exact address, phone number, GPS coordinates) as to where exactly I should find said boat tours.  The only clue?  Head down the Wollestraat, and keep your eyes peeled for the skipper.

Our captain/guide - and a view of the Belfort!

Our captain/guide – and a view of the Belfort!

Well, whaddya know, those imperfect directions sufficed.  Several boat tour companies have set up shop in this small area.  We picked the only one open at the time we visited, plunked down some cash (€ 6,50 adults / children 4-11  € 3 / free for children under four), and climbed aboard.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Beautiful Brugge.

Beautiful Brugge.

Boats are small, so little ones should be closely supervised to avoid swimming with the sharks (just kidding, no fin friends here).  The captain offers gossipy and historical tidbits about the charming houses and occupants lined up along the water.  Not too dense, not too dull.  Our guide spoke English, but other languages were available.

Brugge through young eyes.

My boys couldn’t get enough of the giant swans.

Careful you don't take the wrong exit in this building!

Careful you don’t take the wrong exit in this house!

The whole shebang lasted about 35 minutes, just enough time to absorb a few facts but not long enough to drive little ones over the edge.  Tips will be solicited at the end of the ride, so keep your euro coins handy.

Fish eye view.

Fish eye view.

Speaking of tips, here are a few weather-related ones… Tours do not run when the canals are frozen.  Duh.  However, just a little ice doesn’t scare these fellas; our boat crunched its way through Brugge during our visit at the end of March.  Also, no tourists, no tour.  The captain waits until the boat reaches capacity before sailing off.  If you’re the first to arrive, you may find yourself shivering under the open skies waiting for the rest of the frozen folks to show up.

The Church of our Lady - constructed entirely of bricks.

The Church of our Lady – constructed entirely of bricks.

Brugge is full of canals, and known as one of the European “Venice of the North” cities, so no wonder all the experts insisted on seeing it the way residents have for centuries.  Our whole family enjoyed taking in the unique scenery that a boat tour affords, soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful old city.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

Would you rather experience Brugge by boat or horse drawn carriage?  If you’ve had the privilege of either one, share your experience in the comments below. Signature-MarigoldLooking for more about Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and tips on eating out in the old city.

Climbing the Belfort Tower in Brugge with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Belfort Tower, BruggeNo one likes working out for nothing.  Whether it be to lose weight, get in shape, stay healthy, or eat that extra scoop of ice cream, we all have our motivation to get moving.  Other than the occasional (ahem) bar of Belgian dark chocolate, I’m easily persuaded to work hard for an amazing view.

If that rings a bell with you, then don’t miss a visit to the Belfort (belfry) in Brugge (Markt 7).

Thrifty Travel Mama - Belfort Tower, BruggeThree hundred and sixty six steps to the top – keep the kids’ complaints at bay by making a counting game out of it.  Can the little ones really make it all the way?  Absolutely, but probably not without your help.  Most kids five and under will need to hold a hand going up and down.  Bring a backpack carrier for the babies – no prams, no elevators!

T-Rex beginning the climb.  Check out the very sophisticated rope railing.

T-Rex beginning the climb. Check out the very sophisticated rope railing.

Claustrophobics, be forewarned.  The staircase becomes more and more cozy the higher one climbs.  Add in the two-way visitor traffic, and tower starts to get cramped and personal.

For those needing a break from the stair master, several landings provide a respite.  But, don’t give up – the panorama of Brugge awaits!

Doc Sci and the boys on one of the landings.

Doc Sci and the boys on one of the landings.

A few notes on reaching the top (because you can! you will!)… the wind is particularly vicious, so don’t toss your jacket out halfway through the climb because you’ve worked up a sweat.  My boys could not see over the walls, so the reward of the view was lost on them.  They amused themselves looking at the bells which lasted all of about three minutes.

View

View of The Church of Our Lady (left) and St. Salvator’s Cathedral (right).

Since the Belfort only allows 70 people in the tower at one time, I highly recommend arriving before opening time to be one of the first visitors of the day.  Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess how long the wait could be.  And, trust me, you do not want to be waiting in a gigantic line here for an indeterminable amount of time…

The bells!

The bells!

Admission is 8 euros for adults, and both of my boys were free.  Toilets are 50 cents per person, per visit.  If you need to make a pit stop in the center of Brugge, this is one of the cleanest places to go.

