Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

You’re about to dive into Part 2 of my one-day adventure in Dresden with three boys and no husband. I last left you in a park bench on the south side of the Elbe with some questionable characters for lunch mates. To read Part 1, click here.

Dipping into Dresden Neustadt

With bellies finally satiated, we traipsed across the Elbe to Dresden Neustadt, following Albertstr. until we reached a Platz of the same name. It’s not every day you get to stroll across a bridge that survived while nearly every other place in the city was bombed out. But of course, the little people in my party were oblivious to this historical fact. Instead, my boys just enjoyed the fountains at Albertplatz and admired the statues encased in falling water.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

We like fountains, yes we do! We like fountains, how ’bout you?

All that rushing water made a certain little somebody have to go to the bathroom right.this.minute. You might not know this about me, but one of my biggest sources of travel stress flows from the difficulty of finding bathrooms in foreign countries. Most of the places I’ve visited do not have shiny porcelain loos in every store, restaurant, or train station like in America. Potties are often impossible to find, ridiculously expensive,  gag-me-disgusting… often all three.

I frantically looked around for any feasible WC possibilities while the little guy insisted that no, of course he could not wait (silly Mama!). The only option in sight – an automatic toilet.

I’ve used these contraptions in Berlin and Paris, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s bad enough to have to wade through that mystery muck on the floor and ignore the thoughts of who might have been there before you.. but when strobe lights come on and the latest club hits come streaming through the speakers (yes, this really happened to me in Berlin)… Just no.

Plus, trust me, you do NOT want to get stuck in there. Apparently, these stalls are locked after every visit and completely cleaned and sanitized with water jets and streams of chemicals. Could you imagine…?!

But hey, when one of your posse has to go, he HAS TO go. So, one euro and five frightful minutes later, we emerged only slightly traumatized and decided we’d had enough of Dresden Neustadt.

We turned around and headed back toward the Elbe in search of gelato to soothe our shaken psyches. We found the creamy goodness near Augustusbrücke, and gazed at the row of masterpieces stacked against the horizon on the south side of the river… just waiting there for us to explore the moment the ice cream melted.

South Side

It was the Katholische Hofkirche that greeted us first. Old and darkened yet still fiercely beautiful, she must be regarded before reaching the more lovely and famous Semperoper. Read up on the opera’s history here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!I loved the opera house – magnificent, imposing. My boys, on the other hand, just wanted to climb the gigantic statue of King Johann on horseback opposite the entrance. Boys.

Last, we stumbled upon the Zwinger, only a stone’s throw from the opera house. Gigantic and gorgeous, the Zwinger just might tie with the Frauenkirche for my favorite place in Dresden. The fountains, the deep turquoise rust, the sheer size, all highlights in my memory. I savored the atmosphere in the courtyard – crisp air, the melody of rushing water, and peace despite the crowds.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

A Serendipitous Find

Our day in Dresden was drawing to a close, a fact I met with relief thanks to my exhaustion of toting a little man on my back and melancholy because of the beauty we would leave behind.

The boys and I retraced our steps to Prager Str. on the way to the train station when I noticed we actually had a bit of time to spare. How did THAT happen?! On a whim, I yanked them into an outdoor, REI-type store.

To our utter delight, we discovered a climbing wall (free!) with loaner shoes (also free!) that the kids could use. They gobbled up the last minutes in Dresden scrambling up and down, up and down, until the clock decided they could climb no more.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Adieu

When we could not spare even one minute more, we raced hand in hand toward the station and found our train. As we stepped aboard, I finally exhaled. I had done it – solo! And I did not hate myself or my small-ish companions! Small miracles, right?

Alone, I had managed to explore a completely new city with three little boys and without any help. We four shared a lovely day, and I will never forget experiencing the Jewel Box that is Dresden with my sons. Though I don’t wish to travel without Doc Sci, my husband and best friend, at least I know that I can do it should the need or urge arise.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!Places I would like to have visited with the luxury of more time:

  • The Fresh Tea Shop. Actually, we did go here (see photo above). The tea I ordered was fresh (yes, really) and so incredibly refreshing. I took the cup back with me to Leipzig and kept filling it up with water because the mint and fruit were so flavorful.
  • Pfunds Molkerei. This quirky place seemed right up my alley. The most beautiful dairy shop in the world, a milk bar where one can taste varieties of milk, cheeses paired with German wines and specialties like milk jam.
  • Dresdener Parkeisenbahn. A steam train for kids, run by kids. Awesome, right?!
  • Paddle Steamboat Ride on the Elbe. My kids love exploring cities from the water, and the Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt operates the largest and oldest fleet of historic paddle steamers in the world.
  • Playgrounds! Check out this link for a map with recommended places to let the kiddos burn some energy.
  • Dresden Children’s Museum. This for-kids-only area is part of the Dresden Hygiene Museum. How very German!

