Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

You’re about to dive into Part 2 of my one-day adventure in Dresden with three boys and no husband. I last left you in a park bench on the south side of the Elbe with some questionable characters for lunch mates. To read Part 1, click here.

Dipping into Dresden Neustadt

With bellies finally satiated, we traipsed across the Elbe to Dresden Neustadt, following Albertstr. until we reached a Platz of the same name. It’s not every day you get to stroll across a bridge that survived while nearly every other place in the city was bombed out. But of course, the little people in my party were oblivious to this historical fact. Instead, my boys just enjoyed the fountains at Albertplatz and admired the statues encased in falling water.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

We like fountains, yes we do! We like fountains, how ’bout you?

All that rushing water made a certain little somebody have to go to the bathroom right.this.minute. You might not know this about me, but one of my biggest sources of travel stress flows from the difficulty of finding bathrooms in foreign countries. Most of the places I’ve visited do not have shiny porcelain loos in every store, restaurant, or train station like in America. Potties are often impossible to find, ridiculously expensive,  gag-me-disgusting… often all three.

I frantically looked around for any feasible WC possibilities while the little guy insisted that no, of course he could not wait (silly Mama!). The only option in sight – an automatic toilet.

I’ve used these contraptions in Berlin and Paris, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s bad enough to have to wade through that mystery muck on the floor and ignore the thoughts of who might have been there before you.. but when strobe lights come on and the latest club hits come streaming through the speakers (yes, this really happened to me in Berlin)… Just no.

Plus, trust me, you do NOT want to get stuck in there. Apparently, these stalls are locked after every visit and completely cleaned and sanitized with water jets and streams of chemicals. Could you imagine…?!

But hey, when one of your posse has to go, he HAS TO go. So, one euro and five frightful minutes later, we emerged only slightly traumatized and decided we’d had enough of Dresden Neustadt.

We turned around and headed back toward the Elbe in search of gelato to soothe our shaken psyches. We found the creamy goodness near Augustusbrücke, and gazed at the row of masterpieces stacked against the horizon on the south side of the river… just waiting there for us to explore the moment the ice cream melted.

South Side

It was the Katholische Hofkirche that greeted us first. Old and darkened yet still fiercely beautiful, she must be regarded before reaching the more lovely and famous Semperoper. Read up on the opera’s history here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!I loved the opera house – magnificent, imposing. My boys, on the other hand, just wanted to climb the gigantic statue of King Johann on horseback opposite the entrance. Boys.

Last, we stumbled upon the Zwinger, only a stone’s throw from the opera house. Gigantic and gorgeous, the Zwinger just might tie with the Frauenkirche for my favorite place in Dresden. The fountains, the deep turquoise rust, the sheer size, all highlights in my memory. I savored the atmosphere in the courtyard – crisp air, the melody of rushing water, and peace despite the crowds.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

A Serendipitous Find

Our day in Dresden was drawing to a close, a fact I met with relief thanks to my exhaustion of toting a little man on my back and melancholy because of the beauty we would leave behind.

The boys and I retraced our steps to Prager Str. on the way to the train station when I noticed we actually had a bit of time to spare. How did THAT happen?! On a whim, I yanked them into an outdoor, REI-type store.

To our utter delight, we discovered a climbing wall (free!) with loaner shoes (also free!) that the kids could use. They gobbled up the last minutes in Dresden scrambling up and down, up and down, until the clock decided they could climb no more.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Adieu

When we could not spare even one minute more, we raced hand in hand toward the station and found our train. As we stepped aboard, I finally exhaled. I had done it – solo! And I did not hate myself or my small-ish companions! Small miracles, right?

Alone, I had managed to explore a completely new city with three little boys and without any help. We four shared a lovely day, and I will never forget experiencing the Jewel Box that is Dresden with my sons. Though I don’t wish to travel without Doc Sci, my husband and best friend, at least I know that I can do it should the need or urge arise.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Places I would like to have visited with the luxury of more time:

  • The Fresh Tea Shop. Actually, we did go here (see photo above). The tea I ordered was fresh (yes, really) and so incredibly refreshing. I took the cup back with me to Leipzig and kept filling it up with water because the mint and fruit were so flavorful.
  • Pfunds Molkerei. This quirky place seemed right up my alley. The most beautiful dairy shop in the world, a milk bar where one can taste varieties of milk, cheeses paired with German wines and specialties like milk jam.
  • Dresdener Parkeisenbahn. A steam train for kids, run by kids. Awesome, right?!
  • Paddle Steamboat Ride on the Elbe. My kids love exploring cities from the water, and the Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt operates the largest and oldest fleet of historic paddle steamers in the world.
  • Playgrounds! Check out this link for a map with recommended places to let the kiddos burn some energy.
  • Dresden Children’s Museum. This for-kids-only area is part of the Dresden Hygiene Museum. How very German!

Now that you’ve seen the highlights, what would you want to explore first in Dresden? Do you have a scary potty story to share? Come on, don’t be shy!

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Snapshot: Alone in Dresden..with Kids – Part 1

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Let’s pause the struggles of reverse culture shock for a moment and focus on a completely different kind of struggle – traveling alone with kids!

If you’re like me, travel is your drug, and your eyes are always searching for your next fix. Cheap airfare, hotel sales, and shoulder season deals are just too good to pass up.

What kind of risky behavior would you dabble in just for that next vacation high? Would you tolerate three mischievous boys under 7 as your only travel companions if it meant you could see Dresden, a city you’ve always longed to explore?

Months before I was to drive for a couple thousand miles with the three amigos in the backseat, I put on my big girl pants and took a day trip to Dresden with those three amigos, all.by.myself.

Gulp.

For the record, please don’t endanger your family or finances just for a travel score. It’s only a metaphor, people.

I once read a post about a married mom who travels internationally with her kids but without her husband because he can’t take off work (sorry, I can’t find the link). The post sparked two thoughts.

