Sunday, August 11, 2019

Peterborough, England

A city near our home and bursting with modern conveniences, Peterborough is the perfect place to pop in for a morning. There is a train that runs into the city center, but on our first visit we drove our car and parked in the Queensgate Parking Garage. We stayed approximately five hours on a weekend, and it cost us four pounds. A bit on the hefty side, but well worth it for access to the mall and restaurants.

Everyone who has read my London updates knows I'm a sucker for all things Tudor. The War of the Roses, Henry the VIII's wives, the breakaway from the Catholic Church, it all fascinates me to no end. When I found out my favorite queen was entombed in a local church, I might have went into a frenzy. Within a day of discovering that tidbit of news, I penciled in a day to go check out the sacred site.

Peterborough Cathedral was first built in 654 AD but has been restored several times throughout history due to fire and war. The official website: Peterborough Cathedral gives a detailed timeline of important events that transpired within the grounds, and if you have the time read a little about Robert Scarlett.

Nowadays, the cathedral is run through volunteers who greet visitors upon arrival and provide a few interesting facts about the building. There are free tours offered that last about an hour, but the volunteer suggested it might be boring for the kids so we skipped it this time.

Next to the volunteer station (and an Apple Pay machine for quick donations) is a small gift shop which sells an activity booklet for children named Monks, Mischief, and Marauders. For two pounds, kids can use the pages to find notable objects around the cathedral, read funny jokes, and learn a little history. For kids that are seasoned readers, this is the perfect way to keep them interested in the sights while the adults look around at their leisure.

The highlight of the day was visiting Queen Katharine of Aragon's tomb.

Followed by the former burial place of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Not to be missed, though, was the ceiling of the cathedral. (Peterborough houses one of the only cathedrals in England to have a hand painted wooden ceiling.)

My family finished our tour within the cloister walls, letting the kids enjoy a snack in the sunny courtyard and admiring the ancient walls.

These doors used to be the gateway for monks to enter to and from work from their living quarters.

I loved living in Germany and traveling throughout central Europe, but the U.K. takes that appreciation to another level. There's something to be said about visiting a famous tomb and understanding why the item has significance. I almost got chills reading Katharine of Aragon's plaque, standing close to all that was left of a woman who never wavered in her faith even after she suffered so many losses in pregnancy, her first husband, and the abandonment by her beloved second husband. History can feel a bit like a fictional story when studied from the comforts of home and school, but when you're standing in front of tangible proof it brings everything into focus. I'd like to think I can visit more places in England and reflect on the past while also using the study to propel me forward with current events.
Blending what has been with what can be, learning from the people before us and thinking about the future, these are skills I strive towards for myself and my children. I hope we can all enjoy seeing the resting place of a former queen, reflect on her inner strength, and return to our home with all its technology and figure out how to try make our own mark on the world.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Minnesota, June 2019

Guess who's back? Back again.

Everybody needs a break, and in the first half of 2019 I needed some time away from this blog. It was nothing personal, I simply wanted to be able to enjoy our remaining time in Germany without the pressures of recording our outings. There's a simplistic kind of beauty in returning to a favorite castle and walking its grounds without pulling out a camera or phone to document the occasion.

If you have never gone on an adventure without unplugging from the real world, I highly recommend giving it a try.

That being said, when I finalized our trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota the first stirrings of interest returned. I was going to a brand new state, one that is reportedly beautiful, and my interest was piqued. With a warm and hearty welcome, my computer opened its blogging platform and allowed me to come back with open arms. So without further ado...


Alex's sister lives in this northern state with her husband, and in May she had her first child. Both of us knew we wanted to meet our newest niece as soon as possible, and when we realized we would be in the states for the month of June, the timing seemed too good to pass up.

In a brave step on my part, I left the kids with my parents and flew into Minnesota from Orlando. This was my first time flying without kids, and with TSA Precheck the entire experience was a breeze.

The novelty of being able to stop for a coffee and read my book on the plane was exhilarating. I napped on the flight, allowing myself to doze as deep as I pleased, unconcerned about keeping an ear out for the cries of children. My only hitch in the trip was the fact that I booked the flights too late to check where our seats were located.
I had decided to splurge and get a window seat, because this was going to be my one and only chance to actually sit next to the window. Normally, I shuck a kid in that spot so they are out of the way and contained.

