Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival

The month of October was full of pumpkin festivities for us in Germany.  We started out the month by a rainy trip to the local pumpkin patch to pick out our pumpkins.  I actually went to this pumpkin patch last year with my Pre-K class.  It’s the only pumpkin patch in our local area.  They also have a farm and last year the kids got to tour it and see all the animals including the baby cows!  You can also buy pumpkins at the commissary, but it’s more fun to go out and cut them off the vine yourself!  Unfortunately the day we went, it was pretty rainy and muddy.  But we didn’t let that stop us!

The girls were troopers out in the rain.

A pumpkin for each of us!
 Then of course we had to do a photo shoot with the pumpkins 🙂

A couple weekends before Halloween, we drove out to Ludwigsburg for their pumpkin festival.  The festival takes place on the grounds of the Ludwigsburg Palace.  It was the home of dukes and kings of Wuttermberg and was never destroyed in World War II.  We didn’t go into the palace itself but the grounds are expansive and have so many different features.  We kept stumbling upon new things around every corner!  The festival also claims to be the largest pumpkin exhibition in the world.  We had a great time, hopefully we can go back again next year.

 

We brought along little lady’s costume so we could get a good Halloween shot too.  I think the locals thought we were strange dressing our baby up like this.
This year’s theme was sports-check out the giant pumpkin boxers!
Pumpkin carving artist at work.

 There were displays of any different variety of pumpkin you could think of from places all over the world.  Including this “apple” pumpkin from the good ol’ U.S. of A!

Every year there is a contest for Europe’s largest pumpkin.  And here is this year’s winner!

The beautiful weather that day really brought out the crowds.

Of course we sampled some of the different pumpkin dishes that were being served up for the festival. We started of with pumpkin flamkuchen.  It got devoured before we thought about taking a picture though.  A flamkuchen is a cross between a pizza and a crepe.  It’s a very delicious treat normally served up with sour cream, ham, and onion.  Later, we grabbed pumpkin soup, a rice dish with pumpkin (reminded me of paella), and pumpkin sekt (German sparkling wine).

There were many impressive displays of sports themed pumpkin sculptures including skiers, basketball players, and a huge swimmer.  I didn’t do a very good job at capturing it all, but here are some more of the cute pumpkin displays from around the festival.

Rapunzel’s castle in the background, you can even see her hair being lowered down.

 As I said before, there were so many different aspects to the gardens that were fun to explore.  We found an underground tunnel with lights and a little creek running through it.

An aviary with many different birds including flamingos…

There were gardens growing grapes,

A petting zoo, and a small sheep pen.

As seen before there was a small castle tower in the garden and when the kids at the bottom yell for Rapunzel to let down her hair, a braid lowers.

There was a carousel, and even a small amusement park also attached to the gardens.  There were so many things there to entertain you that we weren’t expecting when we first arrived.

Happy group leaving the festival, see you next year!

It was a fun filled month!  Fall is coming to a close in Germany and we’re moving right into winter and Christmas Market season!  Can’t wait!

A Bit of Bubbly in Champagne

We were on the go again shortly after returning from Amsterdam to the Champagne region of France.  This is the birthplace of champagne and if you want to get technical, it cannot be called champagne unless it is made here and adheres to very specific rules (it’s a law in Europe).  Everything else is just “sparkling wine.”  We spent most of our time in the city of Reims.  Notice I said city, I totally thought we were going to be out in vineyards, and sprawling countryside but actually, most of the champagne houses are in the cities.

Our hotel was on the same street as the Reims cathedral.  This is where French royalty was crowned all the way up to the late 1800’s.  Last year was the 800 year anniversary of the cathedral and to celebrate, a light show was designed and played on the facade of the church at night.  Apparently it was so popular that they decided to bring it back for this summer.  And we are so glad they did because it was awesome! I’ve never seen something like that and it was so fun to watch.

Cathedral during the day.
And lit up for part of the light show.

Our first champagne house to visit was Taittinger.  This was probably the favorite one we visited.  We had a very small personal tour, and the caves were amazing.  These champagne houses sit on top of massive underground chalk caves.  These caves were dug out by the Romans and then were put to use by the monks who made champagne.  Taittinger actually sits on the site of an old basilica that was destroyed during the French Revolution.

