A Frugal Short-Trip to Verona, Italy

The main plazza of Verona. Good place to eat your ice cream!

The main plazza of Verona. Good place to eat your ice cream!

Right after returning from the little old boys city tour to Eastern Bavaria, the Woodpecker family decided to boost the best spring Germany has seen since years a bit more by a jump over the Alps.

Woodpeckers over-hours piled up quite a bit over the winter time, and as my career is not really proceeding too much anyway, I can take easily take advantage of short-term holiday request.

I don’t know how it works in other companies, but with my boss it is: “You sacrifice you life for the company (like he does) and then you get ahead career-wise, or – if you are fine not getting ahead quickly – you can do your job on your own way as long as output is fine”.

As you might have noticed, I de facto decided for the second. I would obviously love all the freedom PLUS a career, simply to max out Woodpecker family income and savings, but this seems to be asked a bit too much.

Anyway, off we went, and as the beautiful city of Merano was covered already last year (one month later and with MUCH worse weather), we only had to choose among Verona, Padua, Milano, Vicenza, Venice, Bassano and about 1.000 other beautiful Italian destinations all less than 6 hours drive from Munich.

Obviously we went for the most frugal choice (least driving time) and picked Verona, the partner-city of beloved Munich, a mere 4 1/2 hours drive south of home.

At this time of the year this otherwise quite crowded city has a unique and very relaxed flair, you will always find a seat even in the most beautiful spots, prices are low and the beauty of the city all the same.

The frugal choice is of course the local youth hostel, where a family of four can stay for a bargain of 40 EUR per night, including something that these guys call breakfast.
Actually the place was ok, situated in a fantastic old but somehow spooky worn-down villa with private parking in the yard for free (not unimportant in this crowded Italian cities). On the other side, this one really is VERY basic, so you better go there only for sleeping, or spend a couple of bucks more for an AirBnB apartment.

The good thing about the cheap accommodation is that your budget automatically stays so low (sleeping and transport are typically the most expensive parts of travelling) that you can easily go for some nice extras.

Overall, a frugal way to travel Italian cities is:

  • Stay in the youth hostel. But only sleep there, as their quality is way below e.g. German youth hostels. However, they are often central, often have free parking and you will meet loads of funny people.
  • Use public transport which is very cheap and well-developed
  • Always eat PIZZA ! Pizza ist mostly of very high quality and very reasonable price, even in the most touristic spots. That’s great, because sometimes you should indeed sit in a restaurant in one of this marvelous plazzas and enjoy a meal there. A pizza in the most touristic Roman Arena area in Verona is still only 8 EUR. Add a glass of house wine and you can hang out in one of the worlds nicest places for 12 EUR (2 EUR cover charge, a “special” Italian add-on.
  • Other food is often overpriced and varies too much in quality (and quantity). Not recommended, unless you have local insider information.
  • Another great thing is Italian coffee. In most cafes or even restaurants, it is ok to sit down and only have a “cafe” (i.e. a tiny tiny Italian Espresso). They almost always taste great and seldom cost more than 1 EUR. So you can have your food in the local park as well and then enjoy a cafe in a beautiful plaza if you wish.
  • If the place you stay is too crappy, eating out for breakfast is a good choice. Even in places crowded by tourist during the day, in the morning it is often surprisingly relaxed. And even in tourist traps you will typically get a cappuchino plus two lovely Italian croissants at prices below 5 EUR. Good value this is.
  • Ice creme is mostly great if it is hand-made (“artigianale“). This is often the case, in Italy it is fortunately hard to find overpriced and boring tasting ice cream from a chain shop. No chance for Häagen-Dazs.
  • Most of the beauty of Italy lies in the little alleys, the plazas, the flair, the countryside (always use small side-streets not the highway to see the nice parts), the churches. All of this is for free!

Find below some impressions from the trip. Hover for subtitels, click to enlarge.

Cheers,

Woodpecker

The fun of travelling Germany

Life ist great - but this guy even seems to enjoy death!

Life ist great – but this guy even seems to enjoy death!

