Farm fresh: Can you dig it? Yes, you can!

Fresh berries in Herzogenaurach, Germany

It’s a cliché that one of the best parts of summer is the fresh produce, but it also happens to be true. We had planned to visit a nearby village to get some post-dinner ice cream, but decided to kill some time and amble down a different road.

Dairy cows in Herzogenaurach, Germany

We should have known we were headed for something special when we passed this scene, just a few feet from the car.

As we passed through a small string of tiny villages, we got the sense that we might be in for a treat. And there it was: Rising out of the corn and wheat fields, a clearing with picnic tables, play tractors, hay bales, a small store and acres of produce. The Neidermann farm of pick-your-own produce!

The store was our first stop and it was sensory overload in the most wonderful way. Literally bursting with fresh produce and baked goods, the smell of fresh strawberries permeated the air. Customers were lined up with buckets and containers full of their just-picked choices. We bought some ice cream and sorbet and scouted the area.

strawberry sorbet in Germany

Sorbet made with fresh-picked strawberries? Yes please!

 

Bread and jams at German farm store

Fresh bread and home-made goodness. So hard to choose….

Around back were signs directing you to all the fruits and vegetables that were ready to be picked. The evening we were there the strawberries, lettuces, garlic, mini-cucumbers, radishes, and rhubarb were ready. They even had a chicken coop so you could gather your own fresh eggs!

Pick your own produce in Herzogenaurach Germany

Grab a wheelbarrow and head out to the field!

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

Next to the farm store was a park-like area filled with families enjoying picnics and playing games. There was a petting zoo, a fort of stacked hay bales to climb on, a corn crib to play in and open space for soccer and general running around.

playing at the farm stand in Germany

King of the hay-bale castle.

As expected we needed a large box to bring home everything we bought. But in this case, our eyes were not bigger than our stomachs. When it comes to fresh berries and cherries, gluttony is the only option.

Produce from farm store in Herzogenaurach Germany

Our take-home box included berries, cherries, honey, walnut bread, tomatoes and fresh milk.

 

 

 

Traveling with kids: ways to make it work

Let’s be honest, OK? Traveling with a young child is a hassle. You need to maintain their schedule, or suffer the consequences. You need to pack and carry a lot of stuff. You are paying for experiences they will likely not even remember. But the compounding benefits of a well-traveled child will, I believe, serve both kids and parents.

a fountain in Dublin

When traveling with kids, fountains are your friend.

In the past few months we’ve taken several short trips from our home base in the middle of Germany. We’ve been to Berlin, London, Dublin and Salzburg and I can confidently say we had a great time in each of those places. A fair amount of preparation, a little luck and a surprise or two helped make each excursion fairly painless for all involved. Here’s why traveling with a young child can really rock.

1. Hospitality professionals are great with kids.

We flew on eight Lufthansa flights recently and on each one, E was greeted enthusiastically by the flight crew. They made him feel special and he was given a different game or toy on every flight. We’re still playing with the LEGO plane and pilot he received.

We hit the jackpot with several hotels. The ApartHotel in Berlin offers a family suite with a separate kids’ bedroom, a washing machine(!), a full kitchen with kid-sized utensils and an immense breakfast buffet.

ApartHotel Berlin family suite

The amazing family suite at the ApartHotel in Berlin.

In London, we stayed at the St. James Court where E was presented with a backpack at check-in. Inside were colored pencils and a coloring book, games, and a teddy bear dressed like one of the Queen’s guards.

While not billed specifically as a kid-friendly hotel, the Dylan in Dublin had the most amazing staff I’ve ever encountered as a parent. The waiter we saw at breakfast greeted E by name each day and brought us little extras, like fruit already cut into bite-sized pieces and small glasses of milk. When E had a melt-down one morning and I removed him from the restaurant, the two gentlemen at the front desk (fathers of young children themselves, we discovered) offered to open up the private lounge so I could have a space to myself to help him calm down. They also chatted with E each afternoon about his day and gave us lots of family-friendly tips for restaurants and activities.

