Jousting at the Kaltenberg Knight’s Tournament (Ritterturnier)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical tips for visiting the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier:

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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!

How We Found Ourselves in Love with Touristy Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsRothenburg ob der Tauber… It’s in all the guidebooks (even Rick Steeves!), often touted as the most charming city along the Romantic Road.  Anything I’ve ever read about the place has made me want to go. right. now.

But, the flip side of all that press is the onslaught: tourists, buses, and hokey souvenir shops.  Seeing as I’m crowd averse, I needed a way to visit Rothenburg and actually appreciate its magic.

So, how do you cut through all the hype and actually enjoy this town?  On a Sunday, early in the morning… and, preferably, in bad weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsOkay, this might not be everyone’s ideal picture of an enjoyable day out in medieval Rothenburg ob der Tauber, but it certainly worked for us.  And, actually, we didn’t even plan it this way.

You see, I wanted to make the most of our six hour drive home from Berchtesgaden.  Sure, we could have driven directly home, but what fun is it to arrive at 10am with only dirty laundry to look forward to?  Better to add a one-hour detour in your travel plans in order to knock out a long-standing member of your bucket list, right?  Right!

We nabbed some free, off-street parking, loaded up the backpacks, and set out around 8am (which that means we left The Hölbinger Alm around 4… I told you we like to leave early).  A blanket of fog settled in around us while a subtle, spit rain coated the streets.  Needless to say, we had the city (mostly) to ourselves.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Best Part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Hands down, the best thing about pretty little Rothenburg is her undamaged, 14th century city wall.  What once served to protect now provides unique views for visitors.  Climb up the steps at one of the many entrances, and walk for as little or as long as you’d like.  You’ll be among the rooftops, gazing across the cityscape at half-timbered houses, turrets, gables, even two church towers.

My boys loved gallivanting around, looking down on the few souls we found here and there.  With plenty of secure railing, I felt comfortable enough to let them run ahead while Doc Sci and I trailed behind, occasionally squeezing ourselves through a narrow passage.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsPerhaps equally as exciting as the walls, the Spital Bastion is a little boy’s delight since it boasts a few (defunct) canons poking out from the cavernous interior.

When we’d had our fill of imaginary medieval adventure, we cautiously approached the center.  I knew we’d find the most tourists here, and I dreaded it.  Thankfully, the Sunday-morning-in-crappy-weather hordes only ended up being a few groups of about twenty.  That, I can handle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Christmas Craze and Why Asians Love Rothenburg

One of the groups huddled around the entrance to the Weihnachtsmuseum (Christmas Museum).  Christmas is a big deal, year round, in Rothenburg.  While I didn’t see Santa, I did spot some fun, albeit expensive, holiday decor.  Even if you give the shops a pass as we did, don’t miss the gigantic nutcracker.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Perfect for this year’s Christmas tree – an Oktoberfest beer maid, complete with pretzels.

Speaking of shops, I couldn’t help but notice that many signs were written in Asian languages.  Then, I realized that most of the visitors who braved the morning’s conditions were.. Asian!  Why Asians love this place is a mystery to me.  Best guess?  Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a quintessential, quaint old European city so vastly different from what they’re used to seeing at home.

Actually, our know-it-all friend Wikipedia helps out with an explanation:  “This place has become a popular tourist destination for Japanese because of the animated film “Sugar a little snow fairy”, where the main character lives in Rothenburg.”  Ahh, medieval manga… got it!Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Chugging Coffee at Cafes and Where to Picnic

When your eyes have gone cross trying to read Chinese and your hands are numb from the damp fog, duck into one of the many cute cafes to relax and warm up.  Try to find one away from the main square (Marktplatz) unless you particularly like parting with dozens of euros.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

The Main Square – Marktplatz.

We spotted a few bakeries selling Schneebälle (snowballs) which are essentially tangled masses of dough strips that have been deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. The European equivalent of funnel cakes, perhaps?

P.s. – These pastry creations are totally for the tourists and, in our experience, not very tasty.

