* The Castles of Transylvania

We love European cities. We love the art and the culture and the food. We love the old buildings and the museums and the people. But  a word of advice when visiting Romania, get out of the city! Rent a car, and leave it all behind because the Romanian countryside is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. On our recent trip to Romania, we flew into Bucharest and immediately hit the road. Best decision ever!rupea2

First off, the Transylvanian region of Romania is much safer than Bucharest. You don’t have to worry about pick pockets, stray dogs, and drunkards. We felt 100% completely safe traveling through Transylvania with our 2 little kids. Besides that, it is almost completely surrounded by the breath-taking Carpathian Mountains. Adding to the beauty of this region, ancient castles and citadels dot the landscape and make you feel like you have taken a step back in time.  Below is our recommended travel plan.  It will only take you about 5 hours to drive the whole loop (map here) but of course you’ll want to stop in each place and soak it all in. We took 4 days, which was just a bit rushed. I would have liked to have 5.peles2

Peles and Pelişor Castles – Peles is the larger of the two but they are situated within walking distance of each other. We actually only paid to go inside of the first one but I don’t feel like we missed out by not seeing the other. Peles is absolutely stunning from the outside. You can park just to the East of the castle and then walk (about 10 min.) up to it. The inside is remarkable as well. It has a very Baroque feeling with lots of dark wooden carvings. I’m not sure if it was just our guide or the entire staff, but she seemed to have it out for children. And not just ours.  So, just a warning: they’ll let them in but not in a baby carrier, and they make no promise of friendliness. The museum is also very strict and if you so much as breath on something wrong, you’re sure get a scolding look. All in all, however, it was incredible to see. They have a website where you can look up tour times and prices.

img_1352Rasnov Fortress – The best thing about this fortress is its placement in the Mountains. I still dream about that view. The second best thing about it are the actors. There are about 5 or 6 paid actors who dress up in old medieval clothes and pretend to be people from the time period. We’re not sure if they are famous or not because they all sell autographed photos, postcards, buttons, and kitchen magnets of themselves in their costumes. It’s so great! There is such a fun feeling in the air here. My new dream job is to work at Rasnov.  It’s a good little hike to get to the top but it’s worth it. Again, I say, look at that view! Rasow

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Photo Credit: rolandia.eu

Bran Castle – Just a 15 min drive from Rasnov is this amazing structure, also know as “Dracula’s Castle” for its fictitious ties to Bran Stoker’s novel. This is by far the most popular tourist destination in Romania. We waited in line for about 30 min. just to get in. The surrounding area houses an old marketplace with lots of vendors. Right along the strip they are mostly selling tourist junk like “I love Dracula” t-shirts and fake vampire teeth. But turn the corner and you’ll find that others are selling more worth while items like hand painted pottery and homemade Romanian sweet bread called Kurtoskurtos”. SO yummy! It’s hard to get a decent view of the outside of the castle unless you are willing to drive away from it. But the inside is beautiful. Funny that it’s closest fictional ties are to Dracula when it feels as though it should be home to Prince Charming (except for maybe the torture room, but that’s an extra fee anyway). Once inside, the self guided tour takes about an hour. It really is rather impressive. For more information on visiting the castle, click here.
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Rupea Fortress – One of the best things about Romania is that grande fortresses, like this one, just appear along the side of the road. We had no plans to see this castle, but on our drive up to Sighișoara, there it was. And we just had to see it. Let’s just say that the hour detour was well spent.

Sighișoara Tower- Actually the entire town of Sighișoara is worth seeing.  The Tower itself cost a small fee but you can see the whole city from the top and it really is amazing. We just wandered around town for half a day and took it in. sighisoara The cemetery and the church at the top of hill are also worth the hike. Sighișoara is said to be be birth place of Vlad the Impaler – Dracula! And they won’t let you forget it. You can even pay about a dollar to see “the room where Dracula was born”. Which is just an old man dressed like a Vampire waiting to scare you in a dark attic as some corny music plays in the background. So funny. But maybe not for the kids. The food at the Dracula House restaurant (on the second floor) is quite delicious. This is a great little city.

biertanBiertan Fortified Church – Another spontaneous stop. We saw a sign that said “Castle 2 Kilometers —>” and we went. A bit off the beaten path, but that’s part of the charm. The castle is the focal point of this tiny town as it reigns supreme from its home on the hill-side. It’s surrounded by a little farming community of about 1,500 people. The tour isn’t expensive but it closes at 5pm and they won’t let you in after 4:30. We barely made it and we’re glad we did. Biertan is also just a short 30 min. drive from the city of Medias (where you can’t drive a car anywhere in the old town so plan for a little walking).