In front of the champagne wall.
Down in the caves.

Different sizes of bottles they make, second from the right is a normal sized bottle.
Carvings in the chalk wall, you can see where Rick Steve’s carved his name too 😉
About 60 meters underground looking up.

The caves all have these archways where tons of bottles are stacked while they ferment and age.  You can see how far back they go and just how many bottles are stacked in there.  We were told that the bottles stay in the cellars between 3 and 10 years depending on the type of champagne.

The bottom number on the sign says 72,202-the number of bottles in this archway.

Time for the tasting!

Pretty champagne boxes.

After the tour we had some time for lunch.  We went to a local market and bought meats, cheeses, baguettes, and fruit and had a little picnic in the park!  Our first time to do this on a trip, but don’t think it will be the last time.

Somebody carved a heart into the tree!
Where we had our picnic lunch.

Time for the next tour!  We were off to Vrenken Pommery.

Gorgeous grounds of Pommery.
Walking down into the caves.

This place was having a modern art exhibition in the caves.  We weren’t really fans of that but it definitely brought a different element to the tour.

Blue beam is a piece of “art”, but look how big the cave is, again dug out by Romans.
Cute individual size bottles!

Reims had a really nice street with bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops on it.  A very fun, lively atmosphere.  The people watching was great and we saw multiple stag/hen parties walking around in costumes too.

Opting for beer instead of champagne this time.
Adjusting, primping, and…
Smile!

The next morning before leaving Reims we walked inside the cathedral and were able to see the start of the service which was very neat to see.  They were also have a medieval fair so we walked through the street booths and saw the yaks and one wolf in the church yard.  Not sure what they have to do with the church or the fair.  Then we jumped in the car and drove about 30 minutes south to Epernay.  We had just one more place to visit, probably the most recognizable name in champagne-Moet & Chandon (makers of Dom Perignon).

We had to get some lunch first though 🙂
The men posing with Dom Perignon, the creator of champagne.

The caves here were a little less impressive because they weren’t as deep, and they were relatively “new” in comparison.  They were built in the 1700’s not by the Romans.

Cask stolen by Napoleon and given as a gift to the Moet/Chandon family.

Cheers!

I learned a lot about champagne and how it’s made which was interesting and definitely gave us a new appreciation for the drink.  We loved traveling with our friends and have to give all the credit to them for planning such a fun trip.  Thanks for letting us tag along!

Sonoma Valley with Kids

Sonoma Valley-3When we first moved to Monterey, we talked a lot about all the nearby places we might want to visit. One place that came up more than once, especially when talking about friends coming to visit, was Napa Valley. At the time I was pregnant and the idea of going to wine country when I couldn’t enjoy the wine did not sound fun. Add the idea of chasing a high energy toddler around and I had pretty much written off the idea of visiting wine country during our time in California.

Fast forward several months: I’ve had the baby, we’re getting back into the groove of taking small trips, and we had the chance to visit one winery in Paso Robles. After our experience there went so well, I started to open back up to the idea of visiting either Napa or Sonoma Valley. Based on the advice of a couple friends from the area, we decided to visit Sonoma over Napa.  Sonoma was described to us as being more mellow, more family friendly, more authentic (less touristy), and less expensive.  All things that were music to our ears!

So after some planning, researching, and talking with our resident expert friends we set off on a long weekend in Sonoma Valley! Our first stop was not exactly in Sonoma Valley, but it wasn’t that far off. The Jelly Belly Factory is in Fairfield, California and is a working factory with free tours. Our daughter LOVES jellybeans, especially when they come in princess packages! We thought this would be something fun for her to do on a weekend where most of the activities would revolve around the adults wine tasting. The visitor center had a surprisingly long line for the tour which concerned me a bit.  However, it moved fairly quickly and within 20 minutes or so we had started our tour. I stood in line while my husband entertained our daughter by looking around the gift shop and sampling jellybeans and fudge (yes they have a chocolate shop inside too!).

