Kazanlak Bulgarian Rose Festival

It’s seems to me that the off-the-beaten-path places are usually our favorites. Last summer we found our way to Kazanlak which is in the middle of nowhere, Bulgaria. When we showed up to our hotel, the woman at the front desk (or rather, front bar) pulled out a notebook full of handwritten scribbles. There wasn’t a computer in sight. They lost our reservation, no surprise there, and then just happened to have a free room that was exactly what we had booked. I sat there, trying to figure all of this out via a game of charades as there was no one around who spoke English. It was half frustrating and half adorable.

IMG_4761Just outside the the city center there is a place known as “the valley of the roses”. Seventy percent of the world’s rose oil is pressed from the roses grown in that little basin in the Balkan Mountains. Every year, in the first weekend in June, they commence the rose picking season with a local festival. We showed up for the “rose picking ritual” and found ourselves loners and outcasts among two sets of people: The native Bulgarians (dressed in traditional red and green clothing) and an asian tour bus group (dressed in fanny packs and DSLR cameras). The Bulgarian locals were gathered on large family-style blankets surrounding copious amounts of home cooked food . The tourists congregated to stare at them through their camera lenses, like people gathered around a very important fish tank.
IMG_6404Our four-year-old got away from us in the crowd and plopped herself right onto the lap of one of the Bulgarian grandmothers. And instead of being scolded, she was promptly fed and fawned over. This led to an unspoken invitation for the rest of our little family to join in the household meal. Our baby was passed around from old woman to old woman and in return we were passed musaka, palachinka, banista, and other amazing local foods. IMG_6423You guys, THIS is what I am talking about when I tell you that traveling with kids opens crazy doors. Without our naughty little children we would have missed out on this amazing moment. The festival continued with dancing and celebration followed by the crowning of the rose queen and the picking of the roses -which you actually get to help with. Awesome, right? And they let you keep as many roses as you can carry. We took ours home and turned them into potpourri. It was so much fun.

Ok. Enough about that. Now for the important logistical information. To GET THERE you’ll need to rent a car. There is pretty much no other way to do it unless you go with a tour group but the roads are well paved and driving was easy there. It’s about a 3-hour-drive from Sofia or a 2-hour-drive from Burgas (Side note: I would very highly recommend seeing Burgas and the surrounding areas of Sunny Beach and Nessebar). Once you are there you will want to stay in the city of Kazanluk. Hotels are sparse on-line but not impossible to find. We stayed at Complex Artemida which was a bit backwards but totally beautiful. I would totally stay there again. Make sure to book early if you are going to be there the weekend of the festival. It’s probably the only time of year that they get guests but the hotels do fill up.IMG_4822

The actual rose picking  ritual is about a 15-min-drive from the city center (located in село Розово, also known as Rozovo) but anyone can show you how to get there. We had no trouble finding it as it is a very small town. The entrance cost 10 Bulgarian Lev/ person and you have to pay in cash. Our kids (all age 4 and under) were free. There are also free festivities going on all weekend long in the city center including performances and parades. You’ll also find lots of vendors set up everywhere selling anything and everything rose themed. We came home with some rose extract and some rose oil. We also tasted rose water, rose jam, rose candy, and rose everything else.

I like to know what is going on before I get somewhere and I had the hardest time tracking down any information about the festival online.IMG_4778 I finally figured out the schedule  by tracking down and emailing the local tourism office. They sent me back an email with the itinerary as well as a link to Kazanak.com. It might still have last years schedule listed but the itinerary is relatively the same from year to year. The website is in Bulgarian but if you open it in a browser with a translation option (like Google Chrome) it is easy to navigate.

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Also on this trip, we made stops in Burgas, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, and Sofia. Honestly, this is one of my favorite adventures we have had yet. The Bulgarian county side is beautiful, the Bulgarian beaches are wonderful, and the Bulgarian ruins are truly unique. Don’t live you life without taking a road trip across Bulgaria. Just don’t do it. And trust us when we tell you that you should go in June so that you can stop and smell the roses.