2. You’ll meet lots of locals

Many tourist attractions hold little enchantment for young children, but neighborhood playgrounds, cafes, parks and zoos always fit the bill. We scouted nearby playgrounds and walking trails in each city and every time ended up chatting with local families who gave us tips about places to eat and things to do. Our own insiders guide and new friends for E to boot!

A fairy house in Salzburg

Iron Man discovered this fairy house on a hike far off the tourist trail.

3. A slower–and non-linear–pace

Forget the whirlwind tour of historical highlights. Kids force you to slow down and take in your surroundings in bite-size portions. You won’t hit all the big tourist spots, but you’ll find things you never would have seen if you followed the guidebook. Lingering in front of the main tourist attractions in Salzburg led to a fascinating conversation about puppetry with one of the performers. Hitting the local pub before the evening rush led to a lengthy chat with our server and some new and tasty discoveries. A simple afternoon walk to get the wiggles out led to a pretty neighborhood with a quiet canal and plenty of ducks to feed.

London’s free museum admission is perfect for families. However long (or short) the time you spend, you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. My grand plan to hit three museums in one afternoon fell apart when E became so enchanted with the Science Museum that we spent five hours exploring the hands-on areas. But he was happy, I was happy and there was no reason to hustle him to the next destination.

And when a short rain shower delayed a meet up at the end of the day, a quick duck into the National Portrait Gallery turned into E’s first introduction to several great masters–without any guilt that it only lasted 15 minutes.

Monet's waterlilies

E among the waterlilies.

So it’s true, we didn’t tour Mozart’s house, kiss the Blarney Stone, see the Crown Jewels or visit Museum Island. But we did hike to a castle, splash in fountains, eat shepherd’s pie, touch the Berlin Wall, and stand before Big Ben as it struck 12. And those are the memories I want and that I hope to keep on creating.

 

Full disclosure: Some of our accommodations were part of business travel, and therefore not paid by us personally. However, we received no special treatment or compensation for our stay at any of the hotels listed above and all opinions are my own and based on my personal experience.

Gasthaus gastronomy

The tiny village of Tegau, Germany has a church, a bike trail, a restaurant…and not much else. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 389—a generous number, I’d say. But we had left the Autobahn on our way to Berlin in search of lunch. And the food gods smiled down on us in abundance.

We got lucky. I don't think it's open every day....

Ready to take a chance on what lies behind the gate.

We were greeted by the proprietress and the token old guy drinking his noon beer. As we struggled to ask for a menu in German, the worry set in. Was the kitchen even open? Was this a dinner-only thing? I think we scared her with our ineptitude. The host scurried into the back and in a moment an English-speaking server appeared. Menus were offered, meals were ordered and smiles exchanged. So far, so good! And the dining room was sunny, warm and quintessentially German, right down to the ridiculous music being piped in. (Selections included a remake of Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria” and hits from the “Grease” soundtrack.)

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

Some sweet, and unexpected, mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

The sweet mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

And then came the food. Schnitzel can be many things, but any type of meat with breading seemed like a safe bet and easy to share with the 3 year old. It was, in a word, glorious. I fully admit that traditional German food isn’t really my favorite. It can be heavy, greasy and bland-yet-salty. But for some reason, this schnitzel, in this setting, gave us a taste of the German good life. Friendly people, a slower pace, a room unchanged for decades and time to enjoy a delicious meal together.

Flavor! Seasonings! Vegetables! We finally found the German food we've heard about.

Flavor! Seasonings! At least a few green vegetables! We finally found the German food we’ve heard about.

Well done, Germany. Well done.

Our first Furth Fest: Michaelis Kirchweih

Entrance to the Michaeliskirchweih

The entrance to the Kirchweih–where delights for all the senses await you.

