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Road Trip/Train Trip Itinerary Advice

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We are planning a road trip with our three boys (13, 10 & 7) this summer for 4 to 5 weeks starting June 1st. We are American, but living in the London area currently. We are considering several different options.

The first would be driving to Portsmouth and catching a ferry to either Northern Spain (Bilbao) or France (St Malo) and driving our minivan on the trip. We drove it for a week in Normandy last year and were okay with the steering wheel being on the wrong side & have driven in London proper without feeling too overwhelmed... In larger cities we would find accommodation on the outskirts of town and use the train to go into the cities.

The second option would be to either fly or take the train to the continent and use the train system to move from city to city and renting a car when needed. Though, we do prefer to travel by car generally. Though we do want to see a few cities we generally prefer to see smaller towns, historical areas and areas of beauty.

I was planning on using a combination of hotels, apartments/flats and camp sites - of course this depends on our method of travel... I am very typical, I am afraid, in that I want to see too much in too little time. So, I am trying to whittle it down. Here is what I would like to see in 4 to 5 weeks:

Bordeaux area (Grotte de Pair-non-Pair, Medoc area/vineyards, Dune du Pilat, a chateau?)
Carcassonne
Provence (Pont du Gard, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque/perched villages/lavender fields, markets, Gorges du Verdon)
Cote d'Azur (staying in Menton?) (Nice, Cannes, Monaco)
Cinque Terre
Florence/Tuscany
Venice
Verona (mostly for an opera, so just a day or so)
Lakes (Como, Maggiore?)
Innsbruck, Austria (I have an Austrian grandfather)
Switzerland (Zurich?? have seen some really great camp sites, but I don't remember where they were...)
Germany (Dachau, Neuschwanstein, Black Forest, Baden?)
Alsace (I was raised in a town founded by Alsatian settlers & has a strong Alsatian culture)
Belgium

If we finish in Belgium it would be easy to catch the Eurostar back to London or catch the Ferry from Calais.

So - obviously we want to see as much as possible without making it miserable by moving every second day... I was thinking 4 nights in the larger areas (Bordeaux, Provence, Florence/Tuscany, Interlaken) and 2 in the smaller. If the drives are short then it shouldn't make travel days too bad, but obviously it will add to the costs. It isn't a budget trip per say, but we will certainly be choosing wisely (hopefully) how we spend our budget. The idea is to keep every 4th day as enjoyment for the kids (beach days, kayaking the Gorges du Verdon!) So - opinions please! be gentle :) lol

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    Quite frankly, I think the age group of your kids make this far too ambitious an undertaking. You can't count on the weather cooperating so that your downtime for hikes and swims is possible. I also think there is too much historical and art touring over far flung places, and to keep up this agenda, you will have to commit to being on the move nearly all the time. Nobody will have an option to refuse to go sightseeing because you basically have only once chance to do so in most locations.

    Day trips aside, you have listed 14 destinations for 28 or 35 days.

    Just as way of organizing the priorities, try taking the home of your Austrian grandfather and your childhood home in Alsace as the MUST DO focus of the trip -- and count on spending at least 4 nights in each place -- but then build a slower moving itinerary to and from those destinations. Think about finishing up with a full week at the beach -- either in Belgium or the Basque coast. I would probably drop Italy altogether, and Germany too. Just visit a few great history sights. enjoy some amazing mountain scenery (including real hikes), maybe a boat trip or two.

    Hope that helps!

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    Agree that you have way too many places. If you have 14 destinations you need to allow at least 7 days just for getting from one place to another. So - 21 days left and 14 places. That's 1.5 days per location - so 1/2 day in smaller cities and a full day in lager ones.

    Agree that you need to pick 3 or 4 key places and give yourself 4 or 5 days in each one. That will leave you time to stop between each place for a day/night to see something interesting.

    With kids that age you MUST leave them some play time each day or you will al be really cranky and stir crazy. I would start looking now for public playgrounds and other kid friendly activities (boat rides, biking, etc) near each of the major places.

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    The Pont du Gard isn't in Provence. It is a great site, with lots of park-like space, and rocks to scramble over, so I think kids would love it. We visited it from Nîmes, which is also not in Provence; it's an easy bus trip from there. Nîmes is a laid-back little city, not very touristy, with a very nice Roman amphitheatre. There is also a very intact Roman temple, where they were showing a film about Roman times; it was a bit too juvenile for us, but your kids might enjoy it.