Hunyad Castle. Photo Credit: rolandia.eu

Făgăraș Caslte – What a tragedy that we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to see this castle.  I’ve included in on the must see loop because I regret that we didn’t make it here. Făgăraș is completely surrounded by the original old moat. This castle was the home of the Transylvanian Princesses and has many items, like wedding dresses and veils, on display. If you’ve ever been here, let us know what it was like. We’re dying to know. If you have an extra day, Hunyad Castle (also called Corvin Castle) is about a 2 1/2 hour drive west of Făgăraș. We didn’t make it out that far but the pictures look amazing! We hope to make it back someday.

brasovIf it’s a city that you are looking to see, we would suggest staying in Sighișoara and Brașov. The city of Brașov is right off the main highway and it’s adorable. It is nestled right up against the mountain and has a great little old town square. Not to mention the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted in my life. And we’ve been to Belgium. It’s a little shop called “chocolat” (yes, without the e). It’s right across the street from the old town square. Don’t miss it! When traveling through Romania, remember that this country is not nearly as developed as some of its neighbors. You probably won’t get a map of the city from the hotel and you might not always be able to find wifi. We were also warned not to drink the tap water. But despite all that, or maybe because of it, it holds a peaceful and preserved charm like nowhere else we’ve been.

Oh, Romania! I can’t imagine a life where I never met you. So GO! Start planning your trip. I promise you won’t regret it.

* The Jet Lag Woes

Jet lag, you sly dog, you’ve done it again. You’ve fed them after midnight and turned my sweet little angels into sweet little monsters. Well, we’re not going down without a fight. Here are our best tips to help with the jet lag woes.

IMG_6042Hydration – Studies show that one of the best ways to prevent jet lag is to stay hydrated. Use this as a preventive measure even before you take off. In the days leading up to a long flight make sure that everyone in the family gets plenty to drink and give your kids get lots of water on the plane. Don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendant for an extra round of apple juice. Flying is notorious for causing dehydration so, you will want to drink more than you think you need. For the adults in the family, keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine can actually cause dehydration so it’s best to avoid them around travel time.

Keep a Schedule – As much as possible you’ll want stick to your normal schedule. As soon as you land (or even before) change your clocks to the local time. Try not to think about what time it “really” is back home. That only makes it worse. When traveling west it can be very tempting to go to bed at 5:00pm. Don’t. And try your best to keep your kids up until as close to bedtime as possible. If anyone wants a nap don’t let it be a long one (when I say long I mean longer than normal). The first day is always the hardest but I have found that if we can keep a good schedule we can kick the jet lag in just a couple of days.

Sometimes vacations are scheduled for you with very little wiggle room. So, if you are traveling for a special event, like a wedding, you might want to consider getting there a few days early so that your kids have some time to adjust before they are paraded around for inspection and cheek-pinching by your friends and relatives.

IMG_1363Soak up the Sunlight – use it to your advantage. The sun naturally signals to our bodies that they should be awake. So, do your best to spend your first day of jet lag outside. When traveling East, your kids might want to sleep in. I know… that sounds SO wonderful! But don’t let them sleep too long. Get them up and take them outside. Let them see the sunshine. It will help their internal clocks (and yours) regulate to the new time.

IMG_1065-2Midnight Snacks and Stories – Especially when we are traveling east, our kids will almost certainly wake up bright-eyed and ready to go sometime around 2:00 in the morning. If they do wake up, the first night or two you might consider letting them get up for a little while. Keep this time calm and quiet. Sing lullabies instead of running around, don’t turn on too many lights, etc. Make them a sandwich, watch a short movie, read some stories and tuck them back in bed.

IMG_1906Roll with it – Confession: last time we got home from an overseas trip I crawled into the crib and slept there with my one-year-old son. It was 1 in the morning and even after a snack, a story, and an episode of Dora he would not fall asleep. So, I just climbed on in for a little snuggling (drastic times you know). Mind you, this in not a normal practice in my house but it worked. After half an hour he was asleep. Later that night our two-year-old found her way to our bed and was not removed for several hours.