Now that you’ve seen the highlights, what would you want to explore first in Dresden? Do you have a scary potty story to share? Come on, don’t be shy!

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Snapshot: Alone in Dresden..with Kids – Part 1

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Let’s pause the struggles of reverse culture shock for a moment and focus on a completely different kind of struggle – traveling alone with kids!

If you’re like me, travel is your drug, and your eyes are always searching for your next fix. Cheap airfare, hotel sales, and shoulder season deals are just too good to pass up.

What kind of risky behavior would you dabble in just for that next vacation high? Would you tolerate three mischievous boys under 7 as your only travel companions if it meant you could see Dresden, a city you’ve always longed to explore?

Months before I was to drive for a couple thousand miles with the three amigos in the backseat, I put on my big girl pants and took a day trip to Dresden with those three amigos, all.by.myself.

Gulp.

For the record, please don’t endanger your family or finances just for a travel score. It’s only a metaphor, people.

I once read a post about a married mom who travels internationally with her kids but without her husband because he can’t take off work (sorry, I can’t find the link). The post sparked two thoughts.

First, I can’t do that (right?!). And second, I wouldn’t want to do that (you, either?). While my opinion on the latter hasn’t changed, my fears regarding the former have evolved into an ever-increasing confidence.

I can’t believe I’m saying this – but traveling alone with your kids IS possible, and maybe (maybe!?) even enjoyable… Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one.

With three boys and a limited budget, sometimes it’s just not feasible for everyone to go on every trip (such as when I took Alpha to Keukenhof to see the tulips or to Firenze to tour the Uffizi Gallery).

Occasionally, we are presented with travel opportunities too good to pass up, such as tagging along with Doc Sci to a conference in a fabulous destination like South Korea.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

And, every once in a while, I attempt something I ordinarily never would because the payoff has massive potential, enough to outweigh possibly uncomfortable circumstances. Our day trip to Dresden falls into this category.

Let’s get a bit of background, shall we? After our family said our farewell to Freiburg, we rode the rails east and hung out in Leipzig for a few days. Doc Sci needed to attend one last conference, and I saw an opportunity to squeeze in one last little German travel fling before our expat adventure ended.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

Now, I always set my expectations for a family trip itinerary rock-bottom low. But, this time, I managed to reduce those even further. I had only three goals: Get to Dresden, see something, and make it back to the train before it chugs off without us.

I’ve wanted to visit Dresden ever since I was an art history student studying Kirchner and his painting Street, Dresden. The “Jewel Box” is a fascinating place, scarred by World War II and the German Democratic Republic.

I researched and wrote a list of must-see sights. Short of a barfing kid or a broken bone, I was going to make it to those few places to view them with my own eyes. But because I didn’t want to be wandering around aimlessly if we clocked in ahead of schedule, I also made a huge list of options – possibilities if time or interest allowed.

Then, I booked our train tickets and prayed for the best.

The Ride

I bought the kids a bakery breakfast at the station (something I never do because I’m cheap thrifty) to occupy them on the train. A friend who used to live in Leipzig recommended Lukas Baekerei, and it didn’t disappoint. Imagine a soft German pretzel smothered in melted cheese. YES. Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

As we polished off the last crumbs, the train pulled into the station. We stepped into Dresden, gained our bearings, and off we trotted down Prager Str. in the direction of the Kreuzkirche.

Kreuzkirche

Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in the Kreuzkirche. I was more fascinated by the famous Frauenkirche. But, I wanted to climb to the top of the this church in particular for the best and most affordable view of Dresden (plus, climbing stuff is our thing). As is the case in Paris, the best view often isn’t from the most famous landmark but from another tall building nearby.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The lookout from the Kreuzkirche toward the Frauenkirche.

