Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, SwitzerlandThe last time Doc Sci and I had the chance to escape alone, Charlie was still swimming in my stomach. We went to Milan for one warm, delicious day (the little one must have liked it because we ended up back in Italy to celebrate his first birthday). But with the little guy nearly two (2!!), we were due for another getaway.

With our tenth anniversary on the horizon, I entertained visions of endless days spent lying on Greek beaches, in private villas, and around infinity pools. These images must have been more delusion than dream because who I am kidding?! There’s no way we have the financial or child-care means to support such grand plans.

Instead, we ended up with a plan that was much more “us” than my former imaginations. We booked our trusty babysitter for a day and a half and set off for Switzerland to sleep in the Alps and hike the classic Faulhornweg.

Logistics

Faulhornweg day-trippers need to take the cog wheel train from Wilderswil to Schynige Platte, make their way to First (about 6 solid hours of walking, not including breaks), take the cable car back down to Grindelwald, and then a train back to Wilderswil.

It sounds confusing, but the basic idea is that you must travel up one side of the mountain, walk an insanely long way, and go back down the other side in order to return to your car. It can be done in reverse, but I consistently read that it was recommended to start at Schynige Platte.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

I figured with our limited budget, we’d need to overnight at a hotel in Grindelwald or even Interlaken. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hotel Schynige Platte reasonably priced for Switzerland. The hotel sits just above the cog wheel train station on top of the mountain and affords diners and sleepers glorious views of the big three: Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Rates include both a five-course dinner and breakfast buffet.

Going Up

Since we missed the cog wheel train experience at Pilatus, both Doc Sci and I were eager to cross this experience off our bucket list. We bought tickets in Wilderswil and waited for the last train of the day. We were asked repeatedly if we had overnight reservations (yes) because it would be a cold night alone on the mountain if we didn’t.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

To our surprise, other than a pack of paragliders, we were the only passengers on the train, save one Swiss family with two children. Doc Sci and I were like giddy school kids, jumping over the benches, hanging out the windows, snapping photos every three seconds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Interlaken!

At the beginning of the train ride, we could see Interlaken, Thunersee, and Brienzersee. But then the train went through a series of tunnels before popping out in front of her majesty, Jungfrau.

Just like with the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the best view is not from the monument itself, but rather from a distance.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

We pulled into the station at Schynige Platte, and checked into our hotel. The Hotel Schynige Platte is marketed as something from “grandma’s time.” The bathrooms are very modern (though not en-suite), the hotel is renovated and sparkling clean, but we had to laugh at some of the cheesy antiques.

All chuckling aside, we could barely speak when we saw the view from our room. I’m absolutely sure we had the best room in the entire house because it was on the corner and we could see the Alps from both windows.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Jungfrau!

Dinner was a curious affair. I can’t remember the last time I ate a five-course meal in a restaurant. I must have forgotten that snobbery is often the only thing that comes complimentary.

When we arrived at our table, the waitress insisted that we must order drinks. We only drink water with dinner at home, and I didn’t see in any TripAdvisor reviews that drinks (or at least water) were not included in the dinner price. She refused to bring us tap water and because we only had a limited number of francs with us (stupid I know, but I was not expecting to be manhandled), we couldn’t just order anything regardless of cost. We awkwardly asked for a menu.

A little heads up on this would’ve been nice, and a little understanding from the server would’ve been even nicer. We finally ordered a half liter of Sprite to the tune of 6 CHF. Yikes.

The worst part was that we realized later that another table had tap water – and a different waitress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Several of the courses were served on “plates” of stone or wood.

This flap put a bit of a damper on our dinner. We tried our best to ignore it, but this server was intent on remaining surly throughout the entire meal. To make matters worse, it started raining during dinner, clouding up our view of the Alps.

Well, whatever – we were here without kids, and we were going to make the best of it!

The room was chilly, but a space heater did the trick. As I mentioned, none of the rooms are not en-suite, but we never had to wait for a toilet or shower, and everything was very clean. It was odd to sleep in such silence with nothing but an occasional gust of wind to break it. We savored every minute of it.

