Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Malakoff Diggins: From Gold Mine to Ghost Town

Ranger Debbie at Malakoff Diggins. Photo by Frog Mom
"We were a wagon and horse town until the 1930s," said Debbie the ranger at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, in the gold town of North Bloomfield formerly known as Humbug. Little more than the Main Street buildings remains at North Bloomfield but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up in authenticity. After a morning hike of the diggins under a scorching sun, we enjoyed a tour of the town by Debbie who brought to life the 1870s gold mining days with colorful anecdotes. Without Debbie, nobody would have guessed that the saloon accepted three forms of payment for its beer and hard liquor: hard currency, gold nuggets and gold dust. Hence the scale below the mirror at old Kings Saloon. "I love tours like that," confided my 6-year old, "It's so much fun." We even had our Indiana Jones moment after Debbie told us where we could find a 600-foot long old drainage tunnel and walk through it. Now that was the highlight for our junior explorers.

The diggins. Photo by C.G.
Diggins Loop Hike
Before we discovered the town, our family hiked the 3.2 mile loop around the diggins. Not only is the old mining pit incredibly scenic in a Bryce Canyon sort of way, but it is also surrounded with pine forests on the hills and criss-crossed with willow jungles and cattail marshes at the bottom. It's a complex plant habitat that my girls enjoyed plowing through, especially in the willow "jungles."

Shortly after we started in the shaded pine forest, we noticed an unusual smell around us. It was the unmistakable scent of cooked artichoke. Puzzled we looked around and couldn't figure out what plant it could be. Finally we narrowed it down to a low lying fern whose leaves were very sticky - if not stinky, depending on who you asked.

Sierra mountain misery. Photo by C.G.
When we later showed a picture to Debbie, she was positive. "It's Sierra Mountain Misery," she said, a plant whose leaves become oily and sticky during the summer months and thus highly flammable. Combined with pine needles in dry months, they're a true fire hazard that causes headaches to forest managers. Such a tiny little thing, so inconspicuous and yet.

We went down the hills to enter the dry world of the mining pit. Known locally as "the diggins," the pit is a 300-foot pit that was created by high pressure hydraulic mining from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Originally 600 feet deep and 1.5 mile wide, it was planned to be five times as large. Winter rains filled 300-foot high of gravel and hydraulic mining stopped before the whole project could be completed.

Monitor. Photo by C.G.
Gold mining in river beds required the presence of water to wash away debris and find gold. The mine at Malakoff Diggins happened to be smack in the ancient bed of the Yuba river before the Sierras were uplifted - a dry diggins.

The river was long gone when the first gold nuggets were found in 1849 and water was diverted from the sierras to wash away the gravel beds from the hills. We found one of the water guns - also known as monitors - along our hike. Quite the beast!

Bushwhacking in willow jungles. Photo by C.G.
Standing in the sun was too hot - temps in the mid 90s - so we left the water gun and followed the yellow wooden posts marking the trail on the pit floor. Don't know if we would have found our way without them. It's a maze down there and visibility is limited because of the vegetation. It's so thick that it creates micro-environments like the willow jungle portions where our girls got a kick at pretending to hack away at the "tropical" plants. They certainly couldn't see 10 feet ahead.

Fortunately us adults could see above and never got sidetracked for long. Yes we did err here and there but in the end, we found our bearings and the way out of the pit.

Coming back to the car was a huge relief to our little ones as the heat was getting at them.

Tour of North Bloomfield
The snow wagon. Photo by C.G
Debbie the ranger was our guide, a wonderful woman who could tell you stories of 1878 like she had been there. Interestingly enough, most of the information she shared with us, the California state parks heard from Charlie Gus, a native of North Bloomfield who was born in 1878 in the heyday of the hydraulic mining, grew up to operate all the pieces of equipment, stayed after the townsfolk dwindled down to 9 families and died of old age in the village.

First thing you did when you arrived in town was hit the stables because traveling from Grass Valley took 18 hours and the horses were tired. In the stables we admired a hay press, a few freight wagons, the little buggy that served as the town's "taxi" and the snow wagon/sled that got you out of town when you were snowed in.

With 6 to 8 feet of packed snow every winter, the people of North Bloomfield spent their autumns canning, preparing, storing and making sure they'd have enough to last until spring.

The arsenal of the pharmacist. Photo by C.G.
From the stables we went on the Kings Saloon where cheating was not allowed. "This is a square house" reads the sign at the back of the narrow room where miners spent their day's wages on cheap local beer in glass bottles or more expensive imported beer in ceramic bottles. We sat around round tables with decks of cards invited a poker game or two but sadly we didn't have time for that. On to the pharmacy, the jewel of the park

Set up in 1874 by a dentist turned pharmacist called Adrian Smith, the pharmacy smells of saw dust and metal and its neat shelves are lined with bottles of herbal elixirs, medicines, potions and dried shrooms. For the kids, the real draw lies in the kiddie corner where Mr Smith sold books, toys and sheet music.

The town's general store. Photo by Frog Mom
Inside the general store, the kids had a blast identifying all sorts of heavy crank-up or wheel-operated machines, as well as spotting each single item hanging from the pale green ceiling. The metal bath tubs had their share of success, as well as the striped socks display and the old typing machine i the back of the store.

We finished the tour by a visit of a private residence, the house of Rush Dix Skidmore, a German baker turned saloon operator, stables owner and philanthropist. He was the proud father to two boys and three girls who were the best dressed in school. Check out the pleat maker in the kitchen and empathize with their poor mother who sweated hours away on her girls skirts before sending them off to school. That concluded our tour but before we left, we stopped at the visitor center to enquire about the Hiller Tunnel.