Sweaty but satisfied with die Aussicht, we descended once more to Dresden’s streets, kids starving and mama in need of a loo. We crossed the pedestrian walkway to the Laden Cafe Aha. I had read good things about Aha, so I ordered a white hot chocolate and the boys busted out their lunchboxes.

Apparently, our actions annoyed the server who thought everyone – kids included – should have ordered a full meal. And maybe I would’ve ordered a slice of cake to go with my hot chocolate had I not received the eyeful and earful the server dished up.

When we had been made to feel as uncomfortable as possible, we left. Expert tip: Come for the chocolate, don’t stay for the service.

Frauenkirche

I melted the frustration away with anticipation of our next stop – the restored brilliance of Dresden, the Frauenkirche. You can read all about the history of it here (be sure to check out the photos showing it nearly destroyed and the restoration process).Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

The Frauenkirche is once again a gorgeous gem of architecture; and yes, it’s seriously as beautiful in person as it is in the pictures. This moment right here made the trip for me.

Fürstenzug

One treasure I had not known about before researching our trip is the Fürstenzug. The funny name might not sound like much, but this piece is the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Just check out my little people walking beneath it to grasp the scale.Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

At over 100 meters long and over 10 meters high, it’s plastered on the outer wall of the Stallhof of the Dresdner Schloss. It’s enormous in person and really quite amazing.

Luncheon on the Grass, er Park Bench

We wandered around the courtyards of the schloss a bit before meandering along the terrace wall on the banks of the Elbe. We parked ourselves on a bench in the Brühlschen Garten to finish our lunches that had been so abruptly cut short earlier at the café. Not pictured: rather sketchy atmosphere with questionable characters on the bench next door and far too much trash by German standards. Hardly a Manet moment.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Snapshot: One Day in Dresden with Kids!

While the boys chased each other around the park, I took a much-needed break from carrying Charlie.

We had sold our pram when we left Freiburg since we wouldn’t need it in America. That meant if I wanted to maximize my short hours in Dresden, I had to carry Charlie. Schlepping an enormous two year-old with concrete bones around on my back while simultaneously carrying a backpack with supplies on the front was perhaps the most demanding part of my day. Intermittent whining/complaining scores a close second.

With bellies full and the clock ticking, it was time to zip across the river and see what treasures awaited us in Dresden-Neustadt.

Don’t miss Part 2 when I reveal what nearly knocked the Frauenkirche out of “absolute favorite” position and share a super fun, serendipitous moment on our way out of town. Plus, I’ll include a list of locations we would’ve visited with more time. For Part 2, click here.

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A sneak peak of Part 2 – crossing the Elbe.

Have you been to Dresden or do you want to get there some day? What would you do for your next travel score?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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

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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Nerdy Travel Dad: Mulhouse Train Museum (Cité du Train)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)train museumMy oldest, T-Rex, turned six last month – six!! I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a six year-old… To celebrate, we took a drive to Mulhouse, France, and spent the morning at the train museum there (Cité du Train). 

While I could simply say that this is one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited, this place really deserves a Nerdy Travel Dad review, and Doc Sci will be posting for me today.  Even if you don’t love trains as much as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, you’ll soon see why a stop here is definitely worth your while.

All the boys in the thrifty travel house LOVE trains.  And, uh, that’s putting it mildly.  Every other day (or so it seems), my wife and I are interrogated as to when the next train ride will occur.  On the off days, they’re begging to go on an airplane.

Since our budget didn’t allow for an actual train ride for T-Rex’s birthday, we decided the next best thing would be to take him to the biggest train museum in the world, the Cité du Train in Mulhouse, France.  Not too shabby for a birthday, if I do say so myself.

When we rolled up on that Saturday morning, I had not done a lick of research.  Of course, the always-prepared Thrifty Travel Mama ensured we had the 4-1-1, but she just didn’t tell me.  Or I didn’t ask.  Whatever.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

After I walked into the building, I was genuinely surprised.  There were trains, tons and tons of full-size trains, all lit up, dressed, and costumed.  Mannequins dolled up in era-appropriate clothing peered out from the windows, demonstrating how train travel used to be.  This was awesome.

Quirky dialogue leaked out of tiny speakers in the train cars.  Well, at least I assume it was quirky.. it was in French, of course.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

This was my wife’s favorite train – a snow plow from the Alps.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

In case you’re wondering, the museum is pram-friendly. Here I am with Big Foot taking a look at those creepy stuffed people.

