Annual Christmas Holiday Traditions in Austria with Krampus

We first noticed this devil like creature when we were in Vienna.  Next to all the Christmas decorations was this strange little fella with horns, and I thought to myself that I needed to check into what this creature might be.  Maybe it was left over from Halloween, but realized Halloween is not a big holiday here, as of yet, although it is gaining in popularity.  I never had a chance to look into it while we were in Vienna. So when we arrived in Salzburg, and our lovely hosts at the apartment where we were staying, suggested that we go to a festival featuring this creature in a neighboring village the next evening, we jumped at the chance.  Take a look at what we found…

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Krampus! They were quite a spectacle!  I have never seen anything like it.  The tradition goes something like this.  On December 6th, St. Nicholas (who is similar to Santa Claus) and Krampus come for a visit.  Children are left apples, nuts and sweets if they are good and are dragged away by Krampus to his hellish lair if they are not.  So you better be good!

There are many festivals and parades called Krampuslauf, leading up to Krampusnacht, celebrated on December 6th.  They usually begin at night fall and large groups, mostly young men, dress in their incredible costumes and prance down the street, stealing hats and scaring people along the way.  We found ourselves at the Koppler Krampuslauf, on a snowy cold night.  It was a perfect time to enjoy some delicious hot punch and the girls had the kinder punch (non-alcoholic) to keep them warm.  Once the parade started we were close to the action, as it went on we moved back a little, my youngest daughter got a little scared of these beasts.  She knew it was all in fun, but their costumes and actions can be pretty scary! They were amazing! To learn about and be a part of this tradition dating back to the middle ages and earlier, was an incredible treat!

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Vienna

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Austria is amazing! It has certainly left an impression on me. Currently, we are in lovely Salzburg. It is dumping snow outside and so the girls are out running around with their dad, perfect time to blog. Fresh snow falling is definitely something we do not have many chances to see, living in Southern California, so everyone has been squealing with excitement! It is a winter wonderland!

Anyway, back to Vienna. What a beautiful city Vienna is! There is a style and grace to the city that reminded me of Paris. I am so glad we made Vienna a stop on our European tour.

On our first full day in Vienna, we surprised the girls with a performance by the Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzaner stallions. The riding school began over 430 years ago and is very much a cultural tradition in Vienna. The Spanish Riding School’s name comes from the Lipizzaner horses, which originated from the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal. There were several different events showing classical horsemanship culminating with a beautiful “ballet” of 8 white horses. It was fascinating to see these incredibly trained horses jumping and prancing to the music, like nothing I have seen before. The girls were very excited! The beautiful space where the performance was held was completed in 1735 and is part of the Hofburg Palace.

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One of our favorite ways to relax and observe the Viennese culture was to sit in the wonderful cafes and enjoy the incredible coffee and sweets. I have to say these are the original coffee houses and put Starbucks to shame. One sweet you can indulge on is the Sachertorte, who has the best Sachertorte in the city is a big debate. The Sachertorte is a a soft and fluffy chocolate cake with apricot jam. The one we tried was pretty dry but I am willing to try it again, if I must. My daughters have become hot chocolate connoisseurs and my husband is on a quest to try every type of beer that is humanly possible.

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After relaxing in a cafe we enjoyed viewing Gustav Klimt’s work at the Belvedere Palace which was the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. There are actually two Baroque-style palaces separated by a formal garden. Gustav Klimt’s work is in the upper palace with a collection of work by other Austrian painters. I was really taken by Klimt’s work, with his use of mixed media and different artistic styles it was incredible. The whole city of Vienna seems to be taken by his work too as he is a huge part of the culture of the city.

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We also were able to see an opera and a ballet at the gorgeous State Opera House or the Staatsoper. Having heard about the possibility of having standing room seats for 3-4 euros each, from a Rick Steve’s podcast, we decided what a great way to go. Not being an opera fan and wanting to just give a little exposure to our girls, you cannot beat it. We figured we could just stay until intermission and not feel bad for leaving. It is an interesting process getting the standing room seats, so if you can handle that, it is a wonderful deal. Some people line up three hours before the tickets go on sale to be the first in line. You can also arrive when the tickets do go on sale, 80 minutes before showtime. We opted for the latter and with the kids we were lucky enough to get in the front row. There can be a lot of pushing and shoving for position. We even saw people running in to get a good spot, it reminded me of a rock concert, not an opera… The 4 euro standing room area is just behind seats costing up to 150 euros, and are on the ground floor with a great view. The amazing thing was though, that we stayed for the entire performance of both the opera and the ballet. The girls loved it! I think it helped that the opera was L’elisir d’armore (The Elixir of Love) which is not so serious nor tragic. The ballet was interesting also. I think we have a whole new appreciation for the arts. I really love how Vienna makes the arts accessible to everyone in the community, not just those with big bank accounts.

