What You Need to Know About Taking a Night Train in Germany with Kids

Traveling by train in Germany is one of the easiest ways to get around. We’ve ridden the rails numerous times, but this past April was the first time I attempted to take a child on the overnight train.

Known as the City Night Line (CNL) here in Deutschland, these trains travel slowly, stopping at various points along the route and (usually) arriving after the sun is up at the desired destination.

Although I hadn’t slept on a CNL train before this trip, I did have a smattering of sleeper train experience. I took the overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg when I first visited in 2001 and more often when I lived there in 2003. I had no idea how the trains in Germany would compare to those in Russia.

Lucky for me, my husband took the same night train for a work trip two weeks before I went with solo with Alpha to the Netherlands and back. Thanks to him, I had a heads up on the differences before I even left home.

To read about our mama-son adventure to Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, click here!

Alpha is my oldest, a very brave and grown-up six year-old. He was thrilled to be the boy chosen to accompany me (er, indulge my floral fancy) on our whirlwind Dutch adventure.

On the evening of our departure, I put him to bed at home as usual, only he slept in his street clothes instead of pajamas. Our train was scheduled to depart at 11pm. I woke him around 10:15pm; we slipped on our shoes and strapped on our backpacks. We walked to the tram that took us to the train station, and then sat on the platform waiting for the CNL to roll in.

A collection of random but very important things to know about the City Night Line trains in Germany:

  • Reservations are compulsory. You must select and book the kind of overnight accommodation you want – reclining seat, couchette, or proper sleeping car. And if you cancel your ticket, you do not get the money for the reservation back. In our case, the reservation cost about 60 euros.
  • Though I am thrifty and all, it is well worth the money to pay for a four-berth couchette. The cabins are small, and I would not want to be sharing that tiny space with five other adults. And the reclining seat? Forget it.
  • If you wish, you can reserve a space to bring your bike along for a small fee.
  • Sleeping cabins are mixed, men and women. Each train has one women-only compartment, but this must be booked at the train station.  I was able to reserve beds in this cabin with my son since he was young enough, but it took several employees and a manager before I received approval.
  • You cannot select whether you want an upper or lower berth online. If this is important to you, you’ll need to book this with Deutsche Bahn in person or over the phone.
  • An announcement that serves as a train-wide wake-up call is made on the train at 7am. If your station is scheduled to be before 7am, you can request that the steward wake you up.
  • Some trains have electrical outlets in the cabins, some don’t. The only other outlets I found were in the sink washrooms.
  • For couchette and reclining seat train cars, there are two sink rooms and a toilet located at the end of the car. For proper sleeping cars, toilets and sinks are located inside the cabins.
  • Doors have several locks that can be fastened from the inside. Leave them locked, but be aware you might have to wake up if your cabin is not full and more passengers are coming later in the night.
  • The train stops often and the lights at each station can shine brightly into the cabin window. Expert tip: bring an eye mask to wear while sleeping.
  • More expensive sleeper cabins come with a complimentary breakfast. Couchette and reclining seat passengers can purchase breakfast from the dining car or bring their own.
  • If your train crosses an international border, be sure to pack your passport as it could be inspected. A check was performed when Doc Sci took the CNL, but not when I did.
  • For loads of more great tips, see Seat 61.

When the white and red CNL cars arrived, we located our assigned wagon and climbed aboard. Once inside the cabin, I helped Alpha make the beds. Each passenger in the couchette is given a small pillow, a blanket, and a rectangular sheet that’s open on two sides and sewn shut on the other two. We arranged the sheets so that the opening was toward the middle of the cabin, fluffed the pillows, and placed the blanket on top.

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

A trip to the potty was followed by goodnight hugs and kisses. We donned our fancy shmancy eye masks and allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the motion of the train.

Alpha woke me up a few minutes before the blaring 7am we’re-now-leaving-Germany-so-sleep-time-is-over announcement. We feasted on German rolls, yogurt, and juice that we’d brought along in our packs. The train ambled in to Utrecht around 8:30am where we changed to a commuter train headed for Schipol where we could catch a bus to Keukenhof.

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Only twelve hours but thousands of tulips later, we were at it again, boarding another CNL train in Amsterdam headed back home.

We felt like pros, setting up our sheets, stowing our packs, and pulling out our eye masks. However, one thing was different – on this train, we were assigned one upper and one lower berth.

On the previous night’s train, we both slept below. Alpha sleeps on the top bunk every night at home, so he wanted to try the same thing on the train. I worried he might fall, but I shouldn’t have. The upper berths are slightly concave and feature decent guardrails. However, if you are also concerned about your child rolling out of bed, see below for a few tips on how to reduce the risk.

Since our arrival into our city’s main train station was scheduled for 5:55am, I requested a wake-up call from the steward. Just to be safe, I also set an alarm on my phone for 5:35am. The attendant rapped on the glass precisely 15 minutes before our station and waited until I opened the door and confirmed I was, indeed, awake.

