by Steven Brenner
Every year around April, Linda and I start to stress about the upcoming summer holidays, a time when the temperatures can soar to over 100°F/38°C and there are three months of summer holiday looming ahead and the dilemma of what to do with bored kids who can barely go outside it’s so hot. The beaches are crowded with escapees from the city, and rather than the natural refuge they should be, the beaches turn into a party scene filled to the brim with folding chairs, umbrellas and sellers of acquafantacocacolabirrasprite. A nice getaway in the countryside with a pool is out of the question because of sky high prices.
Crowded beach in Italy from The Global Traveler
Despite the fact that we live in a destination that many people dream of, the idea of being in Italy with the heat, the lack of interesting activities for our kids and all their friends away on holidays can be a real punishment for working parents here who have no family to fall back on.
This summer we decided to take matters into our own hands and go on a road trip – a somewhat crazy idea for a family of 5 + dog with a tiny Toyota Yaris. We figured it would be fun to go with only a loose itinerary, and rather than focus on the destination, enjoy the adventure of getting there. Saving money by not buying airfare for 5 was also an appealing factor.
The Yaris packed up and ready to go.
The day we discussed this idea, Linda and I were driving down the autostrada and at least 10 cars with Dutch plates passed us by. So we thought we’d do the reverse and drive up to the Netherlands. Surely we could find a Dutch family who would exchange apartments with us? We put the word out on Facebook, and ended up being offered a place to stay by friends in Amsterdam who would be away on holiday themselves (the Dutch get around!). We planned our initial route through Chamonix, where we have friends; Cologne, where we have other friends; and EuropaPark, an amusement park we would hit on the way for my middle daughter’s 11th birthday. We figured we would wing it on the way back, maybe find another home exchange in Paris, or visit other friends who are in the Loire Valley, and come back to Italy by way of Ventimiglia, where a friend said we could couch surf.
In the direction of Florence, with Goji at the wheel
The trip lasted a little over of a month. Driving around Europe is so different than taking the trains. With 4-8 hour stretches you have plenty of time to think. Here were some of my insights/observations about the trials and benefits of roadtripping in Europe.
Scenery in Val D’Aosta just before reaching France
1. Not having a departure time is really great. I hate the stress of trying to herd the
cats kids and catch a plane on time, making sure you haven’t left a mess, or anything important, behind. With the car, you leave when you leave. You aren’t held to a tight schedule, and that can feel really good and very liberating.
The girls were thrilled to come across a children’s circus in Freiburg im Breisgau.
2. You see how national identities change. As you cross a border, the language, food, customs and architecture changes entirely. Sometimes within the same country, like Switzerland, where you’re pretty much still in France at one point but keep driving and all of a sudden you feel like you’re in Germany, even though you’re still really in Switzerland. The experience reminded me of traveling by train when there were border controls and different currencies. It’s amazing to think how powerful this sense of national identity is – strong enough to have helped propel two world wars.
Pizza in Courmeyer, Italy. Cross 20 minutes through the Mont Blanc tunnel into France and the pizza is just not the same.
Wood fired pizza oven built out of an Airstream trailer in Les Houches, France.
3. There are many small towns that are worthwhile stops. We used the Osterie d’Italia guide to find recommended restaurants along the way and planned our breaks there while we were still in Italy. A quick google search would help us narrow it down. We found a cute town in Piemonte called Vercelli – the oldest inhabited town in northern Italy, known for its risotto; and meandering in Germany we came to the very picturesque town of Cochem and had some delicious apple strudel.
Apple strudel in Cochem, Germany
4. There might be savings, but it’s not cheap to drive! You save on airfare and train tickets, but man do you get hit by gas prices, tolls and parking! Filling up our small Yaris was about €60. Just passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel is €50 (it’s much cheaper if you buy a multiple entry pass). And parking in Amsterdam center was €4/hour 24 hours a day – a slight discount at night, but not much. (We had to park outside the city for the cheap parking and even then had to move our car every few days).
Burg Eltz near Cologne, Germany
5. Difficulties in finding a place to stay. In this day and age, with smartphones, I imagined it would have been easier to just roll into town and find a good place to stay. Wrong. We were using the Booking.com app, Tripadvisor app, and even Airbnb and just found the whole process to be a pain. As much as I wanted to just wing it, I’m convinced there’s very little benefit not planning where you’re going to stay in advance and making a reservation especially when traveling with a family.
Dumpy, but fine for a night hotel, we were very lucky to find last minute in Arlon, Belgium
6. Keeping sane. We downloaded audio books for our girls and that kept them calm and occupied. Remember to stop every few hours. I think 3-4 hours is a good time limit before having a decent lunch break and try to pack picnic style lunches if possible. In France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, we found nice, clean rest stops with picnic tables, benches, etc. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Italy where we found ourselves eating in hot and dirty Autogrill parking lots with many of the remoter areas of the stops smelling like urine.
Viola – 7 years old, listening to The Magic Treehouse Collection
7. How to use technology to your advantage. The native map app for the iPhone actually keeps a GPS tracking signal even if you don’t have wifi or mobile network. This is great news for people with roaming issues – that is until you get off the route and the phone wants to recalculate and can’t which can be a problem if you run into some road works that have detours. We found connectivity issues in Germany, of all places, and some of the worst wifi I’ve ever endured in Amsterdam. We had a USB charger in the car to keep the phones and iPods going, and would have to rotate between them because the GPS app was sucking them dry pretty quick. It’s probably a good idea to have low-tech options as a back-up: a good map and a decent guide book for each region you’ll be in!
Hiking in the French alps
We’ve been back now for over a month and every so often one of my girls will tell me about something from our trip they miss. We traveled through 7 countries (but maybe Luxembourg, which you drive through in 30 minutes, doesn’t really count). We visited old friends, made new ones, ate different foods, tried new things, and actually all got along well in the process.
Paloma, my little artist, tried to capture some of the trip by making this memorable art piece which she has hanging in her room: