To Prague! (Finally!)

It was our last hold out.  Of all the places we’d had on our “must visit” list before we came to Vienna, Prague was the only one we hadn’t been to.  It’s supposed to be lovely, it’s close to Vienna, and everyone who goes just loves it, so of course we were planning to go.

In fact, we’d planned to go 4 different times since we’ve been here.  I no longer remember all the reasons our previous trips have been cancelled.  I know that at least one was because the boys were sick, and I’m fairly certain another was because Dan had something come up at work and we couldn’t go away.  I vaguely remember that one time there was an issue with train tickets being sold out on the dates that we had planned to travel, but that might have been a different trip.  Regardless, it was past time for us to make a trip to Prague.

And so, last June, we finally went.  We found an apartment, booked our train tickets, did a minimal amount of research (I hadn’t realized where, geographically, Prague actually is until about 2 years ago — it’s actually WEST of Vienna).  And we were off, on another travel adventure, to a new country.


We traveled by train, which was something we hadn’t done over a significant distance in quite a while, and we found it, again, to be fun and easy compared to our more recent air trips.  I love the train, because we don’t have to be there 2 hours early, we don’t have to worry about which luggage gets checked or carried on, we don’t have to wait in line for security checks (though that might not always be a good thing, I suppose).  All we have to do is show up and get on.  We got a spot in the “family friendly” carriage, so we were not the loudest or the crankiest passengers, and our table top at our seats had a board game built into it.  (The conductor dropped off the playing pieces when he checked our tickets.)  The trip from Vienna to Prague was uneventful and pleasant, and no one was interested in checking our travel documents (which is what we’ve gotten used to within the EU . . . though that may be different these days).  Our plan for getting from the train station to our rented apartment involved taking the tram, which was slightly complicated, because we don’t speak Czech, and were completely unfamiliar with the tram system, but we sorted it out once we arrived in Prague, and it was actually incredibly easy and relatively user friendly.  (Though we struggled, throughout the weekend, with figuring out how to use the automated ticket machines for the tram system.)  We managed to pick an unusually hot weekend for June, which was slightly inconvenient, because we had also selected an apartment without air conditioning or ceiling fans.

Once we arrived and were settled in, though, the heat provided extra motivation to get out and explore the city (since it was hotter inside than outside).  Our first destination was the Prague castle, high on the hill overlooking the city, and we got there (again) by tram (though at this point we were mostly catching on and we found it progressively easier and extremely convenient to navigate the city this way).


We were struck, almost immediately, by how friendly people are in Prague.  People actually smiled to us at they passed (which I found unnerving, initially, until I realized just how much I’ve adapted to living in Vienna).  When we had trouble with the ticket machines for the tram, passersby stopped to help.  And in addition to being generally friendly and outgoing, almost everyone we encountered spoke truly excellent English.  We were worried that since we were traveling to a country where we spoke not a word of the language (apart from what we studied in the Rick Steves guidebook on the train on the way there) that we would have trouble communicating, but we absolutely did not.  It wasn’t an issue at all.

Now what WAS an issue was that, by the time we sorted out where we were going, got off a stop early accidentally, and walked the rest of the way up the hill, we had one very, very cranky and tired 4 year old with us.  He fell asleep on the tram, and by the time he got up, he didn’t want to walk, he didn’t want to see anything, he didn’t want to be there.  We found a quiet place at the top of the hill (behind a monastery) and sat to check out the view and give Liam a chance to rest.



IMG_0015Prague really IS as beautiful as everyone says.  The bridges over the river are picturesque, the winding, cobbled streets are romantic, the view from the hill down over the city is lovely.  As we abandoned our post overlooking the city, and began to walk down towards the castle, we came upon a procession in celebration of Corpus Christi (which was apparently the day we were there).

By the time we got into the actual castle grounds, many of the buildings were closed for the day (it was late afternoon), but that was actually ok, because the kids wouldn’t have been up for much historical study at that point.  Instead, we explored the grounds in near privacy, the kids got to run around a bit, and we found a spot to enjoy the view from a slightly different perspective.  We took the tram back to the center of town, and went for a quick stroll to the Old Town Square after a lovely Czech dinner, but we were all tired at that point, and a more extensive investigation would have to wait until the next evening.


























Our first day in Prague, though tiring, was just as lovely as we’d come to expect from other travelers’ stories.  So often, when people enjoy a place so much, it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.  (Plus, we’ve become a bit jaded with our extensive travel history.  We’ve seen a lot, and we’re getting a bit harder to impress these days.)  Prague, if anything, exceeded our expectations.  Journeys are always a bit more tiring than we expect, and the heat certainly took some of our energy out of us, but we got to see an impressive part of the city just in our first afternoon, and we were very much looking forward to our further explorations.

Schneeberg revisited

When people think of Austria, they think of the Alps.  And rightly so.  The vast majority of Austria is mountainous (over 3/4 of Austria is in the Alps), and a good bit of it is uninhabitable due to the height and steepness of the peaks through the center and west of the country.

