Trip Report: 7-day European Whirlwind

Jan 10th, 2007, 06:52 PM
  #1  
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Trip Report: 7-day European Whirlwind

This is a very belated (and very long) report on a trip I took in early November with my two teenagers (14 and 17, girl and boy).

The original plan was to go to London and Paris only. I have limited time off at work and so took four days during a week with a federal holiday, so we had 9 days away from home, 7 days in Europe. When I asked the kids what they would prefer, two cities or as much as we could see, they chose the latter. I decided to try to give them a taste of what's there (at least for part of Europe) so that they know where they want to go and know how to get there on their own. Airfare was half of what it had been in the summer, so it was a more affordable time for us to go. The down side was that the sun came up late and went down early, so daylight was pretty short. It would have been nice to have more daytime for seeing the sights (which explains the difference in airfares, I'm sure).

Ahead of time, I rented a car in London and another in Paris (Kemwel). I made Eurostar reservations to travel between the two cities on day four of our trip.

Basic stuff: The weather for the entire week turned out to be mild with only occasional rain showers. I didn't use an umbrella the entire time, and there were more sunny days than overcast days. We took one small-ish backpack each as a carry-on plus one small roll-on (which we checked) with all of our liquids and an empty duffel bag in it.

Eurail sent a phone card with our tickets, and it turned out to be really handy (and easy to re-charge). It may not have been the cheapest way to make phone calls home, but it worked well for us while we were there. The air travel both directions was pretty much uneventful. The only problem was having the scheduled 747 get switched to a 777 for the flight over, and we lost our window seats in the transition. My daughter and I ended up in the middle of the 5-across section, which I would not care to repeat. Other than that, nothing bad to report.

It would have been a good idea for me to find out more about driving tolls and road permits before we left on our trip. I wasted too much time figuring them out while there.

It was really nice being able to speak adequate French and German. It turned out to be a bit difficult for me to make the switch back to French after speaking German for just a day or so, but everyone seemed to be appreciative of my efforts to speak the local languages rather than just English. In Italy and in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, French ended up being the language I had in common with most folks. That worked out okay for the most part.

Day 1: When we landed in London, we hit the first of only a few hitches. Immigration wanted to know where we were staying. I hadn't made any reservations anywhere as we did not have a specific agenda except for the train ride. I told the woman that I could lie and give her the name of a bed and breakfast I know in Oxford but that we weren't planning to stay there. She said that she would let us in but also said we needed to have at least one night reserved somewhere the next time we entered Europe. In her words, "It's not the same as it used to be...you're not just free to go wherever you want to anymore."

After getting the rental car, we immediately drove to Avebury and then to Stonehenge (which we hit early in the afternoon). It was Sunday morning, and both places were very quiet and beautiful. There were quite a few people at Stonehenge, but that did not negatively impact the experience there. We paid the entrance fee, which was worth it to me. Then we drove to Bath for the evening (unbelievable scarlet sunset that it up the buildings in pink!) and ended up finding a great bed and breakfast in the village of Lacock (one of the Harry Potter filming locations). We ate that night at the King George pub (I recommend it...the food was wonderful and the ambiance even better).

Day 2: We walked around the village a bit first thing in the morning, did some grocery shopping in a nearby community, and then took off for the Cotswolds. We visited several villages, a couple of farms, Stratford-upon-Avon, and then had pizza that night at a place in Oxford.

That night was the worst of the entire trip. I wanted to find a room close to Heathrow so we could turn the car in first thing in the morning. We drove in absolute CIRCLES, completely lost, in the area of the airport for nearly three hours trying to find a room for under $500 U.S. (It would have been a REALLY good idea to make reservations ahead of time for that night.) I finally asked someone at a gas station if he had any suggestions. He looked at me like I was daft, but a young woman there told me about a pub with rooms for let (where she used to work). We went there, and they were booked, but they found us another VERY reasonable place to stay just five minutes from the airport.

Day 3: We turned in the rental car and then went into the airport terminal building where we planned to take the regular train into London. Before leaving for town, I used the booking agent in the terminal to find us a room downtown. The price seemed great to me (about $220 U.S. for the three of us), and the location was good as well (near an underground station). While we were waiting for 9:00 AM to hit so that we could buy discount one-day "all public transit" passes (really cheap for the teenagers after rush-hour), we checked e-mail and ate breakfast at the internet cafe next to the transit ticket counter.

We were able to check in at the hotel right when we arrived (at 10:00 AM) and so stashed our gear and took off to be tourists for the day. After leaving the hotel, the first thing we did was buy tickets for that night's performance of Wicked. Then we did the "big" tourist sites: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and so on. We walked a lot but also used regular city busses and the underground. After it got dark, we did a bit of shopping and ate baked potatoes at the food court in a mall (cheap but good). Then we went back to the hotel to get ready for the show. To our dismay, we found that my son's cell phone had been stolen from our room (it was inside the roll-on) while we were gone. That was the low point of the trip. (My bad for leaving it there...he had only brought it along so that he could talk to his girlfriend during our layover in Chicago on the way home.) In spite of the bad feeling that left, we totally enjoyed Wicked.

Day 4: We started out with a wrangle at the front desk over the missing phone. They insisted that there was no way anybody could have stolen it from our room. It was my understanding that they were responsible for covering the loss, but I gave up the fight as we had to get to Waterloo station to catch our train to Paris. The trip to Paris was a good opportunity to take a bit of a rest...and second class on Eurostar is more than nice enough for me.

We picked up the second rental car at the Paris Nord train station and took off out of town to the southeast. We drove as far as we felt like and stayed at a Village hotel...cheap, clean, and perfect for us. We ate grocery store food (bread, cheese, etc.) for dinner and watched soccer until time to sleep.

