Our summer holiday this year produced some impressive numbers. We clocked up 2,300 miles driving in 17 days and stayed in six different places across four countries.
Also, one James Bond location, one smashed bottle of wine, one broken toe and one day when we ate meals in three different countries (breakfast in Italy, lunch in Switzerland, dinner in France).
I would be lying if I said everything went well or according to plan. Heather’s broken toe shelved our plan to visit Venice. We broke the kids at least twice each with a combination of big days and late nights, resulting in some spectacular meltdowns (by both parents and children). Overall, though, we had a great time and hopefully created a bucketload of memories that will last our kids a lifetime.
Here’s an overview of our 2017 European grand tour in 50 photos (and a few words).
With a fully loaded car, we set off (via the Eurotunnel) to an overnight stopover in Reims in the heart of the Champagne region.
We didn’t linger long – but long enough to visit the city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral and to eat our fill of pastries.
Two nights in Stuttgart enabled us to tick off the ultra-modern Mercedes-Benz Museum. (At 10 euros per adult and with under-15s free, it’s a bargain.)
More importantly from the kids’ perspective, we spent plenty of time riding the city’s metro and suburban rail systems. Heather and I appreciated wandering round the compact, pretty city centre and trying out the local cake shops. (If there’s one thing the Germans can do well other than beer and sausages, it’s cake.)
Heading on in to the Black Forest, we stopped off at the small tourist town of Triberg.
This made for a pleasant mid-day break from driving, with the town boasting two major attractions: Germany’s highest waterfall and the world’s largest cuckoo clock. The latter adorns the front of what can only be described as a veritable emporium of cuckoo clocks. (The bejewelled – and utterly hideous – example shown above can be yours for a mere €23,000.)
Freiburg is a gorgeous little city with a small pedestrianised centre, well served by a tram and bus network.
The city is most notable for its 13th-century Münster, which somehow survived Allied bombing in World War II that flattened half the buildings in the square around it, and its network of open gutters (Bächle) that run throughout the centre.
The Münsterplatz hosts a farmers’ market six days a week – where you have to try the local lange Rote hot dog – while the Bächle are the perfect place for the kids to occupy themselves by chasing rubber ducks along their length.
In Switzerland we based ourselves in Interlaken, which is an ideal base from which to explore the mountains.
From Grindelwald, we took the cable car up to the top of Männlichen, which offers close-up views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. From there we walked part of the way back down again – 1½ hours of endless Alpine scenery and occasional cows and toadstools. (The one above was a whopping 12cm in diameter.) The only thing missing was Heidi skipping across the meadows.
Piz Gloria and Schilthorn
The Schilthorn stands 2,970 metres high and offers unparalleled 360-degree views of the Swiss Alps. (On a clear day, you can even see Mont Blanc in the distance.)
It takes four separate cable cars to zigzag your way up to the summit, where the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant (made famous by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) awaits. It’s a fantastic place to eat. Get up early and go for the excellent buffet breakfast before the crowds arrive.
There are plenty of walks back down for the energetic and ambitious but we opted for the cable car and stopped off for a bit of cake against the backdrop of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau while the kids burnt off some steam in the adjacent playground.
Sirmione (Lake Garda)
From Switzerland to Italy, we based ourselves in the tourist town of Peschiera del Garda on the south-eastern corner of Lake Garda.
Peschiera is an ideal launching point for exploring the lake and surrounding region. Verona is half an hour away, while a direct 75-minute train ride deposits you in Venice.
Sirmione sits at the end of a peninsula at the southern end of the lake. One of the region’s most popular tourist traps, the ancient city centre is a maze of narrow streets packed with interesting buildings. The highlight is the Grottoes of Catullus at the far end of the peninsula, a ruined private villa with a footprint of 167 by 105 metres.
The town also has some fantastic gelateria offering a mouth-watering array of flavours and extremely generous portions. (It’s all about the ice creams during an Italian summer …)
Bardolino (Lake Garda)
Famous for its wines, Bardolino is about half an hour’s drive up Garda’s eastern shore.
Bardolino is less historic and picturesque than Sirmione but it boasts a lake-front boardwalk that is a perfect spot for a stroll or to watch the world go by. We had a leisurely picnic lunch here and watched as ducks and swans drifted along on the water while parasailors floated past overhead.
Heather and I spent a week in Verona 17 years ago. And while we exhausted the kids’ interest in less than a day, it was still lovely to be back.
The city’s central square, the Piazza Bra, is dominated by the Arena. This first century Roman amphitheatre is still used for concerts today. Piazza Bra also includes a mass of colourfully daubed restaurants – the ones along the northern edge of the square with views of the Arena are more tourist-oriented but there are many others in the streets nearby.
Camping with friends
We have spent at least part of our last four summer holidays with old university friends and their children and this year was no exception, as we spent four days in Switzerland and then our first three days in Italy with them.
It’s probably the part of the holiday our kids most looked forward to, whether it was swimming together or eating out as a group of ten. Holidays as a family are great but we’ve learned over the past few summers that they can be even better when shared with friends. It was certainly something worth raising a (litre of) beer to …
The end of our holiday was a mad dash home. A full day’s drive got us to Dijon for one final stopover before the last leg to Calais, the Tunnel and home – a return trip of 950 miles to bring our total to 2,300. A grand tour indeed.
Now, what do we do next year to top that?