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

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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!

Signature-Marigold

A Budget-Friendly Swiss Family Hike in the Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, awesome playground and potentially dangerous bovines.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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!

Where to Find the Best FREE View in Edinburgh

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in EdinburghIn most cases, I prefer to write and post about our travels right after we’ve finished them. The details are fresh in my mind; the information is current, relevant. But I also think there’s value in revisiting a trip months (even years) later.

In looking back, it’s much easier to see the places, the people, the moments (the burrito) that made the most impact.

For our family, it’s usually all about the view… and the burritos. But that’s a post for another day.

In my I’m-sorry-I-love-you-but-I-need-to-take-a-break post, I teased you with a shot from our trip. Now, I finally have time to tell all, and I’m starting with that breathtaking view.

Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh – okay, the whole of Scotland – is notorious for its crappy weather. So, you can imagine my surprise at our good fortune when we stepped off the plane in early November and the sun was shining. Oh, the horror!

We stashed our stuff at the vacation rental and dashed off in the direction of Holyrood Park. We waved hello to the Queen’s Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace, and continued on toward the massive rock behind it.

As we got closer, however, we saw that there were actually several peaks in Holyrood Park. We wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat, not Arthur’s footstool. We asked around but couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone. Since we didn’t have much daylight left, we gambled on the highest of the bunch and went for it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

All roads might lead to Rome, but only half of the footpaths in Holyrood Park lead to Arthur’s Seat. The most direct is from the east near Dunsapie Loch (more on that below). The kids scampered up the wide path until slippery rock slopes slowed them down. Little ones will (literally) need a hand to reach the top safely.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The summit at Arthur’s Seat.

Once we rounded the last craggy bend, we were rewarded with an astonishing panorama. From Arthur’s Seat (on a clear day, duh), one can see Portobello Beach, Meadowbank Stadium, Calton Hill, Waverly Station, Cramond Island, and even the amazing Firth of Forth Bridge.

Oh, right, and of course you could also see the city’s crown jewel, Edinburgh Castle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle is a must-see, and the views from the castle are (usually) wonderful. But, just as the best view in Paris is not from the Eiffel Tower itself, so the best view in Edinburgh is not from the castle. Well, at least not when it looks like this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

Completely fogged up view from Edinburgh Castle.

The wind at the top of Arthur’s Seat is somethin’ fierce, and the weather up there can change rapidly. Luckily, we had brought decent outdoor clothing, but we still shuddered in the waning afternoon sun that set the whole of Edinburgh ablaze in brilliant orange.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

When our eyes could take it no more, we picked our way carefully back down the same way we’d come just an hour earlier. We could’ve gone a different route back, but I wanted to see Dunsapie Loch.

A friend of mine that lived in Edinburgh for a year told me that this was her kids’ favorite spot. They’d often go to the loch to feed the swans. When we walked up, there were the swans, just as she said, floating under the pink clouds of sunset and guarded by a hilltop ruin that hovered over their watery home.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The swans of Dunsapie Loch, flocking to their next crusty handout.

Edinburgh, you were beginning to get to me. I actually started to imagine that was our family’s favorite spot. But then I pinched myself and sobered up – not all days in Edinburgh are as gorgeous as this one.

Honorable Mention – Calton Hill

While Arthur’s Seat was an easy walk from our vacation rental in Abbeyhill, it might be more of a bus ride for those staying closer to the city center. (Not that riding buses in Edinburgh is a problem – in fact, the city’s transportation system is excellent.) But if you’d like to take a stroll somewhere closer to the castle, say, then a mighty fine view can also be had from Calton Hill.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The view OF Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill.

