A Family of Hobos We Have Been

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

This is one of my insanely long posts. Instead of just passing it off as tl;dr, make yourself a cuppa and stay a while… or just skim the headers. We can still be friends.

We are that crazy family… the one that others sometimes speak of as brave when they really mean insane.

In case you’re new ’round these parts and aren’t sure if I’m for real about the nutty bit, this post should convince you.

The Overview

Rewind with me to last autumn. We left our home in Freiburg at the beginning of October 2014, and ended up in Arizona just shy of New Year’s Eve. Seems simple, right? Ha – not so fast.

Hang on to your hats and follow along on our ride from Germany to Arizona via a dozen other destinations.. with all the madness and mayhem in between!

Please note that I am including some links to posts that have not been published yet. If you discover one of these, you can bookmark this post and come back later to read the linked posts, or you can just follow the blog via email (sign up on the right) or Facebook to be notified of all future posts.

By the way, if you’re reading these posts for the culture shock aspect, I’ll be honest and admit that recapping the events below is difficult for me. There are certain aspects of living in Freiburg that I miss somethin’ fierce, and I get a bit choked up when I dwell on certain memories for too long. So keep in mind that this adventure is two parts insane, one part pain.

Leaving Freiburg

Moving is never easy, and moving from one continent to another just multiplies the trouble. The ins and outs of our move is beyond the scope of this post, but I will briefly mention that we shipped most of our things to the US via DHL. Because of this, we did not have to schlep ten, fifty-pound checked suitcases and three children. Just the three kids, they’re non-negotiable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Testing out the new headphone splitter and learning to share one small DVD player.

Instead, all five of us all had backpacks and carry-on suitcases. Additionally, we took two gigantic checked bags and a car seat bag. If my math is right, that’s 13 pieces of luggage.

Hey, I never said I’m a pro at moving light – just packing light.

We bid Freiburg farewell and boarded a train to Leipzig. When we changed trains in Frankfurt, and Alpha and I literally ran to Chipotle in the rain to fetch one last German burrito. While there, we bumped into old friends from the US I haven’t seen in over ten years, also getting their burrito fix. Super fun, and super random. It’s a small (Mexican food) world, indeed.

Leipzig and Dresden

In Leipzig, Doc Sci attended one last conference for his post-doc while I had a fun meet-up and playdate with a blog reader (hi, Rose!). I also took the boys to Dresden… by myself.

Gulp.

Istanbul

After three days in the City of Heroes (Stadt der Helden), we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Turkish offered the cheapest fare, and it actually turned out to be even less expensive to stay in Istanbul for 3 days on a stopover rather than going straight to the US.

We experienced three intense days in Istanbul, soaking up as much as we could of the local flavor and Turkish culture. Stay tuned for a budget-friendly “Istanbul with Kids” series!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Welcome to America

Our first stop in the US was Washington Dulles to visit family.

Of course (of course!), we landed on the day that the extra special screening for Ebola at passport control rolled out. Not exactly the best welcome to be stuck in customs/immigration for hours…

The boys enjoyed a weekend running crazy with the cousins. All five kids took advantage of a favorite autumn pastime – jumping in gigantic piles of leaves.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Orlando

We then flew to Orlando to reunited with friends, boxes shipped from Germany, and our car.

The last time we drove our car, Charlie was in an infant seat. Now, we have three lanky boys, all in forward-facing car seats. We shoved, pulled, squished, and prayed that three car seats would fit in the back row… of our Honda Civic.

In the end, we managed – but just barely. Good thing, too, because this car was to be our home for the next two months.

During our time in Orlando, Doc Sci started applying for jobs. We took turns hanging out with the kids and searching for open positions. At night, we both researched universities, cities, companies; we emailed out CVs and cover letters.

We dreamed, and we prayed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

We celebrated the birthdays of Bravo and Alpha while on the road, one at the Lego store…

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

…and one at Legoland!

Nashville

Just before Thanksgiving, we road-tripped up to Nashville for a change of scenery. We set up camp at Grandma’s house, hung out with friends and family in Music City, and applied for more jobs.

It was during our stay in Tennessee that Doc Sci had a phone interview with the university that eventually hired him. But, we didn’t know that at the time, so after two weeks, we then set our sights on the Big D.

Dallas

One of our Freiburg friends is from the Dallas area (hi, Cheril!), and her parents were up for letting five dazed and confused ex-expat strangers take over half of their house. Generous souls!

