Snapshot: The Swiss Castles of Bellinzona with Kids

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

Never heard of it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castelgrande

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the Sasso Corbaro up there?

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

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

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

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

Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey

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

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

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

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

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

The Gist

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

The winding way up…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Stop to catch your breath…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

Storm the castle!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

I was doing this…

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: Vaduz, Liechtenstein with Kids

…while the boys were doing this.

One Last Look

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

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

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

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

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

Mishaps: Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian Adventure

Thrifty Travel Mama | Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian AdventureOkay, this is my LAST Italy post, and then I’ll shut up… promise!

When I post personal vacation pictures from our travels, I often get comments about how great it is that we travel the world.  And it is…. and, it’s not.

We are so, SO blessed to have this experience.  It’s awesome to pack up the kids and head to Italy for two weeks.  However, I just want to bring things down to earth, and share some of the utter chaos that often accompanies us when traveling as a family.

What follows is a short recap of our mishaps – the Italian edition.

Saturday… 330am

We wake the kids up in the middle of the night in order to knock out several hours of driving while they sleep.  We discover that Big Foot has a massive squidgy poo in his pants.  Annoying, but this is life with a baby, right?
Somewhere between Basel and the infamous Gotthard Tunnel, the poor thing has another blowout.  This one is even more epic and reminiscent of the early infant days, creeping its way up all over every possible surface within a six inch radius, including his car seat that conveniently does not have a washable cover…
And we wondered why he only slept about ten minutes of the first 3 hours of driving.  Huh.

Saturday… 330pm

By this time, we have been sitting in standstill traffic on the Italian highway for nearly three hours longer than expected.  We can’t exit the highway because the rest stops are clogged with other travelers escaping the eternal gridlock, and we are about to go bonkers listening to the bored boys in the backseat… screaming, crying, fighting, tired.

Saturday… 830pm

We realize that due to the morning’s unforeseen fecal fiasco, we seem to have forgotten the older boys’ stuffed animals that they sleep with every night.

Sunday

Screech is playing in the yard in front of our villa, being creative with the available materials.  He pretends the gravel is chicken and stuffs it in the stone grill.  He rips the unripe pears off the tree and uses them to bomb the “bad guys.”
He then picks up a terra cotta vase that is used to decorate the yard.  As I warn him not to use the (ancient? irreplaceable? collectible?) artifact,  he promptly drops it like a hot potato and laughs as it smashes to bits.  There goes our security deposit…

Monday

In Siena, T-Rex tumbles head first down a flight of stone steps.  He lands on his face, bruising his nose and knocking three front teeth loose.  I have nothing more to say on this since I’m still *slightly* traumatized.

Tuesday

Doc Sci tries to hop onto the swing where I am sitting on the playground just outside Pienza, and splits the front of his one good pair of shorts wide open.  Daily photo ops are now over.
Later that evening, I am doing cartwheels with T-Rex in the front yard when I accidentally kick him square in the mouth, in the exact spot where he had injured his teeth the day before… I could not have aimed more perfectly if I’d tried.

Friday

The boys have managed to break half of the pool toys we brought along, including two brand new super squirters.  In just a few more days, they will have managed to reduce every last pool toy – literally – to pieces.

Saturday

Despite our harrowing experience the previous Saturday, we decide to risk taking the highway for a short distance between Chianti and a pit stop near Pistoia.  We have not learned our lesson… and endure an unnecessary hour in standstill traffic.

Monday

I leave my brain by the pool instead of taking it with me to Firenze.  I grab the wrong paper map, fail to pre-load my “Tuscany with Kids” Google map on my phone, and forget the Frommers guidebook in the car.
We know our way to Brunelleschi’s Dome.. but after that?  No clue.  We wasted hours (hours!!) looking for a wifi spot in order to revive the map and trip notes on my phone.
I could go on, but you get the idea.  Life with kids is unpredictable and wonky in the best of circumstances; traveling with them just takes the pandemonium up a notch (or ten).
May our mishaps serve as the catalyst to bring contentment to the place you’re currently at (traveling or not) and anchor your dreams to reality (traveling with kids is only done by crazy people).
Got any good traveling-with-kids horror stories?  I’d love to hear them in the comments below!Signature-Marigold

Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly? The Good, The Bad, and 3 Ideas to Engage Little Travelers

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?If you’ve been hanging out around here for the past month or so, you’ve been inundated with posts describing our adventures in Tuscany.  Perhaps you’ve been inspired to make your own Italian memories in the near future.  But, wait – will the little ones even like it?