Going in Hiller Tunnel. Photo by Frog Mom
Hiller Tunnel
During our morning hike, we found the crumbled entrance to the Hiller Tunnel from the Diggins Trail but didn't go further than a few feet in - not knowing the condition of the tunnel. In the afternoon, Debbie confirmed that we could walk the whole length of the 600-foot long tunnel and that it was easy to access from the road. "Make sure you wear proper walking shoes," added Debbie, "It's very slippery in there with the water draining from the creek." We didn't need more to get us going and 15 minutes later, we were in front of the tunnel entrance with walking poles and headlamps. Drip, drop, water dribbled from the ceiling and stalactites were forming overhead. My husband and I couldn't help humming the Indiana Jones theme because hey, it's a pitch dark tunnel and for all we know there might be bats and hidden treasures!
Hiller Tunnel. Photo by C.G.

"That's adventure," kept repeating our two girls. Yes, real adventure, especially where we lost sight of the day's light in the tunnel. What a perfect ending to Malakoff Diggins. When you explore the tunnel, don't forget that tunnels are cold (wear an extra layer), this one is wet throughout (waterproof shoes better) and good flashlights or headlamps are compulsory.

One last note: you should know that Malakoff Diggins is on the list of state parks to be closed. The rangers forecast that a caretaker will take up residence in the town but nobody will be able to access the buildings, not even the thousands of school kids who enjoyed a day of living history for their California studies every year. Before you go, call and check the status. The gold mine town that was never a ghost town is about to become one.

Practical details
  • Getting there: Malakoff Diggins is 26 miles north east of Nevada City, 3.5 hours drive from San Francisco.
  • Directions: this page has everything to get you there, summer and winter.
  • Contact info: phone: (530) 265-2740 email:
  • Lodging: the park operates a campground a cabins but if they are closed, the closest lodging is in Nevada City. Plenty of hotels and motels, as well as vacation rentals through or
  • Eating: bring your own everything! There are no food outlets in North Bloomfield - you might starve. Stock up in Nevada City before you go. Back in Nevada City, the kids will love you if you offer them frozen yogurt at Crazy Cow Yogurt or hand-made ice cream at Treats. For more hearty and savory fare, Sopa Thai Cuisine has good Thai food but slow service (moderate), New Moon Cafe offers new Californian cuisine (expensive), Ike's Quarter Cafe has an outside patio where you can eat burgers and sandwiches (budget), and Las Katarinas serves no-thrills Mexican food in funky little booths (budget).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Richard Louv Book Giveaway Winners!

Congratulations to my two winners, selected through a random drawing in a hat by my 6-year old with her eyes shut! They each get a copy of Richard Louv's book The Nature Principle.

Mia of Oakland shared her favorite nature memory on the Frog Mom Facebook Page: "Now that the question has been asked, the memories keep flooding in ... jumping on haystacks in my jammies; building a fort on the side of the barn and threatening to run away from home if my sister and i were not allowed to spend the night in it; making perfumes and potions from flowers, berries and herbs harvested from around us; our pet turtles and hedgehogs; playing hide & seek with the wild rabbits that suddenly multiplied from the few our neighbors asked for permission to release from their pens; tossing rotten persimmons at the side of the barn when i was supposed to be collecting them and composting them before the bees found them; and the mindblowing taste of hazelnut cake made from nuts we helped to harvest and raspberry gelato that was almost worth all the scratches from the thorns!"

Susan of Improv-a-mama shared her favorite nature memory in a comment on Frog Mom directly: "Complete rich sense memory of standing on the beach (Long Beach on Long Island) watching the sunset the last time before we moved. I was 9 and I can feel what it was like to stand there watching the sky change and the seagulls fly and the first star appear. I loved the beach and missed it so much when we moved inland." Susan, I still need your mailing information!

Congratulations to them two and thank you for all the awesome nature memories. From A Little Yumminess' Malaysian beach memories to Evan's camp in Colorado, Autumn's creek and crawdad adventure in Sonoma, Amy's hilarious first case of unintentional poison oak, Outdoor Adventurer's exploring days at Vasquez Rocks, Exploring Portland's Nature Area's furtive deer encounter in the dark, and Provocations for Early Childhood Education's memory of jumping in fresh haystacks in the evening in her nightgown, they made my day. So varied and so unique!

Thanks to you all!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Frog Mom nominated for the Red Tricycle Totally Awesome Awards!

After the incredible show of support I received for the Circle of Moms Best Bay Area Mom Blog contest, Frog Mom has been nominated for the Most Awesome Parenting category in the Red Tricycle Totally Awesome Awards! I'm truly honored because without you guys, I wouldn't have made it in the Top 10 of the Circle of Moms contest. Really? Yes, really. It was a Top 25 contest and I finished #9 so I can fairly say I was in the Top 10. Yoohoo! Last year, Frog Mom was selected by The Red Tricycle team as a part of the Bay Area Top Mom (and Dad) Blogs. Now I'm on this new contest and you readers get to vote for your favorite blog. It's your turn to express yourself!

For The Red Tricycle contest, nominations close on September 9, after which the real voting begins. The top blogs with the most nominations will become a finalist, with one going on to become the Winner on October 17, 2011.

The best news is, there's something for you in it too - not only is The Red Tricycle a really cool site (check it out here) but they are pretty good at convincing partners and sponsors. By entering the awards, you get a chance to win some fab prizes including the Grand Prize: a $500 Gift Certificate to Giggle, 1st Prize: A Flip Video Camera (value $300) and 2nd Prize: A Large Organic Plush Winnie-the-Pooh (value $110).

This is how it works - easy does it.

 1. Click on this link to nominate Frog Mom - the nomination requires an email sign-up. Every nomination counts! Think of it as the county fair secret vote for the best apple pie. You guys are the jury. You do need to vote and not assume your neighbor already did even if you share the same views in how much cinnamon is not enough or what variety of apple works best. Because hey, maybe your neighbor assumed you already voted too! Honest, my apple pie needs every one of you.

 2. Send an email to your entire mailing list asking them to nominate Frog Mom. Don’t forget this link: !

 3.Post this on your Facebook page and Twitter : “Nominate Frog Mom for Red Tricycle’s Totally Awesome Awards” . Add sparklies and jingly bells if you can - I can't, my computer skills are limited.