I was looking forward to watching takeoff and landing, but my enthusiasm was dashed when I sat down and saw:

Forty odd row on that plane and I picked the one that didn't have a window.

Alex and I were in Minnesota for two and a half days, and despite having a newborn in tow our group of five packed as much into those days as we could. 

Our first outing was to see the legendary Mall of America, a monstrous building with four floors jam packed with stores and entertainment venues. There were fair-like rides in the middle, an aquarium on the bottom, and restaurants on the top. Every mainstream company you could think of was housed inside, with some places like Starbucks having multiple stores throughout. 

Drastically large, anything you could possibly want could be found in the Mall of America. We had recently come from Germany, where most necessities are broken into several stores. There were apothecaries for medicine, Aldis for groceries, Deichamns for shoes, etc. So to go from one extreme to the other was a radical change of pace. I turned in a circle more than once, fascinated at the accessibility and variety of products available. 

It was consumer America at its finest, and while I don't typically enjoy that sort of frivolity, it was fun to experience once. If I were living in Minnesota in the dead of winter and needed a coat, some fudge, ice skates, and lipstick it would be a relief to only need to go to one place to get all of those items. 

Something more up my alley was Minnehaha Park. Right in the heart of the city with a spread of lush woods was a fifty three foot waterfall dubbed Minnehaha Falls. A short walk down several staircases will empty viewers onto a viewing platform at the bottom of the falls, where there are wide open spaces to look at the waterfall. 

Surrounding Minnehaha Falls were hiking trails that led in a large loop around the water. The water was high when we visited and some of the paths were washed out, but Alex and I still managed to go about a quarter of the way around. We walked across a metal platform and climbed up old tree roots, watched chipmunks scurry up bushes, and gloried at the feel of a warm Minnesota day. 

One of the perks of visiting a city where you know someone is the ability to have a personal tour guide. Our family drove us through the heart of Minneapolis, describing the historical importance of certain areas, pointing out top attractions, and painting us a detailed picture of life in the city. Alex and I had the pleasure of seeing some of Minnesota's historical homes with wraparound porches, the Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden. We passed the Stone Arch Bridge, the Bell Museum, and the Basilica of Saint Mary.

We couldn't go to such a major city without trying a few of the legendary foods. Cheese curds and Caribou Coffee were tried on the first day, both were good but enjoyed in small quantities.

Then there was the Juicy Lucy. Because we were trying this dish for the first time, only the original would suffice. Located on an assuming street corner in Minneapolis, Matt's bar serves one thing: burgers.
A cash only joint, the inside was small and unpretentious. It looked like your typical bar, until you started looking at the paraphernalia on the walls and realized it was all accolades and awards.

Matt's was the real deal, and the Juicy Lucy stood up to the test. A burger filled with melted cheese, it was one of the best burgers I've ever had. Even without the cheese, the burger was cooked to perfection, with the right amount of seasonings and char from the grill.

I rarely eat red meat, probably a dozen times a year. But I would break that pattern for this burger. Trust me on this...don't pass this dish up if you're Minnesota.

Undoubtedly, our experiences were positive because we were in good company and had the joy of visiting without the hassle of kids. Card games and long lunches at breweries were made special because the only young one at the table wasn't capable of complaining about their chicken nuggets or asking the rules of the game a million times over. Two and half days wasn't nearly enough time to see everything, but hopefully this won't be the only time Alex and I visit the state. We would love to return with the kids and take them to some of the museums as well as visit the state fair. There seems to be a lot of hidden corners to explore and gems to uncover in the city given the time and the weather. Just have to ensure I get a window on my next flight.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bern, Switzerland

For my mother in-law's birthday, she took all her children and their accompanying families to the capital of Switzerland. Set a short distance away from the location of my Swiss Chocolate Train Trip, Bern felt like the overlooked gem of the country. Admittedly, I had no idea what to expect in the city. Only familiar with the Switzerland of movies and advertisements, I waited with bated breath to see if Bern lived up to my expectations.

Fortunately, I was very pleased with the city's offerings. Impressed, even. The streets were clean and uncrowded, public transportation was electric rail cars that were reliable and easy to learn, and there proved to be plenty of offerings to keep two young kids entertained.