Only a 15 minute drive from Herzogenaurach, we decided to check out the fest in Furth. This long-established festival takes place right in the heart of the city and takes over several blocks for more than a week. During that time, the streets are full of food tents and beer gardens, carnival rides, vendors selling everything from leather belts to kitchen tools and an ever-evolving cast of characters worthy of hours of people watching. In short, this was heaven for a State Fair-loving girl like myself.

Beer gardens in Furth during the Kirchweih

Dozens of beer gardens pouring local brews line the streets and invite you in for a mug (or two.)

One of the most curious parts of the festival? The carnival rides. Much more than mere bumper cars and mini-coasters, they were also a time capsule of recent Americana. Each one was decorated with airbrushed pictures of celebrities, movies and TV shows from the 80s and 90s. A carousel featured scenes from Kindergarten Cop. Seriously. Another one included a 10-foot-tall Jennie Garth. And then there was my personal favorite:

Home Improvement-themed carnival ride in Germany

Old TV shows–and their stars–never die. They live on in Germany. Because nothing says excitement and frivolity like remembering episodes of Home Improvement. Also, is he giving her bunny ears?

It was also an opportunity to reinforce stereotypes. Because there, in all his glory, was David Hasselhoff, larger than life and greeting all from the street. I guess he really *is* big in Germany.

David Hasselhoff

Don’t hassle the Hoff, indeed.

The following weekend, we headed back to the festival to watch the parade. Apparently it’s kind of a big deal and is shown on television with (they say) hundreds of thousands of people tuning in. Not knowing what to expect, we arrived very early. We didn’t really know the route, but had a general guess. So we staked out a spot that seemed to have good viewing and waited. And waited.

We stood there for quite some time, second-guessing ourselves for choosing a spot that seemed far closer to the end of the route than the beginning. But finally our instincts were rewarded with the perfect place to view the giant balloon release.

Balloon release

Furth’s official colors of green and white take to the sky to kick off the parade.

So here’s the most important thing I learned about (hopefully all) German parades. While in the U.S. it is common for the parade walkers to throw candy to the children watching, we got other better things. Our outstretched hands were filled with  balloons, sausages, beer and soup! It was like Costco on a Saturday morning out there!

Parade soup

The soup, handed out by one of the parade walkers. It was chickeny with little crunchy croutons floating in it. Delicious.

The parade itself is a celebration of agriculture and the harvest and all the area farms and breweries. Dozens of clubs in traditional attire represented families/clans/towns in Bavaria. Each one had slightly different–but equally beautiful–variations of dress.

Furth parade marchers

Marchers proudly showing their traditional dress.

Furth parade participants

Some even marched with a mobile maypole.

The “Floats” consisted of wagons pulled by horses. The wagons were either 1) full of wooden kegs of beer or 2) full of people showing aspects of traditional farm life or 3) full of seasonal vegetables and fruits, artfully arranged.

Traditional aspects of farm life in the Furth parade

Demonstrating the ways of yore.

The entire parade was just so wholesome. It really made me feel like I had stepped back in time a bit. Well, that and David Hasselhoff. That helped too.

Olde Time bike

And really, what parade is complete without an old-timey-bike guy?

 

On the border: Biel/Bienne

Biel/Bienne old town

Certainly one of the most interesting things about Switzerland is how the country is segmented into sections not only by geography, but by language and culture as well. When these regions meet up, the result can be fascinating.

German and French culture intermingle in Biel/Bienne

In Biel/Bienne, you can choose German or French food as the mood strikes you. The city is equally divided by both language and culture.

We hopped on the train to Biel/Bienne, a city that is so perfectly divided between French and German that it is officially referred to by both versions of its name. A small city known for watch-making (80s flashback alert: We strolled right past the headquarters for Swatch!) Biel/Bienne has a lovely lakefront, abundant shopping and a charming old town.

Balcony detail in Biel/Bienne

Around every corner of the Old Town, ornate balconies cast intricate shadows on the street below.