First, I can’t do that (right?!). And second, I wouldn’t want to do that (you, either?). While my opinion on the latter hasn’t changed, my fears regarding the former have evolved into an ever-increasing confidence.

I can’t believe I’m saying this – but traveling alone with your kids IS possible, and maybe (maybe!?) even enjoyable… Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one.

With three boys and a limited budget, sometimes it’s just not feasible for everyone to go on every trip (such as when I took Alpha to Keukenhof to see the tulips or to Firenze to tour the Uffizi Gallery).

Occasionally, we are presented with travel opportunities too good to pass up, such as tagging along with Doc Sci to a conference in a fabulous destination like South Korea.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

And, every once in a while, I attempt something I ordinarily never would because the payoff has massive potential, enough to outweigh possibly uncomfortable circumstances. Our day trip to Dresden falls into this category.

Let’s get a bit of background, shall we? After our family said our farewell to Freiburg, we rode the rails east and hung out in Leipzig for a few days. Doc Sci needed to attend one last conference, and I saw an opportunity to squeeze in one last little German travel fling before our expat adventure ended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Now, I always set my expectations for a family trip itinerary rock-bottom low. But, this time, I managed to reduce those even further. I had only three goals: Get to Dresden, see something, and make it back to the train before it chugs off without us.

I’ve wanted to visit Dresden ever since I was an art history student studying Kirchner and his painting Street, Dresden. The “Jewel Box” is a fascinating place, scarred by World War II and the German Democratic Republic.

I researched and wrote a list of must-see sights. Short of a barfing kid or a broken bone, I was going to make it to those few places to view them with my own eyes. But because I didn’t want to be wandering around aimlessly if we clocked in ahead of schedule, I also made a huge list of options – possibilities if time or interest allowed.

Then, I booked our train tickets and prayed for the best.

The Ride

I bought the kids a bakery breakfast at the station (something I never do because I’m cheap thrifty) to occupy them on the train. A friend who used to live in Leipzig recommended Lukas Baekerei, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a soft German pretzel smothered in melted cheese. YES. Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

As we polished off the last crumbs, the train pulled into the station. We stepped into Dresden, gained our bearings, and off we trotted down Prager Str. in the direction of the Kreuzkirche.

Kreuzkirche

Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in the Kreuzkirche. I was more fascinated by the famous Frauenkirche. But, I wanted to climb to the top of the this church in particular for the best and most affordable view of Dresden (plus, climbing stuff is our thing). As is the case in Paris, the best view often isn’t from the most famous landmark but from another tall building nearby.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The lookout from the Kreuzkirche toward the Frauenkirche.

Sweaty but satisfied with die Aussicht, we descended once more to Dresden’s streets, kids starving and mama in need of a loo. We crossed the pedestrian walkway to the Laden Cafe Aha. I had read good things about Aha, so I ordered a white hot chocolate and the boys busted out their lunchboxes.

Apparently, our actions annoyed the server who thought everyone – kids included – should have ordered a full meal. And maybe I would’ve ordered a slice of cake to go with my hot chocolate had I not received the eyeful and earful the server dished up.

When we had been made to feel as uncomfortable as possible, we left. Expert tip: Come for the chocolate, don’t stay for the service.

Frauenkirche

I melted the frustration away with anticipation of our next stop – the restored brilliance of Dresden, the Frauenkirche. You can read all about the history of it here (be sure to check out the photos showing it nearly destroyed and the restoration process).Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The Frauenkirche is once again a gorgeous gem of architecture; and yes, it’s seriously as beautiful in person as it is in the pictures. This moment right here made the trip for me.

Fürstenzug

One treasure I had not known about before researching our trip is the Fürstenzug. The funny name might not sound like much, but this piece is the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Just check out my little people walking beneath it to grasp the scale.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

At over 100 meters long and over 10 meters high, it’s plastered on the outer wall of the Stallhof of the Dresdner Schloss. It’s enormous in person and really quite amazing.

Luncheon on the Grass, er Park Bench

We wandered around the courtyards of the schloss a bit before meandering along the terrace wall on the banks of the Elbe. We parked ourselves on a bench in the Brühlschen Garten to finish our lunches that had been so abruptly cut short earlier at the café. Not pictured: rather sketchy atmosphere with questionable characters on the bench next door and far too much trash by German standards. Hardly a Manet moment.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

While the boys chased each other around the park, I took a much-needed break from carrying Charlie.

We had sold our pram when we left Freiburg since we wouldn’t need it in America. That meant if I wanted to maximize my short hours in Dresden, I had to carry Charlie. Schlepping an enormous two year-old with concrete bones around on my back while simultaneously carrying a backpack with supplies on the front was perhaps the most demanding part of my day. Intermittent whining/complaining scores a close second.

With bellies full and the clock ticking, it was time to zip across the river and see what treasures awaited us in Dresden-Neustadt.

Don’t miss Part 2 when I reveal what nearly knocked the Frauenkirche out of “absolute favorite” position and share a super fun, serendipitous moment on our way out of town. Plus, I’ll include a list of locations we would’ve visited with more time. For Part 2, click here.

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A sneak peak of Part 2 – crossing the Elbe.

Have you been to Dresden or do you want to get there some day? What would you do for your next travel score?

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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!

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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!

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Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarI’m wrapping up our whirlwind tour of Croatia today with notes on a place any traveler to the Dalmatian coast would be remiss not to visit – the island of Hvar. Well, one might be forgiven for skipping Hvar as long as at least one other island was visited. You simply must choose at least one Croatian island to experience. With over 1,000 of them, there’s sure to be at least one that fits your family’s travel tastes.

Getting There

Now, first things first. In order to explore Hvar, you have to, you know, get there. It is an island, after all, and attempting to swim or drive would be disastrous.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The easiest way is to take a ferry, or a catamaran in high season. Timetables offer plenty of options in the summer but are drastically reduced in the off season. No matter when you go, I highly recommend checking times and prices for adults, children, cars, cats, parrots, and pet gorillas here.

