As is now our family tradition, we spent the last two weeks of the summer holiday on a road trip around Europe.
This year we didn’t venture as far afield as in previous summers. We visited Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, before looping back through Belgium on our way home. We stayed in several locations, in a mix of campsites and hotels, taking in cities and countryside, medieval and modern.
Now that we’re back, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my favourite memories from the holiday. Here, in no particular order, are my top 12.
We stopped for afternoons at Dunkirk and Ostend. Of course, this stretch of coastline is of historical significance because of the D-Day landings. But, more importantly for the kids, the beaches are beautiful. Huge expanses of golden sand. Clear, clean water. Wide promenades. And, in the case of Ostend, sand sculptures and a local beer festival. Something for everyone!
Travelling through Belgium and northern France, we were also in prime location for WWI history too. We visited the Tyne Cot cemetery just outside Ypres and then attended the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in town that evening. Both were incredibly moving.
The cemetery is now surrounded by lush green fields as far as the eye can see. And Ypres itself is a charming, oh-so-Belgian town with a maginficent independent burger restaurant. (If you’re ever visiting, go to Ypres Burger in the main square. You’ll be glad you did. It’s like McDonald’s, but with chandeliers.) It’s hard to believe this beautiful area was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of WWI.
3. Pastries and morning walks
Its part of our holiday routine that, wherever were staying, I’ll get up every morning for an early walk – sometimes with some of the kids, sometimes on my own – and return with a selection of fresh breakfast pastries from a local bakery.
My favourites were the variety of cream/custard-based choux pastries that were common around Bruges, particularly the advocaat cream ones. Walking up to 5km every morning, I didn’t feel guilty about the carb overload either!
4. Cyclo tourism
Belgium is synonymous with cycling and the one-day spring Classics races. As a former cycling blogger and podcaster, I couldn’t visit the country without indulging a little cyclo-tourism. I walked up a couple of the sport’s most famous hellingen: the Mur de Huy and the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
Then, on our final day as we travelled back into France, we walked along part of Carrefour de l’Arbre, one of the most famous cobbled sections of the Paris-Roubaix race. We also paid a visit to the old Roubaix velodrome, where the race traditionally finishes. To a cycling fan, this was the equivalent of walking on to Centre Court at Wimbledon or tracing the roads of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit. It was another big item crossed off my bucket list.
Our campsite in Luxembourg put on nightly entertainments. On our final evening, this was an open karaoke session, which mostly seemed to involve lots of Dutch children’s songs.
Kara, however, was not put off. Despite her brothers backing out, she went up on stage and performed YMCA solo. Brave girl. Ever since, she has taken to singing it repeatedly when we’re in the car.
Luxembourg is a small country with a small number of tourist attractions but the hill-top castle at Vianden is well worth a visit. We thought we would only be there for a couple of hours but ended up spending more than double that enjoying the picture-postcard town and wandering around the recently restored castle.
Coincidentally, we discovered that Vianden is twinned with the Belgian town of Huy, which we had stopped at just three days before. Small world, eh?
Also in Luxembourg, when we visited the capital we had a wander around the casements, the vast network of tunnels and chambers running throughout the fortified walls of the city. It’s a huge site, dating back as far as the 10th century, like a maze within a city wall. And it was also refreshingly cool to be wandering through dark stone passageways on a day when the temperature topped 30 degrees.
8. Roman baths, Trier
Just across the Luxembourg/Germany border in the city of Trier are some fine and even older examples of Roman engineering. The Porta Nigra gate and the city’s amphiteatre are remarkably intact and both date back to the second century. But more impressive still is the old Roman baths. Enough remains that you get a real feel for the ingenuity of Roman engineers in constructing a space that allowed both hot and cold baths under the same roof.
Bruges is the archetypal Belgian city. It has a sprawling old town with a charming network of canals (which, of course, is full of tourist boats). Its cathedral is particularly fine. And so is its central market square, which is every bit as grand as Brussels’. Oh, and it seems like every other shop is a chocolate shop too. We ambled around the city all day. It was lovely.
10. Schokoladenmuseum, Cologne
Yes, I know it’s associated more with Belgium than with Germany, but what’s not to like about a museum dedicated to chocolate? Opened by Hans Imhoff and now run by chocolate manufacturer Lindt, it’s a fine place to visit for anyone with a sweet tooth.
In addition to all the informational and historic exhibits you might expect, the museum includes a working chocolate production line. And they are extremely generous when it comes to handing out samples: when you enter, at the production line and when you leave. Splendid.
Brussels was the last major stop on our trip and, in truth, we were all a bit knackered by then. But it was worth making a separate trip to see the Atomium. Built for the 1958 World Expo, it consists of nine connected steel spheres that represent a gigantic iron crystal, standing over 100 metres high. Each 18-metre sphere contains exhibit halls and other spaces, including a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city. It’s a remarkable, striking and unique structure, and even more impressive in real life than in photos.
Next door is Mini-Europe, which contains miniature versions of famous buildings from each EU member state – including a Brexit protest outside the Houses of Parliament! And sports fans can also visit the Stade Roi Baudouin, known more infamously to football fans by its former name of Heysel Stadium and the tragedy that is forever associated with it.
While we visited a lot of different places on our trip, we also had a lot of down-time to relax. The kids spent a lot of time in the pool at our Luxembourg campsite. And everywhere we went we played games. It’s something we rarely have the time for at home – there’s always a million other things to do – so just the simple pleasure of playing family favourites and discovering new games was a real luxury.
And that was our 2019 summer holiday. Now to plan next year’s …