So, you want to travel Europe with your family? Perhaps in a campervan? Or camping?
Good luck with that!
Hahaha. Oooh, I jest, I jest.
Two years ago we sold our house in London, and most of our possessions. We packed up our troubles in an old kitbag, and hooned off in a cool little VW campervan called Betty, to bury them beneath the sea. (Ideally the Adriatic sea… off the coast of Croatia.) After an agonising wait for our baby’s first passport and other hiccups, we were finally on the road. The woes of being very unorganised people. How we get through every day, let alone go on epic adventures, is QUITE a mystery.
These days we live in a yurt in New Zealand, where I write and we farm and go on adventures. For more inspiration about helping your family connect with their wild side please check out my little (*ahem* bestselling) book of daily readings, 30 Days of Rewilding.
I can hand on heart say that those months travelling around Europe with my husband, a three year old called Ramona and a baby called Juno held some of the most special, universe-exploding-with-joy moments I have ever encountered in my thirty years.
(It also induced several poke-my-eyes-out-with-my-toothbrush moments of stress and agony too, but more about that later. Some troubles just won’t be buried.)
Our adventure sent us through France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and Spain…. ending up in a flight to New Zealand to begin a different sort of life as farmers. (Yeah, weird eh. We actually bought a cow yesterday. I don’t so much do the farming as writing about it and eating the food that grows.)
I have been writing this post in my head since the day that trip ended. I wanted to put together something really useful, to help people take this dream of travelling around Europe with their family, and make it a reality. So this is pretty long, and pretty comprehensive. Here are practical tips, links to much more detail, websites we relied on, and our ultimate trip highlights.
So, you want to travel Europe with your family? This is for you.
Things you will need to travel Europe:
(yeah, I know. duh.) It says a lot that the cost of our first night camping in our campervan on our Great Journey blew our brains. £25! We tossed and turned all night wondering how one earth we were going to manage £25 everyday for accommodation for 5 months! How little research we did before we left! Laughable really. So, if you are going to camp in campsites, plan in a good wack for accommodation. And have masses of money. For us, we decided to free camp. And that decision led to almost entirely free accommodation for 5 months and lots of adventure.
We spent our first 3 weeks on a total mish- buzzing from place to place “Having An Adventure, Really, Arent We?!” and almost went insane. Aim to spend lots of time in places, meandering, getting to know little villages and rivers, and it will be a lot more pleasant for all of you! Especially for the children.
Loose ethics (1) – wifi at Mcdonalds. We were so surprised that there wasn’t wifi all over Europe. You could get it at £25 a night campsites… but there was none free anywhere else. Apart from Mcdonalds. I had successfully avoided Maccas for two decades before we went to Europe. But when we discovered their free and fast wifi, we were sucked in. With a side order of fries. Once we got to Spain we managed to get our heads around buying a SIM card and having a special short term deal. We genuinely couldn’t work this out in the other places!
Loose ethics (2) – compromising on food ethics/ health. When we are settled we try and eat mostly organic. We found this really hard to do whilst we were travelling. In France they had good, obvious “bio” options, but we struggled to maintain our commitment to that, and also general awesome nutrition, over the five months. It could be done though, with much more effort put in to the food side of things. But we didn’t prioritise it. I do regret this a little, as I think Juno’s dental health was impacted by me mostly eating bread and foraged figs whilst breastfeeding. But I raise it in order to say that there are some things, whilst constantly on the move, that are tricky to work out. And there does need to be a little compromise, I think.
Fearlessness – or exceptional organizational skills. Our courage increased as we went. We became better and better at turning up at place expecting to find somewhere good to sleep. We tried hard to always arrive at a place in the daytime so we could suss everything out well once we were there. Alternatively, you could plan ahead. We are not good planners at the best of times, and when it required so much time in Old Macdonald using up there wifi, we basically stopped planning anything.
An open heart. The absolute best thing about travelling is the random things you end up doing. But you do need to have an open heart for this. I guess if you are planning a trip of this kind, then you have it. Say yes when an old granny offers you some cherries, invite another family on the campsite up to the café for chips, ask locals for the good swimming spots and ALWAYS skinny dip at the Playas Nudista. After taking a punt and asking another family out for dinner they became our fast and firm friends and we met up with them several times over our adventure- we celebrated two birthdays with them.
Suspended hygiene. The truth is, if you are doing a lot of swimming, you don’t need to shower. And if you are free camping, showering and doing laundry and all those things can be a bit tricky. RELISH the freedom of being a bit smelly and read up on all the reasons a bit of bacteria is so good for us. Hehe. Honestly though, we were probably swimming two times a day, for most of the trip. If you are not a big swimming family – you might need to suck it up and stay at camp sites more often. (But do also read this post: Do Children Need a Daily Bath- 8 Reasons To Stop Washing So Much.)
