Welcome to Berlin, and please stop jumping on the Holocaust Memorial


Who says a big family can’t travel?  We’re figuring this thing out!  This week we rented a three-day stay in an apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin and took our 5 kids out to tour the city.  Since we’ve already earned our “large European city tour with 5 kids” badge in Paris, just to make it more exciting we threw in a couple of grandparents to make it 9 people in total.

Our lesson learned this time: As long as you keep your head down and keep moving, you can successfully take in one of the busiest tourist destinations in all of Europe.  Here, for example, was our rough itinerary for day 1:

  • 9:00AM:  Showed up at the subway and bought our passes, waited for the U to Alexanderplatz. (Subway station in our neighborhood is “Senefelderplatz”, seems appropriate”).
  • 9:11 AM:  Arrived at the Fernsehturm, the TV Tower of Berlin and got an eagle-eye view of the city from the observation deck.
  • 9:25 AM:  First “the kids are so embarrassing” comment heard from Melissa.
  • 10:51 AM:  Photo op at Checkpoint Charlie.
  • 11:20 AM:  Stroller breaks down.  Emergency lunch stop while I try to patch it together.
  • 11:42 AM:  Arrived at the Berlin wall.  Toured the museum/memorial Topographie des Terrors  on the site of the Gestapo Headquarters.
  • 12:34 PM:  Arrived at Potsdamer Platz, the “Times Square” of Berlin.  Found there is not much for 5 hyped up kids to do at Potsdamer Platz, moved on.
  • 1:03 PM:  Short stop at Starbucks so Melissa could have her first Chai Tea Latte since summer 2010.
  • 1:28  PM:  Arrived Jewish Holocaust Memorial, a group of randomly sized blocks occupying a city block in Berlin.
  • 1:29 PM:  Kids asked by security not to “jump on the memorial.”  Herd moves on.
  • 1:38 PM:  Brandenburg Gate, probably the most recognizable icon of Berlin.
  • 1:41 PM:  Lose Anna in the crowd at Brandenburg Gate, group is down to 8.
  • 1:47 PM:  Find Anna, back to full strength.
  • 2:11 PM:  Arrive at Reichstag, the seat of the German Bundestag.
  • 2:51 PM:  Duck-duck-goose with Grandma in the Tiergarten.
  • 3:30 PM:  Stroller breaks for good (or so we thought).  Back to the apartment for a short breather and mass feeding frenzy.
  • 5:31 PM:  Evening stroll in Volkspark Friedrichsain, the oldest municipal park in Berlin.
  • 8:00 PM: Lights out for the swarm.

And that was just day 1!  Day 2 included a cornicopia of public transportation (Cable Car, S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and Water Taxi), a walk down Unter den Linden (the Champs Elysees of Berlin), a stop at the Lustgarten, a walk back down Unter den Linden, a walk away from Unter den Linden and then back to Unter den Linden again, then back down the other direction on Unter den Linden, until turning around and heading back up Unter den Linden for a last time (The ladies referred to this  as “shopping”) …before finally retiring for dinner in a Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood restaurant.

Berlin, like Paris, is an excellent place to see a lot of history in a short amount of time, and it’s hard for five kids to do much damage to places like the Brandenberg Gate (it survived two World Wars, after all).  It was also a place for some great photo opportunities that the kids will appreciate when they are older (one would hope).    


The Night Watchman of Rothenberg ob der Tauber

THE MOZZARELLA STICKS I FOUND at the Italian Cafe across from our hotel were pretty tasty, but the best cheese in Rothenberg ob der Tauber comes in the form of the Night Watchman.

(photos from our trip to Rothenberg and neighboring Dinkelsbühl)

We spent a kidless Night in Germany’s famous medieval town, and in Rothenberg nothing is more famous for the tourists types than the Night Watchman’s tour.  It has practically reached legend status.  The same Night Watchman – Hans-Georg Baumgartener – has been giving the same tour since 1991.  In fact, open Rick Steve’s Germany book and page over to Rothenberg, and you will find a photo of Hans-Georg dressed with a cloak and lantern, leading a bunch of tubed-socked, camera-toting, pot bellied, grinning American tourists around.  Melissa and I laughed at the stereotypical vision of the Americans abroad.  Would we ever be caught dead do something so ridiculous?

Of course we would.

We sat in the marktplatz until dusk when the guy with the cloak, candle, lantern, and wicked-looking staff showed up, stood for a few photos, and took a couple dozen tourists on a stroll through the city.  With a delivery that was a mix between Steven Wright and Andy Rooney, we followed the guy around town for an hour and listened to him explain the history of Rothenberg ob der Tauber – from the defense and fall of the city, the arrival of the black plague, the visits from kings and emperors, the history of the buildings, and even the story of its near destruction in WWII – mixed with with humor that ranged from cheesy to sublime.  Example: The Watchman led us by a local tavern called “Zur Höll”, meaning ‘to Hell’, which gave him an excuse to tell us all to “Go to Hell!” several times. ´(Think that’s funny?  How funny would that joke be if you had told it every day for the last 20 years of your life?)