Vienna, however, is in the far east of Austria, and, rather than being in the mountains, it is located in the gently sloping valley carved out by the Danube.  Vienna is hilly, but not mountainous (my apartment is only at 186 m above sea level, for example).  So, if we want mountains, we have to travel.  We’ve been all over Austria’s central mountains (including very near the highest, the Grossglockner), through the Italian Alps on a train (which resulted in a bit of a shock when we woke up and saw ourselves surrounded by snow), and have visited both of Vienna’s “local mountains”, Rax and Schneeberg. Though we spent lovely days at both of the local mountains, the trip back and forth to Schneeberg was definitely simpler, so this past May, when winter was behind us and we felt like getting out to the mountains for a bit, we went back to Schneeberg.

Our only significant complaint about our last trip to Schneeberg was that, due to a lack of detailed planning, we didn’t get enough time to explore.  So this time, knowing that the trip there was long-ish, and that in order to maximize our mountain hiking time, we’d have to plan our connections (3 different trains, not including Vienna’s public transit) carefully, we planned ahead.  The desire to plan ahead was tempered by our desire to have at least decent weather at the top, so though we planned ahead, we didn’t want to buy our actual tickets too far ahead.  But we were (theoretically) prepared.  The morning of our trip, we got up early, and left the house with nearly an hour to catch our train (the trip to the train station is less than 25 min) … and yet, we somehow missed our train.

I’m still not entirely sure how it happened.  We left the house with plenty of time.  We had to wait a while for our first U-Bahn, and then a bit for the second, but sometime shortly after we got on that second U-Bahn, I realized we were, at best, barely going to make our train.  As soon as we got to the train station, we started running.  It’s a big train station (which was part of the miscalculation — I had counted “arriving at the train station” as “being at the tracks”, which is about a 10 minute underestimate when traveling with kids), so we ran across the whole thing.  I still had to print our tickets, too, and I was shaking with the stress and adrenaline, so I entered the confirmation number incorrectly.  And that was it.  Dan and the boys had run up to the tracks to wait for me, but I never even got up there.  They were on their way back down, having seen the train pull away, before I got there.

It wasn’t really a big deal — the next train was in an hour — but I was so disappointed.  I felt awful for dragging us all out of bed extra early for no good reason.  I was embarrassed that I had failed to allow for enough time.  I felt guilty that I’d made my kids sprint through the train station for no reason.  I felt terrible that they felt stressed and worried about our day.  So I cried (which did not improve the stress and worry situation, which made me feel worse).  But, all was not lost, and so I went into the ticket office and got us new tickets for the next train.  I found out when our new connections would be and we crossed our fingers that we’d be able to change our reservation for the Salamander train that would take us up the mountain.  Then we got breakfast, regrouped, and got on the next train without a problem.



If you make the connections properly, it’s not a long trip — only about 2 hours from the center of Vienna, and quite lovely.  First, you take a big train to one of Vienna’s outlying suburbs, and then a tiny electric train (which honestly feels more like a bus) out into the countryside and to the base of the mountains.  When we arrived, we were scolded a bit for missing the train we had been booked on, and informed that we were lucky to get a spot on a later train, but we did get a spot.  Because of our less than ideal departure from Vienna, we ended up with nearly an hour of downtime until the special Salamander train up the mountain.  (For those keeping track, that means we would get to the top of the mountain 2 full hours later than we had intended.)  But, no worries.  To fill the time, we got some coffee (for Dan & I) and made our way to a nearby salamander-themed playground (for the boys).

At the appointed time, we went back to the train station and got on the Salamander train for the 45 minute ride to the top of the mountain.  At the bottom of the mountain, it was late spring, nearly summer.  Everything was green and lush, the kids didn’t need their jackets, and I was thinking I may have over-prepared for our adventure.  As we ascended, however, things changed quickly.  By halfway up the mountain, our surroundings looked more like early spring than late May.  The trees were just budding, the wildflowers just starting to think about blooming, and, as we ascended, there was more and more snow everywhere.  Rather than being over-prepared, I started to worry that we might be under-dressed in our fleeces and raincoats.

At the top, it felt like early March, rather than late May.  The kids climbed on massive snow piles, and most of the play area at the summit was unusable due to the amount of snow cover.  The wind whipped around us, dark clouds hung overhead, and banks of fog curled around the rocks.  It did not feel like it was nearly summer.  It was winter again.


Undaunted, we began our hike.  Our plan was to continue along the path we had started on our previous visit, and then to go further, possibly as far as one of the two peaks.  But though we were (relatively) enthusiastic (me and Dan more than the kids), we just weren’t going to make it that far.  It was cold and windy.  Very cold and windy, and slightly misty.  We had come prepared for a springtime hike, but not for a winter one.

But though we accepted we would not be going as far as we’d planned, we were still going to enjoy our mountain adventure!  So, after about half a mile, we stopped into an Almhutte for a break from the wind and a warm treat (goulash and hot chocolate) before continuing on.  We were not, at all, the only people put hiking, though we may have been the only non-Austrians).

IMG_0004After a bit more hiking, we came upon a fun discovery — one of several sources of Vienna’s lovely drinking water.  I knew that our clean and tasty drinking water came “from the mountains”, but I didn’t realize that one of the sources would be a big pile of snow (presumably over a frozen lake or spring), surrounded in less than intimidating barbed wire, along the side of a wide hiking trail.  (There was a young girl who had climbed down into the snow pictured here, but that seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea, so we wouldn’t let the boys join her.)

