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Trip Report 17 days in Europe: a family vacation

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Dear all,

I just came back from a trip in Northern Italy, Austria, Germany and Prague. I was traveling with my husband Mark, our little girl 20 months old (pseudonym Little Nanerl) and my sister. The adults are all in their late 30's. We were traveling from the States (my husband and I from Florida; my sister from Boston). My husband, Little Nanerl and I travelled from August 15th to September 1rst. My sister joined us in St Gilgen Austria on August 22nd.

We had an amazing time however the weather is what my family in France refer as an "été pourri" I promptly stopped in a shop to buy 3 coats and 1 sweater on our 2 day. It is cold and rainy.

We also had too many stops, a product of too many interests between 3 people. I treated this trip more as a reconnaissance trip, to determine where we would go next time for 7-10 days, rent an apartment and explore.

I seriously considered first class plane tickets especially with an infant in arms, but the high season (August) made us finally go with coach tickets. Next time I will try to book our trip in shoulder seasons and use skymile points.

ITALY: Venice and Lake Como (Varenna) August 16th-August 21rst

I really wanted to spend some time in Lake Como, but my husband has never seen Venice (I had been 3 times). So instead of landing in Milan, we landed in Marco Polo Airport in Venice and took the vaporetto to Cà d'Oro. I had stayed previously in the Palazzo Abadessa and loved the 17 century rooms, the courtyard, and the off beaten path location. We got a junior suite and felt as if we were sleeping in a museum.

I had nothing planned that day since we were jet lagged. We walked where there were no tourists (avoiding San Marco square). Little Nanerl loved chasing the pigeons. We napped happily in our big bed and before closing our eyes, admired the ceiling frescos. We had not made dinner reservations, but the Rivera could take us at 9:45pm. I initially hesitated because of Little Nanerl's sleeping schedule before my husband pointed that we all had just woken up at 6pm, and she would still be awake anyway. It was one of the best dinners of my life. We walked there, and without the cruise boat hoards it made for a much better promenade. Little Nanerl insisted on walking the whole way, over the Academia bridge, dancing as soon as she would hear street music.

The Rivera was next to the water and they had heavy blankets for us to keep warm. They were extremely attentive; and when Little Nanerl started saying multiple times "à manger" they were prompt to give her a huge bread basket. Her eyes got very big as she eyed how long some of the bread sticks were: "merci Monsieur". Italians, like most Europeans speak multiple languages and without missing a beat the server answered " Il n'y a pas de quoi petite Demoiselle"

We went to bed late that night but happy. And beside the temperatures being lower than expected it was not raining.

I woke up to a sunny day and went down to eat the wonderful breakfast in the Courtyard. I particularly enjoyed that courtyard because they are so rare in Venice. I enjoyed my coffee baby free and struck a conversation with a German couple siting next to me. I then asked the concierge if I could bring up a tray for my husband and my baby that were still sleeping upstairs, to which he replied "of course". My husband enjoyed getting breakfast in bed. He was to stay in with our daughter until she woke up since I was going to the Secret Itineraries Tour at the Dodge Palace that morning (the next day it was his turn; babies are not allowed on the tour hence the split).

I did enjoy the tour and walking back I stopped to buy 3 coats. If this was our southern most location in Europe and it was this cold, I could just imagine what it would be like in Bavaria and the Salzkammergut. I was very glad to have proper clothes later on, even though my husband thought I was exaggerating. The baby had plenty of sweaters and jackets but I guess I wanted more just in case.

The rest of of our time was spent mostly walking around and we did do a gondola ride (asking for the small canals).

Our transition to Varenna was an easy one. 2 trains later we found ourselves in front of a very charming small village; we stayed at the Villa Cipressi which we chose for its peaceful gardens on a clift. The only room available when I booked it was one without a view but when we got to our room, we did have a beautiful view of lake Como! Little Nanerl was impressed with the amount of boats "un autre bateau" and the amount to bells "c'est la cloche de l'église". I had read good reviews about a little café named Café Varenna, and I was so charmed by it, that I cancelled our dinner reservations at the Villa Cipressi.

Café Varenna's food is simply excellent and not pretentious. The tables sit outside on a little cobble stone street adjacent to the lake. There is room for toddlers to play while the adults sip on their prosecco. Some of my best memories of this trip is linked to this little café. I knew right then, that we had made the right decision by staying in Varenna. And I which we had more time there.