HE’S NOT SO MEDIEVAL, it turns out.  They day after the tour, Melissa and I sat at our Italian cafe – you know, the one with the Mozzarella sticks – when a man zoomed by on the cobblestone street on a Segway.  Melissa said, “Hey, that’s a Segway.  And hey, that’s the Night Watchman!”  (Thinking “Pictures or it didn’t happen?”….here’s your proof.)

And just to be sure you don’t miss out on any details of the tour, beneath his cloak he carries US-formatted DVDs of the Watchman’s tour (complete with bonus footage), offered to you for only 15€.  What sucker would ever buy such an obviously overpriced tourist trinket?

Of course, we would.

I’ll admit…cheese and all, it was well worth it.  I recommend a stop in Rothenberg for a chance to stay in the quaint, medieval-styled hotels,  a chance to walk the wall, and a chance to stop in the many tourist shops (this is the home of the famous Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, after all).  And if you’re here at dusk, you might as well take in the Night Watchman’s tour (and learn a little about the life medieval).

And I’d also recommend the Mozzarella sticks.

We did not visit Frankenstein Castle

FRIDAY MELISSA LEFT US for a girls weekend somewhere way North of here, not to return until Sunday.  That left just me, Grandma (visiting from the states) and the five rapscallions to find something to do on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

I have found it sort of perturbs Melissa when we (me and some of the kids) go experience or see something new in Deutschland without her, and so although we have been itching to go check out the local Frankenstein Castle ruins for a while, out of respect we decided not to do that today.

We live about a 15 min train ride from the small town of Frankenstein (no, not that Frankenstein…unless it makes for a better story, then sure. That Frankenstein) and I drive through this little village every day on my way to work.  It has a regal looking castle ruins overlooking the town, and we had always been curious to go check it out.

But, since Melissa isn’t here, we did not go see it.  Specifically, we did not get on a train and head to Frankenstein. We didn’t hike up the hill and crawl all over the ruins.  We didn’t check out the church and cemetery and discover a WWI memorial in  it’s shadows, and we certainly didn’t take these pictures.   For all of that, we will wait until a time Melissa can join us.

That’s the type of guy I am.

Paris: The Farthest Walk

FOR WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, I HAVE NOBODY TO BLAME BUT MYSELF.  They day was about to get way better, but not before the wheels just about fell off.

When we emerged from the Louvre the sky was clearing and we suddenly had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.   I knew from the map it wouldn’t make sense to walk to the Eiffel, but we could also see the  Arc De Triumphe, and it at least looked closer.  My regrettably too-hasty inspection of that map confirmed it was walkable.  With the warming sun out, we decided to hike it…but  I didn’t want to lose all of the sun and daylight strolling down the sidewalk, so I issued a half-joking challenge to the kids: “Let’s see if we can get there in seven minutes!”

Two hours later, we arrived at the Arc. That is a lot farther than it looks.

The walk was not a waste, it was just really long.  We walked out of the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, past L’ Obelisque, down the Champs-Élysées and finally to the Arc De Triumphe.  Along the way we had some views of the Eiffel Tower, stopped for a snack, ran around the garden, watched some street performers, and took in the shopping scene along the Champs-Élysées, but by the time we arrived at the Arc, I thought for sure we had lost the kids for the day – it was truthfully an exhausting walk.

AS IF THAT WERE NOT ENOUGH, after we walked to the end of the Champs-Élysées, under the worlds largest traffic circle, to the entrance to the elevator, that is the point at which Chase said,  “Dad, I have to go potty.” Unfortunately Napoleon didn’t commission a toilet built into the Arc de Triumphe, so I consulted with some local police officers. “Is there bathroom nearby (and what I really mean is can he pee on the sidewalk right here in front of you?)“.  Either way the answer was no.   So we walked back across the worlds largest traffic circle and back down the part of the Champs-Élysées in search of a restroom.

What could have been a 5 minute metro ride had turned into a roughly 2 1/2 hour epic Odyssey.   By the time we returned to the Arc we were verging on a 5-kid Chernobyl scale meltdown.

But miraculously,  the Arc perked them all back up.  We took the elevator (yes, there is an elevator) to the top for an unbelievably striking 360 view of Paris and a tantalizingly close view of the Eiffel Tower.  By that point the weather had turned fantastic and the sunlight highlighted a gorgeous city-scape, including an I-think-I-can-almost-touch-it view of the Eiffel Tower, and spirits turned up a little. If you ever get to Paris, the top if the Arc de Triumphe on a sunny day is an absolute must.