But after that, we were pretty much done.  Our vision of an entire afternoon spent hiking several miles was overly ambitious given the conditions (or at least due to our level of preparation).  We were just thwarted by the cold and the wind … and the fact that it was basically still winter up there.  And though we enjoyed our colder-than-expected hike on the mountaintop, we definitely learned that late spring is still a bit early to hike in the high Alps.  On the bright side, as it turned out, my morning miscalculation didn’t really cost us any precious mountain time (because we wouldn’t have stayed longer anyway, and we got to be there in the “warmest” part of the day, relatively speaking).  In the end, it was another adventure, and another learning experience, and I think we’ll save our next mountain hike for summer.



Girls’ weekend begins . . .

I actually thought I might vomit before I could leave the house last Friday.  Part of it was anxiety about the trip — I tend to worry much more than is called for over missing buses, planes and trains.  Part of it was being uncomfortable with traveling alone — as much as I’m a well-seasoned European traveller (this would be my third time to London), I’ve only travelled a very little bit on my own.  But most of it was worry, stress and sadness at the thought of leaving my boys for just over 65 hours.  I’m just not used to it.

It was my first trip away from Liam, and my first trip away from anyone since we’ve been in Austria.  I’m actually a little grateful for my over-anxiousness about missing my flight.  Without it, I might not have overcome the paralysis I was feeling about actually going.  Eventually, my stress over missing my flight overwhelmed my stress about leaving the kids, so I was able to actually go.

Within the first half hour I was away (I hadn’t even caught the bus to the airport yet) I was stunned.  I had so much downtime.  What was I supposed to do with myself?  For most of the trip to the airport, I just sat and looked out of the window.  I have lost all of my habits for idle time — most of the time I’m with the kids or attending to something pressing, and in the few moments I actually have “free”, there’s always at least SOMETHING that needs my attention (outlining my next blog post, sending cute pictures of the kids to my family, making a grocery list, planning our next outing).  I had nothing that I had to do.  No errands to run, nothing that needed my attention, no endless questions to answer, no one to keep entertained, no one to shush or calm down or keep safe.  It was really weird.  I had no one to talk to and lots of time on my own.  I truly did not know what to do with myself (and I’d been out of the house for less than an hour).

I adjusted.  It took a while to even think of reading, watching a movie on my phone, or listening to music.  Once I was able to get used to actually being able to focus on something for leisure, it was really pleasant (but still, there was no place I would rather have been right at that moment than home getting ready for movie night with my family).  The flight was great, and eventually I stopped jumping to attention every time a child on the plane would cry.  It actually became pretty pleasant to snap out of my focus on my book only to remember that my kids were at home and I could go right back to reading — a little like waking up before the alarm in the morning and getting to enjoy snuggling back into bed for a while.

On my own, I had a lot more time for random thought, too.  Standing in the forever-long “all other passports” UK Border line, I contemplated what passport control must be like for moderately famous people.  I imagine they have to wait in the same line as everyone else (unless they’re SUPER famous and this disruptive to the process, then maybe there’s some other provision), which must be awful.  I figure they’d get bothered, asked for autographs or whatever, but there would be nothing they could do to get away!  That must be even worse than just waiting through the line as a regular person, which isn’t any fun, either.  (This is what happens to my mind when I don’t have kids to entertain, apparently.)  Also, I spent a little time contemplating how/why people can’t tell where I’m from.  I had a British person think I was British (after talking to me?!?) on the plane and a woman in the Customs line came up and spoke to me in an impressive stream of Russian — then, after seeing my confusion, apologized in fluent English, saying she thought I was Russian, too.

It was odd to be on my own — not just being an off-duty mom, but being completely solo on my journey.  It was strange to not have anyone to coordinate with.  When my train from the airport was delayed by an hour and a half, I didn’t have anyone to hash out an alternate plan with, nor to pass the time with.  And when I finally made it to Victoria Station after midnight, there was no one with whom to debate the various merits of taking a cab or the subway, so I got to decide on my own.  (After midnight, raining, with luggage and not 100% sure where I was going — I opted for a cab, and I think it was the best £10 I spent the whole trip.)

I made it, all on my own, from Vienna to London.  I managed to remember how to read a book on a plane, hail a cab and watch TV in a hotel room (that wasn’t a cartoon).  The trip was going great already, and the really fun stuff hadn’t even started yet!


1261I’m kind of shocked to realize that this is my first post dedicated to Trunkis, the ride-on, pull-along, carry-on kid-functional suitcases we got for the boys last year.  It’s long overdue.

We first saw something like a Trunki once at the airport when dropping off a friend over a year ago.  A family on the opposite train platform was loading up two kids on two small, elephant-looking suitcases, which the parents then pulled along behind them.  I thought it was so fantastic that I took a few pictures of this completely unknown family.  Later, I asked around among my friends, and everyone kept saying they were “Trunkis” even though the ones I saw the first time were either by a different brand or a much older model.  When I finally found them online, they seemed too expensive, and my boys have backpacks and suitcases already, so I just let it go, but I never really forgot about it.

