It has obviously taken me a while to get round to writing this post, but I do want to keep a little of our grand European road trip last summer here. I have also been asked several times about it, where we went and how the travel was. So here is a brief(ish) summary!
We travelled through six countries in around three weeks, spending between 3 and 5 nights in most. We drove our own family car - packed in every corner to the top of the roof box - and chose some slightly long winded routes to visit particular places along the way. Our longest driving stints were around 6 hours, some were much less.
We chose to stay in mobile home style accommodation on campsites for the first half of the holiday, followed by a family holiday home, my sisters house and a hotel. I would say that the accommodation in the second half of our trip felt like a luxury after the campsites, although each mobile home improved as we travelled too! The last we stayed at, in Italy, being the best by far.
I haven't as many photographs to share as you might think as it was a summer break for us all, to enjoy and spend time together. Of course I captured family moments, but the scenes in between were taken in often without a camera in front of my face.
Almost inevitably the first country when driving through Europe from Sussex, we stayed only one night in France. We actually chose to stay at a campsite we have used before, 8 years ago. It was functional. That is about all there is to say!
France was really a drive through for us on our way to Switzerland. I think if we had been travelling for longer, we may have chosen a location with more to offer! But without the time on this occasion, we stopped a night, enjoyed the outdoor swimming lake, ate dinner and breakfast, then packed up and left in the morning.
The town of Interlaken was our destination here - well, a campsite just outside of town. We deliberately chose to stay away from the larger Swiss destinations knowing that later in our trip there would be a couple of busy, well known tourist destinations.
Our campsite sat on the edge of Lake Thun. It's a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains with water of the most incredible colour. The water feels very cold, even in August. There are plenty of water sports on offer and a water bus that we took into town. There are towns, castles, caves and an amazing road that hugs the mountainside while skirting around the water. Although we didn't see a part of Switzerland that we didn't like, I can definitely recommend a stay near this lake. We loved it.
A short trip around the lake from Interlaken is Oberhofen am Thunersee. An historical town with it's own castle on the lake. Oberhofen castle which is open seasonally, includes it's own museum and restaurant - the restaurant is just out of frame on the picture of part of the castle below left, with a glazed wall overlooking the lake.
In the valley between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz sits Interlaken. The town itself is indeed lovely, though filled with all the usual shops you might expect in Switzerland (swatch, Mont Blanc, Swiss army knives for sale everywhere, chocolate...) the surrounding mountains certainly offer more adventurous pursuits!
We took the Harder Kulm funicular railway up the mountain, climbing 750m at an average gradient of 64% - yes it felt like it! There is a restaurant and observation deck at the top, though possibly not one I'd recommend for the faint hearted. There were a couple of my family who stayed well away from the railings. Not me though, I aim to embrace my vertigo, camera in hand, because there's a view to be enjoyed.
Although none of us were brave enough to try, there are plenty of paragliding options in and around Interlaken. They sky was filled with them descending every day, fascinating to watch if nothing else!
Leaving Switzerland, we took the Susten Pass, a road that travels through the Swiss Alps which reaches heights of 2264m. It is pretty much everything you would expect from a mountain road. Hairpin bends, steep climbs, the Stein glacier at the top. And for some reason, plenty of mad (in my opinion) cyclists making the climb too. Rather them than me.
There are plenty of roadside stops to be made, the views are incredible. Although you might benefit from a head for heights as there are some pretty steep drops to the side of the road.
It was a slightly long winded journey, but we love a good mountain pass, so we enjoyed it! It went from 32º at the foot of the mountain to 15º at the top, jumpers were essential, especially for the stop at the glacier for a contradictory photo of shorts, sandals and snow. And of course I can't resist the wild flowers at the roadside either.
Anyway, it was a fun way to say goodbye to Switzerland as we made our way on to our next destination.
If pushed for an answer, I think I would say that Italy is my favourite country to visit. I am not even sure I can tell you exactly why, but after four trips there in the past four years, I just love it.
We caught the end of a heatwave here, although the temperature had dropped a lot, it was still over 30º during our stay every day. One night saw the most impressive storm roll over the mountains and across the lake to us, the children still talk about it. It went on for hours, echoing off the mountains and lighting up the sky.
Another campsite - this one was our favourite. The home we stayed in was air conditioned, essential for our English selves, so unused to warmth all day and night! Millie especially found the heat tiring. But then there was always shade to be found and swimming pools to enjoy.
We stayed on the east side of Lake Garda. There is plenty to do if you fancy staying put here, but we do love to explore a little too...
At the southern end of Lake Garda there is a town called Sirmione. Part of the town is on a peninsula, including the Scaligero Castle which is built partly into the lake itself. We climbed to the top of the tower, which affords an excellent view across Sirmione and Lake Garda.
The town also offers boat trips, restaurants, a thermal spa and the ruins of a Roman Villa, the Grotte di Catullo. You could easily spend a day here, although I'd recommend arriving early as parking is limited and it does get busy.
Sadly my camera had something of a meltdown that day so I have no photos to share this time, it is a beautiful town though and one we are planning to return to this year.
I have been to Venice three times now. I completely love it, crowds and all. So it was a joy to introduce my family to the city for the first time last summer. We drove to the island, parking in one of their multi-storey car parks for the day.
Visiting in August, along with half the worlds population, had me wondering how different it would be to my previous visits. Both had been before the season really starts in February and April. There is always a buzz about the place though and I didn't think it felt that different in summer. Yes Piazza San Marco and the surrounding streets were busy, but actually the further out we went, the quieter it was.
