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Trip Report Four people, three countries, two weeks

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We just got back this morning from our family getaway and had a tremendous time! Many thanks to the team here whose suggestions changed and improved many of our plans. :-)

THE PLAYERS
Mom: me, planner/tour guide/washer woman/pack mule
Dad: husband, still recovering from knee surgery but refusing to give up the trip for it
Kids: 17-year-old twin daughters happy to be in Europe but a little less happy to be with their parents

THE PLAN
Daughter 1's practice audition at Royal Northern College of Music, then a couple days in London, followed by a couple days with the family of our exchange student from last year, and sandwiching in some time in Strasbourg

THE MISTAKES
We tried to do too much, especially in France and Germany. We had to change some plans. If I had it to do over, I would rework the whole France/Germany segment, even if it meant giving up some really cool stuff, because the zig-zagging just didn't make sense. But it all worked out, and now we're looking forward to the next time when we'll aim for a more leisurely pace.

DAYS 1-6: ENGLAND

We landed in Manchester and had a day or so to relax before daughter's college visit. We tried to tough out the whole first day but ended up napping at the YHA Manchester hostel for a couple hours. For us, this strategy worked well. The only drawback is that then the teens were eager to explore the city on their own, while husband and I were eager to relax a bit longer. We compromised by exploring the canal district until it lapsed into bickering, and then we went to bed. Daughters had their own private en-suite room, and husband and I had a separate private en-suite room. I highly recommend this arrangement for teenager/parent combinations.

On Day 2, we bought SIM cards from Virgin Media at Arndale (not the best choice, but it could have been worse); then we got Wayfarer tickets and went to Edale for a hike through part of Peak District National Park. It was amazing! A bit cold and more than a bit windy, but we didn't mind. Husband hiked with us for awhile until his knee started bothering him, and then he walked back to Edale to take photos there and hang out at the visitors' center until we returned. Thanks to the Wayfarer tickets, after we returned to Manchester in the evening the girls were able to roam the city without worrying about train, bus or tram fares, while husband and I were able to return to the hostel without worrying about trying to keep up with them.

Day 3 was the open day for Daughter 1's prospective college, and husband spent that day with her while I spent the day with the Daughter 2, exploring Manchester. Our highlights were John Rylands Library, Manchester Town Hall and a few indie record stores she had found.

Day 4 was Daughter 1's practice audition at college, which went very well. I went with her and waited outside in utter tension the whole time. Meanwhile, Daughter 2 was packing things up with her dad and checking us out of the hostel. We all met up at Oxford Station and took the train to London. Thank you for the suggestions of reserving seats and booking well in advance -- we got good fares and great seats. The Pendolino tilting mechanism impressed both kids when they were awake. By now they'd already figured out to use down time for naps, and a comfy train seat with a table to sprawl across was perfect for napping.

We arrived at London Euston, bought our Oyster cards and checked into our new hostel, YHA London St. Pancras. The kiddos practically sprinted out the door to explore London on their own, while husband and I took a more leisurely pace. We all met up at Darwin Brasserie (Sky Garden) just before sunset and had a great meal, followed by great photo opps -- although a less expensive option would have been the Sky Pod Bar. We also had the "pleasure" of navigating the Tube during rush hour. Wow!

Day 5 was beautiful. The girls split off for breakfast at Cereal Killer Cafe and to explore Shoreditch, while husband and I visited V&A Museum (we would've done the Natural History Museum, too, but the line was insane). We had to cut our V&A visit short to get to Hyde Park for the Queen's 90th birthday, where the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery was presenting a 41-gun salute in her honor. It was sheer luck to be in London on that day, but I'm glad we all made it.

In the afternoon, husband and I went to Highgate Cemetery, while the kiddos roamed Westminster, Hyde Park, British Museum and Soho. The weather was absolutely perfect: warm and sunny. We all met up for supper, then the girls headed out for more sightseeing while husband and I headed back to the hostel. His knee was bothering him so while he rested I did laundry (moms don't get vacation from laundry).

Day 6 was less beautiful -- colder and rainy -- but we still had fun. We all had brunch together at Borough Market and then headed over to Piccadilly Circus. We wanted to top off the girls' SIM cards because they were already through the first 1GB, but that proved complicated since we were leaving for Germany the next day. I was leery of the street vendor selling international SIMs, because Virgin's customer service already left a lot to be desired and I didn't want to spend more money on an even less formal arrangement, so we opted to just go WiFi only for the rest of the trip.

Husband and I headed to the Houses of Parliament area, where POTUS just happened to be meeting, so that was exciting. We didn't see him but there was a lot of excitement among the crowds there. Met up with the kiddos for supper, picked up our luggage from the hostel and took a Justairports taxi up to Holiday Inn Stansted.

DAYS 7-8: GERMANY

We had a 7:30am Ryanair flight to Frankfurt and were at the airport a little after 5am. Looking back, this was too early, and I wish we would've gotten an extra hour of sleep instead. We'd sprung for business class, which I know gets kind of a bad rap but personally I recommend it for early flights. We breezed through security and baggage check-in, and we had great seats with no surprise expenses...just a long wait that I would have preferred to spend sleeping in bed.