Beginning of March – the annual boys Ski-Hiking tour to the mountains was due again.

However, as this year winter was skipped in Germany, snow is a very rare thing to find, and actually spring is all here already, we decided to cancel the stay at the hut and go for a small city trip instead.

Looking at the map for interesting cities within 2 hours drive that we didn’t know yet, we came across Passau, the “Three-River-City” at the very eastern edge of Bavaria. And off we went!

As most time with the old boys, it was a fantastic trip. Plus weather was very much on our side, as was frugality:

It is a definitive tip to go for an anticyclical city tour in Feb/March.

Typically crowded places are all empty, prices are low and people are relaxed and friendly.

So we started at Munich very relaxed in the late morning and when hunger and need for a good local beer came up (after merely one hours drive), we did our usual approach:

As we always travel without a guidebook, we just looked at the brown signs next to the autobahn that indicate natural or historical sights in the area. These are VERY frequent in Germany, in fact you find a sight each 10 km or so and we decided to pull out at a abbey (typically good beer and good food!) called “Kloster Niederaltaich” (never heard the name before).

And this is really the big fun when travelling Germany: Wherever you pull out from the Autobahn, you WILL find something interesting close by.

This time we found a church full of this homey guys lined up eight of them next to the walls:

Isn’t this great? These guys always enjoy a deluxe VIP box right in the impressive church hall.

After celebrating life with a good meal and some local brewn dark beer, we proceeded to Passau.

In off-season this is a particularly budget place, you can get a decent hotel room in a historical building right in the center for 40 EUR per night and person or less.

We went to the local youth hostel which is around 30 EUR per night and person, and then you live here:

The youth hoste is in the old castle overlooking the city.

The youth hostel is in the old castle overlooking the city.

Another view of the castle.

Another view of the castle.

Morning dust rising. Boy, the air was good there and it is amazingly quiet.

Morning mist rising. Boy, the air was good there and it is amazingly quiet.

Passau itself is a very lovely city, situated at the junction of the major rivers Donau (Danube) and Inn plus a smaller river called … I forgot.

I was bit lazy taking pictures, so the only photos I can provide is a view from our castle in the morning and the interior of the cathedral:

Passau in the morning mist.

Passau in the morning mist.

The cathedral. You cannot see it, but it also hosts the indoor largest organ in Europe (or the world?).

The cathedral. You cannot see it, but it also hosts the largest indoor organ in Europe (or the whole world?).

You will find a lot more photos in the internet. The city has a lovely old part, a magnificent cathedral, nice winded alleys, good and cheap food and a fully relaxed atmosphere.

Our trip continued with a day excursion to the National Park Bayrischer Wald. Nice, but not really my cup of tea. Maybe I’ll try again in 20 years as it seems to attract a more “senior” type of people. 😉

On our way back we also stopped in Altötting, a place of pilgrimage in Bavaria, with an amazingly catholic atmosphere. There definitly must be more churches than houses and more priests than bakers.

See pictures here (click for large version and caption):

All in all a great short trip at low expenses.

Recommended and a great start to the 2014 travelling season!

Cheers,

Woodpecker

Ljubljana (plus Postojna) – a real gem in South Central Europe

The Slovenian National Flag at the castle.

The Slovenian National Flag on top of the Ljubljana castle.

Travel time again!

This time, the Woodpecker clan headed out to the South East of Europe, a region a bit less well-known to us so far – and yet so beautiful.

Final destination was some beach time in Croatia (see some of the next posts on how nature did not agree to our plans on that).

But as a first stop we checked in to the capital of Slovenia:

Ljubljana, a real gem far beyond Woodpecker’s expectations!

Actually, the city is a great spot to relax, simply walk around and soak up the somehow rural and laid back feeling of this small but beautiful and diversified country.

In fact, I have never seen a capital anywhere on the world so laid back and with that kind of “village” flair like Ljubljana, and belief me, I have seen quite a lot of capitals so far. (only thing I saw as calm as Ljubljana was maybe Canberra in Australia, but this was more calm in a boring way to me, whereas Ljubljana comes in calm in a “enjoy a relaxed life” way).