In the morning, we rose early in anticipation of the long hike ahead. Breakfast was a limited buffet (though they did have hard boiled eggs and an assortment of pork cold cuts in the protein department). We made ourselves Alpine cheese sandwiches to take along, and we devoured the traditional Swiss yogurt and muesli in between swigs of coffee.

The Hike

After checking out, we stepped out into the drizzle. Unfortunately, the rain from the night before had lingered. Never mind that, our spirits were still high. Whenever anything threatened to fizzle our cheery disposition, we just looked at each other and said, “No kids!”Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

But this weather, this drizzle, was to be the best of the whole day. The plus side was that we were the only people on the trail. We could chat with each other or climb in silence. Our exclamations at the beauty of this place, even despite the fog and rain, annoyed no one. Pit stops were possible anywhere one pleased.

We traversed so many different types of terrain – huge boulders, tiny footpaths, bits of snow, gurgling streams. We dodged cow pies in pastures with scary heifers and slimy black salamanders that came out to frolic in the puddles. It was incredible.

The only thing that could have made it any more amazing would’ve been the lifting of the clouds so that we could have seen the peaks around us while we hiked.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The down side of the nasty weather was that by the middle of the hike, we were already on our way to being soaked. We wanted to sit in shelter somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We came across one restaurant (Berghaus Männdlenen Weberhütte) that rudely shooed us away since we only wanted to take a break and not buy a meal. The only other restaurant (Berghotel Faulhorn) we saw was at the Faulhorn summit. We figured we had about 5 CHF to spare and bought a hot chocolate with that in order to sit inside and warm up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Faulhorn summit.

Unfortunately, our clothing and belongings were now thoroughly drenched (note to self: check waterproofing on clothing and gear before going on a substantial hike). Putting them back on and stepping back out into the chilly rain and blistering wind sent my teeth a-chattering and my body temperature in a frightening downward spiral. Thankfully, I warmed up again after about 30 minutes, and at that time, we discovered a free hut where we could have eaten our lunch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Bachsee.

This hut looked out over the Bachsee, a lake popular with tourists ascending from Grindelwald to First. The sea was dead that day – no swimming, no fishing. I had hoped to take a dip in the Alpine water, but no dice. We had to keep moving to stay warm and get to a place where we could finally dry off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Don’t get any crazy ideas – that’s a camera and zoom lens in my jacket, not a baby bump.

Water literally poured off of us as we stepped inside the cable car at First for the ride back down to the Grindelwald valley. I think the only things that weren’t completely dripping were our feet (thank God), our cameras, and our phones. We rode down the mountain relieved to have made it and eager to get back to our car to change into dry clothes.

Final Thoughts

Would I do this hike again? Absolutely. But, only if I had the assurance of a clear day with no rain. And I think my boys would love this route in a few years. Perhaps we’ll go back for our 15th anniversary.

Doc Sci and I talked about anything and everything during the hike to stay focused, positive, and warm. I am so thankful that we are the best of friends. The fact that after 10 years of marriage, we still have things to talk about really encouraged me. While I would have obviously wished for better weather and more amazing views, hiking in these awful conditions really solidified something for me. I’d rather be in a miserable place with my husband than in a gorgeous one without him.

Have you ever had weather or vendor attitudes threaten to ruin your plans for an amazing vacation? I’m not always this positive – I think the absence of potential chorus of whining helped – so if you have any tips on how you managed to make the best of things, share them in the comments below.Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Mt. Pilatus – More Swiss Alps… with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with KidsOur romp through Switzerland continues today with an outing to Luzern (or Lucerne, if you prefer). The infamous lake of the same name is guarded by two intimidating peaks – Rigi to the east and Pilatus to the south. Both are big, bad, manly Alps.. so how to choose?

Which Peak?

If you’re trying to decide, you may be interested to know that tourists generally flock to Pilatus, but many Swiss people recommend Rigi. The view is said to be more beautiful from Rigi, though the panorama from Pilatus reportedly beats out Rigi. If you have the cash and want to do both, I’ve heard that the look and feel of the two mountains is very different.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

What made us pick Pilatus? Well, our visit was in June, and the cable car on Rigi is free for children in July and August. There was no way I was going to pay for something crazy expensive like a Swiss cable car ticket when I could just wait a few weeks and then get it for free.