Avoid Un-prescribed Medication – Many parents have been known to give their children some Children’s Benadryl or other similar medications to help kids sleep. I’m the kind of person that is weary to take medication even when it’s prescribed so you can imagine what side of this controversy I’m on. Even so, I’m not one to judge. If you are considering medications, let me just suggest that you ask a doctor about it first and make sure that you talk about proper dosing as overdose is the largest concern. Also, it’s important to know that while antihistamines have known drowsiness effects in adults, they can actually have very different side effects in kids. Children’s Benadryl says that it may cause “excitability” in small children, which is kind of what you are trying to avoid in the first place.

With all the risks associated with giving children medication without doctor approval, I would recommend just avoiding it all together. Instead, you might consider a more natural solution. Lavender, for example, has natural soothing and calming properties. I have some essential lavender oil that I rub on my kids feet and pillows before bedtime the night we get home from a long trip. It’s not going to knock them out but it is a much safer sleep aid.

IMG_0213Culture Shock vs. Jet Lag – If it’s been a week and you still think they might have switched out your kids for different ones at customs you might recognize that maybe jet lag isn’t the culprit. Sometimes kids have a hard time being taken our of their home environment. New beds and new faces can contribute to grumpiness just as much as a new time-zone. You might want to take a special stuffed animal or toy with you on your trip to remind them of home. Be patient with them, make sure to show extra love, and they’ll get used to it.

If you have any other ideas on how to help kids with jet lag please leave us a comment. We love to hear from you.

*Cathedral Etiquette

You will not take a European vacation without entering a church. I doubt it is even possible. So, here are a few guidelines to follow when entering places of worship.

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St. Nicolas’s Church, Ghent, Belgium

Dress: Usually in Catholic churches, no one is going to kick you out if you are not dressed properly. That doesn’t mean it’s not offensive when you don’t dress the part. Orthodox Temples are more likely to deny admittance for improper dress. Either way, it’s best to be respectful. When you enter make sure to remove your hat. In Orthodox buildings women are required to cover their heads with a scarf so it’s a good idea to pack a shawl or a light weight piece of fabric in your bag. Synagogues require that men and boys wear a Kippah but if it is required of visitors they are usually provided. It is considered rude to expose your shoulders so avoid tank tops or bring a cover. You should also wear pants that at least cover your knees. Try to wear soft soled shoes. The acoustics in these buildings are incredible and the wrong shoes can serve as loud and unwelcome distraction.

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St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

Taking Photos: Most of the time it’s ok to take pictures but make sure to check for posted signs just in case. Even though it is usually alright to take pictures there are a few rules to follow. The majority of places I’ve been ask you to turn off the flash.  Also, never take pictures during Mass or during any service. Don’t gather a large group of people in front of the altar or next to a Saint and say “cheese”. Try to stay out-of-the-way and be respectful. Just remember that it was place of worship before it is was tourist destination.

Food: Spit out your chewing gum and finish your snacks before you enter.

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St. Michael’s Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

Whisper: Use reverent and hushed tones. Do your best to keep your kids quiet (I know it’s not always possible). If the little ones are really riled up it’s a good idea to come back when they are feeling a little calmer. Maybe take a lap around and see the outside first. It’s also good to remember that Jesus Christ said “suffer the little children… to come unto me” (Matt. 19:14) So, don’t worry too much if they aren’t perfect angels.

A couple more things: 1) It is considered rude to enter the altar area or cross directly in front of it.  2) If you do not belong to the religion, you don’t have to cross yourself, light a candle or participate (though you are usually welcome to do so). It is just fine to pass through as a spectator.

*Kraków, Poland

Dear European Traveler,

Gather round and hear a little secret…we know who you are. You’ve visited the Colosseum and soaked in the Tuscan sun. You’ve tasted chocolate in Belgium. You’ve viewed the Eifel tower, the Mona Lisa, and Notre Dame. When you made it to Croatia you though “Now I’ve been somewhere exotic”… and you had been. You went north to see Van Gogh,  skipped over to have tea with the Queen, journeyed down to run with the bulls, packed it in and called it good. This was your picture perfect, couldn’t have asked for more, complete tour of  WESTERN Europe. But stop there and you are honestly missing so much more than you realize.

