German schools trade an early August start for a two-week vacation in late October (Herbst Ferien, or Autumn Holiday), and nearly everyone takes the opportunity to travel somewhere. The school break, combined with a well-timed conference for Jason, meant that we could afford a ten-day excursion south to Legoland Deutschland, Salzburg and Vienna.
An extended holiday traveling with the whole family is rarely all fun, as moods, tastes and maturity-levels take command. But even “regular” days usually contain moments that just feel right. Vacations at their best contain multiple moments like this, and better. Three locations were especially big hits with all of the kids, and beyond that, there were moments that just felt right. The top three kid picks first, then especially great moments elsewhere.
Legoland Deutschland, in the Bavarian town of Günzburg, is a perfect fabrication of a children’s paradise, and each of the kids found a slice for themselves. At the heart of the theme park is Miniland filled with famous places throughout Europe recreated in great detail with Legos. Walter was especially enamored with the Hamburg Harbor, with its many ships and working docks, as well as a water-side amusement park and a traveling yellow submarine that was certainly a nod to The Beatles’ early days in Hamburg. Jason loved the model of Berlin, especially the grand Domed Cathedral at the center. Greta was excited to see the Allianz Center in München, fußball paradise, filled with thousands of tiny cheering fans and soccer players. And the girls were awed by the Neuschwanstein Castle, with a princess and prince dancing in the ballroom. These replications convinced us that the real places were not to be missed.
But the biggest hits in Miniland were the newly added Star Wars models. To prepare for the visit we finally introduced the kids to the Star Wars mythos with viewings of the three original films. They loved the movies, so the combination of Star Wars and Legos could not have been better! The awesome Lego models actually made me want to give the prequels a second chance.
In addition to all of the wonderful mini-models, there were fun 4-D movies and rides and amazing playgrounds everywhere. One section of the park had been decked out for Halloween, including a haunted castle through which one of the roller-coasters traveled. Unlike most of our vacations where we plan lodging and activities separately, here we opted to stay in the attached Lego Vacationland which included lodging in a Lego racecar-themed cabin and family buffets for breakfast and dinner, where I regained all of the pounds I’d lost since arriving in Germany. The complete scene made me understand why so many families opt for pre-packaged, child-friendly vacations.
Salzburg, Austria is a gorgeous city, mostly planned and built by a series of Prince-Archbishops during the 15th-18th centuries, with the intention of creating a culturally vibrant alpine mecca. This early urban planning was indeed a success, as the Baroque streets, squares and buildings of the inner-city could not be more beautifully organized. Of course the glittering Salzach River, towering Alps and the fortress on the hill also add to the city’s appeal. Flashes of The Sound of Music which was largely filmed here, and reminders of Mozart on nearly every street don’t hurt either.History and aesthetics aside, the favored attraction for the kids was the Haus der Natur, a natural history and science museum that had them building bridges, facing off with dinosaurs, ogling precious gems and measuring gears. The museum featured everything from an aquarium with an incredibly performative octopus, to a hands-on physics lab – Jason and the kids spent three hours there which could have easily been twice as long.
Compared to the vibrant and gorgeous Salzburg, I found Vienna to be comparatively cold and distant. Perhaps it was the change in weather, the exhaustion of facing the last stop on an extended trip, or the fact that our apartment was less centrally located, but Vienna felt lonely to me. While Salzburgers seemed proud of their town, Wieners didn’t seem to be enjoying their own city.
The best time for the kids was our day spent at the Tiergarten Schönnbrunn, the oldest zoo in the world. I generally have mixed-feelings about zoos, favoring their more recent goal of wildlife preservation and education over the original purpose of entrapment of wild animals for human pleasure. However, while it was clear that this zoo had a strong history of the latter without much convincing evidence of moving toward the former, it was difficult to be too critical of a locale that featured an impressive array of wonderful animals and architecture, and also so fully amused my children for over six hours, with nigh a fussy moment.
Perhaps surprisingly, my favorite animals were the hippos (Flusspferde – river horses!). An underwater viewing area allowed visitors to watch these large animals swim by and then emerge for air, like caged terrestrial whales. So graceful were their movements that children’s stories about a hippo ballet no longer seemed fantastical. Anya loved the impressive collection of penguins. Her vast knowledge of penguins born out of an extended first grade unit about the birds helped her to appreciate the zoo’s flock, and educate her family about the distinctions between rockhoppers, kings and humboldts.
The gibbons treated us to a spectacular acrobatic performance flying from branches and ropes on their monkey island. Greta loved the lemurs who were the subject of a third grade research project, and darn cute too! Walter’s favorite animals were the fish – all fish, any fish. The rainforest house, various fish tanks and small aquarium all helped satiate his desire to watch finned animals, but the most amusing moment for him (and us) was to see a school of goldfish gather in front of him in the mote around Gibbon Island. While the rest of us watched the primates fly through the air, Walter watched the carp bubble to the surface and, amazingly, follow him around the mote as he moved about perimeter. He had found his soul-mates, and they their leader! No other destinations so fully captivated the entire family as these three, but there were other places and moments that are worth noting. In Salzburg, I was able to spend a morning alone while Jason took the kids to Haus der Natur, a gift in exchange for the previous afternoon spent in with Walter who was not so interested in wondering the streets of old Salzburg. I valued the serenity of visiting the Dom zu Salzburg, dating back to 744 and beautifully restored after being destroyed in 1944. I also enjoyed the Salzburg Museum where I learned a bit of history of the city, able to view the exhibits at my own pace.
Riding the funicular tram up and down the side of the mountain to the Festung Hohensalzburg towering over the city, was a great 60 second thrill for Walter. And the rest of us enjoyed the tremendous view from the top perch of the Fortress – fields and mountains on one side, a gorgeous city and river on the other. It was absolutely stunning! In Salzburg we also all enjoyed our best dinner out at Zum fidelen Affen, which we nicknamed the Funky Monkey. We had a fun waiter, great food and drink for everyone, in a cozy Austrian pub. All felt right.
In Vienna, at the Haus der Musik, we had a familial moment of bliss, sitting in the “concert hall” watching and listening to a wonderful recording of the Vienna Orchestra performing the Star Wars Theme during a summer concert at the Schloß Schönnbrunn. Given the recent importance of Star Wars for the kids, it was a perfect match for our family and created a rare moment of familial harmony. Jason spent several days in Vienna at the F.R.O.G. Vienna Games conference at the Neues Rathaus, the townhall that also serves as a conference center to hundreds of events each year. The stunning building went from hosting a circus one day to a video game conference the next, both fun juxtapositions with the intricate gothic architecture.
On our last day we went back to Schloß Schönnbrunn to see the palace itself and to tackle the hedge Labyrinth. The mazes were fun, but a bigger hit was the coinciding playground where the whole family enjoyed the fun-house mirrors, and the kids explored the many elements that played with movement, sound, and perception.
Afterwards, Greta, who, for the record wanted to do and see everything everywhere, and Jason went to the Kunst Haus Wien, a museum founded by Viennese artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. They reported that the museum was quite incredible, presenting both a survey of the artist’s work and an embodiment of his philosophies of eco-architecture, vibrant imagination, and disdain for straight lines. Jason says that the discovery of this new-to-him artist alongside his daughter was his highlight of the trip.
The train ride home from Vienna to Göttingen was long, and while there was some fussing intercepted by movies on the iPad, I was impressed by how well my family has learned to ride the rails in Europe. They may be small town kids from Vermont, but they can read a train schedule in German and know what to expect and what to do when the train arrives (or doesn’t). And, it was nice to be back home, where we’ve enjoyed some mostly quiet days before going back to school tomorrow.