Turkish Family Travels: Exploring Istanbul from Underground

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

There are so, so many ways to explore a city.

Strolling “ordinary” neighborhoods, attempting public transportation, cooking native cuisine, people watching from a café, peering over the skyline from above with a bird’s-eye view… these are just a few of our family’s favorites.

It’s rather obvious to see the sights from the ground level, and often more thrilling to take a look from on high. Please tell me I’m not the only sap for an amazing view from above?

Most overlooked, however, is the belly view – experiencing a city from under the ground. One such subterranean experience in Istanbul awaited us at the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici).

But would it give us that unique Turkish twist we were seeking?

First Look

After a rollicking morning across the street at the gorgeous Hagia Sophia, we showed up at the Basilica Cistern eyes and cameras ready for more amazement. However, as we approached the entrance line, we thought there must be some mistake.

After all, most of Istanbul’s historic treasures are total eye candy. Not this building. In fact, if it weren’t for the queue of tourists, we very well could’ve been vying for a spot in a Turkish jail cell.

A postage-stamp building, bars on the windows… are people really going to steal the water in the cistern or attempt to make off with a gigantic stone column?

As if.

Down

Forty Turkish liras later, we slipped down the slimy marble steps to the cistern itself, water source to emperors and sultans for over a thousand years. From the staircase landing, the 336 columns come into view. Chipped but sturdy, these pillars remind all who enter just how surprisingly solid ancient structures can be.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

Now on the platform level, we began to wander down the corridors of dramatically lit columns, and I begin to wonder… If it weren’t for the theatrical lighting, would this place have much to rave about?

Around the prescribed path we walked, trying to envision James Bond hightailing it past us in To Russia With Love. That would certainly up the thrill factor, because right about now, I’m thinking I just paid nearly 15 bucks to stroll around a big room on a platform with nothing but a thin layer of murky water covering the floor.

Whoop. De. Doo.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

Medusa

But, wait, you say. What about the mysterious medusa heads?

Ah, yes, the snake-headed sisters sitting at the base of a couple of columns on the northeast side. Such a thing is surely worth a look. So, look we did… along with every other cruise-ship-sailing day-tripper. Hence the blurry photo.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

It’s no use denying that the bases with faces are a curious thing. Why would one erect a column atop an inverted or rotated Medusa head? Would the images ward off those who sought to poison the waters? Or were the heads inverted to stunt the power of the Medusa? Or might they be borrowed from an earlier structure as part of an ancient recycling program?

The solution to Medusa’s mystery is anyone’s guess. But, here’s a mystery I’ll just go ahead and solve for you right now. There’s really nothing special about the Medusas that can’t be seen in photos on the Internet. In fact, those photos will probably be better than anything you or I could attempt, given the frenzy over the heads that makes it nearly impossible to get a clear shot.

Light Delight

At this point, we had walked up and down every bit of bored-walk. No matter where we rested our eyes, we could only see two things: people and blazing stone columns. Is this it?

Well, yes – yes, it is.

In an effort not to let those forty Turkish liras go completely to waste, I decided to have a bit of fun with my camera. Taking photos in the dark isn’t something I do often, so it’s a challenge to snap a decent shot without a flash.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravelPainting the darkness on my camera screen with flaming streaks of orange light provided a brief reprieve from pillar monotony. Well, that is, until I realized my boys were also bored and making a break for the three-inch pool beneath the boardwalk.

Time to go.

Say Cheese

Now off the precarious elevated path, I took one more quick look around as a last-ditch effort. Surely, there has to be something else of interest down here…?

There, in the corner! The shiny costumes flickered at me from afar. Sumptuous fabrics and fanciful headpieces adorned a couple intent on returning home with evidence that they had, in fact, lived like a sultan and queen while in Istanbul.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - Visiting Istanbul's Basilica Cistern with Kids! #familytravel

You’d think I’d scoff at such silliness, but actually, a part of me wanted to give the absurdity a try. Anyone can shimmy into a pair of chaps or wiggle into a saloon girl dress in America, but Turkish royalty costumes are a bit harder to come by.