The city was easy to navigate once we got the hang of it, making it a great family outing. Everything radiates away from the main train station: First the modern shops, located on many pedestrian-only roads and full of buskers. We heard classical violinists, a four-piece horn band, guitarists, and a guy with an accordion. Then we crossed the street into old town, full of open-by-appointment antique and collectable shops, restaurants and bookstores. There was a small outdoor market underway when we were there (hooray!) so we picked up some snacks and walked around. The entire city has signage in both German and French and most residents speak both, plus English, so we were well-covered no matter who we encountered.

Raspberries from Biel/Bienne

The biggest, sweetest raspberries I’ve ever had. A perfect walking-around-town snack!

From old town we followed the main canal through the city until it ended at Lake Biel/Bienne. The waterfront has everything you could ask for: large dinner cruise boats, a swimming beach, playground, marina, snack bars, walking paths, wide lawns for picnics or sunbathing, foot bridges and swans. Lots of swans.

On the shore of Lake Biel

See that Swan in the background? He’s already spotted his mark and is ready to make his move.

While they might look all pristine and romantic, these are really just big ducks who are used to being fed so if you happen to have some croissant crumbs on your shirt or a pretzel in your hand, be warned. These guys mean business.

To market, to market….

Market day in Solothurn Switzerland

The market in Solothurn, Switzerland is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Twice a week seems typical in Europe of towns of this size, with larger cities having open-air markets every day and small villages having a few stands pop up once a week.

Each booth, cart, wagon, card table and stall seems to specialize in only one or two items: Berries, olives, breads, fish, flowers, vegetables, cheese…we tried to do as much of our grocery shopping here as we could.

Cherries for sale at the Solothurn market

We were there during cherry season. Hurray!

We even found a few things that we would not be able to enjoy at home. One farmer’s booth featured raw, unpasteurized whole milk. Raw milk is illegal where we live, and though there is a lively black market for it, I had never tried it. It did taste different. Not better of worse, but there is certainly a distinction.

Farm-fresh milk in Solothurn

Shhhh don’t tell anyone. This raw milk is illegal in much of the U.S. Milk is often sold unrefrigerated in Europe, so the farmer sternly us to told us to keep this milk cold and drink it within a few days. No problem there!

The market was a great slice of local life and helped us get into the rhythm of the town. Everyone in the area seems to be shopping–tattooed couples pushing strollers, old men in crisply ironed shirts, groups of friends carrying baskets of produce while balancing a coffee–the streets were bustling and we were happy to blend in for a change.

Mushrooms at the Solothurn market

The fungus among us. Mushrooms of all types and flavors.

Mystery vegetable at the market

So I assume “peperoni” refers to the shape? I think this is a parsnip. Or a radish. Or maybe a turnip….

 

 

The everyday exotic: McDonald’s

“Come into this McDonald’s quick,” said Ken. Huh? I understand the menu is different in other countries, but we don’t eat at McDonald’s at home, so what do I care about a McDonald’s in Switzerland? Then I saw the McCafe section of the restaurant. Ohhhh.

McCafe desserts in Switzerland

Macarons? Cakes and tarts? IN A MCDONALD’S?

Leather chairs, soft lighting, coffee in real cups, desserts that were galaxies away from the “apple pie” in a box that I remember.

McCafe coffee and pastries

Not a bad spot to pull out the old laptop….

I learned that the McCafe shops are quite popular, and I can see why. It looked like a fancier version of Starbucks. Goes against all that I know about food and eating in the States, but for a cup of java in Olten, Switzerland, it would certainly do.

orchids in McDonald's in Switzerland

Orchids next to the cash register were a nice touch….

The Kneipp cure: water and walking

 

Kneipp trail near Solothurn, Switzerland

A donation of 2 Swiss Francs is a small price to pay for the unique experience of a Kneipp trail.

When I was researching our trip to Switzerland, I found many mentions of Kneipp applications, including spas, nature trails and pools. I was confused. Kneipp is also a popular brand of herbal wellness and bath products, but both the bath oil and the nature trails go back to the philosophies of one man.