I was nervous about the ship selling out, so I (literally) ran down to the port first thing in the morning to buy tickets. We had originally planned to visit Mljet and Hvar, but we weren’t able to make Mljet work. We were totally over the constant chorus of begging from backseat to ride on a boat, and I was afraid we’d never live it down if we didn’t actually set sail while in Croatia.

Thankfully, all my worry was for naught – plenty of tickets, and they didn’t charge me for our four year-old!

Setting Sail

The excitement hung thick in the air as we approached the ship.

“Is THAT the ferry, mama?” Our middle one pointed to a gigantic cruise liner.

“No, buddy, that one is headed to Italy.”

Wow, Italy!

“Ours is the smaller one next to it.”

“Ohhh.. can we go to Italy?”

The disappointment of not sleeping overnight en route to the land of never-ending pizza was quickly quenched by the fascination of watching the cars and trucks drive onto our ferry. The attendants packed the vehicles in, insisting that drivers park with only a few measly centimeters of breathing room in between.

Once on board, we staked our claim to a swath of seats and set up shop. The ride from Split to Hvar takes about two hours, and the only way we can keep restless boys happy for that long is with food.

Our boat set off at 8:30am, and we brought (what I thought was) a standard amount of food for breakfast. They smashed that up in oh, about 20 minutes. I should’ve brought extra rations. Always bring extra.

Our pleas to “look out the window and enjoy the scenery!” fell on deaf ears. Luckily, a friendly Polish family sat across from us; they turned out to be gracious in conversation and donating a good portion of their own personal snack stash.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Arriving in Hvar

The ferry docks near Stari Grad (though you can sail to Hvar Town in summer), but the place everyone wants to see is Hvar Town itself.

Buses from the port to the town are timed to meet the ferries. The ride took about 20 minutes along a coastal road lined with grape vines and olive trees. Oh yes, island life, here we come!

Unfortunately, if you arrive by bus in Hvar Town, you’re automatically branded a tourist and you might be accosted by little old ladies shoving laminated photos in your face and demanding, “You want apartment?!” The fun doesn’t end when you leave the bus stop. They follow you into town and ask you again. And again. Note to self: be firm, and do your best not to be annoyed. They need to make money somehow.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

But, nagging aside, my first impression of Hvar was that it was rather rustic. Many of the cafes and restaurants were shut, either permanently or just for the season. It was rather impossible to believe that this catatonic town is normally known as the celebrity-studded party capital of Croatia. Even the few street vendors that bothered to show up barely budged when we walked by.

The Fortress

Well, good thing our thang isn’t parties. It’s amazing views. And the best view in Hvar is undoubtedly from the fortress. To get to it, you’ll need to schlep your crew up the narrow city streets, climbing stair after stair (though not nearly as many as the 1,000+ we conquered in Kotor) until you reach the entrance gate. Once inside the gate, it’s an easy paved walk to the top.

We didn’t have to pay admission to the fortress (perhaps because it was off-season?), but I saw booths which I assume would be open in summer. Inside the fortress, you can explore several levels, enjoy a drink at the cafe, visit a small museum, and snap some great photos of Hvar Town and the surrounding islands.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

A small church on the way up to the fortress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Where there are cannons, there are boys.

Free Fun for Kids in Hvar Town

Since almost nothing in Hvar was open, we just wandered around until we finally found a fabulous playground on the north side of town. Doc Sci and I took turns napping in the sunshine while the boys made weapons and walkie talkies out of rocks and sticks.

And, speaking of rocks, no visit to a body of water would be complete for my boys without throwing some. There’s just something about searching for the biggest rock possible and following up the toss with a satisfying PLUNK and spastic SPLASH.

Inevitably, fighting about who had the biggest rock and who made the biggest splash ensues, but this is usually solved by an offer to let them stick some appendage in the water, no matter how cold. Off came the socks and shoes, and in they went. Even I dipped a toe or ten this time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The Taste of Hvar

Back in Hvar Town proper, we were left with about an hour before our bus ride and a burning desire yet to be fulfilled: buy a bottle of authentic Croatian olive oil.

We asked everyone in Croatia where to get the best olive oil. Answer? Buy it on the islands if you don’t have the hookup from a friend or relative with their own grove.

But, we were at a loss – where should we buy a liter or two when only a few street vendors were even open? None of them had that thick, fragrant olive oil of our dreams, the kind that’s literally clouded with flavor.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Oh, my friend, once you have tasted real olive oil (and, it tastes like olives, fancy that), you can never go back to the store-bought stuff.

We randomly noticed a shop at the green market, one that I would’ve ordinarily considered too touristy. We popped in and the owner chatted us up, offering to let us taste the oil. First his family’s everyday use oil, then a thick extra virgin green olive oil, and then a variety made from black olives. One dip, and Doc Sci and I both agreed: simply AMAZING.

The bottle we bought was made from black olives, and it is only the oil that drips down. It’s not even pressed! It’s simply collected, so the taste is very pungent and pure. We had almost no kuna left, but you can bet we left with the biggest bottle of oil that the shop offered.. and several hundred grams of delicious olives preserved only with sea salt and flavored with sprigs of rosemary.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

As I pour a small dish of that oil in my German kitchen and dip crusty ciabatta in it, I remember our day in Hvar and our time in Dalmatia. Long after the bottle of oil is gone, I doubt I could forget that yes, this is the taste of Croatian island life.