Wind is a theme that can’t be shaken whenever one goes to great heights in Edinburgh. If you can keep the hair out of your mouth long enough to open your eyes, you’ll be treated to a closer view of Edinburgh Castle, the Firth of Forth, and Cramond Island.Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The climb up to Calton Hill is easier and less treacherous than the ascent to Arthur’s Seat. I think my boys enjoyed Calton Hill more because there’s plenty of space to run around without fear of toppling over a rocky cliff. Plus, there’s an old canon in the park which always makes for a good time in their book.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Where to Find the Best View with Your Kids in Edinburgh

The unfinished National Monument of Scotland in the park atop Calton Hill.

Whether you choose Calton, Arthur, or both is up to you – they’re both completely free and worth the physical effort required. Just consider yourself warned: the views from these summits are intoxicating. Brace yourself; you’re about to fall in love with Scotland, grey skies and all.

Do you love a good view? Would you rather pay for a panoramic view in physical exertion or paper money?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler series at Chasing the Donkey. Please head here to get the best of this week’s travel-related blog posts!

 

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

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

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

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

Ready for the recap?

In no particular order..

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

Cologne

Köln (Cologne)

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Keukenhof Gardens with Kids

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Flying away in Zadar, Croatia.

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mexican Food in Germany

The taco truck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking in the Alps with kids

Back in the Alps!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Berchtesgaden With Kids: Hiking Through the Almbachklamm

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsAfter such a strenuous day hiking around the Königssee, we decided to give our tired legs a rest and take it easy.  Apparently, I define easy as one hike instead of two, one half of the day instead of the whole (!).  The destination for our last day?  The Almbachklamm (Almbach Gorge) on the outskirts of Berchtesgaden proper.

In researching hikes in the area, I discovered that the meadow used in the opening scene of The Sound of Music was located nearby in the village of Ettenberg which is just above the gorge as the crow flies.

Okay, you can throw rotten tomatoes at me if you want, but I admit I love the film, The Sound of Music.  When Doc Sci and I visited Munich in 2005 BK (before kids), I insisted that we do the hokey movie tour in Salzburg.  It was, well, one of my favorite things.  Really!

To reach Ettenberg, one can either go by car up from the main road or on foot via a trail that begins at a marble mill (Kugelmühle) and meanders through the Almbachklamm.

I don’t think I have to tell you what route we chose.  An incredibly scenic hike that ends at the Julie Andrews meadow?  Sign. me. up.

The Gorge

For the bargain price of 3 euros per adult, we were granted entry into a water wonderland.  Crystal clear falls, one right after the other, cascading into pools of jade and turquoise.  With every twist, turn, and climb, we exhaled.. wow…

Often, in helping families craft itineraries, I find myself repeating, “keep your expectations rock bottom low.”  Well, whatever expectations I had for this hike, they were completely blasted to bits.  I couldn’t shut up about how surprised I was by this place.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Warning

Now, before you start packing your bags for Berchtesgaden, I need to tell you that this hike is tricky with tots and wild-at-heart children.  If your kids don’t sit, fetch, and roll over very well, you may very well turn into a nervous wreck on the path.

Some areas are enclosed with railings (see the title photo), but many are not.  The footpath is barely wide enough for two, and the dropoffs end in the river which just so happens to be racing intently toward a series of waterfalls.

Yikes.

But, if you can keep a leash on those whippersnappers, you’ll be rewarded with one jaw-dropping view after another.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

the Julie Andrews Meadow

To get to Ettenberg, one can either leave the Almbachklamm at bridge #17 or bridge #25.  We should’ve gone with 17, but I’m an overachiever and the thought of missing something amazing, say around 23, compelled me to march the troops on. Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsWe discovered a huge waterfall shortly after 17, but it would’ve been a better choice for our haggard limbs to simply turn around instead of continuing on.  If you want to tack on an extra hour to your hike, 25 is your number.

Climbing up from the floor of the gorge, we found ourselves in a wide open meadow surrounded by fall foliage.  Nestled in fog, we felt on top of the world. Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsBut as picturesque as it might have been, it was, ahem, most definitely not the Julie Andrews meadow.  Just between me and you, it makes for lovely photos and is quite convincing for those not in the know.