We drove from Nashville to Dallas, and unpacked the car once again. More fabulous reunions with friends in the heart of Texas, employment meetings and emails, spelling tests, and math worksheets.

This is beginning to be a repetitive story, eh?

The News – and the Dilemma

Somewhere in the middle of the Metroplex, we got the call that a university in Arizona wanted to offer Doc Sci a visiting professor position for the spring semester.

Great news – except for one thing. The job started in less than one month.

Oh my.

Should we say accept the position? Should we move for a job that was not guaranteed for more than four months?

Beyond the philosophical, we also faced a physical dilemma. We stood, at that moment, halfway in between the Arizona job and our stored possessions in Florida.

Should we attempt to rent something furnished and run the risk of having to go back to Florida if the job turned out to be permanent? Or, should we go get our things in Florida now?

To complicate things further, Doc Sci had set up an in-person meeting in Atlanta for two days later.

Seriously?

Seriously.

What did we do? Why, we packed up the kids and drove to Atlanta, of course!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Atlanta

One more interview and less than twenty four hours in Atlanta later, we were zooming down I-75 on the way to Orlando again. We were positively sick of being on the road, but we needed those four hundred and fifty miles to discuss whether or not we would move to Arizona.

Orlando.. Again

Ultimately, we said yes. And, we took our stuff.

Just shy of two weeks after that major decision, we emptied our storage unit, packed a truck, and said goodbye to Orlando.

Road Trip!

Over the next week, we logged a minimum of eight hours of solid driving each day – not including breaks – to make it to Arizona as soon as possible. We needed to have at least one week to move into a house and prepare for Doc Sci to teach (for the very first time, I might add).

I drove our car with the three boys in the backseat, and Doc Sci manhandled the moving truck. If there’s such thing as an ideal road trip, this was the exact opposite.

We encountered some of the most intense rain I have ever driven through, a hail storm while on the “stilts” of I-10 in Louisiana with no place to pull over, snow in Texas, and ice in New Mexico.

I had done my best before we left to buy new DVDs, arrange little goody bags, dollar store toys.. you know, all those cutesy things you see on Pinterest.

But, after a couple thousand miles and sitting ALL DAY LONG for days on end, things got pretty frazzled in the back seat (okay, in the front seat, too).

Hey, at least no one threw up.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Dallas.. Again

The one bright spot was spending Christmas Eve and Day with our new friends in Dallas (remember those nice people that let perfect strangers take over half of their home?) and the rest of their family.

We’ll always remember 2014 as the Christmas where we literally could not uphold any traditions (no Adventskranz, Adventskalendar, cookie swaps, or gingerbread) and barely managed to fill the stockings. Instead, we received the fabulous gifts of generosity and hospitality from strangers turned friends. Humbling, indeed.

Arizona, Finally!

We rang in the new year at a hotel in Arizona, roasting marshmallows in the fake fire pit outside.

Hey, it could be worse. We had survived our road trip, and we were all healthy and alive!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Happy New Year!

Unfortunately, the house we rented wasn’t ready for us to move in until after Doc Sci started working. In the meantime, I shopped with the kids in the mornings, looking for basic furniture for our new home. When we moved to Germany, we gave nearly everything away because it didn’t make financial sense to store it.

In the afternoons, the boys did school while Charlie napped. When Doc Sci came home from work, I left to do more shopping and research.

Home…?

On moving day, we pulled up to our new house and found that all the vendors (painters, cleaners, etc.) had packed down the snow in the driveway, leaving us a housewarming present of a two-inch thick slab of solid ice on which to unload our things.

A kind neighbor lent us a snow shovel; the boys chipped away at the ice while Doc Sci and I tried not to break any bones.

Insert snarky comment about how with America’s fabulous system of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had coverage for any ice-related injuries since Doc Sci had not started work yet…

Once we were moved in, Doc Sci had to turn his attention back to the paying customers – students – leaving me to assemble the furniture, unpack, and set up our home.

After sleeping in twenty different beds in a mere two months, we felt like guests in our new-ish house with brand new furniture. The scars of pro-hoboing must be deep because even after six months here, that feeling has just started to subside.

Since the job in Arizona was only temporary, I wasn’t exactly motivated to really move in – you know, hang pictures, decorate, make things “for real.” Plus, it was hard doing everything alone.