Have you tried authentic olive oil before? What does island life taste like for you and your family?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Practical Tips for Your Family’s Visit to Hvar:

  • Check sailing times and ticket prices here, in advance. Keep in mind that tickets sell out very quickly in summer. If you plan to take a car, ask around for how many hours in advance you should line up to get on the ship.
  • We sailed to Hvar from Split, and we opted not to take our car. However, if you do opt to take a car to one of the Croatian islands, make sure to check out locations of fuel stations and keep in mind that roads on the islands can be narrow and wind through mountainous terrain.
  • When we arrived in Stari Grad, we rushed to get on the bus, not knowing how many places would be available to get to Hvar Town. It looked like a few other mini-buses showed up in order to accommodate the overflow. Tickets were 27kn/adult and we didn’t have to pay for the kids. The ride took about 20 mins, but I was told in advance it takes 30 (maybe in season?).
  • You can stock up on snacks at the Konzum grocery store in Hvar Town before catching the bus back to the ferry. There aren’t really many options for takeaway food either in Hvar Town or at the port, so either eat at a restaurant in Hvar, bring your own meal, or make a picnic out of what you can find at the grocery store.
  • Toilets are expensive in Hvar Town. The only free toilets I noticed were located at the fortress (but there may be an admission charge in high season) and on board the ferry.

 Other awesome Croatian islands for planning or dreaming:

This post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Conquering Kotor, Montenegro

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of KotorMontenegro. Say it.

It sounds… exotic, feisty, mysterious.. even dangerous.

These qualities (obviously) mean I should add it to my list of places to go with three young children, right?

Wait, are we nuts?! Probably. I know there are other families that take their kids even crazier places than we do, but, man, we are so far gone from pretty little Disney holidays.

Today’s adventure takes place in slick little Montenegro, another former YU country (sorry, I know I put it on our bucket list and it’s not technically Croatia, but just go with it). Known as Crna Gora / Црна Гора to locals, most people young, rich, and/or famous know it as a fabulous place to party (Budva).

But, we know it as a (literally) breathtaking place to drink in views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Bay of Kotor.

Kotor is a popular day trip from Dubrovnik given that it’s supposedly only an hour and a half drive (see Notes at the end of this post). If you like collecting stamps in your passport from random small countries to up your count or exploring old stone cities steeped in history, Kotor might be for you.

Just don’t come here to climb up to St. John’s Fortress like we did.

No, no, no.

The city of Kotor, located on the bay of the same name, is quite small and can be explored in an hour or two. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kotor is cute, and sweet (which is about the opposite of how Montenegro sounds). Plus, it’s less crowded than its flashy friend to the north, Dubrovnik. Cruise ships have started docking in the city, but you can check the schedule in advance and adjust your itinerary to visit on a different day.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

So, what do you do after you’ve strolled the ancient streets? You could do something normal and sane like sit down at a cafe, have a drink, and and enjoy the atmosphere. Or you could set your sights on higher and more insane things like conquering St. John’s Fortress… with children.

I cannot officially recommend schlepping kids up 1,350 stone steps, so I won’t. But I will tell you how it could be done if you thought you might be hare brained enough to entertain the idea. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Pick up a map from the tourist information kiosk just outside the city walls. Or, just walk away from the bay and toward the mountain. You can’t miss it. Bring euros for the small entrance fee as well as water, snacks, and bribes for the hikes. You’re going to need it.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you have two choices: walk on stone steps or a somewhat flattened pile of rocks, both of which are quite slick in the rain (did I mention it was raining?!).

If you’re a parent, your two options become one option. Walk on the rocks while your child walks on the steps. Well, except for the parts of the climb where the low wall that provided a false sense of protection against a nasty tumble down the hillside is, conveniently, missing. Then, you can switch places until the wall reappears.

About fifteen minutes into the climb when you’re soaked to the bone underneath your rain jacket because good golly is this thing steep or what, you’ll reach the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.

Fabulous, you’re nearly there, right? Ha, no. But you can take a rest with the chain-smoker that’s more than happy to sell you an over-priced bottle of water. People watching is, of course, complimentary.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Just passing the Church of Our Lady of the Remedy.

Try to keep your eyes on the route and not on the fantastic panorama unfolding with each step up. You don’t want to slip on those rocks and take the kids down with you. No, no. Oh, and try not to think about why you don’t see any other families along the way.

When you do reach the top, you might want to (again) watch your step. It’s not like the fortress is falling apart or anything, but, well, yeah, it pretty much is. And the edges don’t have secure railings, so you might want to embarrass your kids by tagging along when they need to take a leak so they don’t tumble when they tinkle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back because that was one heck of a climb. And one seriously ridiculous idea with tots in tow. But the view, the view, the view, THE VIEW!Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

It’s easy to understand why this spot was chosen to fortify. From here, you can see so much of the Bay of Kotor, the city of Kotor, and the surrounding terrain.

Set up the self-timer, and burn up the camera. This is a perfect place to take a family photo. Just don’t position expensive cameras or precious children too close to the edge of anything.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

On the way back down, try to ignore those shaky legs. What are you, a weakling? You just owned that climb up to the fortress! Promise the kids they can have  a n y t h i n g  they want to eat from the grocery store if they just make it down in one piece.

Bonus: Groceries in Montenegro are CHEAP, so they can have the chips, the ice cream, and the juice for all I care.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Why yes I did just sweat my way up and down the mountain behind me, thanks for asking.

I’m (obviously) being cheeky here, and just in case the sarcasm is lost on you (Sheldon Cooper), I don’t want you to think we didn’t enjoy Kotor. In fact, we loved it, and it goes down as one of the best days of our Croatian adventure.

Also, I probably should add that for all my groveling here for the sake of humor, actually our kids made it up with hardly any whining. Reading that statement from my trip notes and typing it again here, I can barely believe it, but it must’ve happened. Just don’t expect a repeat performance, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

By the way, I’m partly blaming my desire to conquer the climb up to St. John’s Fortress on Calli and Travis of Have Blog Will Travel. Their post got me hooked on the idea, and, well, we’re suckers for a good view. If they did it, why couldn’t we? Oh right, because we have THREE LITTLE KIDS with us. And apparently I just skipped over this little line, “The hike isn’t an easy one, as many of the pathways are still a work in progress,” and instead focused on the fact that, “the views at the top are more than enough reward.”