I loved the view from the Belfort, and you can’t catch a glimpse of Brugge from above anywhere else in the city.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I would climb it again, if for no other reason than I just found it it leans about three feet to the east – Yikes!

Are you – or have you been – brave enough to climb the leaning Belfort tower?

Going to Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and my guide to supermarket souvenirs in Belgium.Signature-Marigold

Brugge, Belgium – With Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Brugge, Belgium, with KidsMy apologies for just now posting about THE MOST AWESOME PLACE IN EUROPE!  Okay, yes, Europe is filled with amazing spaces, but Brugge, Belgium, completely impressed me and made me want to never leave.  We only forced ourselves to get in the car and zoom away because, well, hey I have a hard enough time with German.  No way I could be officially tri-lingual like the Flemish!

Seriously, Brugge is still (mostly) unspoiled and positively gorgeous.  It’s quaint, walkable, unassuming, and nearly perfect… though eating out will bust your budget.

Here are the best things we did with the kiddos…

Soaking in the beauty of Brugge.  As an art history lover, I relish visiting cities with unique architecture and all-around beauty.  Brugge really hit the spot.  I’ll inundate you with magnificent views in a subsequent post.

Brugge - this place is so beautiful even the trash is attractive!

Brugge – this place is so beautiful even the trash is attractive!

Climbing the Belfort Tower.  For a total recap and what to know when visiting the Belfort with kids, click here.

Sneak peak at the Belfort view.

Sneak peak at the Belfort view.

Canal Boat Tour.  Again, this was so picturesque, I think it deserves its own space.  Details coming soon!

Brugge by boat.

Brugge by boat.

Begijnhof.  I can’t believe I’m recommending visiting a convent with kids (and I have all boys to boot), but this little enclave is such a sight to behold especially in spring. Admission to the hof is free, and the area is small enough that you can get an eyeful of architecture before the “quiet game” gets old.  Begijnhof 30

Bejinhof - I can't say I have ever had a convent on my top 10 list.

Bejinhof – I can’t say I have ever had a convent on my top 10 list, but whoa.

Chocolate Shops.  All of Belgium is teeming with truffles.  If you want to browse in peace, ply your little ones with “local chocolate” from the supermarket before you step into the ‘spensive stores.  Chocolaterie Dumon struck our fancy, but feel free to browse other fine establishments.  Simon Stevinplein 11

Crazy chocolate flavors at The Chocolate Line - coke...

Be prepared for some funky flavors in those truffles.  Two of the most ridiculous – coke…

and cannabis?

and cannabis?!

Churches.  As I mentioned in my snapshot of Brussels with kids, T-Rex is totally into churches right now though I can’t put my finger on why.  After all, he has to be quiet and he can’t touch anything.  Perhaps he just has a love of art and architecture in his DNA?  Our favorites were The Church of Our Lady (Mariastraat) and St. Salvator’s Cathedral (Sint-Salvatorskerkhof).

We were a little turned around when we stumbled upon the quaint courtyard behind The Church of Our Lady.

We were a little turned around when we stumbled upon the quaint courtyard behind The Church of Our Lady.

Listening to organ music

Listening to organ music in St. Salvator’s cathedral. The boys look bored in this photo, but they were begging to stay.  They loved listening to the music and watching the organist (to the right).

Graf Visartpark.  When the boys grew tired of specaloos slathered waffles (okay, no, no that never happened), we treated them to an afternoon in the local park.  This particular play place offered super fun structures for the boys to climb, swing, jump, duck, bounce, and shake every last little bit of energy out before bed.

A stroke of genius, the raised platform allowed mamas with prams to easily navigate the sandy area.

A stroke of genius, the raised platform allowed mamas with prams to easily navigate the sandy area.

Even Doc Sci loved this park!

Even Doc Sci loved this park!

Fun kid stuff in Brugge that we didn’t have time to visit…

Sebrechtspark and Astridpark.  Sebrechtspark is gated, and we must have missed the opening hours.  Both parks are rumored to have playgrounds perfectly suited to reward good behavior.

Sebrechtspark - closed!

Sebrechtspark – closed!