    We also took a day trip to Avignon (which is in Provence. We didn't rent a car, but if you had your van there, you could make day trips to other places in Provence from there.

    I would skip the Côte d'Azur and the Cinque Terre. They're not the type of seaside places that would appeal much to kids. The Cinque Terre has some good hiking if you're interested in that, but you couldn't do that on a fly-by visit. In high season, the Cinque Terre is absolutely sinking under the weight of tourists, mostly Americans.

    I tend to agree that skipping Italy altogether may be a good idea. If you really want a little time in Italy, I would suggest some time on Lake Garda, which is a great lake for kids. The Gardaland amusement park should be fun, and there are boat trips on the lake, castles, and hiking possibilities. You can take a day trip to Verona from there, but if you want to see an opera, make sure to stay somewhere that has bus excursions to the opera. Some hotels have these, but probably tourist offices also do. A day trip to Verona, or a bus excursion to the opera would be easier from a town on the southern part of the lake. You could also take a day trip to Venice if you stay on the southern part of Lake Garda. This would give you a glimpse of Italy, and avoid too much moving around. I would suggest staying on the lake for at least four full days (five nights); staying longer would be relaxing and allow you some flexibility in your schedule. You really wouldn't need a car there, as Verona and Venice are easily reached by train, and you can get around the lake by bus and boat.

    There are direct trains from Verona to Innsbruck, if you decide not to drive. However, unless you have family connections in Innsbruck, I'd consider some other town in Austria to stay. Innsbruck is very expensive and touristy. Salzburg is a beautiful city (although also touristy), with various activities that kids might enjoy, such as a visit to the salt mines. A car would be very useful here. If you have your van (or rent a car), you might like to stay somewhere in the Salzkammergut, a beautiful region of lakes and hills.

    We absolutely loved Hallstatt, but I haven't been there for 20 years, and it may have changed by now. When I was there, you had to take a little boat across the lake from the train station, and the view of the town at the foot of a hill, reflected in the lake, was spectacular. We took a very nice hike from Hallstatt, and the tourist office had many more. There's a salt mine there you can visit, and a very interesting museum about the Hallstatt civilization, a bronze age civilization that covered a very large part of Europe, although centered on Hallstatt.

    I think you could have a very enjoyable five weeks if you spend about a week in southern France (with just one base), a week in Switzerland, a week in northern Italy, a week in Austria, and a week in Alsace. If you take the van, you can almost certainly find campings everywhere. You would probably need a few brief stopovers to cut driving times, so you might have to take a day from some of the destinations.

    Trying to cram in more destinations, and especially brief visits here and there, would detract from the quality of the trip, in my opinion. Sandra is quite right in saying that with a visit of a few days anywhere, you run the risk of having your plans washed out by rain. If you spend five or six days in each place, you can adjust your intineraries to the weather.

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    Idea 1. I'd look at out to Spain and back from St Malo if you can. That allows you to spend time on the North Spanish coast (the better holiday area where the Spanish go for holidays, yo ucan visit Rioja (for a little wine) follow the coast, the Duero or even part of the Camino di Santiago for a bit, go hiking in the Picos d'Europa and see some of the ancient cities in the north that were left to molder when the locals emigrated to S America and also the Muslim inspired churches of the north coast are peace-inspiring before you see the Crusader inspired churches down the road... After yo uhave had enough head north up the coast into France where some of the biggest beaches in Europe are empty even in high season, stop off at Bordeaux, the gold coast, the cote-sauvage and maybe even La Rochelle and Ile de Re (wonderful for kids, before St Malo.

    I think this would make a fantastic trip for a young family.

    What you will find is that come the very end of July french holiday places go mad as the French begin the grand vacance, so either book stuff for the end or do the trip the other way around. Search on "Bison Fute" to understand the planning and affects of the french holidays

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    Just a taster from a recent Bordeaux visit
    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/why-does-riding-a-bike-make-me-think-of-french-food.cfm

    Now Idea 2
    Provence (Pont du Gard, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque/perched villages/lavender fields, markets, Gorges du Verdon)
    Cote d'Azur (staying in Menton?) (Nice, Cannes, Monaco)
    Cinque Terre
    Florence/Tuscany
    Venice
    Verona (mostly for an opera, so just a day or so)
    Lakes (Como, Maggiore?)
    Innsbruck, Austria
    Switzerland Zurich??
    Germany (Dachau, Neuschwanstein, Black Forest, Baden?)
    Alsace
    Belgium

    Ok, I'm working on the basis that you have already been told that this is crazy.