Ljubljana sits in a beautiful surrounding at some small rivers between high peeks of the Alps on the horizon, it has about 250.000 inhabitants, and even the most lazy of you can reach everything by foot. Plus a funicular railway up to the castle hill if you are really that lame or have kids who enjoy riding vehicles as much at junior Woodpecker.

The most beautiful area is however the promenades and places around the river Ljubljanica with plenty of cafes and chill out places in the shade.

A great place for around three days. Not much more perhaps, but these three days you will enjoy utterly!

See yourself (hover for captions, click to enlarge):

Next stop took us to the absolute amazing

Caves of Postojna.

Simply amazing!
And benchmark setting for Woodpecker in terms of caves.

The caves are so huge that you would be able to put a dwarf city like the “Mines of Moria” there. A real Lord of the Rings setting, that is.

Actually, they even have a bridge like the “Durins bridge” in Moria that is crossed by the fellowship in “Lord of the Rings” (see pic below).

And the cave is so huge that you enter it by a roller coaster like train. It is running at high-speed through the first 3 km of the cave system. And it is VERY narrow. Stick out your head and you’d be beheaded for sure. Creepy!

See yourself (hover for captives, click to enlarge):

Next stop on this trip was close to Zadar, Croatia.

Cheers,

Woodpecker

Vienna – a top Downshifter’s venue!

The town hall with Austrias National Colors

The town hall with Austrias National Colors

After the more general post on the fun of a father & son trip, I want to follow-up with some thought (and pics!) about the fantastic city of Vienna, that I also had the pleasure to live in for some time as a student.

In my eyes one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and quite first place worldwide when it comes to quality of life (of all cities Woodpecker has seen at last, but as exploring cities is one of my hobbies since 20 years, I know a few). Even on top of Munich that is! Well, slightly on top at least… 😉

So, what makes Vienna so special?

Well, if you are into bustling, booming and glittering cities, devoted to commerce, consumerism, growth and cheap superficiality, then Vienna would be nothing for you.

In that case, you should go to Dubai, Hong-Kong, Singapore and what not. All glittering steel and glass. Looking impressive for today. And maybe for tomorrow. But in their core, these pure “business” or “money” cities seem unattractive and boring (at least to me), and I dare not imagine how they will look like in let’s say 100 years.
Nobody seriously would think that this glittering towers will be sexy a 100 years from now, would you? So basically, all this “modern” boom cities are reflecting todays consumerist attitude: Looks nice, brings fun on the short-term and then to be littered and exchanged for the next one.

Then look at Vienna in contrast:

A city like an open air museum, built for centuries. Displaying self-confidence, power (albeit most of that is obviously gone), massive solidity, a sense for beauty instead of pure efficiency, and a generosity and openness in city layout sprinkling with large green avenues and tons of beautiful parks that would make every Asian Boomtown inhabitant feel like living in Garden Eden.

Impressive and stylish historical buildings are actually so plentiful, that back in the time Woodpecker studied in Vienna for some time, ordinary student parties took place in palaces that would be reserved for state receptions in Munich or Berlin. That is with red carpets on the floors (mostly coated with plastic covers though), huge historic pictures in golden frames at the walls, marble stairways and crystal candle holders on the ceiling. And in-between the student music of that time, bottled beer and teen spirit. Fantastic!

And all of that combined with a relaxed, friendly and slow-moving atmosphere.
In fact, back then locals were quite proud of a study comparing the average walking speed in different European cities. First (most hectic) was London, last (most slow) was – of course! – Vienna. And people were proud for it! Compare to Germany, were a result like that would have caused another outcry: “Oh My God! We are not first! What went wrong?! We have to improve immediately or will all go under!”

The whole city of Vienna actually is un-hectic. I think one reason is that Vienna in fact has fewer inhabitants today than in its greatest time, around 1910. Thus the city is laid out for more people than there are today, whereas most cities in the world were laid out for much fewer people a hundred years ago and are now totally overcrowded.