Unfortunately for me, Doc Sci wasn’t at all interested in foolishly gallivanting as Ottoman royalty. Such a shame, since masquerading as Korean royalty in Seoul was his idea.

The Skinny

Unless you’re doing your best to beat the Turkish summer heat, the Basilica Cistern isn’t worth a slice of your Istanbul travel budget. Your time and effort would be better spent scrolling through photos online or even taking a virtual tour, available from the Yerebatan Sarnici website itself.

My advice? Buy a postcard, and spend your 20TL per person elsewhere.

What featured attraction(s) have you been to that didn’t live up to their hype or seemed like a waste of time and/or money?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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Turkish Family Travels: Hagia Sophia, the 8th Wonder of the World

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Only a handful of places in the world really live up to their travel hype, and the Hagia Sophia is one of them. You guys – the Hagia Sophia is one of the most phenomenal places I have ever been!

Since my final teenage year as an art history university student, I have wanted to see the Aya Sofya with my own two eyeballs. Coffee table photo books just.do.not. do it justice.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

From church to mosque to museum, this masterpiece has seen a lot of history since she was completed in the sixth century. Gorgeous, amazing, and gigantic – you do not want to miss this!

Unfortunately, the rest of the world feels the same way, and they’ll be accompanying you on your visit.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

We arrived as early as humanly possible with 3 kids and no threat of fire. We still waited in line for a bit and had to endure the constant hawking of tour guides touting their services to the queue. Thankfully, we did beat the cruise ship / tour bus crowd, but only by about 30 minutes.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

With the exorbitant (for Turkey) admission fee paid, we made our way to the entrance. I stopped my boys in front of the doors and snapped a photo of them. The three amigos have no idea what the Hagia Sophia is, but some day I can show them the photo as proof – both that they did visit and how small they were compared to the towering doors.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Once inside, we decided to go up first since most of the crowds stay down on the main level. After peeking down on the hordes and up at the marvelous ceilings from the mezzanine, I went searching for a few ancient pieces heretofore only seen in textbooks.

I found the famous glittering mosaics hidden away in on the far side and, sadly, falling apart. I had hoped for more mosaics (love them!), but much of the interior is painted, not tiled. I loved that I was privileged to see them; I hate these tiled masterpieces only left me wanting more.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with KidsDownstairs, the main area was completely filled with tour groups. Making elbow space to take a photo proved challenging, as was taking pictures sans tourist heads or arms. We didn’t rent an audio guide, but I imagine it was difficult to get near some of the featured points of interest because of the crowds.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Though the Aya Sofya is no longer a mosque, the interior is heavily decorated with Islamic motifs. These are sprinkled in among the early Christian art. I found it to be an intriguing mix, but you’ll have to draw your own conclusions concerning the design.

Was visiting the Hagia Sophia worth it? This is not even a question worth answering.. You cannot visit Istanbul and not experience the Hagia Sophia. It’s a crime against art.

The “8th wonder of the world” truly is an architectural, historical, artistic, and cultural gem that should top every family’s Turkish bucket list and one deserving of the price of admission. I feel like I should say more, but I really can’t do the place justice. You’ll just have to see it for yourself!Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul with Kids

Tips for Taking Your Family to Hagia Sophia

  • Go early! Arrive before opening time, if possible. It may have been a fluke, but we did notice that the entrance line tapered off around 2pm. Perhaps the tour groups are all finished for the day by that time. It’s worth asking around to find the best time to go on a particular day.
  • We spent about an hour inside. I would have liked to stay longer, but the crowds weren’t going away and my kids weren’t magically going to turn into art history buffs (sad, but true). Plus, we wanted to end the visit on a meltdown-free note. I recommend researching the treasures of the Aya Sofya in advance so you know what you absolutely want to see.
  • Getting to the second floor with a pram would be problematic. Use a baby carrier, or plan to take turns exploring the upper level.
  • You can rent an audio guide, but the masses may make it difficult to get near some of the featured points of interest.
  • Use the free WC before you exit the grounds. Bathrooms are hard to find in Istanbul!
  • The courtyard has a small café where you can make a pit stop before moving on to your next adventure.

