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Archive for the ‘holiday’ Category

A Swiss idyll

We’ve just had an idyllic week in the Swiss Alps with Chatterboy and Hungry boy,  joined by my brother.

We didn’t find all that much useful information about travelling with children there, but had a wonderful time, so here are the things we found as my service to the internets (although given the way I’ve neglected this blog lately, who knows if it will come up on a search!).

We stayed in Wengen, a little car free village above the Lauterbrunnen valley. I love staying in places without cars, especially with the children. They can run around to their heart’s content without us worrying about them, and the quiet is amazing. The train up or down the mountain was every 15 or 20 minutes or so, which was plenty often enough when we were on holiday. If I was going again, I would also consider Murren, or Lauterbrunnen iself.

Mr Penguin and I love walking, and we have trained the boys into being happy enough to walk provided they get chocolate along the way – fortunately there is a lot of chocolate in Switzerland!

Some specifically fantastic children’s things to do that we loved are:

Children’s adventure walk (also excellently blogged here). We caught the train to Murren (itself an adventure with a train, a cable car and then another train). Then we caught a funicular railway up to Allmendhubel where we found parental heaven – a playground overlooked by a cafe. From the playground there was a well signposted walk back down the valley through a mixture of picturesque cow fields and pine forest, interspersed with various bits of playground equipment built out of the pine trees. As we emerged from the forest at the bottom of the walk there was another playground with views across the valley to the snowcapped mountains of the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Monsch. There were also quite a few swiss cows along the way, complete with bells, one of which gave Hungry Boy a curious lick.

Pfinstegg toboggan: From Murren, we took a train, a cable car, a train, another train, and then a cable car, to a little place called Pfinstegg. Although that sounds like a huge trek, it was a pretty easy trip, really – everything connected like, well.. a Swiss train. At Pfinstegg, there was a enormously fun summer toboggan run – if you really tried, you could get up to 40km an hour. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy both had to go with an adult, and had a wonderful time persuading each adult to have just one more go… We adults enjoyed it a fair bit too.

Also from Grindelwald, we had a second lovely day.  A cable car up to the top of  the mountain, and then a hike up to an alpine lake was a good combination of extraordinary scenery (point blank views of 3-4,000 metre mountains across the valley for most of the way) and easy walking. Then after walking back to the cable car station, we took the cable car most of the way back down the mountain to the Bort cable car station, and a Trottibike the rest of the way. A Trotti bike is basically a scooter with blow up tires, and good hand brakes. The Bort cable car station is 4.5km by quiet, totally downhill, roads from Grindelwald at the bottom of the cable car. Lots of fun by scooter (providing you have good brakes!). Before getting on the scooter we spent a very civilized hour at the Bort Alpine adventure playground, which (in what seems to be a pattern for Switzerland) has a bar/cafe overloooking it so the parents can watch the children in comfort.

Another option on the same cable car system is the First flyer – a  zip line ride from the top cable car station down to the next one. Unfortunately (and this is not on the website) you have to be at least 35kg to do it, and our boys are at least 10kg less.

The one specifically children’s activity we found that we didn’t get time for was another children’s walk – the Felix adventure trail from Mannlichen, but I’ve linked here for completeness.

The place we stayed in Wengen was a ski apartment – with better kitchen equipment than our house. Perfect for our little group. Here is a picture of the view from a walk nearby – on our first day, which was the only day with any clouds.

PS apologies to any German speakers who read this – I have no idea how to type umlauts using this software.

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The holiday season

Mark Bahnisch in Larvatus Prodeo has a post celebrating the start of the festive season (for political junkies, who had to get the election out of the way before they even noticed that the decorations were up in October). In passing, he comments that:

it’s interesting to note, just quietly, that it’s almost always business groups not the dreaded Maoist teachers or socialistic councils who do the “kill Xmas for multiculti thing”.

It struck me how true that is. Ten years ago, I was one of the people at my company agitating for non specific seasons greeting cards, rather than our traditional Christmas cards, because we were expanding into Asia (particularly Malaysia) at the time, and it seemed sensible. (I am ashamed to admit that until writing this post it didn’t occur to me that there were quite a few non Christian members of our own staff at the time, including one third of our celebrated team which contained a Bosnian Muslim, a Bosnian Serb, and a Bosnian Croat – only one of them an actual war refugee, the Serb, from memory).

And the reason that it makes good business sense to be non specific about Christianity at Christmas time is that there are real people in Australia who are not Christian, who would prefer not to be marginalised by everyone just assuming that they are Christian.

In contrast, at Chatterboy’s government school, his Year 1 concert contains two dreary modern Christmas songs, which have led to us having to explain the whole Christmas story in great detail, something we’d avoided till now.

Of course one of the things that education does is indoctrinate (all business is trying to do is sell things), which is the reason that there is so much passion from the Christian side complaining whenever a specifically Christian celebration (such as the end of season school concert) is watered down by a school recognising the diversity of cultural backgrounds that might exist there.

For me, I love the choral aspect of Christmas – Handel’s Messiah, the four part a capella Christmas carol singers you often get around town, and the traditional english carols (God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen is a personal favourite) which were part of my anglican childhood. And even though it makes little sense in our climate, those decorations which invoke the cosy winter cottage bulwarked against the snow always give me a warm inner glow.