Day 5: After breakfast, off to Geneva first thing in the morning. We got a bit lost in the city, but I had good maps and wasn't shy about asking for directions when needed. Then we drove to the Chamonix area and took the tunnel under Mont Blanc into Italy. From Geneva until we hit the plains on the way to Milan was some amazing scenery. We stopped in a couple of villages in Italy, took lots of photos of the mountains.

When we hit the outskirts of Milan, we turned north and headed back into Switzerland, past Chur, and over the alps into the Rheinwald to a little place called Splugen. We stayed there at a nice little hotel across the street from the headwaters of the Rhine. We ate at the hotel and had a great night's sleep.

Day 6: This one is the killer. We headed north again through Lichtenstein, into Austria, then into the Bavarian alps. We went to Neuschwanstein and took the English tour of the castle, which was really fun. Then we drove north again to Rottenburg am Main, where we shopped for Christmas presents and souvenirs for folks at home. Then we ate dinner at Burger King (at the teenagers' request) and took off for Paris on the autobahn.

I drove all night. When I got tired, I stopped at rest areas and slept for a while. There were a few times when I felt a bit uneasy, but for the most part we felt safe. There was one rest area with the most amazing bathroom I've ever seen (there was a small fee to use it, but the receipt could be redeemed upstairs in the store for the cost of entry). It was sparkling clean, had nice music playing, and had intriguing mechanics for keeping the toilet sanitized. During the night, we drove through Luxembourg and clipped just a bit of Belgium before heading southwest toward Paris.

Day 7: Anyway, when we got near Paris early in the morning, we stopped at another Village hotel that I was targeting. They were full, but they sent us to another Village hotel nearby, where they made us feel completely welcome. We took naps and showers and then headed to Versailles. The palace was closed (national holiday), but we toured the gardens and had a great time there. (On the way out of the Versailles parking lot, a fellow with a "security" jacket on wanted to take our money to get our ticket for us to get out of the parking lot, but it seemed like a scam to me...I jumped out of the car and got my own exit ticket without his help...)

Then we drove into the city where we drove around for a while before finding a great underground parking lot a block from Notre Dame. We walked from Notre Dame to the Louvre (the exhibits were closed, but we got to visit the gift shop), the Arc de Triomphe, along the river, and then to the Eiffel Tower. Along the way, we picked up some great take-out Chinese food, which we ate while sitting on a bench at the base of the tower. We chose not to go up (long lines, chilly evening), but just being there was wonderful. The lights on the tower cast a warm glow below...it was really a magical feeling. After, we bought cotton candy and roasted almonds, and some little metal tower replicas for friends (don't buy them from the dudes selling them person to person on the sidewalk...the little kiosks/shops nearby are less expensive for the same items).

Then we took the train back to near where the car was parked, did a bit more shopping along the way, and then took off for the hotel. That night, we sorted and packed our gear for the trip home and watched TV for a bit before hitting the sack.

In the morning, we drove to de Gaulle. It wasn't a big deal for me to find the spot for the rental car return, but some other folks seemed to have problems figuring out exactly where to go in the parking garage system to drop off the car. We shopped in the duty free zone, where they let us buy water that they put into a bag for us. When we got to security, one woman there told us that we couldn't take the water on board. Apparently, the rules had changed that day and the lady who sold us the water hadn't known about it. So I went back to the vendor, who was nice enough to let me trade the water for other items that could pass through security.

All in all, it was an exhausting but really rewarding trip. I don't recommend doing it this way, but it seemed like the best I could do with just four days off.
RunnerJulie is offline  
Jan 10th, 2007, 08:29 PM
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Sweet!--I did this trip last fall, only we took the family dog with us also.
huckleberryFinn is offline  
Jan 10th, 2007, 08:39 PM
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janisj is online now  
Jan 10th, 2007, 09:47 PM
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Wow, RunnerJulie, my husband and I often try to jam as much as we can into a short period but you've just topped us with room to spare! I'll bet you gave your kids a great taste of what's out there and soon they'll be asking about when you can return. Great trip report; thanks for writing it!
sardog10 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2007, 03:07 AM
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ira
 
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Hi R,

>This is a very belated ... report...<

No wonder!!!

Thanks for sharing.



ira is offline  
Jan 13th, 2007, 09:21 AM
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Enjoyed your report!
elnap29 is offline  
Jan 13th, 2007, 10:00 AM
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I'm exhausted just reading your report. Wow!
happytotravel is offline  
Jan 13th, 2007, 10:52 AM
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RunnerJulie - well your name fits!

Did you find that the trade-off for short days was fewer people in general? That's what we found in Italy last February.

Definitely a whirlwind trip, but the way you and your children wanted to do it and that's what matters. Thanks for sharing. I think this will encourage others to realize it's OK to travel to Europe even with a limited amount of time.
LCBoniti is offline  
Jan 13th, 2007, 05:57 PM
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Thank you for the trip report. I am planning a trip in the summer and want to cover as much as possible in two weeks. I will use yours as a start point. Thanks again for sharing.
hx88 is offline  
Jan 17th, 2007, 07:47 PM
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We did have only a limited amount of contact with people during our quick trip, but the contact we did have was great. In general, the people we spoke to in shops, on streets, in restaurants and places where we stayed were incredibly friendly. I had particularly surprising (and positive) experiences in situations such as passing through airport and train security. In spite of the small number of person-to-person contacts, the overall impression they left was very positive for me.
RunnerJulie is offline  
Jan 18th, 2007, 08:32 AM
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I am really tired from reading it too! We had dinner at the George Inn at Lacock in September, which was great.

I can't imagine leaving the US and not having hotels booked! I'd rather take the time at this end and know where I'm going and for how much. (I am not that spontaneous).
nbodyhome is offline  
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