Stockholm, Sweden

IMG_5714Why did no one tell me about Stockholm sooner? I’m a little bit jaded toward all of my travel friends for failing to inform me just how amazing Sweden is. Especially for kids. Our family recently took a little weekend trip up north and we give Stockholm 5 great-big, gold stars for family friendliness. What an unexpected delight. We spent 2 days here but I wish we could have spent 2 weeks. Kids of all ages will find loads of fun activities in Stockholm, Sweden.

IMG_7337Gamla Stan: What a great old town! The architecture and little streets are packed with old world charm.  This is a really fun place to explore. There are lots of little shops and cafes and places to see. Not to mention that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the buildings in this area date back to the 1300’s. Remember that the streets are made of cobblestone so, we would recommend going without a stroller if you can. Try to opt for a child carrier instead (see our review of child carrier backpacks here). If you really need the stroller try to take one with nice big wheels, it will make a difference.

Here are a few things not to miss in your wanderings around Gamla Stan:

  • Royal Castle – This is the actual residence of the Swedish Royal Family and it is packed with things to do and see. You could spend a whole day here if you had the time. Some of the highlights for kids might include: A Tour of the Royal Stables (Saturday’s at 1:00pm), The Changing of the guard (Daily at noon*), The Royal Armory, and a brand new exhibition of Princess Lilian’s dresses that little girls are sure to love.
  • IMG_7374Polkagris Kokeri Candy Shop – We happened upon the cutest old fashion candy shop. It’s in the southwest quadrant of Gamla Stan. If you are in the area make sure to wander in for a demonstration and a free sample of peppermint candy. Also, both the Swedes and the Finns lay claim to the invention of Salted Licorice Candy. Regardless of where it actually originated, you can try a taste of it here. Even if you miss the demonstration, you can ask for a sample of almost anything in the little store and they will probably indulge you.
  • Our kids also liked just standing on the edge of the water and watching the big cruise ships come in and out of port. There is a great birds eye view of the city from an outlook deck called the Skyview It’s free with the Stockholm card or 130 SEK for an adult ticket. To get there, you take the T-bana (metro) to the “Globen” stop and then walk south-east for about 250 meters.
  • If you’re looking for restaurant suggestions, check out this link for places to eat with kids in Gamla Stan.

*note that the changing of the guard is a very busy time at the Palace. So, if you want to see anything, you’ll want to get there early.

IMG_5826Djurgårdsbron Bridge -From Östermalm (the main island) to Djurgården it’s about a half an hour walk or a twenty minute tram ride (tram 76). If the weather is good, we suggest the walk. You’ll  cross the bridge and see some amazing views with the harbor on one side and some stunning architecture on the other. Keep your eyes open for the statues of the 4 Old Norse Gods (HeimdallGjallarhornFrigg, and Thor) that line the walkway.

Djurgården: This is the big island that just is to the East of Gamla Stan. It’s more open with some great parks and things to do outside. There are are also some fantastic kid friendly museums. Keep in mind that the prices for a hotel stay are much cheaper over here than down town so, you may want to consider booking your hotel in this part of the city. We stayed in a family style room at the Scandic Hasselbacken and would highly recommend it. Here are the must see ticket items in Djurgården:

  • IMG_5697The Vasa Museum: This is our #1 pick in Stockholm: for adults and kids alike. The Vasa is a Swedish War ship that was built in about 1628. She sank on her Maiden Voyage, less than a nautical mile from port. Because of this, the Vasa is one of the most well preserved shipwrecks in history. It’s honestly amazing. If you only had 2 hours in Stockholm, this is what I would tell you to see. If you only had 2 hours in Scandinavia, this is still what I would tell you to see.
  • IMG_7422Skansen – The best open air museum/zoo we’ve ever seen. Everything, and I mean everything, is taylor made for children. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun on an outing with my kids. I feel like the people that designed Skansen thought to themselves, “how could I best explore this place if I were 5-years-old?”.  I wish we could go here every day. If you have little kids, do not miss it! I would say that the target age is 2-12 but there is plenty to entertain older kids as well. There are lots of little shops and cultural experiences as well as a fantastic zoo. Plan to spend at least a half a day here.IMG_7439At the entrance, I would recommend paying the extra and taking the tram up to the top because the walk is very steep and will be difficult for kids. You can also ask for a map and a timetable of events. There are demonstrations and feeding times that will help you make the most of your time. You can also download a free app that will help you navigate this amazing childhood treasure.
  • Gröna Lund – An awesome little amusement park. It’s right on the water and has a whole bunch of great looking rides and roller coasters. There are attractions for both smaller and bigger kids making it a great place for the whole family. Note that Gröna Lund is closed during the winter and usually opens again around early April. Check the website for official opening dates.
  • IMG_5864There are several museums that we didn’t have time to visit, including: The Nordic Museum (pictured), The Junibacken (children’s museum), and The Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology. You might also want to pop by The ABBA Museum. It’s right around the corner from Gröna Lund. Go ahead, get on your Dancing Queen, we won’t judge. If you make it to these places before we do, be sure to let us know how you liked them.

