Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Castle Tour of Luxembourg

If your little ones are like mine, tales of princes and princesses, knights and battles fill their bedtime stories. We were lucky enough last Autumn to travel to Luxembourg to see the medieval castles that bring these stories to life.

I loved this trip because it allowed my children to do what they do best: run, play, explore, and imagine.

We based our trip out of the tiny charming hamlet of Vianden. Nestled in the forested hills that define Luxembourg, this little village oozes European charm. And, BTW, it has a fabulously restored medieval castle sitting on the hilltop smack in the middle. We spent a full day touring the castle Vianden, climbing into arched stone window frames, calling down into cisterns, and walking the ramparts.

On our second day, we drove up a winding mountain road to find the ruins of Bourschied Castle. This is where my children’s imagination ran wild. There is not much left of Bourscheid, but that is part of its charm. Crumbling walls give you only an outline of what was once there. Breathtaking views of the countryside meet you at every turn: the green rolling hills, the winding river. I can recommend the audio tour, which was scripted to bring the castle to life, telling the story of an ancient king who appears as a ghost and served as our guide.

The children tore up and down stairways to nowhere. They climbed the castle’s keep and imagined the siege that destroyed this place. They stood in fireplaces and looked out the remnants of bedroom windows. It was a fine day, and we spent hours wandering the stones and thinking about long ago.

Berg Eltz, Yuck!
Our third day was a huge mistake. Here we decided to see Burg Eltz, a ridiculously well preserved German castle which Rick Steves declared his “favorite castle in Europe”. Rick, I might add, does not travel with children. God bless Burg Eltz. Just as old as the other two castles above, it was never sieged or destroyed; the royal family was never sent packing by a mob of angry villagers armed with torches and pitchforks. One third of the castle is still the residence of the Countess Kempenich, of the same family that has owned it for 800 or so years.

Did I love this place? No. It was impossible to find down poorly marked roads. Entrance and parking were expensive. And the hour long tour? At the discretion of the tour guides, it was only given in German. We were trapped with no way out. The rooms were filled with antiques that my children were reminded again and again not to touch. Ugh. Even just thinking about it makes me cringe.

Courtyard, Berg Eltz
Was it beautiful? Good Lord, yes! Stunning! If I had it do over, I would have packed a picnic lunch, found a spot near the lovely Moselle river, and hiked around the grounds for an hour. But that is only if I was in Germany and had a day to kill.

There were many more castle ruins in the Vianden area that we did not have time to visit.

 On the ride back from Bourscheid, we happened upon one crumbling ruin that was completely unmarked and fenced off. Leaving the kids in the car, Walt and I hiked the dirt road to the castle gates and remembered a time before children, when under the cover of nightfall, we might slip through a hole in the fence and explore a place forbidden. But that time was long ago, and our children sleeping in the car below needed us. And so, we drove home, steeped in the history that clung to us like a fragrance and filled our thoughts with the past.

Vianden Tourist Information

Bourscheid Tourist Information

Burg Eltz Tourist Information

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Duinrell: A Campy Little Amusement Park with a Bad Rap

It’s funny how a place can get a reputation, especially in a community as small and encapsulated as the American ex-pats here at the school. Duinrell, for some reason, has a bad rap with my crowd. People avoid it like the plague, and they will drive an hour or more to go to a different theme park. This summer I was pleasantly surprised to find Duinrell’s reputation was largely undeserved.

Originally a royal estate, the park is still owned by the Count Van Zuylen Van Nijevelt. Fine ancient birch trees line every path. The park designers managed to nestle the rides in amongst the mature trees. I love the cool, breezy, and soothing effect of the shade. In direct contrast to other theme parks I’ve attended, the rides here are almost silent. The cool green of the shade and the quiet rides create a most relaxing experience.

Like Dutch Wonderland back home, Duinrell is old and maybe a little campy, but I find it charming. I spent six fun-filled hours there yesterday with four girls under the age of seven. We could have stayed there for days.