1271The next time we encountered such a thing (and the first time we “met” a real Trunki) was at London’s Luton airport during our trip to the UK last summer.  We went into one of those travel shops at the airport (I no longer remember why — I think Dan was looking for something) and they had a variety of Trunkis for sale . . . of course, all down at kid level.  B saw them and fell in love instantly.  He touched them, he wanted to open them, he wanted to ride on them.  I intended to say no, but since I’d been looking at them before, and they were actually cheaper in person (plus no shipping!) I decided to go for it.  Especially after the salesperson assured me they would 1549work as a carry on (even on EasyJet — and I told him that if they said no at the check-in counter, I was bringing it straight back).  We only got one, because we wanted to know if it would work, and initially, Liam wasn’t too disappointed, since he was mostly riding in the stroller.  B immediately climbed aboard and started doing laps up and down the check-in line.  He was hooked, and Liam was, very shortly thereafter, jealous.

008B’s Trunki worked great on that trip.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that it did, indeed, fit even EasyJet’s small allowance for carry-on luggage, and B’s other carry-on suitcase actually fit inside with a little room to spare.  After that trip, we decided Liam should have one, too, but we didn’t go back through Luton, and we didn’t find them anywhere else.  After we got back to Vienna, B decided he wanted to give Liam his very own new Trunki for his birthday just a few weeks later, so we went ahead and ordered one (which was a lot more expensive).

And the rest is history.  We’ve gotten quite fond of and attached to the Trunkis.  They have joined us on every trip since, and they’ve stood up to a ton of abuse from the kids.  After 6 months, 3 flights, 3 train trips and a road trip, we feel like we’ve broken them in and road tested them pretty well.  Here are the pros and cons that we’ve found so far:


  • 053They’re cute.  I don’t mind looking at them all the time.  I imagine they’d be super easy to spot coming around on the conveyor of checked bags (although we haven’t tried that yet).  And, unlike the many character-themed backpacks and suitcases, I don’t think the kids are likely to “grow out” of the Trunkis as quickly.
  • They’re sturdy.  Other than a bit of paint/decoration wear (very minimal) I’m truly impressed at how well these have stood up.  My kids use them every day around the house, not just on travel.  They sit on them, they ride on them, they climb on them (I wish they didn’t do that last part).  They open and close them on their own.  They’ve been kicked, knocked down, dragged and raced around the house.  And that’s in addition to be lugged on and off of trains, in and out of car trunks and into and out of overhead compartments.  These things are really well built.
  • 027They’re easy for the kids to use.  B has been able to open and close his since day 1, and Liam figured it out by the time he got to be about 2 1/2.  They can also be locked (the adjustable carrying strap has the “key” attached).  My boys use them around the house to store things (i.e., hide them from their brother) and it’s nice that they can access the inside on their own (although pinched fingers are a concern).  The boys can climb on an off when we’re using them as a ride on and can pull them along behind them with the carrying strap (although watch out for unaware people walking alongside — the boys aren’t great at watching exactly which direction the Trunki is going behind them and they could definitely take someone out).
  • 081They’re carry-on sized.  We’ve tried it, it’s really true.  They fit in the overhead bin and within the guideline for carry-on luggage.  They can be rolled down the aisle in the plane, too, and up the jetway with a child on top (which is especially nice since even gate-checked strollers are often not returned until baggage claim).  They also fit nicely behind the front seat in a car, right at the kids’ feet, so they can see “their stuff” in the car.  (Also makes kid stuff easily accessible, because  you don’t necessarily have to dig through the back/trunk . . . and if you do, a Trunki is distinctive and easy to find.)
  • 052They double as a ride-on.  On the way to the gate at the airport or to the train at the station, one of the kids (whichever one isn’t in the stroller) seems to always want to be held.  Being able to have them ride the Trunki is incredibly functional (although it does require some steering on the part of the passenger, and you have to watch out for people walking nearby).  Also, when waiting in line (which is a lot when you travel) the Trunki provides a seat that isn’t just on the floor.  Whenever the kids get tired of standing, they can always sit on the Trunki instead.
  • 001Convenient for packing.  You can fit a lot of stuff in a Trunki.  We have managed to basically pack the boys entire clothing and such for a week (not including diapers) in their Trunkis.  With winter clothes, B is just starting to run out of room.  It’s nice to have the kids’ stuff separated — especially when in comes to finding things like socks and keeping track of what belongs to which child.  (Are these Benjamin’s gray socks or Liam’s?  Whose blue fleece is this?)