4. Tell your friends at school, on the playground and at the office. OK, at the dentist's too. Tell your cousins, why not? Hopefully you have a large family and if you don't, tons of neighbors will do.

Now I'll go back to my daily routine because I'm preparing a road trip (first AirBnB experience, daring!) and backpacking extravaganza in the Eastern Sierras and I'll have tons to share when I return. You be busy bees in the meantime.

Thank you thank you thank you!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Welcome to the Storybook World of Versailles

The Queen's Hamlet. Photo by Frog Mom
Was Marie-Antoinette the first celebrity mom to implement the farm-to-table concept? While the Château de Versailles is better known for the glitzy Hall of Mirrors or the imposing King's bedchamber, the northern end of the park conceals a hamlet of thatched-roof cottages surrounded by vegetable gardens where the queen's farm supplied veggies and dairy products to the royal children. Savagely destroyed during the French Revolution, the Queen's Hamlet has been slowly massaged back to health and is now a hot spot on the Versailles circuit.

Marie-Antoinette. Chateau de Versailles
After a long day of shopping in Paris, I took the car and did my girls a favor by taking them to this enchanting world where ducks, pond carps and baby goats are now resident royalty. Despite the imposing lines at the front of the castle, this hamlet was near empty and provided a much appreciated breath of fresh air. The best part? We rented a small electric car to get to the hamlet from the castle.

Inspired by the village at the Château de Chantilly, Marie-Antoinette asked Louis XVI if a country escape could be built for her children. From 1783 to 1785, architects and small hands were hard at work, digging a lake, planting vineyards, building a fully functional dairy farm. Of the 12 cottages that rose from the ground to house and entertain the queen and her entourage, only 9 remain today.

Vroom vroom. Photo by Frog Tadpole
Though 12 seems like a small number for a castle as big as Versailles, the hamlet was never meant to be the court's country club - much on the contrary. You strolled the alleys of this village by invitation only and it had to come from the queen. So there. What you see today is an exclusive country getaway, one that was meant to be shared with family and friends and whose happy hours lasted only four years.

We rented our electric car in front of the castle and my girls giggled as we made our way down the wide alleys, around fountains and along cobblestone roads to the Petit Trianon. The little car is so silent and slow it was like an oversize toy - definitely a plus for kids. We parked at the Petit Trianon, exited to the garden and followed gravel paths along a creek. Soon the first buildings emerged between the green foliage of the historic garden.

"Girls, check this out!" I yelled. Surrounded by the storybook cottages, the lake is a lovely sight. My mom sat on a bench and we tried to figure what the building behind us was.
The Mill - Le Moulin. Photo by Frog Mom
"It was the mill," a man replied. I looked at him. Dressed elegantly, he talked behind an uneven row of crooked teeth. "Come, I'll show you" he added. Turns out he was one of the castle's guides.

With a name like that and a water wheel, I figured the mill must have been used to grind grain day in day out. Not so. Ironically the Mill was a house whose rural attributes were purely decorative. "Everything's ruined inside," said the man, "It's not even safe to go in." Too bad, a peek would have been nice.

The Queen's House. Photo by Frog Mom
The queen's house with an elevated walkway and a billiard room was the masterpiece of the hamlet. Lavishly furnished, it featured a dining room on the ground floor, a guard room, a game room and a parlor upstairs. "We even hosted a small private party here last week," confided the man, showing a wooden door. A private party at the Queen's hamlet? Wild images popped in my head, dancing on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette movie. Wow! I wanted to know more but the man politely changed topics to talk about the condition of the buildings.

Spiral staircase of the Queen's House. Photo by Frog Mom 
Though the Queen's Hamlet has been an integral part of Versailles since 1784, it was abandoned after the French Revolution and restored 3 times before opening to the public in 2006. Yes, a few centuries of time out will leave a building pretty depressed. The spiral staircase of the Queen's House looked strikingly fragile. "It's broken," observed my 6-year old. "They should take better care of it."

Sweetie pie, if you only knew. They are taking good care of the buildings but they'll need more piggy banks to save it from further degradation. "You see the low walls in the garden over there?" asked the man, "they trace the footprint of the destroyed cottages. The plan is to rebuild them." Aw, that's good news.

The Dove House. Photo by Frog Mom
We arrived in front of a darling house with a creeping wisteria surrounded by a sea of greenery, cabbages, chards and beets. "This was the dove house," he explained. Literally this building is where Marie-Antoinette kept chickens, pigeons, roosters and doves. Nowadays, it would be an upscale chicken coop. Oh the sweet life of a feathered breast!

We kept going and the man asked, "Have your daughters seen the farm?" When I said no, he urged me to go now. "It's now an educational farm for the city's school children. On the way, peek inside the milking barn. It's still furnished." I knew I must not keep the man captive so I thanked him for the tour and we headed for the farm.

Inside the milking barn. Photo by Frog Mom
Next to the Marlborough Tower stood the milking barn. Well, barn, you see what I mean. This is Versailles, not Kansas. The only piece of furniture I saw was a big white marble table. Technically, milk was not pasteurized and treated in this barn but in a neighboring building that has since been destroyed.

The existing milk barn was a tasting room where the queen and her children enjoyed fresh milk out of white china pitchers and cups. Though the original marble table was smashed during the revolution, this faithful replica was rebuilt under orders of Napoleon. What a fantastic table! I want Pottery Barn to make one for me.

Happy goats. Photo by Frog Mom
Beyond a patch of vineyards and a green tunnel, we reached the farm. Big fat rabbits hopped in the underbrush, safely sticking close to their wooden pens. Inside the farm yard, my 6-year old squealed, "A piggy!" A plump pink pig was slouched on a comfy bed of straw. My 7-year old ran to pet a donkey. The old man was right, this is where kids belonged.

More animals grazed peacefully, such as these goats, cows and a couple of horses. There's definitely something to be said about being a school kid in Versailles! Not that the Hayes Valley farm isn't cool, but this is another world.