Zeventorentjes.  A small animal park for kids with a biergarten for the parents.  Located a ways from the Brugge city center.  Canadaring 41

Been to Brugge?  What made your top 10?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Belgium?  Check out our Snapshots of Brussels and Antwerpen with Kids, as well as our Supermarket Souvenirs – Belgium guide!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!

Nerdy Travel Dad: Visiting Zaanse Schans in Holland with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Zaanse Schans, Holland.My absolute favorite thing about traveling as a family is the ability to visit the same destination but experience it through the lenses of our different and unique personalities.  I (obviously) blog about what interests me in a new location, but I also enjoy hearing and sharing a different viewpoint every now and then.

So, I’m super excited to introduce a new feature on TTM – a series of Nerdy Travel Dad posts written by my husband, Doc Sci!  If you’re looking for a cheat sheet on the educational aspect of the places we visit as a family or if you simply care more about how things work than how they look, this Nerdy Travel Dad series is for you.  

Thanks to the popularity of WIRED magazine’s GEEKDAD and celebrities that not only embrace but promote their geekiness (hey, Adam Savage), it’s never been a better time to be a nerd.

I love traveling, but my fascination with new places differs significantly from that of my wife.  Example.. while she ogled some ridiculous bunch of fluorescent flowers at  Keukenhof, I  calculated how many times the “flower engineers” had to cross breed the tulips to achieve such spectacular color.

But, on to Holland!  When my wife told me we were going to a kitschy place outside Amsterdam to experience traditional Dutch culture, I’ll admit I was a tad bit skeptical.  However, after pulling up to the parking lot and seeing all the gigantic, old school windmills and random people walking around in wooden clogs, I decided the Zaanse Schans could be a place where my kids might actually learn something as opposed to just stuffing their faces with Gouda.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

The Zaanse Schans goes beyond typical Dutch tourism.

The Zaanse Schans goes beyond typical Dutch tourism.

On the surface, the Zaanse Schans is a typical tourist destination where one can part with their euros in exchange for souvenirs and snacks.  Shops making clogs and cheese, a bakery, a smattering of museums and several windmills dot the landscape.

But, look more closely and you’ll see that many of the buildings at the Zaanse Schans (hereafter known as ZS, because scientists like acronyms) have open areas where visitors can learn and observe the old ways.  Educational opportunities abound. 

Get smart.  Leave your pram at home.

Get smart. Leave your pram at home.

However, before I get to the nerdy stuff, here are a few practicalities my wife is insisting I include..

  • Admission to the park and many of the buildings is free, though some do charge a small fee (including all windmills).  Choose your own adventure by only paying to go in one or two, or purchase a combination ticket covering all the Zaanse Schans attractions.
  • Parking is 7,50 euro for the day.
  • Strollers should be left behind if at all possible.  It’s difficult to maneuver prams over the bridges, and many of the shops are too small to accommodate buggies.
  • Toilets are NOT free.  Each visit costs 50 cents, so go easy on the coffee!  Bring coins, because change will be given in 50 cent increments.  You don’t want to break a 20 here…
  • Changing tables for babies are located in the restroom near the entrance, but not the one near the back of the park.
  • The area is windy and chilly, so dress appropriately.
  • Dining options include the pancake house (fun but pricey), the restaurant (outrageous), and quick snacks/drinks sold in the windmills.

The absolute highlight of ZS is the collection of windmills.  All of the windmills charge an admission fee, but the spice mill has an area on the bottom floor that one can visit free of charge.  Since we had already been up inside a windmill at Keukenhof, I decided to gauge the boys’ interest in the spice mill before coughing up the money to visit the rest of the mills.

Windmills!!

Windmills!!

The main thing I tried to communicate to T-Rex and Screech was the idea that wind can be used to help us do work.  The spice mill interior is not set up to show how the big sails up top are connected and moving the cogs and wheels down below.  It is my understanding that the windmill innards are visible from the admission area.  Regardless, older children will be able to visualize the basic engineering principles of torque, rotation, and interconnection.

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The Spice Mill.

Get the wheels in little heads turning by asking questions such as… How can a vertically rotating rod can be connected in such a way to move things horizontally?  Why are such big sails needed?  Why do the small cogs move so much faster than the big cogs?

