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1 October 2014, 21:08

With such an ambitious name en par with the now-closed-but-possibly-to-be-resurrected Australia’s Wonderland, Luxembourg’s Park Merveilleux is truly a marvellous zoo/playground/sculpture trail hybrid. The highlight for the girls was definitely the scope of the park which contains the most imaginative, adventure playgrounds we’ve ever seen. (And that’s saying a lot!)

Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
We're just five of the 240,000 people who visit Parc Merveilleux each year.

We really drove to Luxembourg because we’ve been collecting countries and flags and sometimes their currencies along the way. Without the border checkpoints, it’s hard for the girls to understand the demarcation lines that set each country apart. And the more we travel, the more irrelevant they seem. However, until the system evolves into something newer, I’m still informing the girls about the countries we visit.

(Incidentally, last night we passed through Schengen, yes, the infamous Schengen of the Schengen Agreement which gives us 90-days’ access to most European countries without needing a visa. I didn’t know it was in Luxembourg, but now I do!)

So we’re in Luxembourg, we’ve toured the vine-growing wine regions that look like a giant has raked the countryside, changed some Aussie dollars into euros and now we’re ready for some fun. The best way I can celebrate our exit from France is by taking us all to the most fantastic park and playground in the region!

Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The ticket kiosk looks like it's sporting a witch's hat.

Immediately after our entry to the park, I notice the sculptures. The kids spy the playground on the map. But we decide to visit the animals first.

Animals

I wasn’t really expecting a comprehensive zoo but was pleasantly surprised. The park offers close access to so much more than just birds.

Spotted eagle owl, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The spotted eagle-owl is one of the smaller owl species.

Lemurs, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The lemurs climb high in the cage above us, trying to catch the rays of a waning sun.

Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A steamy jungle room creates a moist, hot climate for reptiles and tropical birds.

Sun conures, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The brightness of the sun conures is difficult to miss.

Peahens, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A white peahen (an albino, perhaps?) struts her stuff alongside the other birds.

Porcupine, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This wasn't what I expected a porcupine to look like! And they like to climb trees?

Red ibis, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This is the first red ibis we've seen as well!

Amazonian fish, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Large indoor tanks hold a selection of huge Amazonian fish. (I wonder how many fish constitute a "school"...)

Tortoises mating, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
So when we pass the tortoise enclosure, they're mating. In our family, sexual (and non-sexual) reproduction has been discussed so many times that it's no longer interesting to the girls.

Emperor tamarins, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Much more exciting are the emperor tamarins that freely roam within the Amazonian house!

Emperor tamarins, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The girls see how close they can get to one as it sits on the railing, but the tamarin is too flighty to be touched.

Raccoon, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A raccoon cools its paws in the water. Raccoons are very exotic animals to us Australians!

Beaver, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
There's a beaver next door. I don't believe I've ever seen a live beaver before.

Guanaco, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
I have to consult the sign to properly identify this South American relative to the llama — the guanaco.

Patagonian mara, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The Patagonian mara is a strange-looking creature to us.

Kea at Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This New Zealand kea bird is kept alone in a large cage. With a reputation for being inquisitive, it's been given a motorcycle to dismantle.

Motorbike for the kea, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Yes, I'm serious. Based on observations of kea birds in New Zealand who like to dismantle machinery left outside — even cleverly unwinding screws — the keepers decided to give this bird a bike!

White wolves, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Brioni is particularly excited by the opportunity to view wolves again. Their leisurely manner is hardly exciting, however.

Wooly sheep, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
I look at these sheep and wonder about their wool. Would it be nice for crocheting? My dear friend Hellena would think so!

Petting zoo, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Further along, we enter a small petting-zoo area.

Goat, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The little goats are friendly enough but soon lose interest when they realise we aren't going to feed them.

Parc Merveilleux served up a comprehensive list of animals from all over the world — including Australian emus, dingos and wallabies! I’m glad we got to see some creatures we had never met before, and I clearly have to brush up on my identification of South American animals.

Play spaces

The indoor Amazonian exhibits lead directly to the first playground (well, through a gift-shop), so we had no warning of the wonders awaiting us. I was blown away by the size and interesting aspects to this playground when we emerged.

Main playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
I think it's the timber frames that make this playset more appealing, even though it does use colourful plastic accessories.

Main playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A taller, more challenging structure sits at the far end of the playground, providing more interest to older children.

Main playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This main playspace is certainly large enough to cater to huge crowds. On the day we visit, there are only a couple of families wandering around.

Main playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Once she's climbed up it from the bottom, Lana is confident enough to slide down normally.

Water zone, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A writhing caterpillar bench provides seating for parents who have moved away from the main playground to watch their kids splash in the water zone.

Water zone, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Brioni turns the screw to bring the water up from the lower pool.

Water zone, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Then she pumps the water set it running down the sluices and into the channel.

Water zone, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Her sisters watch from a shared swing-seat off to the side. I like seeing the different swing designs which would cater to a wider range of abilities than the normal slab-seat.

