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

Lounging Around – Our Tuscan Villa Experience

Casal Gheriglio

Casal Gheriglio

If you’re American like me, the idea of a two-week vacation more than once per year is unthinkable.  Perhaps after working for 10+ years at the same company, you might have enough to take a few weeks off of work.

But Europeans?  They’re quite used to their 28+ days of paid vacation per year thankyouverymuch.. which means they have nearly six weeks to travel.  Lucky blokes.  Score: one for living in Europe, zero for living in America.

Here’s the real kicker that STILL boggles my American mind after three years here…  Bosses don’t gripe when vacation time is requested.  It’s expected that those with families will be absent from work for weeks at a time, several times per year.  Even in their absence, the work gets done, or customers and colleagues simply wait until the employee returns. 

(Another piece of evidence that supports  the “customer comes last” mentality here – but that’s another post for another day.)

Though we’ve taken a few vacations in the 2-3 week range (to the US, Korea), these were not trips without an agenda.  Usually, one or more of us has had meetings to attend, friends to visit, errands to run, etc.  I’m not claiming for a single second that these obligations weren’t welcome or for good reason.  But just once, I wanted to try out the European habit of lounging around the villa pool all day.

Honestly, don’t we all?

I’m happy to report that we did, indeed, do our best to practice deliberate laziness at two separate villas.  We spent the first week at a property outside Lucignano (Casal Gheriglio) and the second near Pistoia (Alice del Lago Country House).

Alice del Lago Country House

Alice del Lago Country House

If you’d like to read in-depth reviews of both properties, you can find them on TripAdvisor here and here.  Just look for the shoes!  I’ll try to post my reviews on TA going forward, but I’ll always add a link for you here as well.

Of the two, we loved Casal Gheriglio the most.  Perhaps it will always have a special place in our memories because Big Foot celebrated his first birthday there, and T-Rex and I learned to make delicious, authentic Tuscan fare in the large villa kitchen.

Contrary to my picture-perfect vision, even our relaxing moments ended up characterized by doing rather than simply being.  I wouldn’t necessarily consider this negative, especially since reality with little boys means that we parents are (almost) always on the move.  But we definitely have a ways to go in learning how to holiday like a proper European (more on that below).

At the villa, Doc Sci and I gobbled up several books in the shade while the boys amused themselves in the outdoor shower.  T-Rex honed his cannonball skills in the pool, and Screech conquered his water anxiety.  We savored as many meals al fresco as our mosquito-pecked legs could handle.  We napped, we tanned, we nibbled cookies and sipped coffee.

Big Foot, just hangin' out.

Big Foot, just hangin’ out.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Lounging Around at Tuscan VillasBut try as we might, our efforts to waste away the day poolside paled in comparison to the Belgian family next door.  Each morning, we noticed that they moved only from the apartment to the pool, sometimes stopping to eat a bite at the outdoor table.  The rest of the time, the parents remained on their laurels with a beer and a book open. all. day. long.  The girls (aged 9 and 11) occasionally went for a dip in the water before returning to their own books or beds for a nap.

Perhaps I’m just not cut out for this full-on European “holiday” thing.  After forty eight hours, I couldn’t contain the urge to get out and explore.  Not that these lazy days are bad… In fact, I think building rest time into any vacation is a key component to keeping kids happy during the more itinerary-intensive periods (and giving parents a break).

After all, that’s our family travel style – balanced.

Italian breakfast - coffee and cookies.

Italian breakfast – coffee and cookies.

Before I wrap up, here are two more tidbits I’d like to talk about briefly just in case you fancy your own Italian villa vacation…

First, price.  I’m all about having the best experience for the least amount of cash.  I search high and low for affordable quality vacation rentals.  I’ll be frank.  These villas were NOT cheap.  They exceeded my target price per night by more than I care to think about.  But, in comparison to the other properties available (and there are MANY as a simple Google search will reveal), we did quite well for two-bedroom units at the height of summer travel season.

If you want to visit Tuscany on a budget, don’t do it in August.  May and September are more reasonably priced (and not as hot).  If you have a car, look for properties that are outside the main attractions (Siena, Firenze, San Gimignano).  You won’t want to drive in the cities themselves anyway, and the countryside is quieter and more scenic.

Second, ask yourself…  Is a villa is the right type of Italian accommodation for my situation?  Only you can answer that, but one primary issue to consider is transportation.

If you’re hoping to stay within walking distance of a certain city or attraction, know that most villas are located in the country.  If you don’t have a car, getting to and from the property could be problematic.  Buses in Italy rarely abide by a schedule (and may not even have one).  Roads often do not have sidewalks and can give you a real work out with their steep inclines.

Also, if you don’t plan on cooking many meals or doing laundry, you may not need all the facilities that a villa offers (full kitchen and washing machine).  In this case, try a bed and breakfast or budget hotel instead.