The pond's hungry carps. Photo by Frog Mom
After a little roaming around, we came back to the lake and saw the same man glancing over someone's shoulders under a bridge. We got closer. "What's going on?" I asked. He grumbled. "It hasn't rained enough this year." He showed the water lilies. "The lake's level is low, the lilies have taken over the lake and the fish have multiplied." He shook his head. "Eeew!" said my girls. True, the sight of so many gaping carp mouths was a tad gross.

"We want to go back to the electric car!" said the girls. I looked at my watch. Oops, time to come back home. "Let's go girls!"

The Grand Canal. Photo by Frog Mom
We found my mom on the same bench, gazing quietly at the lake. "How was it?" she asked. It was so nice. I'm glad I waited an hour in line to rent this damn electric car. It was well worth the wait. We hopped back in the car and came back to the castle, admiring the sun glow on the grand canal where visitors rowed their boats. Summertime, and the living is easy in Versailles.

Practical Details

  • Best time to visit: any day but Tuesday and Saturday. Tuesdays are busy because Paris' national museums are closed, and Saturday is bad because it's Saturday. By the way, Versailles is closed on Mondays, January 1st, May 1st and December 25th.
  • Hours: until October 31st, 9am-6.30pm, after October 31st, 9am-5pm.
  • Electric car rental: the fleet only features 27 vehicles so show up early to grab one. Phone number for info: 01 39 66 97 66.  Driver needs to be 23 years old or older and you need to show a driver's licence.
  • If the electric cars are all gone: First you cry your eyes out. Then you decide to use your legs and walk through the gardens - it's good for your blood pressure. Or you decide to hop on the "electric train" - the kids should like that better than the "good for your blood pressure" argument.  
  • Tickets: you don't need a ticket for the castle to visit the Queen's Hamlet. You'll need to buy a ticket for the gardens (skip the general entrance, follow the gates to the garden's entrance) and a second ticket for the combo Petit Trianon + Hameau de la Reine. If you insist, you can buy a ticket for the castle but please, please, please, do it online! The lines are depressingly long and all these people all want to get in. 
  • Kids under 18 are free.
  • Museum Pass: buy a 1-day, 3-day or 5-day Museum Pass and get unlimited line-free access to 70 museums and buildings around Paris, including the Chateau de Versailles, Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Sainte Chapelle. Pretty sweet deal.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Explore the Louvre Museum with Children

Egyptian mummy. Photo by Frog Mom
Can you freestyle the Louvre with kids? Hehe, maybe in the dead of winter when every Parisian's in the Alps skiing the winter away, but smack in the middle of summer you're pushing the ultimate frontier in extreme tourism. I tried it with my 6- and my 7-year-olds and guess what? They don't even resent me. The 6-year old enjoyed Flemish still lives of winter fruit while the 7-year old liked Mona Lisa. Even the über-crowded Ancient Egypt collections left a good impression on them.

Here is my experience, coupled with a few survival tips on how to skip long lines, find a restroom for emergencies and sit down for lunch at whatever hour without suffering more lines. Obviously the line factor is huge at the Louvre - some Disney execs had better enlighten the museum staff on efficient foot traffic. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Before going to the Louvre, get your tickets. Kids are free so it'll be only you adult. If you wait to get there to buy your tickets, better kiss your half day goodbye. I checked the stats - the Louvre Museum is the most visited art museum in the world in the entire galaxy. Meaning - you're not alone here. I bought my ticket at a FNAC store but you can also get them online. On D-day at 10am, I held my girls' hands in the metro and followed the Louvre exit signs through the crowds vaguely muttering, "What was I thinking?"

Check the lines! Photo by Frog Mom
Getting in
Once in the underground shopping area leading to the infamous pyramid, I stumbled upon, err -  wait, was this a line to get in? I almost fainted at the gazillion people in front of us so I walked straight to an information officer. Surely, he'd help a mom with two kids?

"You have your ticket madame? You need to go upstairs to the front of the pyramid. That's where you'll find your direct access." Phew. I wiped my brow and made for the Tuileries garden, crossed the street and headed to the pyramid entrance. Finally we were getting somewhere.

Under the pyramid. Photo by Frog Mom
Family itinerary
Or were we? We descended into the main hall of the Louvre - that's the hub for all three aisles of the building. I asked another information officer if they had museum itineraries for kids. You know, the kind of fun brochure for kids with bright drawings and treasure hunts?

He blanked. I showed the kids. Here, see? 6 and 7, the young one can't read. His eyes lit up and he grabbed three brochures. Two were indeed meant for kids but for much older children than mine - the kind that cares about who painted the ceilings. The last brochure was a postcard for an exhibition. Sigh. I thanked the guy and decided to freestyle the museum visit when he said, "Oh by the way, there is an audio-guide for kids." Well now, that was exciting news. "Where can I get one?" I asked. Up the stairs by the Denon entrance, he showed me. Off we went, up to the Denon entrance. Turns out the audio-guides were all gone. They were gone at the Richelieu entrance too, and the Sully entrance. Too late, love. My watch showed 11am. We hadn't started yet and the crowds were in - in full force. We better get crackin'!

Medieval Louvre. Photo by
Medieval Louvre
I decided to start with Ancient Egypt, which when you follow the arrows from the Denon Gate, is a multi-level maze that takes you through the medieval Louvre. Though the Louvre is more often called a museum than a palace, it was a fortified castle in the 12th century and you can walk along the underground bases of the castle's towers. That's a part of the museum I really like if only because it shows the medieval city below 21s century Paris. You're 60 feet underground in front of the former stronghold of Paris. Pretty cool. Like many metropolitan areas in Old Europe, Paris is a Swiss cheese with many levels.

The Sphynx. Photo by Frog Mom
Ancient Egypt
A few tunnels later, we emerged in the Ancient Egypt collections. My 7-year old is obsessed with Ancient Egypt since she read the comic book "Astérix and Cléopâtre" so I knew we must at least see that.