The tour starts out by handing everyone a Jelly Belly hat that must be worn inside the factory.  Shockingly, our daughter did not protest said hat. You are then brought upstairs to look at several jellybean mosaics of famous people. Next you are walked over to a green screen and a model of Mr. Jelly Belly the jellybean for a family photo (for purchase after the tour). Then after a few more minutes of waiting and a sample jellybean, you are led into the factory to see where all the action is.  If you take this tour, it’s best to be at the front of the group. We were toward the back and consequently could not hear some of the narration by our tour guide. Throughout the tour there are video monitors playing clips of information and videos, we also missed out seeing some of those because of our positioning. All in all the tour was fun, we enjoyed seeing the process of making the candies and seeing the shear quantities of jellybeans in production! My other recommendation for visiting is that you check the calendar, the factory itself is not in operation on the weekends and holidays.  So if you tour when the factory is not operating, you will not see the machines running or anything being made.  You will just see stationary machinery and the videos on the monitor.jellybelly

IMG_3529

A happy girl after getting her free bag of jellybeans after the tour!

From the tour, we drove a few minutes into town to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch. The Jelly Belly visitor center has a cafe that has good reviews on TripAdvisor, but we were in the mood for something different. After lunch we started our drive into the wine region. Our winery for the day was Larson Family Winery. A winery recommended on a few blogs as being good for families. larsonwineryThe setup of the winery and tasting room was great for families. There was an indoor tasting room which led to an outdoor courtyard. It was enclosed enough that children were contained with still having room to let them wander a bit and stretch their legs. The winery also has three friendly labs roaming around looking for bits of shade to lay in or a dropped piece of food to gobble up. There were many picnic tables around and a large turf area with cornhole boards set up. The afternoon we were there a few other large parties of young, childless, singles were also visiting. The language was a bit colorful, and once the games of cornhole started, it became harder to keep our daughter out of the line of fire. So after our wine flight was finished, we didn’t waste time picking up and heading out the door.

We continued our drive to downtown Sonoma. There is a quaint square in the center of town lined with shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. We happened to park in front of the Sonoma Cheese Factory, and spur of the moment decided to pick up picnic supplies there and walk them across the street to the park to let our daughter play. Sonoma Cheese Factory had everything we needed to make a tasty picnic dinner. We grabbed paninis, olives, cheese, grapes, and of course a bottle of wine! It turns out in Sonoma it is legal to sit at the park with a glass (or plastic cup) of wine! Our daughter played while we ate and sipped on a bench. It turned out to be the perfect way to do dinner that night.

sonomasquare

The next morning, we drove a few minutes down the road from our hotel to Lumberjack’s in Petaluma. This probably isn’t most people’s first idea of where to eat breakfast in wine country, there are certainly more gourmet, quaint, and refined places to eat. But the food at Lumberjack’s good, cheap, and portions were big. Just like the sign says, “where the big boys eat.” Go here if you’re looking for a quick diner style breakfast.

lumberjacks

I couldn’t resist making my husband take a picture in front of the sign! Hilarious (to me)! Also, jam packets make excellent toddler distractions.

Next up, we drove up Highway 12 to Landmark Vineyards. Along the way we passed several other wineries that looked like they would’ve been fun to visit. I had Landmark on my list of places to go because they do horse-drawn carriage rides on Saturdays. The property itself is very beautiful. The courtyard has colorful flowers, manicured shrubs, and a gorgeous aqua fountain. It felt very mediterranean to me. It just so happened we ran into a lady from my running group who was also in Sonoma for the weekend with her family. We had intended to only be at Landmark for a short time before visiting another place, but because we ran into friends we ended up staying almost the whole day!

IMG_3325

The front entrance to Landmark Vineyards.

IMG_3336

Entertaining the little one while we sip wine.

IMG_3589

The stunning courtyard at Landmark.

IMG_3613

There was indeed carriage rides around the property!