  • They can get clunky.  Empty, they’re light and easy to move around.  Full, they can get heavy, especially when carrying it with the shoulder strap (or carrying two!) while pulling a piece of rolling luggage or pushing a stroller.  Also, because they’re hard and not squishable, they don’t fit easily into the bottom of a stroller.  The only option is to carry it or pull it.  They’re not ideal if you have a long way to walk and it will be in a place where you can’t or don’t want the kids to ride or pull it.
  • 004They’re expensive.  I don’t remember how much we paid for the one we bought at the airport, but the one we ordered was £38.  (Of course, it doesn’t help that Benjamin chose the limited edition, most expensive version to get for Liam’s birthday, and that we had to have it shipped from the UK, which cost even more.)
  • They become essential.  Now that we have them, there’s little hope of travelling without them.  The boys are set on bringing them everywhere.  So, even when we take short weekend trips where we might not have packed separate suitcases for the kids, the Trunkis are GOING to be coming with us.  So, we’ve now put ourselves in a situation where we are taking at least 3 bags with us (2 Trunkis, 1 backpack or suitcase for grownups) wherever we go, no matter what.

Overall, we love them.  They aren’t the only functional solution to luggage for kids, but they’re pretty great, and we’re glad we have ours.


(Also, in case anyone wonders, this is in no way a sponsored post.  I received nothing from Trunki, nor from anyone else, at any point.  This is just my opinion.)

Vienna to Salzburg by train: ÖBB vs. Westbahn

For our trip to Salzburg this weekend, we weighed the options, in terms of time and money, and ended up taking the “Westbahn” train from Vienna to Salzburg. This is a relatively new train service, and we’d never taken it before — for travel inside of Austria, we’d only ever used the ÖBB service. Using something new is always a little stressful, especially traveling with the kids — an adult might take a setback or an inconvenience with mild frustration and see it as a lesson learned, but for a little kid, it might create a ton of unhappiness (for everyone). So, armed with a recommendation from a friend, and the consolation that whatever happened, it was at least the cheapest option, we headed off to catch our Westbahn train at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna.

It was fantastic.

In addition to being cheaper (which was actually only true because Jo was traveling with us — Dan and I have ÖBB discount cards which would have reduced our fares), it was actually a lot more functional for our purposes.

The very best part is that the access to the train is at ground level — we just pushed the stroller right on board. On most of the ÖBB trains (except for the Regional Express), there are a few steep stairs. Trying to get the kids and the stroller into the train quickly and safely is always stressful and difficult. Then there was a large luggage rack right inside the door, so once we were on, we stowed all of our bags, folded up the stroller, and made our way up to our reserved seats on the upper deck (being upstairs was fun for the kids and gave us a nice view, too). When we were boarding, we saw a special car along the train that looked to be set up for families — we didn’t know anything about that, but we’ll look into it for our next trip.

Once upstairs, we found our seats and got comfortable. The seats aren’t numbered, so rather than having specific seats reserved, there was an entire table roped off for us. Since we were 5, rather than 4, that meant Jo didn’t get to sit immediately next to us on the way home, but she was guaranteed a seat on the upper deck of the same car (and I’m sure we could have asked people to switch seats if it had been an issue). There wasn’t any room at the seats for luggage (which was the only negative we encountered) but they did have coat hooks. The tables were very functional, with no places for pinched fingers. On the other hand, almost all of the seats are at tables, which might be more awkward for someone traveling alone. The seats were easily adjustable with a tiny bit of recline (standard for what we’ve seen in terms of the angle of reclining, but easier to adjust). And, it was so convenient to have power outlets between the seats for recharging . . . especially because there was also free Wi-Fi on the train! It was great — it was no problem to entertain the kids on the trip. We had access to games, tv, everything, for the entire ride. And the ride itself was relatively short (about 2.5 hours to Salzburg, slightly faster than the ÖBB Railjet).

There was a self-service café located in every-other car, which was great, because although having a full-service café car is nice, it can sometimes be tough (and occasionally impossible) to actually reach it and then get safely back to your seat. This was easy. And, each car has its own attendant, so there’s always someone to ask if a question or an issue comes up.

20130326-163100.jpgThe bathroom signs get extra points for humor. I also found the bathroom clean, and I witnessed the ladies’ room being cleaned mid-journey, which is always a plus.

Overall, we loved it. It was much more functional for our purposes and less expensive. I’m so glad we gave it a try!

To Salzburg!

Ever since our trip last fall to the greater Salzburg area, we knew we’d go back.  Just by luck, we happened to have found an excellent hotel, in the mountains south of Salzburg.  It’s a working organic farm, high up on a hillside, overlooking a picturesque Alpine Valley.  They have cats, bunnies, chickens, cows (you can stop by at milking time and see where the next day’s breakfast’s beverage comes from) and even a goat.  It’s just a 20 minute drive from Salzburg, and about the same from the German border.  We were lucky enough to enjoy the first snow of the season when we visited in October.  This weekend, we’re going back.

Jo’s tenure here will be over soon, and we wanted to share one of our favorite parts of Austria with her before she leaves.  But really, that’s just kind of an excuse — we couldn’t wait to go back.  Of all the places we’ve visited so far in Austria, it’s my favorite.

We’re looking forward to a weekend of playing, relaxing, exploring and seeing some sights in Salzburg.  So excited!

Don’t take the night train with a 2 year old

If you know me personally, or have read more than a few of my blog posts, you probably know that I’m an advocate of traveling with kids, even little ones (mine are currently 2 and 4, and we’ve been a lot of places).  I generally scoff at the idea that “my kid can’t handle a long flight”, I roll my eyes at people who think children should be left at Grandma’s for vacation time (especially if the reason is something like “they won’t remember it anyway“), and I kindly cajole my friends, family and readers to push aside their notions of what life (and travel) with little ones can be and to shift expectations, soften schedules and get out there and see the world, with kids in tow.