Statues, old gods, pottery, jewelry, furniture, smithing work - we lingered on every single display so the girls would understand what they were seeing. The jewelry particularly caught their eye, as well as who the gods were and why they had animal heads.

When we reached the room with the mummies, I had reached my crowd saturation limit and we made a bee line for the stairs so we could escape to ... the Italian Renaissance, possibly the most visited area of the Louvre. Why oh why?

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa of course. The mysterious woman is so popular that there are signs pointing to the painting, rather than the overarching department. Wow.
The closest I could get. Photo by Frog Mom
We found Mona Lisa and I knew right away I'd never see it up close. Check the photo and see how you would carve yourself a nice path to the front. A blow torch maybe? Even that would be tedious work.

Trusting in my girls' abilities to fend off for themselves and find a way, I sent them to reach the front of the chaotic crowd. After 5 minutes, I was scanning the crowd anxiously. Why weren't they back yet? After 10 minutes I was about to yell their names and walked to the side of the painting. There they were, the two of them huddled together, admiring the enigmatic smile of the Florentine model. Oh dear, I was done with crowds. Off to the 19th century wing!
Napoleon IIIrd apartments. Photo by Frog Mom

Napoleon IIIrd Apartments
And so we changed wings, went up a flight of stairs and crossed the Renaissance medals department (great quiet restrooms if you feel so inclined) to find the glitzy gilded parlors of Napoleon the 3rd. That would be 1860s, the French equivalent to the Victorian era. Think lavish interiors, exotic palm trees and plump velvet couches. All that's missing is a lady in a lacy long dress and you got the Phantom of the Opera.

Finally a room where we could walk without bumping into a group lead by a flag-bearer. Ancient Egypt and Italian Renaissance took their toll on my nerves and my ears - I needed some down time.

"Mom, what are we doing here?" Kiddo, this is an oasis of tranquility. Can't you just enjoy? "Mom, I'm bored." OK, you're hungry. "Can we go home now?" Just you wait - one last floor and the marathon's over.

French Paintings
We strolled through the parlors, admired the collection of Renaissance glassware and pottery on the way, and crossed yet another wing to finish on the upper floor where my favorite paintings are. The 2nd floor of the Richelieu wing is dedicated to Flemish, German and French paintings, all of which I adore. All we needed to do was take our time, enjoy and relax - without obsessing over lunch. Good thing I'd thought about sneaking in a few dark chocolate nonpareils.

So there we were, on this extremely quiet floor. Very few visitors. Almost no sounds. Natural sky and window lighting. A far cry from the chaotic wrestling two floors below. Boucher, Chardin, Fantin de la Tour and Watteau were all present - painters I associate with a poignant romanticism. I was in heaven. By then my girls were exhausted but didn't realize it. The benches were comfortable enough. "Mom, can we have dessert at Angelina's" Yes sweetie pie, after we find some lunch.

At 2pm, we got out of the museum and picked one of the many restaurants of the international food court in the Carrousel du Louvre. The girls went Chinese, I went Oriental. Bliss. We sat down and ate. Despite the crowds, the commotion and the craze, the Louvre was a good museum experience. What better place to sharpen a child's art appreciation skills? I realize that when we browse through art databases and they stop me saying, "I know that image!" Darling, you made my day.

Zen. Photo by Frog Mom
Practical Details

  • Hours: Open Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesdays. 9am - 6pm. Closed Jan 1st, May 1st, Dec. 25th.
  • Rates: Kids under age 26 are free. General admission Euros 10. Free 1st Sunday of each month and Bastille Day (July 14).
  • Tickets: Get advance tickets online and at major department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, FNAC or Virgin Megastore. 
  • Museum Pass: buy a 1-day, 3-day or 5-day Museum Pass and get unlimited line-free access to 70 museums and buildings around Paris, including the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Sainte Chapelle. Pretty sweet deal. 
  • Tours: Tours in English every day at 11am and 2pm. Tour lasts 90 minutes and covers major highlights.
  • Food: there are 2 cafés inside the museum but if you wait, the Carrousel du Louvre has everything you need, from a Starbucks Coffee with free wifi to the international food court called Restaurants du Monde, open daily from 11am to 8pm (sort of a revved up airport food court with plastic trays and tons of tables).
  • Wifi: you can connect at the Starbucks Coffee or in the Apple store.
  • Give the kids a break: after the Louvre, stroll through the Tuileries garden and let the kids run around the trees, fountains and sculptures. They'll need it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Giveaway: The Nature Principle

It's time for my first giveaway on Frog Mom, the first of a new era! After the great feedback I got on my Conversations with Richard Louv on Children and Nature, I contacted the editor of the book and I was lucky to get 2 copies of The Nature Principle to give away to my readers. Yay for Algonquin Books!

To win this great book, simply leave a comment on this post on the following topic: what is your favorite nature memory as a child?

You can increase your chances by leaving a comment on my Frog Mom Facebook Page (don't forget to like it too!) and encourage your friends to participate. If they say you sent them, you increase your chances again. That's like, the over-the-top increase!

I will randomly pick a winner from the comments left by Sunday, August 28 at 10pm Pacific Standard Time. I'll announce the winner in my post on Tuesday the 30th.

OK, no one likes to take the first dance so I'll start. I was about 8. We lived in New Caledonia and my family flew for the weekend to a small island called Ouvéa. We stayed in beach bungalows with roofs of woven coconut leaves. Well, just before dinner one night I was swimming in the lagoon and found a purple seashell buried in the sand. I couldn't believe how smooth it was, how shiny it looked in the setting sun. So withdrawn in my daydreaming I didn't see a wave coming and ... away floated the seashell. It quickly sank. I poked around in the sea until it was dark but never found it. It's my favorite nature memory as a child because all my senses were wide awake on that evening. The warm temperature of the sea, the rainbow colors of sunset, the lulling sound of crashing waves, the salty taste of the lagoon and the smell of the dinner's barbecue ashore. It was a full on sensory experience and I still remember it fondly. That purple seashell found a better home than my bookshelves.