On a nicer day, we would’ve brought along a picnic and sat in the castle garden (free, open to the public) to munch.  The park has charm that changes with the seasons: new buds in spring, fully floral in summer, tinged with color in autumn, and a silent romanticism in the snow.  Views from here across the neighboring valley are extraordinary, even in crummy weather.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Castle Gardens

The Verdict

While diehard Rothenburg ob der Tauber fans might argue that I missed most of the action by skipping the Criminal Museum, Train Museum, Toy Museum, churches, and the über-popular Christmas market, I beg to differ.

My Rothenburg was quiet, empty, peaceful… perfect.  I couldn’t have asked for a better experience skipping along the walls and exploring the forsaken fortress.  It is because of this Sunday morning serenity that Rothenburg surpassed all expectations and earned its place as the true jewel of the Romantic Road.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with KidsSignature-MarigoldPractical tips for families visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

  • Reach Rothenburg by rail or by car.  If by train, make sure to enter Rothenburg ob der Tauber as there are several Rothenburg stations throughout Germany.
  • Parking is available outside the walls.  All lots (P1-P5) charge 1 euro/hour or 5 euros/day.  If you arrive early, you may be lucky enough to nab free off-street parking.  We found ours on Kreuzerstr. near P5.  Make sure to check for signs indicating that the area should only be used by residents.
  • Use a backpack carrier if you want to take little legs up on the walls.  Otherwise, the rest of the city is quite pram-friendly. 
  • Surprisingly, plenty of free bathrooms can be found at various points around town.  I didn’t notice any baby changing tables in the public facilities, only inside cafe restrooms.
  • Restaurant and cafe prices can be hefty, so bring a picnic. The only takeaway joints I noticed were pizza or bratwurst.
  • If you want to shop for a sack lunch while visiting or pick up some German supermarket souvenirs, Rewe, Aldi, and Lidl all have locations outside the walls, but Edeka’s E-Aktiv Markt is the closest to the old town at Ansbacher Straße 15.
  • Inside the walls, some streets are not pedestrianized, so keep an eye on kiddos in these areas (though it’s not nearly as awful as Italy).  Everywhere else is mostly safe to allow roaming.
  • Last, but not least, a great playground can be found outside the walls on the west side of the city along the path that leads from the Klingentor (bell tower) to the castle gardens.

Other adorable European small towns:

Stein am Rhein Switzerland for Kids and Families

Stein am Rhein

Strasbourg France for Kids and Families

Strasbourg

San Gimignano Italy for Kids and Families

San Gimignano

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!

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!

Six Tips for a Successful Visit to the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with KidsFlip through any glossy Renaissance art book, and you’ll keep bumping into the name Uffizi.  Huffity, puffity, what?!

The Galleria degli Uffizi in Firenze was built in the 16th century for the extremely exciting purpose of hosting… meetings.  That’s right, the world’s largest treasure trove of Renaissance art is housed in a glorified office building.  And one that’s only partially climate-controlled at that!

Because of its impressive collection and international fame, experiencing the Uffizi Gallery can be an exercise in patience and/or a real pain in the you-know-what, depending on how you look at it.  Add children in this mix and you might have a real mess on your hands.  But don’t be discouraged – a little advance planning is all it takes to make your visit run smoothly.

Here are my six tips for an enjoyable afternoon at the Uffizi with your kids and some really amazing art:

1. Buy your tickets online in advance.  Waiting times for walk-up visitors are generally measured in hours.  Don’t waste precious time tapping your toes.  Instead, book tickets online (and several weeks in advance, if possible).  Many websites sell tickets to the Uffizi, but the only official site can be found here.  Children under 18 are FREE.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

2. Visit at lunch time or later in the day.  The biggest problem inside the Uffizi is the constant swarm of tour groups.  You’re less likely to constantly bump elbows in the Botticelli room when the crowds are tasting the tagliatelle at a nearby trattoria midday or sipping wine at sunset.