At that point, I was ready to call it a day. We’d seen two major sites, one that I didn’t think could get much better.  It sun was setting and we hadn’t eaten, and I feared the kids were at their limits.    But the Eiffel tower loomed closer than ever, and the kids implored us to go see it before we go home.

That turned out to be a great decision.

Paris: The Longest Day


Our first whole day there was Tuesday, and we had planned to meet a friend and her son back at our vacation house (45 minute train ride from the city center) that afternoon.  So we got the kids up and took the train into Paris mid-morning for a quick excursion.  When we emerged from the metro, we were greeted with cold, windy, and rainy weather.  We wandered around a bit and toughed it out for a photo op at Notre Dame, but got the kids lined up to say cheeze and realized just then that the camera was dead.  We took a stroll through the Notre Dame and when we finished it was already mid afternoon, so we trekked back in the freezing cold to the metro and headed back to base.  Paris 1, Senneff Sieben 0.


We took the metro early to a station directly under the Louvre and started our tour there.  Let me just say that the Louvre is not an ideal place for kids…it really can’t be tackled with a giant family, including a bored, screaming 2-year-old.  The best you can hope for is to hit a few key exhibits and escape alive.  A full-grown adult would probably have trouble getting through a substantial amount of that place in one day, so a large family has no prayer.  We made a B-line for the Denon Wing, where we found the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and a number of other interesting exhibits, and after a couple of hours, found a place on the floor in the lobby to eat lunch and evacuate.

One editorial note for parents of kids: while kids are not generally appreciative of fine art, ours found enough of the – er – material – to keep their interest piqued.  I don’t know what it is about fine art that requires someone to be partially or completely naked, but our kids found that element particularly entertaining.  Kiersten stopped at nearly every artwork featuring a pair of boobs to exclaim, “Mommy, this one is inappropriate!”  After a couple of hours in the Denon wing, we were strolling through the Roman sculptures when Camden snickered, “Mom, I just saw a penis.”  (Really, ya just now noticed?  BTW: Need to write a future post on exposed breasts in “family oriented” places in Europe.)

So…Louvre conquered, photos taken, all kids still alive and well.  We figured that would be the highlight of the day…but we were wrong.

It was going to get way better.

Proximity and The Black Forest

THE PART THAT STILL AMAZES ME about Europe is proximity. We lived here for seven months and I still find it incredible.

Take, for example, our vacation next week. Come Monday we will take the week off from work and school and spend the week in Paris.  We can do that because although its in a different country, it’s about as close to us as Minneapolis was when we lived in Ankeny.   We will hop in our van and be at our vacation home in a little over four hours.  It’s so convenient and close it will actually be our second trip to France in five months, as we drove to Normandy in the fall.

OR TAKE OUR TRIP IN APRIL when we have another vacation planned, but we aren’t sure yet where.  If we draw a circler around our house within a driving radius of, say, six hours, the choices include:  Northern Germany, The Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Italy,  France, Luxembourg, Belgium, or the Netherlands (to name a few).   Decide to go by Ryan Air or train and the options for 6 hours open up even more. Compare that to driving six hours from our  Midwest home in Iowa…and we’d still be in the Midwest. The scenery barely changes.

OR PERHAPS WE MIGHT FIND ourselves sitting around some morning on the weekend with nothing to do, and decide to take a drive. We could, for example, pack a lunch, hop in the van and go check out the Black Forest. The Northern edge of the Black Forest is about an hour away, and we could keep going and check out a place like Triburg and Germany’s Highest Waterfall, or the Cuckoo Clock Capital of the World, visit a Chocolate shop and buy some very odd looking Chocolate figures (Geldscheisserle, I’ll let you try to translate that yourself).  Then we might go on a stunningly scenic drive on the way back, from South to North, and make it all the way back home for dinner.  I mean, we could do that….if we wanted ;).




Walk to Wolfsburg

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN, opposite of Neustadt’s famous castle Hambacher Schloss, lie the Wolfburg ruins.  It isn’t a spectacular castle, but it makes for a good hike and is only  couple of kilometers away, so that means it is a perfect Sunday afternoon activity.

We parked our car underneath the castle near  the town pool and hiked up…and up, and up, and up.  This week Melissa took up running with her friend and yesterday I sprinted through a workout with 5x400m sprints and 75 air squats mixed in, so today with each step ours legs were reminding us we aren’t quite as in shape as we used to be, but the walk was worth it.

The castle is position atop a hill that provided a fantastic view of the  Neustadt valley.  Some of the walls were precariously positioned,  short enough one one side for kids to climb upon and tall enough on the other to make a parent nervous.  Nonetheless, no one pulled a humpty-dumpty and we hiked down the hill all in one piece.  We also  got a few snaps of the kids in action.