Norwegian Adventure Park: Høyt og Lavt

Høyt og Lavt (High and Low) is a large adventure park filled with ziplines (some over 600m long!), rope ladders, high wire bridges, and much more. About 1.5 hours' drive from Oslo it provided a fun filled day for two dads and five kids aged 9 to 13. The park is well worth a visit if you enjoy physical activity and aren't afraid of heights. There are eleven courses of varying difficulty to choose from, including some easy & low ones for littles kids.

No word on whether the park was named for a-ha's debut album :-)

Travel tips:
  • Dress in layers. We went in cool autumn but some of the courses really get you moving!
  • Bring gloves. Unlike similar parks we've been to in Switzerland, Høyt og Lavt doesn't provide any
  • There's a snack bar but you can pack your lunch and use some of the many picnic tables
  • You will be tempted by some of the tougher courses. They're fun but be careful if you bend the rules to bring your kids along. My 11 year old son Thomas completed most of the course rated 16 year old / 160cm minimum but only because he's tall and strong. A shorter kid in front of us had to be rescued!

Boats of Venice

Gondolas, of course, are a big part of what makes Venice special. Popular and numerous as they may be, they're far from the one only boats on the canals. One of the games we enjoyed playing with our sons was trying to spot new types of watercraft. Ambulance boats, garbage boats, package delivery boats, bus boats (the famous vaporetti), and more all ply their trades up and down the canals. The world is so different when there are no roads!

Exploring the Science of Sounds with Wolfram|Alpha and Audacity

Saturday evening at bedtime, our 9 year old son Daniel told me: "Dad, I saw this program on TV. And it was two people talking, just like you and me. It was about sound and sound waves. I want to learn everything about sound. Will you teach me?"

Music to my ears :-)

So I pulled out two tools of choice: Wolfram|Alpha and Audacity. W|A is a computational search engine and, as my boys used to say, hecka useful (using "hecka" doesn't appear to be cool anymore BTW). Audacity is a swiss army knife audio recorder, editor, analyzer, and effects machine available for Mac, PC, and Linux.

Our "lesson" went back and forth between these two tools, with the real world intruding once in a while...

First off: What is sound? We talked about compression & expansion of air, how our ears work, and how sound does and doesn't travel through different mediums (like water & space).

Then I introduced the concept of Hertz. Here we used Audacity to generate an ever increasing tone from 1 to 300 Hz over 60 seconds. When do we start hearing sound? (On my Macbook Pro's speakers, around 100Hz).

Once Hertz were understood (and we'd talked about the cool low Hz rumbles our subwoofer generates) it was time to break out Wolfram|Alpha, which has some useful sound generation features.

We initially played a simple 440Hz tone (which is the standard tuning for guitars and probably other instruments too).

I'll spare you the lengthy and enjoyable experimentation that followed on W|A :-) We tried many things: different tonescombining tones, combining prime tones, even combining lots of tones and wondering whether a small change in one of the tones was still noticeable.

At this point I decided we needed a real time spectrum analyzer (Audacity can do the job, but it isn't real time). In the old (OK, old old :-) days I'd have used the one on my NeXTstation, very useful in tuning my guitar, but today I found AudioXplorer instead. Pity it's discontinued, but fortunately it's free, open sourced... and for OS X (I'm sure there are many equivalents on Windows).

Here's that 440Hz tone again...

With AudioXplorer in hand, we headed to the piano and "looked" at lots of different frequencies. It was fun to watch Daniel's interest as he played ascending notes and saw the sonogram showing a staircase pattern. (More experimentation ensued).

Next we were back to Audacity: recording Daniel's voice and applying many fun effects to it. Echo, tempo change, reverb, and more. 

Finally, back to Wolfram|Alpha one last time: experimenting with DTMF. I had Daniel press one of the keys on a phone, then we used W|A to reproduce it. Here's the tone for the "1" key. Unfortunately W|A sometimes introduces annoying clicks when generating the sounds, however you can use AudioXplorer instead, which gives correct output.

Once we'd understood how DTMF tones work and how to generate them, we used Audacity to generate a whole phone number and I showed Daniel the trick I'd promised him earlier: how to call someone without hitting any keys on the phone's keypad. We held the handset's microphone up to the laptop's speaker, press play, and... Magic! The call went through! 