Well said.

To see the fortress walls of Kotor all lit up at night, click here. And then tell me, what would you do for a good view?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Stuck at the border. This line took us nearly 1 1/2 hours..

More Notes on Montenegro:

  • Driving directions will tell you that Kotor is about 1:30 – 1:45 from Dubrovnik. Don’t believe everything you read. Double that time to allow for long lines at the border (maybe triple it in summer). We were only about 12 cars away from the crossing and it took nearly 1 1/2 hours. Apparently there are problems with drugs, guns, money, and the like in and out of MNE so that’s why the checks are thorough. See? I told you, dangerous…
  • The roads were horrific – one lane in each direction, winding and twisting around the water with 40-60km/hr speed limits, slow old beaters and big trucks.
  • Bring loads of snacks and entertainment options (or practice your hand at these games that don’t require any equipment) in case you get stuck.
  • Living in Germany, we have become quite accustomed to not bringing our passports when we pop over to France or dip down to Switzerland. They’re never asked for or checked. But you definitely need your passport with you when crossing any borders in this region.
  • There’s a ferry option to cross the bay of Kotor, but it is not much faster than driving around the bay and the second option is much more scenic. Plus, if you drive around the bay, you can stop in Perast.
  • To up the awesomeness of your time in Kotor, park in Perast and take a boat out to the island of Our Lady of the Rocks. We didn’t make it out there, unfortunately, but I believe the boat costs 5 euros per person. At the very least, pull over and have a look; the two little islands are lovely to look at from the shore (see the second photo in this post). Check out Travis and Calli’s post on getting to Perast via public transport here.
  • Parking outside of the city gate in the town of Kotor is quite cheap (around 1 euro/hr) and convenient.
  • You can find small grocery stores inside the city walls or larger supermarket-type stores a bit further out.

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes (Plitvička Jezera)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe scenery at Plitvice Lakes is the kind of thing travelers’ dreams and coffee table books are made of. One of seven Croatian UNESCO World Heritage sites and eight Croatian National Parks, Plitvička Jezera deserves a spot on every traveler’s bucket list.

Unfortunately, that’s also the reason it’s often quite crowded, but more on that later. No need to start on a negative note…

Getting There

While we mostly had an enjoyable visit to Croatia, a stressful ordeal with a smarmy rental car company nearly ruined our day trip out to this amazing national park (and the next few days trying to sort it all out). Wait, I said I wasn’t going to start out on a negative note.. Fortunately, our experience with Croatian roads was better than with the sleazy sales rep!

The interstate in Croatia is very modern – smooth roads, rest stops, slick tunnels, and tolls (calculate at viaMichelin). Leaving Zadar, we found ourselves wandering through terrain that reminded me of the Burren in Ireland, rocky and desolate.

We then turned off onto another local highway that meandered though villages and fields of sheep, goats, and cows. Many of the places looked abandoned, and we noticed quite a few cemeteries, some that just seemed to be plopped in the middle of a pasture (former battlefields?). Thanks to the whatever-floats-your-boat speed limit, we found ourselves at Plitvice in no time.

Getting In

After paying the (somewhat) reduced admission fee for visiting during the off-season, we consulted the map. The park has seven outlined routes which you can browse in advance here. We chose a medium-length trail, Route C, and skipped off in the direction of the rushing water.

Notes and my thoughts on our route choice can be found in the practical tips below.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe Lower Lakes

One of our first glimpses of the falls was this postcard-worthy photo. Sheesh, even those not that into nature would be hard pressed to not gasp at the cascading emerald waters.

We found out that the Lakes are NOT pram-friendly about five minutes into our visit when we decided to veer off from the crowd and explore some very steep, damp steps. Good thing Charlie was securely strapped into our trusty backpack carrier…

At the bottom of the steps, we realized we’d found Šupljara Cave rather by accident. Rick Steeves tells me that this site is popular with German tourists due to its use as a film location for a “Spaghetti Western” from the 60s. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Beyond the cave, it’s pure boardwalk bliss. Walking nearly on the turquoise water, this is as close as any visitor will get to taking a dip since swimming inside the park is prohibited. The wooden paths are narrow, and beware that oohing and ahhing when it’s crowded could result in a big splash and an even bigger fine. But do keep moving, though; the “big one” awaits..

My boys squealed with delight once we reached the Great Fall in the Lower Lakes because the cascading water was spitting at the visitors as it tumbled over the cliff. Kissed by the mist, we elbowed school groups in order to get thirty seconds alone for a family picture with the biggest rush in the park.

We then made our way through the rest of the Lower Lakes, fighting the urge to photograph every last little waterfall along the way. There are just SO MANY that by the end of our visit that (spoiler alert) I was suffering a bit from waterfall overload. I know, I know, first-world problem..

An electric boat shuttles visitors between the Upper and Lower Lakes. We took this opportunity to rest and refuel. Five cheese sandwiches later (that’s total, not each), we began our tour of the Upper Lakes.

The Upper Lakes

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkIn many ways, we enjoyed the Upper Lakes more than the Lower. While the wooden walkways in the Lower Lakes seemed to be right at water level, the Upper Lakes allows visitors to literally walk over waterfalls. It’s such fun to see the gurgling foam flood out beneath your feet.. provided of course that your children aren’t delighting in the obvious lack of rails along the path…

Also, the Upper Lakes are quieter. Fewer tourists make their way here since many are day trippers that only have enough time to see half of the park. The appeal of the Upper is breadth while the Lower draws the masses with height.

Plus, we spotted fluorescent green lizards along the Upper paths, but (thankfully) no other reptiles.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkAfter we’d had our fill of that soothing rushing water sound, we decided to call it quits. One could easily spend two days exploring every possible footpath in the park, but a half day was enough for us to capture the best of the best.