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Traveling in the winter has allowed us to see how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday. One of these very special traditions, are the Christmas Markets, and Vienna has some of the best. They are quite a spectacle. Christmas Markets are called Christkindlmarkt or Adventmarkt and have been a part of the Christmas tradition since the Middle Ages in German speaking countries. They are open air markets filled with seasonal goods and food. We found different markets all over the city. You can find Christmas decorations, ornaments, nutcrackers, gingerbread cookies, and handmade crafts, just to begin with. There are food vendors serving different types of wurst, potato patties and roasted chestnuts. You can also try the hot wine (Gluhwein) hot punch (Punsch), and for the kids a warm punch (Kinder Punsch). Delicious on a cold day!

We truly enjoyed our week in Vienna. It is an incredible city! I will never forget our special time there and can’t wait to go back!

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Princess for a day!

It was suggested that when traveling with kids, a good idea might be to give them full reign for a day (or two or three).  We decided while we were in Paris, this would be a great place to do it.  There is so much to see and why not change up what we normally would have put on the agenda and let the kids be in charge for a change. Good for them to have the responsibility to figure out what interests them about the city, where to find it on a map and to plan out the day.

First up was our youngest daughter and her day went a little like this:

1. Musee Rodin

2. Walk down the Champs Eysees and Avenue Montaigne for some window shopping.  Or as they say in France, “faire du leche-vitrines” which literally translated means window licking, although we only drooled a little…

3. Stopped for a sweet crepe.

4. The Eiffel Tower at dusk!

It was a truly great day!

Next, it was my oldest daughter’s turn to be princess for the day.  She chose another amazing adventure and it went something like this:

1. Jardin du Luxembourg

2. A special French lunch

3. A visit to the English bookstore Shakespeare & Co. (it was just across from Notre Dame so we stopped in there also).

4. The Sorbonne

I cannot wait to see where they pick to go next!

A word about Homeshooling

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When we first decided to embark on our European tour, panic set in about how we were going to educate our daughters. Yes, traveling on its own is an amazing education, but I certainly did not want to mess it up. Their education is incredibly important to us, as is their having a fulfilling and adventure full life, so hopefully we will combine the two. With lots of research and questions asked, we embarked on our homeschooling journey.

I read that it is important to find how your child learns best and then tailor their learning with that in mind. So the very first thing we did was to give them this quick and easy test and have based their lessons from this. My oldest daughter responds well to learning by reading and kinesthetics. My younger daughter is also a kinesthetic learner, as well as auditory. All of their learning types work well with traveling, thankfully. We have lots of time to read, we are on a constant “field trip” and have had the wonderful luxury to have many long conversations that we never really had time for (so sad) in the past with our busy schedules. If you are interested in finding more about the test I gave them, it is called the Vark test.

I have written about homeschooling already on this blog, but it was before we actually tried it. We now have been going for 3 months and seem to be getting into a routine. Our not so typical routine is to sight-see one day and homeschool the next. Sometimes we school for two days in a row, sometimes we are traveling for two days. We may also spend half the day out and about and half the day homeschooling. We homeschool on Saturday or Sunday too, if needed. The girls definitely like staying in their PJ’s or comfy clothes all day, and I like not having to go through that crazy morning routine, rushing to barely get to school on time.

On days where we homeschool our schedule goes something along these lines. After breakfast, we start with some warm up logic puzzles and math word problems. I picked up a few books before we left and one of our teachers gave us a daily math problem booklet. Next, they write in their journals. Usually, there is a lot to write about from their travel adventures. They also have a nature and sketching journal where we have put in leaves and petals that we have found on walks and where they can sketch castles, country flags or anything they want to put in for their memories. We will then do some languages and I have found (through my sister) a podcast called Coffee Break French to be a quick and easy introduction to the beautiful French language. There are many different languages in this series and we will most likely try to learn a little bit for each of the countries we are visiting. To know just your basic hello and thank you is appreciated and really the right thing to do. We just learned some basic Dutch and Flemish greetings. Both girls have really enjoyed learning French and would like to continue with it, when we return back home.

After languages, we usually set into the core curriculum subjects with math, science, social science and language arts. All are done online and with textbooks and workbooks. We are using http://www.time4learning.com as our basic online course and have been supplementing with other online sources such as http://www.khanacademy.com and http://www.brainpop.com. We are reading lots of books and both girls are working on writing a story using a fun online site called http://www.nanowrimo.org. They are having a great writing project for the month of November, check it out. We bought several textbooks and workbooks before we left, as well.