NOT the Julie Andrews meadow.

NOT the Julie Andrews meadow.

The real meadow as seen over the hedge which just so happens to hide an electric fence.  Boo.

The real meadow as seen over the hedge which just so happens to hide an electric fence. Boo.

The real meadow is next to the white and marigold Ettenberger Chapel, and it’s guarded by an electric fence and killer cow pies.  So take your fake photos before you reach the village.  Besides, there’s no one out there to hear you belt out, “The hills are alive!”  Not that I would know anything about that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsA mere ten paces from the church stands the Mesnerwirt Gasthaus where visitors can buy hot meals and cold, fresh buttermilk.  I wanted to taste the tart milk but not enough to wrangle boys around a restaurant.  The server offered to fill our water bottle, and voila!  Dairy to go.

We each sipped the thick liquid, wincing at the acid and the chill.  The boys enjoyed it more than we did and almost came to blows over the remains of 400ml.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Descent

Fortified by food and sour drink, we began our trek back to the car.  The way down the mountain from Ettenberg to the Kugelmühle (marble mill) is all steep steps and switchbacks.  Our legs quivered in protest as we descended, but soon enough we found ourselves back at the entrance to the Almbachklamm.

Hey, mama, there's our car!

Hey, mama, there’s our car!

Before piling in to the car, Doc Sci insisted we make a quick stop to see the marble mill in motion.  Remember those waterfalls at the beginning of the hike?  Well, they lead to a small, old mill.  The boys’ eyes followed the water, gurgling over the stones and leaving behind perfectly smooth spheres.

I zoned out when Doc Sci starting flinging physics terms around and meandered over to the souvenir hut.  Expert tip: Either bring loads of cash or don’t let your kids peruse the goods unless you enjoy a healthy dose of sticker shock.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with Kids

The Verdict

Experiencing the Almbachklamm is both simple and beautiful.  But beyond that, it’s one of the most unique paths we’ve explored.  You won’t find it on any foreign guidebook’s top ten list, but that makes it even more special since you’ll likely have the place to yourself.  In case you need me to spell it out, do not miss this hike!Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking the Almbachklamm in Berchtesgaden with KidsOther top notch outdoor attractions in Berchtesgaden to explore with kids: the Eagle’s Nest and the Königssee.Signature-Marigold

Berchtesgaden With Kids: Lake Königssee

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe next stop on our Berchtesgaden natural wonder tour?  The Königssee, a deep and fjord-like lake near the Austrian border.

In addition to the stunning mountain backdrop and mirror-like water, the lake is touted as Germany’s cleanest.  For those who enjoy a good arctic chill, swimming is permitted in most areas.  However, if you prefer to stay warm and dry, the only way to cross the clear waters is via electric or row boat.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

The battery-powered schooners ferry visitors to several ports: Seelände (Schönau), St. Bartholomä, Salet, and Kessel (on request).  Excellent hiking awaits the adventurous at each of these destinations; but if that’s not your thing, you can still stop off for coffee and cake or just a glass of fresh buttermilk.

Since we are wannabe hikers, we chose two paths to tackle in one day, the Ice Chapel (Eiskapelle) and the Röthbachfall (the highest waterfall in Germany.. for reals).

Spoiler alert: we definitely bit off more than we could chew.  If you’re in the company of short legs, stick to only one alpine excursion per day.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Boarding the boat at Schönau was a cinch, since we arrived early.  Lines increase as the day goes on, so get in early if you hate to wait.

The small electric ship putters its way to St. Bartholomä in about 45 minutes.  This is a long ride for little ones, so break out the snacks as soon as the skipper starts his speech.  Pause for a bit when he plays a tune on the trumpet to demonstrate the excellent echo present at the Königssee.  Heads up – the hat will be passed in a shameless request for tips.

The famous pilgrilms church at St. Bartholomä.