We took the vaporetto to Piazza San Marco, then wandered slowly back along the canals of Cannaregio. Off the main street it was pleasingly quiet. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed gelatos while we walked, taking in the beauty of the island.
It was lovely to see it in summer - for me at least - as there were plants and flowers I have never really noticed before. I have walked some of the same streets in the past and they do feel different in each season.
It was hot, there's no other word for it. as I mentioned above, we arrived in Italy at the end of a heatwave and there is not a lot of air movement to be felt in parts of the city, so when we did find a breeze we lingered a few minutes to try and cool down a little.
Venice invariably involves a lot of walking. At 7, it was all a bit much for Anna by the end of the day. The temperature and the walking. So we left in the late afternoon to get back in time for a swim before the pool closed...
That said, Venice was a success overall, my family loved it and it is another place they have asked to return to this year.
Our Austrian stay was a final fling of sorts. We have been visiting a small village there for a decade, last year the family holiday home we have stayed in was sold. Of course we could visit again and stay in hotels, but I think it’s time to explore other destinations for a while. So for now it is goodbye to the little mountain village...
If I am honest, I have mixed feelings about Hallstatt. it is less than half an hour from our base in Austria. The first time we visited, 10 years ago, we fell in love with this charming lakeside town. You can see why, with it’s narrow streets and traditionally architecture nestled into the mountainside, rising above Lake Hallstatt. Being a world heritage site, it does get busy. Increasingly so it seems with several car parks that fill up daily and plenty of coach visits. Our trip this summer was a two day affair as we couldn’t find a parking space the first day we tried. So on the second day, we arrived early and claimed one of only a handful of spaces left in the car park.
I can’t exactly put my finger on what’s changed in the past decade, most likely it’s a lot of little things. I would say though that ducking around selfie sticks is not exactly fun. Though this is not exclusive to Hallstatt - it’s quite a thing in Venice too. That one view of the town on the lake which everyone (including me) wants to photograph - the one that always looks calm and empty - involves a bit of waiting for a gap In the crowd to catch the capture. Yes it’s beautiful to look at, but possibly not to experience in mid August.
That said, we knew what we were letting ourselves in for when we went, and it was lovely to meander through the streets one last time. Coffee and doughnuts in the main square and a wander back to the car saw us all happy enough. A couple of hours in town was enough. So long Hallstatt, you are beautiful but a little too touristy now.
I don't have photos to share here because this was more of a personal stop. My sister and her family live near Leipzig so we travelled north to spend a few days with them. Leipzig is an interesting place to visit, a contradiction in itself, ultra modern next to all but derelict echoes of its past.
Anyway, we had a lovely time with my sister and her family, so for us this leg of the trip was a good one. However if you don't have family in this corner of Germany, there are plenty of places you could visit further south to shorten the number of miles covered! Or you could try Berlin which is a little further north than we travelled.
We had a stop over here as a roughly half way point from Germany to Calais. Not really a 'spend time exploring' stay, more of a break half way home kind of stay. I'd love to have been there for longer but we had work to be home for.
I'm not going to recommend our hotel as there was a Very Loud event until the small hours of the morning of which we knew nothing until it happened. Not the best nights sleep ever...
On the last leg of our journey home we drove through Belgium. It’s fair to say that, with home in sight, this is the point where a few of us were ready to get out of the car for a week or two. Just one last stop before Calais and the tunnel home...
I had no idea what to expect here. I’d seen this city so many times on Instagram that it had been pushed further down the list of places I’d like to visit than some other destinations.
After spending a few hours there, it’s somewhere I’d like to return to out of peak season I think. It was very busy along the canals, perhaps too busy for our travel weary family on this occasion.
That said, we were pleasantly surprised as it is a beautiful city. There is a charm about it which definitely invites further adventures. Known as the Venice of the north for good reason, theres also something reminiscent of Amsterdam about the architecture and canals.
We had lunch at Jilles by popular request for burgers. We don't often eat them at home, actually I don't eat them at all, so it was fun to sit at the long tables and enjoy a treat. Definitely a place I would recommend.
We arrived home late one weekday evening almost three weeks after we left, perhaps slightly weary after travelling around 2500 miles during our road trip. I think - for us - that might be the longest distance we could manage in the car for one holiday. Was it worth it? Yes, I think so. Everyone has their favourite memory of course and we certainly achieved what we set out to which was to experience as much as we could before our eldest leaves for university this year.
Further to that, I hope my children will be happy to travel for themselves when they leave home. I hope they won't hold the same cautious attitude that I did for many years. There is so much to see, even close to home.
And we all loved Italy so much that we are returning for our summer holiday this year, already with requests of places to visit and things to eat. Including 'proper' pasta. And cannolo, which are such a treat but not exactly the healthiest pastry, Ed wants them for breakfast while we are there. Why not I say. Venice and Sirmione are back on the list and a couple of places we hadn't time to see last year too.
The occasional frustration of long journeys is worth it for us. I have to say I think our children are pretty good travellers, having made long journeys since they were born, regularly spending 7-9 hours in the car. You can see so much on land that you miss when in the air. And European roads are generally better for moving traffic than our own overcrowded motorways - except for Germany perhaps where traffic jams are also a bit of a thing.
Would we do it again? Yes, though I think we would tweak the route and cover less distance in one go. Less time in the car, more in the sun...
If you're curious about anything here you can always contact me or leave a comment below. It was a huge thing to organise but we did it, and it all worked. Happy days were had.
Roll on summer...