Many thanks to Claudia at Casal Gheriglio and Roberta at Alice del Lago for making our first real European holiday one that we will treasure for years to come.

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

Swimming in the Ligurian Sea and Taking in the Cinque Terre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with Kids

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

Manarola

Manarola

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

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

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

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

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

The playground at Manarola.

The playground at Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

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

Here's where we ended up swimming.

Here’s where we ended up swimming.

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

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

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

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

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

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

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

Until next time...

Until next time…

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

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

Snapshot: Stein am Rhein with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsStein am Rhein is a stunning small town that – in the words of a traveling friend – really must be seen to be believed!  Straddling the Rhein River in Switzerland, this Altstadt is a gem.   With countless intricately frescoed and half-timbered houses, you won’t want to miss it! Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAt the end of July, we dipped in to Switzerland after a morning at the impressive Hohentwiel ruins.  Stein am Rhein is so small, you won’t need more than half day to explore it, but you’ll want to stay longer to soak in as much charm as possible.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOther than the intricate frescoes, the water is the main draw.  Visitors can take a river cruise, but we observed a more DIY way to experience the Rhein.

Scores of college students could be seen along the banks inflating large dinghies.  The first raft ready was placed in the river and filled with two or three inches of water.  Cans and bottles of beer were submerged in the cool water.  Apparently, they were chilling their beverages while the rest of the party pumped up their rafts.  Nice idea, eh?Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnd speaking of ideas, I couldn’t come up with very many when it came to figuring out how in the world these rafts could be any match for the Rhein’s current.  None of the rafts had motors, and many did not even have oars.  Given the busy boat traffic on the water, I don’t think I’d want to be stuck in the middle of a rushing river with no way to navigate.  Perhaps these young ‘uns know something I don’t…?

For adrenaline junkies in Stein am Rhein, the thing to do is jump off the bridge into the cold river below.  We saw a handful of people partaking in this risky activity, and even a boy about 12 years old.  Apparently diving from the bridge is so popular, that the town has erected a sign warning of potential danger.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnyhow, we explored the north shore first.  The famous Rathausplatz (town hall square) and the most beautiful frescoes can be found here, as well as some very expensive restaurants.  One of the nicest surprises in Stein am Rhein was the lack of obnoxious tourist traps.  The town didn’t have a kitschy feel or oppressive crowds.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here.  T-Rex wanted one with a "necklace" (lanyard) attached.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here. T-Rex wanted one with a “necklace” (lanyard) attached.

After strolling the picturesque side streets, we headed toward the river bridge.  On our way there, we impulsively ducked in to a small courtyard.  Here we happened upon the first of two delightful discoveries.

A convent museum (St. Georgen Klostermuseum) sits in a charming courtyard just off the main traffic street.  Shortly before we reached the museum entrance, we found a gigantic wine press and several large barrels.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me, explaining the physics of the press to the boys.  Bored, I left to soak in the atmosphere of the quiet hof.  The smell of lavender in bloom, the breeze from the river, the warm rays of sunshine… absolutely lovely.

The Kloster courtyard.

The Kloster courtyard.

The press.

The press.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOn the south side of the Rhein, we climbed some steps up to a quaint little church (St. Johann Kirche).  Opposite the onion dome, we feasted on a fantastic view of the town and surrounding hills.

From here, we could see Hohenklingen Castle keeping watch from high above Stein am Rhein.  We were burg-ed out that day, but should you have more energy to conquer the climb, visitor information can be found here.

St. John's Church.

St. John’s Church.

From here you can see the Burg.

From here you can see the Burg on the hill high above Stein am Rhein.

Then, on a whim, I decided to follow a touristy-looking sign to something called Badi Espi.  I guessed it might be a museum or at least a photogenic building.  Nope – Badi Espi is an area of the Rhein fenced off for swimming!

The boys had left their swimsuits in the car, but that didn’t stop us from stripping off shoes and socks and wading into the river.  Cool, refreshing, and clean – we couldn’t believe our good fortune!  Even Big Foot dipped his toes.  I was relieved to find a decent free bathroom on site, though I bristled at the food stand prices.  Five euros for  a single hot dog!  We didn’t bite.Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

To the right in the picture, you'll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

To the right in the picture, you’ll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

Back at the parking lot, we noticed two great attractions for children – a large wooden playground and small kiddie train.  Want to ride?  Find fares and a timetable here.

In regards to parking, the lot adjacent to the old town seemed adequate even for a sunny Saturday.  Machines accept credit cards, Swiss francs, and euro coins.  I didn’t notice any free parking; every inch of the road leading in to town required motorists to pay up. Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThe quaint Swiss town of Stein am Rhein deserves a spot on every traveler’s Bodensee or northern Switzerland itinerary, especially in summer.  Pack Swiss money, passports, and swimsuits, and treat the family to a picture perfect day on the Rhein!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures on top of Europe at Schilthorn and on the river at Rhein Falls with kids!Signature-Marigold