Unfortunately, Screech and T-Rex are a little too young (ages 3 and 5) to really engage in these topics.  While in the mill, T-Rex was more interested in a spice trading map with a blinking light that moved along the worldwide routes.  Still educational, but not exactly what I had in mind.  I tried to give him a quick rundown regarding the technology of the LEDs that made that map possible… but to no avail.  He just wanted to push the buttons.

We then moved on to something more up my boys’ alley – food.  The ZS cheese shop offers a five-minute presentation on how cheese is made.  Unfortunately, the man in costume talked WAY too fast, and we were herded like cattle into the store immediately after the talk.

(Tip: don’t buy your cheese at the Zaanse Schans.  If you like a particular variety, jot down the name, and then search for it in a nearby supermarket.  For more Dutch supermarket souvenirs, click here.)

The Cheese Master.  Free sample, anyone?

The Cheese Master. Free sample, anyone?

Surprisingly, Screech and T-Rex were both quite interested in how one of their favorite snacks is made.  Since I wasn’t able to answer all their questions during the presentation (and you won’t be able to either), here’s a quick version for the kiddos you can probably memorize or pull up on your smartphone.  Oh and if you want to sound super smart, make sure to call it biotechnology.

In order to make cheese, you need milk.  Then…

  1. Curdle the milk.
  2. Separate the whey (liquid).
  3. Press the solid curds into a mold.
  4. Bathe the cheese in brine (salty water).
  5. Mature for a period of time; the longer the wait, the more intense the flavor.

See here for more big words, and a few cheesy videos.

The Zaanse Schans cheese display.

The Zaanse Schans cheese display.

Moving on to fashionable footwear… A brief display lines the entrance to the Dutch wooden shoe shop, demonstrating the process of making a log into a clog.  Don’t miss this!  It’s an excellent way to introduce your children to low-tech tools and encourage them to look for new uses (clogs) for ordinary items (logs).

Get your souvenir photos in the gigantic wooden clogs before going inside to learn how these Dutch shoes are made.

Get your souvenir photos in the gigantic wooden clogs before going inside to learn how these Dutch shoes are made.

Parents of young children, take note!  There is an open section in the clog shop that’s chock full of fascinating sharp objects that Screech thought were part of the experience.  While we weren’t looking, he slipped under the loose rope and started making his own.  Okay, not quite, but a few more seconds and he would’ve had new shoes.. or needed stitches.

The Zaanse Schans wall of clogs.

The Zaanse Schans wall of clogs.

Nerds, divas, introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between will enjoy trying on the various clogs for sale.  A plethora of sizes and styles are available, just come prepared to pay in case your little one won’t part with his new fashion statement.

Unknowingly, we both picked the same pair of clogs to try on.  Props to T-Rex for taking this photo.

Unknowingly, my wife and I both picked the same pair of clogs to try on. Props to T-Rex for taking this photo.

Despite my initial skepticism, I am giving the Zaanse Schans the Nerdy Travel Dad seal of approval.  Should you and your posse find themselves in Amsterdam, take a short detour to the north for a dose of Dutch culture and historical technology.  Or, just come for the windmill pictures.  Whatever.

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!

Supermarket Souvenirs – Belgium

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - BelgiumWondering what to buy from Belgium for the folks back home?  Chocolate and specaloos are great places to start.  But don’t buy them from the expensive tourist shops in town.  Stock up at the supermarket!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumGrab some Galler chocolate at the nearest grocery store.  This company sells solid bricks as well as delicious filled types.  Pick up a few bars or even a variety pack from the local Carrefour.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWhen we arrived in Brugge, I couldn’t wait to skip on down to the store and pick up some specaloos.  What is this crazy stuff?  It can be described as a cookie-flavored spread, similar in consistency to Nutella.  If you’ve ever tried Biscoff cookies, you’ll be familiar with the taste.  It’s uh-MAZING!

The smooth variety is delicious enough, but Doc Sci and I are currently into the crunchy kind.  Think crunchy peanut butter but with cookies.  Yum!  There’s even a chocolate variety – whoa, buddy!Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, Belgium

So, what do you do with specaloos?  The smooth kind is great for smearing on waffles, toast, and bagels.  I’ve even used it as a dip for apple slices and plopped a spoonful in my coffee.  The crunchy kind is also spectacular on morning carbs, but I also like it melted and smeared on top of a bowl of oatmeal.  You can even find numerous recipes for baked goods using specaloos.