Our flight landed at Hahn mid-morning, and our friends were there waiting for us. This was the family of the exchange student we'd hosted for a few weeks last year, and we were excited (and more than a little nervous) to meet them. They had insisted on getting a small bus/van to pick us up and take us back to Wiesbaden, which was incredibly generous. I wish now that we hadn't been so apprehensive, because her parents were amazing! The four of us had a lot in common and their English was quite good, with my much-lower-level German filling in the rare gap when they were hunting for the right word. Back at their house, they had a light meal ready for us, including "Spargelsuppe" which both our daughters promptly fell in love with.

In the afternoon, our hosts took us on a driving tour of Wiesbaden, including the Nerobergbahn, Schloss Biebrich and the Rue. In the evening, our daughters headed out with their daughter and some of her friends, while the grown-ups relaxed and got to know each other more. They had graciously invited our girls to spend the night at their place so that we wouldn't worry about when all the kids returned, which meant that instead of waiting for our two we were able to return to our hotel for the night and get some much-needed sleep.

We spent most of Day 8 at Kloster Eberbach, which was just stunning. When that wrapped up, they kindly drove us to the Mainz Bahnhof so we could catch our train to Strasbourg.

DAY 9: STRASBOURG

This was a day our daughters had been looking forward to: an independent day trip to Europa-Park while husband and I stayed back in Strasbourg. Our plans got complicated, though, when both daughters forgot to set their alarms and would not answer the door no matter how much we pounded. When we *did* finally get them up, one daughter was so exhausted that she just could NOT get moving. We should have built an "unscheduled" day into our plans, and I'm afraid she paid the price more than any of us.

After doing everything short of cattle-prodding the exhausted daughter to either get ready or abandon the Europa-Park trip altogether, we sent the girls off on their own. They were more intimidated than I had expected, and right up until the last moment they were asking questions about how it would all work and saying that they still didn't understand any of it. The Kombi-tickets simplified this, but they were still much more nervous than I'd expected, and the next couple hours were worrisome for me. Being on WiFi-only status with our phones only complicated that, although I'd told them that if there was an emergency and they needed help, they could call me and we wouldn't worry about the roaming charges.

After seeing them off, husband and I caught a train to Haguenau, where my dad's family emigrated from a little over 100 years ago. Dad had always wanted to return there, but he ran out of time, so this part of the trip was for him. We didn't have much time, but we walked around the town and took photos non-stop. The rep in the tourism office was very helpful, and we had an interesting dialog because she didn't speak any English and I didn't speak any Alsatian. But she spoke some German (in a heavy French accent, substituting Alsatian words for vocab she didn't know), and we understood each other well enough to communicate. She gave me a map of the town and pointed out particular points of interest, which was a big help.

In the evening we met the girls in Offenburg and learned that they'd had no problems with the train or bus at all, making their day at Europa-Park a great success.

DAY 10: RHEIN

We reluctantly checked out of our Strasbourg hotel, sad that we hadn't had any time to explore the city (that will need to be a return trip), and took the ICE train up to St. Goarshausen. We had planned to hike up to the Loreley monument and check out the rodelbahn there, but the weather was iffy so after exploring the town a bit we opted to take the KD ferry south and across the Rhein to Bacharach.

The ferry ride was perfect: great photo opps, leisurely pace and options to be outside or inside depending on what the weather was doing at the moment. The girls had been skeptical about the "fun factor" of this activity (probably because we already live near the Great Lakes so ferries aren't that novel an idea to them), and we were by far the youngest people there, but once we were on board and moving they were busy taking photos the whole time.

By the time we stepped off the ferry at Bacharach, the weather had turned cold and a steady rain/sleet mix was falling. Looking up the hill at Burg Stahleck, I knew it would be a miserable trek, not even adding the hassle of the girls' rolling luggage or the husband's tenuous knee. We went to the tourism office and the woman there very kindly called the taxi to take us up the hill. It was 10 Euros, pricey for the short trip but well spent.

Every last wisp of "teenishness" disappeared when we got to Burg Stahleck. They really could not believe we were staying here. We had a private en-suite family room, which I highly recommend. We found our room and they didn't even bother to unpack before heading back out to explore and take photos all over the grounds.

That night, our friends met us at the hostel and we headed to Bacharach for supper, which was amazing. The only downside was that we knew this was our last night together. :-(

DAY 11: DEPARTURE

I was up early to savor the last bit of time we had in Germany. I really really REALLY did not want to leave! But the early morning gave me a chance to shoot some video and get photos of the grounds and the surrounding views so we'll have something to remember our too-brief time there.

The rest of the family packed up and we hiked down the side of the hill to the Bahnhof. Heading down was a lot easier than what I imagine going up would be, but it still was not tremendous fun hauling luggage. Obviously I need to work harder to convert the rest of the family to backpack-only status.

We made it to Frankfurt am Main for our departing flight to London, caught our connecting flight to Toronto, and then made the 6-hour drive home from Toronto. I don't really recommend ending a 25-hour day with a 6-hour drive, but the deal we got on airfare out of Toronto was just too good to pass up. Luckily husband and I took turns driving and napping so it was mostly bearable.

We were home by 12:30am today, and after a morning of rest and a half-day at work, I'm sharing this trip report. Many thanks to everyone who offered advice over the last few months as we've planned this -- despite our mistakes and a couple "wild cards" that life threw at us along the way, it was a terrific opportunity!

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