Plus the city enjoys a beautiful surrounding, with its borders giving way to rolling hills with vineyards, with lovely winegardens on the foot of them and splendid walkways on top.

And then the Vienna mentality. Not unmodern, but not this rootless kind of hectic and homeless modernity, that other cities and their inhabitants display. Not that capitalistic and career driven either, maybe a bit more turned to the good old past. But in a quite sympathetic and un-pretentious way.
At least it seems to me that way, perhaps a local would want to comment?!

All in all very laid back, a downshifter’s dream city and a must see for everyone around in Europe.

Let’s have a look at some pictures (hover for Subtitle, click to enlarge):

And now a Special on a new discovery I made this time. As said, Woodpecker spent quite some time in that lovely city, but I have never been to the Natural History Museum before!

A lovely place that instantly makes you feel being warped back 100 years.
Please, dear Museum Directors, never let them talk you into getting more modern or adapting to todays taste!!!
(hover for Subtitle, click to enlarge)

OK, that’s it for the moment.
I could add tons more of pictures and of enthusiasm, but best go out and see yourself!

Cheers,

Woodpecker

The joy of a Father&Son trip: Vienna

The Vienna Giant Wheel - teaser for big little Woodpecker

The Vienna Giant Wheel – teaser for big little Woodpecker

Since a long time I am thinking to write a post about children and happiness. But never found the right angle to do so until now.

Because if you simply look at the statistics, they will tell you that after an initial boost, happiness and having kids is not really correlated.

Thats good news out there for people without kids: You can still be and stay happy!

But why is it then, that for Woodpecker myself having kids was an enormous life changer, and all to the better despite all that diapers, costs, sleepless nights, etc.?

I’ll put up the following theory (happy for any comments):

If you get kids and then want to continue an un-downshifted life devoted to work like you had it before without kids (as many people seem to do), then your happiness probably will stay flat.
Reason is that any happiness gains from having the kids (coming via the affection, your hormones, the new angle you’ll see the world from, a boost in optimism about the future, the sheer fun you can have with them etc.) will be counter-balanced by negative effects like having much less free cash-flow to consume plus having much less free time for other activities, if both partners are stupid enough to continue working full-time.
That’s a sad situation, but one that I can frequently observe among friends and colleagues. Many people do not really set the stage for enjoying the gift of kids to its full extend.

In contrast let’s look at a situation where you already are committed to downshifting, i.e. money and consumption does not play that much a role for your life satisfaction. And you work as little as possible and have no TV thus time is an ample resource to you (maybe that ample that you actually are one of the few happy people today that still know the feeling of boredom 😉 ).
Then kids will bring a wonderful boost of happiness to your life, so please:

Go ahead when thinking about having kids! Don’t wait for the “perfect point in time”, just do it now, before it is too late!

Hurray to father and son

Last week Woodpecker had some days off plus one of Germany’s luckily numerous public holidays (The day of work 😉 Hurray!)
Unfortunately, Mrs Woodpecker was not able to take this days off, so Woodpecker and Big Little Woodpecker (the three-year old boy) decided to do a mens-trip to my favorite city in the world, Vienna.

Vienna is the city I myself had my first father and son trip to ages ago, when we quite frugally cycled down the Danube from Passau to Vienna (yes, Woodpecker’s father was a good example in downshifting and having time for his kids as well!).

Vienna is the city that Woodpecker went to on his first holiday without parents and a friend only, when he was 16.

And it was the city Woodpecker had a simply wonderful time spending a year abroad during studies.

Now it would be the first city for big little Woodpecker to visit with his father alone (Ha! Dear old dad, outperformed you on that one 😉 ).

I’ll write about the uncountable beauties of Vienna in this separate photo-post, but here I’ll focus on promoting trips with your boy/girl as early as you can.

Fun and Fun costs

Well, it was a men’s trip, so we did take our comforts (by Woodpecker’s standards at least).