I’ve seen musings here and there warning that Tuesdays are busier days.  We tried Thursday, and the mob seemed more manageable.

3. Purchase a picture book containing (almost) all the works.  If you’re not shelling out for a human guide or an audio tour, I highly recommend a coffee table book containing the all the works displayed in the Uffizi.  If possible, buy the volume in advance, and leaf through it with your family.

Allow each person to pick their favorites.  Discuss common themes in the art.  Jot down questions, and look up the answers online if you’re not art history savvy.  Make a list of “must-see” works in case you do end up lost in a sea of yellow neon Florence: The Big Bus Tour t-shirts.  If you need a little help with your list or coming up with questions, check out this excellent post from ArtTrav.

But, what if you are trying to go paperless and just can’t handle one. more. book. in your house?  Alexandra Korey of ArtTrav has expanded on the post I’ve linked to above in her recently published e-book, the Uffizi Art History Guide, and newly released IOS app available here.  Inside you’ll find an excellent Renaissance art history primer to help you understand and appreciate what you’re seeing.  She covers the most important works in each room, and includes questions for engaging with the pieces.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with KidsT-Rex and I flipped through our book on the train ride into Firenze, chatting about what we saw.  Inside the museum, I was amazed at how many images he remembered (“Mama, this one is in our book!”).  We also enjoyed talking about which paintings surprised us by their scale or fine detail.

Where do you find such a book?  Well, the real kicker is that the Uffizi Gallery itself sells a wonderfully thick volume… but you have to go through the museum to get to the shop and buy it.  Instead, try ordering it off Amazon before you leave home.  I was a little late to the ball game on this one, so I bought one on the street in Firenze for 12 euro.  Not the best, but it got the job done.

4. Make a beeline for the bathroom before you begin.  If the presence of plentiful toilets marks a place as “kid-friendly” in your book, I’m sad to say that the Uffizi will let you down.

Take the kiddos for a potty break immediately after you pass through the metal detectors.  Do not proceed upstairs to the gallery until you’ve emptied the tanks!  You have forty five rooms to clear before you hit the next set of bathrooms.  Yeah, you’re welcome.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids

5. Plan on a pit stop at the cafe.  Gawking at all the art in those forty five rooms is sure to make little tummies rumble.  As expected, the cafe is seriously overpriced.  You can save a bit of money by ordering at the counter and eating while standing.  The same food costs more if you need to plant your bum on a seat.  Of course, you can bring your own grub, and the terrace adjacent to the cafe provides a birds eye view of the Palazzo Vecchio.Thrifty Travel Mama | 6 Tips for Visiting the Uffizi Gallery with Kids6. Reward good behavior at the gift shop.  Fueled and ready for part two, head downstairs for foreign painters and special exhibitions.  You may start to wonder, when will it end? Trust me, your kids will echo your thoughts out loud.  Now’s a good time to pull out your “must-see” list and check off any remaining works.

If you made it this far without any meltdowns, hand out hugs and euros.  The souvenir shop at the Uffizi is presented in pieces, and everyone will find something to suit themselves… even if they’re not all that into art.

Should you visit the Uffizi?  YES!  Should you take your kids?  YES!  Well, I think so.  Okay, only you can decide that, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I only took T-Rex (he’s 5 1/2) with me.  Kids younger than this who are not napping during your visit or angelic girls with golden curls will most likely be bored and restless.  Regardless of age, interact with the art.  Don’t just have a look and move on.

For best results, follow the six tips above, and enjoy your visit!

What about you?  Have you visited the Uffizi?  Would you take your kids?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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-MarigoldDisclaimer: I was graciously provided a review copy of Uffizi Art History Guide – Unanchor Travel Guide by Alexandra Corey several weeks after my visit to the museum.  As always, opinions are my own.  At this time, I do not use affiliate links.

Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome in Firenze – with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsBrunelleschi’s Dome is THE architectural symbol of Firenze.  Sure, other beautiful buildings exist, but this Renaissance feat of engineering has them all beat in the art history popularity contest.