Now, what's your favorite nature memory as a child? It may seem obvious but don't comment anonymously - I won't be able to contact you and announce the winner. Good luck to you all!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Conversations with Richard Louv: Kids and The Nature Principle

Richard Louv and Laure Latham a.k.a Frog Mom
When author Richard Louv came to the Bay Area for his book tour about The Nature Principle, I was lucky to meet with him in Palo Alto and ask him a few questions before he went on to Berkeley to have lunch with Michael Pollan. Here are the highlights from our conversation, the elements that got me to formalize thoughts that'd been riding through my head a long time and snippets of nature wisdom.

Frog Mom: The Nature Principle presents a notion that nature and technology can co-exist in harmony. Can you tell me more?
Richard Louv: I want to tell you a story about a cruise ship. A while ago I met a guy at an airport who trains pilots in cruise ships. He says there are two kinds of student pilots. Students who grew up indoors playing video games are good at electronics. Students who grew up outside hiking and fishing actually know where the ship is in space. They're good at positioning. He wants students who are good at both. In The Nature Principle I define the hybrid  mind and how humans actually have 30 senses. Some of us use more senses than others depending on our awareness. The second category of students, they actually felt where the ship was.
Building tree houses with sticks. Photo by C.G.

Frog Mom: Most of our kids are urban kids with over-scheduled lives who don't know what unstructured play is. I see it with my own girls who have a lot of after-school activities and games at home. At age 6 and 7, you'd think they were able to entertain themselves. Yet when they are by themselves at home for an hour, they quickly get bored and come to me so I can play with them. When I was a kid, we had much fewer toys but were creative enough - sometimes too much - to be able to make up games and activities without adult supervision. Jumping over a stream was a game that kept us busy a half day. I always tell my girls that creativity comes out of deep boredom. They don't necessarily believe me but I prefer to let them explore their creative side. Comes what may. In nature, kids don't know how to make tree forts and crafts unless they are supervised. It's like they've forgotten to be wild. How can we reconnect our kids with their environment?
Richard Louv:  First by reconnecting ourselves. It's one of the reasons of The Nature Principle. It widens the scope of Last Child in the Woods to adults. There's a generation now that didn't grow up in nature. Some adults don't know where to start. believe it or not, REI Outdoors School has a program to learn how to ride a bike. Some adults don't even know how to ride a bike. Ironically, there's an enormous hunger to be in nature yet people are overwhelmed by too much technology and they don't know how to get it. Being disconnected from our environment - that just can't be put on the backs of the kids or shoulders of the parents. We need urban planners, schools, public partners that can help parents connect their kids with a world they don't necessarily know. Some libraries have started awesome nature projects, such as The Nature Explorium in New York, and that works for libraries because they will  build a larger constituency.

Frog Mom: In The Nature Principle you report facts confirming that nature deficit disorder influences ADD and is a growing problem in younger generations. At the same time, not all kids have ready access to nature. What can be done about this?
Richard Louv: You have to be careful how you describe and define nature. People's definition of nature usually looks like the Rocky Mountains, John Ford movies and total wilderness. Based on that, they say there is no nature in the city. Obviously, not everybody lives in the wilderness and as of 2008, more people live in cities than in rural or wild areas. If people are going to have a meaningful nature experience, it's got to be in the city. That choice begins with us, how we see and create nature. Indeed conservation isn't enough anymore, we need to create it. Nature can be a window garden box or gardens for butterflies.

GG, San Francisco's youngest city park steward, planted a
mini park for the green hairstreak butterfly. Photo by
Frog Mom for The
Frog Mom: You can already see that trend in San Francisco. Parklets sprout all over the city, as well as vegetable or neighborhood gardens. There are several big projects to create green corridors out of big arteries (Cesar Chavez Street project), reclaim paved space to make it green (Pavement to Parks) or plant wildlife corridors (the Green Hairstreak Ecosystem Corridor) so native species return to thrive in our urban environment. Is that what you mean?
Richard Louv: Exactly. What we need in neighborhoods is habitat for other species, green lots. The Sierra Club has a volunteer program for inner city kids who go backpacking in their neighborhood to find nature. The Green Hairstreak project you mention leads to a section in my book about bringing nature back. How cool would it be for a kid to be part of something bigger by planting a rose bush? Helping native species find their place is not just nostalgia and frontier creatures at work. It's the purposeful place. By choosing native species, you understand what has happened in the past and your bioregion's specificity. It's very important for kids and nature, to be part of a bioregion - you're not alone. Feeling that kinship is a good thing, it makes you feel alive.

Talking while walking. Photo by Frog Mom
Frog Mom: There is something else about nature I've noticed. We hike a lot as a family, almost every weekend in fact. I have two girls aged 6 and 7 and I usually hold hands with the little one while the older one walks with her dad. I've found that walking side by side surrounded by trees or hills makes it easy to talk. We talk about kid stuff, we tell stories, we sing songs, but sometimes we simply talk about school or their friends. It's a great experience and something we don't usually do at home where electronics are a big distraction.
Richard Louv: True, one of the things about parent interaction is that mothers and fathers interact differently with their kids. In my experience, mothers tend to be more direct whereas fathers talk to other fathers metaphorically. It's just a different way to communicate. For a dad, there's nothing like going on a walk, looking ahead and starting to talk with your kids. You'll never get that in a room full of electronics face to face. Nature itself is mysterious and brings us out of ourselves. We don't really understand why natuire calms us because we are using all our senses at the same time.

Frog Mom: There's an increasing number of smartphone apps to enjoy the outdoors, many of which are being targeted to kids  - some as young as age 2. What do you think about that?
Richard Louv: There's an app for the family nature club in Rhode Island and I've got a bird app on my iPhone but to be honest, I've only used it once. The thing is, we as humans have always taken technology in the woods. As a kid I took fishing rods, binoculars, guns to play in the woods. That's all technology. However when you talk about smartphone apps for kids, it's all about what's appropriate. Geocaching is all fine and I love it. Whenever there's a screen involved, the test is: how long does it take for kids to look away from the screen? If 10 minutes later they are still looking at the screen, that technology has failed. Technology brings you more info but I'm skeptical: do you enjoy nature more?
Frog Mom note: I recently wrote a blog posting about summer gear for outdoorsy kids and reviewed a geocaching device for kids as well as handheld 2-way radios. Check it out!