Drottningholm: If you are looking for a good day trip, Drottingholm is about a 45 minute train ride from downtown. It’s probably only worth going on the weekend as Drottningholm Palace is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 3:30pm. Other things to see in Drottningholm include: The Drottingholm Palace Theater (A UNESCO World Heritage site), The Lovön Church, and the Chinese Pavilion.

IMG_5820As far as getting to the city center is concerned, it’s pretty straight forward from the airport. You can take a train from the Airport terminal to the central train station. The train is called the Arlandae Express. The trip takes about 20 min. There is a kids car in the center of the train and children up to age 17 ride for free! If you come by boat or by train, you should be dropped off right in the city center.

We love our family travel adventures and we have good things to say about almost everywhere we have been. But from a family travel standpoint, Stockholm tops the list. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more kid friendly city. We loved our short trip to Sweden so much that we are already planning the next time we can go back.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. And let me tell you what: Russia did not disappoint. This is a city that is filled to the brim with culture. It’s one of those places I could visit again and again… and maybe again. I would say that you probably want to spend at least 3 or 4 days here but if you stayed for a week or two you wouldn’t run out of things to see. We’ve put together a list of our top recommendations for exploring the “Paris of the north”.

IMG_2999The Hermitage – One good thing about visiting this museum during peak tourist season is that while it may be crowded and noisy, it is crowded and noisy. Thus, your kids don’t have to be the portrait of perfection. No one will notice if they are a little bit wiggly or even a little bit loud. Even in the off-season, the Hermitage is a pretty busy place. So, plan for a crowd almost any time of year. With the little ones in tow, you’ll never see it all so, here is a great top 10 list if you are looking to hit the highlights. Also, before you brave this epic gallery, you might want to read our tips on taking kids to museums. (Note: The Hermitage is closed on Monday’s).

IMG_2162St. Isaac’s – This Cathedral took 40 years to construct. It is 333ft. tall and is plated in pure gold. From both the inside an outside it is a beautiful building. The interior used to have canvas paintings but due to the cold, damp environment, they began deteriorating and have been replaced almost entirely with mosaics. There is a ticket office on the North East side of the structure (near the tour bus parking), where you can buy tickets to enter the museum and the dome, which you can climb for a fantastic view of the city. There are 200+ stairs to get to the top. We carried our littlest one but our 3-year-old made the trek just fine. Keep in mind that St. Isaac’s, as well as many other top tourist sites in the city, are closed on Wednesday’s.

IMG_3012In the park to the north of the cathedral there is a great little playground where the kids can take a break and play for a while. It’s about half way between the cathedral and the statue of the Bronze Horseman (and just a bit to the east). The Bronze Horseman is a giant statue of Peter the Great atop, what is known as, the thunder stone (it is the largest stone ever moved by man). The statue is about a 10 min. walk from St. Isaac’s. So, be sure not to miss it if you are in the area. It is considered to be akin to the Statue of Liberty for Russia.