Is Tuscany kid-friendly?  The simple answer is yes.. and, at the same time, no.

This region of Italy offers many exciting things for kidscastles, knights, bikes, and hikes – in addition to the awesome food.  What kid doesn’t like pasta, pizza, and gelato?  And, to be fair, there are a few attractions aimed at kids (here’s a handy list).

But, logistically speaking, Tuscany is a parental nightmare. DSC_0187Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?A few examples of what you might experience in Tuscany with kids in tow:

  • Pushing a pram here is utter insanity.  Streets are incredibly steep, sidewalks nonexistent, and often a set of stairs is the only way up or down to an attraction.
  • Safety.  Streets, even “pedestrianized” ones, can be dangerous for little ones.  Vehicles zoom by, and often leave you with only a few inches of room to tiptoe along.
  • Bathrooms.  Facilities are hard to come by, and often cost money (up to 1 euro per visit!).  Some towns only have squatty potties… which are super fun when your child needs to go #2 and there’s no other toilet around… not that I know what that is like or anything…
  • Changing tables.  I only remember two places that had such a luxury; both were in Firenze (Coin on Via dei Calzaiuoli and the former Prenatal store on Via De Brunelleschi if you’re interested).
  • Diapers, wipes, and baby food.  Expect to pay premium prices on a very limited selection of products.
  • Kids meals.  What are those?  You’ll only find these novelties at overpriced touristy restaurants that usually don’t offer authentic cuisine.  The same goes for high chairs.
  • Museums.  Tuscany is FULL of no-touch art and history.

Are you welcome to bring your kids along almost anywhere you go in Tuscany?  Yes!  Italians are not annoyed by or hostile toward children.  You won’t be shooed or shunned.  After all, their culture places a high emphasis on family.

However, you will have your work cut out for you.  Just because you can bring your kids, doesn’t mean they’ll want to go everywhere you do.  Plan your itinerary carefully (check out my tips here), and give lengthy consideration to the personalities, needs, and interests of your particular children, even more than usual.

If you need help, ask lots of questions on TripAdvisor, and mine the Frommer’s Tuscany, Umbria, & Florence With Your Family guidebook for helpful hints.Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?Here are three things that helped to keep my boys happy in the humdrum and make our travels more interactive:

  1. Binoculars.  Thanks an obscure comment in the Frommer’s guidebook, I purchased inexpensive binoculars from Amazon.de in advance.  I presented them to the boys during the long car ride from Germany; the newness and fascination held their interest for hours.  I then encouraged the boys to use their trusty field glasses inside churches, at museums, and when surveying the landscape at various panoramic points.
  2. Digital Cameras.  We have an old, somewhat-busted Canon Elph that has become the kids’ camera.  It still takes pictures, but it’s not reliable enough for me to use anymore.  Just giving the young ‘uns something to do while you walk through yet another hill town is priceless. Arrows Sent Forth has a great post on turning your kids loose with an old digital camera.
  3. Journaling.  Almost every evening, we asked the boys to tell us their highlights from the days’ activities.  I made notes, and I also asked them to use Travel Turtle’s Free Printable Journal Page.  They really enjoyed being part of our nightly discussion and making something to preserve their memories of Italy.  Also check out Travel Turtle’s journaling prompts for kiddos and adults as well as how to make your own journal.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?With a good measure of forethought, you CAN have a wonderful family holiday in Italy.  Just don’t, uh, wing it.

For an insider perspective on the question of whether or not Tuscany is kid-friendly, check out what At Home in Tuscany has to say.

All right, your turn – I want to hear from you!  Have you taken your kids to Tuscany?  Why or why not?  If you haven’t been yet, would this be a place you’d want to visit as a family?Signature-Marigold

GIVEAWAY (Closed): Win an Italian Not-Exactly-Coffee Break!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyUpdate: Giveaway is now closed.

Can’t make it to Italy any time soon, but want to try some Italian supermarket souvenirs I’m giving away an Italian not-exactly-coffee break! 