Safety note: Don’t open the door unless you are expecting someone. Random “passport checks” in the middle of the night are usually a scam.

The boy and I slipped on our shoes and our backpacks and quietly left the other two ladies to slumber all the way to Zurich while we greeted the morning in our home city.

Would I take the overnight train with kids again? Absolutely!

But, how would that work with our little Charlie, who still sleeps in a crib?

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

I asked a good friend who often travels with her four kids (ages 0, 2, 4, and 6!) on the CNL to Hamburg for a few tips on taking the night train with infants and toddlers.

  • First and foremost, the attitude of the parents almost always determines the success of the venture. (This holds true for nearly every family travel situation.)
  • Prepare the kids ahead of time; talk through what will happen. Explain that they will sleep at home before they get on the train, then they will wake up in order to get to the train, and then they will go to sleep again on the train. Keep your expectations low – this is a new experience, after all – but don’t offer another option (playing on the iPad instead of snoozing).
  • If your budget allows, try to book out an entire cabin. Couchette cabins are either 4 or 6 beds, so pick the one that is closest to the number of people in your family. Children under 6 travel free, but you still have to pay to reserve their sleeping place (see top block of tips).
  • For small infants that don’t yet push themselves up, bring along a carrycot or small travel bassinet (I have the Phil & Teds cocoon and peanut) that you can place on the floor.
  • For older infants and toddlers, request child safety bars when you book the tickets. If it’s not possible to pre-book this feature, ask as soon as you board. Each train only has a limited number, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling during a busy holiday season.
  • If you’re worried about a child falling out of bed, have her sleep on the bottom berth and arrange your luggage in such a way that if she did fall out, she’d only fall a few inches to the luggage, not all the way to the floor.
Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

If you haven’t had your fill of overnight train travel with kid tips today, here are a few more bloggers crazy enough to take their kids on an overnight train:

Would you take your family on an overnight train? Have you already? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

I’m happy to be linking up with Sunday Traveler once again! Please check out all of this week’s excellent travel-related posts here at Chasing the Donkey.
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Taking in the Tulips at Keukenhof with Kids – Round 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensTravelers (and especially travel bloggers) often talk about a bucket list, that sacred scribbling of places, formal or informal, to see and things to do before they kick the proverbial bucket.

But, what happens when you plan, scheme, and save in order to make one of those dream trips true… and then it wasn’t what you expected?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me when we showed up at Keukenhof Gardens last year and didn’t see a single tulip poking up from the ground. The only blooms to behold thrived inside pavilions or shivered outside in the chilly late winter breeze.

And those gorgeous photos featuring miles of flower fields we all see floating around the internet every spring? Nothing but mounds of dirt with a reluctant fingers of green to mark where vibrant blooms should be.

These things should not be so.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Flowers are fickle, though, and one cannot control the weather nor their time of arrival. So, I had to make a choice: live with the disappointment and be satisfied with Pinterest pictures, or visit Keukenhof again.

While the decision was obvious, how to get there and when to go certainly wasn’t. You see, the single most important tip when visiting Keukenhof with or without children is to time your visit correctly. Too early and the bulbs will still be sulking underground. Too late and they’ll be dying like it’s 1347.

Plus, I had the distance to consider. To drive from my house to Keukenhof takes about 7 hours. With the three amigos in the backseat, it’s impossible to do that all in one go, which means we’d have to make a weekend out of it. It seemed excessive to drag the entire family along just to indulge my flowery whim.

Solution – take the overnight train and bring one child along to lighten the load of the parent left behind.

To read more about taking the overnight train with kids, check back tomorrow!

Alpha and I arrived a bit groggy at the Schipol Airport train station after our night on the rails. We were both looking forward to this adventure together, but our hearts sank when we saw the line for the Keukenhof Express bus.

People from all over the world stood in a queue that snaked around the building. Luckily, we meet an American couple waiting just in front of us. They chattered away while the minutes ticked by. Before we knew it, we were zooming along the Dutch highway on our way to the flower fields.

Since we had been to Keukenhof before, we knew were the bathrooms were and which direction we wanted to head first. While the layout and the feel of the place was the same, something had definitely changed…

The park was alive with TULIPS!Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Everywhere we looked, our eyes feasted on the electric oranges, intense reds, lovely violets, bashful pinks, fierce yellows. Alpha and I bounced from one plot to another. “Look at these, Mama!” he said over and over until we just could.not.look.any.more.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensThis year, we didn’t buy any fresh stroopwaffels at the big Keukenhof windmill, but we did go up inside to have a look. To our delight, many of the flower fields were still in bloom! Swaths of color planted neatly next to each other created a rainbow ribbon that stretched across the horizon.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

When tulip overload set in, we exited the park and headed for the bike rental shack. A few too many euros and two rickety bikes later, we set out to make our own tour of the flower fields.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower GardensWe rode on country roads, swerving away from semis and loaded tour buses, pausing every few minutes to snap photos of the breathtaking beauty. The wind whipped our faces and gnarled our hair, but we didn’t care. We were sailing through the Dutch countryside on two wheels, together.Thrifty Travel Mama | More Tips for Taking Kids to Keukenhof Flower Gardens

With my bucket list wish successfully fulfilled, we headed back to Amsterdam to kill four hours before our return train. I treated the boy to American-style frozen yogurt and a Dutch pancake dinner. We stopped off at the grocery store to stock up on some supermarket souvenirs: peanut butter, speckaloos cookies, hagleslag, and Haribo licorice.