When I think back on our day at Plivice Lakes in late April, what I remember most is the color, the sound, and the vast variety in the waterfalls. No photo, no video could do a visit here justice. One must see it to believe the jade waters are really that shade and not just Photoshopped so. So, jot it down on your list – Plitvička Jezera is THE Croatian natural wonder to see!

Plitvice Lakes can also be visited in winter (see here). Would you rather go in spring when the waters rage or in winter to see the cascades magically frozen?

Practical Tips & FAQ’s for Your Visit to Plitvice Lakes:

  • Parking is available in two lots, P1 and P2, but both may not be open year-round. We parked in P2 because it was the first one we reached when we drove up from Zadar. The attendant told me that the parking lots aren’t much different if you want to see the whole park. If youw ant to see the Lower Lakes only, park at P1. At the time of our visit, parking cost 7kn/hour.
  • The national park’s website offers seven route choices. We chose C. It appears that this is the same route as H, just reversed. Rick Steves recommends this route (C) because you encounter the falls head on. However, it is all uphill; go with H if you’d rather walk downhill.
  • You can bring your own picnic to the park or you can grab lunch at one of the cafes or restaurants. Check opening times though, because they’re not all open all year. We took advantage of the wait times for trains and the boat and ate then. Not exactly the most scenic, but efficient if you’re trying to cut down your total visit time.
  • A note on weather… We visited in April and were threatened with rain all day. However, this was a blessing because the cloud cover meant we were shielded from the blazing sun. I’d guess Plitvice is a sweltering mess in the summer with 10,000 tourists and intense heat. Bring sunscreen and a waterproof jacket in case of unexpected rain.
  • A bonus of visiting in the spring – powerful waterfalls from melting snow and spring rains. I’ve read elsewhere that visiting in late summer can be rather disappointing if the waterfalls are merely trickling. Winter at Plitvice is a totally different experience. See my note in italics above for a link to winter photos.
  • Beware the crowds in summer! If you visit during the high season, you may not be able to double back on the platforms (cheat on the routes as mentioned above) or easily pass slower groups.
  • Take note of where the bathrooms are. There’s a map on your ticket, and the potties are marked on it. Pay close attention! Across the lake from P1 at the start of P2, there’s no bathroom, so be sure to make a pit stop before you cross over and begin walking the Upper Lakes. There aren’t ANY bathrooms until you read the train station at the end of the Upper Lake path. The bathroom in the parking lot (P2) was a squatty potty, but the others we visited had proper toilets.
  • What time of day should one visit? We arrived at noon, which ended up being perfect. Most of the morning day trippers had already cleared out and we only had a few student groups to contend with on the narrow boardwalks.
  • Can I take a pram or stroller? No, you definitely cannot/should not. The pathways are uneven, rustic wooden slats. There are also stairs, and we experienced muddy paths in some places. We did not see any babies or toddlers under 3 the whole day. However, we did see tons of families with children (mostly Germans – ha!).
  • Does Route C really take 4-6 hours? Well, that depends. We cheated on a few parts of the route by doubling back and cutting off a loop here and there. Our whole walk took only 3 hours. I suppose if you walked every bit of the route and stopped a lot for breaks, a picnic lunch, etc., it might take that long.
  • Is the route strenuous? In our opinion, no. We saw many elderly people and families with children, none of whom were complaining. As I mentioned above, we did visit for 3 hours, but some of that time was spent on trains/boats and waiting. It’s more of a walk than a hike, but the route from the Lower to Upper Lakes is uphill.
  • Is it safe for kids to visit? As I mentioned, we saw tons of families with children. But, please know that the paths are without railings. I think two things helped our visit: first, we emphasized the “no swimming in the park” rule in advance, and second, the park wasn’t crowded so I didn’t need to worry about the kids being accidentally or “accidentally” pushed in the water.

 

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Jousting at the Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament (Ritterturnier)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)I know, I know, you want to hear about Croatia. I really will write about Croatia soon, I promise! BUT, we went to the most amazing knight’s tournament last weekend, and I wanted to post about it sooner rather than later, just in case anyone randomly happens to be hanging out in Europe and able to go.

The Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier) is held every summer at Kaltenberg Castle outside Munich in the Bavarian countryside. For three weekends, visitors step back into the Middle Ages while feasting on period food, browsing handmade wares, and being dazzled by sword fights and jousting. (Jousting!!)

Seriously, wow.. this was one of the most fun events our family has been to while living in Germany!

But instead of me yapping on and on about it, let me just show you a bit of the awesomeness that awaits you. Sword and stein optional.. but highly recommended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The first thing you should know about the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier is that it’s sponsored by a brewery. Beer, beer, beer. It’s everywhere. We tried the honey beer. It smells like honey and tastes like.. beer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

If beer is not your thing, you can get all kinds of fruity wine and other drinks.. but no Coca Cola or Pepsi since I guess they’re trying to be all historically accurate.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The market is filled with trinket stalls and artisans like these women who are spinning wool into thread.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Sprinkled throughout the grounds are these “exhibits” where actors show how life was lived in the Middle Ages.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Okay, enough of the tame stuff. Let’s move on to weapons and armor. They’re strapped to actors..  and available for purchase, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Speaking of weapons, these knights did an excellent job of using them. Especially the fire. Who doesn’t love a good flame-throwing sword fight?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

If you lose in battle or are an unlucky passerby, you might wind up tarred ‘n feathered like this poor bloke who, uh, looks like he is actually digging it.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Just to show that it’s not all about violence, here’s Bravo watching some Italian flag twirlers. Yes, they really were from Italy.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The two main events of the day were the tournament and the parade. If you snag a good spot for the parade, you can see all the characters up close.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Check out the punk in a kilt. He’s part of the band Corvus Corax that seriously knows how to rock out with bagpipes (video here).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