Going Up

There are two ways to reach the top of Mt. Pilatus: cable car and cog wheel train. They both go to the same place, but they start from different sides of the mountain.

Many visitors to Mt. Pilatus choose to do something called the Golden Round Trip. You can start the GRT from anywhere along the way, but the classic route begins in Luzern with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne from the city to Alpnachstad. From there, you board the world’s steepest cog wheel train and chug on up the mountain. After dilly dallying to your hearts content in the thin air, you take two different cable cars down to Kriens where a bus returns you to Luzern.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

We decided that from a logistics and budget standpoint, we would get the most out of our day by going up and down the same side of the mountain. It had to be the cable car side since I discovered that Krienseregg boasts a rather impressive playground called PILU-Land. We’d have to leave the cogwheel train experience for another time.

Parking at Kriens was easy enough, and after being completely ripped off by a terrible euro-franc exchange rate, we were off, sailing up into the blue skies.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The first cable car is small, only big enough for four people (though they wisely allowed us to squeeze Charlie in despite the four-person rule). It glides up Kriens-Krienseregg-Fräkmüntegg. At Fräkmüntegg, passengers switch to another larger cable car to reach the peak. Note that from September 1, 2014, to sometime in the spring of 2015, the Fräkmüntegg – Pilatus Kulm route will be closed due to the construction of a new aerial cableway. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

At Fräkmüntegg, you can ride Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. Ticket prices are reasonable, but note that children under 2 cannot ride and children under 6 must be accompanied by an adult.

Pilatus – The Peak

A fancy hotel and several restaurants sit at the top ready to accept visitors’ francs. We sailed right on by and looked for the trails.

Since we were with another family and this time had six kids in tow (ages 8 and under!), we couldn’t very well do any of the crazy Alpine trails. However, we did manage to hike up to both Esel and Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

View of the Pilatus station, including restaurants and sundeck, from Esel.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Chillin at Esel. No ugly hiking boots or zipoff pants today.

The walk up to Esel is rather short, and it offers the best view of Lake Luzern itself. The stairs are wide enough that you can climb side by side with kids on the inside (toward the mountain). You’ll find benches here, but also loads of tourists. Munch on lunch, and move on.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

If you’re lucky, you might just spot a crazed mountain man free climbing up to the summit.

Tomlishorn, on the other hand, is trickier but worth the trek. It’s further from the Pilatus summit station (about an hour), and the trail is narrower, sometimes with only thin metal poles and skinny cables to keep you (and your kids) from skidding down the mountain. But there are pretty little signposted wildflowers to keep you company along the way. And the views of the Alps are better from this side.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Starting out toward Tomlishorn.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Things are getting rocky along the way..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

But this picnic spot was well worth the effort.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

And, then, of course, there’s the view..

If you’d rather stay closer to the station, look for the dragon path which you can start from inside the station building. It’s carved into the rock and winds around the north side of Pilatus. On the back side of the path, you can watch the seriously buff hikers finishing their climb up the mountain. You’ll also have a perfect view of the chapel on Klimsenhorn with miles and miles of Swiss land in the background.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The back side of the dragon path.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

The chapel on Klimsenhorn. We desperately wanted to go down and check it out, but the terrain was a bit too slippery with young ‘uns and not enough trekking poles to go around.

Back the Way We Came

After we were half tipsy from the endless picture-perfect peaks, we needed to get those six munchkins to the playground ASAP before they wrestled their way down the mountain. When we switched cable cars at Fräkmüntegg, we heard music – alphorns!

At Krienseregg, we joined dozens of other Swiss families for a romp on the PILU-Land playground. In true Swiss style, the grills were all fired up and everyone was eating freshly roasted sausages (well, everyone except BYO cheapskates like us).Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

To top things off, we arrived back at Kriens just in time to watch two paragliders land next to the cable car station. The boys were in heaven, but all I could think of was the hellish barrage of “why can’t I paraglide when I turn 7?” questions for the next three weeks. Sorry, dear, we don’t mind you walking in the clouds as long as your feet are on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very long time before we let you jump off into said clouds with nothing but a little nylon to keep you afloat.