The rain began as the sun disappeared, a slight drizzle that had us running for Centraal station. Just when we stepped inside, the drops became larger until the full fury of a Dutch downpour released.

As the train pulled away from Amsterdam, Alpha waved goodbye to an amazing day and snuggled into his berth for the long ride home.

Would you revisit one of your bucket list destinations if it wasn’t what you expected?

Practical info:

  • Keukenhof is only open March through May. For 2015 dates and ticket prices, click here.
  • In 2013, we visited at the end of March – too early. In 2014, we visited the week of Easter – perfect. Try to time your visit a few days before the Flower Parade, or go during the Flower Parade if you don’t mind the masses.
  • To read about our visit with the Easter Bunny and encounter with an Easter lamb, click here for my previous post.

More bloggers with Keukenhof + kids posts:

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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

 

Vacation Rental Reviews: Airbnb – Haarlem, The Netherlands

Thrifty Travel Mama - My Airbnb Experience, HaarlemAirbnb makes it easy to find a place to lay your head (almost) anywhere in the world.  Add cheap per-night prices in the mix, and you’ve got yourself a budget traveler’s dream.  Right?

Well, it depends.

In my first mention of Airbnb a few months ago, I suggested that perhaps the key to Airbnb’s discount prices and variety of properties is that the properties available on their site are often real people’s homes.  Sure, some are managed vacation properties, but many are just some Joe Schmoe’s pad that he wants to rent out while visiting his great Aunt Edna for two weeks at Christmas.

This real life factor caused Airbnb to fall from my #1 budget vacation rental choice to #3.

When we showed up to the apartment in Haarlem for our weekend in The Netherlands, everything looked the same as the pictures on the website.  The owner didn’t misrepresent anything.  But, what I didn’t realize is that other than stashing her toothbrush in a cabinet and clearing out most of the fridge, she left everything as is and went to sleep at her boyfriend’s house for the weekend.

It’s one thing to look at your sister’s used makeup brushes, crusty spices, haphazard junk mail, and grody toilet sponge.  It’s quite another to find yourself surrounded by the personal effects of a complete stranger, and one that doesn’t share your taste in cleanliness at that.

As the owner showed us around the apartment, I noticed she still wore her shoes around the house (a total no-no in most European countries).  And then I realized, why would she care if she wore shoes or not?  It’s not as if she bothered to clean the floors.  Ugh.

With Airbnb, no standards exist.  Anyone can list their home, and accommodations can be in any condition.  It’s up to the traveler to scour the available photos and be savvy enough to ask the right questions.

I inquired about location, public transportation, amenities, and the like.  But one issue I failed to discuss beforehand – other than personal cleanliness standards – was that of temperature.

It never occurred to me that we would need to use the heat at the end of March.  We are lucky to have a very warm apartment in Germany and seldom (if ever) use the radiators all winter long.  Not so in an ancient townhouse down in damp Holland.

We cranked the thermostat up much higher than I’m sure the owner would have liked.  Unfortunately, even our best efforts weren’t enough.  I had not packed or prepared for such frigid indoor conditions, and Big Foot woke up crying because even with three or four layers he was so cold he couldn’t sleep.  No bueno.

Would I use Airbnb again?  Maybe.  But, I would exhaust all other possibilities first, endlessly analyze photos, and thoroughly interrogate the owner.  No amount of savings is worth being so uncomfortable that you seriously consider ditching your vacation and returning home early.  Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests!!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Trave Dad - Theo Jansen StrandbeestsNerds and nerdettes, you’re not going to want to miss today’s post.  Our family personally met a famous artist/engineer in his studio on our recent BeNeLux trip!  Keep reading for the low down on our encounter with these beach creatures.

In one of those serendipitous travel research moments, my wife stumbled upon a small detail hidden in a random corner of the Dutch shoreline near The Hague.  “Theo Jansen Beach” it said.  Thinking it might be some kind of famous surfer bar, she googled it, but found something much more amazing than booze instead.  Take a look at the 2 minute video below.

Amazing, fascinating, freakish, right?  If you’re like me, you want to see these things in action.  Unfortunately, Theo Jansen didn’t have any work on the beach at the time of our trip to Holland (to find out where the beasts are, look here).