Doc Sci left early in the morning, worked all day, came home for dinner, and then worked again until nearly midnight almost every night in an effort to stay at least one class ahead of the students.

I know this is reality for many families, but it was new to me and just.one.more. adjustment coupled with all the other changes.

The Bright Spot

The bright spot in all of this was that the two of us did not grow apart, though that would have been rather easy to do. We both worked hard in different ways, and we respected each other’s efforts. We asked for help when we absolutely needed it, and gave as much as we could to each other in that time.

Looking back, I do not know how we made it through apart from the grace of God.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Hiking in Arizona!

Our kids managed to overlook our flawed and stressful selves. Although they moaned and complained here and there about having to do school, I think they were just so relieved to not be hobos anymore.

I love to travel, but those months were an adventure I surely do not want to experience ever again.

Things are looking up for us now, maybe because it is summer break or because we have made some friends here and we don’t have any more boxes to unpack. I do still have more pictures to hang and projects I think would make this place more like home. But, we’re getting there. I can feel it. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, minute by minute, day by day. We’re making it.

How about you? Have you ever had to move from place to place, looking for a job? Has a new location shifted your life in a big way?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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Conquering Kotor, Montenegro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bay of Kotor.

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

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

No, no, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just passing the Church of Our Lady of the Remedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well said.

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

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

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

More Notes on Montenegro:

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

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

Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes (Plitvička Jezera)

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

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

Getting There

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

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

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

Getting In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Upper Lakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast

Thrifty Travel Mama | Family Adventures in Croatia on the Dalmatian CoastFinally, (finally!!) I’m giving you what you’ve always wanted – tales of our travels in Croatia! Admittedly, what you’ve always wanted is probably more like the opportunity to actually go to Croatia, but since I’m not giving away any trips today (boo!), this will have to do.

In April, we spent ten days in Croatia, overnighting in Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik. We usually prefer to just stay in one place and do day trips to surrounding attractions, but the driving distances were too great for our norm to be realistic this time around.

When I visit a new destination that I’ve always wanted to see, I often make a list of the must-see sights (you too?). I ask myself, what will I regret not seeing or doing if I don’t make it happen this trip? I know the usual travel advice is to assume you’ll be back. But life gives us no guarantee, so see what you want while you’re there. However, don’t stress yourself out by doing so much that you don’t enjoy the trip. I know, I know… it’s a delicate balance.

Now, I must admit, I feel a bit ridiculous talking about our travels in Croatia. SJ of Chasing the Donkey has put together such an incredible blog filled with gorgeous photos, fascinating sites, and fun things to do in the country. If you have not yet had the chance, I highly encourage you to hop on over to her blog, and follow her straightaway. She’s an Aussie expat living in Croatia with her husband and son who is the same age as our little Charlie.

With SJ’s help, I put together an itinerary that I hoped would be a balanced diet of sightseeing, driving, and rest: three nights in Zadar, three nights in Dubrovnik, and four nights in Split.

Like our trip to Tuscany last summer, I created a (much shorter) bucket list for our Croatian holiday. Follow along as I write about the highs and lows of each of our adventures in Croatia with three boys. I’ll add links as I post about each place.

Our Family’s Croatian Bucket List:

I’ll also answer the inevitable question… “Is Croatia kid-friendly?” I searched high and low for this kind of information before our trip, but I came up empty-handed most of the time. Look for my answer and some tips on taking the kiddos to Croatia here.

Taking your family to Croatia outside of the high summer season requires some special consideration and advance planning. Read my pros and cons of visiting during the off-season here.

And, it wouldn’t be right not to include some Supermarket Souvenirs that you can enjoy while in country or take home to friends and family. SJ wrote a post on Croatian candy, and I’ll report back with our taste test results.

So, to the Dalmation coast we go.  First stop, Zadar!Signature-Marigold

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

Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple (Breakfast) Cookies

Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesBack in July, I asked on Facebook what y’all eat on a family road trip.  Surprisingly, many of you snack on cold chicken tenders (which we tried and loved, thanks!) but very few of you take your breakfast to go.

Oh, friends, eating breakfast in the car is one of the main reasons that our road trips with one, three, and five year-old boys are even remotely possible.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesYears ago, when T-Rex as a mere four months old, we discovered during a torturous and frustrating road trip that driving in the dark was the least stressful way to travel long distances by car with a baby.  We rarely drive all night, but we are often setting out in the wee hours of the morning.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesThe idea is that if the kids are drowsy enough, they’ll snooze several hours under the cover of darkness (works better in winter than in summer, obviously).