Here’s what’s inside:

  • Orzo Bimbo – A caffeine-free coffee alternative packaged in a container sure to make you chuckle every time you open your cabinet. (more on orzo here)
  • Ghiottini Cantucci – Authentic Tuscan biscotti, made in Firenze.
  • Ritter Sport Espresso Chocolate – From Germany, but Italian-inspired!

And here’s how to enterone entry per email address (required):

  1. Click over to Our Tuscan Family Adventure post, and pick which item on our Italian bucket list you enjoyed the most.
  2. Then come back here, and leave a comment telling me which post was your favorite and why.
  3. You must leave a comment on THIS post; comments on the Tuscan Family Adventure post will NOT count!!

Extra entries – may be earned once per day:

  • Facebook – Share the giveaway on your timeline, and then come back here and leave a comment letting me know you did so.  (If you haven’t liked TTM on Facebook yet, now would be a good time to do that!)
  • Twitter – Tweet about the giveaway, and then come back here, and leave a comment letting me know you did so.
  • Pinterest – Pin your favorite image from the post you chose from Our Tuscan Adventure.  Then come back here, and leave a comment letting me know you did so.
  • Tag – Make sure to use @T_Travel_Mama and #tuscancoffeebreak where applicable!

Other fine print:

Contest ends on Friday, October 11, at 6pm EST.  A winner will be chosen at random and notified via email within 48 hours.  Winners must claim their prize within five days, or a new winner will be chosen.  Contest open to readers worldwide. Giveaway sponsored by Thrifty Travel Mama.

Good luck!!

Congratulations to Manda – look for an email from me soon 🙂

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Italian Supermarket Souvenirs… and a GIVEAWAY!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyHowdy there, and happy Monday!  Today I’m sharing some fun souvenir ideas that can be found in Italian supermarkets.  If you’re headed to Italy any time soon, you’ll want to make some notes.

But, even if you won’t be able to wander the aisles of the local supermercado in person, I’ve done a little shopping for you, and I’m giving a supermarket souvenir prize pack away to one lucky reader!  A link to the giveaway is located at the end of this post.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyLet’s start with the obvious – pasta.  An Italian grocery store is full of all kinds of great noodle shapes in various sizes.  I wouldn’t suggest wasting luggage weight on plain ol’ penne, so look for something that’s made regionally, such as pici.  If you peek in the kiddie aisle, you’ll notice several types of pasta made just for babies and toddlers!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyThrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyYou’ll need to dress up those carbs somehow, and you’ll find an assortment of gourmet pasta sauces in the next aisle.  But remember, most Italians make their own (and you can too!), so you may be better off carting home a few tins of San Marzano tomatoes.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyAnd, while we’re on the subject of making your own, find the flour aisle and look for Farina Tipo 00.  This is one of the two kinds of flour that Italians use to make pasta and pizza (the other is semolina, but I wouldn’t bother making room for it in your luggage since it’s more readily available outside of Italy).  For a fun gift idea, pick up a pizza dough mix like the one above and an Italian-style rolling pin.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyMmmmmm, cheese!  Okay, this isn’t going to make it home in your suitcase, but I highly recommend trying some Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese.  I must warn you, however, that it’s not cheap.  Doc Sci found this big block with major sticker shock – 82 euros!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyLet’s talk liquids.  Realistically, you won’t be lugging any five-liter bottles of olive oil home in your checked luggage.  But, if you’re driving or are able to wrap up a smaller bottle carefully, I’d highly recommend purchasing a bit of true Italian extra virgin olive oil.  Olives in tins are a bit more manageable for air travel.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyI’m sure I don’t even have to mention that it’s imperative to give the local wines a try.  If you can’t cart any home, just share a bottle in your hotel room.  If you’re clueless about wine like I am, look for a bottle that bears the name of a hill town you’ve explored.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyGood quality balsamic vinegar comes with a hefty price tag.  But the bottles are small, pretty, and make excellent gifts.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyMoving on to sweets… These Pan di Stelle cookies were a big hit with our family.  If chocolate star cookies with sprinkles aren’t your thing, you’ll still find something tasty to try.  The cookie aisle is as big as the pasta aisle!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyPizelles are a type of Italian cookie – crispy, paper thin, and flavored with anise.  These snappy suckers are addicting.  Check the bakery for a fresh batch!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyNever heard of pizelles?  Don’t worry, you’re probably more familiar with biscotti (or cantucci as they’re known in Tuscany).  The most traditional type is made with almonds, but the chocolate chunk variety is delicious as well.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyNeed some coffee to go with all those cookies?  Pick up some espresso powder, or try orzo.  Wait, whaaaaat is that?  It’s a hot drink made from toasted barley that Italians often serve to their children since it contains no caffeine.  Some orzo can be made like coffee or espresso (in a machine or with a filter).  Other types are instant (look for solubile).  Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyIf you’re staying in a villa or vacation rental, grab a few pints of the local gelato and throw a tasting party.  Fancy schmancy toppings can be found near the ice cream in the freezer section and should make it all the way home without melting.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - ItalyIf five liters of olive oil just isn’t a realistic souvenir for you, check out the many olive oil products available.  Italians literally bathe in the stuff.  I’ve seen bar soap, hand soap, dish soap, body wash, lotion, etc. made with olive oil.  Just check to make sure you like the fragrance first!