Have you ever wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia or another famous historical place? Do you think places such as this are worth visiting despite the crowds?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

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

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

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

Logistics

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

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

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

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

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

Going Up

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

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

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

Interlaken!

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

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

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

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

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

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

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

Jungfrau!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faulhorn summit.

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

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

Bachsee.

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Mt. Pilatus – More Swiss Alps… with Kids!

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

Which Peak?

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

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

Going Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilatus – The Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting out toward Tomlishorn.

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

Things are getting rocky along the way..

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

But this picnic spot was well worth the effort.

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

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

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

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

The back side of the dragon path.

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

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

Back the Way We Came

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

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

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

So, How Does Pilatus Compare?

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

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

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

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

Signature-Marigold

Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?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!

The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik and Ston

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & StonDubrovnik is nearly everyone’s favorite Croatian city and for good reason. She ain’t known as “the Pearl of the Adriatic” for nothin’. And while it’s sad but true that she was bombed heavily during the war, you should know that Dubrovnik’s got her fancy pants back and is as pretty as ever.

The difference between Dubrovnik and, say, Zadar is that Dubrovnik is made for tourists. Yes, real Croatians live here, but D-brov isn’t the place to experience authentic local life. You’re just going to have to do the tourist thing here.

While there are all sorts of luxurious things to do in Dubrovnik like lounging around on the beach or blowing your budget on drinks at the Buza bar, the one expensive thing you must do is walk the walls of old city.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Getting There

Dubrovnik’s walls were built to keep unwanted visitors out. These days, visitors are exactly what the tourism industry wants, despite what one might think when experiencing sticker shock at the admission price…

Anyhow, if you’re going to walk the walls, first things first – you’ve got to get up on the wall somehow. I assume you’re staying overnight in Dubrovnik because the city isn’t a day trip from, well, anywhere except maybe Montenegro or a docking cruise ship.

Admission booths and stairways are located at both the Pile and the Ploce Gates. Visitors must walk in one direction, no doubling back.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

The View from the Top

Once you’ve bled kunas in exchange for a ticket, get ready for the “wow” chorus that’ll be intermittently interspersed with “ooh” and “ahh” verses.

From the walls, you can see all of the old city, the Adriatic, Lokrum and other islands, and the rest of the town of Dubrovnik.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

And, once you’re standing on the fortress, you’ll be able to tell just how insanely massive the walls really are. We sometimes have that despicable spoiled traveler disease that renders one jaded and unimpressed, a side affect of seeing too much of the world. Not so in Dubrovnik.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & StonThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

We were totally impressed. Flippin’ fascinated, in fact.

What’s There to Do at the Top?

After walking around in the hot sun for nearly an hour (I told you the walls are massive!), you might be ready for a drink. We noticed several shops and cafes selling ice cream bars, bottled water, and fresh-squeezed juice. You can even find bathrooms and some tourists stands selling overpriced wares here and there.

If you’re cheap like me, bring your own water and snacks and take a break near the cannons. They’re located on the sea side at a particularly wide stretch of the wall. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a pirate ship heading out to sea!Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!

The European Wall of China

A smidge to the north of Dubrovnik is a lesser-known but no-less-impressive wall in Ston. I’ve heard it called the “European Wall of China,” which is profound in its impossibility but I digress… Visitors can enter the wall either in Ston or Mali Ston and walk to the other village.

According to our good ol’ pal Wikipedia, “The wall, today 5.5 kilometre long…links Ston to Mali Ston, and is in the shape of an irregular pentangle. It was completed in the 15th century, along with its 40 towers (20 of which have survived) and 5 fortresses.” The area is currently on the UNESCO Tentative List.

Since Ston doesn’t appear on many people’s bucket lists, the area is much quieter and rarely overrun with tour groups.

