It seemed so romantic: Vacationing in Europe with my children, some of it together, some of it apart. My son at soccer camp in Italy. My daughter at Girl Scout camp in Germany. And me? Well, I had visions of wine and lasagne followed by beer and schnitzel dancing in my head.
As the departure date grew closer, I began to think I was downright batty. Who trades in all their miles and takes two children aged eight and ten traipsing across Europe for three weeks? Me. The crazy lady. The lady who bowed to the pressure of her kids begging to go to special camps…
Part 1: Italy
Venice First up, Italy. I hadn’t been here since my twenties and, just as I remembered, there’s so much to love about it: food, culture, sites. How can you go wrong taking kids to a place where they can eat pizza and gelato every day? (I did some serious dieting when we got home!)
But I wasn’t prepared for the crowds. Holy cow. Where do all these people come from? Right – America. Like me. Seriously, it was the most crowded summer in Italy on record, which meant many Americans (and others, too) getting in the way of this particular American having a good time. Go home, people! Mental note: if you don’t like crowds, Italy in the summer is not for you.
We first explored Venice, a magical city for children, with wide-open piazzas where they can run free and find little bridges for climbing. Our adventure started at the airport where you catch a water taxi to your hotel. What fun! (This, of course, was before the awful floods that hit Italy in autumn.)
We played tourist, taking in all the sites, including a gondola ride on the Grand Canal, which set me back about S$135. Here’s a sneaky tip: the singing gondoliers cost a lot more than ones who can’t carry a tune, so get in a gondola directly behind a singing one and enjoy the music for far less. One of our favourite things was taking a mask-making class at Ca’ Macana where the kids painted and decorated their own masks. Even my art-hating son had fun. We also went to Murano and Burano, two islands off the main part of Venice. Murano is famous for its glass-blowing trade, but in truth, the glass-blowing show is short, and you can get the same glass trinkets on the main island – cheaper, too. Skip the tour of both islands and take a water taxi to Burano, a beautiful old fishing village with brightly-coloured houses and great little spots to eat.
After we dropped my boy off at AC Milan camp in the seaside town of Jesolo (an adventure involving eight hours of boat, bus and taxi travel), my daughter and I took the train to Florence, the perfect spot for a mother-daughter retreat. I got a kick out of my daughter finding her sense of style, looking at shoes and leather goods, trying to figure out which one was right. The best meal we had was one of the cheapest: a massive charcuterie at Mercato Centrale Market, a place filled to the brim with mouth-watering treats.
The thing that made me laugh the hardest though was my daughter’s total shock at all the naked statues. When we finally got in to see Michelangelo’s David, she carefully studied it from all angles. I was expecting my incredibly artistic child to notice the beautiful lines of the marble, the magnificent way the stone had been brought to life. I thought to myself, “This is why we’re in Italy – so she can learn to appreciate great art.” Her thought? “Mommy, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a hose attached to his penis to make him pee?” Hmm… maybe my expectations were a little too high. She did work on her art though, with a private sketching class in the Boboli Gardens through Arte al Sole. It’s a magical place. If you ask my daughter what her favourite part of Italy was, the sketching class would beat even gelato.
We spent one night in Tuscany, a completely unplanned adventure. Both of us were over the city. (What? Over Florence? What kind of heathen are you?) I found a last-minute online deal at Salvadonica, a stunning 14th-century stone hotel just outside Florence, with to-die-for food. I originally didn’t think my daughter would want to see Tuscany, feeling she wasn’t ready for vineyards and long drives, but she loved it. We had a picnic in the villa’s vineyards (one of the many activities the hotel offers) and enjoyed the pool and air-con. Yup, air-con. Very few of our hotels had it, and it was one of the hottest summers on record in Europe. Singapore almost felt cool comparatively.
After trekking back to pick up my son (yes, he had a lot of fun), we three headed to Rome where we again played tourist, visiting the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, where we actually saw somebody get engaged. “Mommy, they kissed! Italy really is romantic!”
The Forum has changed since I was there last, with elevated walkways above it now for viewing. And yes, of course, we went to the Coliseum. Forget audio tours; they had a video tour for little ones, complete with scenes from various movies of gladiators duking it out. They loved it! I was dying for them to go to gladiator school, but it was a little too pricey.
The Vatican was hard work as it may have been the most crowded place I’ve ever been. Ever. Of course, the big carrot is getting to see the Sistine Chapel, which is magnificent, but you don’t get to stay very long. Luckily, there are other gorgeous things to see, including the spectacular map room. I bribed my kids, promising gelato after the tour. The line at the standing-only place across the street was long so I opted for the place next to it where we could sit. I ordered gelato. “Three flavours?” “Sure!” Everywhere we’d been, a cone of gelato had three flavours kind of swirled together. Here? We got three massive scoops of gelato, complete with waffles, toppings and more. The kids eyes just about popped out of their heads. It was the most expensive meal we had in Italy, but oh so worth those ear-to-ear grins slathered in ice cream. (Add another week to my diet.)