We stayed at the Hotel Novotel, located across the street from the Bern Expo Center. The hotel had a rail stop across the street and a mall with a food court within walking distance, as well as offering a breakfast buffet for an additional charge.

The rooms were small, but that was to be expected in Europe; what really threw everyone off was the odd configuration of the bathrooms. Near the front door was a private toilet, but the sink and baths were around the corner, practically on top of the main bed. Having to walk around the corner and into the main living space to wash our hands was an annoyance. It certainly was one of the stranger room layouts we have experienced in our travels.

However, the hotel did provide underground parking for our vehicles as well as free transportation passes throughout our stay, which were two great perks to have for a large group.
Our room also had one of the WiFi modems, so Alex and I were always gifted high speed internet connection. You can't really put a price on that little gem.


My group ate at two notable restaurants during our visit to Bern. For my mother in-law's birthday dinner, we dined at the Altes Tramdepot, a laid back and fun brewery that sits adjacent to the famous bear park in the city. In the summer, you can look out the window and see the bears hanging out by the river, but they were in hibernation while we were there.

We found enjoyment in the form of a 3L beer tower:

As well as some popular food dishes like Spatzle and Rosti.

Nobody walked away hungry from that dinner, and Evie made the table next to us turn and laugh when she held up her glass of water and shouted, "Cheers!" as she clinked cups with every person.
My fancy daughter...

The second restaurant of note was the Rosengarten, recommended to us because of its fondue selection. My mother in law really wanted to eat fondue while in Switzerland - and I mean, if you're going to take part in that particular eating experience, Switzerland is kind of the place to do it - so we spent our last evening together over a few pots of melty, stringy, Swiss cheese. The nine of us indulged in cheese covered bread, cheese covered potatoes, and even cheese covered pickles.
The place was a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, and we were seated in a room that provided stunning views of the city.
If a beautiful nighttime panorama of the city is what you're hoping to get out of Bern, then the Rosengarten is a must.


When visiting a city, I'm always apprehensive. Will the kids have enough to do? Will they be bored?
Fortunately for Alex and me, Bern had a couple guaranteed winners. On the first day of our trip, everyone walked to the museum center and decided to pay entry fees to access the city's Natural History Museum and their Einstein Museum.

For 5 Franks extra, Alex bought Landon an audio guide, and that was enough to keep him occupied for the morning.

The Natural History exhibits were pretty standard fare, but the Einstein museum was worth every penny. It was large, well laid out, and housed a bounty of information and memorabilia.
A few of the highlights were Einstein's Nobel Prize from 1922:

His Swiss passport:

And a sample of his childhood toys that supposedly he would play with for hours on end when he five.

Hmmm....sounded an awful lot like another young boy I know.

The other easy choice is the local zoo. My kids can spend all day staring at exotic creatures and studying their mannerisms. Landon likes birds, especially flamingos. But Evie wants to see them all. Monkeys, cats, antelope, and iguanas. She deemed them all "iguanadons" on this trip and dragged everyone to see the "dinosaur."

The Bern zoo was limited and on the smaller side, but it was a nice way to spend the morning with each other. Plus, there was a playground the kids were able to utilize, and that helped get excess wiggles out of the their systems.

In the center of the city was the famous Clock Tower, which demanded attention the second you entered the street. Beautiful from both sides, it had gold hands and an astrological clock underneath the larger one.

In front of the Clock Tower and all around the city were elaborate fountains with interesting sculptures. As our trip wore on, I found myself trying to spot as many as I could and study their themes. Had the kids been a little older, I think we could have made a scavenger hunt of sorts with the fountains, walking around the city looking for as many as possible.

All of the previous points of interest were great, but I think the highlight for everyone was experiencing the GurtenBahn funicular railway.

In order to access the 858m mountain, we rode a tram up to the top (which was free thanks to our hotel passes):

And then got to enjoy an expansive park that had hiking trails, footpaths, playgrounds, and children's activities. It was a beautiful, unhurried space. I could have spent the entire trip walking around and relaxing on the top of that mountain.

The kids had a blast riding the mini train and figuring out the ball mechanism tracks.

Alex, myself, my sister in-law, and her husband experienced the observation tower on the mountain.

It was over a hundred steps to the top of the winding staircase, but the end result was breathtaking.