The famous pilgrimage church at St. Bartholomä.

Arriving at St. Bartholomä, it’s tempting to snap photos with the onion-domed church.  But the day is short and the hikes are long, so hit the trails first.Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe Ice Chapel route starts out in the forest; our view that day was tinged with autumn.  Scarlet here, a hint of gold there.  Most impressive, though, was the looming presence of the Watzmann – a rugged, lavender mountain face gently kissed with lime.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

Not far after happening upon a small white church (see photo), the “easy” blue trail turns challenging with plenty of rocks to scramble over and an incline that’ll have you huffing and puffing.  In case you’re wondering, this is not a job for Nike or Puma.

Let's name this one "NOT the Ice Chapel."

Let’s name this one “NOT the Ice Chapel.”

The Eiskapelle is formed by avalanches in the spring that pile snow in a corner of the valley.  When the weather warms, the bottom of the pile melts, leaving a giant hole in the ice that some say looks like the entrance to a chapel.  However, the entrance is all you’ll see, because extreme danger and the possibility of death are the only rewards for those who cross the threshold.

Unfortunately, we must have missed the glory days of the 2013 snow church.  After crossing the most challenging terrain of the hike (the path switches to red once you reach the valley), we realized that only a rotten patch of snow remained where the chapel should have been.

Ah, well, it was still a splendid place for a picnic, if I do say so myself.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

My mountain man.

Doc Sci, my mountain man.  Btw, this little rock is taller than he is.. and there’s a baby on his back.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

We picked our way back over the rocks and down the mountain trail to the dock where we waited only 10 minutes for the next boat to Salet.  It’s only possible to visit Salet from the end of April to mid-October, and I highly recommend timing your trip to occur between these months.

The cows at Salet.

The cows at Salet.

Upon arriving at Salet, the last stop on the Königssee boat route, an alpine fairy tale awaits.  The air is quiet, crisp.  The mountains keep a stern watch over the glassy sea.  Cows amble about as they graze, their tinkling bells breaking the silence.

But your dream world comes crashing down all around you once you realize those aren’t mounds of mud your kids are stepping in…

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Seriously, watch the poop.  It’s somethin’ fierce.

Once in Salet, anyone and everyone strolls past the cafe and hokey souvenir hut and on toward the picturesque Obersee.  This small lake will have you oohing and ahhing at how the water mirrors the majestic jewel tones of the surrounding peaks.

Don’t be fooled by the guidebooks that tell you the Obersee is a quiet respite.  Since the path is so easy (prams are ok), those picture perfect photographs will be crowded with fellow tourists.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

To reach the second destination of the day (Röthbachfall on the far side of the Obersee), follow the signs to Fischunkelalm.  The route seems easy enough at first, but check your pram at the livestock gate because things are about to get seriously steep.

Step by step, we scaled the rock stairs but with bated breath.  With each slippery stone, I fretted about falling, but it was too late to turn back.  We were halfway up, and turning around would be difficult with two-way foot traffic on the narrow, chiseled path.

In hindsight, we should’ve just admired the Obersee and ditched our record-breaking waterfall aspirations.  It was the end of the day: feet tired, legs sore, protests a plenty.  But, we really didn’t think.  We just put one foot in front of the other.

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm.  Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they're out of everything you had any desire to order.  I'm not bitter... really..

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm. Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they’re out of everything you had any desire to order. I’m not bitter… really..

I'm not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway...

I’m not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway…  Is that Schnapps on the counter?!

Once we reached the little hut at Fischunkelalm, we still had to cross another meadow teeming with gaseous bovines and steaming landmines.  But, suddenly the towering rock face appeared and, wait, oh, yep, sure enough, that pathetic trickle that’s barely more than a leaky faucet is the Röthbachfall.

Yeehaw.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

As I’m sure is blaringly obvious to you, these two hikes were more than our boys could really handle in one day.  Going in, I thought with enough food, breaks, and “boy stuff” (sticks, boats, cows, mounds of poo) we could make it happen.  In all honesty, we should’ve picked a favorite and gone with only one strenuous hike. 