There were so many trains the boys kept running from one to another, peeking inside and boarding those open to visitors.  In the middle of the train yard, we discovered a switching booth with the actual switches outside just waiting to be pulled.  Unfortunately, they wouldn’t budge, even with hefty amounts of grunting.  But, right next to the switches was a junction to easily illustrate why the switches were needed and what they did.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The switching booth.

After all that, I was quite satisfied with our experience at the Cité du Train.  I mean there was history, some railway engineering, creepy mannequins… what more could you want?

Oh how naive I was!  We had only just completed the first, much smaller depot.  A whole other GINORMOUS warehouse was waiting for us on the other side of the restaurant.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The museum’s restaurant, designed to look like a dining car.

The first building is dedicated to the history of French trains, and the second focuses more on the evolving technology of trains.

The technological exhibit starts with steam engines, works its way through diesel and electric, and finishes with the ultra-sleek, high-speed TGV.

One of the best displays in the second building was an active demonstration of a steam locomotive, complete with moving parts and, surprise, surprise, steam. The boys were fascinated by the train that was moving but not actually going anywhere.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The little engine that could… make a big fuss without going anywhere.

An adjacent train was literally cut in half so that inquiring minds could have a look and see what all the fuss was about.  The steam engine had color-coded lights for cold water, hot water, steam and coal.  It was a brilliant way to demonstrate how the engine works.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

The fascinating inner workings of a steam engine.

What could be better than a steam engine chopped in two?  Why, the ability to go underneath the train to have a look at the hidden workings below.  How many people can say they’ve been on the nether side of steel locomotive and lived to tell about it?

The thing I enjoyed explaining the most (and, as these things go, the kiddos understood the least) was how a bunch of straight pieces of metal could make round things move.  Being able to watch the steam engine wheels in motion helped to illustrate this, but it still was just a smidge over their heads.

Me:”You see boys when the steam builds up inside of this tube thingy, the piston, it pushes this other piece out.  Then this big straight piece of metal that is connected also goes out.  That makes the piece of metal that is connected to the wheel move back and while it moves back the …”

T-Rex: “Daddy look at the size of the wheel.  It is bigger than me!”

See what I mean?

The diesel and electric trains were also difficult to explain to the six-and-under crowd, so I didn’t press too much there.  Plus, the museum offered sooo many trains that some had to be just straight up skipped.  Take my advice and spend the most time on the steam trains since they are the easiest to describe and the most likely to spark interest in young minds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Visitors could take a rest on old train car seats located throughout the depot.

After winding your way through the 70s, you’ll arrive at what kids will most likely think is THE BEST part of the museum – a TGV cockpit complete with bells, whistles, and buttons.  The TGV train was all hype and no science (in the exhibit, anyway), which honestly was perfectly fine with me because by the end of the line I think only Sheldon Cooper would want to see more trains.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

TGV!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

Inside the cockpit.

To top things off, the final exhibit was a super fun model train community.  Though not as large and extensive as Miniatur Wonderland, it was packed with zooming trains and working details (and a hefty dose of humor for the adults with keen eyes).  I don’t deny putting in my 50 cents to see it all come to life.

Nerdy or not, I highly recommend adding the Cité du Train to your list of “must see” sites in eastern France.Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - Mulhouse Train Museum (Cite du Train)

If you visit the train museum in Mulhouse, don’t miss the cities of Basel, Colmar, and Strasbourg which are all only a short drive away!Signature-Marigold

Hiking with Kids: The Ravennaschulucht

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtI see looooooads of hiking in our family’s future.  Exploring nature – hopping over streams, listening to rushing rivers, searching for perfect walking sticks – is something every one of us enjoys.. well, except Big Foot.

He’s generally grumpy because he has to be bolted into a backpack whenever we wander about.  But I have hope that he’ll come ’round when his legs are strong enough to carry him and his will is soft enough to decide that listening and following directions really wouldn’t be so. incredibly. awful.

We’re rather fortunate to find ourselves within an easy drive of the Black Forest  in Germany which just so happens to be chock full of trails and adventures suitable for little ones.  My friend Nancy (hi, Nancy!) lent me an ADAC book on hiking in the Schwarzwald with kids (this one, if you’re interested) and insisted we take on the Ravennaschlucht.