Epic, is the word one of my party members used, and I think it's apt.

I never knew I needed to see the Swiss Alps covered in snow for myself until I stared at the mountains and realized what a sight they were.
Natural beauty in its most stunning and breathtaking form.

Of all the things my family has gotten to see, it's the earthly sights that stick with me the most. The tranquil beaches of the Caribbean, Torc Waterfall in Ireland, now the Swiss Alps...they all remind me that the earth is a vast and amazing artist that can sculpt and design images beyond our comprehension.

I can only hope that I get to continue to fill my cup with the Earth's bounty for years to come. Not only that, but I hope those experiences continue with my loved ones. While the mountains and the cobbled streets were an adventure in themselves, what will stick with me longer are the people who shared in those days. Let me never forget Evie's "is it tasty" crack, the hunt for the missing hat (and its miraculous return), the gnocchi eaten with chopsticks, the dog spotting, the selfie taking man in the model set. All of them were part of the film of our lives, with Bern and its unexpected charm the setting.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Warner Brothers Studio Tour- Harry Potter

A highlight of our second London vacation was visiting the Warner Brothers Studios and walking through the Harry Potter exhibits. The location is about an hour outside the city center but was easy to access through the overground train system.

At the train station, a charter bus runs visitors to and from the studio for a nominal fee, making the arrival and departure process simple and accessible for families with young kids. You are required to buy your tickets in advance and must show proof of them to get on the charter bus, and once dropped off at the entrance there were kiosks set up to the side that allowed us to print out a more official ticket card.

Everyone must go through a quick security check, follow a long hallway, then walk through a cafe area, to be dumped into a large atrium. Straight ahead lay the gift shop, to the right the audio guide pickup window, and to the left the entrance queue.

Once through the ticket checkpoint, groups are led to an introductory room followed by a theater room where everyone is given some content made and shown only for the tour. This was the only part where having young kids could get hairy. It was a part that required silence and little ones could get antsy waiting and sitting in the chairs.

Fortunately, it's not that long and everyone is brought in to the set of the Great Hall. Because we were there in October, Alex and I were treated to the hall being decorated for Halloween. Floating pumpkins hung from the ceiling and favorite wizard candy covered the long tables.

Here, a tour guide spoke briefly about some of the costumes on display and gave a few tidbits of information on how Hagrid's character was portrayed, then announced when our time in the Great Hall was up. This was the only place where there was a set time limit, and it was necessary because they needed to bring the next group through.

Walking through a doorway, the tour led into one of the sets. The indoor building was absolutely massive and housed more artifacts than I have time to notate. Anything and everything that was seen, used, or worn throughout the movie franchise seemed to be there.

Simple items like jeans Harry wore during a fight scene with displays to show they were distressed.

To the invisibility cloak:

To the Mirror of Erised:

Props of all kinds hung out in glass cases, the coolest in my opinion being the horcruxes:

Popular settings were available to gaze upon and get a clearer vision of how they came to life through film:

Throughout the room were several interactive activities to keep the kids entertained. For people who paid extra, they could ride a broomstick in front of a green screen. However, free of cost was a broom that everyone could use to practice grabbing and a wand technique class. Landon loved both of these and thought they were the coolest part of the tour. Give him a wand now and he'll assume the correct stance, ready to disarm any opponent who crosses his path.

The tour leads visitors through the Forbidden Forest, where one can learn the tricks to making a Protronaus and how Aragog came to life in the second film.

Then, there was the Warner Brother's rendition of King's Cross station with the actual Hogwarts Express used throughout all the films. Everyone has the option of boarding and looking at carriages set to different movies or going straight to a cafeteria area.

From that point on, there's one additional building dedicated to the makeup and special effects of the film. A lot of interesting pieces of information can be read on the placards along the way, and it really goes to show that the movies were a massive feat taken on by hundreds of creative souls.

The tour concludes with a walk through Diagon Alley, which admittedly is a little lackluster after visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and ends with a 360 degree view of the Hogwarts model.

Exclusively for the Halloween season, there were a few extra treats we were privy to on our tour. The kids got to talk to someone who taught them how unicorn blood and troll snot was made for the films and let them stir some.
There were also Death Eater costumes on display and a battle against some Dark Arts lovers outside the cafeteria that everyone could participate in.