Jordan loves the children’s rollercoaster. I love the Water Swings. Audrey is now the master of the towering sack slide.

If you are looking to wear your children out, take a picnic lunch to the tables at the bottom of the sack slide. I let my kids eat for the three minutes they remain interested in their cheese sandwiches and then watch them tackle the slide. The assent to the top is a real calf burner, and my kids wear themselves out tearing up the ramp and launching themselves back down the slide. The slide is much faster if you leave the “sack” at the bottom of the ramp and slide down on your bottom. Watch out for friction burns, though. Yesterday, Jordan suffered just such a burn and then asked me to kiss her little tush to “make it better”. I declined.

10 meter slide
We spent over an hour in the two large playgrounds. Each, in Dutch style, offers a variety of absolutely fun, potentially dangerous, play equipment. Jordan fell about six feet off the bridge of a wooden jungle gym. It was a bad fall and I was relieved to see that no limbs were twisted. Within minutes, though, she was hobbling over to the other playground to climb the spiral stairs to the 10 meter sliding board. Today she is sore, but not at all sorry. Tough girl.

The Water Swings
The whole back of the park has rides for adults and big kids. “The Falcon” is a small but thrilling rail roller coaster guaranteed to leave you breathless and smiling. There are multiple water rides as well as a full blown water park.

There is a ton more to see and do than I have time to put down here. To plan your visit or peruse the rides, more information is available at Entrance is 18.50 euro per person over three years of age.  A Season Pass is a steal at only 52.00 pp.  Parking is 5 euros, but if you park in the small lot across the street from the park entrance, parking is free. There are many fast food type restaurants available. The food is adequate but expensive (Warning!  The coffee is terrible). Picnic lunches are recommended. Have fun!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Apenheul

Small primates roam free in the park.
Let me start by saying some things in Europe are just MORE FUN.

I attribute this directly to a general lack of litigation lawyers and judges sympathetic to whining. The legal burden is directly on each individual to look out for his or her own personal safety. Like winners of the “Darwin Awards”, if you get hurt or killed doing something stupid in a public place, the Dutch legal system assumes you were not smart enough to stay in the gene pool.

This in mind, the owners of public attractions are not at the mercy of liability insurance policies or fear of litigation when they design their facilities. Things are allowed to be fun.

The Apenheul is a very special primate park. It was the first such park in the world to allow the animals to live in a forest-like setting and walk among the visitors. As an American, it was truly shocking to see these little guys in the bushes or trees right next to me.

I asked one of the zoo attendants if people ever get bitten. His response was, “Yes, of course, especially if they try to touch or pick-up the monkeys.” How long do you think this place would stay open back in the States?

Interacting with the animals was absolutely stunning. Walt and I had never ever experienced anything like it. The trees were alive with animals! We could hear troops of monkeys calling to one another as they watched us walk past. If we were very still, they might come down to see who we were.

The children were mesmerized. They stood in awe of these little creatures: fascinated by their speed, enamored by their play, terrified by their fights. Everything happened all around them, right where they could see it, sometimes even at their feet.

The designers of the park included many playgrounds for children. These lovely wooden and rope structures were not all that different than the habitats for the monkeys. Made for human primates, these playscapes towered two stories or more from the ground. Huge rope net tunnels ascended to long spiraling steel slides. Complicated rope jungle gyms, sometimes requiring the child to travel hand-over-hand with feet dangling three meters in the air, lured my kids ever upward. The children were reluctant to leave one area to see what might be in the next.

Did we get bitten? Yes, twice. Walt and I were both nipped when we let the squirrel monkeys get a little too close. (Walt would like me to place a disclaimer here that he was innocently repacking our bag when a monkey came up behind him and nipped him and was not being foolish in any way). I should also add that none of the children were nipped. This is most likely because they had enough sense to step back when the monkeys came in for a closer look, not shove a camera in their little faces like their mommy. I also had a ring-tailed lemur use my head as a springboard on his way to another location. Was it all worth it? You bet!