So, How Does Pilatus Compare?

If you’ve read about our Schilthorn experience, you might wonder how Pilatus stacks up. In our opinion, Schilthorn is the better choice, hands down.

Pilatus had no snow on it, and we could only catch hazy glimpses of the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Schilthorn still had some snow, but all the peaks around it were dazzling in white. Also, the view of Lake Luzern is nice, but looking at Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau is just otherworldly. Both peaks are gouge-your-eyes-out expensive. But, if the weather’s clear and it’s within reach, go for Schilthorn.Thrifty Travel Mama | Mt Pilatus (Lake Luzern) with Kids

Don’t miss our third and final Swiss adventure next week which involves NO children, being soaked to the bone, and the only snotty Swiss people I’ve ever met. Subscribe by email, feed reader, or like TTM on Facebook to stay up to date on the latest posts.

Taking the family to Switzerland but don’t have the cash or the time to visit the Alps? Check our adventures in Bellinzona, Stein am Rhein, and Rhein Falls!

Signature-Marigold

A Budget-Friendly Swiss Family Hike in the Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

Goodbye, awesome playground and potentially dangerous bovines.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Budget Friendly Swiss Family Hike

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

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

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

Ready for the recap?

In no particular order..

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

Cologne

Köln (Cologne)

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Keukenhof Gardens with Kids

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Flying away in Zadar, Croatia.

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mexican Food in Germany

The taco truck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking in the Alps with kids

Back in the Alps!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part II)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandThis post contains Part II of our day trip to the Swiss Alps.  Click here for Part I.

Where were we?  Oh, right, gazing at the top of Europe!

We spent about 2 1/2 hours at the Schilthorn summit before deciding to check out the lower mountain towns.  Birg offers little more than a picturesque observation platform.  Make a quick stop there, or continue on to Mürren.

Going down..

Going down..

The platform at Birg.

The platform at Birg.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

The view of the playground from the cable car.

As we approached Mürren, we noticed a children’s playground underneath the cable line and decided this would be the perfect place for our picnic lunch.  Lucky for us, the way was signposted (look for Kinderspielplatz though I believe it was also in English).  The route is short, but the path is steep.

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station...

Just around the corner from the Mürren cable car station…

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

You can refill your bottles or splash your face with fresh Alpine water.

And then follow the signs up the mountain...

And then follow the signs up the mountain…

To this playground!

To this playground!

A great spot for a picnic...

A great spot for a picnic…

Watching the cable cars go by.

Watching the cable cars go by.

The boys scurried around, trying the swings, the slide, the rocking horse.  Doc Sci and I unpacked the sandwiches on one of the available picnic tables.  Afterward, we lay on the soft grass in the sunshine, still trying to absorb the Alpine landscape that surrounded us.  The hot sun soon became too much, and we went off in search of the stream we could hear rushing in the background.

Peeling off shoes and socks, Doc Sci plunged his feet in first.  Not even five seconds later, he hobbled out with toes nearly frozen by the frigid glacial water.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Taking a short dip in the stream.

Though Rick Steeves thinks rather highly of Gimmelwald and Mürren, I can’t say I was too thrilled by either.  Mürren seemed too touristy (but the views peeking in between houses are fabulous), and Gimmelwald was barely more than a half dozen houses (make a quick playground stop).

Mürren.

Mürren.

Of the two, Mürren has more to offer.  With a grocery store, post office, and railway station connecting to Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken, it’s the more happening of the two villages.  If you’re in the market for some Swiss trinkets, Mürren would be your best bet.

We ran into an American family at the Piz Gloria that just happened to be lodging in Gimmelwald.  They mentioned that it’s possible (even with children) to walk downhill from Mürren to Gimmelwald.  The way is paved, and the trek takes about 40 minutes.  Short on time, we skipped this hike.

Gimmelwald.

Gimmelwald.

Though the boys went nuts over the giant slide in Gimmelwald, the most interesting part of this village for us was The Honesty Shop.  This hole in the wall (almost literally) offered everything from bananas to postcards.  Prices were clearly posted, and shoppers were expected to total their merchandise before leaving the correct amount of cash in a small wooden box.  Cool, right?