And now for that giveaway I mentioned…

Can’t make it to Italy any time soon, but want to try some Italian supermarket souvenirs?  I’m giving away an Italian not-exactly-coffee break!  Click here for details. 

But first, let me know in the comments, what Italian supermarket souvenirs would you like to take home?

Signature-Marigold

Our Attempt to Experience the Famous Palio di Siena Horse Race

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsOutside of Tuscany aficionados or Italy insiders, few people have heard of the Palio di Siena.  I first read about it in my trusty Frommers family guidebook, and instantly thought it could be a fabulous, insane but authentic Sienese experience.  So, what the heck is it?

In a nutshell, the Palio di Siena is a horse race, held twice per year in the summer.  The bareback riders dash around the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo.  The contestants are decked out in colors and patterns representing one of the city’s seventeen districts.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Palio is a really big deal in Siena.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Two of the seventeen district flags.

Though I paid attention when the guidebook mentioned that taking small children is problematic in that crowds top 50,000 and getting to a toilet is nearly impossible.

But, a side note encouraged me in this crazy plan: “To experience the event for free, aim for the trial races, also held in the Campo.  It’s still busy but it’s bearable, at least for the morning sessions.”  Perfect.  We aimed to attend the 9am trial race on the 13th of August.

To get a feel for the city, I thought we might just want to visit Siena the day before the race and check things out.  You know, just in case…

As we approached the Campo, the first thing we noticed was that every entryway that led into the piazza from the surrounding streets was closed.  What the?!Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsAfter what seemed like at least a half an hour of searching, we stumbled upon the only open entrance which just happened to be right next to our first destination of the day – the iconic Torre del Mangia.  We noticed that the square was already set up for the race: bleachers erected, dirt track laid, metal barricades entrenched.

Lines for the tower can be incredibly long since only 25 people are allowed up at one time.   Lucky for us, we were definitely within the first group of 25.  Unlucky for us, we found ourselves standing around with the early birds for forty five minutes past the opening time of 10am.

Ready for the Palio di Siena

Ready for the Palio di Siena

When the boys went from restless to obnoxious, we started asking around.  The word on the street was that the horses had already practiced that morning, and the contenders had used the base of the tower as a stable.  Since tourists would hardly be impressed by the unsightly gifts left by the horses, someone had to sanitize the place.. and on Italian time.

No official explanation or apology, no “poop clearance in progress” sign on the door, no estimated time of completion.  When we had wasted an hour of our day in Siena, we finally gave up.

Next stop – a snack and then swings & a slide at the Orto Botanico.  Only it wasn’t open.  Chiuso per ferie.  Closed for the holidays.

Boo.  Hiss.

Determined to keep our chins up, we quickly popped in to the neighboring Museo di Storia Naturale to have a free look at a gigantic whale skeleton and make a pit stop.  Though seeing the big bones like that was totally rad, you have to admit that it’s rather pathetic when the best thing about your morning is a dead whale.