But evangelical Christians are trying to subtly influence our school. The local Anglican minister is having an influence over the Christmas concert by maximising the religious content, and minimising the more traditional carols that are harder to understand and might therefore lead to less religious conversion. As an atheist, I find it slightly irritating, but it’s a good opportunity for the comparative religion lesson that we wish was available at school*. And our boys don’t seem too fazed by their difference from the mainstream that comes from us explaining to them that we don’t believe in God. But we celebrate an essentially secular Christmas anyway (with presents and decorations). It must be much harder if your religion precludes you from general participation.

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* The Education Act (1990) requires religious education to be available to all students of NSW government schools. This Hansard question and answer on how it works expands that

Under the current provision for special religious education it is not possible for schools to provide alternative subjects in time set aside for special religious education. Only approved religious persuasions can operate lessons during this time.

So Chatterboy general gets to sit in the library and read his current book, which suits him down to the ground.

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We’ve just come back from a three week holiday in Italy. Before we went, I checked out as much advice as I could find on travelling in Italy with children (Chatterboy is 6, Hungry Boy 4 (and a half! I can hear him correcting)). Most of it boiled down to – forget it and go to a beach instead. But we had a wonderful time.

Myth 1 –  Children won’t enjoy “cultural experiences” -We saw quite a few “cultural things” – archeological sights, famous churches and cathedrals, even an art gallery. I think there are a few tricks to making this work. First – preparation and stories. Before we went, we had found some age appropriate books about the Romans to help us figuring out how to explain it all to the boys. They were particularly fascinated by stories of everyday life in Rome, which helped imagine what was missing at the Forum, and by anything bloodthirsty – the Colosseum, and the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

We tried to make sure we had told them a story or something like that about every place we went before we got there. Although we did find that that entailed more explanation of the Christian religion than we had ever needed to do before (try explaining Michelangelo’s Pieta without tracking back and talking about Christianity!)

Myth 1 –  Venice is not a good place for children – I read this on a few travel websites. Really, what they mostly boiled down to is that you have to walk everywhere in Venice. We did our best to do a bit of training in the months before (we like to walk as a family anyway, but there was less giving in and carrying them on our shoulders than we had been used to). If you can survive the need to walk, Venice is the best city for children in Italy, possibly anywhere. We spent a week there, and could have had more. It’s very exciting having no cars, and streets full of water. The buildings feel much more child sized than anywhere else. The children can run around very safely in many places. Feeding the pigeons in St Marks Square is heaven for a four year old boy who loves animals.

And best of all (at least from a small boy’s perspective) it flooded while we were there, which made it very exciting, watching everyone trying to pick their way through the floods, the traffic police directing the tourists on the narrow duckboards, and the water bubbling up through the drains. This book, Kids go Europe: Treasure Hunt Venice, had some great ideas and had us spotting wingled lions (the symbol of Venice) every where we could find them.

Myth 3 –  Italians love children – you will read this everywhere, even on non travel websites. I had been particularly looking forward to travelling with blonde Chatterboy in southern Italy, as I thought that a blonde small boy would be irresistable to fawning shop assistants and waiters. To help, we taught both boys to say Grazie and Per favore before we left.

But I don’t think we got any better service in Italy than we do in Australia. I think we got better service, often, than we would have without children (at least we got more smiles) but that’s true in Australia, too. A friend suggested that only angelically behaved children might trigger the fabled Italian fawning. Our boys are reasonable, but they do like to run around now and again, which often got frowns, and more often than in Australia, direct intervention, at least to the parents (quite fairly I might add).

I think Italians are more interactive with children, and more prepared to interact with them directly (including correcting misbehaviour) but there doesn’t seem to be the same level of unconditional adoration that I had been subconsciously expecting. Perhaps at 6 and 4, they’ve outgrown their cuteness a bit too much.

Myth 4 –  Italians are manic drivers – Actually this one is true (especially in Sicily!).

Some random highlights:

  • Wandering around Rome’s fashion quarter with Hungry Boy, who was determined that I should buy some new clothes, “beautiful ones, mummy”
  • Playing soccer in one of Venice’s minor squares with Hungry Boy and Chatterboy, near a few locals doing the same thing
  • Trying to sit still enough in the Mediterranean waters of Sicily to get the very tame fish to nibble at our hands
  • Standing up in the traghetto (public transport gondola) in Venice across the Grand Canal
  • Playing hide and seek in the small back alleys of Burano, a small island near Venice proper

Of course there were a few downsides compared with that beach holiday, or with the holiday we would have had pre children. There isn’t much english language television in Italy, so occupying the boys when tired was a bit more labour intensive than it would be at home. We didn’t see as many adult “sights” as we would have without the boys. We’re still, a few days after coming home, in various states of jetlag. And, of course, from Australia, the beach holiday would have been much cheaper.

But because of the children, our holiday felt more like an experience of another country, rather than the backpacker holiday that crams as many sights into a small period as possible we had done together 20 years before. We deliberately picked places and stayed there (so only three different places in three weeks) and tried to do as much as we could in each place on foot, rather than catching trains or driving anywhere.

Highly recommended.

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