Frog Mom: As a kid I grew up in New Caledonia and with my brothers we were running barefoot outside the entire day. We didn't really put on shoes on our street or to ride our bikes. Today my girls wear shoes all the time and when I tell them to remove their shoes so they can walk outside, they complain that it hurts! The only place where they'll insist on being barefoot is a sand beach. It's a strange world when kids aren't eager to walk barefoot in a garden.
Richard Louv: That's a good one, "Remove your shoes to go out and play!" Usually parents tell their kids the opposite, I like that.

Poison oak, a parent's bane on the trails. Photo by Frog Mom
Frog Mom: Since we spend a lot of time on trails, I talk a lot to my girls about plants and animals and I try to make them aware of their environment. Ironically my oldest is now afraid on trails - afraid that she'll get bitten by a black widow or a tarantula, that she'll get eaten by a mountain lion or that she'll get burned by poison oak - or that she'll eat poison hemlock and die like Socrates. Nature has become this great big dangerous place. Have you seen this elsewhere?
Richard Louv: Kids being afraid in nature, hmm. Now if it's all trails, there are tons of warning signs and that's certainly not encouraging. Risk is one of the reasons we're attracted to nature. When I was a kid I collected snakes. In San Diego we'll see mountain lions but that's a small risk, so small compared to driving on the freeway. Being a kid is all about adventure. When I think about the things I used to do as a kid, some were dangerous. Climbing Half Dome is dangerous but the view is great. If you shield your kids from adventure, you risk them never having these intense memories. You are being given memories for life.

Frog Mom: Hmm, that reminds me of a hike we did with friends in the Marin Headlands to Hill 88. I wrote about it on Frog Mom, Hiking the Marin Headlands: Remains of the War. We started off late in the afternoon, picnicked on the highest hill by sundown and finished in total darkness. I was expecting a full moon to brighten up the nightscape for us but didn't count on the moon rising quite so late after sunset. So we just walked in the dark and eventually found the car. The kids were all pumped up about the adventure. They were talking in low voices until we hit an old bunker tunnel that resonated so well we all sang songs from The Sound of Music in unison. It was awesome. They still talk about it.
Richard Louv: That's fantastic! When they are in college, it's very unlikely they'll remember the day they beat the Nintendo game but they'll remember the day they got lost in the woods. It's not about the info, it's about the experience, the dirt and the mud.

Frog Mom: Richard, thank you so much. As an end note, can you tell me about your next project?
Richard Louv: I'm thinking about the new nature movement. Sustainability is not fully satisfying, interest in climate change has been falling these past years. We need to start talking about nature in a positive way. We can either hope that people will be inspired by despair or tell them about a wonderful vision of the future. Rather than Mad Max or Blade Runner, wouldn't it great to present a world where we can live and play, a world to look forward to for the young? Martin Luther King Jr. said a movement has to paint a picture of the world people will want to go. His words weere not "I have a nightmare." I'd love to see this happen.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Four Itineraries to Discover Paris with Kids

Playground at the Parc Monceau. Photo by Frog Mom
Quintessential Paris features late night walks by the river Seine, gourmet eateries, and world-class museums - until you travel with kids. That's when you wonder what, in the name of the Holy Baguette, Parisian parents do with their offspring! Surely, they can't hit every single high fashion store with a toddler in tow on the Left Bank before sitting down with merlot at a starred bistrot. Or can they?

That's in essence what my friend Jenny truly wanted to know when she wrote me: "We are finally starting to get ready for our trip to France and trying to line up some good kid activities in Paris. Do you have any good recommendations or sources of recommendations that we could use?" Over the years I've taken my girls all over the City of Lights and I'm getting my Parisian trips down to a nice routine with "pilgrimage" stops. Based on my experience, here four itineraries that will appeal both to kids and parents.

Ready for a ride? Photo by Frog Mom
1. Montmartre
Start with a crowd-pleaser. Montmartre might be tourist heaven on earth but it's still as picturesque as portrayed in the movie Amélie. The hilly borough that once hosted the likes of Toulouse Lautrec and Paris' bohemian artists in the early 1900s is cross-crossed by narrow cobblestone streets leading to the Place du Tertre where caricaturists and portraitists outnumber locals. At kid level, Montmartre hides a different layer of fun.

Le Passe-Muraille. Photo by Frog Mom
At the bottom of the hill, get off at the métro stop Anvers or Les Abbesses and find the Manège du Sacré-Coeur, an old-fashioned double-decker carousel with turn-of-the-century animals. My girls love double-deckers, they're the best to wave to your folks from up high! Once that's done, leave the square to count  the steps up to the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur - 237 is the magic number.

With a stroller, you're better off hopping on the mini cable train called Funiculaire. It gets you up to the top too where you find the Basilica of the Sacred-Heart. The iconic white church that overlooks the city was completed in 1919 and is well worth a visit inside. Try to see the creepy arched crypt, it is quite stylish. If you are lucky you'll hear the amazing pipes of the organ.

From the basilica, take the rue Saint-Eleuthere to the Place du Tertre and enjoy the artists, the sidewalk cafés and the crowds. Cross the square onto the rue de Norvins down to the Place Marcel Aymé, a teeny tiny square with a wall. There the kids will find a man sticking out of the wall, a tribute to a 1943 novella by French poet and writer Marcel Aymé.

Place du Tertre. Photo by Frog Mom
In the story, a man swallows pills that enable him to walk through walls in Montmartre. He falls in love with a neighbor's wife. It's all good until things turn sour and one day he's stuck half way through a wall. Here he is now, forever brooding over his fate.