Museo di Storia Naturale

Museo di Storia Naturale

After a sandwich and a bit of gelato lifted our spirits, we took a deep breath and trudged on to face the crowds in the Piazza del Duomo.  The facade of the church is incredible.  I desperately wanted to see the inside, but I had to make a choice.

My boys weren’t going to put up with hours of art, and previous research told me that the Santa Maria della Scala was the more kid-friendly attraction.. Church or old-hospital-turned-museum?  The guidebook insisted on the latter, but my gut wanted to go with the former.

Research trumped momentary desire, and we shelled out 12 euros to enter the Santa Maria della Scala.  As promised in the promotional literature, there’s loads to see in this museum – art, science, religion, archeology, history – and it’s quiet.  The cycle of frescoes depicting medieval medical care is not to be missed, though my boys would argue the best part of the museum was the graffiti wall in the children’s area.

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

Santa Maria Della Scala

The Duomo

The Duomo

But just between you and me, I would’ve rather seen the inside of the Duomo.  Zebra stripes are intertwined with delicate pink marble to decorate a most stunning facade second only to the Duomo in Firenze.  Sigh.  If its this exquisite from the outside, I can only imagine the interior.

At this point, Big Foot decided to give up the fight and fall asleep (the poor kid still has not learned how to nap on the go) which meant we had to keep walking or risk waking him up.  Our route took us by the best gelateria in Siena, the Kopa Kabana.  I’m still dreaming about the Coca Cola gelato!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsBut even the awesome ice cream could not revive our spirits.  The heat bordered on unbearable, the narrow streets were clogged with fellow tourists, our feet ached, our boys whined, and we couldn’t shake our feelings of discouragement.  We had spent nearly an entire day in the city, and yet we had virtually no authentic Sienese experiences to show for it.

The great divide - sun and shade.

The great divide – sun and shade.

To make matters worse, my heart sank when I realized that the next day, the first day of the trial races, would only intensify our frustrations.  We’d have to endure swarming crowds and scorching sun while waiting hours for a 90-second thrill.

Sounds a bit like Disney, doesn’t it?

Dejected, we did what we could to salvage the day.  We sampled pizza and schiacciata and let the boys roam around a few playgrounds as well as the Fortezza.Thrifty Travel Mama | Siena with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Siena with Kids

But try as we may, we couldn’t catch a break.  At the very end of the day, we forced our tired legs down the stairs of the Fortezza in the direction of our car.  T-Rex stumbled, tripped, and fell face down on the stone steps.  The poor guy landed – smack – on his face.  Blood everywhere.  Three loose teeth.  Massive freak out.

Thank God, he’s fine.  The teeth weren’t broken, and they’ve been hanging on for over six weeks now.

Oh, Siena, I desperately wanted to like you.  But the stars were stacked against you, my friend, and things just did. not. work. out.  I hope we’ll meet again another time, in another season, and things will be different.

If you’re just joining us now for Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series, you might think we had a really awful time in Tuscany.  No, no, no!  Click on the link to read some of our other (awesome) adventures.

Okay, your turn!  Have you been to Siena?  Did you have a beautiful experience, or a rough go like we did? Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: Visiting the Museo Leonardo in Vinci

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe little town of Vinci would probably never have made an appearance on anyone’s travel bucket list if it weren’t for two guys – one named Leonardo and the other Dan Brown.  Now that the Da Vinci Code craze has died down, nerdy travel can resume.  This blip on the map offers a must-see museum for visiting geeks and their families.  But don’t just take my word for it… Consider the following testimonials:

“The museum was so cool!  There were guns and machines and lots of buttons to press.”  T-Rex, age 5

Okay, that was only one, and it came from my own kid, but whatever.  This place rocks.   

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe Museo Leonardo is split into two different sections, the new one (2004) and the old one.  Both sections are full of models based on Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.  Many of these works are merely sketches of concepts, so the majority of exhibits in the museum are other people’s interpretations and renderings of his ideas in 3D.

Visitors begin their time at the Museo Leonardo in the new building.  Tickets are purchased here, and pit stops can be made downstairs.  This section has lots of cranes and looming machines.  Most of the models are miniaturized versions, but a few were full size. The cranes certainly held the most appeal for the under-10 crowd.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyBy the way, photography is not allowed inside of the museum, but I took a few photos before realizing this fact.  Doh!