Aye, but there’s the rub.  Choosing a favorite.  Perhaps if I had known in advance that the Ice Chapel had evaporated into thin air or that the highest waterfall in Germany was a dribble instead of a downpour… Eh, if I could do it over again, I really don’t know what we would’ve changed.

Okay, the tantrums.  I would’ve erased those.  But the rest of the day was.. epic.

Just one more shot...

Just one last look…

The looming peaks, the glassy water, the luscious meadows, the golden leaves, the enchanting fog.. the Königssee is one of the most impressive natural spectacles I have ever seen.  Whether you muscle your way up the trails or just mosey along around the ports of St. Bartholomä and Salet, an excursion the Königssee is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsPractical Tips for visiting the Königssee with kids:

  • Do NOT forget your camera!!  The area is gorgeous, even in the rain and fog.
  • If you’re staying at a Berchtesgaden area hotel, don’t forget your guest card!  It’s good for public transportation in the area as well as discounts on parking at the Königssee / Jennerbahn lot and on tickets for the Königssee boat.
  • A quick note about Jennerbahn… the view from the top is almost the same view as from the Eagle’s Nest / Kehlsteinhaus, so do one or the other (although there are trails around Jennerbahn that will obviously give you different views).
  • Decide in advance if you want to go to Salet or just St. Bartholomä.  It’s not possible to extend your ticket to Salet once you’ve reached St. Bartholomä.
  • Sit on the right hand side of the boat next to a window that slides open for the best photographs.
  • Prams are possible on the boat and at the area around the church at St. Bartholomä.  You can also push a pram from Salet to the Obersee.  Anything beyond that requires a backpack carrier.
  • Public restrooms and fresh water fountains can be found at both of the ports.
  • If you don’t want to take the boat, follow the signs from the docks at Seelände to Malerwinkel, a family-friendly trail with excellent views of the lake.

More Berchtesgaden!  The Eagle’s Nest and the Almbachklamm gorge.

Signature-Marigold

Hiking with Kids: The Ravennaschulucht

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtI see looooooads of hiking in our family’s future.  Exploring nature – hopping over streams, listening to rushing rivers, searching for perfect walking sticks – is something every one of us enjoys.. well, except Big Foot.

He’s generally grumpy because he has to be bolted into a backpack whenever we wander about.  But I have hope that he’ll come ’round when his legs are strong enough to carry him and his will is soft enough to decide that listening and following directions really wouldn’t be so. incredibly. awful.

We’re rather fortunate to find ourselves within an easy drive of the Black Forest  in Germany which just so happens to be chock full of trails and adventures suitable for little ones.  My friend Nancy (hi, Nancy!) lent me an ADAC book on hiking in the Schwarzwald with kids (this one, if you’re interested) and insisted we take on the Ravennaschlucht.

The Ravennaschlucht is a wild and romantic gorge with a stream and several waterfalls chasing through it.  As if that wasn’t enough of a draw, the ADAC itinerary tacks on other attractions including several saw mills and a glass blowing studio… all in less than 8km.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtFancy a go at the gorge yourself?  Well, grab your trusty boots, and come along!