Now, this is the part where I usually tell you how great it was to be up on the wall and how we were the only weirdos up there with kids, if you’ve been here long enough, you know the spiel..

Well, uh, I can’t write about that because it’s not entirely true.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Our experience

Most of the tourist sites in Croatia are closed in winter and admission is reduced or free in spring and fall. We (falsely) assumed that Ston would be the same. In fact, when we arrived, it looked abandoned.

When we tried to go inside the fortress, a guard chased us out and demanded money for us AND for the kids. Now, I’ll get to this in my kid-friendly Croatia post, but this is not normal. And, the fees were a bit steep.

Honestly, we might have paid it anyway, but our calves were screaming from walking the Dubrovnik walls the day before and to a hillside fortress in Montenegro the day before that (yeah, told you we’re weirdos). I wasn’t sure we actually wanted to torture ourselves further with more. stone. steps.

So, I politely said we just wanted to have a look and then hurriedly went in while the males stood within view of the guard.

I noticed that the rails were rickety in some parts with a sheer drop rewarding any missteps. The wall is long (5k), and I knew we didn’t have it in us to do three psycho wall hikes in 3 days.

So, I did what any other person in the Facebook-Instagram oversharing world would do: I took a selfie.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - The Great Croatian Walls of Dubrovnik & Ston

Sorry, I know, this isn’t my selfie. But it is the back side of the wall which you can see if you drive to the other village instead of walk on the wall.

The Verdict

The walls of Dubrovnik and Ston are unique in the world and unique in their own ways. They both warrant a visit (though perhaps not Ston with under 5’s), and they both give you a glimpse into what life must have been like centuries ago in the old Republic of Ragusa.

Which wall would you rather visit? And, I’d love to know, what other walls around the world have you walked? 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.

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultWhy, hello there. Didn’t think you’d see me ’round these parts again, did you? It has been a long time. And I’ve played out this reunion in my head many times. Has there been too much space and distance? Well, let’s just let it be awkward for a minute and then be done with that.

Over now? Good, moving on!

In case you’re new here, nearly four months ago I excused myself and backed away from this blog, forcing myself to turn and take one shaky step in the direction of serious language learning.

Fighting the this is never going to work fears and I’d rather be blogging thoughts, it took all I had in me to walk in the door of the language school near my boys’ kindergarten and ask what they had available.

You see, in our little city, the options for learning a language are as follows: (1) take an intensive course at a language school which means 5 days a week, four hours a day, (2) take a course at the community college for two days a week, two hours a day, or (3) find a private German teacher and pay through the nose.

That’s it. Take your pick.

What do you think I chose? What would you choose?

Like many bloggers, I’m an introvert. I despise group work and small talk. Busy work for the benefit of the whole class kills my desire to learn. Plus, I’m a mama, and I know from my previous experience taking an intensive course that there is just NO WAY I can manage being gone all morning, every day of the week, plus do homework at night for more than one week at a time.

The second option is just too slow. Plus, I honestly had no clue what level I was or which class to take.

Believe it or not, I swallowed my thrifty ways and tossed an incredible amount of cash at a private teacher.

Gulp.

But, old habits die hard, and I could not pass up an offer I found for two weeks of nearly free German classes. The catch? It was every night from 630-830pm, the absolute worst time of the day to leave my husband to solo parent. I love that man.

Over the course of nearly sixteen weeks, I took over forty hours of private German classes as well as eighteen hours of group classes. In between that, I struggled to finish my homework with one hand while warding off the laundry, dirt, and stench beasts with the other. We may or may not have had pizza and chicken nugget dinners every other night..Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Learning a new language as an adult is incredibly humbling.

I watch my sons chatter away auf Deutsch, and I can’t help but be a tiny bit envious. It’s true that they essentially are in their own intensive course while at kindergarten four hours a day, five days a week. But, they also have no inhibitions. They’re not self-conscious at all when it comes to making mistakes or speaking with an accent. Ah, to be six again..

My German classes literally brought me to tears on several occasions because I felt so unbelievably stupid. Why is this so hard?! I would ask myself. My brain is just not wired to learn foreign languages.