To ease you into the half of the continent that you somehow totally forgot about, here is a guide to one of the greatest cities in the world: Kraków, Poland (also known as Cracow). It’s just about the only city in Poland that wasn’t ransacked or destroyed in WWII. Hitler took a shine to it and, for some unknown reason, spared it from total ruin. Kraków is an amazing city and should be a high priority on your next European adventure.

What to See

IMG_41971. The Old Town Square: It’s the largest old town square in all of Europe as well as one of the oldest. It has a festival feeling all the time and there always seems to be something going on. You’ll find street performers in abundance as well as lots of places to eat. Don’t miss the cloth market that runs directly down the center of the square; It’s full of fun little shops and vendors.

2.The Wieliczka Salt Mine: wieliczka
located a 40 min bus ride from downtown. The mine has been around for nearly 1,000 years! Inside you will see sculptures and  entire rooms carved out of salt. There is an extremely impressive salt carved Cathedral near the end of the tour. You are required to enter the mine with a guide but they have regular English tours that leave every 30 min. (Tours are also given in French, German, Polish, Spanish and Russian).  Because there are several hundred stairs descending into the mine you’ll want to pack the babies on your back if possible. Also, it gets chilly down there so even on a hot day you’ll want jackets. It’s about a 3 hour tour so bring some snacks for the kids. After the tour you will find gift shops, restrooms, a restaurant  and a child’s play place area. This is an amazing experience not to be missed.

IMG_42413. Wawel Castle (pronounced Vavel): Full of old legends of Kings, Knights, and even Dragon’s, the Wawel castle has a magical feeling. It’s about a 20 min. walk from the square and is free to tour the grounds.  
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There are lots of museums and exhibits priced (very reasonably) al a cart style, including: The Stateroom, The Treasury  and The Tower. There is even a Dragon’s Lair that is sure to delight and spook the kiddies (but be warned of lots of tight downward stairs as you descend into Smok’s dark and dripping cavern). The Cathedral is an additional cost but is free on Sunday’s after mass (12:30pm). All of the castle’s attractions are closed on Mondays so be sure to plan ahead.

IMG_4306_24. St. Mary’s Cathedral: A beautiful and stunning Cathedral located right in the Old Town Square.  Rebuilt in the 14th Century, St. Mary’s is one of the oldest buildings in Poland and has a beautiful and unique exterior. The inside is famous for the Altarpiece of Viet Stoss which is the largest Gothic Altarpiece in the world. There is a small fee to enter the Cathedral unless of course you sneak in for Sunday Mass.IMG_4218

5. The Underground City: Worth a visit, especially if you like archeology. This site is located directly underneath the Old Town Square and was excavated in 2006. It’s a well-preserved view of ancient Kraków, complete with artifacts, old foundations and even vampier bones. Be sure to get tickets in advance because they tend to sell out. You can reserve tickets in person or on-line.  Backpacks are not allowed so you will have to check your child carriers at the front desk and carry the little ones through the exhibit. The whole thing takes about 45 min to an hour.

6. The Auschwitz Concentration camp is about an hour drive from the city. We decided that we weren’t quite ready to see it and wanted to wait until our next trip to Kraków. But if you are interested in going you can easily find tours that will take you from Kraków to Auschwitz. .

Accommodations and Travel

We stayed at the RedBrick hotel and would highly recommend it. It’s a lot of bang for your buck. Nice accommodations and a friendly English speaking staff. But most importantly it has an ideal location. It’s a 2 min walk from the train station and a 5 min walk into the old town square. Also, bus 304 picks you up outside the front door and will take you right to the Salt Mine. We passed on the over priced breakfast and found some quaint bakeries inside or close to old town instead. We also saved 30% by calling instead of booking online.

As far as travel goes, you can fly right into the Kraków airport or come in by train from Warsaw (about 3 hours). It’s also just a 5 hour train ride from Kraków to Vienna, Austria. Polish trains in the North can be a bit slow but in the southern part of the country there are express options and even sleeper trains available. The Polish country side is beautiful and worth seeing. Traveling by train is comfortable and enjoyable. Children under 6 travel free and still get their own seat. Be sure to ask for tickets for a compartment car (think Harry Potter style instead of airplane rows). This makes for a more enjoyable experience, especially with your tiny travelers.

If you’ve been to Kraków, please feel free to leave additional comments and advice below.