In addition to the core curriculum, we have been doing small reports on each country that we have visited along with art projects relating to artists from each country. This is probably my favorite part! We have studied Monet when we were in France, John Everett Millais and John Constable when we were in England, Johannes Vermeer in the Netherlands and now Jan van Eyck, here in Belgium. You can really experience where each artist was inspired by walking in their footsteps, viewing the landscapes and cities. It really adds to our understanding.

The most challenging part of homeschooling for me has been time, it takes a lot of time to plan lessons. I want to make learning fun for them and we do not have easy access to materials so we have to get creative. It is a good lesson on making do with what we have and it always turns out to be enough. I do get nervous that we are not covering everything as thoroughly as they would be in their public school but it will all work out in the long run, I am sure!

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We have two carry-on sized suitcases that have become our traveling desks. They are filled with text books, workbooks, regular paperback books, journals, files, writing and art materials along with paper. They are heavy but it is working for us so far. We also have our technological devices…Kindles, an iPad and two laptop computers, one of which lost it’s power cord (it started to smoke) so we need to fix that issue… Having all the correct power adapters are important but it really has been as simple as logging into wifi and we are off. Amazing technology!

Overall, I am happy with our homeschooling thus far. I think we are becoming better at it as we go through it. It is still a little odd for the girls to have their parents teach them though, and it is much easier for them to take advantage of us, I readily admit. We have had to lay down some rules and remind them how lucky we are. All in all though, I can honestly say that we are learning so many new things on a daily basis. I feel so inspired and alive. I see all of us growing closer to each other and connecting like never before. With their education, we are so involved that we can really fine tune areas that are needed and explore areas that they are really interested in. It is pretty great! I have never experienced anything like it.

The Tower of London

There is something for everyone at the Tower of London. History, drama, trickery, weapons, torture, death, royalty and lots and lots of diamonds. Since we did not arrive until the afternoon we ran out of time to see the “rack” which my husband was tortured by missing (pun intended, sorry…).


We took the walking tour with a Beefeater, who is also known as, the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary (what a name…I would go with Beefeater too!). He showed us around the incredible grounds of the Tower and then we headed inside to see the Crown Jewels. There are over 11 tons of gold and some of the largest diamonds in the world, absolutely stunning! We viewed Queen Elizabeth II’s crown, which she will wear for the State Opening of Parliament in early November.

On our way out, my husband and daughter met the first female Beefeater and then a gentleman who worked at the Tower and he gave my daughters a special pin from a recent opening of an exhibition at the Tower. The same pins had been given to some of the members of the Royal Family when they attended the opening. We felt very lucky! He then brought us up to a private area in the Middle Tower, which is where his office was located. We were able to climb to the top of the Tower and had an amazing view of Tower Bridge. He told us about meeting some of the Royal Family and his experience as an expert on Admiral Lord Nelson, the infamous royal naval hero. It was quite an exciting afternoon! One we will always remember!

Long Live the Queen!

We have been in England for two weeks now and really love it! Arriving into England, after driving off the train, which took us under the English Channel from France, we found it really nice to see road signs that we understood! Although, there are still several words that got lost in translation… Several times we all looked at each other and said, huh what did he say? We are all speaking English but that doesn’t necessarily mean all things are understood! There are many books out there to help us Americans as we travel through beautiful England.

We are staying in a lovely cottage in the heart of Kent, owned by a wonderful couple. The cottage is a refurbished barn and the main home is approximately 700 years old. It is so green here and coming from Southern California, green is a very nice change. My sister and her really good friend Karen came to visit us. It was so great to see some familiar faces! We spoke with the owners of the cottage about getting a cot for them to sleep on. They asked if we needed a high chair too and we went, uh oh, I think we got off track somewhere. As we found out, a cot in England means a baby crib and no my sister is not a baby sister…so we opted for a blow up mattress instead. We are getting quite use to the language differences now and of course, love the accents. Once, we pulled over to ask for directions, and this sweet girl said she loved our accents, I have to say I have never heard that one before!

We have seen some amazing places. The richness of the history is so striking from Dover Castle, Leeds Castle, the City of Canterbury to the British Museum. The City of London itself is a museum, with its amazing buildings and tradition, and the Royal Family, I am in awe.

It is incredible to experience a country that has had so much history and importance. Dover Castle’s history spans over 2,000 years from the Old Roman Lighthouse to the World War II tunnels it was fascinating to see.

The English love their sports and we enjoyed visiting Wimbledon and watching a football match (soccer…) at Wembley Stadium, such a treat! We heard lots of “outstanding” and “brilliant” as the English football team easily defeated Italy’s San Marino team. We heard a lot of other words too that we’re not “lost in translation” but I am trying to keep this a family friendly blog.