And at the end of the tour, Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange's costumes were out for show.

The tour is expensive and takes at a minimum three hours to complete, but I would say it is definitely worth it for any Harry Potter fan. The kids had a blast and once past the movie room, they never bored; Landon tells everybody it was his favorite part of the vacation. We had purchased audio guides but found there was so much information readily available that we hardly used the guides.

Would I make an entire trip to London just to go to the Studios? Probably not. But if I were already in the area and had kids that needed to be kept busy, this would be a fantastic idea.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

London Parks: 2018

There's no better place to spend a beautiful day than a park in London. Sprawling, shady, and quiet the rolling green lawns and generous walkways lend a hand in creating the perfect afternoon getaway.
Sheer luck was on my family's side the weekend we visited London; the temperature was in the low 60s, it was sunny, and fall was in full force. The streets might have been full of hustle and bustle, but inside the park gates was an autumn haven.
I wanted to stay there forever.

Grab a book, a worn blanket, and stake out a spot on the grass for hours of reading and watching the dogs frolicking near the lakes. It might be one of my favorite places in the world, and if not then definitely up in the running against the Animal Kingdom park or jogging along the beach.

Hyde Park, along with Kensington Gardens, is one of the bigger parks that inhabit London and deserves several hours of your time. Alex and I decided to hit up the massive Diana Memorial Playground with the kids after a morning of touring a historical site, in order to let the little ones burn off their energy and be free to roam for awhile.

This was the same park we visited in my older London post: London Part 1 and the kids loved it as much as the first time around. They spent an hour rushing down slides and pretending to be pirates on the large play structure ship, taking home a piece of pirate booty when they left. (A small rock.)

Following the path outside Kensington Gardens, Alex and I let the kids run ahead as we walked in a giant circle around Hyde Park. We passed the Physical Energy Statue, the Peter Pan Statue, down to the Princess Diana Memorial Statue, and then finally exiting in the vicinity of the Albert Memorial.

This map kind of shows our route:

Amazing to us, the kids walked the entire time. In fact, they ran most of it. Plunging ahead of us and running circles around Alex and myself as we strolled along. It was the ideal way to spend a late afternoon with two young kids. They weren't constrained to stay by our side and were free to do what children do best: explore.

If I had my way, I would have made this trip a walking tour of all of London's best parks but, alas, we only had three days and other sites trumped the list. Fortunately for me, we were staying two blocks away from Buckingham Palace and the adjacent St. James's Park. This made it a fitting morning escapade before our afternoon plans.

The playground in the park was small but we arrived right at its opening at 10 a.m. and therefore the kids got to play before it became too crowded. The gated area was on the far left side of the park, so once we wrangled the kids out, Alex and I were able to hook a right and walk farther into St. James's.

This particular park focuses more on native foliage and keeping its space in its natural form. There were narrower sidewalks and much more space devoted to the birds that inhabited the waters. While Hyde Park felt very symmetrical and tidy, St. James's seemed more organic and free flowing. Both were gorgeous in their own way, and I think which one you visit depends on the kind of day you're having and what you're wanting to take away from the park.
I feel like if I had an assignment or important work to be done, I'd want to go to St. James's Park. Watching all the animals with their efficiency gave a kind of haste to the atmosphere. And book-ended by Buckingham Palace and the Horse Guards Road, you get a feeling that meaningful work is afloat.

Alex and I crossed over the Blue Bridge to see one of the loveliest views of London:

Took a quick detour so I could cross the Mall:

And sneak a peek at the backside of St. James's Palace:

Then we returned to the park and walked to the other end, where we were dumped on Horse Guard Road, allowing us to pass the Horse Guard Parade site, the Household Cavalry Museum, the backside of 10 Downing St, and the Churchill War Rooms. It was near there that we turned, walked down a few blocks and sneaked a peek at Westminster Abbey (and all its construction!) before hopping on the tube and returning back to our hotel.

I was surprised at how many Must See spots sat on either side of St. James's Park. If the weather is nice and kids are in tow, it truly is the perfect way to get from Point A to Point B. Don't waste time and money using the underground when there is wonderful natural scenery to take in inside the park.

Should I be lucky enough to go back to London a third time, I won't be able to pass up another opportunity at visiting one of its amazing parks.