But really, just keep it simple and enjoy with a spoon straight from the jar.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumSpeculaas cookies are in the same flavor family as specaloos.  Specialty shops sell these for big bucks in tourist areas, but you can save some euros by stocking up where the locals do.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWant to try that specaloos now?  Pick up a package of Belgian waffles to go with your jar of cookie spread.  My boys were thrilled to have this fun vacation treat in the morning, but you could also take a few boxes home.  Note: the sturdier the waffle, the better chance of making it back in your suitcase.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumNot really a waffle person?  Try some thin, crepe-style pancakes.  Smeared with specaloos of course…

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWorried about all these baked goods staying fresh while you travel?  Perhaps a pancake or waffle mix is right for you.  Use Google translate to help with the instructions.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumThis last one is only for enjoying in-country (or squirreling away in the car cooler).  Belgium also boasts some tasty cheeses.  Try the Brugge brand, sold in slices, chunks, or hunks.

You may be wondering, “Where’s the beer?”  I’ll admit, I’m totally clueless about the stuff.  I couldn’t write a decent (or reliable) guide to save my life.  I did, however, buy a few bottles for friends in Germany.  I made a small list based on recommendations here and here.

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from Belgium?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Brugge?  Check out my post about visiting Brugge with kids!Signature-Marigold

Supermarket Souvenirs – The Netherlands

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - The NetherlandsWondering what to buy from the Netherlands for the folks back home?  You could get one of those kitschy wooden shoe magnets (no judgement if that’s your thing).  Or, you could wow them with one of these supermarket souvenirs!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsFirst up, Dutch cheese!  Okay, in reality, you probably can’t stuff this into your suitcase and expect it to be edible when you get home.  But, it’s worth sampling some of the varieties while in country.

If you like a strong flavor and firm texture, aged Gouda is the way to go!  You could buy name brands like Old Amsterdam or just look for a store brand with the words Oud Gouda.  They’re just as tasty but at a fraction of the price.

Budget traveler tip: Instead of buying the cheese at touristy places like the Zaanse Schans, sample the more affordable varieties at the local grocery store.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsIf you only have space for one supermarket souvenir, make it stroopwaffels.  I first discovered these bad boys in 2003, and I’ve been in love ever since.  Stroopwaffels are yummy straight out of the bag, but they’re downright unforgettable when warm.

Make a cup of tea or coffee and set the stroopwaffel on top of the rim to catch the steam.  After a few minutes, flip to warm the other side.  Don’t wait too long though!  Sometimes the stroopwaffel will become so soft that it can plop down into your hot and tasty beverage.  Devour while hot and gooey.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis isn’t for your suitcase – it’s for enjoying in your hotel room or vacation rental while in country.  Stroopwaffel ice cream can be found a most grocery stores.  I’ve even seen comments online suggesting that this flavor can be found in ice cream shops across Holland.  (And, uh, yeah, that container is totally empty!)

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsGrocery stores are the budget traveler’s place to buy souvenirs that locals would give to each other or send to relatives.  For adorable Dutch tins filled with stroopwaffels, stroopkoeken, chocolate, etc., check the nearest Albert Heijn.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsSpeaking of chocolate, Tony’s Chocolonely is a GIGANTIC chocolate bar with a cause: “on the way to 100% slavery-free chocolate.”  You can read more about their mission here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsBlack licorice is big-time in the Netherlands.  You can find all kinds of crazy varieties from salted to sweet to sugared.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsYou might think black licorice is weird, but that’s just because you haven’t heard of Hagelslag yet!  Basically, it’s chocolate sprinkles that Dutch people sprinkle on their toast.  And by Dutch people I mean adults.  And by toast I mean a sandwich at lunch time.  Don’t believe me?  Read more here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis last one’s just for the expats or the peanut butter-obsessed or the expats obsessed with peanut butter.  Peanut butter is not only cheap in the Netherlands (well, compared to Germany anyway), it also tastes a whole lot better.  It’s not 100% natural, but it doesn’t have hydrogenated oils in it (at least from what my pal Google Translate says).  Look for a high peanut content (aim for 90%), and chow down!

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from the Netherlands?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!Signature-Marigold