Part 2: Germany
We then flew to Munich, a place I’d forgotten how much I loved. The Marienplatz is another spot where kids could run while I window-shopped. We bought a giant cone of cherries, a half kilo for a whopping three euros. Coming from Singapore, that’s practically free. They loved the wienerschnitzel at the Hofbrauhaus and sausages at the Viktualienmarkt, one of the yummiest outdoor food markets in the world. I really expected the RathausGlockenspiel to be their favourite part of Munich. Who doesn’t love a massive clock that moves? Instead, they were completely enthralled with the Englischer Garten, a public park, especially watching people surf the one giant wave in the man-made river, the Eisbach.
It was then time for our road trip. I’ll be honest: I was totally freaking out about driving in Germany. The autobahn? I must be certifiable. I totally lost it the first night when I had to pull our giant SUV (the kind clerk upsized me) into a tiny elevator to park. “Be quiet. Total silence. Mommy is very stressed!” And yes, it was a bit scary when car after car went flying by at God-only-knows how fast on the highway. I managed to hold it together when my upsized car broke down – until they replaced it with an even bigger vehicle, a nine-passenger bus! (I’m not proud of that moment in the car park.) In the end, though, I actually loved driving in Germany.
First stop, Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle that overlooks two stunning lakes. Talk about an over-the-top decorating budget! Wow – what an eyeful! We stayed in nearby Füssen, a cute little town that just happened to be hosting a massive bike race right under the window of our super nice hotel room. Screaming loudspeakers made it impossible to fall asleep and, since there was no AC in the heatwave, closing the windows was impossible. So the kids had ice cream and watched the race in their PJs. They loved it.
We then headed north, stopping in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of the most charming places I’ve ever been – seriously. This place has it all: cobblestone streets, to-die-for flower boxes, cute shops… I was in heaven. In fact, we loved it so much that we bought Christmas decorations that were miniatures of the town’s buildings so we could always remember it.
Black Forest and beyond
After dropping my daughter at Camp Lachenwald outside of Frankfurt, my son and I set off for the mother/son part of the adventure: a trek through the Black Forest. This was the most challenging part of planning for me. In Italy, the choices seemed obvious, but in Germany, there were so many spots to visit, and information in English was harder to come by.
My son’s favourite thing was something we found by accident: the Felsenmeer Lautertal, a virtual sea of giant boulders, an eight-year-old boy’s version of climbing heaven. We both giggled ourselves silly riding the Sommerrodelbahn Gutach, a giant alpine slide. In Triberg, we hiked the waterfall, then I spent at least an hour trying to decide which cuckoo clock to ship home. We both ogled the fabulous Mercedes-Benz cars at the museum in Stuttgart where we went to visit a friend.
We drove as far south as Lake Constance to a place called Gut Hügle because I wanted to do a farm stay and was too late booking one. (All of Germany seemed to book up far earlier than Italy did.) This place with barnyard animals, a corn maze, orchards and more would be great for tiny kids, but my big boy still enjoyed it too. We also went to a slightly odd amusement park called Spieleland; Germany is known for its amusement parks and this is not one of the big ones, but it was still a great day for him.
My favourite part of the vacation may have been the BarfussPark in Dornstetten, a place where you walk barefoot over a trail of all sorts of textures, from bits of polished glass to pine cones, volcanic rock, wood, pebbles and even thick, gooey mud. Best foot massage ever! These paths are all over Germany now, too.
After a week of exploring tiny towns and cool hiking spots, we picked up my daughter who loved each and every minute of her adventurous Girl Scout camp. Back together again, we three finished off our trip in Rüdesheim am Rhein, a quaint village along the Rhine with great food and cute shops. We loved our hotel here, Zum Grünen Kranz.
Was it hard work? Yes, it was. I’m not going to lie to you. I missed my husband who had to work. Still, our time together was also magical. It won’t be long before my kids won’t want to walk hand-in-hand with mommy. For me – and I hope for them – this was the summer of one-on-one memories we’ll all carry with us for life.
Ca’ Macana | camacana.com
Milan Academy Junior Camp | en.sporteventi.com
Mercato Centrale Market | mercatocentrale.it
Salvadonica | salvadonica.com
Arte de Sole | artealsole.com
Gladiator School | gruppostoricoromano.it/en activities-and-shows/gladiator-for-a-day
Camp Lachenwald | usagso.org
Neuschwanstein Castle | neuschwanstein.de.englisch/tourist
Hotel Füssen | hotel-fussen.de
Felsenmeer Lautertal | felsenmeer-zentrum.de
Sommerrodelbahn Gutach | sommerrodelbahn-gutach.de
Mercedes Benz Museum | mercedes-benz.com/de-mercedes-benz/classic/museum
Gut Hügle Erlebnisbauernhof | guthuegle.com
Barfuuspark | barfusspark.de
Zum Grünen Kranz | gruenerkranz.com
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This article first appeared in the January 2019 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!