All in all we had great fun with these tools. Daniel and I learned a lot together. What does he want to do now?

GarageBand! :-)

Venice at Dawn and Piazza San Marco

The downside of taking the night train from Rome to Venice is that you arrive very early, around 05:30. That's also an upside: you can admire Venice at dawn (the other advantage is not losing a day of vacation).

We rented a lovely apartment in Venice, right across from where Marco Polo lived long ago (which made for good educational opportunities with our sons :-). Fortunately the landlord was able to meet us early on a Sunday morning so we could drop off our bags, then it was off to Piazza San Marco, the principle square of Venice, to show the boys some of the beauty of the city.

One of the great things about Venice is that just going somewhere is an adventure given the novel boat-based public transportation system. Our sons enjoyed the trip down the Grand Canal, esp. lovely (and quiet!) in the early morning. We had fun trying to spot as many winged lions as possible, the symbols of Venice.

At the Piazza we admired the architecture, walked around, climbed the campanile (tall bell tower) to get a panoramic view of the city, and visited San Marco Cathedral's museum. All hits with young and not-quite-so-young :-)

Travel tips:
  • A travel pass is expensive but if if you're going to take a vaporetto (a "bus boat") more than twice a day, it's worth it. We paid 33 Euro for 3 days, the cost of a single ticket is 6.5 Euro
  • Pay attention to tides (and this site) if you want to see Piazza San Marco partially flooded, the most you're likely to see, but be ready to stand on crowded walk ways
  • The museum in San Marco's cathedral is well worth seeing for its view of the Piazza and its beautiful mosaics
  • Time your visit to the campanile with the top of the hour and you'll be treated to nice bell ringing (loud too!)
  • FYI, Sunday mornings the cathedral itself is close to tourists until 14:00 due to mass being held, though the museum is open
  • It's easy to get a little disoriented in Venice's streets. A GPS or GPS enabled phone (or in our case, iPad) is easiest, a compass can be quite useful, but just paying attention to signs saying "Per Rialto" or "Per San Marco" can often be good enough when navigating the city. Besides, it can be fun to get lost!

More of Rome: Castles, Temples, Fountains, and Baths

We packed a lot into our last day in Rome. First off: a visit to the Castel Sant' Angelo, located near the Vatican. Originally Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, it was turned into a castle and intended primarily to defend the Holy See. The castle is many leveled and a fun visit with kids. The boys particularly liked the balista, the old weapons on display, and the view from the top.

A walk across the Ponte Sant' Angelo brings you to the center of Rome. Be on the lookout for clumps of "wishful" padlocks people have attached to the railings, their version of throwing pennies in a fountain.

The Pantheon was next on our list. A temple to all the gods rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in AD126, it's another example of astounding Roman architecture. Its dome is huge, perfectly circular, and is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Its oculus (the open hole at the top) provides a surprising amount of light. Once you're at the Pantheon, it's a quick walk to famous Trevi Fountain (better than I expected) and Trajan's Column.

Our last stop took us south on public transportation to the Baths of Caracalla. These are a little off the beaten path but very interesting nonetheless. Completed around 216AD (thanks to 9,000 people working for 5 years!) the baths are huge. A center of Roman life, these were used to business and pleasure. What impressed me most is that Romans built these baths at all. They must have cost a pretty packet at a time when funds were needed across the empire to repel invaders, shore up defenses, build critical infrastructure, etc. Clearly Roman culture was a lot more than blood and gladiators.

Travel tips:
  • Though fairly packed, you can easily see these in a day (as always, bring water!)
  • You'll find many opportunities to grab a bite to eat around the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, etc. just avoid picking a place right next to the monuments or you'll certainly be paying for it
  • The Baths of Caracalla are south of the Colosseum, but not much. Check bus routes before setting out and you'll be fine getting there and back

St Peter's and the Vatican

It's not everyday you can visit a country within a city. The Vatican is one of the world's smallest states with its own post office, gas station, supermarket... And, of course, church!