A hobby. Because travelling is best done at a snail’s pace it is really nice to have a little hobby to turn to. Sketching or writing poetry or taking photographs – these can help you see a place through a different lens. And they can pass the hours while your children bury each other endlessly in the sand. I learnt the ukulele while we were travelling around Europe and now I play and sing everyday.
Before we left I did a bit of a shout out on my blog, asking for people’s suggestions of where to go. We decided to visit a few projects around the place that people had pointed us towards. Such as the Forest Kindegarten in Germany – read about their knives and stuff, if you like, and the Sunseed Eco Village in Spain (read about the hippy that laid a golden poo there.) We also did as much of the Wild Swimming France book as we could. This just adds a bit of a fun dynamic.
Amazing Insurance/ Breakdown Cover. Because if you have this, you CAN be a little bit fearless. And, you know, you might break down. Really seriously. Twice. *Ahem*
They can clean ANYTHING! I’m not gonna lie to you, at least 3 times I did a day’s worth of dishes with a few baby wipes.
Audiotapes or mixtapes your friends make you for the journey. We tried to make the journeying quite pleasant, so rarely did more than 100 miles in a day. But you still clock up a lot of time on the road and having stories and new music from our friends was really cool.
Be prepared for:
All the emotions (1) – From your children
For the most part, our children were buzzing out on our own good vibes of freedom and happiness. However, our three year old did express a lot of emotion quite often. Sing goodbye as a ritual (we used to name each of the things we loved in each place, as I strummed away on the Uke) Give lots of time for goodbyes (oh- I have an AMAZING Guide to Helping Children Say Goodbye RIGHT HERE!) Find ways to incorporate your children’s wishes and aims – one of the families we travelled with had a family meeting every morning where everyone said what they wanted to do that day, and everyone’s ideas were respected equally. This could be quite a disempowering time for your little ones, unless you support a better alternative for them.
All the emotions (2) – From you
The highs! The lows! There is something about travelling that rips open your heart. At 4:30pm you’ll be sitting by a river with tears in your eyes because you are JUST SO HAPPY look at our angelic children and my dashing husband we are all perfectly content and we love each other so much! And then, inexplicably at 4:50pm, you’ll be like F*CK THIS SH*T WHAT ARE WE DOING LET’S GO HOME YOU B*STARDS
I think that having a lot of empty time makes you more attuned to your feelings. Emotions that you’ve perhaps tucked away neatly in order to carry out an orderly, systematic breakfast/work/mortgage/ dinner sort of life are suddenly given some space to pop out and yell BOO in your face.
Be prepared for it. And get good at mindfulness. Hehe. True though. We downloaded the app Yoga Studio and it SAVED THE DAY! (Tim and I aren’t naturally yoga-y, although we would like to be, we would rather eat chocolate and read Jack Reacher. But when you have lots of extra time it is quite do-able to fit in some mindfulness practice and did really help us.)
Here is a little whiz around the countries we went to, with particular reference to the camping situ….
France – France introduced us to wildcamping. Staying by lakes and rivers, also almost every town has a free motorhome car park. We met lots of beautiful people doing this, all very respectful of the spots. France was such a breeze, a really wonderful intro to camping around Europe. In fact, we could easily spend three months in France alone.
Switzerland– the odd bit of free camping and absolute gobsmacking beauty. The stunning buildings and clear lakes and mountains. We fell in love with Bern all over again…. but pushed through quite quickly as everything was so dear and we did feel like we were chancing the free camping a lot. One night we accidentally stayed over in a Graveyard. We arrived in the dark thinking we had found a wonderful peaceful spot and in the morning realised it was a cemetery. OH! We zipped out of their pretty fast. Read more about our campervan bustling around France and Switzerland.
Germany– There was the odd bit of freecamping to be had in Germany, but not in the touristy spots – probably rightly so that the Black Forest should be protected by rangers. We did some cool things here in Germany and it is very easy to travel around with only your one pathetic language under your belt. Bit of a warning though, the German elderly are completely and utterly OBSESSED with your babies being cold. I am talking stopped-in-the-street-on-boiling-hot-days-every-single-day OBSESSED. Be prepared for them waking your baby by squeezing their bare feet and sternly saying KALT!KALT!
Italy – we stayed in campsites in Italy (mostly because we were broken down but also because we heard it was slightly unsafe) And we blew our budget somewhat on the incredible pizzas and pasta – this was absolutely the culinary highlight. It was an absolutely lovely place to be for the children – people literally call across the street “CIAO BELLA!” just to be kind and jolly to the children. If you do Venice- stay at the campsite over the water and get the boat in. Far cheaper and lovely way to do it. Read about how to do Italy and Venice hear. Also, another breakdown story. Eep.