By the time we left Landmark, our baby girl was in need of a nap and it was late in the day. So instead of pushing our luck and trying to drag her to another winery, we decided to take a scenic drive out to the coast. We drove River Road along the Russian River all the way out to Jenner and then down Highway 1 to Bodega Bay where we turned inland and headed into Santa Rosa. This was a beautiful, scenic drive. River Road was enclosed in trees with leaves changing color. We passed vineyards turning a gorgeous shade of gold. And once you get to the coast, you’re treating with ocean views and coastal scenery. We chose to stop in Santa Rosa for dinner so we could visit a place a friend of ours had raved about-the Russian River Brewing Company. It is an award wining brewery with a line out the door to prove it. We waited in line at least 30 minutes just to make it inside to speak to the hostess. It was then another 30 minutes or so before we were seated at a table. It would’ve been shorter if we didn’t have the kids, but because we did we had to be seated in the dining room instead of the bar area. I should note that there is open seating on their patio out front if you can find a table. The wait didn’t bother us much though, luckily our daughter was in good spirits and the free garlic cheese bread seemed to satisfy her until we could order our pizzas. While it was family friendly, I don’t know if I’d make this place a priority unless you have some serious beer enthusiasts in your family. It might be a place more suited for the kid-free population.  Most of all, go early! The line is no joke!

The next morning we headed out to Forestville with the intent on visiting a nearby winery. However, plans got changed last minute but since we were there we stopped in at a cute outdoor patio restaurant called Backyard. This place was delicious! Every plate I saw come out looked amazing. They are known for their donuts and chicken and waffles, yes please!

IMG_3381

Sunday brunch at Backyard with mimosas, coffee, and princesses!

After asking our waiter for some advice on wineries to visit, we drove out to Iron Horse Vineyards. I was excited about this one because they are known for their sparkling wines which happen to be my favorite! Down a small one lane road littered with potholes, and up a hill sits Iron Horse. This vineyard wasn’t really set up for young children. There weren’t many tables to sit at, and everyone seemed to be crowded around the outdoor tasting bar. I’m not sure if there was an indoor tasting room, if there was it didn’t appear to be open. It is also perched on top of a hill. Great views of vineyards, but no railings to keep curious toddlers from falling down the hill. There was also an oyster bar which my hubby would’ve loved, but we decided this wasn’t the place for us so we loaded up and headed out to the next stop. I would return here if I had a kid-free weekend though, it looked fun!

IMG_3637

Pumpkins overlooking the vineyard at Iron Horse.

Our next attempt was at Korbel. We had been told that the property there was very beautiful with gorgeous gardens. Korbel offers free tours of the cellar hourly and only a few times of day for the gardens. Since we had visited a few champagne houses in France, I had an idea of what the cellar tour would be like and it didn’t sound all that appealing to try and bring our restless two year old. We decided to walk over to the tasting room and see if there was a good area to sit and taste. There’s plenty of picnic tables outside, but there isn’t anyone to pour tastings for you should you choose to sit there. You can do complimentary tastings of up to four varieties inside the tasting room standing at the bar. Again, this wasn’t quite the set up we were looking for so we tasted one or two types of champagne and plotted our next move.IMG_3652

We noticed on the map that we were close to Rodney Strong. We had been given a bottle of Rodney Strong in Germany by a friend who grew up in Santa Rosa. And if you notice the picture from our picnic in Sonoma square, we bought a bottle for ourselves just a few nights prior. So we decided to just take a chance and go out to the property. We were very pleased when we arrived. This was just what we had been looking for. There was a terrace with an outdoor bar and large grassy area. We loaded up some snacks, diapers, toys, and a blanket and plopped ourselves right in the middle of that grassy lawn. The gentlemen at the tasting bar were kind enough to bring our pours out to us on the lawn and we were free to just relax and let our daughter play.IMG_3699 IMG_3708

We stayed until it was closing time about 5:00. Everyone enjoyed themselves. That evening we found a small Nepalese restaurant not far from our hotel. We gorged ourselves on naan, and then retired back to the hotel room to get a good night’s sleep for the drive back home in the morning.

We loved visiting Sonoma! It’s the kind of trip that doesn’t require a well laid out itinerary. Half the fun is coming and going as you please and just relaxing in a beautiful environment. Older kids may need some more entertainment than our young children. I wore our son in the baby carrier pretty much the whole time, and our toddler was content to run around open spaces, look at books, or watch a video on the iPad. We tasted some great wine, enjoyed the scenery, and relaxed with our family. All in all a wonderful way to spend a weekend!

Trip Recap:

Where we stayed-Hotel Petaluma, a historic hotel under construction in downtown Petaluma, the price was right, room was comfortable, but there’s no parking! Be prepared to carry your luggage!