IMG_3024The Peterhof Palace – This gem is often called the Russian Versaille; and for good reason. The interior is both interesting and beautiful and for an extra fee you can take a short tour. The real reason to go, however, is to see the gardens. Wow! 500 acres of fountains, sculptures, and immaculately groomed flora, right on the waterfront. You can spend a whole day here but you can squeeze it in on a half day if you are short on time. As you wander, you’ll find lots of fun things for the kids. Many of the fountains are designed to splash in and get you wet. Our kids had a great time playing in the water and skipping through the shaded pathways. What a backyard. This is a wonderful way to spend a summer day. Here is a great list of some of the fun things not to miss with kids at the Peterhof.

You can get there by bus or train from the Baltiskiy Station (about 45 min. to an hour). If you have a car, you can also make the drive in about an hour. However, the best (and most fun), way to get to the Peterhof Palace is by Hydrofoil (35 min). At the end of the Marine Canal, you’ll find several companies that run regular water front services to and from the main entrance.

IMG_3908The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood – This was our FAVORITE thing that we saw in St. Petersburg. When you picture Russia in your mind, this is what your imagination draws up. The church was built  on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. It is constructed in the classic 17th century Russian style. Bright colored mosaics and onion domed towers adorn the outside of the church. The exterior is stunning but it pales in comparison the interior. Once inside, you’ll find more than 7,500 square meters of mosaics: the majority being made with real gold leaf. This church, all by itself, is worth the trip to St. Petersburg.  (Closed Wednesday’s)

IMG_2295The Peter and Paul Fortress – The fortress is a  bit off the beaten path but it’s a fun area to walk around and explore. Every day at noon, a blank shot is fired from the cannon at the Naryshkin Bastion. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1873 as a way for the citizens to synchronize their watches. On Saturdays, after the shot is fired, you can watch the ceremonial changing of the guard. Aside from the Naryshkin Bastion, the fortress houses museum expositions, a bell tower, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Cathedral.

If you are looking to grab a bite, there is a fantastic, family friendly restaurant in the area. It’s called Koryushkyu, and it’s located on the southwest corner of the fortress island. DO order the corn soup. DON’T order the bottled water – it’s imported and REALLY expensive. Go for an apple juice or a soda instead. The food is fantastic and there is a great play area for the kids.

IMG_2101Overall, just remember that Russia has very strict entrance and exit laws. Thus, you will most likely need a visa to enter. It can be a bit confusing, so we would recommend going through a third-party organization to secure your visa’s and make sure can safely enter and exit the country. However, if you enter by Ferry from Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn, you can side step the visa requirements  (but you are only allowed to stay for 72 hours). The St. Peter’s Ferry Line is the only company that makes the journey. All in all, we found St. Petersburg to be a warm and friendly place. We felt safe and comfortable and had a great stay. It’s a great vacation spot for kids and adults alike.

The Baltic States

The Baltic States are some of the most underestimated locations in all of Europe. They don’t really fit in any category. It’s not Western Europe, it’s not Easter Europe, and it’s not quite Scandinavia. Instead, this area has a charm and a vibe that is completely original. If you haven’t been to this region before, we would highly recommend a visit. And if you avoid traditional Lithuanian food we promise you’ll have a fantastic time. To help you out, we’ve mapped a course of our favorite cities in the neighborhood.

Northern Poland

b16Gdańsk – While Poland is not technically a Baltic State, there are a few places in the northern part of the country that border the Sea and are worth a visit. Our first must see stop along the Baltic Coast is Gdańsk, Poland. It is a great city with a long, rich history. The entire Old Town of Gdańsk is really remarkable. Right along the water there is a beautiful and well-preserved medieval port crane. It was built in 1442, making it the oldest one in Europe. We would also recommend that you don’t miss the National Maritime Museum (where you can board and explore the SS Sołdek), The Green and Gold Gates, Artus Court, St. Mary’s Church, and the beautiful Amber shops. For a half day trip, you can sail (on one of the fancy ships in the harbor) to the Hel Peninsula. That’s right, you can take a Pirate ship to Hel!

b18The big highlight for our kids in Gdańsk was the Ciucui Cukier Artist Candy Factory. This shop is located at 64/64 ulica Dluga and every hour they do a free demonstration. Here, they hand make traditional Polish Rock Candy and sometimes lucky customers – like our 2-year-old daughter – get invited behind the counter to help! Every demonstration ends with big smiles and free samples. It’s a must see and a must taste on the bucket list.