The rest of our experience was a mixed one: on one hand I loved visiting the Villa Carlotta; on the other I disliked Bellagio (and I realized I will be the minority there). Bellagio was crawling with tourists. And it seems to be all about shopping. Not my favorite. Also I wanted to hike the Greenway, and we got lost for 2 hours trying to find the beginning of the trail and never found it till the very end next to the Villa Carlotta. But then it was a trail next to a busy road. When I hike, I don't want to see a car, let alone a busy "highway". I like the way the Swiss, Austrians and Germans are meticulous with their trail markings, high up in mountains. Maybe someone can give me tips on some beautiful hikes they did in lake Como. (we had a a baby carrier).

We came back exhausted to our beautiful little village Varenna -such a jewel- .The time would have been better spent just reading a book in the garden's of Villa Cipressi and going swimming.

After 3 days in Varenna, we took a late train to Milan. I had booked a first class couchette (with private shower and bathroom) for an overnight from Milan to Munich (arriving at 6:30am). My husband and I had a wonderful experience taking an overnight train in Egypt (very Agatha Christie; looking at the Nile and the villages as we passed through). But alas! it was not the case. Our train stopped so many times. At one point it stopped in a train yard for hours. It made for disrupted sleep. We were exhausted by the time we reached Munich. We boarded the train 5 min later to Salzburg, an easy and beautiful train ride (2 hours).

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    Austria August 21rst-August 25th

    We arrived in 8:52am in Salzburg to an angry looking sky with rain showers. Little Nannerl was changed, fed and warmly dressed. I had planned for us to go on a bicycle ride at 9:30am and my husband expressed some concerned over the weather. I felt a bit anxious too, especially with a baby.

    We jumped in a taxi at the train station (there was no time to loose) and told the taxi driver that there would be 2 stops: one our hotel the Weisse Taube to drop off our bags and the other one at the entrance of the Mirabelle Gardens for the Fraulein Maria Bike tour. After a lot of hand gestures, the taxi man understood what I was talking about.

    What a nice little family run hotel! We were graciously and warmly received. We checked in and dashed back into the taxi. 5 minutes later we were in front of the Mirabelle gardens. The weather was improving.

    I loved the tour and more importantly the city! What an adorable city with it's large gardens and bicycle paths! I was charmed! And I know I will have to keep coming back to Salzburg! The sun came out in full force; the rest of the afternoon we rested a bit before walking to the Marionette Theater in the evening were we had front row seats to the Sound of Music Puppet show. Little Nannerl loved every moment. She was fascinating. After every act she would applaud and say "bravo!". Coming out of the building, a man was playing on his accordeon "On a le béguin" from l'Auberge du Cheval Blanc but in german. Little Nannerl started to dance, and in this moment life was perfect.

    We finished the evening at a busy restaurant just next to our hotel Weisse Taube. Austrian and German food are not usually my favorite but I wanted to keep an open mind and order more dishes that I have not tried yet. It was ok (I much preferred the food in St Gilgen). The following morning, we took our time and had a lazy breakfast. We then walked more through the old town, took a carriage ride, before boarding the bus 150 to St Gilgen.

    A nice surprise was waiting for us: my sister was on that bus. I knew she was traveling that day to St-Gilgen from Boston (via Munich) but I did not know exactly which bus she was going to be on! The next 50 minutes went fast as we caught up, talking fast and laughing.

    I had rented an apartment in St Gilgen, Eva Gutjahr right in the center of St Gilgen. It was nice, spacious; it included a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a balcony. There were even new children toys for Little Nannerl to play with. We felt immediately at home. Two negatives: Eva's english is very limited and so you are on your own to answer questions such as is there a laundromat? And she charged me a full fourth person rate for Little Nannerl.

    My sister took a jet lagged nap, but the rest of us immediately explored the town. It was a beautiful day, and the lake was magnificent with the mountains towering. There was even a beach area, and a playground for Little Nannerl (playground in Europe seems so much more daredevil, like there is not an easy way to get up that slide; at least this what I observed in St Gilgen and Munich). We went up the lift above St Gilgen and explored the mountain.

    The next two days brought in a lot of rain but we still managed to get two hikes in. The best one was from the Schafberg Mountain down to St Wofgang. For these hikes, Little Nannerl had to stay with one of us down in the village. The trails were just too slippery for safety and I still worried about her warmth despite her many layers of clothes.