BUT, we found out from his website that anyone can visit his studio near The Hague at anytime.  No need for a wild goose chase in the Dutch countryside; the property is right off a major highway.

Theo Jansen’s workshop is atop a small hill on the side of the road (no parking, just ditch the car on the shoulder and walk up).  Just between you and me, trust me when I say that calling it a “workshop” is kinda pushing it.  The building is little more than a shack to keep Theo protected from the elements when working, and it’s piled high with projects and a case of instant soup envelopes.

This guy developed a formula for creating “new life” as he says, forms that are able to walk across the beach on their own.  A wall next to the shack contains explanations regarding  the proportions and walking motion.  Several creatures greet visitors, inviting the interested to physically experience the creatures.

The sentinels.

The sentinels.

This walking motion and the particular proportions proved to be the two key elements to creating the beasts.  Each animal has a center shaft where all the feet connect in an offset manner.  Wind powers the beasts’ movements depending on the intensity of the gusts.  Theo is now creating a process by which this wind energy can be stored in bottles so the beasts can walk even when the weather is calm.

Theo Jansen’s ultimate goal is to create a beast that can exist completely independent of human help.  He literally believes he is creating a new species of life..

T-Rex is impressed.

T-Rex is impressed.

Wanting to see these engineering wonders for ourselves, we gambled that Theo would be at his studio on the day we passed through.  The odds were in our favor, and Mr. Jansen happily greeted us when we knocked on the shack door.

The studio is littered with PVC pipe, the color of Dutch cheese.  As Theo explained, these tubes are then bent, drilled, and heated to his specifications.  Large sheets catch the wind, and recycled soda bottles capture it.

T-Rex was gaga over all the tools in the workshop, and the two of them even chatted a bit in German and English about the gadgets and gizmos lying around.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Theo really enjoyed seeing the boys faces light up as their eyes followed the movement of a tiny beast across a table.  This particular teeny tiny beast had been 3-D printed and sent to Jansen by a student which is quite impressive considering the large number of moving parts needed to make the thing work.

Instead of being outraged that others are printing his work, Theo is delighted.  In fact, he considers this the method of beast reproduction.  These clever creatures use humans to multiply their species.

After seeing the little ones in Theo’s workshop I must admit I really want one (Father’s Day – hint, hint!).  Apparently, I have good company in my admiration for these marvels.  Adam Savage has also developed quite an affinity for them.

Outside the workshop, we tested some beasts with our own hands.  From pushing and pulling a few little guys around the hilltop, I can only imagine what the full-scale beasts look like in person scurrying along the sand and splashing in the waves.

Father and son geek out time.

Father and son geek out time.

I wished we could have stayed and talked the genius Jansen’s ear off, but T-Rex was cold, Screech wanted a snack, and we couldn’t push our luck with a sleeping Big Foot.

Would I go visit Theo Jansen’s studio again?  You betcha.  I hope Mr. Jansen is still around when my boys are old enough to understand the engineering and design principles behind these creations.  Science + Art = always a winner in our traveling family’s book!

Headed to The Netherlands?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Zaanse Schans – Nerdy Travel Dad approved!

Nerdy Travel Dad: Visiting Zaanse Schans in Holland with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Zaanse Schans, Holland.My absolute favorite thing about traveling as a family is the ability to visit the same destination but experience it through the lenses of our different and unique personalities.  I (obviously) blog about what interests me in a new location, but I also enjoy hearing and sharing a different viewpoint every now and then.

So, I’m super excited to introduce a new feature on TTM – a series of Nerdy Travel Dad posts written by my husband, Doc Sci!  If you’re looking for a cheat sheet on the educational aspect of the places we visit as a family or if you simply care more about how things work than how they look, this Nerdy Travel Dad series is for you.  

Thanks to the popularity of WIRED magazine’s GEEKDAD and celebrities that not only embrace but promote their geekiness (hey, Adam Savage), it’s never been a better time to be a nerd.

I love traveling, but my fascination with new places differs significantly from that of my wife.  Example.. while she ogled some ridiculous bunch of fluorescent flowers at  Keukenhof, I  calculated how many times the “flower engineers” had to cross breed the tulips to achieve such spectacular color.

But, on to Holland!  When my wife told me we were going to a kitschy place outside Amsterdam to experience traditional Dutch culture, I’ll admit I was a tad bit skeptical.  However, after pulling up to the parking lot and seeing all the gigantic, old school windmills and random people walking around in wooden clogs, I decided the Zaanse Schans could be a place where my kids might actually learn something as opposed to just stuffing their faces with Gouda.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

The Zaanse Schans goes beyond typical Dutch tourism.

The Zaanse Schans goes beyond typical Dutch tourism.

On the surface, the Zaanse Schans is a typical tourist destination where one can part with their euros in exchange for souvenirs and snacks.  Shops making clogs and cheese, a bakery, a smattering of museums and several windmills dot the landscape.