This was one of my favorite visits in Rome: the Vatican museum is stuffed with jaw-dropping artwork, primarily from Renaissance and Baroque periods. We took a guided tour and our guide was talented enough to (mostly!) keep our boys' attention on the art and its many backstories. St. Peter's was also impressive: not only is it the biggest cathedral in the world, it's also home to much art. One letdown: the Sistine Chapel. It may be an amazing work of art but it was way too dark in there to properly appreciate it.

Next time we're in Rome, I'd definitely put the Vatican museum on our list of activities, there's a ton to see.

Travel tips:
  • As with the Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum, plan on spending a whole day (and bring water)
  • Make sure you send a few postcards from the Vatican's two post offices, one on each side of St. Peter's
  • The post office on the right of St. Peter's as you exit has tables you sit at to write your postcards. While you're there, check out the Vatican bookshop next door
  • Postcards are much cheaper in the Vatican and there are pictures of sites all over Rome
  • Visit the Vatican museum first: this will avoid standing in line to see St. Peter's as you end up inside the cathedral at the end of your museum tour after the Sistine Chapel
  • Get a guide for the museum: you'll avoid the lines and it's money well spent. There are precious few signs & explanations in this huge museum, a good guide will increase your enjoyment tremendously
  • I liked climbing up to the top of St. Peter's: it only costs 5 euro and the view is great. You also get a view of the inside of the copula and afterwards you exit inside the church, so you may avoid 

The Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum

At these three sites, all very close together, I finally got a good feel for the might of Rome. The sheer scale of the constructions, the engineering needed to build them, the beautiful art work, and the fact that so much is still standing after 2,000 years, is just amazing. 

Having just watched Gladiator with the boys, we were most excited by the Colosseum but the Palatine, and esp. the Forum with all its temples, also captured our interest. If you have kids, I strongly recommend you watch programs about Rome before you visit. Firing up their imaginations is one of the best things you can do. We also watched one of Rick Steves' videos, and the decent Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. Hunting for Roman numerals turned out to be a surprise hit: the boys really enjoyed learning these concepts and still make up their own Roman math problems.

This was the first area we visited in Rome and made for a great start.

Travel tips:
  • To take pictures of the whole Colosseum, visit at midday so one side isn't in the shade
  • A guided visit may be nice but you can learn a lot just through the extensive explanations and exhibits (though this will likely be long for children)
  • If you buy a Roma pass, which gives you 3 days' unlimited travel on public transportation + 2 free museums, the Colosseum / Palantine / Forum counts as one visit and you can bypass the lines at the Colosseum
  • Bring food & drinks: you can easily spend the whole day here and the nearest food stalls are very expensive (in the summer bring lots of water!)
  • The Colosseum's bookstore has a great selection of books on Roman history, mythology, games, customs, etc. including an excellent children's section
  • Contrary to the Colosseum, there aren't many explanations / signs to read at the Palatine and Forum, so get guide or buy a book to help you better appreciate what you're seeing
  • You rent audio guides at many sites in Rome though we did see people listening to guides on their iPods (something to investigate...)

"You can't get lost in Venice" or How an 8 mile run became a half marathon

"You can't get lost in Venice," one of the guides told us, "It's an island!" While that may be true, you can still take a lot of detours, and discover numerous dead ends!

I'd set out to run this course, an 8 mile jog around Venice. Unfortunately, with no internet access to zoom in and see street names, I could only go on memory. "No matter," I thought, "I know the main points I need to visit, I'm sure I'll figure it out". That turned out to be mostly wishful thinking: once you're in the maze of Venetian canals and streets, it's really easy to take a wrong turn. The worst mistake I made was in the north east corner of the city where I had to retrace my steps considerably.

I did have some good luck though. Just after Piazza San Marco (the main tourist attraction) I ran into our landlord (pun intended) as he was walking to work. Carlo was very helpful and gave me directions to the bridge that would take me to the southern part of Venice. There I made my second big mistake. I ran so far west that I came to a road... with cars! Which was worrying... There aren't any roads and cars in Venice. Turns out I was in the port. Oops! :-) Fortunately a busload of friendly polizia set me on the right path again. 

In the end none of this mattered: It was a great run and I got to see more of beautiful Venice than I ever could have otherwise.