    My husband and my sister were brave enough to swim in the freezing lake (two English men told us it was a nice warm swim!), but I elected to stay and just enjoy the view from the shore.

    Overall St Gilgen was a very nice experience despite the rain and cold (it averaged 55F). I had toyed with the idea of doing a day trip to Hallstatt (an hour away) but it was nice to just relax and explore Wolfgansee. The Mozart museum was enchanting; the farmer's market on Saturday was fun; and finally our restaurant Wirt am Gries (loved the chanterelle salad!!) became our local hang out. It is funny how another place becomes home quite fast. I would have stayed longer. But after three nights it was already time to move on and explore the Mad world of King Ludwig II

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    Thank you for the encouragements!

    Bavaria August 25th-August 29th

    We had a very early morning on August 25th. We had paid the apartment the night before so we could just close the door and leave the keys inside. The Bus 150 towards Salzburg was frequent even at this hour and we ended taking an earlier one at 6:24am.

    We had about an hour to kill in Salzburg before boarding the train to Munich. It was cold so we took refuge in a little coffee shop. But the cigarette smoke proved to be too much. And we all preferred to be freezing rather than asphyxiated.

    Still it was a beautiful sunny day and we were looking forward to our day in Munich. But then something horrible happened.

    The train had just arrived in Munich, people were pushing to get out and automatic door between wagons kept sliding into the queue of passengers. I saw my sister ahead of me having to push the sliding door quite forcefully as it came down on her. The same thing happened to me. I had Little Nannerl on my left hip and the heavy diaper bag on my right shoulder. I saw the door sliding down on my baby and immediately pushed it away with my right hand. At the same time, Little Nannerl slid her fingers on the other side. The door violently crashed her third finger and locked it in.

    Distressed I released her finger as fast as I could. With her screaming and sobbing, I disembarked the train. For all of you who are parents you can understand my pain as a saw the tip of her finger swollen, part of her skin removed, and nail bed exposed. I was shaking. I felt so powerless to help her; I also felt tremendous guilt.

    I am a ER physician and I was wondering if she had an open tuff fracture (when the tip of your finger is broken and if the nail bed is breached then there is a high risk of infection). We found ice for her but she would want to put her finger in the cup. She kept sobbing: "C'est la porte du train" (It is the train door) and then say her name, over and over again. She would put her finger under running cold water. I gently washed it with soap while I kissed her face.

    I inspected it again. I knew that I was in Germany where medicine is excellent if we had to go to the hospital. The swelling was getting worse but she was starting to use her hand and calming down. I told my husband and my sister that we would observe it for a while.

    The original plan was to put our bags in in lockers in Munich, enjoy a day in Munich including Mike's Bike Tour and to come back to the train station at 6pm to pick up a rental car before driving down to Mittenwald to spend the night.

    I spend some time just holding her tight on a bench, comforting her. She seemed to be doing better, so we proceed with our plans, but my mood was not the same.

    By the time we reached the Marienplatz, Little Nannerl was all excited to see the church bells. The bike tour was nice (but not as spectacular as Salzburg). I felt safe ridding and it was a fun way to explore the city. It was not a very serious tour, and guides were making jokes which I needed. Originally we wanted to do the Third Reich tour but it was not offered. I particularly liked the Englischer Garten with it's river in the middle and surfers. I was surprise to see that some of the buildings were rebuilt as only facades, like a movie set, from lack of money.

    After the bike tour, across from their headquarters was a playground. We spend some time there, eating fruits, under the trees, while Little Nannaerl played with little Germans. We debated whether or not do do laundry in Munich before heading out (my husband was down to his 2 last shirts), but we were too lazy and content to enjoy old town.

    I love train and public transportation, as I grew up in Paris and Montreal. My husband, a Floridian, on the other hand loves to have his own car. So it is with visible satisfaction and a sight of relief that he got into our rental car, a black jaguar.

    The drive down to Mittenwald (about 1:15) was dramatic in scenery: the mountains seemed like giant teeth and the darkening clouds made my sister believe we were heading straight to land of Hansel and Gretel. By the time we reached the Post hotel it was raining hard and it was very dark.