Where we ate-Sonoma Cheese Factory (downtown Sonoma, paninis, coffee, ice cream, snacks, and wine), Lumberjack’s (Petaluma, inexpensive diner), Russian River Brewing Company (in Santa Rosa, award winning beer and decent pizza), Backyard (Forestville, lovely patio and delicious dishes)

Wineries we visited-Larson Family Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Iron Horse Vineyards, Korbel, Rodney Strong Vineyards

Brugge

Our time in Amsterdam matched up with a holiday weekend, so after we left there we drove a few hours southwest to Brugge, Belgium.  We’ve heard many people rave about the town so we were anxious to see it for ourselves.  It’s a town that has preserved a lot of the medieval style of buildings.  It’s very picturesque with the canals and old style charm.  Stealing some of that charm are the hoards of tourists and tourist shops.  You can definitely feel that that’s how Brugge makes their economy run.  However, it may just be the time of year since Europe is approaching the tourism high season.  Either way, we still had fun and enjoyed seeing it.

Bell tower in Markt Square

We took a canal cruise to see the town.  There are canal tours all over, and the tickets are pretty cheap.  The guide spoke 3 languages on our tour and I wouldn’t be surprised if he could speak more.

going under a bridge

door that leads right to the water

 We passed a street market that we later went back to.  Check out the phonogram!  We were tempted to take that one home with us 🙂

lots of swans and ducks

 This beautiful church houses the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy (at least that’s what the guidebooks say).  We saw it, it’s a small statue of Mary holding Jesus.  Couldn’t get too close to it though because there was a service going on.

We stopped at the only brewery in town still making its own beer, the Brugge Zot.  We were too late for the tour but still enjoyed sampling it!

I never knew this before but Belgium is known for their beer making.  Brugge has a beer wall that has each type of beer made in Belgium.

the beer wall, oooh…aaahhh…

We were supposed to have a bike tour out into the countryside, but our guide never showed up!  Major disappointment, because when we drove in, the villages on the outside of town looked so cute!  Overall Hubby liked the town much more than I did.  I thought it was pretty but I felt like the town was a little bit too touristy (maybe that sounds a little snobby).  It’s a great place to walk around and look at your surroundings but there’s not much more going on.  However, we had fun and enjoyed the time to relax and explore together 🙂

Amsterdam Day 5

Last day in town, tear.  Forgot to put this earlier, but this is the view from our hotel room…

pretty nice

We couldn’t leave the city with the most bikes without joining in on the biking fun.  We thought about bringing our own bikes but quickly nixed that idea after reading about the heavy bike theft in the city.  We just bought new, nice bikes so no need to have them stolen again.  There are bike rental places all over, and it’s not very expensive so I would advise you to rent instead of risking your own.  Biking is the main mode of transportation here and there are dedicated bike lanes and drivers who are used to bikers.  Having said that, as a non-local, biking in the city without a guide is still kind of stressful.  Sometimes there’s only a small bike lane on the “wrong” side of the street, or you’re next to cars, have to go through big intersections, dodge pedestrians, and try not to get hit by the mopeds who are sharing your bike lane.  But, we survived.

 We rode around the city for a little while before heading back to the Museumplein.

We locked up our bikes and toured the Van Gogh museum.  Again, didn’t know much about Van Gogh before, but learned a lot about him.  It’s amazing to me that such a famous painter was really only painting  for about 10 years.  We brought a headphone splitter so we could share one audio guide.  The audio guide gave a lot of information but it would’ve taken us all day had we listened to everything on it.  So we picked and chose what to play.  Also, a little tip, you can buy tickets to the museum for the same price at a little tourist information shop down the street so that you don’t have to wait in the long line!

Once we had our art fix for the day, we hopped back on our bikes and cruised over to nearby Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s version of Central Park.  That was the most fun bike riding of the day.  It was a really pretty park, with a lot of people and dogs hanging out in it.  Poor Ellie missed out.  We also stopped for lunch at Cafe Vertigo inside the park.

Before we returned our bikes, we rode around the city following the best and easiest bike paths. We saw so many cool boats on the canals, but this one might have been the best…

 It’s a wooden shoe!