A wander along the paths took us past more animals and then at the far side of the park, we reached a massive adventure play zone with a number of different, themed playspaces around it.

Airplane playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This little wooden play equipment was commissioned by a local airline.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Whimsical carvings enhance the spring-bouncer and change a little play-hut into a beehive.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This huge structure is a dragon's eyrie.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
With the girls' encouragement, I climb the rope-net to the top to personally greet the dragon.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The highest huts are connected by woven rope tubes.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A second playground of tall poles is themed around a spider-web.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The chains aren't as easy to climb as the rope, but Calista takes off her shoes and persists with a mentally-constructed obstacle course.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Under the trees, a third natural playspace provides a bit of a smaller slide for younger children.

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
I love the use of natural materials within such a tranquil setting. (Still, I suppose that during peak season, this playground would hardly be called tranquil!)

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
We didn't wait for an invitation, but it's wonderful to see a public, outdoor play-space particularly encouraging children to remove their shoes!

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
If you're feeling a bit hesitant, a shoe-tree proudly displays the first pair of shoes. Yours can hang right underneath it.

Picnic table at the natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Several of these cute, roofed picnic tables are scattered around the adventure playgrounds.

Whisper dishes at the natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Aisha and Calista share secrets via the whisper dishes. It's been a while since we've played with these, which are amazingly effective!

Natural playground, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
These woodpiles are a series of tunnels and rooms that encourage an entirely different set of games to the climbing structures in the clearing. I regret not bringing a head-torch along, as the girls have complained that the interiors are too dark.

Storytale houses

Scattered around one section of Parc Merveilleux are a number of cute cottages, with large windows that display the dioramas within. A button on the outside starts the music, movement and story. (You can select either French, German or Luxembourgish — truly! It’s a language!)

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Some of the cottages blend in with the trees.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Others stand out because of their colour and design.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The girls approach a window, push a button to get the story started and then make up their own narrative and dialogue as the characters move.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The characters only move in simple ways, but the whole tableau is quite detailed.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
With so few people around, the girls can take their time at the cottages.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This mini-castle illustrates the story of sleeping beauty. In the summertime, it would be covered with a riot of roses.

Wishing well showing the life cycle of a prince, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Delaney looks dubious as she examines this wishing well that illustrates the life cycle of a tadpole turning into ... a prince! (What a great inclusion — it makes me happy to know there are people with senses of humour who design playspaces for children!)

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This glass pavilion has a whole flock of singing and musical creatures celebrating a wedding.

Storytale houses, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
We listen to this song again and again, examining the creatures from all different angles so we don't miss a single detail. I don't know what they're singing, but it's catchy!

Sculptures

Sculptures at Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
The park is displaying a number of different sculptures in an outdoor exhibition.

Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
At the front of the park, the flowering shrubs are sculptures in themselves, and we're greeted by a white dove of peace.

Colourful chicken house at Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
A little hut isn't part of the sculpture trail — it's the chook house! But it reminds me of Baba Yaga's house and inspires me to build my own little building outside the square.

Large sleeping giant sculpture, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
This sleeping giant is an iconic fixture for Parc Merveilleux. (Or maybe he's just recovering from a dose of amanita...)

Dream Wedding at the Bettembourg Park by Anne-Marie Grimmler, at Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Fashioned by Anne-Marie Grimmler out of oakwood, this installation is called Dream Wedding at the Bettembourg Park. (Interested parties can contact the artist to enquire about the price.)

La Gonflée by Rafael Springer, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
Artist Rafael Springer constructed La Gonflée from three large inner-tubes.

Bronze horse statue, Parc Merveilleux, Bettembourg, Luxembourg, September 2014
It's the little things that make a park truly welcoming, like a tree-trunk-round next to a horse statue which offers a step-up so the girls can practice riding this bronze beauty!

Many more sculptures were on display, but the information accompanying them was so scant that I soon lost interest. I’ve decided that I’m captivated by the story the artwork is telling — whether the artist intended it or not — and many of the pieces here failed to communicate anything to me.

We only left at closing time, because this is a park where you can truly spend all day playing and exploring, catering for different children’s abilities and interests. Parc Merveilleux is another one of our must-see experiences in mainland Europe, but before you go, check their website carefully for opening hours and days.

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29 September 2014, 20:24

It’s not every day that one gets a tour of a police station shaped like a UFO! If I had known about this architectural wonder in advance, perhaps I would have detoured off our tightly-plotted course to take a photo and Instagram it. Instead, I discovered myself in front of this wacky gendarmerie at 11am on Sunday morning only because I needed to report the theft of several items from our campervan.

Gendarmerie at the intersection of A39 and D678, France, September 2014
When we arrive, the only person here is a man who is busy cleaning the windows. "Yes," he agrees with me, "it is a bizarre building."