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    While we enjoyed Munich and Mittenwald (more about this little village later on), it would have made more send to drive to Fussen, spend the night there and on to Rothenburg ob der tauber. It would have limited our 1 or 2 night stays.

    We woke up in Mittenwald to the sound of rain. We took our time and had a long breakfast. Little Nannerl's finger looked the same, not better or worst. But she kept talking about it, so I am afraid that will be her earliest memory.

    A word about traveling with babies: despite our unfortunate incident, I still believe that traveling can be experienced as a family. I also think that traveling exposes babies/toddlers to new sights and experiences that can only be beneficial whether or not they remember it. Our daughter is pretty verbal; during this trip her language skills became even stronger. She would say "chao" to her italian friends in Varenna, and "dankersen" when she was given a giant pretzel without us teaching it to her. Having my sister there gave my husband and I some alone time, while our daughter spend quality time with her Aunt.

    Back to Mittenwald: impressive little village on the foot of a dramatic mountain. Very charming with all the fresco. As the morning went on, the weather improved, and soon the sun came out, making this little town even more enjoyable. It was easy to walk the streets and we enjoyed the violin museum. As we were ready to back to the hotel to check out, a few buses full of tourists arrived. We were glad we had a peaceful morning to enjoy the town with just a few people. A word about the Post Hotel: very old world, nice place with an indoor pool. Make sure to bring down your own towels from your room when you go to the pool. The pool walls are made of windows and when we were swimming last night we could see the impressive facade of the mountain with one light on top of it, probably a refuge, where people hiked and are spending the night.

    Around noon, we were off again. We had a slow drive with multiple stops: Ettal abbey, the Linderhof Palace, the Church of Wies before stopping in Fussen for the night. The distance between Mittenwald and Fussen was 2 hours and taking the whole afternoon to do it made for an easy drive.

    Linderhof palace was the highlight. Over the top rococo, the only Palace of Ludwig II that was finished, it was a nice to see it before the Hohenschwangau and the Neuschwanstein Castles (which we were to visit the following day). We visited the Grotto of Venus, the Moroccan house and the Hunting Pavillion. Visiting Ludwig's palaces made me understand him more as a complex King who longed for a time when kings were absolute rulers.

    By the time we were done with Linderhof, we were all tired we skipped the Church of Wies in favor to drive directly to Fussen. We were staying at the Hotel Sonne in the old town.

    The following morning we were a bit panicky as we drove fast towards the ticket office as it said on bold letters on our online reservations "Pick up your tickets before 8am or you will loose your tickets" or something to that effect. Out of breath, I made it to the ticket counter at 8:05am and thankfully received all 3 tickets to visit first the Hohenschwangau at 8:50am and then the Neuschwanstein at 10:50am. Perfect spacing (they do it for you). We took the (farting) horse carriage up to the Neuschwanstein.

    A lot has been written about these beautiful castles so I will be brief. I only want to mention two things:
    one, is that I had never seen 19 century castles before, so it was particularly interesting to me to see old designs with a infusion of modernity (like a elevator). I recognized elements of our own way of life in these elegant castles.

    two, I loved how the swan was depicted everywhere (from the giant swan sitting on the top of the Hohenschwangau, fountains with swans, and a silver chandelier made up of crowned swans). It is said that Tchaikovsky may have found the inspiration for Prince Siegfried in King Ludwig II for his ballet Swan Lake. (and one can make the the parallel of the unattainable relationship between a human and a swan and King Ludwig's repressed homosexuality, unable to have relationships with men -same as Tchaikovsky's own homosexuality.)

    By the afternoon we were done, and we made it back to Fussen. We were happy to find out that there was a laundromat in the basement of Hotel Sonne ( a small washer and dryer). We also all took very hot showers to warm up. Between loads of laundry we walked the small historical part of Fussen (which by the way was a bigger town than I expected). We drank wine and beer in the Market, a place very much so visited by the locals. We were not particularly hungry, so we kind of just ate fruits and street vendor food. My husband bought himself a nice european jacket.

    The following day we drove up to Rothenburg Ob Tauber. I had been there 15 years ago, during a six week eurotrip with friends, poor and living off bread and cheese to travel and explore. Good times!

    I loved seeing the medieval village again and the welcome at the hotel Herrnschlösschen was one the best I ever experienced. Immediately I felt that one night was not enough. This village is a must see. We walked everywhere. The Night Watchman tour did not disappoint. The weather was nice. We stayed up while Little Nannerl slept in my arms.