But, look more closely and you’ll see that many of the buildings at the Zaanse Schans (hereafter known as ZS, because scientists like acronyms) have open areas where visitors can learn and observe the old ways.  Educational opportunities abound. 

Get smart.  Leave your pram at home.

Get smart. Leave your pram at home.

However, before I get to the nerdy stuff, here are a few practicalities my wife is insisting I include..

  • Admission to the park and many of the buildings is free, though some do charge a small fee (including all windmills).  Choose your own adventure by only paying to go in one or two, or purchase a combination ticket covering all the Zaanse Schans attractions.
  • Parking is 7,50 euro for the day.
  • Strollers should be left behind if at all possible.  It’s difficult to maneuver prams over the bridges, and many of the shops are too small to accommodate buggies.
  • Toilets are NOT free.  Each visit costs 50 cents, so go easy on the coffee!  Bring coins, because change will be given in 50 cent increments.  You don’t want to break a 20 here…
  • Changing tables for babies are located in the restroom near the entrance, but not the one near the back of the park.
  • The area is windy and chilly, so dress appropriately.
  • Dining options include the pancake house (fun but pricey), the restaurant (outrageous), and quick snacks/drinks sold in the windmills.

The absolute highlight of ZS is the collection of windmills.  All of the windmills charge an admission fee, but the spice mill has an area on the bottom floor that one can visit free of charge.  Since we had already been up inside a windmill at Keukenhof, I decided to gauge the boys’ interest in the spice mill before coughing up the money to visit the rest of the mills.

Windmills!!

Windmills!!

The main thing I tried to communicate to T-Rex and Screech was the idea that wind can be used to help us do work.  The spice mill interior is not set up to show how the big sails up top are connected and moving the cogs and wheels down below.  It is my understanding that the windmill innards are visible from the admission area.  Regardless, older children will be able to visualize the basic engineering principles of torque, rotation, and interconnection.

Text

The Spice Mill.

Get the wheels in little heads turning by asking questions such as… How can a vertically rotating rod can be connected in such a way to move things horizontally?  Why are such big sails needed?  Why do the small cogs move so much faster than the big cogs?

Unfortunately, Screech and T-Rex are a little too young (ages 3 and 5) to really engage in these topics.  While in the mill, T-Rex was more interested in a spice trading map with a blinking light that moved along the worldwide routes.  Still educational, but not exactly what I had in mind.  I tried to give him a quick rundown regarding the technology of the LEDs that made that map possible… but to no avail.  He just wanted to push the buttons.

We then moved on to something more up my boys’ alley – food.  The ZS cheese shop offers a five-minute presentation on how cheese is made.  Unfortunately, the man in costume talked WAY too fast, and we were herded like cattle into the store immediately after the talk.

(Tip: don’t buy your cheese at the Zaanse Schans.  If you like a particular variety, jot down the name, and then search for it in a nearby supermarket.  For more Dutch supermarket souvenirs, click here.)

The Cheese Master.  Free sample, anyone?

The Cheese Master. Free sample, anyone?

Surprisingly, Screech and T-Rex were both quite interested in how one of their favorite snacks is made.  Since I wasn’t able to answer all their questions during the presentation (and you won’t be able to either), here’s a quick version for the kiddos you can probably memorize or pull up on your smartphone.  Oh and if you want to sound super smart, make sure to call it biotechnology.

In order to make cheese, you need milk.  Then…

  1. Curdle the milk.
  2. Separate the whey (liquid).
  3. Press the solid curds into a mold.
  4. Bathe the cheese in brine (salty water).
  5. Mature for a period of time; the longer the wait, the more intense the flavor.

See here for more big words, and a few cheesy videos.

The Zaanse Schans cheese display.

The Zaanse Schans cheese display.

Moving on to fashionable footwear… A brief display lines the entrance to the Dutch wooden shoe shop, demonstrating the process of making a log into a clog.  Don’t miss this!  It’s an excellent way to introduce your children to low-tech tools and encourage them to look for new uses (clogs) for ordinary items (logs).

Get your souvenir photos in the gigantic wooden clogs before going inside to learn how these Dutch shoes are made.

Get your souvenir photos in the gigantic wooden clogs before going inside to learn how these Dutch shoes are made.

Parents of young children, take note!  There is an open section in the clog shop that’s chock full of fascinating sharp objects that Screech thought were part of the experience.  While we weren’t looking, he slipped under the loose rope and started making his own.  Okay, not quite, but a few more seconds and he would’ve had new shoes.. or needed stitches.

The Zaanse Schans wall of clogs.

The Zaanse Schans wall of clogs.

Nerds, divas, introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between will enjoy trying on the various clogs for sale.  A plethora of sizes and styles are available, just come prepared to pay in case your little one won’t part with his new fashion statement.

Unknowingly, we both picked the same pair of clogs to try on.  Props to T-Rex for taking this photo.