 b20Sopot- Just a quick half-hour train ride north from Gdańsk is the city of Sopot with its legendary Boardwalk. The Pier itself is totally empty and costs money to walk along (not worth it in our book). But everything leading up to it is full of fun and color. It’s a quirky little town with a whole lot of character. Street performers, vendors, and art fill up this little city with charm. The Sopot Beach is a beautiful (but crowded) place to relax on soft sand and swim in cold water. Try visiting in May or September when school is in session. That way the crowds are low but sun is still high and the weather is beautiful.

b14Malbork – In the opposite direction, another great day trip from Gdańsk is the Malbork Casltle. It’s just a half hour train ride to the south and well worth the short journey. Malbork is a Teutonic Knight Castle. It was built in 1406 and is the largest castle in the world of its kind. I would plan at least 3 or 4 hours to get through the whole thing. Make sure not to miss the Amber Museum that resides in the basement under the gift shop. It’s also nice to cross the bridge and get a view of the castle from across the river.

The city of Malbork itself is quite small and beside the castle you won’t find much to see. It’s mostly made up of overpriced vendors trying to capitalize on the castle’s presence by selling the same cheap and gimmicky clutter.  However, there are some pretty great ice cream shops around town that make it worth an hour-long wander.

Lithuania 

b3Kaunas – Just a bit inland and to the North of Poland is Kaunas, Lithuania. It’s a great place to stop for a day or two. The main street leading up to the town hall is lined with fun and traditional Lithuanian shops and art galleries. Some great things to see in this city include: The St. Michael the Archangel Church (pictured), The Žmuidzinavičius Museum (Also called the Devil Museum. This may be a little scary for the under 5 crowd), Ninth Fort, and The Kaunas Castle. Directly south of the Castle, you’ll find a lovely park. It’s great for a stroll on a sunny day. Just as the path curves, there is a little playground where the kids can stop and run around for a bit. If you continue on, you’ll eventually run into the river. Just across the bridge there is a tall staircase where you can climb to get a great view of the city. For an off-the-beaten-path experience, take a 20 min. drive east to visit the Pažaislis Monastery. Open Mon.-Fri. from 10am-5pm and Sat. from 10am-4pm.

b12The Hill of Crosses – One of the most interesting and unique places we’ve ever been to is the Hill of Crosses just outside of Šiauliai, Lithuania. A couple of years a go, we drove from Kaunas to Riga. This Holy site is about half way between the two cities. Travelers have been making pilgrimage to this hill for more than 200 years. There are now over 100,000 crosses that cover the site. It is honestly an amazing thing to see.

Vilnius – Truth: We’ve never actually been to Vilnius. Second Truth: We really really want to go. SO, if you make it to the Lithuanian capital before we do, let us know what you think. We’ve heard that the Uzgavenes festival held yearly in February is amazing. Lithuanian tradition says that you have to scare away the winter. So, every year men and women dress up in big devil masks and put up witches all around the city to fight off the cold winter spirits and welcome in the spring.

Latvia

IMG_1636Riga – Riga is one of those cities that you visit and think “I can’t believe I never thought to come here before”. It’s not Paris, it’s not Rome. But it is worth a weekend stop. Every August, this city puts on the annual Riga City Festival. We’ve been 2 years in a row now. It is definitely the time to be there. During the festival there are lots of free performances and activities.b4 All up and down the river you’ll find lots of booths selling yummy local street food. And in the main square, there are hundreds of vendors set up to sell hand crafts and homemade goods. It really brings the city to life.

Jūrmala – This city is about a half hour drive from Riga. It’s very reminiscent of the little coastal towns that dot Oregon and Northern California. The beach itself is great but it’s also fun to meander in and out of the little shops and farmers markets inside the city.

Estonia

b2Tallinn – Tallinn is our very favorite of all these Baltic cities! This is one of those cities where it is best just to wander. Everything in the old town is worth seeing and exploring.  While Tallinn was originally settled as early as 2500 BC, the old town has preserved most of its historic architecture from medieval  times. The old town is divided into Upper-Town (Toompea) and Lower-Town and is best explored on foot. However, it is not all that stroller friendly. So, backpacks or baby carriers are advised. The views from Upper-Town are quite picturesque and make it worth the hike.