We followed the route set forth in the guide, starting out at Hinterzarten.  I balked at paying for parking at the train station, so we drove a bit further along Alpersbacher Str. where we discovered a free parking lot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As you walk along Löffeltalweg, you won’t be able to ignore the swelling sound of rushing water.  The Rotbach stream was used to power several saw mills located along the footpath.  My boys were in awe of the gigantic blades and completely confused as to how prickly, uneven logs turned into perfectly flat boards despite Doc Sci’s best efforts to explain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtLeaving the mills, you’ll be treated to a series of waterfalls, several close enough to touch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtSoon you’ll have to make a choice – continue on or face the B31.  I wasn’t sure how we’d cross three lanes of whizzing traffic on the “Hell’s Valley” highway.  Fortunately, my worries were needless – a tunnel for hikers and bikers had been constructed underneath the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtNext stop – the Hofgut Sternen, a small village composed of a hotel, restaurant, a large glockenspiel, and a glass blowing studio (with a gift shop, of course).  Scarf down a snack or two here, because the path through the gorge doesn’t offer many places for pit stops.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtAfter everyone is fully hydrated, have a look at the artist fashioning everything from vases to earrings to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments from the blazing hot and stringy glass.  I should mention that only well-behaved or independently wealthy children should enter the shop… Everything is within reach of the curious and clumsy.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMake your way to the Ravennaviadukt, an imposing railway bridge that marks the entrance to the gorge.

Once you climb up the first set of steps, you’re in hand-holding territory.  Though I never felt unsafe, some parts of the path can be rather dicey with steep drop-offs and thinly railed bridges.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As we hiked higher and higher, I couldn’t help but wonder when the gorge was going to end.  I don’t like being lost, and the ADAC guide only mentioned that the path would end.  Not when or how or where.

When the trail finally did terminate, I was even more surprised at the lack of information.  You’ll know you’re at the end of the gorge when a lovely biergarten with a playground appears.  I guess this is so German that the writer didn’t think to include it!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtCarrying on, we made our way back to the ferocious B31 and, again, crossed underneath it.  We found ourselves in the company of some lovely cows on the grounds of the Birklehof boarding school.  Once you see the onion dome, take a quick detour around the back of the building.  There you’ll find a fantastic playground and fire pit.

We ended the day with cookies in the car as a reward for excellent little boy behavior.  Hooray!

If you’d like to hike Ravennaschlucht yourself, I’d like to suggest a few variations from the ADAC itinerary:

  • If you have a car, park at the Hofgut Sternen and start your hike from there.  You won’t have to pay for parking near the Hinterzarten train station, and more lunch options will be available in town.
  • If you only want to hike the gorge, I’d again recommend parking at the Hofgut Sternen.  Keep in mind that you will have to double back.  This would be a good option for the littlest of legs.
  • However, if public transportation is how you’ll be traveling, then the only option is to begin and end at the train station.
  • Consider hiking the reverse of the order I’ve mentioned here.  You’ll be walking downhill instead of uphill through the steepest part of the gorge.  The slope near the saw mills is rather gentle in comparison.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMore family-friendly places to explore in the Schwarzwald area of Germany – Triberg, Kastelburg, Staufen, Steinwasen Park and Schauinsland (from our first month here – four years ago!).

How about you?  Been on any good hikes lately?  Are they within driving distance of southwest Germany? 🙂Signature-Marigold

Swimming in the Ligurian Sea and Taking in the Cinque Terre

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsAhhhh, the Cinque Terre.  If you’re a Rick Steves fan, you’ve probably heard of this place.  I find it rather ironic that the man that makes a living selling guides to Europe’s back doors has opened the floodgates for the Cinque Terre.

Not that I have anything against Rick Steves – just sayin’.

Rugged and breathtaking, these five villages cling to the rocky hillsides and offer an eye-popping welcome to the jewel-toned Ligurian Sea below. The “five lands” of the Cinque Terre include Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.

You’d be hard-pressed to visit all five in one day; you really need more than an hour or two in each to savor the sights and soak in the sea.  We made it three, and that was overdoing it.

The towns are virtually inaccessible by car.  Visitors must arm themselves with hiking boots and railway timetables, or fight for top-deck real estate on the ferry.

Unfortunately, flooding and landslides in late 2011 severely damaged some of the footpaths between villages.  The two easiest and safest walking routes for families (Riomaggiore – Manarola and Manarola – Corniglia) were still closed during our visit in August 2013.  To save time, we opted to travel by train.