One full-size machine for flattening gold (basically a big hammer) was a physics lesson waiting to happen.  T-Rex was able to figure out how it worked and what its purpose was based on my descriptions of other machines.

Yes, a proud moment indeed for this nerdy dad…Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe area between buildings is decked out with Leo-inspired art.  This would be a good place to stop for a snack in hopes of bribing uninterested children and bored-to-tears spouses to continue on to the next building.  More great geeky stuff awaits…

The old building features all of the da Vinci-designed guns and cannons.  T-Rex loved this section, as you probably could tell from his quote above.  Following the ka-boom exhibit, we explored my favorite area which displayed his flying machines and his engineering sketches (wheels, gears, etc).  Full disclosure: T-Rex could have cared less about the intensely nerdy stuff.

Stay with me, because you’ll want to see the far-out features on the upper level of the old building.  Don’t miss the bike, boat, and underwater breathing apparatus.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalyThe crown jewel of the old building is the optics section.  This area was an instant hit with my son since it was interactive (much of the museum is no-touch).  I won’t go in to a lot of detail because I should leave something for you to discover when you visit yourself.

But, I will mention that the two main concepts the exhibit tried to teach were reflection/refraction and perspective.  Honestly, this was a little over my five year-old’s head, but he still had a blast just playing and pushing buttons while I pored over every detail.

At the end of the visit, you can climb the tower for a panoramic view (120 steps – no prams or claustrophobics).  Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad: Museo Leonardo in Vinci, ItalySo, I know you want to ask… would non-nerds like it?  I would say yes, and here’s why.  Beyond the science and math, the exhibits describe a lot of history with a touch of art thrown in here and there.  Humanities-minded visitors will appreciate just how ingenious Leonardo’s work was for his time.

And even if you don’t understand the machines, inventions, ideas and how they work, they’re still just downright cool.  The real takeaway from this museum to discuss with your kids is the value and power of innovative ideas.

Before I say ciao, here are a few practical details that my wife makes me include:

  • Ticket prices were 7 euros for adults, and kids under 6 were free.  If you wanted to see Leonardo da Vinci’s house, the combo ticket cost 8 euros for adults.
  • All exhibits were in Italian, but the staff provides English pamphlets in the rooms to help you understand what you’re seeing.  I noticed German and Spanish versions as well.
  • We spent 2 1/2 hours at the Museo Leonardo – I could’ve spent 4 and T-Rex could’ve spent 1.  Plan your visit accordingly.
  • The museum is wheelchair accessible, so it would also be suitable to bring a stroller.  But, make it a small one as space in the old building is rather cramped.
  • There’s NO museum gift shop, and this is a real shame.  Bring snacks, and look for souvenirs online.
  • The town of Vinci is located about 45 minutes south of the A11 (exit Pistoia).
  • The SP9 road to reach Vinci was horrific; my understanding is that the SP16 + SP123 roads are slightly better.   The route winds back and forth and might make your kids car sick.  However, if you can stomach the hairpin turns, the views are gorgeous.

Many thanks to Doc Sci for posting today!  Now, over to you – would you take your kids to the Museo Leonardo in Vinci?  Why or why not?  Signature-Marigold

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!

Cruising the Chiantigiana.. and A Lousy Time in Greve

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsBeyond the food and wine, Tuscany is known for its unbeatable landscapes.  The Chianti region especially is famous for its picturesque little villages and rolling vineyards.  Since we had a car at our disposal, I wanted to make time for a classic drive on the Chiantigiana, also known as the SS222, between Castellini and Greve.

I couldn’t wait to burn up my camera with gorgeous images.  I had an idea in my mind of what we’d see, how perfect it would look, and where I would hang the lovely prints in my home.

Bahahaha! 

Someone please check my head please, because I must have forgotten reality.  Here’s a reminder (ahem, mostly for myself) – traveling with kids is never perfect, and things rarely turn out in the way you expect.

And that’s the heart of it, really.. expectations.  Keep them low, and you will often be amazed.  Set them high, and prepare for disappointment.

On the day of our wandering through Chianti, we had a late check out from our villa near Lucignano and at least six hours to kill before we could check in near Pistoia.  I made sure the boys had lots of snacks to ward off the where-are-we-going?-are-we-there-yet?-this-is-SO-boring broken record.