When they wake up, we serve breakfast to eek out an extra 30-45 minutes of drive time.  By the time they’re littering the backseat with stray crumbs and wayward yogurt drips, we’ve usually arrived at our destination.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesBut, what to give the hungry backseat monsters?  Cereal with milk is out; easy-to-eat carbs are in!  And bonus points if you can shove some extra fruit, veg, or protein in that package.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesEnter cheesy apple cookies.  Now, you may think I’ve let 13 kilos of apples affect my better judgement, but have no fear.  These sound ridiculous, but we’ve eaten them on the way to Italy, Zurich, and Berchtesgaden (posts coming next week!).

Everyone in our family happily scarfs down these crazy creations.  Well, except the grumpy baby… but we love him anyway.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesSo, seriously – don’t knock ’em before you try ’em.

p.s. – These cookies aren’t just for breakfast.  They make kids happy at lunch and snack time, too!Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple Cookies

Cheesy Apple Cookies

adapted from The Kitchn

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup unrefined sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 T ground flax seed
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans*
2 medium-sized apples, preferably Granny Smith or another tart variety
4 ounces cheese, finely chopped (about 1 cup)**

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Whisk the olive oil, egg, and vanilla together in a glass measuring cup until combined.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, oats, flax, and nuts together.

Grate the apples into the flour mixture, stopping at the core.  Stir to coat the apple with the dry ingredients, and then add the chopped cheese.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir just until combined. The dough will be loose and lumpy. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheets.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the cookies are golden and the cheese browns just a bit. Allow the cookies to hang out on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes and then remove them to a rack until completely cool.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for several months.

*The nuts are optional; feel free to substitute dried fruit if you’re a nut-free household.  **I’ve made these with regular (young) gouda, smoked gouda, and cheddar.  Cheeses with a stronger flavor (sharp cheddar, aged or smoked gouda) work best.  Otherwise the cheese flavor literally melts away.

If you want to make these whole grain, try using white whole wheat.  Going with 100% whole wheat will give you gummy cookies in this recipe.Thrifty Travel Mama | Road Trip Meals: Cheesy Apple CookiesSo, what do you think?  Will you give these nutty cookies a try?  If not, there’s always bagels!Signature-Marigold

Jucker Farm: Pumpkin Heaven… in Switzerland!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandLet’s take a little quiz…  You might be an American if:

  • You count down the days until Starbucks starts serving pumpkin spice lattes again.
  • Apples are a side note, and pumpkins are the star of your fall baking line up.
  • You carve pumpkins every year, even if you’re not that into Halloween.
  • You bake a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, even if no one in your family likes it.
  • Pumpkin soup seems weird to you, but pumpkin in ice cream, fudge, donuts, cookies, candy, cakes, pies, milkshakes, and cocktails is perfectly acceptable.

To restate the blaringly obvious, Americans are obsessed with pumpkins! 

And, Germans… are not. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandWhen I moved to Germany four years ago, I couldn’t believe that pumpkin wasn’t sold in cans.  Nor was it sold year ’round.  With sadness, I only enjoyed one taste of pumpkin that year – pie on Thanksgiving.

Each autumn here, I’ve gone a bit more overboard in my quest to not be left pumpkin-less at any time.  Last year, I had about 20 cups of frozen pumpkin puree to last me until the next harvest.  If you’ve seen German freezers, you’ll know that this is total insanity.

And, while the little soup and baking pumpkins sold in German supermarkets are completely adorable, they just aren’t right for carving.  Imagine trying to hack a freaky face into a cantaloupe.

Yeah, that’s just not happening.

Now that the boys are older, I feel it is my duty as an American parent to expose them to their pumpkin-crazy culture (though I will hold off on the pumpkin spice lattes for as long as possible…).

And there’s no better place in Europe to go bananas over squash than Jucker Farm.  (If you know of another, please do share in the comments below!)

Juckerhof, as seen from the closest parking lot.

Juckerhof, as seen from the closest parking lot.

Gorgeous pumpkins and produce.

Gorgeous pumpkins and produce.

Jucker Farm is located east of Zürich in Seegräben, Switzerland.  It’s not a real farm in the sense that it’s mainly for tourists and the only smells wafting by your nose will those of roasting pumpkin seeds and pumpkin kettle corn.