    I'd look at two possible holidays here
    1a, Focus on the North, look at train to Belgium, Alsace, Germany, Austria, fly home. Book a car in Belgium, drive all over and give it up in Austria to an international car rental company who will charge you for the pleasure but at least you don't have to fight your way back
    1b, fly to say, Lyon, Geneva or one of the low cost airline spots in the Rhone areas, hire car, do Provence, Cote d'A, CT, Florence, Lakes, Venice (get that in at least, including a few days on the seaside) and fly back

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    Finally, the kids.

    How often do they want to move? How often do they want time in a pool and how much time will they spend on wifi?

    If it were me I'd go for 4 stops over 4 weeks with pre-book all the way.

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    Hmmm, I though i was doing pretty good on balancing art/history with fun things. Though I should say my kids do like Roman (and Greek, and Egyptian...) history. We weren't really planning any museums other than Florence. Here is what I was thinking:

    Bordeaux area - 4 nights

    1 day in Bordeaux (Water Mirror, Pont de Pierre, a cathedral, boat tour of Garonne... stopping whenever they/we are ready)
    1 day starting at Grotte de Pair-non-Pair (cave paintings should be fun for kids!), ferry across at Blaye into Medoc visiting different towns/markets/parks to play in until we are done for the day
    1 day at the beach/beaches -- sunset at Dune du Pilat

    Carcassonne - 1-2 nights (it is a 3 hour drive (assuming decent traffic...) from Bordeaux

    1 day taking in castle and ramparts and enjoying the town

    Provence - 4-5 nights -- not quite sure where to base yet, but thinking Avignon

    don't have a layout yet, but I would like to see:
    Pont du Gard – (realize it isn’t technically Provence, but it should be close enough for a day trip from Avignon, right?) should be fun for kids, Roman history & water to splash in
    Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque - mostly for the lavender fields, if in bloom
    Perched villages of Gordes
    Gorges du Verdon - kayaking, assuming weather permits - though we don't mind a bit of rain!
    rest of the time go with the flow, maybe some shopping for pottery and such...

    Menton, France 2 nights - 3 hour drive from Avignon (assuming traffic is okay...)
    thinking we could drive through Cannes and/or Nice on the way

    visit Monaco maybe and beach time

    Cinque Terre 1-2 nights (3 hour drive...)

    this could be a day trip from Florence, but thinking we should stop and enjoy since we would be driving through anyway...

    Florence area 4-5 nights (stopping at the leaning tower of Pisa on the way) (2 hr drive)

    2 days in Florence - this is where I expect the kids to suck it up and let me visit at least one or two museums - being thoroughly plied with gelato afterwards, of course
    We just took them to Rome and they tolerated the Vatican Museums for a few hours and they really liked St Peters Basilica, but it was December and not crowded, so... but we can book ahead & get some kids books/guides to try to make it more fun...

    1-2 days driving through Tuscany (Route 222?) stopping for walks and picnics along the way
    Arrezzo has a medieval jousting tournament "Giostra del Saracino" during June we might be able to see

    Venice area (stay in Padua?) 2 nights

    1 day in Venice/Murano (maybe two days)

    Verona - arriving in time to ck into a hotel, see an opera 1 night (kids have DS3's if they get bored...)

    Innsbruck, Austria – 4 nights, unfortunately the Austrian town my (great) grandfather grew up in (Beckersdorf) is no longer in Austria (it is now part of the Ukraine!)

    thinking of staying at a campsite here - have a few day playing outside, in the water

    1 day sightseeing in Innsbruck and/or local towns (or more if kids are up for it) otherwise let the kids enjoy the pool & such

    1-2 nights in Switzerland somewhere or move straight on to Germany

    4 nights somewhere around Alsace/Black Forest

    car sightseeing mixed with parks/walks stopping to sample local foods

    Belgium 4 nights

    Stay at the beach (DeHaan?) with a daytrip to Brugge maybe

    One of the reasons I have so many stops scheduled, besides wanting to see everything, is to avoid long days in the car. The above schedule limits us to 3-4 hour trips between destinations. I also get migraines from very long days in the car (+6hrs without significant breaks)…


    I am stuck in the typical mindset – I WANT TO SEE EVERYTHING!!!!!

