A tale of two glaciers – Hiking to Folgefonna and Miage with kids

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but hiking to a glacier with four young kids is not a particularly straightforward thing to do. We know: we had tried before… and failed.

Norway, August 2017. It was an unusually clear and fine day during a spell of relentless cold and rain, and touching the Folgefonna Glacier was our objective. Turning off the main road near Odda, we drove Daisy the bus as far as we could, then set off on foot towards the gleaming ice field looming above us.

Folgefonna glacier – It looks so close!

Our mission started off promisingly enough, with a wide, clear path meandering through a pleasant mountain forest. A roaring glacial stream to our left was a constant reminder of the power and beauty of our environment, and the balancing rocks lining the route stood testament to the implacable human desire to tame this wild, wild nature.

The glacier, however, did not wish to give up its secrets so easily; as we got closer our route became steeper, rockier, less obvious and, in places, downright dangerous. Guidance ropes began to appear in trickier sections, delighting our eldest son but stretching our four- and six year olds to their physical limits. Finally, on a wildly swinging rope bridge over a gushing ravine, I made the reluctant but correct decision to abandon the expedition. Glancing upwards, the brooding bulk of Folgefonna seemed closer than ever, yet tantalisingly out of reach for our young family.

One last look back at the glacier that escaped us…

Fast forward two years and almost 2,000km further south, and we’re trying to touch a glacier once again.

Miage Glacier is a monster of ice and debris in the Italian Alps, flowing down the south-west slopes of Mont Blanc itself. But consider this – since Italy is so much further south than Norway, we are at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to glacier hunting. In short, we need to climb higher. Much higher. Whilst Folgefonna sprawls over a plateau between 500 and 1,660 metres above sea level, Miage only starts (technically, ends) at around 1,750 metres, and that particular section of the glacier is practically inaccessible. So if we wanted to fulfil our glacier dreams in Italy, we’d need to break 2,000 metres to stand any chance.

Luckily, the path up to Miage is considerably more family-friendly than its Norwegian counterpart (although nowhere near as much fun): after a brief steep section on forest trails, we emerged onto an asphalt path stretching forever upwards at a constant gradient. As in Norway, a mountain stream frothed and churned its way down the hillside to our left, bordered by the brilliant purple of late-summer fireweed. It was a bit of a slog; a beautiful slog, but a slog nonetheless.

The route up to Miage lake and glacier

Our efforts began to be rewarded at around 1,900 metres altitude, where the Val Veny valley opened up to reveal an unexpected wetland paradise, where the brilliant turquoise blue of glacial streams reluctantly mingled with milky green mountain water. Above us, snow-capped peaks soared in every direction (though the summit of Mont Blanc itself remained stubbornly under cloud) and weary hikers soaked up sun and beer outside a busy “refuge”. For the first time, we could fully appreciate the grandiosity of our surroundings, we could turn to each other and sincerely say “it was worth it”.

Val Veny, Italy.

But, of course, we still hadn’t reached our glacier. We steeled ourselves for one final push over a steep ridge and – there it was! – almost within touching distance. And everyone’s first thought was…

Is that it?????

Miage Glacier. It’s not going to win any glacial beauty contests.

You see, I did mention earlier that Miage is “a monster of ice and debris“, and the debris part is certainly what you notice first. Whilst Folgefonna shined with dazzling Arctic brilliance, Miage looked more like a hastily abandoned quarry. It’s not going to win any glacial beauty contests, but we had got there.

Right next to the glacier – indeed, forming part of its southern boundary – lies the curious Lake Miage. Fed directly by the glacier, it tends to grow and shrink in a manner which scientists haven’t quite figured out yet. During our visit, it was certainly going through one of its shrunken phases but, nonetheless, that colour!!!

Lake Miage (Lago di Miage), or what was left of it…

We stood strangely transfixed between the lake and the glacier, the brilliant turquoise jewel worn by the scruffy grey monster. The scene looks static and timeless, but stand still and you’ll soon notice that stones are falling – seemingly unassisted – down the scree slopes of the glacier to plop into its murky grey meltwater. Miage is moving, Miage is alive; we had done it – we had finally hiked to a glacier and exorcised the ghost of Folgefonna.