After the parade, it’s time to head to the arena for the jousting! But first, some of the other acts take the main stage. This man herds his geese with the help of his extremely talented dog. Definitely something you don’t see every day.. or, like, ever.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

All day long, people were lighting up. Here it’s breath.. later, it’s a body.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

And now, let the jousting begin! All the knights line up in front of the royalty. You might not be able to see the horses behind the king and queen – but, they rode straight up into the box!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Here’s the black knight. He’s (obviously) the bad guy. But his costume is arguably on the awesome side.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Ready, set, joust! Yes, the lances really broke, and the riders really fell off the horses. Some were even dragged a while on the ground. It felt like stepping into A Knight’s Tale, right down to the audience doing the wave.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

The arena show is a story about a king and his two sons. Spoiler alert: the king dies (don’t hate me too much – it happens in the first few minutes). Remember I said more fire to come? Here they are burning the body of the king.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

Epic sword fight that filled the entire arena. No blood, but plenty of staged death.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

And, one more time, here are the knights that jousted. (psst.. one of them is a woman – yeah!)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Jousting at the Kaltenberg Castle Knight's Tournament (Kaltenberger Ritterturnier)

As if all of that were not enough, after the stray lance shards were collected, the gigantic jester invited the children (6+) into the arena for some kid-friendly fun, including pony rides, stationary (padded) jousting, and other medieval-themed activities. Awesome.

Booking your tickets yet? Dreaming of a visit next year? Check out my tips below. And, if you’ve been to a similar knight’s tournament, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Practical tips for visiting the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier:

  • Buy your tickets in advance online. They are NOT cheap, but both Doc Sci and I felt that the main jousting event alone was worth the price of admission. Sunday is family day. We took advantage of a 15% family discount, but that special had to be booked over the phone.
  • Should you buy a seat or choose standing room? If you have kids with you, I’d highly recommend purchasing seats. The show runs about 2 hours, and that is just too long for my boys to stand in one place. Children under 6 do not need to buy a seat to sit with you, but they will have to sit on your lap. Seats in C, B, F, and G are obviously the best because you get the best view of the jousting.
  • Parking cost 3,50 euro per car (more for trailers). This is a massive event – arrive early so you do not have to park miles away.
  • Bring your own water. Drinks are very expensive at the festival. You can refill water bottles in the bathrooms.
  • As for meals, pork, pretzels, and corn on the cob are the main fare for sale, but other treats can be had as well. We brought our own snacks and sandwiches for lunch so we only had to buy dinner. If you’re vegetarian, again, BYO.
  • Wear sunscreen, and be prepared for any kind of weather. Umbrellas are prohibited in the arena, so bring rain jackets or ponchos.
  • You could bring a stroller, but you’ll have to leave it outside the arena for the main show.
  • The seats in the arena are wooden slats. Your bum will be hanging out in the same spot for at least two hours. If you have portable cushions, bring those.
  • The show is in German, of course, and you won’t understand everything if you don’t speak the language (I understood about 60-70% because it was so loud and the announcer and actors talked so fast), but without any German skills, you’ll get enough to know what is going on and, let’s face it, you’re there for the stunts, not the story, right?
  • Bring pocket money because the kids are going to beg for princess hats, costumes, and fake swords.

Note: This is not a sponsored review, and our family paid for our own admission.

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Beauty and Mystery at Rosslyn Chapel

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with KidsIf conspiracy theories are your thing or you’ve read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, then chances are you’ve heard of Rosslyn Chapel. Construction on this small church located on the outskirts of Edinburgh began in the 15th century, but the lore surrounding it continues to present day.

Full disclosure: I did read the Code, but it was simply entertaining fiction for me. I do enjoy a juicy conspiracy theory now and then, but I don’t indulge too often because my mind goes wild with possibility. However, neither the book nor the legends led me to Rosslyn Chapel.

I came for the art.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

When we arrived at the modern visitor’s center, its petite presence startled me. THIS is what all the fuss is about?! Sure, the speculation surrounding its possible connection to the Knights Templar and Freemasons is intriguing. But, I couldn’t help but think what must have drawn the theorists to Rosslyn Chapel in the first place was the beauty of the structure itself (because it certainly wasn’t sheer mass…).

Inside

The interior walls are brimming with intricate carvings: devils, angels, flowers, snakes, historical figures, virtues, vices, and more. Gorgeous patterns weave the different scenes together. The compositions straddle the line between frilly and fantastic. Prepare yourself for visual overload. Unfortunately, photographs aren’t allowed inside the chapel; I wish I’d brought a sketch book!

Our travel modus operandi rarely includes guided tours or talks. However, we just happened to arrive at the beginning of one of Rosslyn Chapel’s scheduled chats (in English! oh, right, it’s Scotland after all..). I enjoyed picking up bits and pieces of the chapel’s history while keeping an eye on the three amigos. The most fascinating? Apparently 200+ statues that were originally part of the chapel have vanished.

Some folks think these sculptures are in the crypt (along with the Holy Grail and the real crown jewels of Scotland, naturally). The original crypt has been sealed, and excavation is forbidden (of course). A smaller, less mystical crypt is open to visitors and houses a modest collection of stones.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

The crypt contents. Thrilling, no?

A more believable story revolves around the creation of two of Rosslyn’s fourteen pillars. Pride, jealousy, revenge, and retribution – you can read the legend here.

Outside

The exterior of the chapel is equally as stunning as the interior. One can easily see the architectural difference between the original (chapel) and later construction (baptistry). More carvings, gargoyles, pinnacles, flying buttresses, stained glass.. wow.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Baptistery exterior.

While I knew Doc Sci and I would love this place, I wasn’t sure about the boys. Would they be bored stiff or entertain themselves with a game of who-can-break-the-most-appendages-off-the-carvings? This story haunts me because it could easily have been my kids..