We are here for another 10 days and are planning to see Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and will also be visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour for my oldest daughter’s 11th birthday. What a life I am living, feeling very lucky!

Down on the Bayeux, in Normandy

Okay, maybe not the same bayou but work with me…

Bayeux is a wonderful village in the Normandy region of France.  It is located 7km from the English Channel or La Manche, as the French call it.  Bayeux’s history dates back to the 1st century where is was a Gallo-Roman settlement. The city was largely destroyed during the Viking raids of the 9th century, but was rebuilt again in the 10th century.  Through the next several hundred years the city continued with its destruction and rebuilding as the English and French fought over control of the area.

Bayeux was the first city of the Battle of Normandy, during World War II, to be liberated.  On June 16, 1944,  General Charles de Gualle gave a speech in Bayeux, where he made it clear, that France sided with the allies. The buildings in Bayeux were virtually untouched during the Battle of Normandy, since the German forces were fully involved in defending Caen from the Allies.

Bayeux is popular now as visitors come to see the Bayeux Tapestry (it is actually embroidered cloth) which tells of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror.  It is a site to be seen. The tapestry measures 70m (230ft) long.  You can listen to a recording as you stroll around the tapestry.  They also have recordings specifically for children (and in English).

The cathedral there is also a site to behold and was the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry.  The cathedral is known as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Bayeux and was consecrated on July 14, 1077.

Bayeux is a must stop on any Normandy visit.

Normandy D-Day Beaches

I knew this was going to be an emotional day and tried to prepare myself and the kids as we headed out to the D-Day beaches. We chose to visit the beaches where the Americans had landed during the D-Day invasions, but you can also visit the beaches where the English and Canadians landed, as well.   Traveling in Europe, in itself, it such a good history lesson, but this part of Normandy has such a specific connection to all Americans that it is truly moving.  Spending time in this historic area gave me such an appreciation for the country that I am so proud to come from.  We watched The Longest Day before touring the area just to have a little more background.  There are many good books about this part of our history, and if you are planning on visiting the Normandy beaches, it is a good idea read a few (I didn’t but you should, so there).

One can spend days touring the area by visiting the museums, different allied beaches and the villages that were involved during the invasion.  We decided to keep it on the light side, but at some point it would be interesting to dig in a little deeper.  We all know that our world history can be rather gruesome, and there is certainly enough time for our 8 and 10 year old daughters to learn about all the troubles in the world.

It had been raining on our drive out to the area, but as soon as we parked at Omaha Beach, the sun showed up.  The beach is serenely beautiful.  It is hard to imagine the horrors and triumphs that took place on June 6, 1944.  It is certainly hallowed grounds.  There is a beautiful monument honoring all those who landed on the Normandy beaches that day.  There were over 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft used during the invasion.

We were able to climb up the bluffs and found German bunkers, very surreal!

Afterwards, we visited the American Cemetery.  There is a very nice museum with great information, but for those with young children, it is a little heavy.  As you leave the museum and head to the cemetery you hear, through the speakers, the names of all who perished being read and I couldn’t help thinking of 9/11.  Holding back tears, I tried to keep it together so my girls would be okay, but it was too much.  The cemetery is absolutely beautiful, an incredible tribute to our fallen soldiers.  You can walk on pathways that are on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and there is a walk down to the beach, as well.  When we finally reached the graves of the almost 10,000 soldiers, it began to rain again, truly appropriate for the moment. The rain forced us to run for cover and head back to the car.  Both of my girls had had enough by then, it was a little rough…

One amazing thing about having kids though, is that it brings you back to the present moment, no dwelling on the past for too long.  Time to continue on our journey!

Claude Monet’s House and Garden

Need some inspiration?  When Claude Monet first started painting, his work was not accepted by all.  He used too many colors and did not paint in the realistic fashion of the times.  It wasn’t until later in his career that he earned recognition for being the “father of Impressionistic painting.”

It was fascinating visiting his home and gardens.  Every room in his home is painted a different color and his gardens’ beds are filled with beautiful flowers, divided by either cool colors or warm colors.  The water-lily pond is magical.

Color filled his world and his painting.  To have walked where this amazing man painted and lived with his family, is just incredible and I am so excited that my daughters have had a chance to be inspired by traveling to this enchanting place.

We brought sketchbooks and pencils and studied the landscapes as Mr. Monet may have a hundred years ago.  Closely examining the dahlias, mums, clematis and sunflowers as we strolled.  We read “Linnea in Monet’s Garden” before visiting Giverny, which helped us have a wonderful introduction to Monet’s world.

I am feeling very lucky and this is just the beginning of our trip…