Unknowingly, my wife and I both picked the same pair of clogs to try on. Props to T-Rex for taking this photo.

Despite my initial skepticism, I am giving the Zaanse Schans the Nerdy Travel Dad seal of approval.  Should you and your posse find themselves in Amsterdam, take a short detour to the north for a dose of Dutch culture and historical technology.  Or, just come for the windmill pictures.  Whatever.

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!

Supermarket Souvenirs – The Netherlands

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - The NetherlandsWondering what to buy from the Netherlands for the folks back home?  You could get one of those kitschy wooden shoe magnets (no judgement if that’s your thing).  Or, you could wow them with one of these supermarket souvenirs!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsFirst up, Dutch cheese!  Okay, in reality, you probably can’t stuff this into your suitcase and expect it to be edible when you get home.  But, it’s worth sampling some of the varieties while in country.

If you like a strong flavor and firm texture, aged Gouda is the way to go!  You could buy name brands like Old Amsterdam or just look for a store brand with the words Oud Gouda.  They’re just as tasty but at a fraction of the price.

Budget traveler tip: Instead of buying the cheese at touristy places like the Zaanse Schans, sample the more affordable varieties at the local grocery store.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsIf you only have space for one supermarket souvenir, make it stroopwaffels.  I first discovered these bad boys in 2003, and I’ve been in love ever since.  Stroopwaffels are yummy straight out of the bag, but they’re downright unforgettable when warm.

Make a cup of tea or coffee and set the stroopwaffel on top of the rim to catch the steam.  After a few minutes, flip to warm the other side.  Don’t wait too long though!  Sometimes the stroopwaffel will become so soft that it can plop down into your hot and tasty beverage.  Devour while hot and gooey.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis isn’t for your suitcase – it’s for enjoying in your hotel room or vacation rental while in country.  Stroopwaffel ice cream can be found a most grocery stores.  I’ve even seen comments online suggesting that this flavor can be found in ice cream shops across Holland.  (And, uh, yeah, that container is totally empty!)

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsGrocery stores are the budget traveler’s place to buy souvenirs that locals would give to each other or send to relatives.  For adorable Dutch tins filled with stroopwaffels, stroopkoeken, chocolate, etc., check the nearest Albert Heijn.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsSpeaking of chocolate, Tony’s Chocolonely is a GIGANTIC chocolate bar with a cause: “on the way to 100% slavery-free chocolate.”  You can read more about their mission here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsBlack licorice is big-time in the Netherlands.  You can find all kinds of crazy varieties from salted to sweet to sugared.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsYou might think black licorice is weird, but that’s just because you haven’t heard of Hagelslag yet!  Basically, it’s chocolate sprinkles that Dutch people sprinkle on their toast.  And by Dutch people I mean adults.  And by toast I mean a sandwich at lunch time.  Don’t believe me?  Read more here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis last one’s just for the expats or the peanut butter-obsessed or the expats obsessed with peanut butter.  Peanut butter is not only cheap in the Netherlands (well, compared to Germany anyway), it also tastes a whole lot better.  It’s not 100% natural, but it doesn’t have hydrogenated oils in it (at least from what my pal Google Translate says).  Look for a high peanut content (aim for 90%), and chow down!

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from the Netherlands?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!Signature-Marigold

Los Pilones: Mex-Mex in Amsterdam

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

Doc Sci and I have a new flavor obsession: chipotle.  Yes, we love the restaurant, but lately we just can’t get enough of that smoky pepper goodness.  These little buddies give a little kick to everything from salsa to salad dressing to soup to enchilada sauce.  Chipotle peppers impart genuine Mexican flavor, and any restaurant in Europe using them is most likely legit.  Los Pilones in Amsterdam is no exception.

Los Pilones has a presence in three different Amsterdam neighborhoods: Nieuwmarkt, Leidsebuurt, and Jordaan.  We visited the Leidsebuurt location because it just happened to be closest to the bus station.  I wasn’t able to figure out the opening hours from their website, but lucky for us, the restaurant starts serving up fajitas and frijoles at 4pm.

The menu advertises the food as Mex-Mex (as opposed to Tex-Mex).  I didn’t hear any Spanish being spoken, but corn tortillas and Mexican cheese are good signs.  No one wants a taco topped with Gouda!Thrifty Travel Mama - Los Pilones, Mexican food in AmsterdamWe ordered the Beef Tacos Alhambre and the Enchiladas Verdes as well as a side of rice and beans.  The server brought us a tiny bowl of chips and pico de gallo (heavy on the cilantro) and a flask of water with small, traditional blue-rim glasses with ICE!  I can’t remember the last time (if there ever was a time) I had ice in my drink when eating out in Europe.