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    Prague August 29th- Sept 1rst.

    We had our earliest morning yet: woke up at 4:30am; breakfast at 5am (the hotel staff insisted of waking up with us and serving us!) and we left on the road by 5:30am. We had a flight at 9:30am from Frankfurt to Prague.

    Construction on the road slowed us down but we eventually made it without too many difficulties. The flight was an 1 hour. We stayed at the Hilton Old town in Prague and because my husband is a diamond member we were on the executive floor with unlimited access to the lounge where the food was plentiful. The hotel made up for it's lack of charm by it's location and functionality. We had three nights in Prague (2 for my sister) before boarding our plane to the States.

    I had very high expectations for Prague because of everything I had read about it and the beauty that I saw in the movie Amadeus. And my first impression of the city was not a favorable one. I did grow to like it and by the time I left, I viewed the city with kinder eyes.

    When we arrived in Prague it was raining hard. We had a few hours to ourselves before going to the Prague bike tour (in case you have not figure it out, I really like to see a city with a bicycle). It was a disaster, as Prague is not a good city to ride (at least in the middle of old town; outside towards the castle it gets better). With the hoards of pedestrians and the cars, and no infrastructure for bicycles it made for a very dangerous ride. I was afraid for my life and Little Nannerl's on the back seat. The roads were slippery and the bike's themselves were not in good conditions, and while I felt very safe in Salzburg riding after the rain, I did not in Prague. I could not glance at the magnificent buildings because I was afraid of running into someone or having a car crash into me. The guide explanations were too brief. And at our stops, I could not take my baby out of her seat and let her explore like I had been able in Munich and Salzburg. It was just not safe.

    I also noticed poverty and desperation. A lot of young people (in their 20's begging on the hands and feet. The streets were dirty and the walls had graffiti. The cloud of the soviet era was still present and there was a certain grayness and harshness in the air. The ominous soviet TV station to block the reception from other country dominated the skyline.

    However the evening was great: Prague is known for it's music and embraced Mozart better than the Austrians. My sister and I went to see Carmen transformed into a ballet. Walking back, the night was clear, the street lamps were glowing and music could be heard. It was nice.

    The following day, we joined a free walking tour as we felt we still had not had a proper tour of the city. Our guide, John, was fantastic, one of the best we ever experienced. I loved the tour and finally I found the city I was looking for.

    In the afternoon, we rode bicycles out of Prague on the banks of the river before heading home to see the Marriage of Figaro at the Estate Theater, the same one Mozart opened his opera Don Giovanni. We had a lodge with a balcony. Little Nannerl lasted about an hour before becoming impatient. I took her back to the hotel early. My husband had never seen an opera before and enjoyed the performance more than he had expected.

    The next day, we had booked a private guide to do a specialize tour focusing on Mozart and Prague or even more broadly Prague in the 18 century, but our guide unfortunately was not as knowledgeable as we wanted. So my sister and I decided to cut the tour short and visit the library instead, while my husband went on the private tour.

    In the afternoon, I arrived at rendez-vous point (the Rudolfinum-) with Little Nannerl for part two of the Prague Castle tour with John, the fantastic guide. We had bought tickets the day before while being on his first tour. We had misplace the tickets but since we bought it directly from the John, we did not think it would cause problems. It did.

    We were told harshly by a young Prague woman that without the tickets we could not be on the tour. We could either pay again for the tour or go home to our hotel. I was livid with the young woman: we bought the tickets directly from one of her guides! He was our witness and he was present.

    He immediately said I could go on his tour as VIP. The young woman told him he would not be payed for us. He said quickly "they don't need to know that".

    Bureaucracy is still very much present in Prague's daily life. I almost did not go , but I calmed down. It ended up being a very nice tour, a visiting the castle complex a great experience. And we found those darn tickets and were able to turn them in. And give John a nice tip.

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    The trip back to the States was uneventful. It was nice to be back to beautiful sunny Florida.
    A few last thoughts:

    We probably made too many stops but we all enjoyed different parts of the trip. I enjoyed the most Varenna, St Gilgen and Salzburg; my sister St Gilgen and Prague; and my husband Varenna and Bavaria.

    We are leaving for Greece in October; I cannot wait to be traveling again.

    Thank you for reading and I wish you happy travels.

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