Maybe I would’ve enjoyed Gimmelwald more if we would have had a few more hours to hike the surrounding countryside.  But alas, nap time was calling; babies were bored and bawling.

For us, the most amazing part of the whole experience was being dwarfed by the massive Alpine peaks: Schilthorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger.  These giant mountains issued a sobering reminder that we are but small specks, our lives a mere vapor in the wind.  And who is this Creator that he is even mindful of us?  I cannot fathom it. Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandBudget willing, we wouldn’t mind standing in the shadow of other Swiss peaks.  For now, we’re satisfied, thankful, and thinking often of the amazing day we experienced at Schilthorn.

Here are those insipid yet indispensable details I mentioned…

  • Planning: If you’re coming/going to northern Switzerland, I would recommend the route through Bern (A2/A6) over Lucerne (A1/A8).  If you choose the latter, get ready for a wild mountain ride and a slew of tunnels.
  • Currency: You can pay in euro or Swiss francs (CHF).  If paying in euro, the exchange rate is poor, and change is given in CHF.  But this was still more practical for us than trying to locate an ATM in the boonies at 7am.
  • Ready: The temperature is a lot colder at the top than at the other stations.  Pack a windbreaker, hat, and scarf, just in case.  Also, slather the family in sunscreen before ascending.
  • Accessibility: It’s certainly possible to take a pram on the cable cars and on the paved village roads.  A lift at the Piz Gloria takes you to the observation tower.  But, you’d miss out on the second observation tower as well as any mountain trails (and the playground at Mürren).
  • Affordability: Prices in Switzerland are unreal.  Bring your own food and drink whenever possible.  I noticed a grocery store (Coop) in Mürren if you need to grab a few necessities.
  • Freaky: The very last cable car ride from Gimmelwald back to Stechelberg swoops noticeably down which, in turn, solicits some serious squealing from passengers.
  • Risky: My five year-old was fascinated by the paragliders.  Several landed right next to our car as we were leaving.  If this is your thing, have a look at Airtime.  The staff were super cool to talk to and even lent us their parking pass when I (stupidly) dropped my paid ticket into a crevice in the console.  Doh!
  • Corny: Get ready to hear the 007 theme song every time a cable car departs.  Oh, and there are statues of movie characters on the observation deck that repeat the same lines over and over.  Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

Signature-Marigold

Schilthorn – The Swiss Alps… with Kids! (Part I)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandNote: This post is rather long winded.  I thought a minute or twenty about whether to just post pictures or to release an avalanche of words with aforementioned photos.  Since my hope is to inspire others to travel the world high and low with children, I chose the latter.  Feel free to just ogle if that’s more your thing.

Our family is privileged to see amazing places, things, and people in this world with our own eyes.  A dangerous side effect is the possibility of becoming familiar with the sensation of newness, numbly chasing after the next scenic thrill.

But every once in a while, the beauty of a particular place stays with you, haunts you, even changes you.  We recently trekked to the Swiss Alps and hitched a ride to the summit of Schilthorn.  What we saw there is still taking our breath away.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Schilthorn, SwitzerlandWow.  Just.  Wow.

My wish would be that every one of you could have the chance to gaze at these peaks, mouth gaping in awe of creation and the Creator.  But, practically speaking, that may not be possible.  So, come along with me, and let’s experience the Alps together.

The valley floor near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

Leaving the valley near Stechelberg, Switzerland.

In order to reach the tippy top of Schilthorn, one must ride a series of cable cars.  The first cable car starts out near the village of Stechelberg.  Arrive by car or by post bus (post as in post office!) from Lauterbrunnen.  I was dismayed to find that we had to pay to park, but at least it wasn’t obnoxiously expensive (about 5 CHF for 7 hours).

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Ascending from Gimmelwald.

Caution: Tickets to reach the summit of Schilthorn are NOT cheap.  However, we chose Schilthorn over other mountains for several reasons.  First, Schilthorn is less expensive than Jungfrau which will rob you of something like 200 euros per person to reach the top.  Second, you can see three major peaks from Schilthorn (Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger).  Third, the views are 360° which means you see a whole heck of a lot more than just those three mountains.