Undeterred by the snotty nose and runny mascara, I kept the end goal in sight: I am doing this for my sons, to help them keep up the gift of being bilingual as well as for own enrichment and mental health (ha). So, here I am, still plowing through, one umlaut at a time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Despite the difficulty, I’m happy to say that the payoff has been huge.

HUGE!

Before these classes, I would shrink away from any opportunity to even attempt speaking German when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. I started almost every encounter with, “Do you speak English?” Now, I do my best to tuck that question away and only pull it out for serious situations like doctor visits and the like.

Just yesterday, I met with another mom from my church that I barely knew. I was aware that she spoke English, but I made myself start things off with, “Wie geht’s?” (how are you?). I occasionally had to explain a few things in English, but I steered the conversation back to German after each detour. Thirty minutes of this kind of mental workout left me exhausted and literally sweating.

Oh the things I never thought I’d do!

Here are a handful of other examples that just a few short months ago would’ve been impossible..

  • Argue with a police officer about why I was breaking the rules (if you must know, I was riding my bike on the sidewalk with my kids at a dangerous intersection).
  • Select, order, and pay for festival tickets over the phone (no hand gestures!).
  • Read an entire parent letter from the kindergarten without the assistance of my pal Google translate… and understand what I read.
  • Sign up for a tandem partnership with a total stranger.
  • Consider asking all my German friends to only speak German with me (okay, I’m still on the fence about this one..).

Sounds amazing and like I’m doing swimmingly, right? Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Some days, the words won’t come. Other days, I won’t let them because I just don’t feel like it.

In between those thoughts, I wonder why I am doing this. Why am I learning another language with the intention of becoming fluent? Why am I learning German?Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

And, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a downside. There’s always a downside, isn’t there?

The truth is, I now feel like I can’t speak any language well. I often trip over words in my native language, often forgetting what common items are called in English (!). I end up stuttering and then scrunching my face up in frustration because I just can’t manage to squeeze the right words (in the correct language) out of my brain.

I mean, I love bargains and all but the whole “buy one foreign language, get a free speech impediment” thing wasn’t exactly what I had in mind..

And when I’ve had a conversation with my tandem partner, for instance, I can’t seem to turn the German off and end up jabbering away in German to my husband who would rather just understand what his wife is saying, thankyouverymuch. The Deutsch monster just won’t shut up once it has been awakened.

So, what now?

Well, I simply keep on keepin’ on. At this time, I am done actively taking classes, at least the expensive private kind. I feel like my German is at a level now that I might be able to handle a regular group class (though my introverted, anti-group-work self will surely protest this possibility).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultI bought a textbook and workbook with a DVD to keep up my independent study. But, really, what I need now is to just practice speaking as much as possible, hence the tandem partner.

And, in between all of that, I’m going to try to hang out here at Thrifty Travel Mama more regularly. But, don’t worry, I won’t start blogging in German any time soon.

Though I have missed blogging at TTM, I’ll admit it’s been a good thing for me to have a break, to refocus and, honestly, to decide whether I would like to continue writing. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do really enjoy blogging, because I often feel I have something to say either with the intention of helping others or simply throwing my two cents at the blogosphere.

So, pull up a chair, add me back to your Blog Lovin’, feedly, or subscribe to posts by email and let’s do this Thrifty Travel Mama thing again!

I often think to learn a second language you need as many of these things as possible – time, money, youth, and a live-in dictionary/language tutor. What do you think?

And, if you’ve learned another language as adult, how was your experience? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris EditionParis might be a gorgeous gal, but she’s an absolute shrew when it comes to penny-pinching travelers.

We lucked out on accommodation; a friend of a friend lent us her place for the week. But food was a different story. While we could save money by cooking dinner at the apartment, logistics made lunch out a necessity.

As I briefly mentioned in my post on the French version of Chipotle, 9 euros for one burrito was actually reasonable in Paris! If you want a burger (which hopefully is only the starving expat crowd), be prepared to pay even more. We stumbled upon FrogBurger in the Latin Quarter and couldn’t believe it… 11 euros for a skinny burger?! At least they have some comical brews.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

FrogBurger prices!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

FrogBurger beers.