The Ravennaschlucht is a wild and romantic gorge with a stream and several waterfalls chasing through it.  As if that wasn’t enough of a draw, the ADAC itinerary tacks on other attractions including several saw mills and a glass blowing studio… all in less than 8km.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtFancy a go at the gorge yourself?  Well, grab your trusty boots, and come along!

We followed the route set forth in the guide, starting out at Hinterzarten.  I balked at paying for parking at the train station, so we drove a bit further along Alpersbacher Str. where we discovered a free parking lot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As you walk along Löffeltalweg, you won’t be able to ignore the swelling sound of rushing water.  The Rotbach stream was used to power several saw mills located along the footpath.  My boys were in awe of the gigantic blades and completely confused as to how prickly, uneven logs turned into perfectly flat boards despite Doc Sci’s best efforts to explain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtLeaving the mills, you’ll be treated to a series of waterfalls, several close enough to touch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtSoon you’ll have to make a choice – continue on or face the B31.  I wasn’t sure how we’d cross three lanes of whizzing traffic on the “Hell’s Valley” highway.  Fortunately, my worries were needless – a tunnel for hikers and bikers had been constructed underneath the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtNext stop – the Hofgut Sternen, a small village composed of a hotel, restaurant, a large glockenspiel, and a glass blowing studio (with a gift shop, of course).  Scarf down a snack or two here, because the path through the gorge doesn’t offer many places for pit stops.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtAfter everyone is fully hydrated, have a look at the artist fashioning everything from vases to earrings to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments from the blazing hot and stringy glass.  I should mention that only well-behaved or independently wealthy children should enter the shop… Everything is within reach of the curious and clumsy.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMake your way to the Ravennaviadukt, an imposing railway bridge that marks the entrance to the gorge.

Once you climb up the first set of steps, you’re in hand-holding territory.  Though I never felt unsafe, some parts of the path can be rather dicey with steep drop-offs and thinly railed bridges.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As we hiked higher and higher, I couldn’t help but wonder when the gorge was going to end.  I don’t like being lost, and the ADAC guide only mentioned that the path would end.  Not when or how or where.

When the trail finally did terminate, I was even more surprised at the lack of information.  You’ll know you’re at the end of the gorge when a lovely biergarten with a playground appears.  I guess this is so German that the writer didn’t think to include it!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtCarrying on, we made our way back to the ferocious B31 and, again, crossed underneath it.  We found ourselves in the company of some lovely cows on the grounds of the Birklehof boarding school.  Once you see the onion dome, take a quick detour around the back of the building.  There you’ll find a fantastic playground and fire pit.

We ended the day with cookies in the car as a reward for excellent little boy behavior.  Hooray!

If you’d like to hike Ravennaschlucht yourself, I’d like to suggest a few variations from the ADAC itinerary:

  • If you have a car, park at the Hofgut Sternen and start your hike from there.  You won’t have to pay for parking near the Hinterzarten train station, and more lunch options will be available in town.
  • If you only want to hike the gorge, I’d again recommend parking at the Hofgut Sternen.  Keep in mind that you will have to double back.  This would be a good option for the littlest of legs.
  • However, if public transportation is how you’ll be traveling, then the only option is to begin and end at the train station.
  • Consider hiking the reverse of the order I’ve mentioned here.  You’ll be walking downhill instead of uphill through the steepest part of the gorge.  The slope near the saw mills is rather gentle in comparison.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMore family-friendly places to explore in the Schwarzwald area of Germany – Triberg, Kastelburg, Staufen, Steinwasen Park and Schauinsland (from our first month here – four years ago!).

How about you?  Been on any good hikes lately?  Are they within driving distance of southwest Germany? 🙂Signature-Marigold

Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome in Firenze – with Kids!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-Marigold

Swimming in the Ligurian Sea and Taking in the Cinque Terre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with Kids

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

Manarola

Manarola

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

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

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

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

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

The playground at Manarola.

The playground at Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

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

Here's where we ended up swimming.

Here’s where we ended up swimming.

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

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

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

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

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

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

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

Until next time...

Until next time…

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

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

Snapshot: Stein am Rhein with Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kloster courtyard.

The Kloster courtyard.

The press.

The press.

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

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

St. John's Church.

St. John’s Church.

From here you can see the Burg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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