Camping tips

Coincidentally, our visits to central Norway and the high Italian Alps were both illuminated by stays at excellent campsites. We’ve written about Hallingdal Camping, Norway in this separate article. If you are planning a camping trip to the Alps, we heartily recommend Camping Val di Rhemes, snuggled high up in the valley of the same name (a quiet sideshoot of the Aosta Valley). Excellent facilities, very helpful owners and big, close-to-nature camping spots: just take a look at where we pitched our tent! (NOT an advert)

Outwell Bear Lake 6É tent at Camping Val di Rhemes, Italy. A good combination!

Practical info (applies in summer only)

To get to Folgefonna Glacier from Odda, take the road towards “Jordal”, skirting the north-west corner of the Sandvavatnet lake, then up the valley leading to the glacier (you’ll see it). Continue to the car park (payment required), then continue on foot. Mountain footwear / clothes required. No food or drink possibilities.

Miage Glacier is more accessible. From Courmayeur, follow the signs for Val Veny / La Visaille. Plenty of parking on the right hand side of the road, but you’ll be further back in busy periods. Once on foot, follow signs for the “Combal” refuge and “Lago de Miage”. Good footwear and sensible clothing required. Possibility to eat / drink at Refuge Combal. Return the same way for a +/- 8km tour (depending on where you parked).

Daisy the bus visited Norway in August 2017 and Italy in August 2019.

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Luisenpark – The most beautiful city park you’ve never heard of

Contents / quick links

Background

Our visit

Practical information


Background

What’s the number one requirement for a successful city break with kids? Museums? Attractions? Kid-friendly places to eat? Sure, these are all important factors, but we have found that children need space – green space, preferably – to let off steam and relax in between museum visits and sightseeing.

Mannheim, a buzzing metropolis in south-west Germany, surely must rank highly among major cities with the most green space. Its riverside walks, urban forests, huge parks and green squares are scattered liberally across the sprawling Rhine-Neckar region.

But the jewel in Mannheim’s sparkling crown simply must be the gorgeous Luisenpark.

Before we go any further, let’s just clarify something: unlike most city parks, entrance to the Luisenpark is not free of charge. Whereas locals can buy a very reasonably-priced jahreskarte (annual pass), visitors will pay €8 for adults (€4 for kids) to get in, and – trust us – this is money very well spent.

Entrance fee aside, the Luisenpark is otherwise a perfectly “normal” municipal park: across its 41 hectares (101 acres, around twice the size of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris) you’ll find beautiful flower gardens, wide-open expenses of lush grass, multiple playgrounds, several cafés, hundreds of places to sit and relax and, er, penguins (but we’ll come back to that later).

The verdant landscape of the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Nestling to the north-east of Mannheim city centre, the Luisenpark was originally laid out in the late 19th century, but its present appearance is largely thanks to a complete remodelling carried out in the early 1970s. Nowadays over 1.2 million visitors come each year to relax among the 140 species of trees and hundreds of thousands of flowers. Nevertheless, it is practically undiscovered by foreign tourists, perhaps unsurprising given that its (otherwise excellent) website is in German-only, as are all signs and explanations within the park itself. But don’t let that put you off!

Our visit to the Luisenpark

Short video of the Luisenpark. Featuring tree climbing, the Kings Indian Defence and seven eggs.

Given its size and entrance fee, the Luisenpark isn’t just a respite from the hustle and bustle of Mannheim – it is an attraction in itself. It is practically impossible to see everything in the Luisenpark in a single visit, and we sensibly didn’t try. Instead, we let our kids set the pace, wandering around the park enjoying whatever took their fancy. We were somewhat surprised to find that this didn’t involve too many playgrounds; instead they preferred to make the most of the flora and fauna, seeking out the animals, climbing the trees and playing amongst the spectacular springtime bloom.