I combed Pinterest, scoured the Rick Steves city guide, and searched high and low in the blog world for the best budget eats in Paris. Below are a few of our favorites plus a list of restaurants we didn’t have time to visit and a few splurges.

Our Favorite (Family) Budget Restaurants in Paris

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

Chez H’anna Falafel with a gigantic grilled eggplant on top.

Chez H’anna. Delicious, fresh falafel for under 6 euros. I could’ve eaten one of these every day! If you want to have a falafel tasting, do not waste your time at Chez Marianne around the corner. See L’As Du Fallafel below which is just down the street from H’anna.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

You never know what you’re going to find at Churrasqueira Galo!

Churrasqueira Galo. A short walk from the Sacré Cœur in Montmarte, this unassuming Portuguese chicken joint serves up gigantic platters for 9 euros. All five of us stuffed ourselves full of rotisserie chicken, salad, rice, and fries. We ordered two platters and barely finished the food. Even David Lebovitz recommends this place.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

My dark chocolate crepe at Chez Nicos.

Chez Nicos. One of the cheapest crêperies we found, and one of the best. The dark chocolate crêpe was stuffed with nearly a whole bar of chocolate! Doc Sci and T-Rex devoured the specialty – Nutella with an entire sliced banana.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tips for Exploring Paris by Bike for Families with Kids

Eiffel Tower pizza picnic from Pizza la Gourmandise.

Pizza la Gourmandise. Not anything near true Italian pizza, but the pies were a steal compared to most pizzerias in town. We ordered ours to go and ate in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

More Cheap Eats

  • L’As Du Fallafel. We ate at Chez H’anna instead, but this one is Lenny Kravitz’s favorite. Beware the queue! Mi Va Mi is across the street to add yet another option to the falafel question.
  • Gusto Italia. Pizza place (takeaway or dine-in) near the Eiffel Tower, slightly more expensive than Pizza le Gourmande. Two locations across the street from each other at 199 and 218 Rue de Grenelle.
  • La Charlotte de l’Isle. A cute and quirky tea room serving loose leaf and hot chocolate. We arrived just as the last customers were seated and the cozy dining room was completely full. Boo.
  • Breizh Cafe. Apparently, they serve the best salted caramel crepes and affordable savory galettes, but we visited on Monday when they were closed!
  • Berko. Another closed-on-Monday strike out, I must’ve been on a salted caramel kick when making trip notes because this cafe has the coveted flavor in meal-replacing cheesecake form.
  • La Crêperie Bretonne. Each crepe costs approximately €7 (as of September 2013), and the Ratatouille galette comes highly recommended.
  • Krishna Bhavan. Indian specialties, suitable for vegetarians and cheapskates.
  • Le Royal. Located on the infamous Rue de Grenelle. Carte highlights: 5 euro omelets, 9 euro plats, 14 euro menus.
  • Apparemment Café. After heavy French food and fried falafel, a create-your-own salad shop would be nice for a change.
  • Smooth In The City. Another stop for those in search of healthier fare. Fresh fruit smoothies and menus available.

Places to Splurge for a Special Treat

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris Edition

  • Angelina. At nearly 8 euros for a hot chocolate, this cafe is not cheap (nor easy to get into if you visit the location near the Louvre). Sneak into the Angelina tucked into a corner at Galeries Lafayette instead. Sure, the service is snobby, but savoring the liquid chocolate and fluffy cream is (nearly) priceless.
  • Berthillon Ice Cream. Lines were out the door here, even in winter!
  • Pierre Hermé or Ladurée Macarons. These cookies are obnoxiously expensive, but you shouldn’t leave Paris without trying at least one. Bet you can’t guess what flavor I’d recommend… (salted caramel!)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Cheap (Family) Eats: Paris EditionBon appétit! Did I highlight or pass over any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below!Signature-Marigold