The beef in the tacos was not ground; rather, the dish was prepared with chopped steak.  The presence of bacon in the Alhambre preparation was a new flavor in my Mexican food experience.  It added a hint of smokiness which is almost always a good thing.  The tacos come unassembled, and the only downside is that you only get four tiny corn tortillas.  More tortillas can be ordered separately.Thrifty Travel Mama - Los Pilones, Mexican food in AmsterdamAuthentic green tomatillo sauce smothered the enchiladas.  I usually prefer red sauce on my enchiladas, but this platter was a delicious exception.  The chicken nestled inside the tortillas lacked spice, but the slight heat in the sauce made up for it.  A small scoop of black beans accompanied the enchiladas as did a smattering of thinly sliced red onions.

And, speaking of black beans, we ordered a side of negros refritos to stretch the meal and feed all four of us.  The seasoning on the beans tasted just right – not too timid, not too spicy.  Unfortunately, the rice bitterly disappointed with its addition of vegetable bits but lack of flavor.  But no matter, we just doused it in the house chipotle sauce.

If you’re an expat or just crazy about Mex-Mex, I highly recommend visiting Los Pilones for an authentic Mexican meal in Amsterdam.  Two thumbs up!

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!Signature-Marigold

Visiting the Kinderkookkafé in Amsterdam

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

I live with a five year-old aspiring chef.  T-Rex constantly asks me if he can help cook dinner, bake a cake, make pizza, etc.  His kindergarten allows children to prepare a meal every Wednesday for the whole class, and it’s rather dramatic if he can’t participate.  So when I heard about the Kinderkookkafé in Amsterdam, I knew we had to go!

The Kinderkookkafé is a unique cafe in Amsterdam where children run the show.  Each child selects what he or she would like to eat, prepares the dish, helps place it in the oven (if applicable), serves the food, and cleans up afterward.

The cafe hosts cooking classes and birthday parties on weekends.  The children congregate in the open kitchen for instruction and then play while the food bakes.

The cafe hosts cooking classes and birthday parties on weekends. The children congregate in the open kitchen for instruction and then play while the food bakes.

Menu choices include lunch items such as ham and cheese croissants, open face sandwiches, and pizza to desserts like cupcakes and cookies to simpler snacks of carrot and cucumber cut-outs.

Standard menu choices are pictured, but daily specials are written on the blackboard.

Standard menu choices are pictured, but daily specials are written on the blackboard.  The top photos represent the finished product, and the bottom photos help children to select all the required ingredients.

Both of my boys chose to make pizzas.  The menu card showed what items they needed to collect from the self-serve area to create their meal.  With dough, sauce, cheese, vegetables, flour, rolling pin, and pan in hand, they got to work.

First step - smear liquid butter all over the pizza pan.  Really.

First step – smear liquid butter all over the pizza pan. Really.

T-Rex and Screech had a blast doing everything themselves.  Doc Sci observed that the hardest part about a visit to the Kinderkookkafé is actually letting the kids do everything themselves.  Perfectionists will squirm when their child puts all of the cheese in one spot and doesn’t cut up the bell pepper.  Not that I know anything about that…

Ready to bake!

Ready to bake!

I must say that there’s not a whole lot to entertain the little ones while their food bakes.  I noticed a stack of books and a table with paper and colored pencils.  In warmer weather, the children could play outside in the little attached playground.

The cooked pizzas were rather crispy (food safety?), but neither of my boys noticed or cared.  It didn’t take long for the chefs to devour their masterpieces.

Food prices are reasonable; the pizzas cost about €3,50 each and most other dishes cost less than that.  I assume that the cafe makes most of its money from adult refreshments (coffee, cake, etc.).

Bathroom cleanliness was questionable.  The sinks were rather stopped up from all the dough bits washed off of little hands.  T-Rex almost overflowed the basin.  Let’s hope the staff uses separate facilities and keeps the kitchen cleaner than the restroom.

The staff members spoke English and were happy to answer all of my first-timer questions.  When I was mixing up a bottle for Big Foot, one of the women working there walked over and offered to warm it up for me.

The Kinderkookkafé concept is brilliant, and it’s obvious that the place has had great success.  I highly recommend stopping here for a meal or even just a snack when visiting Amsterdam with kids.

Have you been to the Kinderkookkafé?  If you had the opportunity, would you enjoy going to a restaurant where your children prepared and served the food?

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to Keukenhof Flower Gardens!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Amsterdam with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with KidsNo BeNeLux itinerary would be complete without a stop in Amsterdam.  Doc Sci and I have been to the city before, so I thought it would be fun to incorporate some kid-friendly activities this time.

I’ll outline our day in this post, but several of the activities deserve their own separate space.  Look for more complete reviews of specific attractions in the coming days.Thrifty Travel Mama - Amsterdam with Kids9:30am – Hop on a bus headed to Amsterdam from our home base in Haarlem.  Since we planned to walk everywhere that day, we decided the boys should have something to keep them interested and minimize “are we there yet” complaining.  T-Rex rode his scooter and Screech toured Amsterdam on his laufrad (balance bike).