We had parked for the night at Aire du Jura, a designated roadside stop with a petrol station, restaurants and cool buildings to explore. We parked — very sensibly — alongside a couple other caravans and campervans. There’s safety in numbers. And our doors were locked.

The funny thing about locks is that they’re very good at keeping out the usual sort of people — like me and the girls. They’re not actually very effective at keeping out somebody who is determined to get in. So our lock was jimmied in the middle of the night (apologies to all Jimmys out there) and some items were taken, including my computer and purse.

After I reached the police station, I was thankful that it was this weird flying-saucer building in the middle of nowhere. The remoteness of the station meant that the police were comfortable with leaving the girls in the campervan while I made an official report in my rusty French.

Another challenge was that I had to charm my way through two separate toll-booths by holding up my Australian drivers license for a scan. With my cash and cards taken, there was no other way to get off and onto the motorway! Although the first disembodied attendant was very kind (I explained to him that I needed to get through the toll-booth so I could report the theft of my purse to the police on the other side), the second voice was harsher and almost refused to believe that I had no other means by which to pay for my passage on the autoroute (at 70 euros for less than 300 km, it was extortionate!). If you just can’t pay, the approved procedure is to take a ticket and pay online within a week or else they’ll send an inflated bill to the address on your license and possibly add you to the Interpol watchlist.

Business hours in rural France are quite tricky. They vary from place to place, but I was sure that banks weren’t open on a Sunday, so we couldn’t change our money. It turns out that they aren’t open on a Monday either in the little town in which we took refuge — away from the cops and robbers and tollbooths of the autoroute.

I’m feeling shaken up, sickened even, by the losses. I can’t wait to drive out of France. At the same time, I keep reminding myself that I haven’t really lost any treasures — my four daughters are safe and well — and with the right attitude we can keep having fantastic adventures.

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27 September 2014, 20:19

The Swiss-Alpine festival of Désalpe celebrates the return of the cows from higher pastures with a procession through the villages. Farmers and their families dress in traditional costumes and attach ornate flower headpieces and huge ceremonial bells to their cows before leading them along the route. This weekend we returned to the alpine region of Charmey to witness this traditional Swiss celebration.

Decorated cow at Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
The straps that attach the bells around the cows' necks are made of intricately embellished leather.

Désalpe — also called Rindyà — happens in several locations over three weekends in autumn. The herds parade through several villages on their route, but the main celebrations are held in town.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
The parade opens with troupes of folk musicians. These groups are only walking to the village centre where they'll play to the main crowd.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Dancing troupes in traditional costume follow.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Alpine horns. (I love the puff sleeves on the bredzon, the men's traditional shirt/jacket!)

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
A company of bell ringers.

Parade at Désalpes, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
The weight of these bells would be at least 15 kg.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Farmers and their farmhands lead their herds in the parade.

Costume bags at the parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Each of the leather bags is individually hand-stitched.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Whole farming families participate in the parade, with children helping their parents keep the cows moving.

Goats in the parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Children lead a small herd of goats. This was the only inclusion of goats in Charmey's parade, and I later overheard a bystander complaining about the lack of goats.

Parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
These children are pulling a cart with some chickens inside.

Watching the Désalpe parade, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Aisha helps Lana cover her ears against the clanging of the bells.

Watching the Désalpe parade, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
We've picked a section of the kerb that is in the shade as we watch the hot procession pass us by.

Cow at the parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
A friendly cow comes over to greet us personally.

Cow at the parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
As something a little bit different, this herd of cows is wearing small straw hats.

There’s more to Désalpe than the parade. An “official” menu of ham-on-the bone, sausages, cabbage, potato salad and meringues with cream is offered by numerous restaurants. Other marketstalls are set up, enticing visitors with soup, sandwiches and fondue. Others sell local handicrafts. It’s definitely this town’s biggest event for the year!

Charmey village at Désalpe, Switzerland, September 2014
Up in the village, the market stalls are set up to cater for the thousands of visitors.

Charmey village at Désalpe, Switzerland, September 2014
Charmey has many pretty chalets, and on a brilliant day like today, they look their best!

Cow at the parade for Désalpe, Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Between the weight of the cowbell and the height of the head-piece, these cows have to make quite an effort in the procession!

Paraglider outside Charmey, Switzerland, September 2014
Late in the afternoon, while much of the crowd is still celebrating in the town, the girls and I frolic in the nearby fields like the Von Trapp family. It's fascinating to watch the paragliders coming in to land — it looks like such a peaceful sport! (This is a great spot for them to fly almost all day; they can easily take the cable-car to the top of the mountain.)

When I was a little girl, my mother bought some brown wrapping paper in Switzerland featuring a kitschy Swiss Heidi and her boy-pal in traditional dress, holding hands alongside mountain goats and caramel-coloured cows that were decorated with flowered headpieces and huge bells around their necks. Witnessing the Désalpe festival has now given me a new standard for Swiss traditional dress and cowbells. I hope the girls remember this outing — it was loud enough!

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