The best way to observe Brunelleschi’s groundbreaking design of a dome within a dome is to crawl inside and see it up close.  But that doesn’t come without a price.

Not only will you have to pay ten euros per adult, but your legs will join your children in protest as you complete the 16,402 steps to the top.

Just kidding.  Well, about the number of steps, anyway.Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsWhen you DO reach the top, the only word you’ll manage to utter is, “Wow.”  That is, if you can even breathe after all that climbing.

Dazzling views of Firenze – this is your reward for waiting in the never-ending queue and conquering the 15th century StairMaster.  For a moment, the pain will be forgotten and the beauty of the panorama will overwhelm you to the point of tears. Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsWait, that’s not you crying.  It’s your three year-old son who just realized how far up he is.  Cue massive freak out.

Promises of gelato are the only thing that’ll save you in this mess.  Well, that and getting the heck out of dodge.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsOnly, that’s not so easy either.  Cue massive traffic jam.  Apparently Brunelleschi didn’t design his dome for 21st century tourism…

You’ll grip your kid’s hand tightly because gee those steps seem to have gotten a heck of a lot steeper in the last twenty minutes.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsDon’t forget to swipe one last look at the incredible fresco inside the dome while you cross your fingers and hope that your kids don’t notice the grotesque figures being eaten alive in terrible judgement and wind up with nightmares for years.  Sheesh.

Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch and before you know it, you’ve made it out alive!  And, relatively unscathed…  In, up, out, down, and done.  Brunelleschi’s Dome – what more could you want in Florence?Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsActually, tons.  Firenze offers so many options, it’s impossible for travelers to see it all in a matter of days (or even weeks!).  Want to know what made our list?

Here’s a quick rundown of a few places we dragged the kids…

SANTA CROCE.  I love this beautiful church almost as much as Santa Maria Novella (see below).  We didn’t step inside, because I didn’t have my art-history-for-majors-who-have-minorly-forgotten-everything guide with me.

However, one thing that really struck me about both of these churches is their amazing entrances are merely facades, pretty stickers stuck on ugly brown box basilicas (for a visual, check out the second photo).

These flashy fronts were constructed with money from who-knows-where that could’ve been used for who-knows-what merely to conceal an ordinary building.  I wondered what God must think of these churches…Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsSANTA MARIA NOVELLA.  Another member of the art history hall of fame, you can’t help but adore this place.  It’s just so… frilly!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsPIAZZA DELLA REPUBBLICA.  If your kiddos love carousels, you’ll want to make a stop here.  Bring a few coins and a bit of honesty.  We easily could’ve hopped on without paying.  The cashier was a young homie with his feet on the desk and his hands glued to his phone.  No one checked tickets or shooed the children off after the ride.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsPERCHÉ NO GELATERIA.  We tried several ice cream shops, but many are mediocre and all are very expensive (double the prices we paid in San Gimignano).

Doc Sci searched high and low for peanut butter gelato.  Unfortunately, he didn’t find any, but Yelp tells me we should’ve tried Antica Gelateria Fiorentina.  Ahh, well, the honey and sesame from Perché No helped to ease the pain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsTHE BARGELLO.   I’m fascinated by sculpture, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Donatello Room and a few early Michelangelos.  Except for the pieces in the open courtyard, I was rather disappointed by the rest of the museum.  The third floor was completely closed during our visit.  Boo!Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsAfter climbing Brunellschi’s dome and then wandering the streets of Firenze under the omnipresent Tuscan sun, we were BEAT… and nearly fell asleep on the train back to Pistoia!

But despite the crowds, my aching feet and sweaty brow, I couldn’t resist the charm of Firenze.  Even in my exhaustion, I looked forward to returning.  Lucky for me, I would only have to wait a few days for my next visit to the heart of the Renaissance…

Fancy a visit to the Uffizi with your family?  Click here for my Six Tips for a Successful Visit to the Uffizi Gallery with Kids!

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-Marigold