That said, many years will pass before I attempt another overnight train ride with my kids.

Benjamin (4) did great.  In fact, I think he was the most comfortable and got the most sleep of any of us, adults included.  The cramped conditions had significantly less effect on him (think cozy, rather than claustrophobic) than they did on us larger folks.

Liam (2) did not fare so well, and we all suffered as a consequence.  The first trip, on the overnight train from Vienna to Rome, actually went ok.  We had a tough time getting in and organized, and then, once we were settled, it was a bit of a lengthy and challenging process to get us all snuggled into bed.  But, once we were all tucked in, we each got a reasonable night’s sleep.

20130305-221730.jpgWe weren’t so lucky on the return trip (Venice to Vienna).  Since we’d already done one overnight trip, we kind of knew what we were doing, and it was a shorter trip, we thought we’d be fine and we’d probably handle it like pros.  And, we pretty much did, at first.  We got ourselves on and sorted out quickly and comfortably (relatively), and since we didn’t board until almost 9:00, we didn’t waste any time getting the kids (and ourselves) ready for bed.  An hour after departure, we were all in bed, ready for sleep.  It actually was one of our earlier bedtimes on our entire trip.

The problems began a few hours later, during a very long, post-midnight stop.  All trains stop, of course, but an overnight train stop can be particularly frustrating and uncomfortable.  When the train stops, sometimes for an inexplicably long time, you lose the comforting movement of the train as well as the sound barrier (for yourselves and others) that the train’s movement provides.

In our case, during this particular stop, Liam woke up.  And cried.  And screamed.  And couldn’t be consoled.  And it was 1:00 in the morning and there was nothing we could do.  The sound travelled throughout the car (during other periods when the train was stopped, we could hear someone coughing several compartments away).  We were all awake, we were all unhappy, we were probably being cursed at (in various languages) from the other compartments, but we couldn’t make him happy and we couldn’t make him be quiet.  We couldn’t walk up and down the aisle with him like we might have on a plane trip, or rely on any kind of ambient engine noise to limit the damage to those sitting closest to us.  We had no options.

All we could do was try.  We offered water, a snack, more covers, less covers, a back rub, a snuggle, different toys, a new diaper, the iPad . . . nothing worked.  He was miserable, he was crying and we were stuck.  He’s too little to be reasoned out of it and too little to just “tough it out” if he’s uncomfortable.  2 year olds just react to their environment (if they can’t adjust it to make themselves comfortable) and he did not like his situation.

He finally asked for me (he’d been sharing a berth with Dan) and I snuggled with him.  That helped.  But as an incredibly light sleeper with a bad back, I’d been hoping to get to sleep on my own.  I intended to cuddle with him until he fell asleep and then switch with Dan.  No luck — he was on to me and woke up crying as soon as I tried to move.  So, I took one for the team and curled up with Liam.  I didn’t sleep, but everyone else did (and we weren’t pelted with fruit when we disembarked, so I guess our fellow travelers were at least a little grateful).

B did great.  Even in Liam’s most upset moments, he only woke for a bit.  He was comfy and happy and enjoyed the experience.  And if he had been unable to sleep, he probably would have enjoyed an all-night party of Angry Birds on the iPad and been quite happy.  That’s the difference between 2 and 4.  I think Liam is just too little.  Until he’s 4 or so, I think we’ll be sticking to flights and daytime trains.

Sleeper train to Rome

So we’re here, on the first part of our Italian adventure. To get here, we took the overnight “sleeper” train yesterday from Vienna to Rome. It was quite an adventure in itself.

20130223-174619.jpgWe had a terrible time getting ourselves and all of our stuff onto the train. (The train was a bit late, it was very cold and windy, and we created a major roadblock getting the stroller on board.) Once we got ourselves all loaded into the compartment, it wasn’t much better. At first, we couldn’t figure out where to put any of our things or how anything was supposed to be set up. But eventually, Jo climbed up to the top of the highest bunk bed and we got most of our things stowed away up top. It was a bit crowded, slightly uncomfortable and a little claustrophobic, but cozy and fun — kind of like camping.

After a few hours of socializing in our tightly packed quarters (through most of which Jo hung out in the top bunk and the boys mostly watched videos and played iPad games), we decided to set up for bed.

20130223-174736.jpgIt took forever. Getting everything arranged, figuring out how to set up all of the beds (and then realizing that there were no options at that point other than laying down or standing up) and getting the boys and ourselves ready for bed all were more complicated and took longer than we expected. By the time we all got in to bed (around 11) we were completely exhausted.

The kids were AMAZING. Through the initial stress of getting situated, plus the hours of confinement, and on through the endless-seeming evening of “getting ready for bed”, they were pleasant, happy and enthusiastic. Then they snuggled down in theirs bunks like experts.