Sebastian Kneipp

A priest from the mid-1800s, Sebastian Kneipp was looking for ways to cure his tuberculosis and found a “water cure” that he believed healed him. He created a system of wellness that focuses on diet, exercise, hydrotherapy and other holistic methods. All all over Europe, you can find products and places dedicated to his beliefs.

Off with your shoes!

I really wanted to find one of the “barefoot trails” I had read about, and discovered one place, not far from our home base of Solothurn. The idea is simple: Follow a small path while walking barefoot. The idea is that you will experience various sensations and textures, give your feet a massage, improve circulation, and enhance the benefits of the hydrotherapy that the Kneipp water pools provide.

Walking on broken glass

There were several sections of various texture, temperature, and moisture to experience. It started with pea gravel, cool and moist and moved to small stones, warm and smooth.

Kneipp barefoot trail

Kick off your shoes, rinse off your feet, and hit the Kneipp trail.

Then there was a section of wood slats, followed by wood chips which also had signs for different types of stretching to add to the walking, and then an area of soft grasses.

The Kneipp barefoot path makes walking a sensory experience

The varying textures and temperatures of the path invite you to slow down and enjoy the sensation.

There were also covered sections of the path where you could lift up the lid and walk through. One featured a knee-deep pit of pea-sized clay balls. They felt amazing, but I was not prepared to sink down so far!

A section of clay balls on the barefoot Kneipp trail

These crazy little balls of clay gave a great foot massage–and temporarily stained my feet and legs with a henna-colored polka dot pattern.

The next one was small pieces of crushed glass, which looked jagged but felt smooth, kind of like sea glass.

Broken glass as part of the Kneipp barefoot trail

Walking across broken glass (with feet stained from the clay of the previous section) made me feel like a total bad-ass.

The final dip

At the end, I walked through the traditional Kneipp foot bath. An L-shaped wading pool with a railing down the middle, the idea is to walk through the cold water–meant to revitalize your legs–and then dry them off, put on warm socks, and be on your way. The water was really cold. I think I stepped through much faster than I was supposed to. I admit after I was done, I really did feel good: refreshed and full of energy. We continued on a hike up the hills afterward and my feet thanked me the entire time.

Kneipp foot bath

A polar plunge from the knee down. This water was…bracing.

I will certainly be searching out Kneipp facilities in the future–and I think the barefoot path could easily be created at home. Perhaps a little path in the backyard or at the cabin….

 

Road food in Europe: leave the Corn Nuts and Red Vines behind

It was a 4+ hour drive from our weekend in Germany back to Switzerland. At some point we were going to need food, bathrooms and a coffee. I had planned on just making do with the many highway rest stops along the autobahn and some snacks I had in my bag, but fate intervened.

We pulled in at a gas station that had adjacent restaurants. There was a Burger King, some sort of buffet, and a coffee bar. But this was very different than the truck stops in the U.S.

German gas station dessert buffet

Forget the Twinkies and day-old donuts. These were just some of the choices at the gas station dessert buffet.

We sat in a cozy corner with leather chairs and a gas fireplace (I’m guessing we were in the “coffee shop” area?) Ken had ordered a meal from the buffet for us to share. Good thing. This plate of sausages and spaetzle was enormous. Two adults and a toddler could not finish it.

German gas station dinner

So. Much. Food. But pretty darn tasty!

We also enjoyed some great coffee, served with little almond cookies on the side. It felt very refined considering we were in the shadow of dozens of parked semis and a few tour buses of elderly tourists.

German gas station coffee

A cup of coffee and we were ready to get back on the road.

To really cap off the experience, there were the restrooms. Accessible through a turnstile after paying a small fee, the bathrooms were sparkling clean and it’s no wonder. They have robotics! It took me a few tries to figure out the cleaning vs. flushing thing, but it was so entertaining it hardly mattered. I was so surprised, I forgot to take a picture or a video, but luckily other people have found it equally fascinating.