We spent the tremendous and unfrugal amount of I think 50 EUR at Viennas fun park, the Prater, riding the ancient giant wheel, a mini train, a horse (well, actually the little one did, and talked about it for days), auto-scooter, carousels etc.  while we were enjoying tons of totally unacceptable and unhealthy food besides. As some of you might know, it is not easy for a downshifter to spend money so recklessly (for most of the population it would have been a perfectly normal costly visit to a fun park though).

But wise Mrs. Woodpecker instructed me please not to look at money on this trip to make it something special. So we didn’t.  🙂

Next we had lots of more unhealthy food by enjoying at every occasion (and there are plenty!) the most of Vienna’s fantastic sweet bakery and confectionary products. We visited some Museums, see next post. Despite being three years old only, big little Woodpecker has more stamina in Museums than old Woodpecker, and he loves them.

The Vienna Tramway. Turned out to be THE highlight for the boy.

The Vienna Tramway. Turned out to be THE highlight for the boy.

And – very important – we made very ample use of our four day public transport ticket (only 16 EUR), riding the beautifully old-fashioned Vienna tram-ways up and down all of the city for sheer fun.
And, boy, that was fun!
Big little Woodpecker in the end was even more pleased by that simple and cheap pleasure than by riding the horses and the giant wheel at the Prater! At least 5 times a day he saw a tram somewhere and said: “And now, we have to ride that one, dad!” And so we did!

Two additional observations:

Feeling the time

As described here, Woodpecker’s sole new year’s resolution for 2013 was to experiment with time and e.g. living without a clock for a prolonged time.
We did exactly that the whole four days, except when we had to reach the trains to and from Munich.

We did not purposely look at the watch at all.

We simply slept until we woke up, got to breakfast (luckily the body clock is clever enough to wake you in time for that), start the day.
Looked for food when we felt like.
Did a break when the mood was for it.
Went back when any of us started to feel tired and slept when our bodies told us now it is time to stop to daff around in the chamber and to close the eyes. One day bed-time must have been after 11 p.m, after we had to make a final tram drive plus an ice cream in the dark. This is way later than the boys usual time, but then the next day he decided to do an additional nap around midday – a good opportunity for Woodpecker to have a coffee and read the newspaper.

What a fantastic experience! Simply drift through the sunny days and see where they are taking you!

Highly recommended with or without kids.

The plus with kids is, that this is actually their natural state of living, and I firmly belief you will see how relaxed even the most stressed and nervous kid would become, once you take the pressure of the clock from them. A very rewarding experience.

Getting into Contact

On top, doing it the slow way does get you into contact with all kinds of people, mainly locals. This is actually boosted if you are travelling as a father with a young kid, as fathers with young kids unfortunately still is a seldom thing in todays crazy world of work.

All the disadvantages that you still will encounter at your workplace if you seriously take out time for your family as a father are paid back by friendliness of people towards you if you move around with your small kid in public.

Example? Two times (!) tram-drivers got up from their steering wheel and helped me carry out the buggy without me asking them to do so.
Ten or twenty times I was approached by total strangers for a chat.
At least five times or so I got into contact with other parents as my and other kids teamed up for playing in one of the wonderful city parks.
At least five times the boy benefited from some sweets some people insisted on sharing with him.
All of the three breakfasts and one train ride we spent in nice conversations with other travellers.

Thus: Kids boost your social contact. Especially when travelling with one parent only.

Base Costs

As said, costs on fun, entrances and food were ridiculously high by Woodpecker’s standards.

But, guess what? Thats all no problem, as our “base costs” were really low, making the overall trip frugal again, despite a very loose brake on daily spending.

Of course we took the train to Vienna, relaxed, much more fun and contact, and cheaper than the car. With the regular special “Europe” offer, it was 90 EUR in total, kids being free.

Being there we stayed in a Youth Hostel for only 20(!) EUR per night, including breakfast. Kids again free. Absolute central location (send me a mail for details), two-bed rooms with own shower. Well, very basic but quiet and clean, what more do you need?