Fortunately, Rosslyn Chapel is surprisingly kid-friendly, provided they don’t touch the carvings, of course. Inside the chapel itself, the boys were given activity sheets with simple questions to answer, a word search, a maze, and a space to recreate their favorite carving in 2D (find more fun stuff for kids to do in advance or after your trip here).

Since we visited nearly 8 months ago, I decided to dig out my trip file. I found our activity sheets and on one of those Alpha had written, “The CHAPEL is SO COOWL.”

And that was before he even went inside the new visitor’s building…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with Kids

Hands-on arch building.

The visitor center features the obligatory gift shop (mostly uninspiring except for an amusing assortment of Scottish books), a slightly expensive cafe, clean toilets, and several children’s activity stations. Bravo went to town demolishing and rebuilding the arch. Alpha found three brass plates, paper, and metallic crayons set up for brass rubbings.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland with KidsHe’d never seen anything like it. The thrill of coloring fast and furious and ending up with a finished image of a knight was almost too much. Only after plying him with promises of a bus ride to the beach (more on that in a later post) would he step away.

Despite the 45-minute bus ride from Edinburgh, our morning at Rosslyn Chapel was one well-spent. I think often of the carvings and patterns and the quiet rural beauty surrounding the church (the associated bullhonkery, not so much).

While theme parks and cheesy children’s attractions have their purpose, I believe it’s so worthwhile to intentionally expose the littlest travelers among us to some of the biggest architectural treasures of our world. And those conspiracy theories? Well, it might take a few years before those are also considered COOWL..

For all the particulars in planning your own visit to Rosslyn Chapel, see the official website.

Have you visited or heard of Rosslyn Chapel? If not, would it make your Scotland itinerary? Thoughts – and conspiracy theories – welcome below.

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Taking in the Tulips at Keukenhof with Kids – Round 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensTravelers (and especially travel bloggers) often talk about a bucket list, that sacred scribbling of places, formal or informal, to see and things to do before they kick the proverbial bucket.

But, what happens when you plan, scheme, and save in order to make one of those dream trips true… and then it wasn’t what you expected?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me when we showed up at Keukenhof Gardens last year and didn’t see a single tulip poking up from the ground. The only blooms to behold thrived inside pavilions or shivered outside in the chilly late winter breeze.

And those gorgeous photos featuring miles of flower fields we all see floating around the internet every spring? Nothing but mounds of dirt with a reluctant fingers of green to mark where vibrant blooms should be.

These things should not be so.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Flowers are fickle, though, and one cannot control the weather nor their time of arrival. So, I had to make a choice: live with the disappointment and be satisfied with Pinterest pictures, or visit Keukenhof again.

While the decision was obvious, how to get there and when to go certainly wasn’t. You see, the single most important tip when visiting Keukenhof with or without children is to time your visit correctly. Too early and the bulbs will still be sulking underground. Too late and they’ll be dying like it’s 1347.

Plus, I had the distance to consider. To drive from my house to Keukenhof takes about 7 hours. With the three amigos in the backseat, it’s impossible to do that all in one go, which means we’d have to make a weekend out of it. It seemed excessive to drag the entire family along just to indulge my flowery whim.

Solution – take the overnight train and bring one child along to lighten the load of the parent left behind.

To read more about taking the overnight train with kids, check back tomorrow!

Alpha and I arrived a bit groggy at the Schipol Airport train station after our night on the rails. We were both looking forward to this adventure together, but our hearts sank when we saw the line for the Keukenhof Express bus.

People from all over the world stood in a queue that snaked around the building. Luckily, we meet an American couple waiting just in front of us. They chattered away while the minutes ticked by. Before we knew it, we were zooming along the Dutch highway on our way to the flower fields.

Since we had been to Keukenhof before, we knew were the bathrooms were and which direction we wanted to head first. While the layout and the feel of the place was the same, something had definitely changed…

The park was alive with TULIPS!Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Everywhere we looked, our eyes feasted on the electric oranges, intense reds, lovely violets, bashful pinks, fierce yellows. Alpha and I bounced from one plot to another. “Look at these, Mama!” he said over and over until we just could.not.look.any.more.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThis year, we didn’t buy any fresh stroopwaffels at the big Keukenhof windmill, but we did go up inside to have a look. To our delight, many of the flower fields were still in bloom! Swaths of color planted neatly next to each other created a rainbow ribbon that stretched across the horizon.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

When tulip overload set in, we exited the park and headed for the bike rental shack. A few too many euros and two rickety bikes later, we set out to make our own tour of the flower fields.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensWe rode on country roads, swerving away from semis and loaded tour buses, pausing every few minutes to snap photos of the breathtaking beauty. The wind whipped our faces and gnarled our hair, but we didn’t care. We were sailing through the Dutch countryside on two wheels, together.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

With my bucket list wish successfully fulfilled, we headed back to Amsterdam to kill four hours before our return train. I treated the boy to American-style frozen yogurt and a Dutch pancake dinner. We stopped off at the grocery store to stock up on some supermarket souvenirs: peanut butter, speckaloos cookies, hagleslag, and Haribo licorice.

The rain began as the sun disappeared, a slight drizzle that had us running for Centraal station. Just when we stepped inside, the drops became larger until the full fury of a Dutch downpour released.

As the train pulled away from Amsterdam, Alpha waved goodbye to an amazing day and snuggled into his berth for the long ride home.

Would you revisit one of your bucket list destinations if it wasn’t what you expected?

Practical info:

  • Keukenhof is only open March through May. For 2015 dates and ticket prices, click here.
  • In 2013, we visited at the end of March – too early. In 2014, we visited the week of Easter – perfect. Try to time your visit a few days before the Flower Parade, or go during the Flower Parade if you don’t mind the masses.
  • To read about our visit with the Easter Bunny and encounter with an Easter lamb, click here for my previous post.

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