Before I go any further, I should mention that Jucker Farm is completely, totally, 100% kid-friendly.  If you want a Swiss family outing, this is it.  You’ll find clean, free bathrooms, changing tables, kid-friendly foods, a petting zoo, a playground, and more!

Don't forget to grab a wheelbarrow to cart your pumpkins to the car.. or corral a screaming baby.

Don’t forget to grab a wheelbarrow to cart your pumpkins to the car.. or corral a screaming baby.

Every year, Jucker Farm hauls in a wide variety of pumpkins and other winter squash for visitors to admire… and purchase.  The delectable eats are piled in big bins, not scattered on the ground like a traditional American pumpkin patch.  In addition to the raw goods, the farm shop at Jucker sells pumpkin products such as wine, oil, pasta, popcorn, and salsa.

Please be advised that while prices are not unreasonable, they are, ahem, Swiss.  It’s free to visit the farm, take a leak, and swing in the hammocks, but almost every other activity (including parking) costs a pretty penny.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandAs if the pretty piled pumpkins weren’t enough, each year the staff at the farm creates giant sculptures out of the gourds according to a theme.  Who doesn’t want to see a fifteen-foot pumpkin Elvis?

Several pumpkin-themed events are held annually, and crowds are significantly larger on these days (check the website for exact dates or call ahead).

An obviously sponsored punkin boat.

An obviously sponsored pumpkin boat.

We visited the weekend after the pumpkin regatta.  This silly sport involves hollowing out a giant pumpkin, climbing inside, and racing across the nearby lake.  We got quite a chuckle out of imagining grown men folding themselves into these big slimy buckets and paddling frantically toward the finish line.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandThe other big draw at Jucker Farm is picking your own fruit.  Apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all available at various times of the year (more info here).

Given our previous enthusiasm for self-picked strawberries and apples, I was quite excited to go after the last of the blueberry harvest.  Unfortunately, the season closed the evening before our visit (which only makes me more determined to go next year!).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandOther fun things for kids include giant hay bales for scaling, hammocks for swinging, and apple mazes for solving.

The boys and I did have fun following Doc Sci to the middle of the three leafy labyrinths  (Mr. Smarty Pants is not only good at solving puzzles, he’s great at cheating.. just follow the most traveled path, he says), but I think they were too young to really understand or try to figure out what we were doing. Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in Switzerland

At the heart of the most difficult maze... want to know the prize?  You'll have to solve it yourself!

At the heart of the most difficult maze… want to know the prize? You’ll have to solve it yourself!

A little tip for cheapskates, er I mean thrifty, visitors.. you are not allowed to bring your own picnic and sit at any of the tables to eat it.  But, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice brown bag lunch.  Just take your budget eats down to the lake, and take advantage of the benches there.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandBy the way, the lake looked like a super place to swim.  We’ll have to come back in summer and bring our suits!

A diving board in the middle of the lake.. abandoned in autumn.

A diving board in the middle of the lake.. abandoned in autumn.

As if you couldn’t already tell, we had a fabulous time at Jucker Farm.  If you’re anywhere within a two-hour drive in the fall, I highly encourage you to pack up the kids and fill your day with fun (fruity?!) memories.

But, before I go, I just want to mention that Moms Tots Zürich has done a fine job of introducing visitors to Jucker Farm and sharing super helpful details for first-timers.

In fact, I emailed Tanya and asked her at least a dozen questions prior to our trip.  She was gracious in answering each one, so I’d like to repay the favor by sending folks her way.  For more details on Jucker Farm, or to just say hi, click here.

Headed to Switzerland? Don’t miss our Swiss adventures with kids: Schilthorn, Rhein Falls, and Stein am Rhein!Signature-Marigold

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!

Exploring Tuscan Hill Towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, & Lucignano

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThe landscape of Tuscany is littered with tiny hill towns.  Many of these enclaves are not well known outside of the immediate area (Torrita di Siena), while a others appear as regulars in the guidebooks (San Gimignano).  So, how do you know which ones to investigate and which ones to ignore?

Honestly, I have no idea.

Not the answer you were expecting?  The truth is, that even though I travel often and trip logistics is a hobby (okay, obsession) of mine, I still end up overwhelmed.  Too many options, too little time!