Thus a quick overview on total cost:

Woodpecker’s trip Average family trip Extreme frugal option
Transport for 2 Train, 90 EUR Car, 700km+parking, 150 EUR Car-Sharing, 50 EUR
Accommodation 3nights Youth Hostel,60 EUR 3nights Normal Hotel, 300 EUR As Woodpecker, 60 EUR
Necessary Food Eating out, plus some take away and picnics,70 EUR Eating out only,160 EUR Only picnics, 50 EUR
Fun Food Ice cream, pastry (a must!), frequent coffees (a must too in Vienna),50 EUR 50 EUR 0 EUR
Entrance Fee Museums, Fun Park,50 EUR 50 EUR Museums 20 EUR
Total, 2 persons, 4 days 320 EUR 710 EUR 180 EUR

Not too bad, isn’t it? 320 EUR for four days fun for two. Still fine with me, given we were so relaxed on costs. And still much closer to the extreme frugal option than to the average family trip.

The secret is that accommodation, transport and Eating out make most of the difference. Keep those in check and the luxury of daily spending will be ok.

Summary

All in all one of the best trips I had in my life, and of a total different nature than anything before.

A trip alone with your kid will force you to concentrate fully on him/her. If you do that and are willing to forget the clock, this will be a very relaxing experience.

It will make you see the world from a different angle.

It will be full of social contact.

It can still be frugal while having a lot of fun.

Go ahead and do it! (Or get a kid first 😉 )

Cheers,

Woodpecker

A short trip to Merano, Italy

Castle Tirol near Meran. Great hike, good food and fun for the kids.

Castle Tirol near Meran. Great hike, good food and fun for the kids.

Four days off, the weather in Munich disgusting, and Woodpecker families holiday budget 2013 yet untouched?

Three reasons to pack the bags and head out for a quick surprise trip to Northern Italy – Merano it is.

A really beautiful small town surrounded by impressive mountains but deep down in a valley at only 300m height. Making for on of the most spectacular climates in Central Europe. Palm trees and cactuses wherever you look, but surrounded and shielded against the clouds by snow-covered peaks of 2500+ meters.

Shielded against all clouds?

Well, unfortunately not. Though promising more than 300 days of lush sunshine per year, we saw only one of those, plus two days of grey and one day of downright terrible weather. However, temperature was well around 12 degrees C. These days you have to be thankful even for this, with wide parts of Europe still in the icy grip of winter and fresh snow in Munich right now as I gaze out of the window.

White mountain peaks in the mist over the roofs of Meran.

White mountain peaks in the mist over the roofs of Meran.

Anyway, Merano is highly recommended, especially for those living e.g. in southern Germany. Only 3,5 hrs drive from Munich, a beautiful and relaxed city, good food, and fantastic surroundings. With loads of old castles, perfect hiking, walking and mountain-biking paths, wine plantations, great gardens, cable cars, clear streams and rough mountain tops, you name it!

We did one walking tour to some nearby old castles with little Woodpecker on his little bike and very little Woodpecker carried. The rainy day we spent in the local thermal bath – a great spot to idle away bad weather.

And costs were low, mainly due to the local youth hostel – a great accommodation for only 44 EUR per night, all four of us. Private bath, clean, calm, central and good breakfast. This is how it should be always!

All in all, the plan is to dramatically increase this kind of low effort, low-cost short trips in 2013 – given Woodpecker families preferences of curiosity and sense of adventure, they simply add a lot of life quality an easy way and on low-budget.

Move away from the sofa, head out and explore your surroundings as well!

Cheers,

Woodpecker

London – A Fascinating but Unhappy City?

London - View of Tower Bridge.

London – View of Tower Bridge.

Just returned from a decent business trip to London.

I am there more or less frequently, and it is an amazing and fascinating city.

However, this time it struck me that, although being in one of the most famous cities of the world, people on the streets look above average unhappy.

Everybody seems to be in an extreme rush, many people show unhappy or outright sad faces (although weather was ok) and very few people seem to laugh on the street (or on their cell-phones) or have a chat with a stranger. Even more so than in other big cities I know of.

How is that?

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