Word to the wise – avoid the Cinque Terre in August if at all possible!  Trains were packed tighter than Moscow subway cars at rush hour.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with Kids

First stop – Riomaggiore.  I found this “land” rather touristy, and we encountered mostly foreigners here.  When you get off the train, and head to your right through the tunnel with the blue plastic roof.  You’ll find shops and a quaint harbor on the other side.

Manarola

Manarola

We spent the better part of our day in Manarola at the rocky harbor.  We aren’t beach people, so the idea of sea without sand was rather attractive.  The area surrounding the water was filled with Italians of all ages and shapes working on their tans.  We plunked our junk on the concrete, staked out an area with beach towels, and headed in to the water.

I had previously read (probably in a TripAdvisor forum) that some tourists enjoyed watching the children swim in the Manarola harbor.  “Children” must have meant “teens” because unless your kids are fantastic swimmers or have rafts, they aren’t going to venture out into the deep and rocky harbor.Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsThese crazy cats were jumping from the cliffs into the water below!

These crazy cats were jumping from the cliffs into the water below!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsBig Foot didn’t mind the gentle waves as long as he was safe in his daddy’s arms.  My older boys, however, were uncomfortable with the pull of the tide and the depth of the water.  After struggling to gain their trust for the better part of half an hour, we finally gave up trying to get them to face their fears and fed them lunch instead.

After a hearty picnic, we walked toward Corniglia in hopes that the path had miraculously reopened (it hadn’t).  We did, however, catch a glimpse of the next town and discover a playground with an excellent view of Manarola.  You can also find bathrooms and shaded picnic tables here.

The playground at Manarola.

The playground at Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

As I watched the swimmers and sunbathers from above, I decided I‘d rather swim without the boys than allow their fears to tie me to regret.  As we ventured back to another area of the harbor (calmer albeit deeper water), I coaxed T-Rex into giving the sea another go, and by the end of the afternoon I had both boys in the water.  Yay!

Here's where we ended up swimming.

Here’s where we ended up swimming.

If you plan on taking a dip at Manarola, I’d highly recommend aqua socks.  There’s a high probability you’ll cut yourself on the jagged rocks getting in or out of the water.  If a traditional sandy beach is what you’re after, head to Monterosso instead.

After rinsing off in the free freshwater showers, we picked up a few slices of focaccia (try the local specialty – pesto) and elbowed our way onto the train to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

The middle “land” is different from the other four.  To get to Corniglia from the train station, one must either climb 365 steps or meander along an equally steep road.  We took the road up and the steps down.  Don’t do that.  The steps are more of a hike but a shorter overall distance.  I believe there’s also a bus option, but we (obviously) didn’t take it.Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsSince we popped in at the end of the day, we were too tired to really appreciate much of Corniglia’s charm.  It is noticeably quieter than Riomaggiore and Manarola, the shops quainter, the restaurants cozier.  From the edge of Corniglia, you can just make out Monterosso to the right and Manarola to the left as you face the sea.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

Beat from the masses and the heat, we headed back to La Spezia where we had left our car in the free parking lot (Piazza d’Armi) on the west side of town.  From the parking lot, it’s an easy ten minute walk to the train station.  If you need to grab some snacks, there’s a supermarket on your right as you cross Viale Giovanni Amendola.

Some Italians prefer to park in Levanto because getting in and out of La Spezia is a real pain in the you-know-what.  In addition to the volume of traffic because of the port, much of the main road has no lane markers which means it is either 1 or 2 in each direction, depending on how drivers feel at the moment.

Until next time...

Until next time…

Despite the crowds and traffic, we absolutely loved our day in the Cinque Terre.  I look forward to our next visit when we can hit up Vernazza and Monterosso.  Until then, ciao!

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-MarigoldI’m linking this post on the Cinque Terre up to the #sundaytraveler. Don’t miss a great mess of posts from the hosts and other travel bloggers. You can find this week’s links here.