This is what you see as you go up the mountain...

This is what you see as you go up the mountain…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this...

…and this…

...and this!

…and this!

Fortunately, we discovered one way to save a little on the fare.  Early morning and late afternoon tickets are discounted by about 25%.  Children under 6 ride free.  In all, we shelled out about 130 euro total for two adults.  Though this doesn’t scream “bargain,” I felt like we got what we paid for, and I can’t ask for more than that!

A little note about the early morning tickets… I highly recommend this option.  Not only are the tickets cheaper, but the crowds are nonexistent.  Not so later in the day.  Plus, visibility and weather conditions are often at their best first thing in the morning.  As the day goes on, the clouds roll in.

The clouds started to roll in around noon.

The cloudy afternoon skies.

Obviously, you don’t want to pay Swiss ticket prices to ride to the top and not see anything.  Check the weather first!  Several days before our trip, I hovered like a hawk over the forecast, religiously clicking every few hours to ensure that we would have clear skies.  I like this website since it allows users to check conditions at three altitudes.

For more insipid yet indispensable details, have patience!  I’ve included them in Part II to be published Thursday.

Enough – back to the climb!  Board the first car at Stechelberg.  The ride to Gimmelwald takes approximately 5 minutes.  Switch, and take the second car to Mürren.  Another change, and another car glides up to Birg.  From Birg, the last leg of the journey takes visitors up to the Piz Gloria restaurant on the Schilthorn summit.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Birg, the second to last cable car station.

Leaving Birg...

Leaving Birg…

Don't look now, but there's a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

Don’t look now, but there’s a hiker making his way on foot to the summit!

He's got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

He’s got his eye on the James Bond 007 Breakfast Buffet at the Piz Gloria restaurant.

At 2790m (9740 ft) above sea level, we were huffing and puffing just climbing the stairs to the observation deck.  We decided to get some fresh air, drink lots of fluids, eat a snack, and take it easy.  We didn’t want to take any chances on developing altitude sickness (read about signs, symptoms, and what to do about it here).

Taking a look around.

Taking a look around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Identifying the peaks, valleys, forests, and lakes all around.

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Could this place BE any more awesome?

Babies younger than one year should generally not ascend higher than 2500m.  Since Big Foot was the size of a one year-old and two weeks shy of his birthday, we were comfortable taking the risk.  I didn’t see any other babies at the summit, though I did see a few in the other, lower Alpine villages.  Make sure to talk to your doctor before traveling with an infant to high altitudes.

The main attractions on the Schilthorn mountain are the views (obviously), the rotating Piz Gloria restaurant (pricey), and Bond World (hokey, but included in the lift ticket price).

Since much of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed here, it’s impossible to escape 007’s influence on the place.  A new museum chronicling the filming and movie highlights was recently completed.  Fan or not, do stop in with the kids.  My boys couldn’t get enough of the helicopter cockpit, and Doc Sci was geeking out at the ginormous smart table.

One of the many breathtaking views.

One of the many breathtaking views.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

The Piz Gloria rotating restaurant.

Bond World!

Bond World!

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

Exit through the gift shop, of course.

After filling the camera memory card with Alpine images, brave parents can step out onto the partially fenced path leading to a second observation platform.  Keep your kids close, and insist on hand holding at all times.  If you’re feeling up to it, photo opportunities are better down here sans unattractive guard rails.  Ask fellow gawkers to swap photographic favors.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we're steppin' out.

Hold on to your kids and your nerves.. we’re steppin’ out.

I wouldn't recommend trying to get this shot with the kids...

I wouldn’t recommend trying to get this shot with children that aren’t strapped on for safety…

For more jaw-dropping views and picture-perfect Alpine villages, you won’t want to miss reading Part II here.  Along with notes on the intermediate cable car stops, I’ll show you one of the best picnic spots ever as well as share what you need to know before YOU take the family to Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps.  Stay tuned!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Rhein Falls with kids!