Wildflower bloom at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

One thing that struck me was that there is an enormous sense of getting close to nature within the park. Yes, there are animals are in caged enclosures, but others are free to roam, fly or swim around this enormous green space at will. Wild storks have built nests here, enormous pelicans patrol the banks of the lake (whilst huge fish and cute turtles swim within it), wild parakeets squawk noisily from treetops and herons stand motionless with one eye on their next meal.

Big birds. A very close encounter with pelicans at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Seeing penguins in captivity arouses mixed feelings in many, including me. But there is no doubt that these well looked-after little cuties were a particular highlight for my kids. As he watched the penguins devour a bucket of fresh fish, my six-year old austerely declared that he wants to work with animals when he grows up. Whatever your thoughts on zoos, this is surely exactly the sort of reaction that places like this are supposed to incite, the sort of thing that creates the future protectors of our planet.

One intriguing feature of the park is the enormous Chinese Tea House and Gardens. Built in 2001, this is apparently the largest “original” tea house of its kind in Europe. We are rather confused as to what “original” means in this context, but it is nevertheless a very impressive and beautiful structure.

“Do you think it has spotted me yet?” Mia gets close to nature at the Chinese Gardens in the Luisenpark.

Unfortunately the Teahouse itself was closed on the day of our visit, but we still spent quite some time exploring the surrounding gardens, mostly trying to get as close as possible to a rather non-plussed heron. Like I said, close to nature.

Other highlights within the park include a butterfly house (that we somehow missed), a pedagogical farm, sound sculptures, giant chess boards, gondolas plying a leisurely circuit of the Kutzerweiher lake, a 1,000-seat arena for outdoor concerts, and numerous ruhebereichen – quiet areas where visitors are encouraged to disengage from the din of the city and tune in to nature instead.

A haven of tranquility at the Luisenpark

It was probably these quiet places that we enjoyed most of all. After all, aren’t city parks supposed to be a haven for tranquility and nature? Luisenpark is not only beautiful, but it serves the citizens of Mannheim wonderfully. It is perhaps no wonder that the people in this corner of Germany don’t tell the world about their Luisenpark – they want it all for themselves. And who can blame them?

Practical info for visiting the Luisenpark

  • Website here (in German only).
  • The main entrance to the park is at Theodor-Heuss-Anlage 2
    68165 Mannheim
    .
  • Getting there by public transport: Take the number 9 tram from Mannheim train station to the “Luisenpark” stop. Number 6 also works. The number 5 tram is another possibility; get off at “Fernmeldeturm” and use the north entrance.
  • Getting there by car: No problem! Ample and free parking directly opposite the main entrance.
  • Admission prices: In summer – €8 for adults, €4 for children aged 6+. Some other concessions apply. Half-price from November to February.
  • No dogs, bicycles or micro-scooters allowed in the park: they might freak out the pelicans. Pushchairs are fine, and very German bollerwagens are available to rent.
  • Plenty of reasonably-priced eating possibilities within the park. Or bring your own picnic if you prefer.

Daisy the bus visited Mannheim in May 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Some facts and figures in this article were taken from https://web.archive.org/web/20080405195617/http://www.mannheim.de/io2/browse/Webseiten/Tourismus/english/citytour/luisenpark

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Lohr am Main – The Snow White town

This is going to sound familiar…

Once upon a time, a kind and beautiful princess lived in a handsome castle in Germany. Her mother died when she was still a girl, and her father remarried shortly afterwards. But the stepmother was a vain and manipulative woman, favouring her own children over her adopted stepdaughter. Inevitably, the relationship snapped; the princess fled away from her family, over great hills and through deep forests. Eventually she settled and lived in exile in a community of dwarfs working in the local mines.

The princess (well, Baroness, technically…) was Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? But you have almost certainly recognised her already as “Schneewittchen” from the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale: or, in English…

Snow White.

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Family camping in Norway

Thundering waterfalls, pristine mountain wilderness, gargantuan glaciers, chocolate box villages and quite possibly the most celebrated coastline in the world: Norway has everything you could possibly want for the more adventurous family camping holiday.

Well, almost everything…

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