    BUT, since that isn’t possible (or enjoyable) – we could drop Cinque Terre and Switzerland…

    Bvlenci – the kids won’t enjoy the beaches of the Cote d’Azur? I wasn’t thinking of dragging everyone through Cannes to look at designer shops, but as a beach destination/break from sightseeing. We could drop this and add time to Provence maybe… Cinque Terre – would it already be crammed with tourist in June?


    Bilboburgler – the bike trip sounds fantastic! We will have to do that when the kids are older (or out of the house…) Our kids will spend all day in the pool and all evening on wifi if we let them, lol – I tried to add in things would keep boys free to run around and some relaxing days on the beach…

    If we dropped Cinque Terre & Switzerland this is what we could end up with:

    Bordeaux 4 nights
    Carcassonne 1 night (maybe 2)
    Provence 5 nights
    Menton 2 nights
    Florence 5 nights
    Venice 2 nights
    Innsbruck 4 nights
    Alsace 4 nights
    Belgium 4 nights

    That would be 31 nights, 9 destinations, 8 travel days (not including to & from UK). Does that seem more or less crazy when laid out like that?

    If I had to pick 4 destinations I think I would do Provence, Tuscany, Venice/Verona & Alsace… But that leaves so much out!! Sigh…

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    I don't wish to torment you, but I think all your plans for Italy are unrealistic and will be much less enjoyable than you are imagining, even for yourself, let alone your kids. It's not that Italy is unenjoyable -- far from it -- but the driving itinerary you are planning runs the risk of constantly running into snags and stress. The road access into le Cinque Terre is difficult, having a car in Florence is a real pain, few children enjoy being stuck in the backseat of a car looking at vineyards on twisting roads for hours, Venice will be mobbed and you are rushing through it -- if they aren't positively clamoring to go the opera in Verona (which doesn't finish until well past midnight), I can't recommend going.

    Maybe this would work for you, given how you've described your kids:

    Give yourself a little bit more time on the French/Italian Riviera, near the border. Menton is fine. Bordighera might work. Then swing north to Torino and visit the Egyptian museum, the underground tunnel tour, the movie museum and/or the car museum -- then head over to Verona. Stay long enough not only to see some of the opera in the Roman arena, but maybe also to have a day at Gardaland on Lago di Garda.

    Then drive up through the Dolomiti to Innsbruck. With kids, I would plan to include a visit to Otzi in Bolzano, plus a cable car ride, and a hike.

    I truly don't think that all vacations should be planned around children, but the problem with marching them through one day in Venice, two days in Florence, 1 night at the opera with toys if they are utterly bored is that you are moving so fast, you are really upping your chances of having every stop be unenjoyable -- especially if you get a heat wave or rain at the beach.

    There is something of adult interest in every venue in Italy. I am suggesting you save Venice and Florence for a trip when you and your family can give it more time for exploration.

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    I'd still cut but you want to see it all. Migraine.... well I'd still avoid like crazy. My thoughts on each

    Bordeaux 4 nights, not really a city I love, some fine buildings and shopping but focus on the seaside if it were me. St Emiliion is pretty place and Bergerac maybe. This misses out on the anciene regime along the coast to the north.
    Carcassonne 1 night (maybe 2)
    Provence 5 nights
    Menton 2 nights
    Florence 5 nights
    Venice 2 nights (Try and stay in town, Padua is good too but Venice is unique and pleasant away from the main drag)
    Innsbruck 4 nights (? there must be a reason why people come here)
    Alsace 4 nights
    Belgium 4 nights

    Not really what I would do on a holiday but if you are only ever going to be in Europe this one year then you might think this is good.

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    I really appreciate all the comments and time everyone took to answer my questions! Unfortunately, the point is now moot :( We just got word that my husband's company has drastically changed their sabbatical policy - which means we will not have an extra four weeks to play with... So - we will have to do it in 1-2 week increments over the year or so. :)

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