Don’t worry – I won’t leave you completely in the dark.  Here are two approaches that will help you sort through the list.  What?  You have no list yet?  Consult your nearest Lonely Planet, Best Small Towns in Italy or Wikipedia.

Location

With three small kiddos, this it the method I use most.  Punch your villa / vacation rental / hotel location into Google maps.  Zoom out a bit until you can see the surrounding location names.  Use the driving directions feature for any towns not immediately visible.

And since location and transportation go hand in hand, don’t forget to factor how you will get from your lodging to your day trip location.  I am a big fan of public transportation, but I have to say that in Italy, I much preferred to go by car to the small towns.

Be advised that if you’re traveling roads other than the autostrada (interstate with tolls) or the raccordo (highway), driving times will be longer than what is shown in the search results.  We limited our list to locations one hour or less by car.

Travel by bus in Italy is intermittent and rarely on time.  Train travel is better, and if you choose this method you’ll have any easy time narrowing down your list as few hilltop villages feature railway stations.

Interest

What are your family’s interests?  Love wine?  Try Greve in Chianti.  Enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun?  Don’t miss Cortona.  Into religious history?  Stop in Assisi.  Find out what each town is known for, and narrow the list from there.

Today, I’d like to feature three hilltop towns we explored: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Lucignano.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Montelpulciano with KidsMontepulciano surprised me with its attractive alleys (really!), quiet streets, and unique shops.

As we trekked up the shockingly steep streets, I felt like REAL people lived here despite the obvious presence of tourists and souvenirs.  Perhaps as evidence, we happened upon two playgrounds frequented by Italian families.

We did not, however, see many children on the streets of Montepulciano.  One possible explanation is that cars are not banned in the city center.  Sure, these areas are technically pedestrian zones.  But, I never felt comfortable letting go of my child’s hand for fear of being run over by the constant stream of trucks and whizzing Vespas squeezing through the narrow lanes.  Alas, this is Italy – and we quickly grew accustomed to the perpetual hand holding.Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill Towns

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsOf all the landmarks in Montepulciano, T-Rex and Screech enjoyed the well at the Piazza Grande the most.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me trying to explain the physics of lowering and raising water-laden buckets.  I tried to admire the architecture but found it difficult to ignore the twenty gazillion plastic chairs and concert equipment mucking it all up.

Montepulciano is known for its wine, so savor a glass or buy a bottle to go.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Pienza with KidsPienza was designed to be the “perfect” Renaissance town (more history and why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site here).

The architecture is lovely for sure; but, best of all, it’s flat and quite small.  In fact, if you don’t stop to gawk or eat, you could walk the entire thing in 30 minutes or less.

The centro storico is a treat for art or history buffs… that is, if you can manage an eyeful in between the crowds.  Better to wander behind the main square and catch a breathtaking view of the Val D’Orcia landscape.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsBesides a great spot for a family photo, this punto panoramico is an excellent area to give your nose a rest.  Pienza is known for its pecorino cheese, and they’ve got the stench to prove it.  If you don’t mind the odor, feel free to sample the different varieties offered in the shops.  But hold on to your pocketbooks and purchase your edible souvenirs at the grocery store across from the Agip gas station on the SS146.

Other than a decent playground on Via Enzo Mangiavacchi, we didn’t find many hidden gems in Pienza.  I’d say the village is worth a quick stop especially if Renaissance architecture is your thing, but refrain from making it the star of your day.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Lucignano with Kids Prior to researching villas, I’d never heard of Lucignano before.  We ended up booking Casal Gheriglio which lounges at the foot of the hill.  On one of our hang-out-and-do-nothing days, we decided to wander up and have a look.

What a treat!  Billed as a model example of how medieval towns should be, we appreciated the orderly streets… with nary a tourist in sight.  Lucignano was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of Siena and the crowds of San Gimignano.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThough almost every nook and cranny was shut up on the day of our visit (Ferragosto), the playground was filled with families.  We couldn’t help but stare and giggle at the old men playing cards at the outdoor cafe.  What we assumed was Italian trash talk stood in sharply contrasted their pressed shirts and neatly combed white hair.  Perhaps Rick Steeves might have missed this “back door.”

If museums and shopping are what you’re after, look elsewhere.  Lucignano hasn’t yet been overrun by tourism.  The locals do have to eat, so you won’t be without a trattoria, pizzeria, and gelateria.  But, streets are hushed, and the most interesting thing to do here is burn up your camera taking photos… which is just fine with me.

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!

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