IMG_1938Outside of old town you might consider taking time to see the Estonian Open Air Museum, the Tallinn Zoo, or to have a beach day along The Gulf of Finland. While we were there in August, we also took a bus out to see the Tallinn TV Tower (about a 30 min. bus ride) which has a viewing deck on the 26th floor. On a clear day, you can see a pretty spectacular view from the top. It is a completely enclosed and very child friendly space. Just a couple of bus stops shy of the TV tower is a beautiful botanical garden as well as a ruined 14th century monastery. We cannot say enough good things about Tallinn and always recommend it to our traveler friends.

Five-Petalled Rose Renaissance Festival: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I’ll admit that the last time I was at a Renaissance Festival I was probably 12-years-old. So, I was way overdue for my fill of Amateur Actors, Sultry Maidens and Drunken Fools. That’s why we decided to visit the Five-Petalled Rose Celebration in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic. It is now one of our very favorite family memories.

IMG_0884Český Krumlov is about a 2-hour drive south of Prague and even without the festival this adorable and authentic medieval city would be worth the trip. If  you don’t have a car, the best way to get in is by bus. It’s a 3-hour bus ride from Prague or 4-hours from Vienna. The festival is held Annually in the month of June on the weekend of the Summer Solstice. This year it will take place from Jun 19 – Jun 21, 2015.  The festival lasts three days but on our trip we stayed in Prague and just made a day trip down to the Renaissance Faire.

For the duration of the festival, the entire historic section of the city closes to all outside traffic. You can park (for a small fee) at several parking lots just outside the center and walk in. We parked in the lot by the southern bridge. Tickets are sold, for cash only, at  every the entrance into the historic downtown. When we arrived we received a little map of the city as well as a schedule of events (which can also be found on the official website). Once inside, the city itself is a fun place to wander. It is tucked nicely into a large curve in Vltava river. The historic town dates back to the 13th century and has been relatively untouched since then. Here were the highlights for us:

IMG_0952The Sights: The view of the faded but colorful castle tower is visible from all over the town. There are several great points where you can get a really great look at it. Across the northern bridge you will climb by ramp and road to the castle. It’s bumpy in places but fairly stroller friendly. If you continue up the hill past the castle, you will find the castle gardens as well as a great view of the city. The town is very small making it pretty easy to find your way around.

IMG_1636Shops and Venders: At the Castle base are booths where authentically dressed vendors sell all kinds of handmade goods. We came home with some local honey as well as some beautiful and fragrant lavender soap. Also, as you wander through the tiny streets you will find little shops that sell all kinds of children’s toys, trinkets, and treats. During the festival, in the main square, there are lots of food tents set up. It’s a street food kind of feeling but it’s all quite yummy. Make sure to bring cash as most places won’t take a credit card.

IMG_0887Performers: In the main square, you will also find a large stage. The majority of the performances happen here. However, as you meander in and out of the ally ways, you will likely run across some smaller performances. We happened upon a fantastic 2-man puppet show. The actors were over the top and very kid friendly. They were so animated and fun that it didn’t even matter that the performance was entirely in Czech.  We also ran across some jugglers and other street performers that were hired by the festival. You can check the schedule for these performances as well as for larger demonstrations like sword fighting and jousting.

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IMG_1646Kids Rides & Games: Just on the other side of the city wall, there is a great big children’s section. This was our very favorite part. Here we found all kinds of old timey carnival rides. The target age for this area is probably 2-8 but our 1-year-old did just fine. This section was full of all kinds of swings and games. There was also a medieval style merry-go-round.IMG_1651 A large man pushes a large wooden arm as he runs side-by-side with the carousel to propel the children as they sit in little brown baskets. Our kiddies couldn’t get enough. We spent several hours here and it wasn’t long enough.

This festival is a perfect vacation destination for families. If you are looking for a fun European spot to take your kids this summer – look no further. The Czech Republic, that’s where it’s at. Can we come back and do this every year? Pretty pretty please!