Sleeping was tough. The beds were kind of cozy (if not very big) but the fear of falling out of bed, exacerbated by the sometimes abrupt braking of the train, kept the adults up for a while. B slept soundly, but Liam (who shared a bed with Dan) was restless. We all eventually got some rest though, and I ended up being more comfortable than I expected to be.

20130223-174750.jpgWe truly had no idea what it was going to be like before we set off. It was kind of weird, but it worked out pretty well, really. Of course, it was made a bit more challenging by the fact that we ended up nearly 2 hours behind schedule (and then ended up getting to Rome earlier than we’d been told we would, which created an intense scramble at the end).

Our 16 hour train saga seems to have been well worth it though. We’re here now, in Rome, listening to the rain and the birds and the bells ringing at the Vatican. We had an amazing lunch (the food really is as good as we’d heard) and we’re looking forward to the rest of our visit to Rome. The train journey was just the beginning of this piece of our adventure.

Andiamo a Italia

This time next week, we’ll be in Italy.  We will have taken our overnight train (for better or for worse — I’m a bit concerned that the kids won’t sleep, and therefore, neither will anyone else), arrived in Rome, dropped of our bags and begun our Italian vacation.  It’s kind of amazing.  I love this part of planning the trip.  Between washing dozens of loads of laundry, mastering the spatial relations of various suitcase options, talking with the kids to give them appropriate expectations of the next few weeks, poring over guide books about the different places we’re going to see, confirming hotel reservations, arranging travel connections, and packing (which feels like it takes weeks), I am suddenly hit with the realization that, in a few short days, we’re actually going to BE on our trip, exploring a new place, experiencing new things.  It’s very easy for me to lose sight of that when I’m wading through the details of trip planning (partly because there are so many details).

So, today, I’m really excited.  It’s finally *real* to me that we’re going to be IN ITALY in a week.  We’re going to be eating pizza, pasta, risotto and gelato, drinking hot chocolate and (I’m certain) enjoying many other delightful things.  We’re going to visit Rome, Vatican City, and Venice.  (We’re going to be in Rome, and Vatican City, during the last week of Pope Benedict’s papacy — which is something we couldn’t have expected or planned for, but it’s kind of amazing.)  We’re going to see the Coliseum, the Forum, Trevi fountain and St. Mark’s Square.  We’re going to be amongst thousands of years of history (although, having lived in Vienna for almost 2 years, that’s less shocking and impressive to me than it once would have been).

And, best of all, we’re going to do it, all together as a family and alongside Jo and Mina!  I’m very excited for this next piece of our adventure!  Molto Bene!  Andiamo!


We learned a lot this past weekend (as we always do when we travel).  We learned about the town, we learned about how to make the whole process of toting a combination of children and tons of ski equipment a little bit easier, and we learned (quite a bit) about what we would do differently next time.  Here’s what we took away from our ski weekend:

072Alpbach  We stayed in the town of Alpbach.  Alpbach is in the Alps, southwest of Salzburg on the way to Innsbruck, in the Tirol region of Austria.  It is absolutely beautiful.  It’s exactly what I always pictured when I imagined an Austrian mountain town.  I particularly loved the fact that the whole town was still decorated for Christmas, even in mid-January.  And, if I went again, I would plan to take a carriage ride around the town (they even put sleigh bells on the horses).  The village is set down in a little valley, surrounded by mountains.  The town itself is pretty compact, and is no trouble to get around without a car.  It has everything you’d need for a weekend (or a week) away:  a grocery store, several restaurants, some shops, a couple of ski schools, a variety of ski rental places, and bus routes to connect you throughout the region.  On the negative side, it was a little tough to access from Vienna.  There are two train stations close by to Alpbach:  Jenbach and Brixlegg.  Jenbach has a direct train connection to Vienna, but very few bus connections to Alpbach.  Brixlegg requires a train change (or two) to connect to Vienna, but has more bus connections to Alpbach.  Neither is particularly convenient.  (We took the “hotel shuttle” — really just a ride from our hotelier — on the way to Alpbach and took a cab for 45 Euro on the way back.)  The day we arrived, the town got several inches of fresh snow, which made everything even more lovely.

009Train  We opted to take the direct train from Vienna to Jenbach.  It was a little difficult to get between Alpbach and Jenbach (not too much though) but the train ride itself was lovely.  We had a compartment to ourselves (almost the entire time).  The trip was 4 1/2 hours (5 hours on the way there, due to delays because of the snow) and we had a great journey.  The kids handled the train ride beautifully, and we all enjoyed ourselves.  Jenbach is a small station, and very easy to negotiate.

028Aparthaus Sonnenhof  We stayed at the Aparthaus Sonnenhof, which is located a 5 minute walk straight uphill from the center of town.  It’s really an excellent location — we got the benefit of a lovely view while still being close to everything.  The apartment house itself was really nice — spacious and very clean.  The appliances were all new and everything was in great shape.  Our hostess, Margaret, picked us up from the Jenbach train station, and her daughter helped us arrange for a cab ride back to the train station for our departure.  On the down side, the management does not live on site, so although they were very helpful in getting us set up, there was no one around to ask little questions of.  Also, although we knew it was a self-catering apartment, we were taken by surprise at the fact that there was literally nothing provided in terms of paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, coffee filters — usually, we’ve at least found whatever was left from the previous guest, but there wasn’t anything.  Overall, it was a great place, though, and a good value, and we would consider staying there again if we came back.  (The only reason I don’t know for sure that we would is that we might opt to stay closer to the ski lift in town if we were coming back for a ski vacation.)