Croatia– Be warned, there is NO FREE CAMPING there. As a result of landmines in the past, they are very strict about not wandering/driving off the beaten path. Croatia was surprisingly expensive, not the tuppence-a-day place people remember it as, and there was a sort of tourist-weariness amongst the people there, they are still quite clearly recovering from a very tragic conflict. It still made it into our highlights, though. (Read on.)
Spain – if a lover of France is a Francophille is a lover of Spain a Spancophille? Sounds totally wrong, if you ask me. But I am now one! The freecamping around Spain was PERFECT. A real community. Read all about campervanning around Spain with your family, and a surboad and a caterpillar here.
Handy Websites to travel Europe with:
There were two sites that we referred to on a weekly basis.
Wildcamping Forum – this was very important to us – so much good advice for travelling around the Uk and Europe in a campervan. Their Spain Forum was so helpful.
Trip Advisor – we had some lovely house-stays in Spain as a result of Trip Advisor. (Courtesy of our breakdown insurance….) If you stay 3+ nights in a place it can be super cheap. We relied on Trip Advisor a lot for restaurants and hotels and ideas for things to do. It has to be one of the most helpful sites for accomodation and activities to travel Europe with.
Travel Highlights of Europe:
The national parks in Croatia were incredible, despite being very touristy. Well worth the visit. And the completely astonishing Croatian shoreline, azure ocean and islands. We didn’t really enjoy the vibe there (got to make your own fun, for the most part) or the food available to buy (don’t hate me, I am just being honest) but we loved foraging walnuts and figs all over the country and we fell head over heels with Dubrovnic and Split. In Love. Wouldn’t have missed them for the world. Read about flea markets in Split here.
Seville in December. What a wonderful place! We loved the cafes, the culture, the street art, the late night churros and hot chocolate, the general vibe. In fact- Spain. It is amazing! We LOVED how much they cherish children there, and how involved in all of life. We adooooooored being out on the town at midnight with all the children having fun!
The Black Forest, Germany. We were fortunate enough to make wonderful new friends in Frieberg and perhaps this tinted our time there. But we loved the wildness of the Black Forest, picking millions of tiny wild blueberries on walks to little lakes and buying smoked fish outside the Cathedral and chasing paper boats along the mini waterways.
Wild Swimming and the Children’s Festival in France. Some of the river swimming in the mountainous areas of France is out of this world. Shockingly cold but, injects YEARS of life into the weary bones of parents! We also went to Le Grand Bornand Bonheur des Mômes festival in the Alps –the biggest kids festival in Europe and what an inspiration! So much fun – an acre of wooden train set to build and a whole pasture filled with massive musical instruments made from random recycled rubbish – La Jardin Musicale.
Frequently asked questions about how to travel Europe:
How did the kids cope? Generally, I reckon if parents are happy, than kids are happy. We were all carried along in a spirit of nomadic freedom. We prioritised their needs, planned travelling around sleeps and tried to park in places that they would thrive in. They LOVED having both parents around and the unstructured time.
What about stuff? We took waaaay too much stuff. Could have chucked half of it. Pack your bags and then take half of it away! We also didn’t plan places for everything. The other family we roadtripped for a while with had a perfect place for everything. Do this, would you? It will help with the madness.
What about baby paraphernalia? We didn’t have too much. We cosleep, so that was easy, and just had slings. And we are nappy free so Juno didn’t even have stacks of that. At night time she used to wear a Tena, hehehehehe… we rescued a massive stash of unused adult incontinence pads for the trip….
Argh, recalling everything is giving me a fluttering in my chest, and ants in my pants, and a desire to fling my clothes off and pretend my local seaside is a Playas Nudista.
What about your budget? When I say we were thrifty, I mean we were like, super cheapskate. We freecamped. We cooked almost EVERY MEAL apart from birthdays and special occasions with friends. (Well, apart from completely not resisting Italian carbs and Mcdonalds chips. Wifries.) A ferry trip, cover price to the Alhambra, and entry to Croatian national parks were probably the only activities that weren’t free. We chose walking and swimming and dossing over actual activities. We don’t feel we missed out at all- in my opinion theme parks look the same the world over. We lived on less than we lived on whilst in London, and made do on a mixture of savings and a tiny bit of income from my writing. Petrol and groceries were our two big costs.
Embrace the fear, race your kids along the shore, scrabble over the cliff to a waterfall, dig out your inner nomad and have a family adventure that will set your heart aflutter for a lifetime.
PS I hope that was helpful! If you have any other questions, please ask them in the comments and I imagine I will edit the extra questions and answers into this mahoosive post. And for more inspiration you probably need to download my book, 30 Days of Rewilding, The Telegraph called it “a manifesto for life lived in nature” – there is one with your name on it!