This is the little stinker who nipped me.
The whole day was magical. Upon leaving, our son (who had received a punishment for a poor attitude during the Great Alkmaar Disaster, 2010) hugged us both and thanked us spontaneously for a “perfect day”. This is high praise from a 10 year old. Exhausted and happy, the children slept the whole drive home.

If you would like to plan a trip, more information can be found at Since the park is set up in a circle, we avoided the large crowd by visiting the exhibits in reverse order. This worked out perfectly. We had the park to ourselves for half of our visit. We brought a picnic lunch which we carried through the park in a special "monkey proof bag" provided for free by the entry staff.  There were many nice picnic areas along the way to choose for a lunch location.  The day was not cheap. Tickets for the five of us were 88.00 euros. It was money well spent. Our time there was priceless.

More photos, taken by a fellow blogger with a wonderful eye, can be found at

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whine and Cheese: A Brief Visit to the Alkmaar Market

Ok, so things don’t always go according to plan. I broke one of my cardinal rules for traveling with children: avoid all places where the kids are forced to stand still.

In my defense, I had no way of knowing. It all started out with the best of intentions....

The city of Alkmaar is famous for cheese.

On Friday mornings during the summer, this medieval city holds a traditional cheese market. There has been a cheese market here on this square just like this one every summer since 1693.

In the market square, 28 tons of farm cheese wheels are laid out in front of the Waag, the weighing house. Buyer, seller, and exporter meet to inspect and taste the cheese. A group of lab coat clad gentlemen, the inspectors, core random wheels of cheese and assess it for taste, texture, color, and fat content. This is good work if you can get it.

The whole transaction is done in the tradtional Dutch style; the buyer and seller even rhythmically slap hands to negotiate the price of the cheese.

The very best part is the cheese porters. These twenty-eight men carry the cheese to and from the weigh house on beautiful colored curved stretchers. Wearing special uniforms of white with colored hats representing their guild, they run with a special loping gate to accommodate the weight of the cheese and the shape of the stretcher. The whole plein is a flurry of movement and color: the bright yellow cheese, the men in white with their colored hats, and the colored stretchers all moving among the rows of cheese wheels around the plein.

Ah, yes, certainly worth a visit. But what they don’t tell you about in the guide books is the crushing crowd. News to my ex-pat ears, the Alkmaar Cheese Market is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Holland. The tour busses full of persons from every corner of Europe descended on the Waagplein like locust. We got there early and had a lovely spot at the edge of the square. I had brought a small picnic blanket for the kids to sit on as they watched. We had a backpack full of snacks. But the crush of the crowd became too great. The kids could no longer move. We patiently waited the hour until the market started, but by then the crowd was twelve deep. The children began to whine.

I don’t know about your family, but when the whining starts here things go bad in a hurry. Mom and Dad start by cajoling, move on to bribery, and finish with threats. None of these measures can stop the inevitable descent into anarchy.

After 10 minutes of watching the proceedings, the kids had had enough. We stayed for an additional 30 minutes because I really wanted to see the porters do their porting thing. But at such a cost!

To the joy of the people trying to take pictures over our shoulders, we left the Waagplein and searched for another distraction in the city. It was too late though, the damage had been done. The sulkiest child was unable to pull out of his tail spin of darkness. We had a quick lunch on the edge of a canal and then headed back to the parking garage.

As we drove away, Walt and I considering which babysitters we could hire to watch the kids for the next outing, the sulky one cheered up considerably. When he lamented that he did not get to see the Alkmaar Bier Museum, I started to channel Miss Hannigan from the movie Annie. But my parenting skills are frequently challenged like this. It was time to think more about taking deep breaths.

Today we are laughing about the whole thing (ok, except the sulky one who got a punishment). We wonder what would have happened if we had brought along and released the field mouse we had recently caught in the kitchen. Or maybe a box full of mice?

In any case, we have some great pictures. Today we are off to the zoo: a destination with a much more reliable outcome.