Ski school  There are two ski schools in town with very similar names:  Skischule Aktiv and Skischule Alpbach.  The prices were nearly identical, but we chose to go with Skischule Alpbach simply because they were more prompt in replying to my email queries.  They had an office right in the center of the town, and they helped us figure out which bus to take to our lesson and pointed us in the direction of the most convenient ski rental.  However, we were not very happy with our experience.  The beginner lessons are held in Inner Alpbach (which requires a bus ride) and our instructor was pretty terrible.  She seemed frustrated to be teaching beginners, and wasn’t interested in teaching children.  (Jo, Benjamin and I took the lesson.)  She acted bored, largely ignored the adults, and was neither engaged or interested in our progress.  She was frustrated when B’s attention wandered, but did nothing to keep his interest.  Our lesson was held in the same area where the Skischule’s “Kid’s Club” is held, and I saw similar disinterest and bored faces from the instructors working with the other kids.  I would try a different school if I went back to Alpbach.  (Although more advanced students might have better luck.)

104Ski rental  We used Conny’s ski rental, because they were located right in the center of Alpbach.  Their prices were reasonable, and their equipment seemed to be just fine.  At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the service — no one gave us any particular help or advice, even though we were complete beginners — but I was very happy that they didn’t charge us for Liam’s skis after we told them he didn’t use them at all.  Conny’s also has a ski shop (for sales, rather than rentals) in the center of town.  I stopped by there to purchase some snow pants and got excellent service.  We stopped by again, later in the weekend, with a question about directions, and everyone was very nice and helpful.

130Skiing  We’re complete beginners, so we don’t know a lot about what to look for (or even to describe), but I’ll do my best.  In each of Alpbach and Inner Alpbach (two little towns, close together, but too far to walk — lots of bus connections, though) there is a normal, gondola-style ski lift and also an inexpensive drag lift area for beginners.  We only used the lifts in Alpbach, but the ones in Inner Alpbach seemed to be very conveniently located to the bus stops as well as within walking distance to the center of Inner Alpbach.  The gondola lift for Alpbach itself is actually outside of town (on the way back towards Jenbach) and would be too far to walk (but also has a bus stop out front).  The drag lift in Alpbach is centrally located, behind the church and by the Congress Center.  This is where we skied our second day, and we would go back here again if we returned to Alpbach.  You do need a lift ticket (sold on site, cash only, kids are free — not sure what ages).  You can either buy a 2 hour ticket for about 25 Euros, or buy one with about 12 runs worth of “points” on it.  We opted for the point system (since we wanted the option of taking breaks, depending on the needs of the kids) and we shared one ticket.  It worked out great for us.  B got to do several runs with Dan, Dan got to do a few on his own, I went twice and Jo went once.  It was just about perfect for our second day, since we weren’t sure how much patience and energy we were going to have for skiing.  On Friday evening, we saw some night skiing not far away, but I’m not sure which lift/ski area that was — there didn’t seem to be night skiing in Alpbach or Inner Alpbach.

088Restaurants  We visited two of Alpbach’s restaurants during our stay.  Flo’s has an assorted style of food — everything from traditional Austrian to pizza, along with a kids menu.  The pizza was surprisingly good, not too expensive, and was also available for carry out (unusual in Austria).  The rest of the food was pretty good, if maybe a little overpriced.  The service there was typical Austrian — a little slow, not too interested in customer service (she brought me the wrong dish and then tried to get me to keep it) but perfectly adequate.  The atmosphere was busy enough to not worry at all about the kids.  We had a comfortable lunch there and two carry out dinners of pizza.  We also went to the Post Alm Hotel restaurant where we were very pleasantly surprised by the food and the service.  The food was traditional Austrian and excellent, and the service was attentive and prompt.  The prices were very reasonable (we paid the same for a dinner at the Post Alm as we did for lunch at Flo’s) and the restaurant felt very welcoming to families.  We also stopped in to the Gasthaus Jakober (but didn’t eat there) — they had an interesting menu (also Austrian) and a nice ambiance.

General notes  First, we expected to find some kind of lockers or storage spaces, either at the lifts or at the ski rental places — we didn’t find anything like that in Alpbach (and it would have been so nice if we had).  We rented our skis the morning of our first lesson and had to carry our boots and all of our things along with us all day, in addition to toting the skis, boots and poles for all of us.  Also, our favorite moment of the entire weekend was when we took a walk up above the town (beyond the Sonnenhof) and looked down into the valley.  Whatever time of year you visit, it’s worth the walk to see the village from this perspective.

Overall, we had a great trip, and although it was challenging, I think we’ll ski again.  I would go back to Alpbach.  I might stay in the same hotel (unless I could find one right by the drag lift in town, or a good hotel close to the lifts in Inner Alpbach) and I’d probably rent my skis from the same place.  I would definitely try the other ski school, though.  This trip was, as always, quite an adventure.