After getting turned around a few times, we made a left onto the infamous road.  I could hardly wait!  But, wait I did.  And wait, and wait some more.  My framed print never went from dream to reality.Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIn some places, the trees along the road were so thick, one couldn’t see the beauty beyond.  In other places, the sun beat down in such a way that the light was too harsh to capture anything worth remembering.  Not only that, the road was dangerously narrow and offered very few places to pull over.

And try as we may, we could not find this postcard picture.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsAs if that weren’t enough, Big Foot didn’t feel like napping; instead, he decided screaming would be a more exciting way to pass the time.  We gave up gallivanting about, and parked in Greve.

Allllll the guidebooks tell you how charming Greve is.  And maybe they’re right.. except on Saturday mornings in August.

The main piazza was drowning in vendors and visitors.  Yes, the produce was gorgeous.  Yes, the cheese stunk to high heaven.  Yes, the shops were quaint.  But, it was difficult to enjoy the experience while suffocating from all the hype.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsThrifty Travel Mama - Chianti with KidsIt’s hard to love a place when you’re being burnt to a crisp under the scorching sun, you can’t find a bathroom, and you pay through the nose for ice cream that’s worse than Walmart brand.

Even the punto panoramico was lame, and I’m always a sucker for a nice view.

Gah – what bum luck.

Well, am I saying that you should skip Chianti in general and Greve in particular?  Not exactly.  Everyone’s tastes are different, and you might visit on a Tuesday in May and love it to pieces.  Perhaps it’s magical at sunset when the light is softer and you’re not slathered in sunscreen.

Or maybe you’re super extroverted and savor being lost in a crowd.. in which case, what are you doing in backwoods Greve?  Get thee to Florence!

As long as you remember to keep your expectations low (hello, note to self!) and focus on what’s really important (time together as a family, for starters), you’ll always make memories… no matter where you go.

Your turn – have you gone wild with anticipation before traveling to a particular place?  What did you learn from the experience?Signature-MarigoldThis 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!

Tips For a Cheesy Leaning Tower of Pisa Family Photo

Thrifty Travel Mama - Leaning Tower of Pisa with KidsAs I mentioned in my Tuscan Hill Towns post, Italy offers so many options – and traveling families have so little time!  I’m sure Pisa is an intriguing city, full of nooks and crannies to explore.  But sometimes, you just have to snap a photo and move on.

We did our Leaning Tower “drive-by” the morning of our visit to the Cinque Terre.  We swerved off the autostrada, bumped down a pot-holed road, and parked in a sketchy neighborhood without paying.

Hey, the sign said tickets must be purchased from 8am on.  We rolled up at 7:51am and were long gone before the uniforms had even finished their second espresso.  Not that I’m suggesting you do the same or anything…Thrifty Travel Mama - Leaning Tower of Pisa with Kids

A few tips for your own iconic Pisa portrait:

  • Get in early.  Shop keepers were already unfurling their wares, and tourists were just beginning to trickle in at this hour.  We managed a few shots before fellow posers starting mucking things up.  I’d suggest arriving during the golden hour, if possible.
  • Bring a tripod.  If you only visit Pisa once, the whole family should be in the shot, right?  I like my Gorillapod because of its versatility and small footprint.
  • Consider a remote.  Most cameras have a self-timer, but a remote is even better, especially with little kiddos in the mix.  If your camera doesn’t support a remote, try using the sports mode to take several shots in a row.
  • Be creative.  I’m not knocking the holding-up-the-Leaning-Tower pose.  You definitely need a picture of the kids doing that.  But moving on, what other zany things can you do next to this architectural freak of nature?

And if you have more time and want to visit the tower?

  • Most importantly, book your tickets online in advance!  You can do that here.
  • Second – and perhaps equally important – remember that children under 8 are NOT allowed to climb the tower (hence the reason for our drive-by).

What about the rest of Pisa?

To read about our adventures later that day in the Cinque Terre, click here.

Have you been to Pisa?  Did you take a cheesy photograph holding up the tower?  Have a link to other kid-friendly activities in Pisa?  Leave a link in the comments below.Signature-MarigoldThis 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!