For a bite around Montmartre, find the Patisserie Couderc, 1 bis rue Tardieu and its delish pastries, or sit down at the La Galette du Moulin, 1 rue Veron, for sweet and savory crepes. For gourmet eats, the Bistrot Le Miroir, 94 rue des Martyrs, is where it's at.  

2. Jardin des Plantes
Blending tropical greenhouses such as the Conservatory of Flowers in the Golden Gate Park and a stunning natural history museum like the Smithsonian, the Jardin des Plantes is a must-see for garden lovers. This 400 years-old green sanctuary succeeded to the royal botanical gardens and counts several themed gardens where kids can try to guess the name of plants, run down alleys or spy ducks on lily ponds.

Strolling thru the Jardin des Plantes. Photo by Frog Mom
Before any museum visit, I recommend hitting the Dodo Manège, a quaint carousel where animals are all extinct species from long long ago. My girls both went for the  Sivatherium, an odd blend of giraffe and elk that roamed savannas 10,000 years ago. It's one of the few moving animals on the carousel anyway. Little kids can go the Dodo way in all safety!

Riding like a dodo. Photo by Frog Mom
Move on the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle whose Grande Galerie de l'Evolution presents a Noah's arch parade  of animal species on earth, all lined up on the ground floor of the big hall. Visually it's striking. Little kids might get bored - the museography is somewhat stuffy - but adults will love the feel of the building. Ask at the counter for big kids' activities in English.

Whenever I go to the Jardin des Plantes, I never fail to take my girls to the Café Maure, the restaurant at the Grande Mosquée de Paris, 39 rue Geoffroy St-Hilaire, right behind the Jardin des Plantes. With its arched terraced patio where fig trees shade round tables with mosaics, you'll feel transported to another region of the world altogether. Honestly, my girls didn't care for the oriental pastries (they sure are sweet and nut-intensive) but they enjoyed an orange juice while I sipped a Moroccan mint tea. Rumor has it the savory couscous at the indoors restaurant is so-so but the great decor might win you over. In any case, kids can have fun in the patio. No one will tell them off for playing in the trees.

The Jardin du Luxembourg's playground. Photo by Frog Mom
3. Jardin du Luxembourg
A green foray in the Latin Quarter, the Jardin du Luxembourg is another staple of Parisian Sundays and the opportunity for you to combine shopping, great food and fun. Hop off the métro at Saint-Sulpice and admire the church on the square, right across from a former fire station. The surrounding streets are temples of fashion, lingerie and haute patisserie, not the least of which is avant-gardist pastry chef Pierre Hermé (see below in Dining).

Zadig et Voltaire is one of my fave clothing stores and their children line is a killer - both in looks and price tags. Further east at 78 rue de Seine (cross street Saint-Sulpice) you will find a candle store like no other, Maison Cir. They make the nicest birthday candles and I find it very hard to resist to their fragrant candles.

Jean-Claude Desarthis, current
owner of the puppet theatre. Photo
by Guignol du Luxembourg
Anyhoo, after you're done browsing, head to the nearest entrance of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Here is a map with access points and activities. I took my girls to the Saturday afternoon Guignol puppet show (French Punch and Judy) and it was a blast. The show features 30 uninterrupted minutes of puppets playing around on various sets with furniture, set to recorded music and voices. Since the show is all in French, non-Francophile kids might find it harder to relate but the slapstick comedy is universal.

Outside by the octagonal pond, kids can rent and float model sailboats by the half hour - real mini sailboats with wooden hull and canvas sails!

Model sailboats. Photo by Enrico Antongiovanni
The only playground is a Parisian shocker: kids pay to get in! It's weird but we paid anyway since my girls were drooling over the jungle gym and zipline. We stopped our exploration there but tiny eateries can keep you longer.

You have to go to Pierre Hermé, if only to sample the macarons with unusual flavors such as quince and rose and tangerine and olive oil. They're the bomb! Kids will most likely find a pastry they fancy. For the real thing (as in, savory), the Grande Epicerie de Paris (@Le Bon Marché) is a high-end food store with three restaurants from gourmet fast food to full-on sit-down meals.

4. Passages of Paris
Passage Verdeau. Photo by Frog Mom
Did you know there were covered streets in Paris called Passages? Drilled as all-weather shopping passageways between busy bourgeois streets in the 1850s, their distinctive arched glass ceilings and artsy paved floors are total eye candy for photographers. On rainy days, they're also great options for kids to run around "outside".

Recently I took a Hungarian friend of mine through a dozen of them in 2 hours, starting at the Tuileries and finishing north of Le Marais. My kind of urban hike!
Passage Jouffroy. Photo by Frog Mom

All passages are lined with shops and cafés but two passages will appeal to children for their incredible toy stores: Passage des Princes and Passage Jouffroy. The latter is where Au Pain d'Epices ravishes young and old with wooden toys, doll houses and plush animals.

A La Mere de Famille. Photo by Frog Mom 
When you go, see at least the Passage des Panoramas and the Galerie Vivienne - they're the most spectacular. North of the Passage Verdeau at 35 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, you will find A La Mère de Famille, Paris' oldest sweet shop and one of our regular stops.

There I buy candied violet petals to decorate my cakes, old-fashioned fruit lollies, fruit leather and stuffed prunes. I always let my girls pick one bag of candies, a tricky choice which takes them forever since there are so many jars filled with delightful items.

A sidewalk café in a passageway, A Priori Thé, 35 Galerie Vivienne, serves light fare from breakfast to tea time but no further. In the Passage des Panoramas, both the wine bar Racines (8 Passage des Panoramas) and L'Arbre à Cannelle (57 Passage des Panoramas) are good options.

I never know what my favorite things are in Paris. I lived there 10 years and it seems there's entire worlds I don't know about in the city. There's just so much to do and so little time. All I know is that my girls love going there, taking the métro and eating out. For them, Paris is a big playground with fun stuff at every street corner. I guess that's the gist of vacations! I hope your kids like it too. It may not be the most child-friendly city but there's a lot to do with the junior crew to satisfy all ages.