Happy biker 🙂  All in all, LOVED Amsterdam!  Even though it’s a big city, it has a lot of character and charm.  There aren’t really any skyscrapers or huge buildings.  It’s filled with beautiful canal houses and obviously there’s water everywhere.  You may think of some of the more scandalous aspects when you first hear the city’s name, but it is so much more than that.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  Definitely my favorite place we’ve been so far.  There was one tour I wished we had time for.  It was a wetlands safari tour, where you canoe around all day, how fun would that be?!  Maybe next time!

After 3 years in Europe and many more trips, I stand by Amsterdam still being one of my favorite places!  I can’t wait to go back!

Amsterdam Day 4

My husband was back to work in the morning, and so the ladies ventured down to the Musueumplein to go to the Rijksmuseum.  It most notably houses several paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer.  Now I am by no means an art expert, nor could I have told you much of anything about either painter before.  But, that’s what I like about going to these places, it’s easier to start making the connections between names you’ve heard and images that you may have seen.  Being here and experiencing all these different things is helping all the history, timelines, and people fall into place for me.  This museum has mostly fine art, but one piece that I wasn’t expecting was a dress made in the 60’s by Yves Saint Laurent for the Dutch queen (if my memory is right).  Also Louis Vuitton is listed as a benefactor of the museum.  Random but interesting.

After the museum, we did a little retail therapy.  Amsterdam has great shopping, lots of big names, lots of small boutiques, and lots of H&M’s for those of us on a budget 🙂  Our husbands must have known what we were up to, because they got done with work a little early so we left to meet up with them.

The hubby and I then took the tram over to the Anne Frank house.  I had been reading her diary in preparation for the trip and it was really important for me to go there.  Admittedly my husband was not excited to go here, but he was happy he did after the visit.  Reading the diary is not necessary to appreciate the experience but will create more meaning for you.  So Anne Frank in a nutshell-she was born in Germany to a Jewish family.  In 1933 the family fled Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis who were rising to power.  When Anne turned 13 she was given a diary for her birthday and shortly after her family decided to go into hiding at her father’s business because Jewish people were starting to get arrested and sent off to camps.  The family of four hid for two years with another family of three and one other man.  They lived in four small rooms at the back of the building, hidden by a moveable bookcase.  They were eventually betrayed by someone and reported to the Nazis.  They were all arrested and sent to different camps.  Of the eight people in hiding, only Anne’s father survived.

The building where they hid has been turned into a museum.  You can walk through the house and up the secret staircase behind the bookshelf to see where these people spent two years hiding.  It’s kind of hard to really understand what that means at first.  Where they were hiding was above a place of business, so during the day while workers were there, the people in hiding had to sit still as much as possible so no one would hear them moving around.  They all shared one toilet that could not be flushed during the day, because it would make noise.  They had black curtains that had to always be closed so that none of the neighbors could see them inside.  Can you imagine the boredom you would have if you could never go outside?  It’s so hard to think about living like that, but think of how bad the alternative was.  Visiting Anne Frank’s House is a dark but necessary reminder of what many Jewish people went through at that time.

The Anne Frank house is near a great area of town, the Joordan.  After we left the museum we found a little cafe on the water to relax at for a while.

We wandered the neighborhood and little shops.  This neighborhood is nice because it’s away from the center city which is the more gritty, touristy area.  It’s calmer and has more charm.  It was probably my favorite area of town and where I would go back to first on a return visit.

Statue outside someone’s door.
friendly kitty sitting on a scooter
interesting balcony decorations…
bikes, bikes, bikes

Amsterdam Day 3

The next day I met up with my friend and we took the tram over to a street market, and then went to the Dutch Resistance Museum.  It’s a museum that chronicles the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and how the Dutch people responded and pushed back against the harsh regime.   It was really interesting and obviously very disturbing at times.  It gave me a much better understanding of how the Netherlands was affected, and what people had to endure in order to survive.  I would definitely recommend a visit.

After the museum we made our way to the floating flower market.  You can buy any type of bulb or flower seed here, and plenty of beautiful flowers.

After a late lunch, we found out the boys were done working so we went back to meet them.  Later that evening we met up with several of the other people working at the conference to go out for some Thai food.  Not everyday you walk by this on your way to dinner…

Note to self, make sure camera is in the proper mode before handing off to someone else…oops!

 Another great day in the city!