Signature-Marigold

Rhein Falls with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsI have to admit, I’ve never been one to go gaga over rushing water.  The sight of water falling doesn’t thrill me as much as, say, castle ruins.  Victoria Falls is on my lifetime bucket list, but Niagara strikes me as total kitsch.  But, after checking out the Rhein Falls in Switzerland, I think I may have changed my mind.  There’s something elusive, even alluring about the formidable power of an imposing waterfall.

Just south of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland lies Neuhasen, the closest city to the falls.  The Rhein Falls are an easy drive from Stein am Rhein, Hohentwiel, Konstanz, Mainau, or even Basel or Zurich.

Visitors can access the falls on both sides of the river either through Schloss Laufen or Schlössli Wörth The Schloss Laufen side charges 5 CHF per adult for admission, but parking is free.  Schlössli Wörth, on the other hand, does not levy entrance fees but the car park costs 6 CHF for 2 hours.  We voted Schloss Laufen; well, okay, the GPS chose for us.

Schloss Laufen - not much to see in this castle except the inside of your empty wallet.

Schloss Laufen – not much to see in this castle except the inside of your empty wallet.

View old photographs of the falls while walking through Schloss Laufen.

View old artistic interpretations of the falls.

Part with your Swiss francs or euros at the ticket office.  Take advantage of the free, clean bathrooms around the corner.  Gaggle at the exorbitant food prices as you make your way to the castle.  A cinnamon sugar crepe for 6 CHF ($6.50) or a bratwurst for 7 CHF ($7.50) anyone?  Hey, at least parking is free!Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsSpeaking of free, cheapskates should know that it’s impossible to see anything from the castle without an entrance ticket.  However, Doc Sci and I theorized that it is entirely probable that one could take advantage of a decent view from the boat ramp.

From Schloss Laufen, follow the signs for the train/boat.  Walk all the way out on the dock, but don’t board.  You should be able to catch a glimpse of the falls from there… but you didn’t hear that from me!

A stained glass turret at the beginning of the descent.

A stained glass turret at the beginning of the descent.

After scanning our tickets and walking through the turnstile, we descended via stairs to the first of several platformsWikipedia described the way as “steep and narrow.”  In my experience, they were neither… at least not to the point of annoyance.

Screech kept saying wow, wow, wow.

Screech kept saying wow, wow, wow.

However, families with babies will find the steps a point of contention.  Though an elevator exists, it does little good for those who wish to experience the various platform views.  I noticed one or two parents with prams.  Frustrated, they had folded up their strollers and were lugging them around while the children walked.

Psssst!  If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m a huge fan of backpack carriers for little ones!

The elevator - all visitors exit the falls this way, but those with wheelchairs or strollers can enter here, too.

The elevator – all visitors exit the falls this way, but those with wheelchairs or strollers can enter here, too.

As you climb lower, the falls’ force and your fascination increases.  At one point, the water seems to be rushing straight at your face.  In a small cave near the bottom, you can even stick your hand in the stream.Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsThrifty Travel Mama - Rhein Falls

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsThrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsFor serious thrill seekers, a boat ferries visitors from the Schlössli Wörth shore to an observation platform sticking straight up from the center of the falls.  Hats off to the skippers who must maneuver the torrid waters several times per hour.  I personally wouldn’t take small children on this excursion; but, if you’re interested, more information can be found here.

That yellow thing is the boat that takes visitors to the rock in the middle of the falls.  The only thing between you and the water is a thin, metal railing!

That yellow thing is the boat that takes visitors to the rock in the middle of the falls. The only thing between you and the water is a thin, metal railing!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsAfter you’ve had your fill observing the force of nature, head back up to the schloss and have a look around.  Kids can amuse themselves for a few minutes on the small playground; parents can decide if they’d like to splurge on an expensive fancy meal at the restaurant.

I can’t say I’ve been converted to a waterfall chaser, but I will admit that my interest in them has somewhat increased.  One thing Doc Sci and I have come to learn about ourselves in this expat experiment is that we love exploring all that the natural world has to offer.  So whether it be water or wind or forest or fjord, you can bet we’ll investigate anything once.. kids in tow.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Schilthorn with kids!Signature-Marigold