I gotta get me one of those!

I gotta get me one of those!

We opted for the pram instead of the backpack carrier for Big Foot.  Was this the right choice?  It’s hard to say.  There are sidewalks in Amsterdam, but most of them are narrow and made of stone.  The hardest part was keeping the whole circus (pram, scooter, balance bike + two adults) somewhat together on the sidewalks.  But 10 hours is a long time to carry a baby and Big Foot sleeps better on the go when he’s in the pram.

Solution: If you can, do as the Dutch and rent a bakfiets for the day!

10:15am – Arrive in southwest Amsterdam and plot a walking course to our first stop.  Upon arriving at the bus station, we noticed one of Amsterdam’s public urinals.  Did we try it?  To quote the oft-sold saying, “What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam.”

Free public urinal at the bus station.

Free public urinal at the bus station.

11:00am – Pop in to the most anticipated stop of the day, the Kinderkookkafe!  This place is (obviously) designed just for kids, and it’s awesome.  All the food is made by the kids themselves!  The boys put together pizzas while Doc Sci and I downed some delicious Dutch cheese sandwiches we had brought and drank tea to warm up (did I mention it was blowing snow when we left Haarlem that morning?).

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

The Kinderkookkafe, where kids are the star of the meal.

12:30pm – Take a walk through Vondelpark, the most beautiful park in Amsterdam.  The place was hopping with tourists and locals alike.  Our favorite feature of the park was the multilingual lost and found.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark?  Check here.

Lost a glove in Vondelpark? Check here.

1:00pm – Shop at HEMA, the discounter (think Target) known for its Dutch design and reasonable prices.  We drank hot chocolate at the cafe which has an IKEA restaurant feel.  HEMA is a great place for budget travelers to stock up on unique souvenirs (we found a fun Netherlands puzzle for 4 euros) or any travel necessities you might have run out of or forgotten.  If you don’t love HEMA, it’s because you just don’t know it yet!

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

Knocking back hot chocolate at HEMA.

2:30pm – Hit up Kitsch Kitchen Supermercado for whimsical gifts and home items.  As luck would have it, the store was having an Easter egg decorating contest.  My boys were thrilled to be able to sit down and paint hard boiled eggs while I browsed the shelves.  I big fat puffy heart LOVE serendipitous events!

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

Painting Easter eggs at Kitsch Kitchen.

3:30pm – Get lost in a parade of clothing from past eras at Episode Vintage Doc Sci is always looking for quality denim in his size, and I can go for a fun peasant top any day.. as long as it fits me.  Alas, we didn’t find anything that day.  If you’re looking for cheap clothing, this is not the place.  Shopping at Episode Vintage is for those seeking one-of-a-kind or nostalgic pieces.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

Piles of surprisingly organized vintage clothing.

5:00pm – Order savory enchiladas and tasty tacos at Los Pilones If you’ve hung around Thrifty Travel Mama for long, you know that I’m always on the hunt for authentic Mexican food in Europe.  When I discovered that Los Pilones sells its own bottled chipotle sauce, I knew this was THE place to go for Mexican food in Amsterdam.  Yeah, buddy!

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

An enchilada end to our day in Amsterdam.

6:30pm – Catch the bus back to Haarlem.  We munched on stroopkoeken (Dutch syrup cookies) all the way home.  What an exhausting but enjoyable day!

Bye, bye Amsterdam - next time we'll have to get around by water taxi!

Bye, bye Amsterdam – next time we’ll have to get around by water taxi!

Have more than one day in Amsterdam?  Here’s what I would’ve added:

  • NEMO Science Center – Admission is expensive, but the place looks bonkers cool.  Plan to spend at least a half day to get your money’s worth.
  • The Dutch Riding School – It’s free to poke your head in and take a look at the riding classes.
  • Albert Cuyp Market – The largest street market in the Netherlands.  I also stumbled upon a tip that there’s a vendor selling fresh stroopwaffels on Saturdays!
  • De Kaaskamer – A store dedicated to Dutch cheese.
  • Pancakes! – Serving up every kind of pancake imaginable from blini to crepes to American-style flapjacks.
  • The Pancake Boat – For a two-in-one experience, the pancake boat offers all you can eat pancakes while cruising around the Amsterdam harbor area.
  • De Taart van m’n Tante – A super funky cake shop.
  • Bierfabrik – A restaurant specializing in organic, charcoal-grilled Cornish game hens.  Eat with your hands, and get to know your neighbor!
  • Le Pain Quotidien – Excellent choice for breakfast or lunch.  Think Panera gone all French.
  • Bagels & Beans – Perhaps not as exciting to US travelers, but expats craving bagels (Einstein Bros or otherwise) will love this place.  In addition to coffee (hence the beans), this chain brews loose leaf tea.

Have you been to Amsterdam with kids?  Did I miss any fun places that little ones would’ve enjoyed?Signature-Marigold